An Interpretation

By Alexander Gillies



The needs of English-speaking undergraduates formed the starting-point of this work. The symbolism and metaphysics of Goethe’s Faust are not capable of full appreciation unless the reader is first brought to grips with the real progress of events in the poem, the interlocking of character and action, the factual details of the story. There are very few major works in English upon Goethe’s tragedy as a whole; fewer still which provide this necessary information. The invaluable Goethe and Faust by F. M. Stawell and G. L. Dickinson, the most complete study to date, appeared over a quarter of a century ago and has not been replaced. Discerning though it is, its interpretation is defective, to my mind, by reason of its very merits, inasmuch as it breaks off its commentary, frequently at critical points, and quotes instead its excellent translation of Goethe’s poem, thus leaving the reader admiring but unsatisfied. In attempting, therefore, to elucidate the essential content of Goethe’s masterpiece, the present work will, it is hoped, prepare its readers to face the immense and often confusing mass of Faust literature. It can safely be said that scholarship, particularly in Germany, has approached the subject from every conceivable angle, but too often, in my opinion, has led to alluring generalizations which must be studied with great caution. The method which I have adopted has been to allow the text of the complete poem to tell its own story. Undue preoccupation with the Urfaust and Fragment and with biographical affiliations have seemed unnecessary to my purpose, illuminating though occasional parallels have been.

My pupils have raised questions which have proved of great value to me. To them and to those friends and colleagues who have assisted me in discussion and in other ways in preparing this work my thanks are due. The manuscript has benefited very substantially from my Wife’s patient and constructive criticism.
























GOETHE called his Faust a tragedy (‘eine Tragödie’), and in case this designation should be overlooked it is repeated at the beginning of each of the First and Second Parts of the completed poem. The work thus falls into the same category as Clavigo, Stella, Egmont and Die natürliche Tochter. (These are described as ‘Trauerspiele’, but it is not necessary to read any significance into the use of the Teutonic term in preference to the Greek.) That the hero gains immortality or salvation at the end seems, however, to have made it difficult for some to regard him as a tragic figure. Yet Goethe’s intention is clear. Faust is basically as tragic as the principal figures in those other tragedies of his or in those of his friend Schiller. Faust’s tragedy is that of titanism. He is a man in search of life’s meaning who steps beyond the natural limitations of humanity, a superman who seeks for more than it is given to mankind to know or experience. His career is accordingly a long succession of crimes and illusions. Only at its close is he brought to see the true value of his life. He who demands dissatisfaction as being the characteristic feature of human existence is given more of it than he really wants or can tolerate and looks forward longingly to a future moment when he might be content; but from this death cuts him off. In the strictest sense he is thus dissatisfied until the end, but he has risen above the cult of merely negative dissatisfaction, such as he thought to be the only thing that life might offer. Dissatisfaction comes to acquire a higher meaning. It is a spur to further effort, a dynamic force which, if it operates as it should, is of the greatest value in life. It is something which should urge us, not to overstep our natural limits, but to work fruitfully within them. The whole of the drama up to the end is an eloquent statement that the road to life’s fulfilment does not lie through despair, violence and crime and that these things must be resolutely conquered. Good may indeed be made to emerge from evil, but it does not therefore follow that evil should be wilfully cultivated, even on the specious pretext that it enlarges our experience or that human effort cannot avoid contending with its forces. Nor does it follow, on the other hand, that human effort should relax for fear of contact with evil. Goethe’s doctrine is one of tireless endeavour, but it must be purposeful and positive endeavour, pursuing its course in the full consciousness of man’s place within the grand context of the universe. In this sense Faust is a poem of supreme optimism, even though its hero’s career is profoundly tragic. It was Goethe’s testament to his nation and to the world. By reason of its sublimely universal content, its breadth of emotional and intellectual appeal and its unparalleled wealth and variety of poetic form, it has earned the right to be placed beside the Divine Comedy. This does not mean, however, that its hero should be taken as an example to be followed. Goethe’s Faust, as much as Marlowe’s, holds up the finger of warning.

The first that the world in general knew of Goethe’s Faust was the work entitled Faust. Ein Fragment, published in Leipzig by Göschen, which appeared in 1790 in the seventh volume of the poet’s Collected Writings (Schriften) and also as a separate publication. Its 2,137 lines present the despairing scholar’s opening monologue and his conversation with Wagner, the close of the ‘pact’ scene and the succeeding scenes from ‘Auerbachs Keller’ as far as and including the Cathedral scene, giving the story of Faust’s introduction into the world and his love for Gretchen, except for its final catastrophe; the Valentin episode was not, however, included, and the ‘Wald und Höhle’ scene was placed after the seduction of Gretchen and not before it, as was to be the case in the final version. Attention was clearly directed to the two matters which have remained uppermost in the public view of Faust; namely, the hero’s Weltschmerz and his tragic association with Gretchen. The precise nature of his compact with Mephistopheles remained undefined, and there was no mention of his life at Court and his marriage to Helen of Troy. The picture of Faust was thus to a large extent an untraditional one. It was confirmed by the publication in 1808 of Faust. Eine Tragödie in the eighth volume of Goethe “Werke”, published by Cotta of Tübingen. This version contained the sub-title ‘Der Tragödie erster Teil’ immediately after the Prologue in Heaven; the Prologue, together with the Dedication and the Prelude on the Stage, was thus intended to have reference to the whole of the poem, of which a continuation was clearly foreshadowed. The First Part was more than twice as long as the Fragment of 1790. None the less, the emphasis remained pretty much as before upon the two major matters already alluded to. The introduction of Mephistopheles and Faust’s agreement with him had, however, now been effected and the Gretchen story was provided with its conclusion. For almost another quarter of a century the same general public impression remained. It was not until after the poet’s death that Cotta published in 1832 Faust. Der Tragödie zweyter Theil in fünf Akten (Vollendet im Sommer 1831). This formed the forty-first volume of the Ausgabe letzter Hand and the first volume of the Nachgelassene Werke. This Second Part was reprinted separately in 1833. It contains the account of Faust’s life at Court and of his association with Helen and reveals the destiny of his soul after death, the ending which the poem had needed for so long. The lapse of time after the appearance of the First Part as well as the length and difficulty of the Second did nothing to weaken the general impression which had begun with the Fragment and which later on Gounod was to disseminate by means of his operatic version of the story. Throughout the nineteenth century, and in much of the twentieth, Faust has been commonly regarded, outside the world of scholarship, as the embodiment of titanic despair and as the infamous lover of Gretchen.

The composition of Faust had a long history. It occupied Goethe at intervals from his youth to the end of his life. Only the main outlines require to be given here. Four phases emerge--the period immediately before the poet left Frankfurt to go to Weimar in 1775, and the years 1788-1790, 1797-1801 and 1825-1832. It is natural that the inspiration from which sprang many major and minor aspects of the work may be traced to Goethe’s own experience, extending even as far back as his boyhood. But it is the completed work that matters more than its intermediate stages, and this is not by any means a haphazard collection of intermittently composed passages. It is a work of art possessing a definite unity. When the poet took over at a later stage material that he had written at an earlier, he did so with a full consciousness of its compositional value and incorporated, adapted and rejected as he thought necessary. The artistic, intellectual and emotional unity of the work was firmly fixed before his eyes.

The beginnings of Faust are to be sought in close proximity to those of Götz von Berlichingen. Both works deal with sixteenth century German figures who represent a type of mental rebelliousness which strongly appealed to Goethe in his Sturm und Drang days. The poet had himself found the greatest dissatisfaction in academic study, had immersed himself in writers on alchemy, was indifferent in religious matters and passionate in his self-reproaches on the emotional score. In short, he was a problem to himself, searching for complete and balanced self-fulfilment. There is no doubt that he knew of the story of Faust in the form of the folkbook, popular play or puppet play in which it lived on after its first publication in 1587 as the Volksbuch vom Doktor Faust in the poet’s birthplace, Frankfurt-am-Main, and after its subsequent re-importation by the English players who toured Germany in the seventeenth century and whose repertory of dramas of the Elizabethan stage included Marlowe’s Faustus. Faust was a kindred spirit. Like the poet himself, he seemed to be probing for the ultimate truth about human life and to be opposed to all the conceptions and methods of traditional learning. His story slowly crystallized into poetic form. In 1773 Goethe read Hans Sachs, whose metre -- the rough and ready Knittelvers -- he was to use. In 1774 and again in 1775 there are reports that he was busy on Faust. It was the time when his emotional crisis vis-à-vis Lili Schönemann reached its peak. He took the new work with him to Weimar at the end of 1775. The manuscript has been lost, but a copy made by a Weimar Court lady, a certain Fräulein von Göchhausen, has survived and was published to the world in 1887. It was as a result of a reading of Faust to interested Court circles that the Göchhausen manuscript came into being. This version has come to be known as the Urfaust and must be assumed to represent the contemporary state of Goethe’s poem, though we have no actual guarantee that it does so completely. It consists of Faust’s opening soliloquy and conversation with Wagner, Mephistopheles’ interview with the undergraduate, the scene in Auerbach’s Keller and the Gretchen story told from its beginning to its final catastrophe without interruption. The pact with Mephistopheles and the murder of Valentin are not dealt with. In spite of these gaps there is a striking degree of unity in this youthful version. Rapidly written down, it combines Hans Sachs’ metre with prose scenes conceived in the Shakespearean manner; free rhythms, rhymed strophes and occasionally other metrical devices are used when necessary. It possesses the freshness and immediacy of a folksong or folkbook. There are no disturbing breaks in the swift flow of the action; there is no attempt at symbolism. Faust is a tragically unbalanced seeker after knowledge whose venturing into life engenders insanity and death.

When Goethe left for Italy in 1786 he took his Faust with him with a view to completing it for inclusion in the edition of his works which was about to be published. He failed to carry out his intention but while in Rome he composed the Hexenküche scene and Faust’s soliloquy in the Wald und Höhle scene. He evidently thought of attempting the more harmonious form of blank verse for the revised version of his work. When the Fragment appeared in 1790 not only had these two new scenes been added, but Auerbachs Keller (previously in prose) was now in verse, with Mephistopheles and not Faust as the performer of the conjuring tricks, the interview with the undergraduate was changed, the conclusion (but not the beginning) of the pact scene was inserted, and this was almost certainly written in Italy; the Valentin scene and the conclusion of the Urfaust after the Cathedral scene were omitted. The action was clearly set in the sixteenth century, direct and indirect allusions to the eighteenth century contained in the Urfaust being cut out. Faust himself had been changed into a much older and more melancholy man, and his longing for all the vast variety of human experience was an indication of the way in which his compact with Mephistopheles was to be motivated. The Fragment had a mixed reception from the critics but it aroused a great feeling of expectancy. Schiller, in particular, was interested and when the two poets began their close association in 1794 he lost no time in urging his friend to complete his work. Goethe was reluctant to do so until 1797, the year of his great ballads. Without attempting to recapture the moods of the earlier epochs of his life, he wrote down notes which are still extant of an outline of the whole poem some time between 1797 and 1800. Serious work began on the 23rd June, 1797, when Goethe, as his diary tells us, composed a plan. He seems to have formed a very clear idea of how the whole should be completed. The Zueignung was written on the 24th June, 1797; the Vorspiel auf dem Theater came later, and even an epilogue (Abschied and Abkündigung) was drafted, probably in 1800, in order to balance the Dedication, but it was not made use of. Much else was thought out. Meantime Goethe’s third journey to Switzerland had occurred, and progress was not seriously resumed until April 1798. Paradise Lost, which he read in 1799, helped with suggestions. Cotta, aided and abetted by Schiller, pressed for the work to be prepared for publication, but the ‘groß Lücke’--the great gap between Wagner’s exit and the undergraduate’s entrance--was a major problem. The Walpurgisnacht, the Helen episode and Faust ‘s death all demanding and receiving attention, the size of the work was becoming unwieldy, and the idea of dividing it into two parts soon presented itself. We hear of this in Goethe’s letters in 1800 and it is referred to again in the poet’s notes already mentioned. The beginning of the Helen tragedy (Act III of Part II) was written in 1800. By the 4th April, 1801 Goethe was able to tell Schiller that, apart from the disputation scene (which was never executed), the ‘gap’ would soon be filled. But the end was not yet in sight. A new edition of his works (announced in 1805) finally induced the poet to complete what we now know as Part I by April 1806, and in May of that year Cotta was finally given the manuscript.

Goethe intended that the Second Part should not be long delayed after the First. In 1806 he informed the historian Luden that the whole poem was complete in his mind but not fully set down in writing. He spoke of it to his associate Riemer in 1808, but the pressure of other work soon thrust it into the background for many years. In 1816 he wrote a detailed plan of the Second Part which was originally intended for Book 18 of Dichtung und Wahrheit in case he did not finish his task; it purported to give the content of the pre-Weimarian plan, but it is not clear that, after the lapse of forty years, his memory was altogether accurate. Nothing was done for almost another decade. Commentaries, continuations, illustrations, imitations and performances of Part I did not stir Goethe to action. Eckermann, however, who joined him in 1823, began to press upon him the need to complete Faust.

Eckermann’s influence and the effect of Byron’s death, which will be alluded to later, were decisive, and composition was resumed in February 1825. Goethe began by working over the conclusion, which seems to have been drafted early in 1798. The Helen episode was completed by June 1826 and published in Volume 4 of the Ausgabe letzter Hand of the poet’s works in 1827. In connection with this Goethe read very widely in Greek history and topography. In December he worked on the details of the action leading up to the Helen tragedy, later to be realized in the first two acts. In May 1827 he was busy upon Act IV, but the demands of the Ausgabe letzter Hand again needed to be complied with, and he accordingly completed the beginning of Act I (as far as l. 6306), which was published with the note ‘1st fortzusetzen’ in Volume 12 of that edition in April 1828. That was the final portion of his Faust which Goethe published during his lifetime. He pressed forward with his writing, even when the mood was not fully productive. Faust had become his Hauptgeschäft or Hauptwerk, to use his own terms. The beginning of Act II belongs to the middle of 1828. By July 1829 his friend Zelter was told of the virtual completion of Act I; it was finally finished in January 1830. The Classical Walpurgisnacht occupied the first half of 1830. Goethe being now thoroughly resolved that nothing whatever should deflect him from his task (noting at the same time in January 1830 that the fifth act was as good as finished). Despite illness in November 1830 and early in 1831, he allowed himself no repose. Act IV and the Philemon and Baucis scenes waited until early 1831, but by July the Second Part was completed except for details, and in November he sealed up the manuscript, exacting from his friends promises of secrecy concerning its content. That was not the end. In January 1832 Goethe read the conclusion of Act I to his daughter-in-law, Ottilie, and we hear in his diary of alterations and a new desire to set out certain parts at greater length. The transition to the scenes at Court, the winning of Helen from Orcus, the investment of Faust with the ownership of the seashore had indeed not been elaborated, and there was much that was left to be improvised in the Carnival scene. Perhaps Goethe had these in mind. At the same time it must be recognized that the story of the Second Part is much less fragmentary than that of the First, and Goethe himself informed Riemer in 1831 that such was his intention.

The last letter of Goethe’s that we possess was written five days before his death to Wilhelm von Humboldt. It deals with Faust and mentions that the conception of the poem went back over sixty years and had been clear to him from the beginning. His words, with their reference to his sense of mission in this connection, are worth quoting. They are as follows:

Es sind über sechzig Jahre, daß die Konzeption des ‘Faust’ bei mir jugendlich, von vorneherein klar, die ganze Reihenfolge hin weniger ausführlich vorlag. Nun hab’ ich die Absicht immer sachte neben mir hergehen lassen und nur die mir gerade interessantesten Stellen einzeln durchgearbeitet, so daß im zweiten Teile Lücken blieben, durch ein gleichmäßiges Interesse mit dem Übrigen zu verbinden. Hier trat nun freilich die große Schwierigkelt ein, dasjenige durch Vorsatz und Charakter zu erreichen, was eigentlich der freiwilligen tätigen Natur allein zukommen sollte. Es wäre aber nicht gut, wenn es nicht auch nach einem so lange tätig nachdenkenden Leben möglich geworden wäre, und ich lasse mich keine Furcht angehen, man werde das Ältere vom Neuern, das Spätere vom Frühern unterscheiden können welches wir dann den künftigen Lesern zur geneigten Einsicht übergeben wollen. Ganz ohne Frage würd’ es mir unendliche Freude machen, meinen werten, durchaus dankbar anerkannten, weitverteilten Freunden auch bei Lebzeiten diese sehr ernsten Scherze zu widmen, mitzuteilen und ihre Erwiderung zu vernehmen. Der Tag aber ist wirklich so absurd und konfus, daß ich mich überzeuge, meine redlichen, lange verfolgten Bemühungen um dieses seltsame Gebäu würden schlecht belohnt und an den Strand getrieben, wie ein Wrack in Trümmern daliegen und von dem Dünenschutt der Stunden zunächst überschüttet werden. Verwir rende Lehre zu verwirrtem Handel waltet über die Welt, und ich habe nichts angelegentlicher zu tun, als dasjenige, was an mir ist und geblieben ist, wo möglich zu steigern und meine Eigentümlichkeiten zu kohobiren, wie Sie es, würdiger Freund, auf Ihrer Burg ja auch bewerkstelligen.

The Dedicatory Poem, Zueignung, at the beginning of the tragedy takes us into the secret recesses of Goethe’s emotions upon his resuming work on Faust in 1797. We are allowed to share his private recollections of what was long past and seemingly forgotten. We feel with him the shudder of reluctance, almost of shyness, as the shadows of a former epoch pass before his eyes, as he feels the powerful claims which they exercise over him, and recalls the memories of joys that were experienced more than twenty years earlier; he thinks of his companions, such as his sister Cornelia, Merck, Lenz, Wagner, Klinger, Herder, Lavater, the brothers Stolberg and all the rest of that hopeful band of Stürmer und Dränger, not to speak of his loves, Friederike Brion and Lili Schönemann, all of them dispersed or spiritually separated after so long an interval and some of them no longer among the living. We share his sense of loss and his sorrow at now composing for a new and less intimate generation, whose very applause induces apprehension. We recognize the power of a yearning that is so overwhelming that the poet feels himself to be divorced from what is around him and transported not merely into the past but, we seem almost persuaded, into the sphere of eternity itself, from which he may survey his experiences in a new perspective.

Und mich ergreift ein längst entwöhntes Sehnen
Nach jenem stillen, ernsten Geisterreich;
Es schwebet nun in unbestimmten Tönen
Mein lispelnd Lied, der Äolsharfe gleich;
Ein Schauer faßt mich, Träne folgt den Tränen,
Das strenge Herz, es fühlt sich mild und weich --
Was ich besitze, seh’ ich wie im Weiten,
Und was verschwand, wird mir zu Wirklichkeiten.
( ll. 25-32)

[[ Now comes upon me long forgotten yearning
For the sweet solemn tryst those spirits keep.
I feel the trembling words of song returning,
Like airs that softly on the harp-strings creep.
The stern heart softens, all its pride unlearning,
A shudder passes through me, and I weep.
All that I have stands off from me afar,
And all I lost is real, my guiding-star. ]]

It is a solemn, melancholy beginning, centred upon the thought of death. The ineluctable passage of time, the changeability of human relationships, the difficulty of grasping what is real and of retaining it, disillusion, submissiveness to necessity, the labyrinthine nature of human life, the transience of friendship and love, all these are hinted at and set the tone of what is to follow in the course of the drama. Yet hope accompanies sorrow; the heart is strong enough to create a new world for itself out of its grief. Fresh growth emerges from the past. Reminiscence leads to a sense of futurity. That the poet speaks to an unknown audience is, to be sure, a cause of sadness, but is also to be taken as implying a consciousness that he is fulfilling a missionary function. He is dedicating his testament to coming generations. Whether as spoken prologue or as printed dedication, this introductory poem creates an atmosphere of sublime earnestness which is to mark the drama that is to ensue. Accordingly, in the Vorspiel auf dem Theater which follows, the note of levity is purely incidental. Basically, the Vorspiel is as serious as the Zueignung. The poet, who with some reluctance has declared his decision to resume work upon his drama, now resolves to do the best that personal and artistic circumstances permit. The Vorspiel is thus a continuation, though in theatrical form, of the intensely private Zueignung. It owed its inspiration, it appears, to the similar device used in the Hindu drama, Sakuntala, which Georg Forster’s translation had made known in 1791, though other models have also been pointed out by scholars. It presents the audience with poet, theatre manager and clown, respectively setting out the conflicting claims of poetic integrity and unity on the one hand and stage effects and business needs on the other. Of these claims Goethe himself was always fully aware. He directed the Weimar Court theatre and knew well enough the need for dramas that combined sincerity and beauty with attention to the practical demands of the stage and audience, and he was for ever striving to endow his theatre with a high educational purpose. For all their ironical flavour the words of the manager, emphasizing how much the public seeks for novelty and variety of action and for relaxation, express Goethe’s own views just as fully as do those of the poet. The clown -- a figure whom Gottsched had driven off the official German stage well over half a century earlier, but who nevertheless continued his existence among the touring companies of a more popular kind -- advises the poet not to dwell unduly upon the difficult problem of completing the plans of his long lost youth. It is a problem which haunts the poet.

So gib mir auch die Zeiten wieder,
Da ich noch selbst im. Werden war,
Da sich ein Quell gedrängter Lieder
Ununterbrochen neu gebar,
Da Nebel mir die Welt verhüllten,
Die Knospe Wunder noch versprach,
Da ich die tausend Blumen brach,
Die alle Taler reichlich füllten.
Ich hatte nichts und doch genug,
Den Drang nach Wahrheit und die Lust am Trug.
Gib ungebändigt jene Triebe,
Das tiefe, schmerzenvolle Glück,
Des Hasses Kraft, die Macht der Liebe,
Gib meine Jugend mir zurück!
( ll. 184-197)

[[ Then bring me back the days of dreaming,
When I myself was yet unformed,
When song welled up in me, and teeming
The tuneful fancies in me swarmed.
I’d all the misty world before me,
And every bud with promise sprang,
And every valley, to restore me,
Burgeoned with blossom as I sang.
I nothing had, yet was not poor:
The spur of truth was mine, and fancy’s lure.
Give me those days with heart in riot,
The depths of bliss that touched on pain,
The force of hate, and love’s disquiet --
Ah, give me back my youth again! ]]

The poet feels himself to be a higher being. His work must have a universal appeal. It must manifest all man’s many-sided powers and possibilities, his relationship to the cosmos and the harmony which exists in all Creation. The poet alone can achieve this because he knows himself to be an intimate part of the cosmic spirit; but he is also--and this is the final message of the Vorspiel -- merely an element in the great partnership of the theatre, a partnership to satisfy whose needs he must discipline himself. The manager and clown tell him to get on with his task. Their pressure compels him to find a solution to his problem. It is the manager who has the final word: a play, he declares, of the widest and deepest import is needed.

Drum schonet mir an diesem Tag
Prospekte nicht und nicht Maschinen.
Gebraucht das groß’ und kleine Himmelslicht,
Die Sterne dürfet ihr verschwenden;
An Wasser, Feuer, Felsenwänden,
An Tier und Vögeln fehlt es nicht.
So schreitet in dem engen Bretterhaus
Den ganzen Kreis der Schöpfung aus,
Und wandelt mit bedächt’ger Schnelle
Vom Himmel durch die Welt zur Hölle.
( ll. 233-242)

[[ Then spare me nothing, on our special day,
Either of back-cloth or machinery.
Have sun and moon, and what you will of scenery.
And of the lesser fires be lavish:
Give ’em a star-light fit to ravish.
Of water, cliffs, romantic stuff,
And beasts and birds we cannot have enough.
Thus, on our narrow boards, shall you bestride
The whole Creation’s prospect, far and wide,
And travel cunning, swift as thought can tell,
From Heaven through the world and down to hell. ]]

The way is clear for the drama’s opening scene in Heaven.