Goethe: The Poet and the Age: Volume II: Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803

Nicholas Boyle, Author Oxford University Press, USA $94 (968p) ISBN 978-0-19-815869-1
Boyle's 1991 first volume of this work-in-progress--the most thorough English-language biography of Goethe--closed at the poet's midlife. A professor of German at Cambridge University, Boyle intended to complete his account in this second volume but the overstuffed book encompasses only 13 of Goethe's remaining 42 years (although they were central years to his career). At the outset of this installment, we find the irreligious poet in Weimar, growing fat and living, without benefit of clergy, with Christiana Vulpius, the mother of his only surviving child. This irregular union distances Goethe far enough from aristocratic trivialities at the duke's court that he can devote himself to writing. Although he has some fallow periods, the 1790s see his completion of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, Hermann and Dorothea and The Natural Daughter, as well as his return, after a long hiatus, to Faust. Boyle's dense narrative--crowded with analyses, plot summaries and historical background--is not easy reading. The book springs briefly to life when Goethe becomes ""the Duke's field-poet"" during a campaign against France in the Napoleonic wars, but more often Boyle forsakes biographical drama for explication. Toward the end of the volume, for instance, when Goethe is deathly ill, the narrative breaks off for 20 pages of analysis of his writings. These excursions, together with Boyle's apparent reluctance to sacrifice any detail, suggest that even a third volume may be insufficient to accommodate the rest of the poet's life. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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