Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Goethe and the Poets of Arabia

Goethe and the Poets of Arabia

Katharina Mommsen
Translated by Michael M. Metzger
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 480
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt6wpb13
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Goethe and the Poets of Arabia
    Book Description:

    Abundant evidence bears witness to Johann Wolfgang Goethe's lifelong predilection for the literature, religion, and culture of ancient Arabia. Scholars have hardly yet touched upon Goethe's relationship to Arabic literature. His remarkable West-östlicher Divan suggested that his interest in the "Orient" was limited to the Persian poet Hafez, his chief model for the collection, and to the culture of Persia. Yet significant aspects of this work and others stem from pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions of Arabian literature. This study examines comprehensively Goethe's relationship to Arabian culture, mediated primarily by his interest in certain poets and texts and by his highly nuanced attitude toward Muhammad, the Qur'an, and Islam. Katharina Mommsen has explored exhaustively Goethe's opinions about Arab poets and their sources, the numerous traces of Arabic poetry that entered his works, and the grounds for his ambivalent affinity for Islam and its Prophet. Extensive textual evidence reveals how throughout his life Goethe's temperament determined his interest in particular Arabian poets and was in turn modulated by them. The study also opens new perspectives on Goethe's biography, especially in the early nineteenth century when he was writing the Divan. Katharina Mommsen's studies of Goethe are recognized internationally, including Goethe und die Moallakat, Goethe und 1001 Nacht, and numerous articles on Goethe and Islam. She is a Professor emerita of German at Stanford University. Michael M. Metzger is Emeritus Professor of German at the University at Buffalo.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-325-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Translator’s Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Michael M. Metzger
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Katharina Mommsen

    A rising from a subjective affinity with its people, Johann Wolfgang Goethe had a special predilection for the literature, religion, and culture of ancient Arabia. His gratitude toward Arabia is evident throughout his life and works. Yet very few scholars have been aware of this. TheWest-Eastern Divan(West-östlicher Divan) appeared to indicate that his interest in the “Orient” was limited to Hafez and Persia. Relatively little notice was paid those aspects of the work stemming from Arabic and Islamic traditions.Goethe and World Literature(Goethe und die Weltliteratur), Fritz Strich’s fundamental study of the subject, does not touch on...

  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Intense and fruitful though it was, scholars long neglected Goethe’s involvement with the culture of Arabia, which appeared modest in comparison with his more obvious attraction to other Eastern traditions. While his interactions with the arts of Persia, India, and China received close attention, hardly any was paid to his relations with Arabian culture. Hans Pyritz’s Goethe bibliography¹ lists only one relevant publication, a four-page essay,² and even this contains insupportable and, on the whole, misleading claims.³ Whereas this piece ventures that “Goethe felt at home in the Arabic language” and understood “classical Arabic as spoken in Muhammad’s own time,”...

  7. 1: Pre-Islamic Bedouin Poetry
    (pp. 17-69)

    Early in the sixth century, in the north of Arabia, a poetic tradition of unprecedented artistic perfection blossomed into a “fully developed literary art,”¹ seemingly of its own accord and without antecedents. Poets suddenly appeared whose “qasidas,” as they called their odes, treated “a variety of themes with superb energy, lively wit, and precise images,” combining “a rich and highly developed language with the most sophisticated rhymes in complex metrical schemes.”² There is widespread surprise³ that “a Bedouin people otherwise only moderately cultivated had created poetry of astonishing formal richness and of the greatest subtlety.”⁴ During the eighth century, anthologies...

  8. 2: Islam
    (pp. 70-110)

    One of the most remarkable phenomena of Goethe’s life was his relationship with Islam and its founder, Muhammad (569–632). Quite evidently, he developed an exceptional empathy for the Muslim religion. Except for the Bible, Goethe was more familiar with the Qur’an than with any other religious book. He expressed interest in Islam at various times of his life. At twenty-three, Goethe composed a marvelous ode in praise of Muhammad, and at seventy he confessed frankly that he was contemplating “celebrating in awe that holy night, when the Qur’an, in its entirety, was presented to the Prophet from on high.”¹...

  9. 3: Living Islam
    (pp. 111-123)

    Two central precepts of Islam do not yet appear in Goethe’s excerpts from the Qur’an of 1771–72: belief in Providence and total submission to the faith. Later, however, these doctrines took on special significance for him. One could even say that Islamic ideas influenced the second half of his life, as Goethe believed as firmly as any Muslim that fate is predestined by God and regarded it as a commandment of piety not to rebel against God’s will. While at work on theWest-Eastern Divan, he had read these remarks of Joseph von Hammer, his chief source, on Islam’s...

  10. 4: Islam in the West-Eastern Divan
    (pp. 124-173)

    Shortly after experiencing the portents of 1813–14, Goethe wrote the first poems of theWest-Eastern Divan, a work situated entirely within the spirit and atmosphere of Islam, and which could not have come into existence without Goethe’s lifelong positive attitude toward the Muslim faith.

    The poet’s congenial familiarity with Arabian religiosity, the ease with which his mind moved within its world, arose from his profound sympathy for Islam and knowledge of its principles. Only this bond of trust and congeniality lent Goethe the confidence, when treating religious themes, to be grave or ironic by turns. It permitted him to...

  11. 5: Dissent from Islam in the West-Eastern Divan
    (pp. 174-234)

    Islam’s conception of womanhood differs substantially from images of Arabian women in “heathen,” pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry. Those women seemed to lead amazingly free lives and were often quite independent in their relations with men. Following the introduction of Islam, however, they appear solely as beings of a second order, destined only to serve. Goethe took a critical stance toward this conception, and when he says, in the “Arabs” chapter of theNotes and Essays, that Muhammad had cast a “gloomy religious veil” over his tribe, this metaphor implied, too, the covering women are subjected to in Islamic lands. In contrast...

  12. 6: Poets of the Islamic Period
    (pp. 235-298)

    Goethe was moved to include a “Book of Timur” in theWest-Eastern Divanafter encountering the work of Ibn Arabshah (Muhammad Ibn Arabshah, 1389–1450), an Arabian author during the period of the Mamlukes. He composed a satirical history of Timur, that is, Tamerlane (1336–1405). Goethe came upon a famous episode of this work in rhyming Arabic prose, accompanied by a translation into Latin, in William Jones’sPoeseos Asiaticae, of which Goethe owned a copy.¹ This text inspired him to write “The Winter and Timur” (“Der Winter und Timur”), the balladesque poem constituting most of the “Book of Timur.”²...

  13. 7: Arabian Proverbs
    (pp. 299-310)

    All his life, but especially after turning fifty, Goethe prized terse, pithy statements of opinion or widely held truths: proverbs, aphorisms, country sayings, parables, maxims, apophthegms, and epigrams, that is, in brief, all trenchant, didactic forms. Psychologically, the existential attitude of such sayings might well have appealed to the aging mind’s inclination to reflect on life rather than take an active role, as in youth, and to state what it concludes from experience briefly and with apodictic self-assurance.¹ The books Goethe borrowed from the library reflect this preference. To better understand other cultures, he studied carefully the proverbs still current...

  14. Appendix of Goethe’s Poems in the Original German
    (pp. 311-352)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 353-430)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 431-444)
  17. Index of Persons
    (pp. 445-458)
  18. Index of Subjects
    (pp. 459-482)
  19. Index of Goethe’s Works
    (pp. 483-490)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 491-491)