Why is Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” considered a Romantic work? Analysis

Why is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther considered a ‘Romantic’ work? What were the main tenets of Romanticism?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749 – 1832) seminal novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, written in the unique form of a correspondence between two friends, has come to be regarded as one of the defining texts of the Romantic period and is well known for its seemingly condoning undertones of suicide and its protagonist’s temperamental, highly emotional, and capricious tendencies. Moreover, the transcendence of Nature and its positive effects on the human psyche are explored throughout the novel.

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However, if we are to understand the reasons as to why J.W. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is considered a Romantic work, we must first investigate what it is that defines a particular piece of literature as being one written in a Romantic style. Hence, the purpose of this essay will be to investigate the historical origins of Romanticism and identify its main tenets. The Sorrows of Young Werther will then be analysed and placed within its context of 18th century German Romanticism and the question of why it is a Romantic work will be answered.

The roots of German Romanticism can be traced back to an experimental literary movement entitled the ‘Sturm und Drang’ or ‘Storm and Stress’ which placed value in the subjective emotions of individuals and repudiated the dominant ideals of Enlightenment; a period of thinking which stressed that all things knowable could be deduced through reason or understood through empirical methods.

This proto-Romantic movement occurred during a period in time when Germany was ‘divided into a numberless variety of large and small states, differing from each other in religion, government, opinions’1 and it is thus easy to understand why the members of the Sturm und Drang movement ‘followed him (Rousseau) in the rejection of the modern “policed state” and modern civilisation’2 and instead sought compensation ‘in an idealised past and in private and domestic happiness.’3 This ‘idealised’ past refers to Romanticism’s visceral fascination with the art and culture of the ‘volk’ which manifested itself in later literature (E,T.A. Hoffman, Brothers Grimm), music (Wagner, Brahms, Liszt), and art (Caspar David Friedrich).

In context, the Romantic sentiments grew out of a desire to cling to these rustic ideals which, for the artists and writers, represented a way of life which was uniquely disassociated from Enlightenment thought, which they felt had exhausted the political and artistic possibilities.

Interestingly, the concern for folk culture held by the Romantics heralded the emergence and growth of Nationalism in the 19th century and, to some degree, can even be considered proto-Marxist due to its manner of retelling and reflecting upon the history of the German ‘volk’; an interest which disregarded the high culture and ideals of the German aristocracy and attempted to re-establish and elevate the culture of the peasantry. Larry Vaughan states that during this period, ‘what we might term cultural Germany, the society of shared ethnicity within the political framework of the Empire, was a pastiche of almost 300 separate secular and ecclesiastical states’4 with the only common feature being the German language.

One can argue that the negative sentiments held by the Romantics towards the Enlightenment are, to an extent, due to the failed political experiments as well as its failure to bring about any major social change. While this is obviously not the case due to the fact that many major social changes were a direct result of Enlightenment thought (the inalienable rights of man, for example), the Romantics felt overshadowed by the Enlightenment and desired to restore a sense of balance in the artistic and cultural sphere. The Sturm und Drang emerged as an opposing force to this ‘Enlightened’ objectivism and, in an interestingly avant-garde manner, stressed the subjective feelings of the artist as a focal point for artistic development. For Romantics such as Goethe, these emotions served not only to inspire the artist to create new and meaningful art but also to truly realise that the tangible world could not be entirely objectified. That is, that there remained some elements that were not to be dabbled in.

This was to manifest itself in Romanticism’s prolific and profound appreciation of Nature and her ‘hiding places’5 and the art that was to be created would henceforth be true and unconstricted by the rigid dogmas of the Enlightenment. However, the Sturm und Drang movement being a precursor to the French Revolution of 1789, a major spark for further revolution throughout Europe, indicates that perhaps the full extent of Romanticism and its influence had not yet been realised; while the Enlightenment, in the eyes of the Romantics, was fallible, it indeed created the fertile grounds needed for revolution through its philosophies and attempts at political reformation.

This in turn propelled Romanticism to new heights and allowed for the dissemination of its sentiments across all of Europe. It is in this way that Romanticism and Enlightenment hold some similarities and are inextricably linked; both movements attracted some form of political ideology and the Enlightenment allowed for the natural progression and flowering of Romanticism.

The Enlightenment stressed the importance of empiricism and rationalism in determining morals and political theories and these ideas also funnelled into the arts where classical forms, deemed objectively aesthetic, were revived. Comparatively, Romanticism, specifically that of Germany, attracted individuals with nationalistic ideologies whose sole purpose was to establish and define a uniquely ‘German’ culture.

Having briefly discussed the historical context in which the proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang as well as the Romantic movements emerged, the main tenets of Romanticism can now be effectively examined. While there are stylistic elements typical of Romanticism to be found within all forms of art, there exist certain themes which are generally accepted as being the main tenets of the movement. However, despite the roots of Romanticism lying in the German Sturm und Drang movement, the theories and sequence of events that occurred during the French Revolution of 1789 were also integral in its development, both ideologically, artistically, and culturally. The fact that Romanticism emerged as an opposing ideology to the Enlightenment allows us to glean some of the movement’s tenets; for example, the Romantics repudiated the idea that Nature could be objectified and understood through the scientific method. For the Romantics, ‘there is a love for the marvellous… which hurries [them] out of the common pathways of men’6 which could only be found within Nature.

Romanticism and its accompanying art tended to elevate Nature and attribute it with a transcendent status. For example, Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Hutten’s Tomb composed between 1823 and 1824 depicts a young man, perhaps Friedrich himself, standing beside the tomb of ‘Hutten’. Housing the sarcophagus is a ruined chapel which Nature is slowly reclaiming. This reveals the Romantic fascination and divine reverence for Nature which they believed would indefinitely prevail over the Rational confines of human thought.

However, the painting holds
more subtle undertones as to some of Romanticism’s other tenets as well as the link between Nationalism and Romanticism; according to Norbert Wolf, ‘the painting represents an overt declaration of the artist’s allegiance to the ideals of the Wars of Liberation and German Nationalism.’7 Another principal tenet of Romanticism, and one that greatly differentiated it from other movements was its profound appreciation and utilisation of human emotions as a source for artistic inspiration. Once again opposing the values of the Enlightenment, Romanticism placed emphasis on the value of one’s personal emotions and experiences in life, often when confronting the sublime elements of Nature and it was often stressed that when doing this, one would be truly able to comprehend the insignificance of him/herself against the living entity that was the Universe.

One often comes across this appreciation of emotions coupled with elements of Nature as in Goethe’s autobiography in which he describes the feelings that overcame him upon meeting Maximiliane von La Roche. He states ‘it is a very pleasant feeling when a new passion starts in us before the old has quite lapsed – as at sunset when we see the Moon rising opposite and enjoy the double radiance of both heavenly lights.’8 Goethe represented the archetypal Romantic whose ‘very nature was to him an enigma… it changed and swung restlessly, sensitive to influence yet not to be fully explained in terms of environment.’9 Human emotions were subject to whim and since mankind was a product of Nature and so human emotions could not be considered as ‘wrong’.

Hence, Romanticism stressed the importance and relevance of them as opposed to attempting to rationalise and disregard them as the Enlightenment previously had. Thus, we can identify two main tenets that are unique to Romanticism; firstly, the appreciation and elevation of subjective human emotions and experiences and secondly, the profound veneration of Nature and the unwillingness of attempting to scientifically rationalise and objectify it.

Now that the two main tenets of Romanticism have been examined, it will become evident that Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is indeed a text written in the Romantic style. Published in 1774, the epistolary novel describes the life of Werther, a young man who, after having moved to the countryside, becomes torn with love and emotion after meeting and falling in love with the soon-to-be-wed Lotte.

The novel is ‘unbelievably charged with explosive emotions’10 which immediately relates to Romanticism’s elevation of emotional and experiential subjectivity. The text is semi-autobiographical and relates to some of Goethe’s experiences in life which reflects some of the stylistic traits of Romanticism; that the personal experiences of one’s life could serve as the basis for meaningful art which is certainly the case with The Sorrows of Young Werther. The manner in which Werther, in his first letter, immediately elevates Nature to something divine is strikingly Romantic in style. He states ‘I very much like being here, in this paradisal part of the country solitude is a precious balm for my heart, and that heart, so often struck cold, is warmed by the youthful season in all abundance.

Every tree, every hedge is a bouquet of blossom.’11 It seems that Goethe has attributed to Nature an almost transcendent healing power which is directly indicative of the reason as to why The Sorrows of Young Werther should be considered a Romantic work; the elevation of Nature as a divine force was one of the main stylistic tenets of Romanticism. Furthermore, Goethe includes an interesting scene in which Albert, Lotte’s fiancé and Werther discuss the nature of suicide and whether or not it is reasonable. Here Goethe deftly demonstrates the distinction between Romanticism and Enlightenment thought; Albert states that ‘a man carried away by his passions loses all power of reflection and is viewed as drunk or mad’ while Werther, in a highly Romantic vein, replies ‘you people and your reasonableness!…

I have understood in my own capacity that all extraordinary people who ever achieved anything great were always certain to be vilified as drunks and lunatics.’12 Moreover, it is interesting to note the way in which Goethe stylistically utilises Nature to reflect upon Werther’s moods and certain future events throughout the novel. It begins with beautiful, sunny days which, as the novel and months naturally progress, become gloomy, dreary, and stormy. For example, Werther writes ‘As Nature declines into autumn so it begins to be autumn in me and around me. My leaves are yellowing…’13The optimism and pessimism evident throughout the novel reflects the nature of human emotions and is perhaps the starkest indicator as to why the novel is considered to be a work of Romanticism.

The novel is most famous for its seemingly approving message of suicide as Werther eventually sees it as the only option; either he lives in eternal pain due to not being able to love Lotte or he ceases the physical pain and dies having loved her. “Everything is so still all around me and my soul so quiet’14 begins Werther’s final letter and the apparent existence of the soul is yet another telltale sign that indicates why the novel is Romantic in style.

Werther’s final suicide, being the ultimate sign of resignation from life also doubles as a symbol for Goethe’s repudiation of Enlightenment ideals which he felt to be constricting on the psyche and spirit of the artist. Hence, it becomes clear that The Sorrows of Young Werther includes certain stylistic elements and tenets that are particular to Romanticism and it is demonstrated why it is considered to be one of the great works of the movement.

In conclusion, the historical context in which the proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement emerged helped to solidify some of the tenets of Romanticism and while the Enlightenment greatly differed from Romanticism, there exist similar characteristics; the most notable being that they both became magnets for certain ideologies.

Furthermore, the main tenets of Romanticism can be identified as being an appreciation for the subjectivity of human emotion and experience as well as the elevation of Nature to a divine status. These both feature prominently in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s seminal novel The Sorrows of Young Werther and it thus becomes clear why it is considered to be one of the great works of the Romantic period.

Garland, H.B., Storm and Stress
(United Kingdom: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd, 1952) Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. (Trans. David Constantine), The Sorrows of Young Werther (United States: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Mann, Thomas, ‘Goethe’s Werther’, in
Goethe: UNESCO’s Homage on the Occasion of the Two-Hundredth Anniversary of his Birth (Switzerland: UNESCO, 1949)
Pascal, Roy, The German Sturm und Drang,
(United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 1953) Riesbeck, Johann Kasper, (Trans. Rev. Mr. Maty), Travels Through Germany in a Series
of Letters (1787) in
Larry Vaughan, The Historical Constellation of the Sturm und Drang (USA: Peter Lang Publishing, 1985)
Sagarra, Eda, An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Germany
(United Kingdom: Longman Group Ltd., 1980)
Saul, Nicholas, Philosophy and Germany Literature 1700-1990
(United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2002) Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein
(United Kingdom: Penguin Group, 2006)
Vaughan, Larry, The Historical Constellation of the Sturm und Drang (USA: Peter Lang Publishing, 1985)
Wolf, Norbert, (Trans. Karen Williams, Whitley Chapel), Friedrich: The Painter of Stillness (Germany: Taschen, 2007)

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Why is Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” considered a Romantic work? Analysis. (2016, May 07). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/why-is-goethes-the-sorrows-of-young-werther-considered-a-romantic-work/