In the month when a new German literary superstar is born (Herta Mueller), how appropriate that Lizzy revisits the first.  Goethe, the bane of  Lizzy in her university days or should that read Lizzy, the bane of her long-suffering 18th century literature professor?  Goethe and I did not get on and my poor professor was stuck in the middle!  In those heady days when everything was black or white and compromise was a word I could not spell, let alone understand. 

So I really should have understood Werther’s extremism.  Not so.  It struck me as sentimental codswollop.  The bleatings and bellyachings of an idiot, etc, etc.   My applause was reserved for Thackeray’s mocking parody:

Werther had a love for Charlotte
  Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
  She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
  And a moral man was Werther,
And, for all the wealth of Indies,
  Would do nothing for to hurt her.

So he sighed and pined and ogled,
  And his passion boiled and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
  And no more was by it troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
  Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
  Went on cutting bread and butter.

So what has happened in the 30 years since I first met Werther?  Well,  I have mellowed …. honestly!  Life has a knack of blending in the shades of grey and, more importantly for Werther, I understand the language of heartbreak.  (All say awwww!)  I am now, and this is only to be hoped for, given all the hours I have practiced,  a more sensitive reader appreciating the skilful use of imagery, leitmotif,  structure  and a well-placed literary reference.  All of which abound within Goethe’s first novel, a seminal example of  the Sturm and Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement.   Sturm and Drang – a revolt against highly sophisticated literary conventions, a celebration of the cult of genius, a veneration of Shakespeare, a “return to nature” and the expression of extreme emotion.  A challenge to the rational control of the Enlightenment and a precursor to Romanticism. (Footnote 1).

I am also a bit of a cheat.  Because, while I enjoyed this reread of Goethe’s classic more than anticipated, I enjoyed the lengthy and informative afterword in this Norton edition  more.  I’m not sure who wrote it – possibly the translator, Harry Steinhauer, himself as there is no other accreditation.  It is a fine piece, putting Werther into its literary context, explaining how Werther’s fascination with Charlotte is only one of his psychological traumas and clarifying the brilliance of the young Goethe in portraying the totality of Werther’s breakdown not only via plot and language but also through structure.  With the information provided in this afterword, it becomes clear that the ending, which appeared contrived and melodramatic to a certain unappreciative 19-year old student, is, in reality, a supremely constructed climax.

The afterword also brought the young Goethe to life in a completely unexpected way for who would have thought that Werther was the young Goethe, depression and amoratory experiences included!  Thankfully Goethe didn’t succumb to the ultimate Wertherism, although there were many at the time who did, adding to the notoriety of a novel that allegedly defended the self-indulgent melancholy (and it must be said cruelty) of its hero.   What really surprised me, however, was Goethe’s reaction to his own novel.  Initially very proud of his work, he developed an aversion to it as he matured, revising it in 1786.  The aversion never left him and instead of writing a preface for the 50th-anniversary edition in 1824, he wrote a poem envying Werther his escape from the sufferings his creator had to relive over and over again.

One more you venture, much bewept shadow, forth into the light of day, confront me on new flowering meadows, and do not retreat before my view.  It is as if you were living in the early morning, when the dew refreshes us on one field, and after the unwelcome effort of the day the last ray of the parting sun delights us; I – chosen to stay, you to depart; you went ahead – and did not lose much ….

You smile, friend, with deep feeling, as is proper: a gruesome parting made you famous; we celebrated your wretched misfortune, you left us behind for weal and woe.  Then the uncertain, labyrinthine path of the passions drew us once more; and we, entwined in repeated distress, finally for parting – parting is death!  How touching it sounds when the poet sings, to avoid the death which parting brings!  Enmeshed in such torments, half involved in guilt, may a god give him the power to say what he endures.

It appears young Lizzy had more in common with the author than not!

The Sufferings of Young Werther – Goethe Goethe 1/2

The Sufferings of Young Werther (Norton Edition)


Footnote 1:  Definition of Sturm and Drang extracted from The Oxford Companion to English (!)  Literature, 7th Edition.