GOETHE: THE POET AND THE AGE by Nicholas Boyle

GOETHE: THE POET AND THE AGE

Vol. I: The Poetry of Desire (1749-1790)
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Massive (800 pp.) and excellent first volume of a projected two-volume biography by Boyle (German/Cambridge) of the protean genius Goethe. Writing for a general audience as well as scholars, Boyle opens with a carefully constructed historical context to show the Goethe was an anomaly in the age named after him: an elitist during an age of democratic revolution; a classicist during a period of sentimentalism; a man who secularized art and experience during a period of religious revival, grounding his knowledge in observation over theory and tradition-which led him to reject Newton as well as the received beliefs of Christianity. Each chapter is divided into life, events, nonliterary activities-such as Goethe's study of science (geology, botany, and physics)-and an analysis of related literary works, the lyric poems, The Sorrows of Young Werther (more a reflection of the taste of the age than Goethe), the classical plays, and the evolving Faust. The unifying theme is Boyle's belief that Goethe was motivated by unfulfilled goals, usually women but also an idealized life in Italy-which he ultimately visited at age 36, when from the shores of Venice he saw the sea for the first time. In spite of his self-image as Promethean creator, solitary, suffering, desolate, he became a cultural icon in Weimar, turning the ancient republic, where he had gone to be tutor to the Prince and rose to be Prime Minister, into a haven for the artistic and intellectual elite. At age 40, the handsome, charming, and seductive womanizer-after a long courtship with a married woman and many abandoned peasant girls-took responsibility for the son he fathered by the 23-year-old Christina Vulpius, whom he married 16 years later. This clear, methodical, dispassionate representation of Goethe is especially timely given the tumultuous social and intellectual changes in contemporary Germany, its reunification and cultural reassessment reminiscent of Goethe's lifetime.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1991
ISBN: O-19-815866-1
Page count: 763pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1991