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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe was born into a middle-class family in Frankfurt am Main on 28 August 1749. In accordance with his father's wishes he studied law at Leipzig, where he came under the influence of the poet C. F. Gellert, who introduced him to such English writers as Sterne, Young, and Richardson. Another acquaintance, A. F. Oeser, introduced him to Greek art and the novels of C. M. Wieland. At this time he wrote a number of collections of lyric poems and songs in the Rococo mode which he later termed "fragments of a great confession."

In 1768 he was forced by illness to return home, and developed an interest in occult philosophy and alchemy. After his recovery was complete, he went to Strasburg to finish his legal training; there his interest in Rococo waned as he became increasingly dedicated to German Gothicism. There, too, he came under the influence of J. G. Herder, with whom he discussed poetry, art, primitivism, and the Volkslied, the effects of which are apparent in the lyrics, Lieder, hymns, and dramas he wrote in Strasburg. His dramas, based on sixteenth-century models, were influential in the new Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) cult, for which Goethe's Rede zum Schakespears Tag (Conversation from Shakespeare's Time) and "Von deutscher Art und Kunst" (On German Nature and Art) provided early manifestos.

In 1774 the great novel of his early years appeared, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (translated as The Sorrows of Werter in 1779). Its representation of a youth driven to suicide by his hopeless love for the already married Charlotte became a pan-European best-seller. The novel was said to have made suicide fashionable for young men of sensibility.

Around this time Goethe began work on what was to be his masterpiece, Faust, a drama in two parts and ten acts, published in three installments: a fragment of Part I (1790), the enormously influential Part I (1808), and as a complete work, published posthumously and finished only months before his death on 22 March 1832.

Late in 1775 Goethe moved to Weimar at the invitation of the Duke Charles Augustus, and he soon became an indispensable minister in the Duke's court. Although there were to be several lengthy travels to Italy, which spurred his classical interests and learning, Goethe was to remain a fixture in Weimar and at the center of a remarkable literary circle for the remainder of his life, almost sixty years in all. There, despite his obligations as a minister of the state, Goethe wrote a prodigious amount and in all fields: his scientific works alone run to some fourteen volumes. By his death, he was seen not just as the commanding literary figure of his age in Germany, but as the greatest writer the country, and German language, had ever produced.