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Born in Frankfurt, Germany, on August 28, 1749, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was tutored extensively in languages as a child. Goethe’s father, a lawyer, prioritized his son’s education, enabling him to engage in many literary and cultural pursuits. Goethe was fascinated by writers such as Homer and Ovid, and committed whole passages of these texts to heart.
Goethe’s love for poetry persisted through his legal training, and he anonymously released Annette, his first collection of poems, in 1770. By the time he completed his studies, he had composed a satirical crime comedy, fallen in love with folk poetry, and developed a deep affinity for Shakespeare, the figure responsible for what he termed his “personal awakening.”
Throughout the 1770s, Goethe practiced a unique, progressive version of law across Germany, while maintaining a side career as an editor, playwright, and poet. He wrote his first widely-read novel, the loosely-autobiographical, joyfully-romantic tragedy, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in 1774, at the age of twenty-four. The book was an instant international success. Napoleon Bonaparte called it one of the greatest works of European Literature. It sparked the phenomenon “Werther-Fieber” (“Werther Fever”), in which young men throughout Europe began dressing like the tragic protagonist, and brought Goethe to the court of Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, where he would become an important advisor. In later years, Goethe expressed his disgust with the novel and the romantic genre out of which it emerged; however, its effect on Goethe’s career and public image were undeniable.
Goethe met the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller in 1794, beginning a collaborative relationship that would result in a creative success for both artists. The two transformed the Weimar Theatre into a national treasure, and their cumulative writings form the heart of German literature, having also been adapted by many composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Goethe wrote extensively during this period, including his Roman Elegies, a seductive twenty-four-poem cycle about his trip to Italy, but it was not until after Schiller’s death in 1805 that he produced his most famous work, Faust, about a duel with the devil in the search for transcendent knowledge. The epic poem-as-play has been adapted into an opera and is still performed throughout the world.
Despite his success and influence as a poet, Goethe expressed that he took no pride in his literary accomplishments, and believed instead that his work as a philosopher and scientist—in particular his theories about color—would be his true legacy. However, his writings—emotive, far-reaching, prophetic, and formal—stimulated generations of Western literature and thought. Randall Jarrell, who translated Faust from his poet laureate’s office at the Library of Congress, called him his “own favorite daemon, dear good great Goethe.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, deeply influenced by Goethe’s merging of science and art, called Goethe the “surpassing intellect of modern times,” and said of his life:
Such was his capacity, that the magazines of the world’s ancient or modern wealth, which arts and intercourse and skepticism could command,—he wanted them all. Had there been twice so much, he could have used it as well. Geologist, mechanic, merchant, chemist, king, radical, painter, composer,—all worked for him, and a thousand men seemed to look through his eyes. He learned as readily as other men breathe. Of all the men of this time, not one has seemed so much at home in it as he. He was not afraid to live.
Goethe died in Weimar on March 22, 1832. He is buried in the Ducal Vault at Weimar’s Historical Cemetery.