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Goethe's artistic career was often troubled by the public's unwillingness to accept his art as art, and by what he felt as an indecorous search for the connection between what he wrote and his life. In one of the "Erotica Romana" we find him railing so viciously at his readership that he preferred to revise the elegy before making it public (IV--it is left unchanged in this translation, which hews to the manuscript). The outburst has to do with his early novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), whose hero and heroine the public eagerly sought in "real life." Goethe was long identified with that popular work and no doubt plagued by many a query which, he felt, distracted from the artistic issues.
But a curious public should not have to bear all the blame: Goethe's writings are among the most unabashedly autobiographical in world literature. They are so frank and utterly open as to carry well beyond the reality of objective events into the much more intimately real imaginative world. That may be why Goethe chose a word with mystical, religious overtones when he called all his writings "fragments of a great confession"--this from an autobiography thoughtfully entitled Poetry and Truth. Virtually everything he wrote, all of his poems and novels and dramas, are fairly conscious self-revelation, a mysterious blend of external and imaginative reality. What wonder if several generations of readers have been tempted to separate the two?
But with the so-called Roman Elegies it is probably impossible to discover just where they may render people or places with accuracy, or how far the fantasies are removed from events. The question can be stated in a much cruder way, and it usually is: During Goethe's stay in Rome (1786-88), an unmarried man in his late thirties, did he take a mistress, or do the Roman Elegies merely throw out a pleasant fiction of what might have been? Scholars (being scholars) have generally looked at the problem exactly that way and argued on one side or the other of an imponderable question.
The uncertain boundary between "poetry and truth" had made the reception of the Roman Elegies difficult for Goethe's contemporaries, too. Entirely apart from their friend's actual carryings-on in Rome (or elsewhere), the good people of Weimar just could not reconcile themselves to such a display of sensual experience, be it real or imagined, in this open, pagan and positive tone. The best example of such dissonance came out in Goethe's old pal and liege lord, Carl August Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Himself a notorious philanderer who often urged Goethe to indulge in casual liaisons, the Duke was just scandalized when Goethe allowed a part of his manuscript "Erotica Romana" to be published simply as "Elegien" in Friedrich Schiller's Die Horen, 1795.
Actually, Goethe had already suppressed two of them (III and XVII), and probably never even thought of publishing the two pieces which present obscene little Priapus, apparently as prologue and epilogue. I integrate these four elegies here, for the first time in the entire publication history of the cycle. Both the withholding of some of the poems and the very writing of the Priapian ones are connected with what Goethe called the hypocrisy of his contemporaries. He anticipated that this work would not be accepted as art to be appreciated on its own terms, but would be subjected to embarrassing attempts to read his life in his work. It had happened before.
Yet in this case the venerable artistic tradition is clear: a well established genre especially fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although cultivation of erotic poetry goes back to the Ancients, the Moderns had become considerably less explicit (seldom, for example, depicting the sex act itself) and had developed well understood harmless topoi and conventions. As a boy, Goethe had written many such highly stylized pieces; they were a sign of good breeding. In his "Erotica Romana," however, he is reviving the more uninhibited art of the Ancients themselves. Propertius, Catullus, Tibullus--these are his fellows, almost every one of the elegies alluding to or further developing motifs from those erotic measures of imperial Rome. I do not wish to discount the possible importance of Goethe's personal experiences for the subject matter. He does have a right to expect, however, that his work be received by some at least as recapitulation and further exploration of a fine old poetic tradition.
In Classical literature the "elegy" was a poem in the elegiac distich: a strophe composed of a hexameter and a pentameter. I have tried to follow Goethe's metrics, adapting them to English with perhaps less freedom than he used when appropriating the classical form. I have interpreted his distich somewhat freely though, as comprising two six-beat lines, each beginning with an accented syllable and containing an indeterminate number of unaccented ones. The first line, or "hexameter," is recognized by an ending in a dactyl and a trochee ('- -'-); the second, the "pentameter," by the absence of any unaccented syllable at all between the third and fourth, or after the final beat. German is better adapted to this distich than English, because its inflections yield more dactyls, so important for the steady forward roll of the hexameter. In English, the dangers of becoming too wordy, or too staccato, are practically unavoidable. In both languages the distich is liable to become monotonous unless the composer offers sufficient variety in suprasegmentals, such as the pauses natural to spoken language (cęsura).
Goethe most effectively enlivens the distich by means which he called "inner form," including conversational tone, gossipy characterization, mood and atmosphere, but above all, irony. It is thus that the "Erotica Romana" become so distinctively German. We are never allowed to forget that despite their overt classical form we are mere sojourners in antiquity, like Joseph in Egypt finding irony "more charming than mere authenticity, without distance and humor." I suppose irony may be the common characteristic of all the really great writers in the German tradition, if any such generalization is permissible: from Wolfram to Luther to Mann, they insist on being taken humorously--lest they be taken lightly.
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