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A multi-talented genius

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In the history of literature and scholarship, we come across many versatile geniuses. In this article, we will talk about Germany’s most revered writer. Johann Walfgang Von Goethe, pronounced Goofy (1749-1832), poet, dramatist, scientist, music critic and philosopher, was born to an effluent family in the Frankfurt am-main but from 1775 till his death, he lived mostly in Weimar.

In 1765, he entered the University of Leipzig to study law although he only briefly practised it. As a pioneer of the discipline of self-conscious, later Goethe said all his works were fragments of a great confession. It was his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff that inspired his first novelette The Sorrows of Young Werther. This autobiographical fiction brought Goethe fame all over Europe. It was on the basis of this novel that Goethe advised budding writers to start with short pieces. His advice may have appealed to the great Russian novelist and author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. Before writing this bulky book, Tolstoy produced novelettes such as Childhood, The Cassacks and many more.

Goethe’s best remembered work is a play in verse titled Faust but the range of his interests was wide. There was no art to which he was indifferent. He was a competent draftsman, painter and a keen music critic. Even after retiring from his administration duties in Weimar, he continued directing the state theatre company for 20 years.

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Goethe did not travel much out of Germany. But he went to Italy in 1986 and after visiting several cities, he settled in Rome where he remained till 1788. Several reasons have been given for his going to Italy. It is said he had got wearied of court life in Weimar, his friendship with Charlotte von Stein had began to pall and above all he had outgrown part of his viewpoint and felt the need of fresh perspectives upon which to base his future writings.

While in Rome, he studied art, architecture and literature of ancient Greece and Rome and those Renaissance works which had been influenced by the ancients.

The American writer Catherine Drinker Bown in her book Bography says: “If the energy and originality of genius startles people, so does the phenomenon of their abundance. Lesser talents produce sparely though their production may be exquisite. But your true genius produces in shoals, in barrelfields shelvesful with the level of quality rising and falling as witness, Dickens Thackeray, Tolstoy Beethouvem.”

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She should have added Johann Goethe and French writers Alezander Dumas and Voltaire.

The last years of his life produced strong works such as Wilhelm Meiser and Faust Part Two. As a playwright, he is no equal of England’s Shakespeare nor as a novelist is he an equal of Russia’s Tolstoy. But some of the things he said revealed his philosophy of life that commands attention.

His nine keys to contentment: health enough to make a pleasure, wealth enough to support your needs, strength enough to battle with difficulties and overcome them, grace enough to confess your sins and forsaken them, patience enough to toil until some good is accomplished, charity enough to see some good in your neighbor, love enough to move you to be useful and helpful to others, faith enough to make real things of God and hope enough to remove all anxious fears concerning the future.

Goethe’s aphorisms: when one is polite in German, one lies; one is ever satisfied with the portrait of a person one knows; man was not born to solve the problems of the universe but to put his fingers on the problem and to keep within the limits of the comprehension; the first and last thing required of genius is love of truth; law alone can give us freedom; the deed is everything, fame is nothing; divide and rule is a capital motto, unite and lead a better one; and who does nothing for others does nothing for himself.

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