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Goethe's 'Faust' and European Epic

Goethe's 'Faust' and European Epic: Forgetting the Future

Arnd Bohm
Volume: 2
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81tv6
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  • Book Info
    Goethe's 'Faust' and European Epic
    Book Description:

    Goethe has long been enshrined as the greatest German poet, but his admirers have always been uneasy with the idea that he did not produce a great epic poem. A master in all the other genres and modes, it has been felt, should have done so. Arnd Bohm proposes that Goethe did compose an epic poem, which has been hidden in plain view: 'Faust'. Goethe saw that the Faust legends provided the stuff for a national epic: a German hero, a villain (Mephistopheles), a quest (to know all things), a sublime conflict (good versus evil), a love story (via Helen of Troy), and elasticity (all human knowledge could be accommodated by the plot). Bohm reveals the care with which Goethe draws upon such sources as Tasso, Ariosto, Dante, and Vergil. In the microcosm of the "Auerbachs Keller" episode Faust has the opportunity to find "what holds the world together in its essence" and to end his quest happily, but he fails. He forgets the future because he cannot remember what epic teaches. His course ends tragically, bringing him back to the origin of epic, as he replicates the Trojans' mistake of presuming to cheat the gods. Arnd Bohm is associate professor of English at Carleton University, Ottawa.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-696-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Two immodest ambitions drive this study: to fill what has been perceived as a major gap in Goethe’s œuvre and to initiate a radical new reading of Faust. The means to both ends is showing that Faust properly belongs in the sequence of works — including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Tasso’s Jerusalem Liberated, and Milton’s Paradise Lost — that together constitute the system of European epic. Attempts to define epic much more specifically than Aristotle did, who had described it as a long poem reporting the actions of “people who are to be taken...

  5. 1: Goethe’s Epic Ambitions
    (pp. 5-19)

    The arch of European epic rests on Homer as the first and on Milton as the last pillar, encompassing in its sweep major contributors such as Vergil, Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton, as well as lesser ones such as Lucan, Statius, Pulci, Boiardo, Vida, Drayton, Cowley, Camões, and Klopstock. Several of the English Romantics did try to produce an epic. Wordsworth completed The Prelude;¹ Keats began an epic with Hyperion;² and Byron may lay some claim to the tradition with Don Juan.³ On the whole, however, critics have generally been uneasy about the attempts to produce epics since...

  6. 2: The System of European Epic
    (pp. 20-35)

    Rather than attempting a precise definition of the category of the set of “epics,” a process in which it would be easy to lose one’s way, I shall take the more practical path of referring to the tradition of European epics, taken together, as a system.¹ Systems theory accepts the open-ended, dynamic nature of the interrelationships among the elements of a system. As new elements are introduced, the status, function, and value of all the elements are subtly but decisively transformed. For example, even though the Aeneid comes as a successor to the Iliad and the Odyssey, its presence will...

  7. 3: Faust and Epic History
    (pp. 36-86)

    Epic and history have been closely interwoven from the start.¹ History provided the chronological framework in which the events of the hero’s life could unfold; epic gave to history the tools and patterns for organizing and assembling a coherent narrative. This bonding presented serious challenges to later epic poets. As history continued to unfold, each successive poet had more, and more complicated, historical events to incorporate. Simply stitching on a summary of what had happened since the last precursor’s work was impossible, not only because of the constraints of length and form but because historical change remorselessly altered the readers’...

  8. 4: The Roots of Evil
    (pp. 87-110)

    Goethe and vergil seems an unpromising conjunction, given the received opinions that the former was totally captivated by Homer¹ and that the latter was generally neglected by Germans in the eighteenth century.² There can be no doubt that Goethe was able to and did read the Aeneid from an early age.³ Goethe’s father knew that fluency in Latin would be essential for the all-important career as a lawyer he intended for his son. In book 6 of Dichtung und Wahrheit, Goethe recalled his early facility in the language.⁴ Goethe also reports that at one point he had hoped to become...

  9. 5: “Auerbachs Keller” and Epic History
    (pp. 111-137)

    Three millennia make a long period and perhaps it is too much to demand or expect that Faust or the audience be able to grasp the totality and discern patterns in such a vast history. Yet, in a short poem in the “Westöstlicher Divan,” Goethe expected us to operate with such a span of time:

    Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren

    Sich weiß Rechenschaft zu geben,

    Bleib im Dunkeln unerfahren,

    Mag von Tag zu Tage leben.¹

    He indicated that the same vast expanse of time governs Faust:

    Ich habe von Zeit zu Zeit daran fortgearbeitet, aber abgeschlossen konnte das Stück nicht...

  10. 6: Faust as a Christian Epic
    (pp. 138-168)

    Well-informed Christians in the eighteenth century augmented their knowledge of Scripture by a library of commentaries whose messages were conveyed in sermons, hymns, festivals and holy days, and religious art and concordances, as well as through conversation. Knowledge of at least the commonplaces was taken for granted. In the case of Goethe, we can presume a detailed knowledge of Scripture, since he has left us with a vivid account of his interest in the Bible. As a young boy, he determined that he would have to learn Hebrew in order to be able to understand the Bible fully:

    Ich eröffnete...

  11. 7: The Epic Encyclopedia
    (pp. 169-212)

    One of the important roles of epic was its didactic function, including teaching about the gods (and then God), imparting ethical ideals, and conveying knowledge of the natural universe. A key figure in the evolution of the epic into a sort of encyclopedic text was Vergil, both as he conceived his own task in relation to Homer¹ and as he was later elevated, first to the status of hermetic philosopher and then in the medieval period to that of a necromancer.² By the time Dante came to write the Divine Comedy, one of the basic requirements for the epic poem...

  12. Postscript: Lest We Forget
    (pp. 213-224)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 225-264)
  14. Index
    (pp. 265-276)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. None)