Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Winter Journey in the Harz

Goethe became my spiritual mentor during my freshman year at Columbia. After reading Sartre's philosophy of existentialism, I accepted his viewpoint that God did not create man but the other way around. Feeling depressed, that God will not reward the virtuous and punish the evildoers, and that man must shoulder all the responsibilities in creating a just society, I began looking for heroes to emulate. I selected Albert Schweitzer for his selfless altruism. Here was someone who had a successful career as a philosopher, theologian, an organist, and a Bach scholar. But at the age of 30, decided to go to medical school. After his medical degree, Schweitzer did not practice in Europe, but went to Lambaréné, Gabon, to open his hospital and worked there for nearly 50 years. When Schweitzer was awarded the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, he was too busy to go to Oslo because of his hospital duties. However when the city of Frankfurt asked him to deliver the Goethe address (1928-1929), Schweitzer went. He also gave an address on the Goethe Bicenntennial at Aspen, Colorado (July 6 & 8, 1949). I wondered who is this Goethe who was more important than the Nobel Prize to Schweitzer. I went down to the Columbia Library and saw rows and rows of books by and about Goethe. I read Goethe's Sorrow of Young Werther and Faust, as well as Goethe's Theory of Color and Conversations with Eckermann. In his Goethe Address at Frankfurt (August 28, 1928), Schweitzer tells about reading Goethe's Harzreise. He was impressed that Goethe "whom we regard as an Olympian should have set out in the midst of the rains and mist of November 1777 to visit a preacher's son who was plunged in deep spiritual distress, in order to bring him some spiritual assistance." So, whenever Schweitzer encountered some person who needed help, he'd say to himself, "That's is your Harzreise. I'm sharing this Goethe poem which inspired Schweitzer to such heroic action, and is one of the many reasons why I love Goethe so much. (Peter Y. Chou)

Winter Journey in the Harz (1777)

As the hawk aloft
On heavy daybreak cloud
Searching for prey,
May my song hover.

For a god has
duly to each
His path prefixed,
And the fortunate man
Runs fast and joyfully
To his journey's end;
But he whose heart
Misfortune constricted
Struggles in vain
To break from the bonds
Of the brazen thread
Which the shears, so bitter still,
Cut once alone.

Into grisly thickets
The rough beasts run,
And with the sparrows
The rich long since have
Sunk in their swamps.

Easy it is to follow that car
Which Fortune steers,
Like the leisurely troop that rides
The find highroads
Behind the array of the Prince.

But who is it stands aloof?
His path is lost in the brake,
Behind hime the shrubs
Close and he's gone,
Grass grows straight again,
The emptiness swallows him.

O who shall heal his agony then
In whom each balm turned poison,
Who drank hatred of man
From the very fullness of love?
First held now holding in contempt,
In secret he consumes
His own particular good
In selfhood unsated.

If in your book of songs
Father of love, there sounds
One note his ear can hear,
Refresh with it then his heart!
Open his clouded gaze
To the thousand fountainheads
About him as he thirsts
In the desert!

You who give joys that are manifold,
To each his overflowing share,
Bless the companions that hunt
On the spoor of the beasts
With young exuberance
Of glad desire to kill,
Tardy averngers of outrage
For so long repelled in vain
By the cudgeling countryman.

But hide the solitary man
In your sheer gold cloud!
Till roses flower again
Surround with winter-green
The moistened hair,
O love, of your poet!

With your lantern glowing
You light his way
Over the fords by night,
On impassable tracks
Through the void countryside;
With daybreak thousand-hued
Into his heart you laugh;
With the mordant storm
You bear him aloft;
Winter streams plunge from the crag
Into his songs,
And his altar of sweetest thanks

Is the snow-hung brow
Of the terrible peak
People in their imaginings crowned
With spirit dances.

You stand with heart unplumbed
Mysteriously revealed
Above the marveling world
And you look from clouds
On the kingdoms and magnificence
Which from your brothers' veins beside you
With streams you water.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
     Selected Poems, Christopher Middleton (Ed.)
     "Harzreise im Winter" (A Winter Journey in the Harz")
     translated by Christopher Middleton,
     Suhrkamp/Insel Publishers, Boston, 1983, pp. 66-71

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