The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume 01 Masterpieces of German Literature Translated into English.

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Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University

Goethe, the illustrious poet-sage whom Matthew Arnold called the "clearest, largest, and most helpful thinker of modern times," was born August 28, 1749, at Frankfurt on the Main.[2] He was christened Johann Wolfgang. In his early years his familiar name was Wolfgang, or simply Wolf, never Johann. His family was of the middle class, the aristocratic von which sometimes appears in his name, in accordance with German custom, having come to him with a patent of nobility which he received in the year 1782.

Johann Caspar Goethe, the poet's father, was the son of a prosperous tailor, who was also a tailor's son. Having abundant means and being of an ambitious turn, Johann Caspar prepared himself for the profession of law, spent some time in Italy, and then settled in Frankfurt in the hope of rising to distinction in the public service. Disappointed in this hope, he procured the imperial title of Councilor, which gave him a dignified social status but nothing in particular to do. He thus became virtually a gentleman of leisure, since his law practise was quite insignificant. In 1748 he married Katharina Elisabeth Textor, whose father, Johann Wolfgang Textor, was the town's chief magistrate and most eminent citizen. She was eighteen years old at the time of her marriage—twenty years younger than her husband—and well fitted to become a poet's mother. The gift on which she especially prided herself was her story-telling. Wolfgang was the first child of these parents.

The paternal strain in Goethe's blood made for level-headedness, precise and methodical ways, a serious view of life, and a desire to make the most of it. By his mother he was a poet who liked nothing else so well as to invent dream-worlds and commune with the spirits of his imagination. He also ascribes to his mother his Frohnatur, his joyous nature. And certain it is that his temperament was on the whole sunny. As he grew to manhood men and women alike were charmed by him. He became a virtuoso in love and had a genius for friendship. But he was not always cheerful. In his youth, particularly, he was often moody and given to brooding over indefinable woes. He suffered acutely at times from what is now called the melancholia of adolescence. This was a phase of that emotional sensitiveness and nervous instability which are nearly always a part of the poet's dower.

Wolfgang grew up in a wholesome atmosphere of comfort and refinement. He never knew the tonic bitterness of poverty. On the other hand, he was never spoiled by his advantages; to his dying day he disliked luxury. At home under private tutors the boy studied Latin, French, and English, and picked up a little Italian by overhearing his sister's lessons. In 1758 Frankfurt was occupied by a French army, and a French playhouse was set going for the diversion of the officers. In the interest of his French Wolfgang was allowed to go to the theatre, and he made such rapid progress that he was soon studying the dramatic unities as expounded by Corneille and actually trying to write a French play....