When Goethe was 15, he was already recognized by friends as an exceptional writer. One of these friends, “Pylades,” told Goethe that he had recently read some of his verses aloud to “some pleasant companions…and not one of them will believe that you have made them.” Goethe said he didn’t much care whether they believed it or not, but just then one of the “pleasant companions” showed up, and Pylades proposed a way of convincing the fellow of Goethe’s abilities: “Give him any theme, and he will make you a poem on the spot.”
The disbeliever asked Goethe if he “would venture to compose a pretty love-letter in rhyme, which a modest young woman might be supposed to write to a young man, to declare her inclination.”
“Nothing easier,” said Goethe, and after thinking for a few minutes commenced to write. The now-former disbeliever was very impressed, said he hoped to see more of Goethe soon, and proposed an expedition into the country. For this expedition, they were joined by several more young men “of the same rank”…intelligent and knowledgeable, but from the lower and middle classes, earning their livings by copying for lawyers, tutoring children, etc.
These guys told Goethe that they had copied his letter in a mock-feminine hand and had sent it to “a conceited young man, who was now firmly persuaded that a lady to whom he had paid distant court was excessively enamored of him, and sought an opportunity for closer acquaintance.” The young man had completely fallen for it, and desired to respond to the woman also in verse…but did not believe he had the talent to write such verse.
Believing it was all in good fun, Goethe agreed to also write the reply. Soon, he met the would-be lover, who was “certainly not very bright” and who was thrilled with “his” response to his inamorata.
While Goethe was with this group, “a girl of uncommon…of incredible beauty” came into the room. Her name was Gretchen, and she was a relative of one of the tricksters present. Goethe was quite smitten:
“The form of that girl followed me from that moment on every path; it was the first durable impression which a female being had made upon me: and as I could find no pretext to see her at home, and would not seek one, I went to church for love of her, and had soon traced out where she sat. Thus, during the long Protestant service, I gazed my fill at her.”
The tricksters soon prevailed upon Goethe to write another letter, this one from the lady to the sucker “I immediately set to work, and thought of every thing that would be in the highest degree pleasing if Gretchen were writing it to me.” When finished, he read it to one of the tricksters, with Gretchen sitting by the window and spinning. After the trickster left, Gretchen told Goethe that he should not be participating in this affair: “The thing seems an innocent jest: it is a jest, but it is not innocent”…and asked why “you, a young man man of good family, rich, independent” would allow himself to be used as a tool in this deception, when she herself, although a dependent relative, had refused to become involved by copying the letters.
Gretchen then read the epistle, commenting that “That is very pretty, but it is a pity that it is not destined for a real purpose.” Goethe said how exciting it would be for a young man to really receive such a letter from a girl he cared about, and…greatly daring…asked: “if any one who knew, prized, honored, and adored you, laid such a paper before you, what would you do”…and pushed the paper, which she had previously pushed back toward him, nearer to Gretchen.
“She smiled, reflected for a moment, took the pen, and subscribed her name.”
Goethe was walking on air:
“Nature seems to desire that one sex may by the sense perceive goodness and beauty in the other. And thus to me, by the sight of this girl–by my strong inclination for her–a new world of the beautiful and the excellent had arisen. I perused my poetical epistle a hundred times, gazed at the signature, kissed it, pressed it to my heart, and rejoiced in this amiable confession.” Goethe thought about Gretchen constantly, saw her when he could, and in his expeditions around town he had “no other view than to see and take in every thing properly, that I might be able to repeat it with her, and explain it to her.”
Then one day Goethe’s mother came into his room and told him that he was in very bad trouble. It seems that the “young people” with whom he had been associating, and through whom he had met Gretchen, were involved in things a lot worse than elaborate practical jokes–“forged papers, false wills, counterfeit bonds, and things of that sort.” The city officials had become aware of the matter, and judicial prosecutions seemed likely. Goethe was in the depths of despair, worried for his friends, for himself, and especially for Gretchen.
As it turned out, the guilty were treated “with the greatest forbearance,” the almost-innocent were dismissed “with a slight reprimand,” and Gretchen had left the city and returned to her own home. Goethe was concerned that she had suffered “a shameful banishment,” but:
“My friend shook his head and smiled. ‘Make yourself easy, this girl has passed her examination very well and has borne off honorable testimony to that effect. They could discover nothing in her but what was good and amiable…'” What she had told the investigators about Goethe, however, was shattering to him.
“I cannot deny that I have seen him often and with pleasure; but I have always treated him as a child, and my affection for him was truly that of a sister.”
“I could not leave off the bad habit of thinking about her, and of recalling her form, her air, her demeanor; though now, in fact, all appeared to me in quite another light. I felt it intolerable that a girl, at the most only a couple of years older than me, should regard me as a child, while I conceived I passed with her for a very sensible and clever youth…Yet all would have been well enough, if by signing that poetical love-letter, in which she had confessed a formal attachment to me, she had not given me the right to regard her as a sly and selfish coquette…My judgment was convinced, and I thought I must cast her away; but her image!–her image gave me the lie as often as it again hovered before me, which indeed happened often enough.”
If this song had existed in 1764, I bet Goethe would have been singing it quite a lot.
(Source: Goethe’s Autobiography)
8 thoughts on “Goethe, the Original Gretchen, and the Hackers of 1764”
I read “Travels in Italy” in translation. Not worth it. Maybe it was the translator’s fault?
It seems to me that many of us as young men had experiences with young women that were similar to Goethe’s experience with Gretchen.
The story raises the question: Why did Goethe name the female protagonist of “Faust”…who seems intended to come pretty close to personifying the ideal female archetype…as “Gretchen”?
It seems to be generally considered by scholars that the Gretchen-character was inspired by Frederike Brion, who Goethe was in love with circa 1770….he apparently felt that he had led her on and broken her heart, given that marriage was “unsuitable”…a less-physical (maybe) version of Faust’s seduction of Gretchen in the play.
But why call the character “Gretchen”?…obviously, “Frederike” wouldn’t have been a good idea, but there are a lot of names in the world to choose from.
I wonder if maybe Goethe wasn’t a little hard on the real Gretchen in the excerpted story….it seems possible that under the pressure of interrogation (remember, she was a girl of not-very-high class position, in a place and time where such things mattered greatly, in the presence of intimidating officialdom) she was simply attempting to put distance between her and the whole counterfeiting enterprise, rather than having been playing with his heart all along. And maybe Goethe, in the autobiography, was relating his feelings *at the time* rather than his later judgment of the affair.
I recently came across an old German copy of Goethe’s Romische Elegien which includes also his Ventianishe Epigramme and Tagelbuch der italienschen Reise. It belonged to my grandmother (1900-1980) who came here from Germany in the 1920s, so the book is in German. This paperback book is rather old and yellowed but quite intact, and I would love to see it go to someone’s collection rather than collect dust in our closet. If anyone is interested in having it I would be happy to send it to you at no charge.
I think Jonathan’s first thought is more likely. Surely she must have known what he meant when shoving that paper back to her (in response to her encouraging flirtations).
What girl doesn’t want to be admired and adored, especially when stuck on a boring, extended vacation hanging our with her loser cousin? She signed it in a moment of weakness and then tolerated him after that while still keeping him at arm’s length. When the whole scheme toppled down, she saw her chance to get out and did.
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