The Paris Review – Goethe’s Advice for Young Writers

“Here lived Peter Eckermann, Goethe’s Friend, in the Year 1854” (plaque honoring Eckermann in Ilmenau). Photo by Michael Sander, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Johann Peter Eckermann was born in 1792. In 1823 he sent Johann Wolfgang von Goethe a collection of his essays about the writer’s works, and he became Goethe’s literary assistant till the latter’s death in 1832. The following is an entry from Eckermann’s diary that recounts one of their early meetings.

Thursday, September 18, 1823

Yesterday morning, before Goethe left for Weimar, I was fortunate enough to spend an hour with him again. What he had to say was most remarkable, quite invaluable for me, and food for thought to last a lifetime. All Germany’s young poets should hear this—it could be very helpful.

He began by asking me whether I had written any poems this summer. I said that I had written a few, but on the whole had not felt in the right frame of mind for poetry. To which he replied:

Beware of embarking on a great work. This is the mistake that our best minds make, the very people with the most talent and the fiercest ambition. I made the same mistake myself, and I know what it cost me. There was so much that came to nothing! If I had written everything that I perfectly well could have, it would have filled more than a hundred volumes.

The present demands its due; the thoughts and feelings that crowd in upon the poet every day need to be put into words, and so they should be. But if your mind is taken up with some great work, nothing else can get a look in; All other thoughts are pushed aside, and you cannot even enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life. It requires a vast amount of exertion and mental effort just to shape and organize a great whole, and a vast amount of energy, plus a period of uninterrupted peace and quiet in one’s life, to get it all down on paper in one continuous draft. But if you have picked the wrong subject to start with, then all your efforts are wasted; and if, furthermore, having undertaken something so large, you are not fully in command of your material in some of its parts, the whole thing will be unsatisfactory in places, and the critics will take you to task. So what the poet gets for so much effort and sacrifice is not reward and pleasure, but only stress and the undermining of his confidence. But if, on the other hand, the attends to the present moment poet each day, and writes with freshness and spontaneity about whatever comes his way, he is sure to produce something of value; And if, once in a while, something doesn’t work out, then nothing is lost.

August Hagen in Königsberg, for example, is a splendidly talented writer. Have you read his Olfrid und Lisena? There are passages in there that cannot be improved upon: the evocation of life on the Baltic coast, and anything relating to the local setting, are all masterly. But these are only beautiful passages: the work as a whole fails to satisfy. And yet to think what labor and effort he lavished upon it—the man almost worked himself to exhaustion! And now he has written a tragedy.

Goethe paused a moment and smiled. I spoke up to say that, unless I was very much mistaken, he had advised Hagen in Kunst und Altertum to tackle only small subjects.

“I certainly did,” Goethe replied,

but do people take any notice of what we old-timers say? Everyone thinks he knows best, with the result that many young writers lose their way, and many stay lost for a long time. But people should not be getting lost now; that’s what our generation was about—seeking and going astray; and what was the point of it all, if you young people are just going to go down the same paths that we did? We’d never get anywhere like that! Our generation’s errors were not held against us, because we found no beaten paths to tread, but we must expect more of those who come after us. Instead of seeking and going astray all over again, they should be heeding the advice of us old folk and following the right path from the beginning. It is not enough to take steps that will one day lead you to your destination; Each step should be both a destination in itself, and a step along the way.

Keep in mind what I have said and see how much of it works for you. I am actually not worried about you, but with my encouragement, perhaps, you will quickly get through a phase that does not suit your present situation. For now, as I say, you should stick to small subjects and keep it spontaneous, just the things that present themselves each day—and generally speaking, you will always produce something good, and each day will bring you joy. Start by sending your work to the pocketbooks and periodicals, but never submit to the demands of others. Always follow your own instincts.

The world is so vast and rich, and life so full of variety, that you will never be short of inspiration for poems. But they must always be “occasional poems,” in the sense that real life must present both the occasion and the material. A particular instance becomes universal and poetic by virtue of the fact that the poet writes about it. All my poems are “occasional,” being inspired by real life and firmly grounded in it. I have no time for poems that are plucked out of thin air.

Don’t let anyone tell you that real life is lacking in poetic interest. This is exactly what the poet is for: he has the mind and the imagination to find something of interest in everyday things. Real life supplies the motifs, the points that need to be said—the actual heart of the matter; but it is the poet’s job to fashion it all into a beautiful, animated whole. You are familiar with Fürnstein, the so-called “nature poet”? He has written a poem about growing hops, and you couldn’t imagine anything nicer. I have now asked him to write some poems celebrating the work of skilled artisans, in particular weavers, and I am quite sure he will succeed; he has lived among such people from an early age, he knows the subject inside out, and will be in full command of his material. That is the advantage of small works: you need only choose subjects that you know and have at your command. With a longer poetic work, however, this is not possible. There is no way around it: all the different threads that tie the whole thing together, and are woven into the design, have to be shown in accurate detail. Young people only have a one-sided view of things, whereas a longer work requires a multiplicity of viewpoints—and that’s where they come unstuck.

I told Goethe that I was planning to write a longer poem about the seasons, into which I would weave the occupations and amusements of all the different classes. “This is exactly what I am talking about,” said Goethe:

You may succeed in large parts of the poem, but in others you will fail, because you have not studied the subject properly and lack the necessary knowledge. So you might get the fisherman right—but not the hunter. But if you get anything at all wrong, then the whole thing is compromised, however good it might be in parts, and you have failed to produce something perfect. If, on the other hand, you take only those parts that are within your capabilities, and make them into separate works, then you are sure to produce something good.

I must warn you especially against grand subjects of your own invention. That involves giving a particular view of things—and young people are seldom mature enough for that. Furthermore, the poet’s stock is depleted by the characters and viewpoints he creates; so he lacks the resources for further productions. And finally, think how much time it takes to dream up the material, then structure it and tie it all together—time that nobody thanks us for, even supposing we manage to complete the work in the first place.

With given Material, on the other hand, it’s all different, and so much easier. The situations and characters are already sup plied, and all the poet has to do is bring them to life. He keeps his own intact stock, not needing to bring much of himself to the task; The expenditure of time and energy is far less, because all he has to worry about is the execution. I would go so far as to advise choosing subjects that have already been done. Iphigenia, for example, has been done so many times, yet each version is different, because each writer sees things differently and presents them in his own way.

But for now, you should put aside any grand schemes. You have pushed yourself hard for long enough; it is time for you to start enjoying life, and the best way to do that is to tackle small subjects.

During this conversation we had been pacing up and down the room. I found myself agreeing with everything he said, as every word rang true in my innermost being. I felt lighter and happier with every step, for I have to confess that various larger projects of mine, which I had not yet been able to sort out in my mind, had been weighing quite heavily upon me. I have now put them to one side, where I will leave them until such time as I can come back to them with a light heart and work up one subject and one scene after another, as I gradually, through study of the world, become master of each part of my material.

I feel that I am several years further on and several years the wiser as a result of Goethe’s words, and deep within my heart I know the special joy of understanding what it means to meet with a true master. The rewards are incalculable.

I shall learn so much from him this winter, and I shall gain so much just by spending time in his company—even when he is not saying anything of a particular moment. It seems to me that his person, his mere physical presence, has a civilizing and formative effect, even if he says nothing at all.

Translated by Allan Blunden.

Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe will be published by Penguin Classics this September.

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