BY THE TIME HE WAS 25 he had written the most successful novel in Europe's history, The Sorrows of Werther, and his suicidal young hero set off an emulatory wave of youthful self-destruction from Vienna to Paris. By the time he was 30, he was all but running a small state. Long before his death in 1832, at the age of 83, he had become a one-man European cultural institution. Today Johann Wolfgang Goethe still is ranked with Homer, Dante and Shakespeare as one of the four great writers of all time. But in Britain and the U.S. he is also one of the most widely unread. The difficulty lies not only in Goethe himself, but in his translators; awed by the intricacy of Goethe's thought, and incapable of reproducing his felicities, they have often seemed to make the translation seem more ponderously German than the original.
A longtime Goethe fan, Poet W. H. Auden is neither awed nor incapable. In attempts to make the formidable German more accessible, Auden and his collaborator, Elizabeth Mayer, have bypassed the nacreous brilliance of Goethe's complex imagery and the Gluhwein dark of such things as Faust, Part II. Instead they settled on Goethe's prose journal of his 20-month trip to Italy in 1786. Ostensibly, the book is a readable travelogue in the "dawn found us at the Apennines" tradition. But it is also an account of the most decisive period of Goethe's life, when his thought took final shape.
Spins & Raves. Despite his position as resident brain-truster for the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Goethe was still a deeply disordered man. He had recovered from a near nervous breakdown, apparently brought on by an early wallow in romantic agonizing in which he alternately "melted and raved" like his hero Werther. The routine of official duties had steadied him. He had studied science and accepted the soothing ministrations (thought to be platonic) of an older woman named Charlotte von Stein. But she had encouraged him to write only fanciful verse that had nothing to do with life or the natural world he was exploring in his scientific studies. He had started dozens of other manuscripts, and seemed unable to finish many of them satisfactorily. He was what the Germans call a Schwindelkopf (spinning head), hopelessly shifting from one thing to another. Abruptly, one day in 1786, he left for Italy with hardly a word of explanation. The trip was a sharp break with Charlotte. More than that, it was the quest of a confused northern Germanic soul for the sunshine of classic order.
"Spiky Little Towers." Goethe at first chats away like any tourist. There is no outhouse at one inn. The ruins of Herculaneum are a mess, and should have been "excavated methodically by German miners instead of being casually ransacked as if by brigands." He relates a meeting with Emily Hart, the 22-year-old protegee of Quinquagenarian Sir William Hamilton, then English ambassador to Naples. Emily, who later became Lady Hamilton, and still later helped Nelson win the Battle of Trafalgar, used to sashay around her villa swathed in clinging Greek robes. "Our fair entertainer seems to me, frankly, a dull creature," Goethe reports, adding judicially, "Perhaps her figure makes up for it."
But as the book progresses, Goethe manages to convey the infectious zeal of a universal thinker hell-bent on storing up enough images, memories and ideas for a lifetime. He scribbles away with new energy on half a dozen plays and operettas, and plunges into the study of Greco-Roman art and sculpture. "How different all this is from our Gothic style . . . our pillars which look like tobacco pipes, our spiky little towers . . . Thank God I am done with all that junk." Eventually this feverish emotional spinning steadies to serenity. Goethe has discovered the hearts-balm of a unifying theory. "Masterpieces of man were brought forth." he declares, "in obedience to the same laws as the masterpieces of Nature."
It had a fine Teutonic ring. Returning to Weimar, Goethe elaborated it into a kind of all-purpose organic principle: all things are subordinated to and participate in a perceivable cosmic order that he called "form." There was form in life, in art, in writing, in society, in man himself. Goethe began to apply this sense of pattern and purpose in all directions. In science he produced a theory of plant evolution which predated Darwin's. Incomplete works which he had started before the Italian trip, clusters of poems, plays like Iphigenie and Wilhelm Meister, now took permanent shape in his mind and on paper. So. slowly, did Faust, the massive play-poem that attempts to recreate the entire spiritual history of Western man. Along with all this, Goethe, unhappily, became one of the world's great bores—pouring forth upon the German people such a mass of didactic dogma on everything from political theory to women's corsets that for nearly a century hardly anybody dared to clear his throat without first finding pithy precedent in Goethe.