Goethe did not accept Napoleon’s invitation to move to Paris or to write about Caesar; he had long nurtured in his mind and his manuscripts a subject that moved him more deeply than even the most majestic political career: the struggle of the soul toward understanding and beauty, the defeat of the soul by the brevity of beauty and the elusiveness of truth, and the peace obtainable by the soul through narrowing the goal and broadening the self. But how to vision all this in a modern parable and dramatic form? For fifty-eight years Goethe tried.
He had learned the story of Faust7 in his childhood through chapbooks and puppet shows, and he had seen pictures of Faust and the Devil on the walls of Auerbach’s cellar in Leipzig. He himself, in youth, had meddled with magic and alchemy. His own restless search for understanding went into his conception of Faust; his reading of Voltaire and his contact with Herder’s sarcasms went into Mephistopheles; the Gretchen whom he had loved in Frankfurt, and the Friederike Brion whom he had deserted in Sesenheim, gave name and form to Margaret.
How deeply the story of Faust moved Goethe, how varied the forms it took in his thought, shows in the fact that he began to write the play in 1773, and did not finish it till 1831. Of his meeting with Herder in 1771 he wrote in his autobiography:
I most carefully concealed from him my interest in certain subjects which had rooted themselves in me, and were, little by little, molding themselves into poetic form. These were Götz von Berlichingen and Faust. … The significant puppet show of the latter resounded and vibrated, many-toned, within me. I too had wandered about in all sorts of science, and had early enough been led to see its vanity. I had, moreover, tried all sorts of ways in real life, and had always returned unsatisfied and troubled. Now these things, as well as many others, I carried about with me, and delighted myself with them in solitary hours, but without writing anything down.8
On September 17, 1775, he told a correspondent: “I felt fresh this morning, and wrote a scene of my Faust.”9 Later in that month Johann Zimmermann asked him how the play was progressing. “He brought in a bag filled with a thousand fragments of paper, and threw it on the table. ‘There,’ he said, ‘is my Faust? ”10 When he went to Weimar (November, 1775) the first form of the drama was complete.11 Dissatisfied with it, he put it aside; this Urfaust, or Original Faust, never reached print till 1887, when a manuscript copy made by Fräulein von Göchhausen was found in Weimar.12 Through fifteen more years he revised and expanded it. Finally he published it (1790) as Faust, ein Fragment, which now runs to sixty-three pages;13 this was the first printed form of the most famous play since Hamlet.
Still discontent with it, Goethe dropped the theme till 1797. On June 22 he wrote to Schiller: “I have determined to take up my Faust again, … breaking up what has been printed, arranging it in large masses, … and further preparing the development.... I only wish that you would be so good as to think the matter over on one of your sleepless nights, and tell me what you would demand of the whole, and to interpret my dreams to me like a true prophet.” Schiller replied the next day: “The duality of human nature, and the unsuccessful endeavor to unite in man the godlike and the physical, is never lost sight of. … The nature of the subject will force you to treat it philosophically, and the imagination will have to accommodate itself to serve a rational idea.” Goethe’s imagination was too rich, his vividly remembered experiences too many; he inserted many of them into the Fragment, doubling its size, and in 1808 he gave the world what we now call Faust, Part I.
Before letting his puppet say a word, he prefixed to the drama a tender Zueignung— dedication—to his dead friends; and a droll “Prologue in the Theater” between manager, playwright, and jester; and a “Prologue in Heaven” wherein God bets Mephistopheles that Faust cannot be permanently won to sin. Then at last Faust speaks, in simplest doggerel:
Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie
Durchaus studiert, mit heissem Bemü hn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.
Heisse Magister, heisse Doktor gar,
Und ziehe schon an die zehen Jahr
Herauf, herab, und quer und krumm
Meine Schüler an der Nase herum,
Und sehe dass wir nichts wissen kön-nen.
I have studied, alas, philosophy,
Jurisprudence, and medicine too,
And, saddest of all, theology,
With ardent labor, through and through.
And here I stick, as wise, poor fool,
As when my steps first turned to school.
Master they style me, nay, Doctor forsooth,
And nigh ten years, over rough and smooth
And up and down, and acrook and across,
I lead my pupils by the nose,
And know that in truth we can know naught.14
This four-foot meter, handed down from Hans Sachs’s playlets, proved to be just the rippling rhythm for a drama that chastened philosophy with fun.
Faust, of course, is Goethe, even to being a man of sixty years; and, like Goethe, he was still, at sixty, thrilled by feminine loveliness and grace. His double aspiration for wisdom and beauty was the soul of Goethe; it challenged the avenging gods by its presumption, but it was noble. Faust and Goethe said Yea to life, spiritual and sensual, philosophical and gay. By contrast, Mephistopheles (who is not Satan but only Satan’s philosopher) is the devil of denial and doubt, to whom all aspiration is nonsense, all beauty a skeleton wearing skin. In many moments Goethe was this mocking spirit too, or he could not have given him such wit and life. At times Mephistopheles seems to be the voice of experience, of realism and reason checking the romantic desires and delusions of Faust; indeed, Goethe told Eckermann, “the character of Mephistopheles is … a living result of an extensive acquaintance with the world.”15
Faust does not sell his soul unconditionally; he agrees to go to hell only if Mephistopheles shows him a pleasure so durably satisfying that he will be glad to stay with it forever:
If ever on the bed of sloth I loll contented ever,
Then with that moment end my race! . . .
Should I to any moment say,
“Tarry a while, you are so fair!”*
Then may you into fetters cast me;
Then will I gladly go down there.
On this condition Faust signs the compact with his blood, and cries recklessly, “Our glowing passions in a sensual sea now will we quench!”16
So Mephistopheles takes him to Margaret—“Gretchen.” Faust finds in her all the charm of that simplicity which departs with knowledge and returns with wisdom. He woos her with jewels and philosophy:
Tell me, how is’t with thy religion, pray?
Enough, dear child! I love thee, thou dost feel.
That is not right! We must believe! . . .
What man can say, my dearest,
Then thou believest not?
Thou winsome angel-face, mishear me not!
It seemeth fair in these words of thine,
She is moved not by his cloudy pantheism but by the fine figure and raiment with which Mephistopheles’ magic has endowed his restored youth. She sings at her spinning wheel a song of wistful longing:
Meine Ruh ist hin,
Mein Herz ist schiver,
Ich finde sie nimmer
Und nimmermehr. . . .
Nach ihm nur schau ich
Zum Fenster binaus,
Nach ihm nur geh ich
Aus dem Haus.
Sein hoher Gang,
Sein’ edle Gestalt,
Seines Mundes Lächeln,
My peace is fled,
My heart is sore,
I shall find it never,
And nevermore. . . .
Him only I watch for,
The window near;
Him only I look for
When forth I fare.
His lofty gait,
His lordly guise,
The smile of his lips,
Seiner Augen Gewalt. . . .
Mein Busen drängt
Sich nach ihm hin.
Ach, dürft ich fassen
Und halten ihn,
Und küssen ihn,
So wie ich wollt,
An seinen Küssen
The might of his eyes. . . .
My bosom yearns
For him, for him.
Ah, could I clasp him
And cling to him,
And kiss him, as fain
I would, then I,
Faint with his kisses,
Should swoon and die!18
All the Western world knows the rest of the story, if only through Gounod. Margaret, in order to kiss and swoon unchaperoned, gives her mother a sleeping potion, from which the mother never wakes. Faust kills Margaret’s brother Valentine in a duel, and then disappears; Margaret, in shame and grief, kills her fatherless child; she is arrested and condemned to death. Faust visits her in her dungeon and begs her to escape with him; she embraces him, but refuses to leave her cell. Mephistopheles draws Faust away, while a voice from heaven cries, “She is redeemed.”
Only slowly did the reading public realize that this Faust of 1808 was the finest drama and the finest poetry that Germany had yet produced. But some alert few recognized it at once as fit to stand among the peaks of the world’s literature. Friedrich Schlegel compared Goethe with Dante, Jean Paul Richter equaled him with Shakespeare; Wieland gave him in the realm of poetry the same sovereignty that Napoleon then held in government and war.19