To the English speaking world, Shakespeare is known as the greatest playwright of his age. Little is known of his life, his loves or his religious beliefs. It is even argued that it was not Shakespeare who penned the works himself. Shakespeare is a mysterious literary figure, unlike Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Goethe is Germany’s most celebrated writer. Almost every aspect of is life is known, an enigma he is not. Born in 1749, Goethe is the representative of the Romantic era. He was not only a playwright but also a poet, scientist, statesman, artist and theatre director. He is Germany’s greatest literary figure.
Much of his most famous work was influenced by his own experience. In his most famous early work, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, the central theme of suicide reflected Goethe’s own early thoughts on the act. He had found himself embroiled in a love triangle which led him to think of suicide. The tale of Werther served as a warning on the tragedy of self-centred suicide. As soon as it was published it became a hit which sparked a fashion trend and more sadly a spate of suicides. Goethe began his literary career with a fame which only grew and has persisted ever since.
His most famous play is ‘Faust‘. It stands as the most famous epic poem since Milton and is as well-regarded within the literary world as Dante’s ‘Inferno’.
The two-part play sees the main protagonist, Faust, on a metaphysical quest. Dissatisfied with the limits of his own humanity, Faust accepts a deal with the devil.
Faust despairs of his inability to attain an understanding of higher knowledge and contemplates suicide. It is at this point that Goethe’s most well-known and most recited poem appears. In terms of the play, the events which occur in the poem essentially save Faust. He goes for an Easter Walk, Osterspaziergang, with a fellow scholar. By walking outside in nature and watching the joy of the peasants, Faust intensively feels the beginning of Easter which he now understands on a more personal level as a rebirth.
The poem is learnt by heart by most German school children and is referred to as ‘An Easter Walk’. It speaks of the spring and is regarded as a celebratory poem about rebirth. It is a tradition for many Germans to go out for a walk around Easter Time and enjoy the first warm rays of the sun in open nature.
At the very end of the play, the devil believes that Faust’s soul is his, however, angels intercede and Faust is reborn into heaven.
The rhythm is lost slightly in the translation from German to English yet it is still quite beautiful.
Shakespeare may have Denmark, but Germany and Easter will always belong to Goethe.
Outside of the Gate
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I)
From the ice they are freed, the stream and brook,
By the Spring’s enlivening, lovely look;
The valley’s green with joys of hope;
The Winter old and weak ascends
back to the rugged mountain slope.
From there, as he flees, he downward sends
An impotent shower of icy hail
Streaking over the verdant vale.
Ah! but the Sun will suffer no white,
Growth and formation stir everywhere,
‘Twould fain with colours make all things bright,
Though in the landscape are no blossoms fair.
Instead it takes gay-decked humanity.
Now turn around and from this height,
Looking backward, townward see.
Forth from the cave-like, gloomy gate
Crowds a motley and swarming array.
Everyone suns himself gladly today.
The Risen Lord they celebrate,
For they themselves have now arisen
From lowly houses’ mustiness,
From handicraft’s and factory’s prison,
From the roof and gables that oppress,
From the by streets’ crushing narrowness,
From the churches’ venerable night,
They are all brought out into light.
See, only see, how quickly the masses
Scatter through gardens and fields remote;
How down and across the river passes
So many a merry pleasure-boat.
And over-laden, almost sinking,
The last full wherry moves away.
From yonder hill’s far pathways blinking,
Flash to us colours of garments gay.
Hark! Sounds of village joy arise;
Here is the people’s paradise,
Contented, great and small shout joyfully:
“Here I am Man, here dare it to be!”
translation by Edgar Alfred Bowring, 1853