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Monday, November 8, 2010



Charlotte von Stein (1742 -1827)

Charlotte von Stein was an aristocratic lady of the Weimar court who befriended Goethe and was an influence on his work. They met in 1774, when Goethe began his official relationship with the Duchy. While Goethe was very much in love with her, obsessed with her in fact, it is not clear whether the feelings were reciprocated, and it is doubtful that there ever was a sexual relationship between them. Charlotte was a married woman, very influential in court circles, and Goethe was a single man, younger than herself, and from a lower social class.

Anna Amalia and her family

In 1758, Charlotte became a lady-in-waiting to Anna-Amalia, Duchess of Sachse-Weimar, whom she served until the Duchess's death in 1807. In 1764, she married Baron Gottlob Ernst Josias Friedrich Freiherr von Stein (1735-1793). This was not a marriage of love but for social and political interests. Often Charlotte remained alone in Weimar because her husband had to travel widely in the service of the Duke of Jena-Weimar. From 1764 to 1773 she gave birth to seven children: the four daughters died, three boys (Karl, Ernst, Fritz) survived. After her seventh child was born she had to take several cures as she was physically exhausted.

The home of Charlotte von Stein in Weimar

'Here lived Charlotte von Stein 1777-1827'

In 1774, Goethe met Charlotte in Weimar. It was the beginning of a deep friendship which lasted for twelve years. During this time she had a strong influence on the work and the life of Goethe, restraining and moderating his passions, educating him in the ways of the Court and distancing him from the bourgeois world of letters wherein he had lived his earlier life. This period of Charlotte’s life might have been the happiest for her, being in the center of Weimar social life and attention, and enjoying the courtly infatuation of the famous Goethe. But it is unlikely. With an absent and indifferent husband and a distant relationship to her children, she lived for the duties and functions of the court, in cold isolation. Her relationship towards Goethe was aloof, and she refused to use the informal “du” when she addressed him. She was extremely strict about courtly rules and class distinctions.

Goethe’s house in the Park an der Ilm (Park on the river Ilm)

Avenue by the river Ilm: from the Park an der Ilm to the Ducal Palace
The gingko trees were planted under Goethe's direction

The home of Charlotte von Stein as seen through the trees from the entrance to the Ilm Park as Goethe must have seen it on the way to his home.

In 1786, the deep friendship between Goethe and Charlotte ended with his sudden departure to Italy without even disclosing to her his intention of leaving, his schedule or agenda. His abrupt decision, based on a longing that originated in his childhood but answering now to a need to escape Weimar incognito, revealed the end of Goethe's obsession with Frau von Stein. Not until after 1800 did their relationship begin to normalize and even then it never became as close as it was. After her husband had died in 1793 Charlotte retired from society and became more and more lonely. In 1794 she wrote the drama Dido which was a literary self-portrait. It reflected the years from 1770 to 1790 and the situation in the Court of Weimar at that time. Charlotte von Stein died on January 6, 1827 at the age of 85.

The tomb of Charlotte von Stein in Weimar

The poem Das Göttliche [Divinity] was written at the height of the relationship between Goethe and Charlotte, and reflects the classical style and the dispassionate equanimity that he began to cultivate and associate with his life at the court in Weimar. Whereas in his earlier Sturm und Drang period he had favored the reckless sentimentality and passionate extremism reflected in his Werther, the watchwords now became temperance and moderation, and the elevation of man above the passions and the natural instincts. To rise above Nature and the natural in man is the ‘divine’ element in our nature, which he celebrates in this poem.

The river Ilm at dusk

Nicholas Boyle reads this poem as follows, in his biography of Goethe (Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Volume I: The Poetry of Desire, Oxford, 1991):

“The interplay of heart and nature, that seemed so fluent and dynamic in the poems that first announced it, such as ‘May Celebration’ [Mailied] has now ceased almost entirely. ‘Divinity’ effectively retracts those poems when it tells us in 1783 that,

Ist die Natur.

Nature is without feeling.

and the poem’s argument is based, not on any assumption of union with Nature, but on man’s moral distinctness from her. This is not simply ‘objectivity’ – it is a betrayal of Goethe’s poetic identity forced upon him by the intellectual, social, and emotional conditions of his life over the previous seven years.” (pp. 278-79)

“The dualism implied by ‘Divinity’ – man is on the one hand an element in the material continuum of natural beings, subject to precisely the same mechanical laws as they, and on the other hand he is a free moral agent capable of doing what in natural terms is impossible – is an attitude peculiarly characteristic of the German ‘official’ Enlightenment, and we have seen its origins in Leibniz’s notion of the pre-established harmony between material and mental events. That Goethe should now be expressing it in such unadorned and commanding terms shows how far he had moved away, not only from his recent tragic fear of the power of the gods and of fate, but also from the earlier Storm and Stress awareness of the material, social, and historical determinants of human behavior, and towards the official culture of absolutist bureaucracy.” (p. 351).


[English translation below]

"Edel sei der Mensch
Hilfreich und gut!
Denn das allein
Unterscheidet ihn
Von allen Wesen,
Die wir kennen.

Heil den unbekannten
Höhern Wesen
Die wir ahnen!
Ihnen gleiche der Mensch!
Sein Beispiel lehr uns
Jene glauben.

Denn unfühlend
Ist die Natur:
Es leuchtet die Sonne
Über Bös und Gute
Und dem Verbrecher
Glänzen wie dem Besten
der Mond und die Sterne.

Wind und Ströme,
Donner und Hagel
Rauschen ihren Weg
Und ergreifen
Vorüber eilend
Einen um den andern.

Auch so das Glück
Tappt unter die Menge,
Faßt bald des Knaben
Lockige Unschuld,
Bald auch den kahlen
Schuldigen Scheitel.

Nach ewigen, ehrnen,
Großen Gesetzen
Müssen wir alle
Unseres Daseins
Kreise vollenden.

Nur allein der Mensch
Vermag das Unmögliche:
Er unterscheidet,
Wählet und richtet;
Er kann dem Augenblick
Dauer verleihen.

Er allein darf
Den Guten lohnen,
Den Bösen strafen,
Heilen und retten,
Alles Irrende, Schweifende
Nützlich verbinden.

Und wir verehren
Die Unsterblichen,
Als wären sie Menschen,
Täten im großen,
Was der Beste im kleinen
tut oder möchte.

Der edle Mensch
Sei hilfreich und gut!
Unermüdet schaff er
Das Nützliche, Rechte,
Sei uns ein Vorbild
Jener geahneten Wesen."


"Let man be noble,
Generous and good;
For that alone
Distinguishes him
From all the living
Beings we know.

Hail to the unknown
Higher beings
Of our intuition!
Let man resemble them;
Let his example
Teach us to believe in them.

For the realm of nature
Is unfeeling;
The sun sheds its light
Over evil and good
And the moon and the stars
Shine on the criminal
As on the best of us.

The wind and the rivers
The hail and the thunder
Storm on their way
And snatch one victim
After another
As they rush past.

So too does blind fortune
Grope through the crowd, now
Seizing a young boy’s
Curly-haired innocence
And now the bald pate
Of the old and guilty.

As great, everlasting,
Adamantine laws
Dictate, we must all
Complete the cycles
Of our existence.

Only mankind
Can do the impossible:
He can distinguish,
He chooses and judges,
He can give permanence
To the moment.

He alone may
Reward the good
And punish the wicked;
He may heal and save
And usefully bind
All that strays and wanders.

And we revere
The immortals, as if
They were human beings
Who do on a great scale
What little the best of us
Does or endeavors.

Let the noble man
Be generous and good,
Tirelessly achieving
What is just and useful:
Let him be a model
For those beings whom he surmises."

[Translation by David Luke]

Goethe's cottage in the Park an der Ilm

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