Posted by Richard on  UTC 2020-10-21 06:42

Paralipomena, literally 'things left to one side'. The main treatment has been elegy by elegy, thus some general considerations were left on the side. Here they are. The reader should read the elegies and the notes and comments on them first, otherwise the remarks in the paralipomena will make even less sense than they do already.

Topics index

Overall structure

Only when the four censored elegies are reinstated in the collection can we begin to speak of the structure of the work. The conventional 20 elegy collection is lacking four essential parts, one sixth of its real scope: it is an amputee. The editors who label it Römische Elegien and the publishers who market it as such should be held in the contempt they deserve.

Two of the restored elegies, the 'priapic pair', the Prolog (Elegy I) and the Epilog (Elegy XXIV), clearly form the matched bookends of the collection. We should not require them to summarise the work as a whole: they are there to frame it. They create the symbolic context for the work – the garden of love and of the muses – watched over fittingly by Priapus. That vulgarity represents the epochal claim of the Römische Elegien to be the witness that has come from an earlier age to confront us with the decline of our own.

Goethe took great care organizing the structure of the poems in a collection. The collection of the Römische Elegien is no exception. Goethe, the mystifier extraordinaire, left us no hint of the thinking behind the ordering of the elegies in this collection, throwing us back on our own devices. Let's make an attempt at an understanding.

Please note that the distribution of the elegies across six webpages in the present article is not a structure, merely a convenience without further meaning.

In trying to find a sense in the order of the elegies, we must first remember – and never forget – that these elegies were composed in Weimar after 1788, not in Rome between 1786-1788. They are therefore not in any sense a travelogue. They are chronologically imperfect: although they nominally begin with Goethe's arrival in Rome (however many years before the actual date of composition); the loved one is found quickly – her existence is foreseen in Elegy II, right after the first bookend, which in no way corresponds to what we assume is the historical chronology, according to which Goethe found his Roman lover around a year after his arrival in Italy. It would be less misleading to call them the Weimarer Elegien, from the place of their composition.

The first three elegies after the Prolog, that is Elegies II, III and IV, set out the conditions around Goethe's flight to Rome. They deal with his desire to study Ancient Rome, its art and architecture that may be still standing; they tell us of his detestation for the feudal aristocracy of the time; they tell us of his need for secrecy and his flight, as the author of the scandalous Werther, from the public eye; the introduce the anonymous lover and her mother.

Once again, Goethe has compressed time into thin layers: the reader is given the impression that no sooner had Goethe arrived in Rome than he found, with the help of Cupid, his place of safety in the arms of his lover. We have occasionally suggested that the wandering adventurer Goethe may be in many ways equated with with that archetype of all wanderers, Odysseus. In this respect, Goethe's compression of the passage of time in these elegies is reminiscent of the Homeric compression of time as described by Erich Auerbach in his seminal work Mimesis. Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur (1945), Chapter 1, 'Odysseus' Scar'. The narrative form is no different.

If we see that Elegies II, III and IV have set the scene for Goethe's love affair, the remaining elegies V…XXIII are more difficult to align. In fact they follow a tradition set by the Augustan elegists, who were the inspiration for Goethe's language, imagery and mood.

In the works of theirs which we have (always an important caveat with classical authors) we find no meaningful structure or consistent chronology. Our use of the word 'meaningful' is intended to point to the organizational shambles of these works as we have them today – the shambles which has been bequeathed to us by the transitions between media that have taken place in the last two millennia: papyrus sheets and rolls, codices on papyrus, vellum and paper, scribal copyings.

We looked at this problem in the works of Catullus, a particularly bad example of jumbled ordering. The situation is really no better for Propertius or Tibullus. We might therefore put forward the unorthodox idea that Goethe's ragbag of themes in this series of elegies is a fair representation of the ragbag of themes he found in his models. It was in fact, a gesture, as the literary types say, to his predecessors.

If we need a designation for this group, we might call them 'scenes from an affair'. Since there is no chronology – meaning that Goethe does not have to be Homer – and their is no conceptual structure – meaning the Goethe does not have to be Dante – we can walk around Goethe's gallery of scenes, be struck by their internal and external referencing and their shared cast of characters, but not expect one scene to lead inexorably into another.

Put another way, their content is not strictly cumulative. Completing the gallery metaphor, excluding the bookends and the first three elegies, we can walk around the gallery in either direction or even criss-cross from side to side. At the end of our visit we will know all we need to do.

We might make out certain clusters: in this respect we have mentioned the two 'Priapic bookends' Elegies I and XXIV, also the 'flight to Rome' cluster of Elegies II, III and IV; we might be struck by the cluster of brief 'encomia to the Beloved' formed by Elegies X, XI and XII; or perhaps the 'fertility cult' cluster of Elegies XIII and XIV; or perhaps the 'love's adventure' theme in Elegies XVIII, XVIX and XX. Elegy XXIII would have been a fitting conclusion to this group, were it not separated from it by two other elegies. The 'syphilis theme' is stretched across two elegies, XVII and XXI, but these two are separated by three others.

Such grouping ultimately brings nothing, since it is possible to imagine most of these elegies moved to different positions without causing any disturbance at all. So, has Goethe created not only an invocation and evocation of the poetry of his Augustan triumvirate, but also an invocation and evocation of their jumbled codices that have come down to us today? Who knows?

It is unlikely that the poems in the Römische Elegien are randomly ordered. This was not Goethe's custom – he curated his works carefully. He tells us himself, though, that they are Wie sie die Muse gewählt, weislich in Beete verteilt, 'as the muse has chosen them, wisely planted around the bed'. The choice of their individual locations is therefore something between Goethe and his Muse and we shouldn't butt in where we do not belong.

Goethe's midlife crisis

If there is such a thing as a midlife crisis, then Goethe had his in 1786. No motorbike and leathers were bought, but apart from that, his behaviour exhibited many of the defining features of this male rite of passage: his age (he had just turned 37 when he set off), the flight from everyday routine, the liberation of travel to exotic destinations, the pursuit of women nearly half his age.

The career in Weimar that was now so onerous to him had begun ten years before, at a previous low point in his life. In 1775 the then 18 year-old Duke Carl August von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach (1757-1828), showing wisdom and foresight beyond his age – he was being advised by that other great figure of the age Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813) – lured Goethe to Weimar as the genius who could bring world fame to his small dukedom.

Goethe's life at that time was a mess of early literary notoriety, half-hearted legal work and complicated and usually hopeless social and amorous entanglements. With the move to Weimar his life gained stability, order and financial security; he was kept busy dabbling in this and that in the service of his duke; after seven years he, the privy counsellor, was ennobled and could now sit down at the same dinner table as the aristocrats of the court.

Had Goethe just been a literary chap, one more useless daydreamer, his life in Weimar could have been quite pleasant. But Goethe was the Universal Genius of his time, interested in everything.

The Duchy of Weimar at the time was a basket case. The old Duke had died just after Carl August was born and the duchy had been run by his wife Anna Amalia as regent for the 18 years before Carl August came of age. It is fair to say that she was not cut out to be the ruler of anything: her interests were social, courtly and cultural, meaning that the fabric of the dukedom fell apart under her non-stewardship. When Carl August, with Wieland and Goethe at his side, took over in Weimar there was a mountain of desolate finances and desolate infrastructure to climb.

Goethe, interested in everything, got involved bit by bit in the repair of the dukedom. With each small success he took on further responsibilities: road building and repair, fire prevention, reopening the Ilmenau mine, management of the finances. The streak of arrogance in Goethe's make-up, always wanting to be better than anyone else, led him into the trap of taking on more and more, because no one could do things as well as the Universal Genius in Residence could. Most importantly, he had the continuous support of his Duke.

The courtiers and functionaries stood back, concentrated on their card games and parties and let the UGiR get on with it. After ten years the state of the duchy had improved appreciably; Goethe, on the other hand, had a burn out and a midlife crisis to cope with.

By 1786 it seems, for whatever reasons real or imaginary, The UGiR just couldn't stand it any more.

The flight from the everyday

The manner of his departure was consistent with that of someone who was at the end of his tether.

On 3 September 1786, in the middle of the annual stay at the spa in Karlsbad, he left at three in the morning and set off in a post coach on a journey to Italy (and Rome in particular). He would not return to Weimar for almost two years. Apart from his faithful manservant, Philipp Seidel, who was left in Weimar to hold the administrative fort, almost no one knew of his plans.

He needed to obtain the permission of his feudal duke, Carl August, for his absence: Goethe had prepared him with a few brief hints, but only told him openly in a letter written the day before his departure (the Duke was not in Karlsbad at that moment). The trip would only last a few months, he told his duke. Despite the affront of not waiting to receive permission before he left, Carl August humoured his UGiR and continued to humour him as the months of his absence turned into years. Goethe continued to receive his substantial salary during all the time he was away.

One thing is clear: Goethe wanted to avoid giving anyone the opportunity to dissuade him from undertaking this journey. His letter to his duke makes this clear and those who knew him realised that he had reached some psychological limit.

We are justified in calling this journey to Italy a 'flight' not only because of its abrupt, foot-stamping, toys-out-of-pram beginning, but especially because of one of its defining characteristics: Goethe travelled under an alias for much of the time. He called himself 'Johann Philipp Möller' from Leipzig. The first name was his own, the second his manservant's first name and the surname was the commonest family name in the German speaking world, albeit with an orthographic twist. It was a good name too, because Italian functionaries had no chance of getting their tongues around it, let alone spelling it correctly. Any one who consulted the official records found only garbled approximations to phonetic spelling.

That said, travelling incognito was a relatively common habit among the high aristocracy, since their hosts could then dispense with the tedious protocol appropriate to their status. As we discussed in the notes to the individual elegies, Goethe was wise to be discreet about his true identity: he was, after all, the author of the scandal novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, published in 1774, the year before Goethe went to Weimar. As a result of its depiction of young Werther's suicide over the unattainable Lotte, it offended social and religious sensibilities throughout Europe. Goethe hints at his fears over his notoriety in Elegy IV.

In the patchwork quilt of Europe at that time, his freedom and even his life was at risk in the those statelets where the devout – whether Protestant or Catholic – held sway. We recall the case of Josef Nickel, who was beheaded and burnt in Wiblingen Abbey, near Ulm, for his anticlerical opinions. This was no medieval barbarity – it took place in 1776, just after Goethe had moved to Weimar. Now Goethe was on his way to Rome, the seat of papal authority.

Every administration of the time – above all the Italian statelets, the French monarchy and the nations of the Habsburg Empire – depended on the intelligence gained from spies and narks. Although we may consider Goethe's behaviour in his abrupt and secretive departure from Weimar rather odd, had he not kept the details of his journey secret in the run up to his departure every court throughout Europe would have known of the great writer's wherabouts and intentions before he had even put his foot on the steps of the post coach.

In contrast, that other Weimar luminary, orthodox and respectable in everything, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), could travel in Goethe's footsteps in 1788-1789 without alias and without the slightest concern for his own safety.

The stranger in a strange land

In the notes on some of the poems of the Römische Elegien we have drawn attention to aspects of Goethe's journey considered from a phenomenological point of view. Let us try and convince readers that this attempt is not as cracked as it may at first appear.

One of the key concepts introduced by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the founder of phenomenological philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century, was that of the Lebenswelt, the 'life world' (Husserl was a world-class inventor of tricky neologisms).

Using our broad brush that makes no one happy, we can say that the Lebenswelt is the sum of the perceptions, ideas, ideology, social interrelationships and interactions of the individual. Husserl also used the term in a much broader sense to mean the 'real world' – Die Lebenswelt als Universum prinzipieller Anschaubarkeit – as opposed to the abstract world postulated by mathematics and science. We don't need to get bogged down in definitions: for our purposes the common phrase 'the world in which we live' is a reasonable approximation.

Readers might like to think of it as a kind of cultural bubble which surrounds the individual. Within this bubble everything is in some way normal. It is difficult to break out of this bubble – in fact, for the vast majority of our lives we are not aware of its existence. It is just there. We take it with us wherever we go. It contains the massive reality of everyday life: all those things we do because we 'just do them' unquestioningly. We would be stuck in bed for ever if we started worrying about the precise epistemological status of the alarm clock when it went off. It's a little like walking – once you try and think about what it involves in detail, you risk falling over on your face.

The individual becomes aware of the Lebenswelt, though, when something happens to burst the bubble of that unquestioned everyday reality – the death of a loved one, for example, or the breakup of a relationship or the diagnosis of a terminal disease; the status of the alarm clock then becomes very much a matter requiring introspection: Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone [Auden, 'Funeral Blues' 1936]. See also the numerous examples of the pschology of bereavement and the life world in our study of Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder. After such shocks, the 'trivial round and common task' can seem to be very odd things indeed.

Leaving such ruptures aside, probably the most common source of the bursting of the life world's bubble is caused by travel to foreign lands. We say tritely that 'travel broadens the mind', which is true (at least for minds still broadenable), but the immersion in a completely different Lebenswelt does far more than that. It resets our relationship to our normal everyday life, which we had largely taken for granted up to that point. When we return home, even after an absence of only a week or two, some things that were once normal become oddities and the foreigner's oddness is now our normal.

An extreme case is that of the exile, a situation that has been explored most notably by the philosopher and sociologist Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985). The exile initially experiences the shock of being a stranger in a strange land and seeing things through 'different eyes'; the shock is repeated if the exile returns after some time – becoming an exile once again, but as a stranger in what used to be their own land.

In his two years in Italy Goethe was struck forcefully by the 'otherness' of the Italian Lebenswelt. During those two years he was a stranger in a strange land, a voluntary exile. The situation must have been even odder, since he was operating for most of the time under an assumed name, even with his lover. Then, when he returned to Weimar, he was also a stranger in a strange land – Rome had changed him. Both of Plessner's cases are applicable: the exile and the returning exile.

The most obvious and striking example of the 'otherness' of Goethe's time in Italy is the world famous 1887 portrait by Tischbein of Goethe in der römischen Campagna, which we reproduced in the introduction to the present article. Here it is again, so that the reader can look at it with 'different eyes':

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Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829), Goethe in der römischen Campagna, 1787. Image: Städel Museum / Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie.

Why has this picture become so famous, that even the likes of Andy Warhol could parody it, just as he did for other world-famous images, such as Marilyn Monroe? Exactly because of its striking strangeness. 'Strangeness' here being a synonym for 'otherness', that phenomenological state of someone in another life world. Here is a glimpse into Goethe's life world in Rome.

For a taste of the life world which Goethe left behind him in Weimar the reader should visit the website of the Gleimhaus in Halberstadt, which calls itself the Museum der deutschen Aufklärung, the 'Museum of the German Enlightenment'. This single click should be enough, but if you want more, there are 141 artefacts currently listed, taken from the Freundschaftstempel, the collection of portraits of the luminaries of the time which Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719-1803) had done.

There are also plenty of portraits of Goethe in his German life world; most are interesting and worthy, just like the portraits in Gleim's Freundschaftstempel. Tischbein's painting shows us Goethe in his Italian life world. It's a bit of a shock, as one might expect, and that is why it is so famous and is branded as 'iconic'. Gleim's collection also shows us the world to which Goethe returned in 1788, which certainly came as a bit of a shock to him, the returning exile. It could be said that the Römische Elegien are the product of that shock.

The feeling of 'otherness' caused by a collision of two different life worlds manifests itself in discomfort: the normal is comforting; the abnormal is disturbing – it really does 'disturb', in the sense of rearranging the taken-for-granted objects and ideas of our current life world. We repeat some of our discussion of this point in the Commentary to Elegy XIII:

The impression of the sublime, the beautiful, as beneficial as it may otherwise be, discomforts us, we want to express our feelings, our conceptions in words: but in order to do that we must first perceive, discern, comprehend; we begin to sound out, to differentiate, to order and this, too, we find, if not unmöglich, then extremely difficult and so we return finally to an observing and enjoying admiration.

Der Eindruck des Erhabenen, des Schönen, so wohltätig er auch sein mag, beunruhigt uns, wir wünschen unsre Gefühle, unsre Anschauung in Worte zu fassen: dazu müßten wir aber erst erkennen, einsehen, begreifen; wir fangen an zu sondern, zu unterscheiden, zu ordnen, und auch dieses finden wir, wo nicht unmöglich, doch höchst schwierig, und so kehren wir endlich zu einer schauenden und genießenden Bewunderung zurück.
Italienische Reise II.

We note in particular that this discomfort does not arise simply from the collision of the tourist life worlds of Weimar and Rome, it is a confrontation with the life world of Ancient Rome through a sensitive observation of its artefacts:

But above all this is the most decisive effect of all works of art, that they confront us with the conditions of their time and those of the individuals who created them. Surrounded by antique statues, one seems to be in a moving natural life, one becomes aware of the diversity of the forms of man and led back to humans in their purest condition, through which the observer also becomes alive and purely human.

Überhaupt aber ist dies die entschiedenste Wirkung aller Kunstwerke, daß sie uns in den Zustand der Zeit und der Individuen versetzen, die sie hervorbrachten. Umgeben von antiken Statuen, empfindet man sich in einem bewegten Naturleben, man wird die Mannigfaltigkeit der Menschengestaltung gewahr und durchaus auf den Menschen in seinem reinsten Zustande zurückgeführt, wodurch denn der Beschauer selbst lebendig und rein menschlich wird.
Italienische Reise II.

In his Italienische Reise – health warning: composed around forty years after the fact – Goethe gave us a glowing description of his encounter with the alternative reality of Rome, Ancient and Modern. We mentioned this also in the Commentary on Elegy II.

He distinguishes first between two states of knowing, that is, knowing some putative fact ('the emperor Trajan caused many buildings to be built') and knowing from direct experience (the view of Trajan's Column) and then goes on the stress the massive reality of the latter form of knowing:

Now I am here and calm and, so it seems, calmed for all my life. Then, one can indeed say, a new life begins when one sees with one's eyes what one to some extent already knows within and knows by heart. All the dreams of my youth I now see brought to life; the first etchings which I remember (my father had hung the views of Rome on the walls of an anteroom), I now see in reality, and everything that I have long known from paintings and drawings, etchings and woodcuts, in plaster and cork, now stands beside me; wherever I go I find a familiar thing in a new world; everything is as I imagined it, and everything is new. I can say the same about my observations and my ideas. I have had no completely new thoughts, found nothing completely new, but the old things have become so definitive, so alive, so interconnected, that they could be considered to be new.

When Pygmalion's Elise*, whom he formed according to his desires and to whom he gave as much truth and existence as an artist could, finally came to him and said 'I am'*, how different was the live person from the shaped stone!

*'Elise' is the name Goethe uses instead of the more usual 'Galatea'. *'I am': the usual translation would be 'it is I' (English teacher version), but Goethe is playing with words: 'I exist' or 'I am real'.
Nun bin ich hier und ruhig und, wie es scheint, auf mein ganzes Leben beruhigt. Denn es geht, man darf wohl sagen, ein neues Leben an, wenn man das Ganze mit Augen sieht, das man teilweise in- und auswendig kennt. Alle Träume meiner Jugend seh' ich nun lebendig; die ersten Kupferbilder, deren ich mich erinnere (mein Vater hatte die Prospekte von Rom auf einem Vorsaale aufgehängt), seh' ich nun in Wahrheit, und alles, was ich in Gemälden und Zeichnungen, Kupfern und Holzschnitten, in Gips und Kork schon lange gekannt, steht nun beisammen vor mir; wohin ich gehe, finde ich eine Bekanntschaft in einer neuen Welt; es ist alles, wie ich mir's dachte, und alles neu. Ebenso kann ich von meinen Beobachtungen, von meinen Ideen sagen. Ich habe keinen ganz neuen Gedanken gehabt, nichts ganz fremd gefunden, aber die alten sind so bestimmt, so lebendig, so zusammenhängend geworden, daß sie für neu gelten können.
Da Pygmalions Elise, die er sich ganz nach seinen Wünschen geformt und ihr so viel Wahrheit und Dasein gegeben hatte, als der Künstler vermag, endlich auf ihn zukam und sagte: »Ich bin's!«, wie anders war die Lebendige als der gebildete Stein!
Italienische Reise, Rome, 1 November 1786.

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Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890. We see Cupid up to his tricks again. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

'Any excuse to flash a pert bottom' readers will be thinking. Well, guilty as charged, M'lud, but don't overlook the mitigating circumstances: Dann versteh ich den Marmor erst recht: ich denk und vergleiche, 'For only then do I understand marble properly: I think and compare'.

There will also be readers who remain unconvinced by our sociological mumbo jumbo. They should consider just how different the life world of the pre-Italy Goethe was to the life world of the post-Italy Goethe. Before he left he was sinking in drudgery and tangled in an asexual relationship with a somewhat challenging older woman of high social status; after he returned he freed himself from most of his administrative responsibilities and the 38 year-old was bedded down with a compliant 23 year-old with hardly any social status. Exile changed him.

In his 1817 publication, Zur Naturwissenschaft überhaupt, besonders zur Morphologie, Goethe described the shock of his return to Weimar after two years in Italy; in his own words we hear the returning exile, now with 'different eyes', finding it impossible to reconnect with his previous life world and the people in it:

I was recalled from form-rich Italy into formless Germany, had to exchange a clear sky for a dreary one; my friends, instead of comforting me and bringing me to them once more, brought me to despair. My delight in the most distant objects, scarcely known, my suffering, my lamentation over what I had lost appeared to insult them, I missed all sympathy, no one understood my language. In this painful condition I had no idea how to find myself, the loss to which the external senses had to get used was too great, the spirit thus arose and attempted to avoid being damaged.

Aus Italien dem Formreichen war ich in das gestaltlose Deutschland zurückgewiesen, heiteren Himmel mit einem düsteren zu vertauschen; die Freunde, statt mich zu trösten und wieder an sich zu ziehen, brachten mich zur Verzweiflung. Mein Entzücken über entfernteste, kaum bekannte Gegenstände, mein Leiden, meine Klagen über das Verlorne schien sie zu beleidigen, ich vermißte jede Teilnahme, niemand verstand meine Sprache. In diesen peinlichen Zustand wußt' ich mich nicht zu finden, die Entbehrung war zu groß, an welche sich der äußere Sinn gewöhnen sollte, der Geist erwachte sonach, und suchte sich schadlos zu halten.
Schicksal der Handschrift.

Once the alternative Lebenswelt has been experienced, that experience never goes away. Its presence can be detected in der andere Zustand, 'the other condition', the term which the Austrian novelist and exile Robert Musil (1880-1942) used to characterise the feeling of some other reality that exists alongside the massively present reality of the Lebenswelt. The history of literature is littered with examples of writers in exile who used the 'different eyes' and the 'other condition' in their work (Heine, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Joyce, Eliot and Pound spring to mind immediately, but there are many more).

But, the reader objects, 18th century Italy wasn't all that different from 18th century Weimar, was it? For example, on 25 January 1788 Goethe wrote to his duke that, in relation to Roman society, man würcklich in dem großen Rom ein wenig kleinstädtisch ist, 'in the great Rome, people are really a little provincial'. Well, that is indeed true, although Goethe's thesis on the Roman manner of time reckoning was an example, and a sociological one at that, of seeing modern Rome with 'different eyes' and explaining the phenomenon through the 'different eyes' of the man from the north.

In fact the feeling of difference came not from the contrast between present-day Weimar and present-day Rome, but from the contrast between both of them and Ancient Rome, represented through its ruins. Goethe largely avoided the baroque art and architecture of Rome and its modern aristocratic society: Amor führte mich klug allen Palästen vorbei; he was much more impressed with the art of ROMA, the ancient civilisation, the ungeheure Stadt, the huge remains of which still loomed out of the mists and threw their great shadows in the light of the full moon. That was the place he visited.

Goethe's next observation reinforces our sociological perspective on the impact of his stay in Italy; it could almost have been written for a paper on the Lebenswelt:

How morally curative it is also for me to live among a completely sensual people, about whom so much has been said and written that every stranger judges them according to the criteria he brings with him. I forgive him who scolds and chides them; their separation from us is too great, and the interaction with them as a stranger is difficult and expensive.

Wie moralisch heilsam ist mir es dann auch, unter einem ganz sinnlichen Volke zu leben, über das so viel Redens und Schreibens ist, das jeder Fremde nach dem Maßstabe beurteilt, den er mitbringt. Ich verzeihe jedem, der sie tadelt und schilt; sie stehn zu weit von uns ab, und als Fremder mit ihnen zu verkehren, ist beschwerlich und kostspielig.

This was the 'other condition' that he experienced in Rome. Herder went there just after Goethe had departed; he saw the sights, pressed the flesh and saw only the Rome of his day with some left-overs from an earlier time. Consequently he came back quite unchanged by the experience.

The tourist (such as Herder in this case), superficially entertained by contact with the new, 'judges them according to the criteria he brings with him' – the interaction with another life world leaves hardly any trace on his or her own world, the eyes may be different but they never reset. The 'separation' of this alternative life world 'from us is too great'; the change required of the observer in order to become immersed in this different world is too radical and discomforting. As the philosopher Ernst Bloch put it:

A person takes himself along when he wanders. At the same time he opens himself up, he is enriched by every field, wood and mountain. He also learns, in the literal sense, to know what going astray and following a path mean. The house that receives him at the end does not appear as self-evident, but rather something attained.


To wander badly means that the person remains unaffected by the journey. Such a person only changes his locality, not himself in relation to and along with the locality. The greater the need felt by a person to define himself through experience, the deeper (not just broader) he will be changed by external experiences. This was the travel counsel, the route, which Goethe in his novel of 'educational development' Wilhelm Meister set out and followed. For the same reason, Faust used the magic cloak to carry him out of his small room through so many different landscapes. Faust, restless at his desk, is the most strongly delineated subject so far for human striving, human journeying to things full of change.

Ein Mensch nimmt sich mit, wenn er wandert. Doch ebenso geht er hierbei aus sich heraus, wird um Flur, Wald, Berg reicher. Auch lernt er, buchstäblich, wieder kennen, was Verirren und was Weg ist, und das Haus, das ihn am Ende empfängt, wirkt keineswegs selbstverständlich, sondern als erreicht.

Schlecht wandern, das heißt, als Mensch dabei unverändert bleiben. Ein solcher eben wechselt nur die Gegend, nicht auch sich selber an und mit ihr. Je bedürftiger aber ein Mensch ist, sich erfahrend zu bestimmen, desto tiefer (nicht nur breiter) wird auch er durch äußeres Erfahren berichtigt werden. Dies war der Reiserat, Reiseweg, den Goethe im Erziehungsroman seines Wilhelm Meister gab und ging. Aus der gleichen Absicht hat Faust den Zaubermantel gebraucht, der ihn aus der engen Stube durch so verschiedene Landschaften trug. Faust, unruhig an seinem Pult, ist das bisher stärkst dargestellte Subjekt des menschlichen Hinstrebens, Hinfahrens zu wechselnd füllendem Etwas.
Ernst Bloch, from 'Reiseform des Wissens, Faustplan' in the Ernst Bloch Gesamtausgabe Band 13, 'Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie' Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1970, p. 49-50.

Goethe came back a radically changed man: he followed his own advice and seized the opportunity (Elegy VI) to acquire a young mistress who would save him from the annoyance of the empty bed (Elegy XXI) and keep him free of syphilis (Elegy XXI).

On his return he began his serious immersion in the world of Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid and Catullus, the elegists of the Augustan age. In Rome he had entered the bubble of their Lebenswelt and brought it back with him, the returning exile, to his new exile in Weimar. He then saw his age through the 'different eyes' of the Augustan stranger in the strange land of Weimar, now on the threshold of 25 years of revolutionary turmoil and intercontinental wars.

Cherchez la femme

There is a theory that Goethe did not lose his virginity until he was 38, when, around December 1787 he slipped between the sheets with his Italian lover, the one whom he briefly named 'Faustine'. This makes a good headline, but it is probably not strictly true.

Inspecting Goethe's accounts journal and lodgings bills, Roberto Zapperi found otherwise inexplicable entries such as donna, which seem to denote money spent on a prostitute. As Elegy XXI tells us, in no uncertain terms, Goethe was torn between sexual desire and a (completely justified) fear of catching syphilis. If his entries for donna et al. really mean what we think they mean, they reveal that from time to time Goethe gave in to his longing and hired a woman. The justification for payment for sex we find in Elegy IV das Gold nicht wie der Römer bedenkt, where it is put somewhat obliquely, but unmistakably

As he told his duke, the working girls in Rome were 'as unsafe as everywhere else', so he must have employed a risk reduction strategy – he certainly would not simply sweep up a girl from the street, unless, of course, he was so sexually desperate that all risks were forgotten. It is unlikely that Goethe did this: he was in normal circumstances a very rational man, despite the Sturm und Drang label, but Elegy XXII tells us that Cupid can make fools of even the greatest heroes, in which case their heroic reputation is soon destroyed. From this point of view, Elegy XXI (the dichotomy) and Elegy XXII (the power of Cupid) function as a pair. For those with eyes to see, this pair of elegies is a good description of Goethe's sexual situation before his 'Faustine' appeared.

It seems reasonable to assume that, squeezed in this clamp of desperation and fear, Goethe would do what any man in that situation would do: broach the subject – however obliquely – with his trusted male friends. When in Rome, do as the Germans do. His new friends belonged to the extensive colony of German artists in Rome, all of whom were on the lookout for life models.

As we know from the example of Wilhelm Tischbein, Goethe's first contact in Rome, artists would keep their eye open for suitable women and would know which of their models could be considered to be both compliant and safe. Such a practice represented a middle way: it would not remove the risk completely, but it would be much smaller with a known person than with a stranger pursuing her trade.

As in Elegy VIII, the members of the upper orders of the Catholic Church, the 'red and the purple stockings', had their own mechanisms for sweeping up likely girls – fresh meat, untainted by the life of the streets. At least we cannot accuse Goethe of hypocrisy in this matter.

Of course, we must not assume that this combination of longing and terror only overcame him in Rome; it seems much more likely that he had lived with this dichotomy since early adulthood. The women associated with him were all nice, well-brought-up girls, some poor(ish) (a vicar's daughter), some rich (a banker's daughter).

Those still single would not have given themselves to a man, no matter how big his genius was, before a trip to the altar – a trip Goethe was constitutionally incapable of taking without the force majeur he experienced in 1806.

The married women had social status, reputation and respectability, which they would not have sacrificed for a quick romp with him. One romp is never enough, and they therefore knew where that would lead.

In the gossip cauldron of the Weimar court, Charlotte von Stein – a lady-in-waiting to Duchess Anna Amalia, married to a courtier, seven years Goethe's senior and already the mother of seven children – would not have risked her position with a physical relationship with the poet, no matter how high her emotions flew.

Anyone who questions these assertions has been living in the modern world for too long. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s in the West, no 'nice' girl would have sex before marriage. The 'unmarried mother' in those days was not a heroine of the liberation, but an object of contempt, or at best, pity. Faustine's father is quoted in Elegy VIII, summing up the parents' warning down the ages: ihr Mädchen bleibt am Ende doch die Betrognen, 'In the end you girls are always the cheated ones'.

The exceptions were young non-aristocratic girls – peasants, servants, actresses and dancers – who had been seduced by powerful aristocrats: they could hardly be blamed for succumbing to such power, there would be compensation of sorts and, should a child result, its future would be taken care of.

'Nice' girls, too, occasionally went astray (fans of Pride and Prejudice will think of 'foolish' Lydia Bennet running off with Mr Wickham, honour was eventually restored by marriage) but that is just the human condition.

Then, as now, young women were appreciably smarter than young men and knew exactly what they wanted. Lotte, the heroine of Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, engaged to the mysterious Albert, leads silly boy Werther on, expertly stoking the fires until she finally has to reject his pressing physical advances (a kiss!) to preserve her honour. Werther, then, instead of shooting her or Albert or both of them, shoots himself rather incompetently and dies a lingering, messy death.

Once again we have to struggle to break out of the bubble of our own life worlds in order to understand the typical life world of Goethe's time. The more uptight of Goethe's contemporaries thought, despite all this propriety and chastity, that Werther was an immoral novel that would corrupt the young, hence its author's notoriety across Europe. In contrast, the child of the sixties trapped in a modern bubble would find this an outrageously oppressive plot of repressed personalities and call once more for female emancipation, free love, free contraception and free abortion for all.

So far we have taken in our prurient modern way Goethe's dislike of sleeping alone in Elegy XXI as a euphemism for the act of darkness itself. It may well be that, but it may also be the simple truth: perhaps Goethe was not just after the beast with two backs but something we might call a 'bed partnership'; he was an emotional and sensitive man for whom sex had to be embedded in an emotional context to make sense.

Let us recall Goethe's description of that bed partnership: Wird doch nicht immer geküßt, es wird vernünftig gesprochen, 'There is not always kissing, there is sensible conversation'. Prostitutes would charge for onerous extras like this, especially backbone tapping. That moment of prosodic counting in Elegy VII illustrates the richness of that bed partnership.

On his return to Weimar he very quickly found a bed partner in Christiane Vulpius. Unlike the older women Goethe knew at that time, Charlotte von Stein and Barbara Schulthess, she was young, fresh and uncomplicated, she was no gilded aristocrat with social standing and a reputation to uphold, she was his junior and offered no challenge to him.

It was now clear to him, with his 'different eyes', what his relationship with Charlotte von Stein had been really like. It had certainly never been a bed partnership. Ten years after it began, it ended thus. Goethe:

But I am happy to admit that I can no longer tolerate the way you have treated me up to now. When I have been talkative, you have closed my lips, when I have tried to tell you things, you have shown indifference, when I was active on behalf of friends, you have accused me of coldness and inattentiveness. Every one of my facial expressions you have examined, you have criticised my movements, my behaviour and discomforted me. How can trust and openness flourish when you push me away from you with a premeditated mood?

Aber das gestehe ich gern, die Art wie du mich bißher behandelt hast, kann ich nicht erdulden. Wenn ich gesprächig war hast du mir die Lippen verschloßen, wenn ich mittheilend war hast du mich der Gleichgültigkeit, wenn ich für Freunde thätig war, der Kälte und Nachlässigkeit beschuldigt. Jede meiner Minen hast du kontrollirt, meine Bewegungen, meine Art zu seyn getadelt und mich immer mal a mon aise gesetzt. Wo sollte da Vertrauen und Offenheit gedeihen, wenn du mich mit vorsätzlicher Laune von dir stießest.
Brief an Charlotte von Stein, 1 June 1789.

In contrast, plumpish, giggly Christiane: what a relief! Her status as his concubine kept her out of court circles for nearly twenty years, but for Goethe, this was probably no bad thing. His flight to Italy in 1786 had ripped most of the threads that tied him to the court. Shortly after Goethe's return, Duke Carl August freed him of his administrative duties, which removed yet another interface with the feudal court of Weimar. Goethe could continue being Goethe, the sage of Weimar, the UGiR, without distraction.

When we look back on that period in Goethe's life with the benefit of our hindsight we can see that 'Faustine' in Rome was not the peak of a love affair, she was the starting point. That three or four month 'bed partnership' in Rome, conducted in secrecy, was the precursor to the undisguised bed partnership with Christiane that began only a few months later, a much more enjoyable relationship, since it did not involve creeping along dark streets in the early hours. For youngsters such fun and games are enjoyable – both Catullus and Propertius wrote that Cupid protected lovers wandering down dark streets – but when you get to forty you would really rather just flop into bed with the object of desire without having to beat off stray dogs, robbers and a gang of naked boys.

'Faustine' showed him what he had been missing during his platonic passions with both the younger and older women in his life so far; when he got back to Weimar he continued in the same manner, with no secrecy needed. Was Carl August, that category five lecher, going to reprimand him for licentious behaviour? As it is in any organization, so too in feudal courts: if it's OK with the boss, it's OK with the underlings. Remember, the Römische Elegien were composed in Weimar – the metrics for them were counted out on Christiane's vertebrae, not Faustine's.

Werther, the spook

In the Commentary on Elegy IV we discussed Goethe's vision of Werther's trauriger Geist, his 'tragic spirit', which had followed his creator 'vengefully' through his life.

Our comments are true as far as they went – but they went only as far as was necessary for the understanding of that elegy; they represent Goethe's 'Werther Complex' (as we might call it) as it was in the 1790s. Around thirty years later, in 1824, Goethe-Mephistopheles, the old conjuror himself, called up the shade of Werther once more in his poem An Werther:

An Werther

Noch einmal wagst du, vielbeweinter Schatten,


Hervor dich an das Tageslicht,


Begegnest mir auf neubeblümten Matten,


Und meinen Anblick scheust du nicht.


Es ist, als ob du lebtest in der Frühe,


Wo uns der Tau auf einem Feld erquickt


Und nach des Tages unwillkommner Mühe


Der Scheidesonne letzter Strahl entzückt;


Zum Bleiben ich, zum Scheiden du erkoren,


Gingst du voran – und hast nicht viel verloren.


Yet once more, much-lamented shade, you dare to venture out in the light of day, to meet me in freshly flowering meadows, and you do not shrink from the sight of me. It is as though you were alive again in those young days, where the dew on a field reanimated us both and after the day's unwelcome toil the last rays of the departing sun enchanted us. I was chosen to remain, you to depart, you went on ahead of me – and you have not missed much.

Noch einmal wagst du: The shade appears 'yet again'. G.'s previous encounter with Werther's shade was when he was writing the novel, shortly after the fictional death of Werther in the previous December. The act of writing the novel was an invocation of the dead Werther's shade.

The figure of Werther is based on a real personage, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem (1747-1772), who shot himself on 29 October 1772 in Wetzlar. His suicide was just as incompetent as the fictional Werther's: they both ruined the carpet, the wallpaper and goodness knows what else. They both lingered on into the following day. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether the spook who appears to Goethe is the ghost of the fictional Werther or of the real Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem or an amalgam of both.

Note, too, that Werther's shade wagt, 'dares to venture', into the light of day.

vielbeweinter Schatten: Female readers across Europe shed tears over Werther's suicide for unrequited love.

neubeblümten Matten: G. wrote Werther in the space of a few frantic weeks in the spring of 1774, meaning that his first encounter with Werther's shade took place on the freshly flowery meadows. Werther's end in the story, however, was a winter suicide: he shot himself with his love rival Albert's pistol around midnight on 23 December 1772; he died from his injuries around midday on Christmas Eve.

meinen Anblick scheust du nicht: Not only does the shade of Werther dare to venture into the light of day, it has no fear of facing its creator.

in der Frühe: This phrase may mean the early part of the day, the early part of the year or the early part of G.'s and Werther's lives – probably all three.

nach des Tages unwillkommner Mühe: After completing his legal studies in Strasbourg in 1771 G. began to practise Law, which he did with little success over the next four years until Duke Carl August rescued him with an invitation to Weimar in 1775. It is fair to say that during these years his enthusiasm for the life of a lawyer was non-existent, hence the days of 'unwelcome toil'.

Der Scheidesonne letzter Strahl entzückt: Scheiden, 'depart', 'take leave' is a common euphemism for 'to die'. It occurs in some form seven times in this poem. G. created the neologism Scheidesonne, which describes not only the departing sun, but the 'sun of departure'.

The immediate image in our eye is of the young lawyer, after a day of tedious labour, out in the spring fields enjoying the rural sunset. Werther, the protagonist of the novel he is writing, is with him in spirit. Scheidesonne, however, also recalls the end of the day which Werther saw on the dreary evening he shot himself:

After dinner he had his servant pack everything up, tore up many papers, went out and settled some small debts. He returned to the house, went out again in front of the door, despite the rain, in the Count's garden, wandered around the area and came back with the approach of night and wrote.

'Wilhelm, I have for the last time seen the fields and the woods and the sky. Farewell to you, too. Dear Mother, forgive me! Comfort her Wilhelm! God bless you both! My things are all in order. Farewell! We shall see each other again and happier.'

Nach Tische hieß er den Knaben alles vollends einpacken, zerriß viele Papiere, ging aus und brachte noch kleine Schulden in Ordnung. Er kam wieder nach Hause, ging wieder aus vors Tor, ungeachtet des Regens, in den gräflichen Garten, schweifte weiter in der Gegend umher und kam mit anbrechender Nacht zurück und schrieb.
»Wilhelm, ich habe zum letzten Male Feld und Wald und den Himmel gesehen. Leb wohl auch du! Liebe Mutter, verzeiht mir! Tröste sie, Wilhelm! Gott segne euch! Meine Sachen sind alle in Ordnung. Lebt wohl! wir sehen uns wieder und freudiger.«
Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, Book II.

hast nicht viel verloren: G. wrote An Werther on 25/26 March 1824, that is, exactly fifty years after he wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in that flowery field in the spring of 1774. The poem prefaced the special edition of Werther that was produced for this anniversary.

The character Werther's path through life came to an abrupt end with his death on Christmas Eve, 1772. Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, the model for Werther, shot himself on 29 October 1772. The anniversary prompts G. to ponder his own path in the half-century following the writing of the novel. 'You have not missed much', he tells Werther's shade (or Karl Wilhelm's shade).

The other impulse was the disaster of his infatuation in his early seventies with the teenage Ulrike von Levetzow in Marienbad and Karlsbad in 1821-1823, which was concluded with an offer of marriage. The proposal resulted in embarrassed looks all round and an embarrassed lack of a response. G. got the message of this loquacious silence. He withdrew the offer and never saw the girl or her family again.

There's no fool like an old fool. G. wasn't the sort to shoot himself, but his remark that the dead Werther hadn't missed much is telling in this depressive context – G. was indeed cursed with a long life: from this moment he would live eight years more, by which time most of the companions of that long life went, one after another, to join Werther's shade.

Du lächelst, Freund, gefühlvoll, wie sich ziemt:


Ein gräßlich Scheiden machte dich berühmt;


Wir feierten dein kläglich Mißgeschick,


Du ließest uns zu Wohl und Weh zurück;


Dann zog uns wieder ungewisse Bahn


Der Leidenschaften labyrinthisch an;


You smile, my friend, with feeling, as is fitting; for an exit from life that was full of horror has made you famous. We celebrated your lamentable fate, and you left us behind you for better or for worse; for once more, uncertain labyrinthine paths of passion dragged us along.

gefühlvoll, wie sich ziemt: 'with feeling', which is fitting for Werther's highly strung, passionate nature. G.'s nature was also sensitive and passionate, but as far as we know he never came close to killing himself.

Ein gräßlich Scheiden: Werther shot himself in the head around midnight on 23 December and took until noon on the following day finally to die. G. took a few leisurely pages at the end of Werther to linger over every gory detail of those twelve hours, down to the last gurgle. Your heartless author frets over the mess made on the carpet and the walls: whereas women almost always kill themselves tidily, realising that someone is going to have to clean up after them, men almost always choose the messiest method available and leave the cleaning up to someone else.

Leidenschaften labyrinthisch: For the record, here are some knots on the thread that runs through G.'s labyrinth, not necessarily comprehensive:

The platonic passions (all dumped)

  • Anna Katharina Schönkopf (1746-1810) [Leipzig ~1766],
  • Friederike Oeser (1748-1829) [Leipzig ~1766],
  • Friederike Brion (1752-1813) [Sessenheim 1770-71],
  • Charlotte Buff (1753-1828) [Wetzlar 1772, 'Werther's Lotte'],
  • Anna Elisabeth (Lili) Schönemann (1758-1817) [Frankfurt ~1775],
  • Corona Schröter (1751-1802) [Weimar ~1776],
  • Christiane Amalie Louise Becker-Neumann (1778-1797) [Weimar ~1791],
  • Charlotte von Stein-von Schardt (1742-1827) [Weimar 1775-1788].

The physical passions

  • Faustine (?) [Rome ?],
  • Christiane Vulpius (1765-1816) [Weimar 1788-1816, married 1806].

Indeterminate dalliances and crushes

  • Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) [Frankfurt 1814-15] …
  • Minchen Herzlieb (1789-1865) [Jena 1807-08],
  • Ulrike von Levetzow (1804-1899) [Marienbad 1821-23],

This is not the place to plunge into the great depths of the full poem. A dipped toe is enough to tell us that Goethe's relation with his notorious creation Werther was long, lasting his adult life, and extremely complex. His attempted flight from that notoriety and from his creation was a key element in the creation of the Römische Elegien.

The modern reader gets the impression that in Rome, Goethe stopped – at least for a while – pumping himself up on gallantry and intense emotions. He stopped being a Werther without the death-wish. It may have been one of the components of his mid-life crisis (or his depression, whichever the reader prefers), that in Weimar, unless there was some radical change, the only way he was going to acquire a 'bed companion' was through marriage.

That radical change took place in him in Italy: stepping out of the Weimar bubble into the bubble of Ancient Rome opened up new horizons for relationships with women, brought a new legitimacy to sexual relationships.

When he returned to Weimar his 'different eyes' meant that new forms were possible. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman: when Christiane Vulpius came compliantly into his life, as though sent by Cupid himself, he seized the moment, just as the goddess Opportunity would have wished it.

Not elegies as we know them, Jim

In looking at the Römische Elegien from a literary point of view we don't have to read far before our first stumble occurs – in the second word of the title: Elegien, 'Elegies'.

The meaning of the word 'elegy' has changed over time, in German but particularly in English. In the ancient world the term meant a particular poetic form; in our modern world the term is applied to a mood: speech or music that is sad, complaining or mourning.

Reading the title Römische Elegien, the would-be reader of Goethe's collection has already switched into depressed mode, or simply put the book back on the shelf – perhaps preferring something lighter to accompany the horrors of a modern English or German train journey.

The 'elegy' in Goethe's title means not the mood but the prosodic form of the elegy, a form which is more or less independent of mood.

But the strict classical forms (there are several), unmodified, are difficult to achieve in German and as good as impossible to achieve in English. Like Greek and Latin, German is a declined language, which means the poet can shuffle around the word order to arrive at something that fits the metre. Even so, even a German poet is soon at the limit of the possible when trying to write elegaic poetry in the classical manner. True, the poet can always cobble something together – the only question then is whether the reader can ever understand it.

Those who have followed us through the translation and interpretation of Goethe's 24 elegies will have surely noticed the places where we have struggled to disentangle Goethe's mangled syntax. In the end, no diagrams were needed, but it was a close run thing.

The prerequisites for writing classical-style elegies in English are much worse. English is a language that depends on conventions of word order. The reader expects to come across the subject at or near the beginning of the sentence. Bend word order around too much for the sake of a metre and ridicule and incomprehensibility are just around the corner: 'He stood the door behind'.

For this reason, the classical elegy never caught on in English literature. John Donne, in his early rakish fornicator phase, produced a collection of twenty occasionally erotic 'elegies' in 1631, thus breaking the mould of the elegy as lamentation, but they are very odd elegies indeed: the metre is anarchic and the line endings rhymed – certainly nowhere near his best work in quality.

Perhaps Donne, though abandoning the metre of the classical elegy, nevertheless tried to keep the declarative and polemical style of his classical predecessors, hence felt able to use the term in this sense. Here's a sample for the curious:


But oh her minde, that Orcus, which includes


Legions of mischiefs, countlesse multitudes


Of formlesse curses, projects unmade up,


Abuses yet unfashion’d, thoughts corrupt,


Mishapen Cavils, palpable untroths,


Inevitable errours, self-accusing oaths:


These, like those Atoms swarming in the Sunne,


Throng in her bosome for creation.


I blush to give her halfe her due; yet say,


No poyson’s halfe so bad as Julia.


John Donne (1572-1631), from ELEGY XIV, 'Julia', in Poems, 1633.

Writers in English abandoned all attempts at writing the formal elegy and the term became the label for lamentation or dreary mourning that has stuck ever since.


In the worlds of the Greek and Romans, an elegy was a particular verse form. At the risk of sounding pretentious we might more precisely say an archetype of a verse form, since there are many variants.

In the lumber room of the Greek and Dantescan heavens there is an archetype of a perfect chair, from which all our imperfect worldly chairs are derived, with all their variants. Similarly, professors of Greek and Roman literature will tell you what an elegy is, but – patience! everything comes to he who waits – before long the blackboard is filled with examples of variants and approximations to the archetype, that archetype that really only exists in the lumber room of said professors.

At the heart of the elegy is a structure of a relatively loosely defined pair of lines called the distich. The archetype of the chair has four legs, a seat and a back, as opposed to that of the milking stool, which is generally accepted to have only three legs and no back. The distich consists of two lines, the first of which is a hexameter – that is, it consists of six feet – the second of which is a pentameter – ditto with five feet. These feet are principally dactylic:
   — 'dum-da-da'. Here is the full distichon elegiacum in its purest classical form:

   |    |    |    |    |  
   |    |  ¦    |    |

Long syllables are marked in blue, short syllables in green. The character | represents the boundaries of the feet; the syllable at the end of the hexameter is marked in pink to indicate that it can be long or short. The broken bar in the middle of the pentameter marked in purple is the caesura, the break between the two long syllables. It is an important feature of the distich because it can be used to isolate the 'point' of the text, which concludes the preceding argument:
'dum-da-da|dum-da-da|dum ¦ dum-da-da|dum-da-da|dum'

Just as it is with the pure forms of the geometrical archetypes, it is very difficult to find the pure form of the distich in real texts; this is the case in Greek and Latin, even more so in German, in which poets are struggling to hammer real world language into antique models and even more so in English, in which all sensible writers have given up the struggle.

Let's not get bogged down with the precise analyis of tortured language. Even the great Goethe, after years of hacking around in antique verse forms, got fed up of it all.

He had consulted some of the renowned classicists of his time, above all Johann Heinrich Voß, the translator of Homer, on the metrical orthodoxy of the Römische Elegien and had made numerous small corrections. Voß was a pedant of the highest order, who led Goethe into a spider's web of metrical rules that he found increasingly irksome.

For the epigrammatic satires that Goethe and Schiller published in Schiller's Musenalmanach for 1797, they chose the form of the distich. Schiller even included a model for the distich intended as a memory aid. Unfortunately, the model is so difficult to scan in any conventional distich way that it has caused much head scratching ever since. Here it is:

Im Hex|ameter|steigt des|Springquells|silberne|Säule,
Im Pent|ameter|drauf ¦ fällt sie mel|odisch|herab.

In other words:

— ◡ | — ◡ ◡ | — ◡ | — ◡ | — ◡ ◡ | — ◡
— ◡ | — ◡ ◡ | — ¦ — ◡ ◡ | — ◡ ◡ | —

If we put this alongside the classical distich, we can see just how far the structure has had to be adapted to meet the exigencies of the German language, allowing a trochee (— ◡) to be substituted for a dactyl (— ◡ ◡).

   |    |    |    |    |  
   |    |  ¦    |    |

Finally, here is an example of the Goethe distich we analysed in Elegy VII:

Oftmals | hab ich | auch schon | in ihren | Ar men ged | ichtet
Und des Hex | ameters | Maß  ¦  leise mit | fingernder | Hand

It is possible to scan this distich in a number of ways, but this fact just demonstrates the flexibility which German poets needed for this verse form.

The treatment of the pentameter, with its marked caesura between the two long syllables, seems to be the defining point in the form of the distich. In comparison with Schiller's routine treatment – metrics without meaning – Goethe's handling of the caesura is masterful: the metre runs forward uneventfully over the unremarkable content (Und des Hexameters Maß) until it is suspended artfully on the very long 'a' in Maß; after this suspension the long leise catches us and we then run down the beats of the remarkable utterance (leise mit fingernder Hand), surprising and delighting the perceptive reader.

After few years of having to crowbar the natural language of which he was such a master into these antique forms, Goethe soon tired of these dry-as-dusts. Much later, in his seventies, Goethe revisited the topic in his Zahmen Xenien V, 'Gentle Satires', first printed in 1827.

Driving out much loved trochees [— ◡] from the line and replacing them with ponderous spondees [— —] until finally a line arises will always annoy me. Let the rhymes flow gently, let me enjoy the song and enjoy the glance that understands me!

Allerlieblichste Trochäen / Aus der Zeile zu vertreiben / Und schwerfälligste Spondeen / An die Stelle zu verleiben, / Bis zuletzt ein Vers entsteht, / Wird mich immerfort verdrießen. / Laß die Reime lieblich fließen, / Laß mich des Gesangs genießen / Und des Blicks, der mich versteht!
Zahme Xenien V

During the same period Goethe wrote one of the jewels of his late work, the Trilogie der Leidenschaft. In the centre of that trilogy we find a poem he titled simply as Elegie. It is sometimes known as the Marienbader Elegie. We mentioned it in connection with Goethe's late flowering lust. Despite its title, the poem shows no trace of any sort of distich, the stanzas are rhymed (a-b-a-b-c-c). The mood of the poem, however, corresponds to the modern usage of 'elegiac'. The experiment with distichs that so characterised the Weimarer Klassik has been concluded.

The Italian tour 1786-1788, timeline

Year Month Date Place Notes
1786 September 03 Karlsbad  
    06 Munich  
    07 Mittenwald  
    08 Brenner Pass  
    10-11 Trento Touring Italy
    12-13 Torbole  
    14 Malcesine  
    16-17 Verona  
    19-25 Vicenza  
    26-27 Padua  
    28… Venice  
  October …14 Venice  
    16 Ferrara  
    17 Cento  
    18 Bologna  
    21 Loiano  
    22 Giredo ????  
    25 Perugia  
    27 Terni  
    28 Civita Castellana  
    29 Rome First stay in Rome [c. 3½ months]
Arrives, stays at Locando dell'Orso.
  November 01 Rome Moves in with Tischbein, Casa Moscatelli, Via del Corso 18-20.
  December Rome  
1787 January Rome Dalliance with Costanza Roesler [c. 1 month]?
  February …21 Rome Departs for Naples
    22 Velletri  
    23 Fondi  
    24 Sant'Agata  
    25… Naples First stay in Naples [c. 1 month].
  March …26 Naples During this time G. fell out with Tischbein. Travelled alone for the rest of the journey.
    29 Sea journey  
  April 02 Sea journey  
    02-17 Palermo Touring Sicily [c. 1½ months]
    18-19 Alcamo  
    20 Segesta  
    21 Castelvetrano  
    22 Sciacca  
    23-27 Agrigento  
    28 Caltanissetta  
    28… Travelling  
  May …01 Travelling  
    02-06 Catania  
    07-08 Taormina  
    08-09 Sea journey  
    10-13 Messina  
    13-16 Sea journey  
    17… Naples Second stay in Naples [c. 3 weeks]
  June …03 Naples  
    04-07 Travelling  
    08… Rome Second stay in Rome [c. 11 months]
Tischbein is already back in Rome; G. returns to his former room.
  July 02 Rome G. takes over Tischbein's large room.
  August 07 Rome Costanza Roesler marries.
  September Rome  
  October Rome Dalliance with Maddalena Riggi?
  November Rome  
  December Rome Begins affair with 'Faustine'
1788 January Rome  
  February Rome  
  March Rome  
  April …24 Rome Ends affair with Faustine;
G. leaves Rome
    27 Sienna  
    29… Florence  
  May …11 Florence  
    12-21 Bologna  
    22-27 Milan  
    28 Como  
    29… Chiavenna  
  June …02 Splügen, Chur  
    03-10 Konstanz Hotel Adler. Barbara Schulthess
    13-16 Nürnberg  
    18 Weimar  
  July 13 Weimar Meets Christiane Vulpius

Index to the elegies

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