In 1823 Johann Peter Eckermann, aged thirty-one, became Goethe’s secretary, and began to note the old man’s conversation for posterity. The resultant Gespräche mit Goethe (three volumes, 1836-48)—partly revised by Goethe—contains more wisdom than is to be found in most philosophers.
In September, 1825, Weimar celebrated the semicentennial of Karl August’s accession. Goethe attended the ceremony. The Duke grasped his hand, and murmured to him, “Together to the last breath.”95 On November 7 the court celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Goethe’s coming to Weimar, and the Duke sent him a letter which was also’made a public proclamation:
With profound pleasure I would mark the fiftieth return of this day as the jubilee not only of the premier servant of my state but of the friend of my youth, who has accompanied me through all the mutability of life with unchanged affection, loyalty, and steadfastness. I owe the happy outcome of my most important undertakings to his circumspect counsel, his ever-living sympathy and beneficent service. To have attached him permanently to myself I regard as one of the highest ornaments of my reign.96
Now came those sadly aging years when friend after friend disappears. On August 26, 1826, two days before Goethe’s seventy-seventh birthday, Charlotte von Stein, eighty-four years old, sent her last known letter to her lover of half a century before: “All my best wishes and blessings on this day. May the guardian angels in the heavenly parliament command that all that is good or beautiful be granted to you, my very dear friend. I continue to remain yours in hope and without fear, while I beg of you for myself your freely given kindness during the brief span that remains to me.”97 She died on January 6, 1827. Hearing of it, Goethe wept. On June 15, 1828, the Duke died, and Weimar knew that its golden age was ending. Goethe prepared for his turn by working feverishly onFaust. But he was not next in line. His only surviving child, August, after forty years of failure, twenty of dissipation, died in Rome, October 27, 1830. A post-mortem showed a liver five times the normal size. When the news was brought to Goethe he said,“Non ignoravi me mortalem genuisse—I was not unaware that I had begotten a mortal.”98 “I tried to absorb myself in work,” he wrote; “I forced myself to continue Volume IV of Poetry and Truth.”99
At eighty he began to narrow his interests. In 1829 he stopped reading newspapers. “I can’t begin to tell you,” he wrote to Zelter, “the time I have gained, and the things I have accomplished, during the six weeks that I have left all French and German papers unopened.”100 “Fortunate is he whose world lies in his home.”101 He enjoyed love and care from August’s widow, Ottilie, and he took delight in her children. Sometimes, however, he withdrew even from them, and sought full privacy, praising solitude as the nurse and test of a well-furnished mind.
His face now showed its eighty years: deep wrinkles across the forehead and around the mouth; silver hair receding; eyes quiet and wondering; but his stature was erect and his health was good. He prided himself on having avoided coffee and tobacco, both of which he condemned as poisons. He was vain of his looks and his books, honestly relished praise, gave it frugally. When, in 1830, a young poet sent him a volume of verse, Goethe acknowledged it caustically: “I have glanced through your little book. Since, however, in an epidemic of cholera, one must protect oneself against weakening influences, I have laid it aside.”102 Mediocrity offended him. He grew more and more irritable as the years threw him back into himself, and he admitted as much: “Everyone who, judging by my work, considered me amiable, found himself greatly deceived when he came in contact with a man of coldness and reserve.”103 Visitors described him as slow to thaw, a bit formal and stiff, perhaps out of embarrassment, or grudging time taken from his tasks. Yet many of his letters show tenderness and consideration.
He was now famous throughout Europe. Carlyle acclaimed him, long before Goethe’s death, as one of the great figures in world literature. Byron dedicated Werner to him; Berlioz dedicated The Damnation of Faust to “Monseigneur Goethe”; kings sent him gifts. But in Germany his reading public was small, the critics were hostile, his rivals belittled him as a pompous councilor affecting to be a poet and a scientist. Lessing condemned Götz and Werther as romantic trash; Klopstock scorned Hermann und Dorotheaas commonplace, and Iphigenie as a “stiff” imitation of the Greeks. Goethe reacted with repeated expressions of contempt for Germany—for its climate, scenery, history, language, and mind. He complained that he had “to write in German, and thereby … squandered life and art on the worst material.”104 He told his friends that “these fools of Germans” had quite deserved their defeat by Napoleon at Jena,105 and Germany had the laugh on him when the allies overcame Bonaparte at Waterloo.
Detached from the main (Romantic) stream of literature in his old age, he consoled himself with deepened contempt of the world and man. “Viewed from the heights of reason, all life looks like some malignant disease, and the world like a madhouse.”106 “A few days ago,” he wrote to Zelter on March 26, 1816, “I came upon a copy of the first edition of Werther, and that long-silenced song began to rise again. It was hard for me to understand how a man could endure the world for forty years when he had seen its absurdity even in his youth.”107 And he looked for no substantial betterment in the future. “Men exist only to trouble and kill one another; so was it, so is it, so will it ever be.”108 Like most of us after sixty, he thought that the new generation was degenerate. “The incredible arrogance in which the young are growing up will show its results in a few years in the greatest follies. … Yet much is stirring that in after years may be cause for rejoicing.”109
On March 15, 1832, he caught a cold while out driving. On the eighteenth he seemed recovered, but on the twentieth the infection had sunk into his chest, catarrhal fever consumed him, and his face was distorted with pain. On the twenty-second he noted that spring had begun; “perhaps this will help me to get well.” The room had been darkened to ease his eyes; he protested, “Let in more light.” Still oppressed by the gloom, he ordered his valet, “Open the blind of the other window, so that more light may come in.” These were apparently his last words. He had asked Ottilie, “Little woman, give me your little paw.” He died in her arms and holding her hand, at noon, March 22, 1832, aged eighty-two years and seven months.110
Eckermann saw the corpse on the next day.
The body lay naked, wrapped only in a white sheet. … The valet drew aside the sheet, and I was astonished at the godlike magnificence of the limbs. The breast was powerful, broad, and arched; the arms and thighs were full, and softly muscular; the feet were elegant, and of the most perfect shape; nowhere on the whole body was there a trace either of fat or of leanness or decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture which the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left this abode.111
So ended a great age, from Frederick’s somber triumph in 1763 through Lessing and Kant, Wieland and Herder, to Schiller and Goethe. Not since Luther had the German mind been so active, so various, so rich in independent thought. It was no disaster for Germany that it was not an expanding empire like Britain’s, absorbed in conquest and trade; nor a centralized monarchy like the French, falling apart through the failure of government; nor a despotism like Russia’s, gorging itself with land or stupefying itself with holy water. Politically, Germany was not yet born, but in literature she was challenging, and in philosophy she was leading, the Western world.