Moreover, I felt constantly the need of instruction, not only when I first met with that extraordinary man, but also after I had lived with him for years; and I loved to seize on the import of his words, and to note it down, that I might possess them for the rest of my life.
When I think how rich and full were the communications by which he made me so happy for a period of nine years, and now observe how small a part I have retained in writing, I seem to myself like a child who, endeavouring to catch the refreshing spring shower with open hands, finds that the greater part of it runs through his fingers.
But, as the saying is that books have their destiny, and as this applies no less to the origin of a book than to its subsequent appearance in the broad wide world, so we may use it with regard to the origin of this present book. Whole months often passed away, while the stars were unpropitious, and ill health, business, or various toils needful to daily existence, prevented me from writing a single line; but then again kindly stars arose, and health, leisure, and the desire to write, combined to help me a good step forwards. And then, where persons are long domesticated together, where will there not be intervals of indifference; and where is he who knows always how to prize the present at its due rate?
I mention these things to excuse the frequent and important gaps which the reader will find, if he is inclined to read the book in chronological order. To such gaps belong much that is good, but is now lost, especially many favourable words spoken by Goethe of his widely scattered friends, as well as of the works of various living German authors, while other remarks of a similar kind have been noted down. But, as I said before, books have their destinies even at the time of their origin.
For the rest, I consider that which I have succeeded in making my own in these two volumes, and which I have some title to regard as the ornament of my own existence, with deep-felt gratitude as the gift of Providence, and I have a certain confidence that the world with which I share it will also feel gratitude towards me.
I think that these conversations not only contain many valuable explanations and instructions on science, art, and practical life, but that these sketches of Goethe, taken directly from life, will be especially serviceable in completing the portrait which each reader may have formed of Goethe from his manifold works.
Still, I am far from imagining that the whole internal Goethe is here adequately portrayed. We may, with propriety, compare this extraordinary mind and man to a many-sided diamond, which in each direction shines with a different hue. And as, under different circumstances and with different persons, he became another being, so I, too, can only say, in a very modest sense, this is my Goethe.
And this applies not merely to his manner of presenting himself to me, but to my capacity for apprehending and re-producing him. In such cases a reflection takes place, as in a mirror; and it is very seldom that, in passing through another individuality, nothing of the original is lost, and nothing foreign is blended. The representations of the person of Goethe by Rauch, Dawe, Stieler, and David have all a high degree of truth, and yet each bears more or less the stamp of the individuality which produced it. If this can be said of bodily things, how much more does it apply to the fleeting, intangible objects of the mind! However it may be in my case, I trust that all those who, from mental power or personal acquaintance with Goethe, are fitted to judge, will not misinterpret my exertions to attain the greatest possible fidelity.”
A literary celebrity by the age of 25, Goethe was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Carl August in 1782 after first taking up residence there in November of 1775 following the success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. He was an early participant in the Sturm und Drang literary movement.
During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe served as a member of the Duke's privy council, sat on the war and highway commissions, oversaw the reopening of silver mines in nearby Ilmenau, and implemented a series of administrative reforms at the University of Jena. He also contributed to the planning of Weimar's botanical park and the rebuilding of its Ducal Palace, which in 1998 were together designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After returning from a tour of Italy in 1788, his first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, was published. In 1791 he was made managing director of the theatre at Weimar, and in 1794 he began a friendship with the dramatist, historian, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose plays he premiered until Schiller's death in 1805. During this period Goethe published his second novel, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the verse epic Hermann and Dorothea, and, in 1808, the first part of his most celebrated drama, Faust. His conversations and various common undertakings throughout the 1790s with Schiller, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Gottfried Herder, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and August and Friedrich Schlegel have, in later years, been collectively termed Weimar Classicism.
Arthur Schopenhauer cited Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship as one of the four greatest novels ever written and Ralph Waldo Emerson selected Goethe, along with Plato, Napoleon, and William Shakespeare, as one of six "representative men" in his work of the same name. Goethe's comments and observations form the basis of several biographical works, most notably Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe. There are frequent references to Goethe's various sayings and maxims throughout the course of Friedrich Nietzsche's work and there are numerous allusions to Goethe in the novels of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann as well as in the psychological writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Goethe's poems were set to music throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by a number of composers, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Charles Gounod, Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf, and Gustav Mahler.
For ourselves, meanwhile, in giving all due weight to so curious an exhibition of opinion, it is doubtless our part, at the same time, to beware that we do not give it too much. This universal sentiment of admiration is wonderful, is interesting enough; but it must not lead us astray. We English stand as yet without the sphere of it; neither will we plunge blindly in, but enter considerately, or, if we see good, keep aloof from it altogether. Fame, we may understand, is no sure test of merit, but only a probability of such; it is an accident, not a property, of a man; like light, it can give little or nothing, but at most may show what is given; often it is but a false glare, dazzling the eyes of the vulgar, lending by casual extrinsic splendour the brightness and manifold glance of the diamond to pebbles of no value. A man is in all cases simply the man, of the same intrinsic worth and weakness, whether his worth and weakness lie hidden in the depths of his own consciousness, or be betrumpeted and beshouted from end to end of the habitable globe. These are plain truths, which no one should lose sight of; though, whether in love or in anger, for praise or for condemnation, most of us are too apt to forget them. But least of all can it become the critic to 'follow a multitude to do evil' even when that evil is excess of admiration; on the contrary, it will behoove him to lift up his voice, how feeble soever, how unheeded soever, against the common delusion; from which, if he can save, or help to save any mortal, his endeavours will have been repaid.
With these things in some measure before us, we must remind our readers of another influence at work in this affair, and one acting, as we think, in the contrary direction. That pitiful enough desire for 'originality' which lurks and acts in all minds, will rather, we imagine, lead the critic of Foreign Literature to adopt the negative than the affirmative with regard to Goethe. If a writer indeed feel that he is writing for England alone, invisibly and inaudibly to the rest of the Earth, the temptations may be pretty equally balanced; if he write for some small conclave, which he mistakenly thinks the representative of England, they may sway this way or that, as it chances. But writing in such isolated spirit is no longer possible.