Letters from Wetzlar

Posted on 9th December 2020 by simonbeattie

The preface to this little book from 1821, by Major James Bell of the East York Militia, reads: ‘The Letters which I am about to lay before the public, form all together but one small leaf in the history of literature; but it is a leaf which relates to the leading era in the life of a man, whose fame as one of the first poets of Germany has long been established.  It relates also to a work which has excited, and which continues to inspire, a more than ordinary degree of interest in the bosoms of all ardent admirers of elegant literature …’

He refers, of course, to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774). Two episodes in Goethe’s own life served as source material for the plot of his seminal novel: an unrealizable affection for a bride-to-be of his acquaintance in 1772, two years after which he fell for the recently married Maximiliane Brentano (daughter of the writer Sophie von La Roche).  ‘In addition to the two congruent amorous events from his own life, a third complex, psychologically and aesthetically crucial, exerted a ghostly influence on [his writing].  On November 2, 1772, Goethe received a letter which related in detail the circumstances surrounding the suicide four days previously of the young assessor Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, a somewhat directionless man of literary aspirations, who was hopelessly in love with a married woman …  In his autobiographical recollections, Goethe employs two contradictory metaphors to capture the effect of Jerusalem’s suicide on the compositional process.  The similarity between Jerusalem’s situation and his own impelled him to “breathe into the work … that glowing fire that allows for no distinction between the poetic and the real.”  Jerusalem’s tragic death suddenly crystallized the entire arrangement of the novel in his mind, much as “water in a vessel that stands just at the freezing point is transformed, at the slightest perturbation, into solid ice”’ (A New History of German Literature, Belknap Harvard, p. 388).

For more details on this, and other books on Anglo-German Cultural Relations, please see my 10th-anniversary catalogue.

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