22 February 2012

Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther

Last night I finished reading Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. It had been on my bedside reading table for ages. Well, it was just as heavy as I had anticipated it would be.

It's interesting that, as his literary career progressed, Goethe had distanced himself from the Sorrows of Young Werther, and that towards the end of his life,  he was saddened to find that the many of those who  came to visit him as an old man had only ever read his Werther.

Werthe had catapulted Goethe to fame at the age of 24 and had made him one of the world's first international literary celebrities. As a literary work, it heralded the "Sturm und Drang" movement, and influenced the later Romantic literary movement.

It was also responsible for a lot of young people going about with an air of romantic yearning and sporting blue jackets like the novel's hero, and, alas, tragically copying his suicide. On that score, I was alarmed at the young Goethe's approach to this subject matter and his apparently cavalier attitude to his hero, and at how graphically he describes Werther's end. It's an utterly ruthless portrayal of youth suicide, but one has to remember, it's also a portrayal of his own very emotional torment as a young man in love with someone who would never be his.

The novel includes a long passage where Goethe translates a portion of James Macpherson's Ossian cycle of poems (which were originally presented as translations of ancient works, but were later found to have been written by Macpherson himself, according to Wikipedia).

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