The Restless Spirit

A Scene by Scene Study of Goethe’s Faust

Part I

A. S. Kline © 2004 All Rights Reserved

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Introduction: Romanticism and Goethe’s Response

Romanticism is the apotheosis of the Individual. And the Romantic Movement in all its ramifications, with all its wealth of creation, with its vast range of artistic expression, is an identifiable movement precisely because it rests on and returns to a single unifying theme. That theme is the Individual Mind, the supremacy of that Mind, in particular its powers of Imagination and Creation, and the conflicts between the passions and aspirations of that Mind and the reality into which it is born. Romanticism as a way of being in the world, and as an ethos for creative art, changed the balance of thought, and the focus of perception. It ultimately completed the reverse Copernican revolution, from a world centred on society and the divine, to a world centred on humanity and the individual. Where the Classical world saw human beings in society, where the Medieval world conceived of them in their respective positions on the ladder of God, and as parts of the Divine plan, Romanticism, fuelled by the Enlightenment, starts from the Individual and goes on from there to question the meaning of being. Its premise is therefore Existentialist, and its outcome is Modernity.

Its roots go deep, beginning in the Middle Ages with the intellectual analysis carried out by scholastic thought, and with radical literary assertions of Individual life, particularly secular love. It is the heir of the Renaissance (Shakespeare anticipates many of the emotional aspects of Romanticism in the tensions between head and heart within his plays, for example in Hamlet), the heir too of the new Science, and of Cartesian Sceptical philosophy, and of the vast expansion of geographical horizons. It takes energy from, and feeds energy to, social and intellectual revolution. It spawns Modernity, and sets up a dualism, a tension with Classicism that is with us still. Its force is not spent, and cannot be spent as long as Individuality itself has life, and as long as there is a fundamental tension between the Individual life and the Human condition.

Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 27, William Blake

‘Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 27’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

At its extremes Romanticism celebrated a power of Individual vision that claimed access to the ultimate truths behind sensory phenomena. It attempted to grasp them through creative striving, through sensual and occult excess, through re-interpretation of human social, religious, mystical and anthropological history, and above all through the expression of intense feeling and emotion. The Individual creator was its supreme adornment, and Nature, the external creation, was a human counterpart, of which humanity was both part and not part. Isolated from his or her contemporaries through sensitivity and intensity of perceptions, in conflict with the limitations and boundaries of existence, in rebellion against social structures and conventions, he or she sought solutions that were exceptional, beyond the accepted modes of being in the world. The Romantics questioned the human relationship to, and ultimately the existence of, a deity. They questioned the basis of the social order. They questioned every frustration and every barrier that appeared to thwart personal fulfilment, and disappointed by the failure of society to evolve rapidly enough, and by the intellectual and emotional failure to fully grasp the world, directly and intuitively, they questioned the very possibility of fulfilment itself.

Some, often the Romantics of the first wave, like Chateaubriand, Wordsworth, Coleridge, resolve or partially resolve their issues within conventional religion and end in a resolution outside the Romantic Movement proper. Others like Blake, or much later Kierkegaard, reinterpret religion and their relationship to the divine in radical, personal ways. Their concept of the immediate communication with the divine, paves the way to the fully-fledged religious existentialist Moment, of Humanity alone in Eternity face to face with the Divine. And it anticipates Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s agonised poetry of difficult and individualistic belief. Religious Existentialism is the heir of Romanticism.

Others, are profound agnostics or atheists, like Shelley. A key figure in atheistic Romanticism, inheriting the strain of English radical thought that stretches back to Marlowe, yet recognising the deeper frustrations of a new social and intellectual sceptical reality, Shelley struggles ceaselessly to resolve the problems of extreme self-consciousness face to face with brute existence, of the wars of the heart and the head, of a materialism inadequate to human aspirations and an idealism that is beyond attainment, relationship torn apart by incompatibility between individuals, and imagination doomed to plunge after every fiery flight into exhausted darkness. Shelley’s desperate position is paralleled by De Sade’s destructive sensual materialism, and by the inexorable logic of the Sceptical philosophy as it worked its way through Descartes, Hume and Kant, and it anticipates Nietzsche’s ironic questioning of all values.

Some Romantics worked all their lives within the self-conscious artistic expression of feeling, communicating sensitivity, stress, and pathos, from Beethoven and Schubert to Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Elgar in music, from Goya and Delacroix to the post-impressionists Van Goch and Gauguin in painting, from Heine and Lermontov to Ibsen and Tchekov in Literature. They focused on the human within the individual, and the individual within humanity in a fruitful tension. They exhibit many of the key traits of the Movement.

And there is another group, of whom Goethe is one of the most significant, a group which includes Mozart and Brahms, Pushkin, Leopardi, and Byron, who experience Romanticism, are in sympathy with it when young, and yet who work to find a resolution beyond it in a Classical or Stoic poise, in a balanced and broad human sympathy, and in creative activity.

Romanticism is nothing if not a Movement that concerns itself with the Individual. And it is not surprising to find that each of its protagonists finds Individual solutions to the fundamental dilemmas and problems of the Romantic situation, and that the Movement itself can therefore seem fragmentary, united only in its disunity. But the key theme of the Individual is there at its root, and the whole of Romanticism is a woven carpet, of complex design, with overlapping areas and common strands.

I shall maintain here that Goethe crucially experienced and anticipated Romanticism and countered it with a Classical middle-way that he felt himself towards over a long lifetime, and expressed most successfully in Faust. In his youth as part of the pre-Romantic ‘Sturm and Drang’ (Storm and Stress) Movement he explored the dimensions of sensitivity, intensity, extreme self-consciousness. Then through a Classical revaluation, inspired by his Italian Journey, and coupled to his scientific interests, he corrected that Romanticism by a Classical poise, and a worldly ‘wisdom’ which like Byron’s in ‘Don Juan’ created detachment from himself and his creations, added humour to his verse, and moved away from extremism towards a positive world-view based on restraint, tolerance and human creativity. While understanding Romantic excess, the painful scepticism of a Shelley, the obsessive qualities of a Hölderlin, the ironies and self-mockery of a Baudelaire, Heine or Rimbaud, he evades their positions, and takes his own stand based on Nature, Classical sanity, and the ultimate beauty and richness of existence. This sanity, this broad-based empathy evokes comparisons with Homer, Shakespeare and Dante.

Goethe grappled with an even more complex situation than those three writers, who inherited beliefs and social structures that though changing provided temporarily a solid ground on which to create. Homer took over a mythological and semi-historical value framework, Dante expressed a fusion of conventional and radical medieval Christian and secular thought, while Shakespeare inherited the humanist Renaissance developments of Italy and France already deeply imbued with Classicism. Goethe had a more difficult task given the rate of change of the society around him and the intellectual climate. He was forced back towards Classicism to achieve stability and to the study of Nature to provide an external counterbalance to his internal sensitivities. He anticipated the power both of sceptical philosophy and of the sciences, seeing their destructive as well as their creative potential, saw perhaps more than many that both might triumph intellectually and yet that the victory might be a Pyrrhic one.

Romanticism was driven by an immense intellectual curiosity and a corresponding sense of frustration: a vast drive towards Truth, even at the expense of relationship and fulfilment, love and beauty. Its chief means was through the Individual sensibility and its freedom to think and create. Cogito ergo sum, the Descartian ‘I think therefore I am’, was its rallying cry, liberty from society and its constraints was its modus operandum. If the Individual is the new centre of the human universe, then the burden falls on the Individual to generate, from within, the whole set of values, the whole content of human truth. Given the extent to which our own personal culture and development also reflects humanity’s culture and development, that mission is doomed to failure, and Romanticism is therefore more notable for its exploratory, analytic, and ultimately destructive capabilities than for its resolutions of the human problem. Shelley, Rimbaud and Nietzsche are potent examples of this.

Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 1, William Blake

‘Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 1’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Romanticism is an adolescent, whose intellectual capabilities exceed experience, and it is not surprising that it exhibits the desire for freedom, the destructiveness of accepted values, an emotional wildness, and an incapacity for lasting relationship that intellectually precocious adolescents may exhibit. Equally it often possesses the strengths of that state, a refusal to be bound by tired and cynical social systems, and inhuman moral codes: a glorious intensity of feeling and expression: and a deep creative energy. The failures of social revolutions to fulfil their most radical agendas, the sceptical and scientific erosion of religious and mystical beliefs, the inability to sustain emotional flight above the mundane, disappointed and marred the romantic impulse. Somehow the divine restlessness, the search for ultimate truth and value, the yearning for perfect relationship, failed to find fulfilment. And Romanticism moves into Modernity, wiser, sadder, smaller and (eventually!) humbler. I would argue that, in Faust Part I Goethe anticipated a great deal of that arc, and tried in Part II to offer an alternative way forward. ‘Romanticism’, he once said, ‘is a disease’.

Faust, the dramatic character, was ready-made for Goethe as a vehicle through which to express the new situation: of the Individual attempting to pierce single-handedly the fabric of the Universe. Based on a vaguely historical character, Dr Faust of Bamberg (1520), recorded also in Ingolstadt (1528), and Nuremberg (1532), astrologer, and probably charlatan, who likely died at Staufen near Frieburg in the early 1540’s, Faust is nevertheless essentially a literary character from the beginning. His story was told in anonymous chapbooks (The History of Dr Johann Faust, published by Spies, Frankfurt, 1587, was followed by Widmann’s version in 1599, edited in 1674 by Pfitzer) that introduced the restless scholar dissatisfied with the limits of human knowledge, making a pact with the devil, journeying through possible human experience, and reaching a dismal end. The moralising tale was quickly translated into English, and Kit Marlowe’s play Dr Faustus, which elevated the artistic presentation while keeping much of the content, was exported back into Germany and Austria. There, much imitation followed, including the somewhat debased eighteenth century puppet-play versions that Goethe knew.

The theme was a gift. Faust traditionally was the isolated scholar-magician, dabbling with arcane knowledge, therefore the lone Individual. The character’s restless intellectual curiosity and desire for truth was in embryo that of the more-developed Renaissance and Enlightenment-driven eighteenth century. Goethe’s challenge was to take the conventional Christian framework of the story, and its accompanying moral values, and make it carry the weight of pre-Romantic and ultimately Romantic angst, while also achieving a more modern resolution. Our judgement of Faust as a work of art partly involves an assessment of the degree to which he succeeded in absorbing, transforming and resolving the heterogeneous mass of material he used.

A brief account of Goethe’s work on Faust is necessary. He created a first version, the Ur-Faust in his twenties in the 1770’s. These were sketches in prose and verse for what became Part I, including the Gretchen tragedy, and remained unpublished until a revised but cut-down version with a few new scenes appeared in 1790. Part I was then completed between 1797 and 1806 and published in his late fifties, in 1808. Part II was created in his seventies and published after Goethe’s death in 1832. Part I is therefore a mature man’s revision of his youthful ideas. Part II is an older man’s development of and resolution of that work. Goethe put into Faust not only his early pre-Romantic emotion, in all its depth, but also his later understanding of that state, and his attempt to resolve the problems for the Individual that it represented, through creative activity, and the acceptance of limitation.

If Faust does embody the Romantic paradigm in Part I, then we should expect to find him a restless spirit, dissatisfied with the inadequacy of the world and society, seeking inside himself the powers of the Individual soul to penetrate to a deeper or higher level of knowledge, emotionally frustrated, yearning, suffering from claustrophobia and intellectual doubt. His energy will be powerful but undirected. He will be attracted by power, and the possibilities of manipulation, but find relationship difficult. He will be self-centred, isolated, easily bored, outwardly harsh, but also capable of deep feeling for anything that offers an alternative to accepted constraint, and a possibility of purer and truer knowledge: therefore for Nature, innocence, beauty, freedom, fresh experience, and arcane knowledge.

Goethe’s task will be to show Faust’s search, highlight his failings, and track his evolution as a human being towards a nobler resolution. Goethe’s concept of Faust’s failings and of what constitutes a better outcome for him, are problematic and intriguing. If this Faust version is like its predecessors a morality play, we will have to consider the moral values it embodies. If Faust here is ultimately rescued from destruction and despair, we will have to consider whether that rescue is justified, and whether Goethe has successfully resolved the moral issues he has raised.

Part I: Dedication [go to translation]

Goethe is at pains to make clear that what he is presenting is a work of art, removed at some distance from reality, an imaginative creation. He therefore provides both this Dedication, and the succeeding Prelude on Stage, to emphasise the layers of reality between the author and Faust’s personal drama. Here, in the Dedication, Goethe, the Author, speaks. He is the creative originating reality out of which comes the play. The Dedication stresses that this work is the result of a lifetime’s effort, and positions it as a work of the age of sentiment. We are therefore conditioned to anticipate an ongoing development from the previously published Part I during Part II, reflecting Goethe’s own personal development that we may already be aware of through his poetry. But we are to place the whole work firmly within the value system of Goethe’s blend of Classicism and Romanticism, and to approach it through poetry and feeling.

The Dedication is a beautiful piece of writing, and within it the tender, humane Goethe is clearly evident. The atmosphere of illusion, of time passing, of re-awakened memories, reminds us that this is art and not reality, but an art intimately connected to the author’s life. Pushkin’s Dedication at the start of Eugene Onegin springs irresistibly to mind, as a comparable though more explicit statement of intent written from a similar standpoint, slightly distancing the author from the work while conceding it as still intimately related to the author’s own life.

Part I: Prelude On Stage [go to translation]

We shift straight to the next level of reality, with the Prelude written for the Theatre Director, the Dramatist who is Goethe but not Goethe, and the Comedian who represents the Actors. Goethe is now starting to manipulate his puppets, and though we are entering the theatre we are made to think about the level of reality that presents a previously written drama, employing actors and not real people, in an environment created for commercial gain.

The Director sets out his objectives for the play: that it should be ‘weighty, but entertaining’ and we remember the phrase Goethe himself used about Part II, ‘very serious jokes’. And Goethe now enjoys himself portraying the sensitive Poet-Dramatist charged with pandering to the masses. Here is the embryonic Romantic, wishing to isolate himself from crudities, and write only for the depths, and for ‘posterity’. The Comedian presents an amusing worldly counterbalance. By now we are smiling.

Goethe uses the Director again to make a point that will be made hereafter in the play, that it does consist of many bits and pieces. Goethe was clearly conscious of the somewhat patchwork-quilt nature of his creation, and he makes a little fun of it, but with a serious point, that there is more to Faust than merely Faust’s ‘story’, and in fact much of its enduring charm lies in Goethe’s digressions, his poetry, his humour and his meld of Greek and Gothic backcloths, of Classical and Romantic elements.

The Poet condemns this populist modus operandum, but the Director strikes an important though humorous note by stressing social reality, as a corrective to Romantic illusion, only to be countered by the Poet again with a fine speech claiming the priority of the poet, and hinting at the core of the Romantic assertion of the inspired Individual. Fine, the Comedian replies: then use it, turn inspiration into activity. And here Goethe is sounding his deeper theme of creative activity rather than merely imagination as the key to the successful life. And moreover, the Comedian says, make it a Love story a Love play, throwing in as he does so a passing reference to Goethe’s semi-autobiographical letter-novel The Sorrows of Young Werther! Once more Goethe stresses the multifarious nature of what he is offering, it won’t appeal to everyone, but he is aiming it at the young, those still in growth, in development. And his serious point is that Faust provides an object lesson. If Werther led to copycat suicides he expects Faust to lead to more rounded and balanced human beings. He himself had made Romanticism’s great mistake, excessive self-consciousness, and he is offering now a corrective, the fuller interpretation of human life.

Well, to talk to the young I need my youth again, cries the Poet-Dramatist, and it is a beautiful piece of verse he employs, conjuring up the age of sentiment, and the sweetness of the Romantic vision, of ‘joy in illusion, and thirst for truth’. Surely, Goethe is implying, this is what youth is about, the Romantic fever, and I, Goethe as the Poet-Dramatist, am too old for all that to succeed. Not at all, says the Comedian, youth is needed for action, for activity, age will do fine for wisdom and art.

But back to the action we go with the Director. Show me the lot, he says. Make things happen. And Goethe repeats his main theme: that inspiration and feeling are not enough, that activity is essential, and that the broad-based life does not disdain to create first, and worry about the reception of its creation afterwards. Goethe is conscious of his own delay in completing Faust! On then to the next layer of reality, the play itself, with first a prologue to set the overall scene.

Part I: Prologue In Heaven [go to translation]

Is Goethe serious? He now employs imagery of the Angels and the traditional God in Heaven, brings in a sort of devil in Mephistopheles, and presents us with an interesting pact (based on Job’s Biblical trials) that presents us with all sorts of moral issues, not to say confusion! Goethe is mocking traditional ideas of a humourless Deity and its trappings. He clearly is having fun with all this as stage scenery, and not with any blasphemous intent: his key message is orthodox enough, that human destiny lies in ceaseless activity, and thus is inevitably linked to error, that activity is threatened by apathy and the devil can be seen as part of the divine plan to goad humanity into activity again. Goethe’s use of Christian trappings is not without its problems, as we shall find later. They are best understood in the light of his own unorthodox and fundamentally Pantheistic views of a Divine Creativity at work in the Universe and visible in Nature, which ultimately is free of human concepts like Heaven and Hell, and in which everything human can be absorbed and renewed, regardless of its ethical status. It is certainly questionable whether Goethe believed in sin or evil as forces, rather than states of error into which human beings may fall. If we are expecting Faust therefore to be a clear-cut morality play, with an ethical evaluation of Faust, resulting logically in his redemption or damnation, as we find in Marlowe and the earlier versions of the Faust story, we will be disappointed.

In the Prologue, we are presented with the Archangels celebrating Light and Energy, as well as the tranquil Order created by the Divine Being. Clearly the universe is a place of eternal activity too. Then Mephistopheles appears, to report on the state of things on Earth, which allows Goethe some more fun at our expense, and in his dig at Reason a suggestion perhaps that Goethe is questioning the Enlightenment assumption that Mind is enough to solve human problems. If only the heart could follow the head, a true Romantic would reply: Shelley’s heart inspired by Rousseau for example, countering his mind informed by Hume. Mephistopheles hardly needs to provoke human beings to sin: they do it well enough on their own!

Now God and Mephistopheles give us our first oblique view of Faust. Apparently he is a restless spirit, seeking the highest, but dissatisfied with it all, and troubled by his heart, a condition Shelley well understood. Faust is at first glance the quintessential Romantic Individual, a striving mind bound to a whirlpool of emotions. God nevertheless sees Faust’s potential.

Mephistopheles however asserts his claim, his right as devil to test Faust’s allegiance to the good. God assents but delivers his moral let-out clause for Faust, that human life involves error. Catholic teaching after all anticipated failure and offered confession and repentance in this life, and, traditionally, Purgatory as a means of expiating sin hereafter. The requirement is to strive towards the right, although not only direct error, but also, as in Buddhism where a quietist doctrine resulted, the indirect and unforeseen consequences of our actions may well create wrongs. God now offers up Faust to Mephistopheles.

Clearly this is all stage ‘business’ to show us the wager. Mephistopheles presumably already has every right to tempt Faust or what is the devil about? Mephistopheles, God declares, is a spirit of denial, a jesting spirit he has placed on Earth to goad human beings into action. And Mephistopheles has the last jesting word of the scene.

It has been suggested that the wager is hardly a wager because God cannot lose since error is the nature of human existence, and the devil is there to prod us into activity that leads to error! Faust will make his mistakes, but God already intends him for salvation. That is the case only if we assume that no spirit sins enough on Earth to be damned, an unlikely scenario if Goethe did believe in any of the trappings of conventional religion, though it is likely that he did not, at least not in Hell and damnation. We can of course choose to assume that God already knows through pre-destination what will happen to Faust, and that Faust is anyway intrinsically ‘good’, and can be abused and seduced but not ultimately corrupted.

Illustrations of the Book of Job, Plate 15, William Blake

‘Illustrations of the Book of Job, Plate 15’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Goethe was prepared in Faust to use the Christian trappings, and to communicate a strong sense of divine grace and redemption at the end of the play, and regardless of his religious beliefs he has, I would contend, to convince us of the moral integrity of his play, and that Faust deserves the conventional redemption he prepares for him. It is fine to present a Pantheistic world and suggest that morality is less important than good intentions and creative activity, but even Goethe can’t have it both ways, there are values reflected in Christianity, Humanism, and elsewhere, that we have to be convinced are being employed in art before we concede that art the highest place, certainly in the educational role that Goethe suggests his play will have for those still ‘in development’. We need to be convinced that Faust is on the right path. If Goethe fails to address the moral issues deeply enough then Mephistopheles’ role is undermined, and he may as well be an ironic and witty friend with magical powers, or merely an inner seductive voice, rather than an ambassador of the Devil. If we are not satisfied that Faust in the end travels the right path then Goethe fails to address the problem of Romanticism in Faust, and fails in Faust to provide a role model for those who wish to escape from Romanticism into some broader solution to the human condition: which is not to say that Goethe did not provide such a role model in his own life.

The whole scene in Heaven can be interpreted as a symbolic statement (‘everything transitory is only a parable’: as the closing lines of Faust claim) of the internal conflicts within Faust, within Mankind. In that sense Mephistopheles is an aspect of Faust’s own spirit, personified: that part of his spirit which follows the worse while his divine part seeks the better, while God is a personification of the creative forces of the Universe, expressed also by the Archangels.

It is worth dwelling on Mephistopheles, a potent character and one of the delights of the play. He is presented as the ironic, cynical, witty spirit of denial for much of the play, and more as an aspect of humanity than a true demonic force. He can provide comedy, be the frustrated devil of popular literature, play Faust’s unwilling servant, and occasionally show a demon’s teeth and claws. Much of the humour in the play derives from the counterpoint between the serious Faust and the mocking and irreverent Mephistopheles. Faust’s restless idealism and sentiment, is offset by Mephisto’s relentless ridicule and attempts to cut Faust down to human size. Faust is rhetorical and high-flown, Mephisto down to earth and ruthless.

As the play progresses Mephisto is forced to become more subdued as Faust’s activity becomes more mature and less hedonistic, and Mephistopheles is perversely placed in the position by their pact of helping Faust towards the good, and the altruistic, in order to help create the conditions under which he might win the wager.

Finally towards the end Mephistopheles, like Care, seeks to expose the deep theme of the denying spirit. He is that part in us which finds all achievement worthless and all activity soured by its inevitable transience and our mortality. He is the enemy of faith and optimism, the personification of sarcasm and mockery. He is the master of the debunking line, and the sardonic glance. He is the dark questioning within us that may often find the universe hollow, valueless and hostile. Why create at all, if all returns to the void? This is Goethe’s fundamental question, the question at the heart of Faust, and one which he answers with his picture of the Creative universe, unfolding in Love and visible in Nature, where by our activity we link ourselves to the greater activity, and by our love to the greater Love. Faust’s meaning and the meaning of the play is therefore contained in the Self’s answer to its own deepest misgivings about life. Faust is the symbol of creative energy, which alone in Goethe’s view gives ultimate purpose to a life, and which can ensure ‘salvation’ (in a non-conventional sense) even when that life is a journey of error and unintentional harm.

Part I Scene I: Night [go to translation]

Now we enter into the play, on Earth, where we find Faust in his study. The stage direction shows him already restless, and he begins with a denial of the value of what he has learnt and what he now teaches. Learning destroys the joy of living but doesn’t provide in return worldly honours or great wealth. He is now employing Magic to try and ‘understand whatever binds the world’s innermost core together’. Clearly he has had no unifying vision of the kind that Dante apprehends in the closing canto of the Divine Comedy. And the solution to his questioning and disillusionment does not appear likely to be a religious one, at least not conventionally so. Goethe’s own early metaphysical views were developed from a heady mixture of neo-platonic, mystical and alchemical texts (See Poetry and Truth, Book VIII). He is after a direct intuition of essential truths, that formal knowledge does not give him. Choked by the dusty cell in which he exists, far from the beauty of moonlit Nature, he suffers, and turns to Magic as a route to a different grasp of reality. Nature has early been introduced as a corrective to the Mind’s frustration, and this will not be the first time Goethe suggests that the answers lie beyond Reason alone.

Viewing the symbol of the Macrocosm, the wider Universe, Faust revives his heart and senses, the natural man. What he sees is some sort of cosmic diagram of interpenetrating angelic, or perhaps stellar and planetary energies, and the diagram alone has the power to delude him and calm him, so that he thinks he sees more clearly into universal Nature. Goethe may well be thinking of Dante’s neo-platonic explanations in the Divine Comedy here, as well as of the diagrams in his own cabbalistic and mystical reading. Nevertheless Faust quickly admits it as a mere picture. Nature itself is otherwise, its fountains of energy flow from some unseen source, and to drink from that source is what the frustrated Faust desires. Goethe plays here to the very real sense most of us have, even those of us well-versed in modern science, of an intuitive gap between our (still inadequate) understanding of how energy flows through the universe and what energy is, or rather how it feels to be part of the complex of energies that forms our reality. What we understand is not what we feel. And that gap fuels a strange quasi-belief I think that somehow we might bridge it, by some combination of knowledge and perception that would render us closer in our relationship to Nature and Being. A belief designed to be ultimately thwarted.

Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 97, William Blake

‘Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 97’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Faust the isolated spirit is here seeking relationship, with Truth, with Nature, with the Cosmos. And that lack of relationship, truly felt relationship is the source of his distress. That same lack and that same distress are at the root of Existentialist thinking. We believe the Universe should be in a deeper relationship to us than that of blind laws. We almost demand empathy from it, that same empathy which our own brain functions have, not just with other human beings but also with physical objects and processes. We expect it to be returned: an unreasonable expectation. Faust’s difficult relationship with the Universe is just one of the difficult relationships he has with everything and everyone about him, and we will keep an eye on his relationship problems as we go.

He now (line 460) turns to the symbol of the Earth-Spirit instead. The Earth-Spirit seems to represent Earthly energies, a closer aspect of Nature, the microcosm rather than the macrocosm. Faust invokes the Spirit itself, and calls it the ‘Active’ Spirit a ‘form of fire’. But faced with its real presence, he is unable to endure its intrinsic play of energies, is challenged by it and forced to respond, and in the end as he tries to compare himself with it the Spirit rejects the comparison. Human understanding comprehends its own concepts, not those inherent in Nature. Sceptical Philosophy with a vengeance! Shelley who admired Goethe, and translated scenes from Faust (though Goethe had little knowledge of Shelley) came up against that same barrier to human understanding indicated in the philosophy of Hume and later Kant, which he was too honest a thinker to evade. The Enlightenment forever distanced the world from us, and yet….we are entangled in it.

Much of the scene so far is done for dramatic effect, and I doubt Goethe had any more belief in the Earth-Spirit than he did in the Lord God who appeared in the prologue. But it is there to make a crucial point, that the world itself is sacred energy, and that Faust cannot directly reach that energy, and so cannot achieve direct intuition of Nature, through mysticism or magic.

Note that Faust has now traversed the world of highest knowledge and failed to satisfy his yearning. Neither conventional knowledge nor magic yield him access to universal Truth. His subsequent use of magic will give him access to a far lower, if still fascinating, world. Goethe now has the challenge of all writers utilising the Faust legend that of making Faust’s future progress interesting and profound, given that there is now no deeper religious or mystical experience to be encountered, until perhaps the final scenes. It is a fundamental artistic problem of the Faust story as a Christian morality tale that its middle part tends to strike a lower note, because the spiritual energies are most visible at the beginning and end of the work. Marlowe did not avoid the problem either. His beginning and ending elicit his greatest verse.

Faust’s pupil Wagner now knocks at the door and breaks the spell (518). Note the stage direction. Wagner is coming from the house of sleep, with a little light of knowledge, while Faust has been bathed in the glow of the Earth-Spirit. Wagner’s comment about Greek Tragedy is potent. Faust is here a potentially tragic character, his situation created by the fatal human condition and he himself morally flawed in various ways.

The repartee here allows Goethe a comment on oratory, Faust’s speech (534 onwards) being somewhat shadowed by the hysterical though now doubt ‘heart-felt’ rhetoric of the Third Reich. I would imagine Hitler enjoyed these lines as he may have enjoyed other parts of the play that exhibit Faust’s selfish, Utopian dreams realised through quasi-dictatorship. Goethe of course intended no such reading. Faust in such scenes is weak and flawed still, and only on his first faltering way towards the light even towards the end of the play. The lines here are superficially true, but their gleam has dulled to an age that has heard many fine speeches but seen less fine action to go with them. In fact Goethe immediately counteracts his words with a plea for sincerity that is music to our ears (548).

Faust now criticises Wagner’s appeal to past wisdom and ancient writings, in a bitter and acerbic stretch of writing, the nearest Goethe gets to a deeper cynicism of the kind we might expect from Baudelaire, Heine, or Rimbaud. But certainly he anticipates Romanticism’s full-blown dismissal of second-hand experience: Blake’s ‘Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.’ (Though note that Blake presumably also means that the dead make good soil for new crops), or Shelley’s ‘The world is weary of the past.’ And at line 590 in making a reference to the Crucifixion, he also strikes the note of Romanticism generally, that of the open-hearted and tender spirit faced with a brutal and unsympathetic world, that became a cliché of the ‘artistic genius starving in a garret’ mode of Romantic imagery.

It is Easter eve, the night prior to the Resurrection. Faust first must enter the darkness of self-recognition and attempted suicide. He realises that his failure to relate fully to the Earth-Spirit is a sign of his own lack of power (624), his inability to make the Spirit stay, a familiar enough feeling to the poet whose inspiration fades, as to the mystic whose vision dies. He launches on a Shelley-like speech (634-639) of despair, which modifies into one of humility, brings in a memory of Yorick’s skull from Hamlet (664) to convey the feeling of mortality and limitation, and suggests (672) that Nature’s secrets can’t be wrested from her by instruments, that is by Faust’s science.

In one sense that shows Goethe’s lack of understanding of the scientific reductionist project which has succeeded beyond its own wildest dreams, in physics particularly, though at another level it hints at the possible limitations of such an approach, and we may find Goethe’s words ring truer in future. Faust’s own attempt though certainly has failed, and in his humiliation he completes a fine passage of soliloquy with his aborted attempt to drink a deadly potion. At that moment he glimpses again a vision of that ‘pure activity’ he is seeking, and Goethe summons up potent natural imagery to convey the universal energy (701) while orienting our thinking towards ‘action’, remembering that his underlying theme is ceaseless activity as part of the solution to the Romantic dilemma. In this case it is wrong and potentially fatal action, akin to Chatterton’s suicide, Byron’s fatalistic plunge into Greek politics, Rimbaud’s self-imposed silent exile in Africa, or Gauguin’s late-Romantic return to Nature. Faust anticipates the outcome may be Baudelaire’s ‘Hell or Nothingness’, and so becomes, for a moment, part of the reckless and apocalyptic Romantic death wish.

His self-destructive action is fortunately interrupted by the Choir who celebrate the risen Christ as Easter Sunday dawns. And the Christ celebrated is He who atoned for Original Sin. Goethe is, at least here, subscribing to traditional formulae, and we are still in the morality play. It is typical of Goethe, and works beautifully here, that he should stress the Resurrection and not the Crucifixion. He is sensitive to the liberating moment, and the tender effect of the role of the women, with Christ as the Bridegroom. While failing now to subscribe to the faith, Faust is still prompted by childhood feelings to experience that spiritual sense of liberation and tenderness, and it recalls him to life, to emotion, to the age of sensibility rather than sense, to the age of pre-Romanticism rather than the age of Enlightenment. Yet it is Earth, not Heaven that claims him.

The Choir of Disciples meanwhile (785) stress the ‘creative bliss’ that Christ enters, close to the heart of Goethe’s own belief in universal creative energy, the lack of which leaves the Disciples yearning, in the Romantic mode. Goethe closes this fine and powerful scene by re-iterating some of his core values, freedom, activity, love, brotherhood, virtuous travel, joyful promise…and we hear there the echoes of the French Revolution, a revolution at variance with Goethe’s politics, but sharing in that same set of values, that same idealism that fed Romanticism, and that certainly at the start of the Revolution (and of other revolutions) does fire the hearts of the revolutionaries. Here they are stressing an alternative world to Faust’s dreams of lone knowledge, Individual feeling, and power, that of Dante’s shared world of the Paradiso where the community of energised spirits celebrates its inter-relatedness, and where what is given increases in the giving, and what is shared is not diminished but multiplied.

Part I Scene II: In Front of the City-Gate [go to translation]

Faust’s temporary reconciliation with the Earth sets up a scene with a threefold purpose. It emphasises Faust’s relationship with, and separation from, the crowd of ordinary humanity. It allows Goethe to re-emphasise Nature as a complex value-set. And it serves to introduce Mephistopheles disguised as a black dog!

Goethe firstly enjoys playing with the talk and attitudes of the ‘common’ people. Nice stage atmosphere here, some good humour and an opportunity for some theatre ‘business’. We hear a mention of witchcraft (872-880) that sows the seed for the black dog’s appearance at the end of the scene. There is a strong sexual undercurrent in the chatter, and the soldiers’ song, that also alerts us to the approaching Gretchen drama.

Faust and Wagner now appear (903) and Faust gives a speech extolling Nature resurrected from winter, and Humanity liberated from work and the city. Wagner counteracts this with the odi profanum (hatred of the common crowd: see Horace Odes Book III:i) of the true scholar and Romantic. Goethe is striking a note that he will return to at the end of the play, Faust relating to and identifying with the human race, and being embraced by, enfolded into, the community of human spirits. Nature in spring, the resurrected Christ, and liberated Humanity are here identified as one. The Nature identity stems from Rousseau perhaps, the resurrected Christ as a vegetation God from early comparative mythology studies that Goethe may have read.

The farm-workers under the tree point up Wagner’s distaste, with another deliberate piece of sexual innuendo. Goethe though is proclaiming human sexuality as a valid part of experience, and life. He enjoys his descriptions of sexuality throughout Faust, and they reflect his view of sexuality as a generally fruitful and valid part of loving human experience. There is no sexual horror or brooding in Goethe.

Then we have a scene with the Farmer and the crowd that draws Faust into relation with them. It appears he and his father had been involved in saving people from the plague, and Wagner praises him accordingly once the people have moved on. But Faust in a burst of honesty, influenced by the liberating moment, confesses that his father had in reality employed alchemy to produce useless remedies, and that they had killed rather than cured their patients. This is Goethe’s first example of the unintentional harm caused by his actions that will dog Faust throughout his life. Wagner gives a wonderful reply, straight from the realms of thoughtless and unfeeling experimental science. It was all good practice, and each generation learns more and gets better at it!

We then have a piece of pure Romantic yearning, as Faust longs for wings of the spirit to lift him above the Earth and let him follow the Light. Wagner in turn dismisses Nature in favour of learning, allowing Faust a speech identifying his dual nature in true Romantic fashion, his earthbound persona and his restless spirit, where he longs for a magic carpet, something that Mephistopheles will eventually provide! Wagner sounds a valid warning here: in talking about the deceitfulness of the airborne spirits he alerts the reader to the potentially deceitful nature of what they will witness next. And yet it is Wagner who calms Faust’s suspicions of the black dog: a subtle little point. Wagner will usually fail to put into practice what he has learned. And the scene ends with Wagner unwittingly ridiculing himself. Faust has made the point that there is no ‘spirit’ in the dog, only training, and Wagner confirms that obedience and rote learning rather than spirit make the true scholar. It is rather unfair of Goethe to have Wagner condemn himself out of his own mouth: but that is the author’s privilege!

Part I Scene III: The Study [go to translation]

With deep irony the opening lines of the scene show us Faust refreshed by Nature, his restless spirit temporarily at peace, and filled with love of Humanity and the Divine. Yet here is Mephistopheles in the form of the dog about to destroy his tranquillity.

The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 79 [Adaptation, Detail], William Blake

‘The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 79 [Adaptation, Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Faust soon experiences his usual fall from the heights of emotion to a new feeling of deficiency, but in this quieter, religious mood turns to the Bible and begins to translate. Searching to express the origin of things, he tries first the traditional translation, that of ‘the Word’, the ancient poet’s solution, then ‘Mind, the philosopher’s approach, then ‘Power’, and we think of Nietzche’s attempt to relate all to the Will to Power, and finally, in line with Goethe’s own message in Faust, of ceaseless activity, he seizes on ‘the Act.’ This is in embryo Faust’s journey in the play, since he will reject the word and the mind in the form of conventional learning and self-centred emotion, power in the form of magic and selfishness, and will seize on creative activity as the road to salvation.

The black dog, irritated no doubt by all this religious thought, amusingly disturbs him, then gives a hint of its infernal Nature. Prompted by the Elemental Spirits (Salamander-fire, Undine-water, Sylph-air, Gnome-earth), Faust carries out the appropriate rituals, equivalent to an exorcism using holy symbols rather than magic, to free whatever is lurking in the dog’s form. And Mephistopheles appears, in the form of an itinerant scholar, as Wagner had unwittingly implied!

Questioned, Mephistopheles gives a crucial definition of what he represents to Goethe within the play, ‘Part of the Power that would always wish evil, and always works the good’ (1335). The implication is that in Goethe’s universe the devil is an aspect of the divine that prods Humanity towards the good, and this is in line with the opening Prologue in Heaven where God declares that He put Mephistopheles on earth for precisely that purpose. The concept will cause us, and Goethe, some problems though. It suggests that if there is the possibility of ultimate evil and sin, then Mephistopheles is not the traditional Devil proper, since his activity drives towards the good. Alternatively if there is no Devil proper, and no ultimate possibility of evil, then Mephistopheles is already doomed to failure and Humanity always saved. Goethe has trouble with the Christian trappings of his story, which he inherited from the old morality play, and yet it is all too much fun for him to let it go. We therefore get an awkward mixture of pseudo-Christian morality, and Goethe’s own pantheistic, enlightened attitude, where sin is never truly real, and error is correctable, creativity is the prime force, humanity is not radically corrupt, and Nature will effectively ‘forgive’ and ‘absolve’ us if only we keep on trying. It is dangerous therefore to try and read Faust as some sort of ethical Divine Comedy, which it patently is not, despite the lingering atmosphere of the morality play. It is a ‘comedy’ of errors, where the hero is never really under threat from demonic forces, only from his own personality and failings, and those are real enough.

Goethe is circling around the central Romantic, and subsequent modern, issue. If there is no substance to traditional religion, then what is the foundation of morality, other than arbitrary social rules? The Romantics will follow this through to the shifting relativity of values, existentialist despair and ultimately nihilism. Philosophy and Theology will meanwhile attempt a re-valuation of values, or reinterpret the divine relationship. Goethe’s position is in many respects more modern still, that is to re-found morality, though he does not do so explicitly, on values that are inherent in our natural humanity, based on sensitivity, empathy, love, creativity and balance. This is both a more limited and a more consistent approach. It acknowledges the human (for us, neo-Darwinian) position as a part of nature, with a biological history, but understands morality as primarily an assertion of our inner selves, rather than a set of rules imposed from outside our nature, society and biology. Mephistopheles goes on to identify himself as the spirit of denial, of destruction, of darkness and of whatever human beings mean by sin and evil. Though, he concedes, his efforts are always frustrated by the creative energies of the world.

Mephistopheles now wishes to leave but is trapped by the unfinished pentagram drawn on the floor, in which the dog-form was accidentally caught. Faust hints at a pact, and Mephistopheles agrees to the possibility. Promising to stay and then lulling Faust to sleep with Spirit-singing, he calls up the insects, rodents etc to complete the pentagram and allow his escape. Faust wakes thinking it all illusion, a dream. So Mephistopheles, the seductive and witty spirit who will continually tempt, lead, serve and seduce Faust has been introduced. He is more than an aspect of Faust’s own mind, and yet not quite the Devil of conventional theology, a theatrical devil within a play, and yet a real force, an Enlightenment force of scepticism, negativity, mockery and laughter: reason without a heart, wit without generosity. And Goethe has also set the scene for the pact between Faust and Mephistopheles that will now follow.

Part I Scene IV: The Study [go to translation]

Mephistopheles returns, and invites Faust to experience Life with him. Faust indulges in a complaint regarding the claustrophobia, indifference and torment generated by his existence. Mephistopheles (1572) expresses his scepticism at such an extreme position, and counters Faust’s Romantic death wish by mocking Faust’s failure to carry through with the suicide he had planned (1580). Goethe is here allowing Faust to state the Romantic position, while Mephistopheles undermines it. Faust now launches into a comprehensive curse of everything that he claims deceives the mind and heart: thoughts, sensations, aspirations, possessions, wealth, wine women, faith, hope and patience! Mephistopheles responds through the voices of the seductive spirits, calling Faust back to life, though it is a false life Mephistopheles plans for him not the true life, and offers to serve Faust. Faust in return demands the basis for that service. Mephistopheles replies that it will be a reciprocal arrangement (1656) with Faust returning the services in the afterlife that Mephistopheles provides in this one.

Faust replies with another Romantic dismissal of this world and a willingness to ignore the consequences of the next, and Mephistopheles again pursues the logical outcome. Now Faust condemns in advance whatever Mephistopheles can offer, wealth, love etc as snares, and his bravado leads him to the pact. If Mephistopheles can ensnare him and seduce him until his own self is a joy to him, and the Moment a blessing, then Mephistopheles can have him. Perversely Mephistopheles will agree to this though it places Mephisto in the position of working counter to his own role, that of being a spur to restlessness and fresh activity.

Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 6 [Detail], William Blake

‘Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 6 [Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

The agreement is made, but Mephistopheles wants it sealed in writing, and slyly mocks Faust’s rhetoric while angling for a pact signed in blood: ‘Blood is a quite special fluid’ (1740). Faust, in disgust, is now ready to plunge into the whirlpool of experience and into the ‘restless activity’ that ‘proves the man’. He will accept human sensation and experience, become one of the mass, and absorb the whole, despite Mephistopheles scepticism. Mephistopheles suggests that given human inadequacy and the shortness of time, he might like to employ a poet to help! The poet can roam in imagination, and speed up the process! Faust’s summation of his limitations (1810) can be addressed by making use of him, Mephistopheles. The scholar is a person after all who is isolated from reality.

And here one comes, or rather a student. Mephistopheles changes roles with Faust, putting off his own wit, he declares (1848), for that of the sterile, witless teacher of others. And, as Faust exits, he declares his programme for Faust (1851) himself, to take one who now despises Man’s highest efforts, blind him and drag him through the sensual world, stir his desires endlessly, and ruin him.

The student now enters and Goethe indulges in a witty series of passages where Mephistopheles mocks at traditional learning, science divorced from spirit, metaphysics divorced from natural thought, the reductionist method, law without commonsense or generosity, theology that poisons the mind, the shifting sands of language, and ineffective medical practice with its expert and sensual preying on the patient’s illusory ills. Theory is grey, says Mephistopheles, but the tree of life itself is green (2038). Goethe is having great fun establishing Mephistopheles’ credentials as a commentator, one following in the footsteps of Voltaire and Beaumarchais. Goethe will make Mephistopheles a true heir of the Enlightenment. After all there is plenty to ridicule in human society, and a satirical note will be a strong theme throughout Faust, fuelling its humour and offsetting Faust’s frequently ridiculous gravity. The scene ends with Faust feeling uncomfortable already in his new role (2055), and off they float on a cloak filled with hot air!

Goethe has established the Faust and Mephistopheles pairing now: a Don Quixote, Sancho Pança dual act, with plenty of theatrical potential. We might consider Faust to be influenced by Rousseau, Mephistopheles by Voltaire: Faust as the product of the age of Romanticism or at least the age of Sentiment, Mephistopheles the product of the Enlightenment. Faust is mind deranged by emotion, Mephistopheles is reason distorted by lack of it.

Goethe has also forged their pact, the complement to Mephistopheles wager with God in Heaven. Since Mephistopheles is a facet of God’s plan for Faust we again anticipate his ultimate rescue. Mephistopheles is given power over Faust during his life on earth, and the terms of the pact are such that Faust’s life will end if he loses his wager with Mephistopheles, but conversely by doing so Faust will win it, since Mephistopheles in turn will lose power over Faust. Win or lose, Faust will be saved.

There is a deeper question though of what, in Goethe’s universe, Faust could do that would result in true damnation, or what such damnation would consist of? Goethe gives us no clues. It remains to be seen how well he can convince us of Faust’s intrinsic goodness despite all error, if he is not to invalidate the workings of the deeper ‘morality’ play, and allow us to accuse Faust and his creator of an immoral or amoral view of life.

Equally Mephistopheles’ wager with Faust can only be won (and thereby lost) by him seducing Faust to the blessedness of the Moment, not by him leading Faust into irredeemable sin. A curious wager, since it puts the Devil in the place of one trying to prove the blessedness of life on earth, not one trying to destroy the moral fabric. Mephistopheles is a very strange devil. And we remember that his role is as a goad and spur to Mankind, as one who dabbles with the bad, but inexorably creates the good. Goethe’s faith is placed in activity, the activity of the intrinsically decent human being. Mephistopheles will harry and seduce Faust, but ultimately Goethe will not let him deflect Faust from the creative path. Rejecting temporarily the attempt to aspire to the realms of the Spirits, and proclaiming the sterility of knowledge and learning, Faust will now descend into the pleasures and pains of human experience.

Part I Scene V: Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig [go to translation]

Goethe next introduces a scene of “common male life”, involving ‘wine, women and song’ that is drinking, sexual innuendo, and verse displaying cynicism about women (2103, 2126), political scepticism and realism (2211), and jokes about nationalities and regions (2256,2270). Faust’s ‘Grand Tour’ of experience has started and Mephistopheles is parading this (2159) as an example of how men pass the time, unthinkingly, pointlessly, stupidly but relatively happily. Here is the world of ordinary bodily sensuality, the world of the ‘swine’, where the senses rule, and mind follows the lead of the senses.

Mephistopheles himself is unrecognised by the drinkers, despite his limping (disguised) cloven foot, and now conjures up various founts of drink for the tavern regulars, and adds a bit of hellfire for fun. His magical incantations have an Elizabethan quality that Goethe perhaps learnt from Shakespeare (2313). The drinkers now have the illusion of being in a land of vineyards, and as the vision dissolves are left grasping each other by the nose. Goethe is clearly enjoying creating the whole episode and exhibiting his ‘grasp’ of the common people, while Faust is relatively uninvolved and bored or disgusted by Mephistopheles’ tricks. Cheap pursuit of sensuality is unlikely to win his attention for long.

Part I Scene VI: The Witches’ Kitchen [go to translation]

Mephistopheles now drags Faust off to the Witch’s Kitchen with the promise that he can achieve renewed youth by drinking her magic potion. Faust’s irritation with the need for debased magic is countered by Mephistopheles ‘natural’ solution to the problem, a somewhat Stoic, Epicurean or Taoist one: live a peasant’s life; restrict your aims and goals; as the Chinese would say ‘Make your heart small.’

Mephistopheles defends the witch’s art that requires more than a devil’s patience! Her creatures meanwhile entertain Mephistopheles with fragments of wisdom, limited pieces of human scepticism about life, and silly jests. Faust has found a magic mirror in which he sees the vision of a beautiful woman (Helen) and Mephistopheles holds out a teasing promise of bringing her to Faust. Goethe thereby introduces a major subsequent theme, Faust’s pursuit of Beauty as exemplified in Woman, and therefore perfected in Helen the most beautiful woman of the Classical world. Since Truth has failed him so far, Love and Beauty will clearly be areas of experience that a rejuvenated Faust will have to traverse in search of contentment and the exalted Moment.

The Witch now arrives down the chimney, and Mephistopheles mocks her chant and taunts her for not recognising him, though he concedes that modern Northern devils are men about town, gentlemen, and dandies, and so indistinguishable among the rest! The Witch at his instigation prepares the potion for Faust, and Mephistopheles chides the dour Doctor for his inability to enjoy the fun of witchcraft and incantation. Goethe is already distinguishing Mephistopheles light humour and cynical lack of seriousness from Faust’s questing nature and serious intent. Mephistopheles is the spirit of Voltaire, Faust that of Rousseau. Mephistopheles is the Enlightenment, Faust the proto-Romantic. Wit, reason and poise are not enough for human beings: Faust demands a deeper goal, a higher aim, a profound activity on which to stake his life.

He drinks the potion and is rejuvenated. Mephistopheles promises the new younger Faust a sexual liaison, and a woman who encapsulates all beauty, since cynically all women will now appear like Helen to the Faust who has drunk the Witch’s potion. Goethe neatly contrasts Mephistopheles domain where all sexuality is merely carnality and self-deceit with Faust’s apparently purer motives and deeper desire for Beauty and perhaps Love.

Young's Night Thoughts, Page 27 [Detail], William Blake

‘Young's Night Thoughts, Page 27 [Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Part I Scene VII: A Street [go to translation]

Faust now meets Margaret (Gretchen) and we are moving into the main tragic content of Part I, a classic seduction of the innocent girl, followed by her downfall engineered unwittingly by Faust and deliberately by Mephistopheles. Where Faust acts for selfish but seemingly genuine motives and by acting creates ripples in the sea of time that cause damage and destruction, Mephistopheles seeks to twist Faust’s actions to cause maximum harm and so divert him from the path of activity. The issue for the Reader or Audience throughout Part I will be how to judge Faust’s selfishness born of a real desire for deeper life in a moral context, since it is impossible to read without coming to a moral view of some kind. This is after all originally a morality play, in the versions that Goethe derived his Faust from. Does Faust’s lack of moral imperatives, of restraint and care, constitute a fatal harm that condemns him, or is his behaviour that of all of us, struggling in the complex web of existence and experience, seeking the better but sometimes following the worst?

The Gretchen episode is probably based on a real episode in Frankfurt concerning Susanna Margaretha Brandt who was seduced by a jeweller’s apprentice, kept her pregnancy a secret, killed her baby and was executed in January 1772. Goethe may have added to it his own memories and guilt over his brief affair with Friederike Brion in October 1770. She was the daughter of the pastor at Sesenheim, twenty miles north of Strasbourg. Their short-lived relationship ended in August 1771, and Goethe apparently felt an acute sense of guilt at betraying and deserting her.

Faust in this scene views Gretchen as prey, she is some ‘thing’ that he demands Mephistopheles acquire for him. Even Mephistopheles seems momentarily taken aback at his ‘innocent’ choice, and by Faust’s callousness and selfishness. The Devil is caught preaching morality! Faust (2667) shows no regard for the deeper possibility of Love at this stage, and is the pure sexual sensualist, the rake, the seducer Don Juan. Goethe has made no effort at this point to show Faust in anything other than an unacceptable light. Nevertheless, and despite the tragedy of Gretchen, Faust will eventually be saved. We are here at the heart of the question as to whether Goethe is essentially an immoralist, condoning immoral and callous behaviour: an amoralist who believes that we may cause destruction, and that the destruction is unavoidable in some way, while our other motives and actions may offset or redeem the destruction with creation: or a moralist who is making a subtle case for the variability of human conduct and personality, the ability to develop and learn, and the worth despite his flaws of a human being who does not cease to strive for what might be higher.

Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 96 [Detail], William Blake

‘Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 96 [Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

There are issues here which we will pursue later about the nature of consequential loss, and the degree to which collateral damage is the fault of and attributable to the human agent, regardless of their motives. In courts of law our judgement, in cases say of manslaughter or accidental harm, is often influenced by the degree of remorse, regret and contrition shown by the agent, and by the extent to which there seemed to be deliberate intent, however much confused by passion in the ‘heat of the moment’, to inflict pain, or to deprave, corrupt, and objectify the victim, or to achieve a selfish goal careless of risks and consequences. We expect the good and decent man or woman to control passion and selfishness, apply foresight, and show a benevolent empathy towards others. Faust clearly reveals none of those things in this small scene. However we do also allow mitigating circumstances, for example the effect of drugs or drink, though those do not fully excuse the consequences. Here Faust is under the influence of the Witch’s potion, though Goethe is nowhere explicit that it has any other effects than those of rejuvenating Faust!

Part I Scene VIII: Evening [go to translation]

The cynical Mephistopheles is now contrasted with Faust the sentimentalist. While Mephisto pokes around in the girl’s room, Faust rhapsodises on innocence, and allows his desires to modulate towards love. He is one of those incapable of separating sexuality and desire from deeper emotions, a desirable quality but with tragic consequences in this case. Mephistopheles mocks Faust’s inability to play lightly with life, his metaphysical heaviness. The Romantic urge is forever seeking to deepen experience and give it weight, a weight that it often seems incapable of carrying, hence the often theatrical quality of Romanticism, and its susceptibility to parody and ironic attack.

Mephistopheles leaves behind a casket of jewels, to tempt the girl. He is the devil of seduction, and so the denier of morality. Gold and jewellery will be symbols of potential or actual corruption throughout the play.

They exit, and Margaret (Gretchen) enters and finds the jewels. She sings the famous verses, ‘There was a King in Thule’ whose theme is loyalty and faithfulness in love, with its symbol of the golden goblet (Note in passing Henry James’ use of a related symbol in the ‘Golden Bowl’), and whose mood is one of final tragic renunciation. So Goethe subtly sets the scene for what will follow. Gretchen concludes the scene with her thoughts about the transience of youth and the power of wealth.

Gretchen’s songs incidentally stress her link with heroines of German folksong, and are justly well-known and appreciated in Germany. They are related to actual folksongs and ballads, and show her progression from fantasising about faithful love, to experiencing love’s pain, and finally in her madness to a projection of herself into her dead child.

Part I Scene IX: Promenade [go to translation]

The jewels have fallen into the hands of Gretchen’s mother, and by her have been handed to the Church! Goethe allows Mephistopheles to poke fun at the greed revealed in organised religion, in the state and in the money-lending class. Mephisto’s role is precisely this, the continual undermining of human institutions and motives, as one who denies. The seduction is however still progressing well, and the Faust-Mephistopheles relationship is developing into that of master-servant, with Mephistopheles subtly following his own agenda of luring Faust towards acceptance of the Moment.

Part I Scene X: The Neighbour’s House [go to translation]

Martha is now introduced as the ‘common’ woman, relatively simple-minded and a suitable foil for Mephistopheles’ wit and cunning. She has already assisted in the later seduction, by providing a means for Gretchen to avoid her mother’s gaze, and a meeting place. Mephistopheles now enters, and Goethe provides a comic interlude while Mephisto deceives Martha in order to create an opportunity to introduce Faust as his friend and second witness. Goethe stresses infidelity and sexuality in the conversation between Mephisto and Martha, while Gretchen’s comments are designed to show her artlessness, genuine sympathies, and depth of feeling. Mephisto successfully sets up a meeting.

Part I Scene XI: The Street [go to translation]

Faust jibs at the false-witness Mephisto requires of him. To which Mephistopheles replies with a nice piece of sophistry, indicating that many statements are made on less true knowledge than Faust has. And (3050) won’t Faust soon be lying to Gretchen in the normal way of all seducers, and will that still represent Faust’s eternal truth and love? Faust then responds with a true Romantic’s speech indicating that feeling alone, if willed and asserted, becomes a highest value and that through depth of feeling and sensual experience he can forge the link with the eternal force of truth and love. Mephisto sees the sophistry in that! And Faust concedes the inevitability of his sensual desire for Gretchen regardless.

Part I Scene XII: The Garden [go to translation]

The meeting takes place, and Faust flatters poor Gretchen who expresses her own humility and self-knowledge. Meanwhile Mephistopheles has an amusing knowing conversation with Martha. Faust stresses the beauty of innocence, an innocence he is out to corrupt! Gretchen tells about herself and in so doing reveals her loving and maternal qualities: while Mephistopheles plays his role as ‘man of the world’ and it is Martha who is trying to tempt him towards marriage! Goethe plays out a delicate and amusing little contrast between the two pairs.

Gretchen seeks love, and Faust declares his love for her. Is he genuine? Or is he merely intoxicated by the feeling, able to conjure it up and work himself into the part required? The degree of emotional selfishness involved here is interesting. Is Faust seeking the sensation of love rather then committing himself to another human being, Gretchen being the handy vehicle? Does he feel any care or regard for her as an individual?

Mephisto and Martha put their worldly seal on the inevitable outcome.

Part I Scene XIII: An Arbour in the Garden [go to translation]

Faust and Gretchen now appear as lovers (without yet having achieved full sexual union). As Faust and Mephisto depart, Gretchen voices her doubt and her grasp of the reality. What can Faust find in her (but sensual indulgence)? His conquest of her is merely an exercise of his male status, knowledge and power, and therefore an easy victory. The girl is inevitably doomed, within the society of that time, if the liaison becomes public knowledge and he fails to stand by her.

The contrast in verse styles throughout the Gretchen tragedy should be noted, her simple and artless speech, touched with dialect in the original, against Faust’s sentimental and rhetorical manner.

America. A Prophecy, Plate 16 [Detail], William Blake

‘America. A Prophecy, Plate 16 [Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Part I Scene XIV: Forest and Cavern [go to translation]

A panegyric to Nature and the Earth Spirit now follows. The Earth-Spirit has given Faust all in the sense of allowing a human being to participate through feeling and sensation in the natural world. Faust feels in an exalted state of empathy and communion with the world, a Romantic state, even though he is aware that the negative Mephisto is also in some way a gift of the deeper reality to him. He perceives that though Mephisto is a spirit of denial, impertinent and chilling, he also holds out the prospect of sensual beauty, beauty of form, to Faust. He keeps Faust’s desire inflamed, such that he is caught in the endless oscillation between desire and enjoyment. Mephisto is clearly intended, by Goethe, to represent a dimension of Faust’s own mind, as well as a character in his own right within the play.

The banter between Mephistopheles and Faust now intensifies (3251). Mephisto prompts towards restlessness and dissatisfaction, spurring Faust into activity, while Faust frets at being returned from the spiritual state of communion with Nature, in solitude, to the vulgar reality and community with mankind. Faust is once again here the proto-Romantic spirit, seeking the deeper and higher states of being, and disgusted by ordinary experience, while at the same time attracted to the sensual world, with woman as its loveliest expression. The tension is between the mind and the heart, or at least between the spiritual aspects of the mind and its sensual and emotional aspects. It is the unresolved conflict of modernity.

Mephistopheles mocks the pathetic fallacy that leads Faust to identify himself with the superhuman (3282). It is, he suggests, an overflow of mental power and pride, and a self-deceit. Mephistopheles is the aspect of Faust’s mind that tempts him towards baser desires, and more deeply the nihilistic aspect within him that seeks to manipulate, belittle, and destroy whatever his higher self holds sacred. You can’t do without what you refuse to hear named, says Mephisto: and what about Gretchen? You’ve started what you are unable or reluctant to finish. He conjures up a picture of the girl in love to needle Faust, and succeeds. Faust is tortured by the sensual, and even uses a semi-blasphemous expression concerning the transubstantiation (3334) to encapsulate the fusion of the spirit with the flesh that the relationship with Gretchen signifies. Once again Faust is seen to be not without deep human feelings, but wholly self-centred in his perceptions. His selfishness and self-centredness are essential aspects of his Romantic persona, and one can things of many examples in art (Pechorin in Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’, Don Juan in the various retellings, including Mozart’s opera) or reality (the early Shelley, Rimbaud) of a self-intoxication that destroys communion and community, while not in itself being devoid of both sensibility and charm.

Faust here seeks to spiritualise his carnal relationship with Gretchen, Mephistopheles to de-spiritualise it and reveal the carnality. Mephisto is here the Enlightenment realist (3338) while Faust is the Romantic image maker conjuring up a Byronic portrait of the individual (3345) as a restless wanderer, still seeing it all in terms of self and not other. Throughout the play personal solitude and isolation will reflect aspects of Faust’s selfish mind, relationship and community aspects of his deeper humanity.

And faced with the possibility of normal relationship here, conscious of his own failings, Faust prefers an apocalyptic (3356) finale where both she and he are destroyed, than any renunciation of his personal aims. In a modern world that has seen the full working out of the Romantic impulse, through Existentialism and Nihilism, into a reluctant and uncomfortable scientific semi-acceptance, it is easy to dismiss Faust as a caricature of Romantic foolishness and excess. Shelley’s life and verse often receive a similar judgement, regardless of our delight in the poetic beauty of his work. While we accept a De Sade or a Byron, both, despite the difference in their excesses, being tied to the carnal world, Shelley’s and Faust’s spiritual strivings seem stranger to us. In neither case is conventional religion a resolution for them: in Shelley’s case because his rational atheism overrode any religious impulse, in Faust’s (and Goethe’s) because he does not believe in the trappings of religion, but in a greater Pantheistic creative urge, a Daemon.

Your nihilism is just frustration, says Mephisto. Get on with it, follow your aim consistently, and avoid the ridiculous, avoid the situation of being ‘a Devil in despair’.

Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 99 [Detail], William Blake

‘Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 99 [Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Part I Scene XV: Gretchen’s Room [go to translation]

The scene consists of Gretchen’s charming song, designed to evoke pity for her, and express her longing for Faust. It is deservedly famous, for its simplicity, economy of effect, and resonance within the context of the play. The incipient tragedy is now obvious, as Goethe contrasts her depth of feeling and innocence, and Faust’s more tenuous emotions touched by selfishness in the series of short scenes.

Pity, William Blake

‘Pity’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Part I Scene XVI: Martha’s Garden [go to translation]

Goethe employs this scene in the garden to tackle the issue of Faust’s religious feelings. Quizzed by Gretchen he reveals agnosticism towards conventional religion, and asks her to consider his kindness to, and love of, her as sufficient evidence of proper feeling, coupled with his tolerance and respect for others’ beliefs.

He then expresses a Pantheistic vision (3431) of the creative, interwoven world, using natural imagery. It is a powerful evocation of a universe where all the parts are in communion with the whole, fundamentally benevolent: inexplicable and nameless. Joy, Heart, Love and God become interchangeable words for an ineffable and fundamental Creative drive. But ‘Feeling is all’ he cries, and we are therefore in the realm of deliberate mystification and ongoing seduction of the girl, or, being more generous, Romantic self-delusion on Faust’s part. He is word spinning in the true Romantic tradition. The question is whether he believes what he is saying or is merely pacifying her, or a combination of both.

Once more Goethe keeps the position ambiguous and fluid, not allowing us to judge Faust too clearly. Faust’s motives and true beliefs are often cloaked in sonorous and lovely verse to keep us guessing, while also reflecting Faust’s own ability to delude himself, and his own confusion over how he should act and what he should believe.

Gretchen has identified Mephistopheles instinctively as a negative and corrupting force, one with no love within, a force that oppresses her and stifles her own feelings of love. Faust defends him complacently. ‘There have to be such odd fellows.’ He pursues the seduction through expressions of feeling, and she is ready to submit. Faust now gives her a sleeping draught with which to dose her mother, assuring her that it will do no harm. Goethe is not explicit as to whether the sleeping draught has come from Mephisto or is of his own devising. We remember his confession to Wagner earlier of the fatal effects of his and his father’s medical efforts during the plague. We also remember his aborted attempt at suicide by means of a potion. Either way the act is reckless, and pushes the responsibility for its consequences on to the girl.

At this crucial moment Mephisto’s comment and Faust’s response (3521) touch new levels of cynicism. They appear as conspirators. Mephisto mocks the previous conversation between Faust and Gretchen, suggesting that women use conventional morality as a means to power over those they love, within the war of the sexes. Faust replies that Gretchen quizzed him about religion out of loving concern for his salvation, an argument that Mephisto finds ridiculous in a seducer (3534), and encapsulates Gretchen as a Mary Magdalen, that is already a fallen woman (but with religious overtones), and one who has recognised him, as a devil, behind the mask. Mephisto is identified here as a close aspect of Faust, so close that if he cannot share in Faust’s sensual pleasure, he can at least take delight in the situation (3543).

Part I Scene XVII: At The Fountain [go to translation]

Faust and Gretchen have met at night, and the sexual union is complete. Goethe now makes the social situation clear for us. The fate of the girl who gets pregnant by a lover who won’t marry her is a grim one. Gretchen now feels her own fallen status, something she had despised in others previously, but she is still possessed by the sweetness of the fatal attraction that has led her to it. The girl has sinned conventionally by indulging in sex outside marriage, but for the purest of motives, Faust’s declared love for her. What would now condemn her socially of course would be his failure to stand by her.

Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 85 [Detail], William Blake

‘Jerusalem - The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 85 [Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Part I Scene XVIII: A Tower [go to translation]

Gretchen now makes her touching prayer to the Virgin, the grieving mother, the Mater Dolorosa. Her words will echo again at the conclusion of the whole drama. Goethe treats her as already ‘afflicted’ though technically Faust has not yet abandoned her. Goethe is willing to use the conventional religious scenario, and at a moment of deep emotion, which leads us inevitably to consider the play or at least these aspects of it in the light of Christian morality. This use of the Christian trappings does lead to tension in the Reader’s mind, and if Goethe was accused of immorality or at least amorality in a conventional sense, and Faust deemed unworthy of salvation by many readers, then Goethe had only himself (and the original morality play structure) to blame.

Part I Scene XIX: Night [go to translation]

The tragedy is about to be compounded, as we are introduced to Gretchen’s brother Valentine, a soldier, who now bemoans her fallen state.

Faust and Mephistopheles appear, Faust preoccupied with himself as usual, comments on the waning light, while Mephisto enjoys the night like a tom-cat, and sets up our expectation of Walpurgis Night soon to follow. Faust requires a gift for Gretchen, while Mephisto proposes to serenade her. He does so with a moralising song, adapted from Ophelia’s second song in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act IV Scene V, warning against trusting in false lovers, and thereby losing virtue!

Valentine accosts them, breaking the zither, and is struck down in the fight that follows. Mephistopheles calls on Faust to flee, with a quick jibe at the corrupt police, but in fear of the less corrupt courts! Valentine now gives his dying speech, condemning Gretchen, to her great grief.

Is Faust guilty? Valentine after all attacked the pair, though Faust has seduced Gretchen. The ambiguity Goethe presents us with makes us uncertain as to whether Faust might not have stood by the girl, though we are right to be doubtful. The killing of Valentine, not deliberately engineered by Faust, but a fatal unintended consequence of his actions, now forces the rupture from Gretchen. Or does it? It is rather Faust’s continual flight from his experience, his refusal to follow through responsibly that causes his deeper moral failure here. Goethe may well have been indicating his own early inability in his pre-Classical years to find fulfilment, and his tendency to flee to the next situation offered. Faust is not prepared to suffer the consequences of his actions at this stage of his development, and that immaturity condemns him morally in Part I. Mephistopheles is the part of himself that is always hurrying on to the next ‘adventure’, cancelling and denying the past, erasing the memory and conscience without which responsibility is impossible, and repentance unachievable.

Part I Scene XX: The Cathedral [go to translation]

Goethe now uses the Cathedral scene and the singing of the Requiem Mass, to display Gretchen tormented and in pain. The Evil Spirit, an aspect of her own conscience, assails her. Goethe partly employs prose to indicate the lapse from the divine presence. It now appears that Gretchen’s mother has died as a result of the sleeping draught she was given. So another unintended consequence (though we don’t know whether it was intended by Mephistopheles) has rendered Gretchen a murderer, and Faust an accomplice. He has been involved in the deaths of her brother and her mother, and yet the consequences are even now not fully worked through.

Goethe has deftly posed us a moral problem. Is all this Faust’s fault, or is he, in loving Gretchen, merely, as she certainly is, the victim of unintended consequences, the chain of action and reaction? Both of them have broken the conventional moral code, but for reasons of feeling. That is sufficient for a true Romantic! Shelley, and Byron too, early in life, ‘ran’ from consequences, as has many a poet and artist. But Goethe would argue that ‘an error’ is not enough to condemn a life prematurely. Even Valentine’s death might be considered manslaughter rather than murder, though with the Devil on one’s side…!

In one sense Faust and Gretchen are free of intentional guilt, but the outcome that has ensued by this stage is certainly serious, and by seeking to flee the consequences, in a way that Gretchen does not or cannot, Faust is certainly not a shining example of virtue. The unintentional nature of the fatal incidents, so far, does to some extent justify the name of tragedy in the Classical sense of an unwished-for and unsought disaster through adverse circumstances, as well as the later Shakespearean sense of the result of flawed character, but Goethe is certainly stretching the concept.

The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 32 [Adaptation], William Blake

‘The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 32 [Adaptation]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Faust must be condemned at this moment for his failure to face the music, or show remorse. His flaws at this stage of his development are his lack of moral foresight, his carelessness of consequences, and his evasion of responsibility for his actions. That does not make him a fundamentally evil or immoral character, merely manipulative, irresponsible and elusive. Not a noble character for sure, but not a total villain. Goethe has attempted to show him as an ‘ordinary’ man from a moral perspective, neither evil nor virtuous, neither intentionally destructive, nor visibly creative, but driven by desires and circumstances. And Goethe depends upon our going along with his portrait, and not condemning Faust too harshly at this point, if we are to maintain sympathy with him later. However he first shows us Faust on Walpurgis Night, to force us to a full assessment of his character in Part I.

Part I Scene XXI: Walpurgis Night [go to translation]

Walpurgis Night is May Eve, the night before the first of May, when witches meet at the Brocken, and elsewhere to hold their revels. (Walpurgis was a female saint of the eighth century whose name was transferred somehow to the festival, no doubt through the normal association of opposites, and the efforts of the Church to take over pagan festivals.) Faust and Mephistopheles have departed hurriedly, leaving Gretchen and her misery and all consequences behind.

Mephistopheles is bored by the journey, while Faust has once again plunged into the raptures of Nature, like a true Romantic. Goethe prepares us for his giant comic interlude (but with a serious purpose, to confirm Faust’s degradation) by a humorous encounter with a Will O’ The Wisp, as devious as a human being, who acknowledges Mephisto’s status, and says that though he is a wayward light he will do his best to stay on the straight and narrow! He corresponds in a sense to Homunculus in the Classical Walpurgis Night of Part II.

The mountain is bewitched, the experience of it disorienting, and Goethe has fun with its magical aspects in some clever and evocative verse. Here is the seat of Mammon, God of Wealth, and a potent symbol of material corruption (3915).

Now the Witches appear in chorus (3956), their song loaded with sexual and physical allusion. Goethe handles this material brilliantly and potently. The reference to the mother and child (3977) should alert us to the Gretchen tragedy again, in passing, and prepare us for the scenes to follow.

The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 32 [Adaptation], William Blake

‘The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 32 [Adaptation]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Goethe is now scene-painting through the use of multiple voices. The Witches and Wizards vie with each other in claiming the others’ superiority in evil (3978). The barren heights are unfruitful (3988), but there is more sexual allusion (4000, 4008). The witches and wizards crowd around. Even Mephistopheles finds it all too much of a good thing, and has to exercise his powers (4026), seeking a quieter corner, while Faust is still yearning after the fount of activity, here evil activity (4040).

Mephisto now leads Faust among the groups of revellers by their fires. Clearly we are in an equivalent of the human social world, for which the Brocken is a metaphor. And we should expect to see here a representative sample of human folly and error.

We begin with social figures, complaining about the state of the world (4076), a General, an ex-Minister, the new Wealth, an Author. Even Mephistopheles is affected by their pessimism! He chides the witch selling ancient relics of evil: what is needed now is variety, novelty! Faust calls it a fair (4115) and it is, Vanity Fair. Faust and Mephistopheles now dance with the two witches, young and old respectively, exchanging verses of sexual innuendo.

Next in this display of human foibles and errors, Goethe shows us the philosophers. First the Enlightenment Rationalist (a parody of his contemporary Nicolai, who in 1799 published an account of how he had suffered from hallucinations and banished them by applying leeches to his backside!) who has demonstrated logically that Spirits can’t exist but now is faced with their presence. Faust mocks the rationalist penchant for prying into everything, reasoning in circles, and liking to be admired (4149).

Faust sees here a phantom image of Gretchen, but Mephistopheles claims she is merely a Siren vision, the image of sensual physical beauty that comes to all men to deceive them, and like Medusa, beheaded by Perseus, doomed to turn men to stone. Round the phantom’s neck is the circle of red that denotes the executioner’s axe: another foreboding of Gretchen’s fate. We are reminded here of the French Revolutionary period, when it became fashionable to wear scarlet ribbons around the neck at fashionable parties, while the Revolution’s victims were being truncated by the Guillotine. But Mephistopheles deflects Faust from thinking of Gretchen, and leads him on to the little theatre where we will see a performance of a magical Interlude, Oberon and Titania’s Golden Wedding.

We should realise that Gretchen’s tragedy is unfolding elsewhere while this action is going on, and the references to her are to alert us to this fact. The title of the Golden Wedding is an ironic comment on the wedding that will not take place for Gretchen. The degree of triviality and sheer play in this episode has the twofold purpose of contrasting with the tragedy that is taking place, and providing an abrupt change to the succeeding prose scene between Faust and Mephistopheles.

Part I Scene XXII: A Walpurgis Night’s Dream [go to translation]

The dream is a pleasant fantasy of a play within the play, designed to bridge the mood and take us from the madness of Walpurgis Night, to a different kind of madness, that of Gretchen and Faust’s tragedy. The intermezzo is a set of vignettes, idle fancies, gentle parody and so on, designed to entertain and no more. It is a procession of characters, each with a few lines to deliver, to make a point or set the scene (Apollinaire imitated this style, cleverly, in his Bestiary).

Oberon and Titania for example deliver some advice for married people (4243). The Orthodox condemns all Classical gods and modern fairies, good or bad, as part of the devilish crew (4271). The Northern Artist slips in a reference to Goethe’s own Italian Journey for which his early work was a sketchy preparation (4275). There is more sexual allusion, and then the Weather-Vane’s comments on the marriage market, from one perspective a sweet meeting of pure brides and hopeful lovers, from the other a hellish bartering of possessions and security for sexual favours. These references to marriage clearly counterpoint the unseen Gretchen’s failed hopes.

Next Goethe pokes fun at his literary enemy August Von Hennings (4303), who had accused him of immorality in his writings. More literary sniping follows, then Nicolai (4319), Lavater and Goethe himself exchange words about piety. Goethe adds some musical commentary for atmosphere, since the participants in the theatricals are dancing about restlessly, and then the philosophers reappear among the motley throng, faced with this Spirit-world challenge to their world-view, first the Dogmatist (4343), then the Idealist and Realist, the Super-naturalist and the Sceptic. Goethe now shades us off into pure and charming whimsy, with the Skilful (4367) and Maladroit, the Will O’ The Wisps, and a Shooting Star.

Lastly we have the Heavy-Footed (4383), followed by Puck and Ariel the light-footed and winged spirits, and Goethe takes us pianissimo into the natural sweetness and brightness of May Morning. The ephemeral festival has vanished. But the contrast has now been ensured between the irresponsibility (‘tasteless diversions’ according to Faust in the next scene), folly and whimsy, ending in natural beauty, of Walpurgis Night and its following dawn, and the reality of the Gretchen tragedy to follow. Mephistopheles has ensured that the unseen tale has been unfolding while he has been diverting Faust on the mountainside. And the final movement of Gretchen towards disaster has coincided with the Witches’ festival itself.

Part I Scene XXIII: Gloomy Day [go to translation]

Plain prose takes us into an exchange between Faust and Mephistopheles. For the first time we hear Faust’s despair at what has happened to Gretchen. It is not exactly remorse, but it shows intense feeling for her plight. Faust rants away at Mephistopheles, making him the scapegoat for all consequences, though it is ultimately Faust himself who has precipitated the tragedy.

Wait a minute, Mephisto says, why did you enter into the bargain if you can’t follow it through? Surely you realised what a pact with the devil meant? A telling point. Faust’s lack of foresight and common sense has indeed thrown a stone into the pool of event and the ripples have caused great misery. Faust can only retort by complaining to the Earth Spirit who inflicted Mephisto on him. Accusation and counter-accusation follow. Mephisto plays the cool neutral who was merely obeying the terms of the pact. Faust was the master and he the servant, was that not the case? Faust is in a panic at the consequences of his actions, and wishes to save Gretchen. The sentiment is good and fine, though once more we note the lack of true remorse, the failure to accept personal responsibility, the attempt to lay the blame elsewhere, and the excessive bluster of his speeches. Faust is not exactly a hero. And Goethe is running dangerously close to convincing us that Faust’s flawed nature is a permanent and irredeemable aspect of the man.

Mephisto warns Faust of the danger he runs re-entering a town where he is wanted for the murder of Valentine, but agrees to attempt a rescue by use of his magic powers. And so they go on their way.

Part I Scene XXIV: Night [go to translation]

Witchcraft is still afoot, at the Ravenstone, as our protagonists fly past on their black horses. Mephistopheles claims not to know what is going on. The scene is pure mood music.

The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 73 [Adaptation, Detail], William Blake

‘The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 73 [Adaptation, Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

Part I Scene XXV: A Dungeon [go to translation]

Part I ends in Gretchen’s prison cell. Faust stands outside and gives another self-centred speech, focused on his own feelings rather than hers. Pure Romanticism. ‘All her guilt’s illusory’, claims Faust. Do we quite accept that? Though seduced she too has been a part to events, even if the consequences have turned out greater than she could have anticipated. Are we free of responsibility for consequences that stem from our own actions? Do we not all have a duty of care, and foresight, and a need to understand the likely outcomes of our actions? Faust meanwhile still shows no clear remorse.

Gretchen is singing a folk ballad, projecting herself into her dead child and denouncing its parents, she the whore, and Faust the rogue. Rather it is her version of a folksong of the day, and as with her other songs earlier in Part I it establishes her link with the women of German tradition, the heroines of earlier tragedies. We gather from this hint that her child has indeed died. She takes Faust, now entering, for the executioner and begs for his pity. Faust is afflicted by her misery, but yet again relates it in his self-centred way to his feelings and not hers (4441). Once more it is the way in which the scene stirs his own emotions that preoccupies him, as though he cannot merely feel but has to be always observing his reactions introspectively. And his Hamlet-like introspection has indeed been a feature of his speeches in Part I.

It now transpires that Gretchen has somehow killed her own child. She has become a character in the old story, the age-old story, of the fallen and doomed woman. Faust falls on his knees as the lover, while she ironically mistakes his gesture for the beginning of prayer. He has made the cult of sensual love his religion, and this is where it has led him. She has betrayed her own Christian morality and this is where it has led her.

He calls her and she hears his call, but still takes time to recognise him. Suddenly she anticipates rescue. Now we have a piece of dramatic frustration while he tries to take her away, but she seeks to establish him as her lover, finds him cold (4493), and is repelled. She relapses rapidly into her knowledge of her own crimes, and his. ‘Let past be past!’ cries Faust. A fine sentiment again, but expiation is normal first, and remorse. He wishes to break the bonds and be free, but without facing the consequences and responsibilities of freedom. One is reminded of the contrasting figure of Sidney Carton in Dicken’s ‘Tale of Two Cities’, going to his death for another. There is no like situation here. Faust is not there for self-sacrifice.

There is an emotional barrier between the two of them, the result of their joint crimes, and Mephistopheles’ presence, and perhaps also the Witches’ activity at the Ravenstone. All is conspiring to thwart the rescue. Gretchen cannot convince herself that he still loves her, is still warm towards her. As a murderess of her own mother and now her child, she cannot accept guilt-ridden freedom, and is held back by conscience. What after all would await her outside? It is too late. Faust now makes, at last, his declaration. He will stay with her. That precipitates a mental crisis for her (4551). By not standing by her before he has increased the dimensions of the tragedy. Now, too late, he makes his promise. She meanwhile is preoccupied by the two accusatory deaths, of her child and her mother. Faust is not, as we can see, similarly preoccupied with the death of Valentine and the tragedy he has initiated.

Gretchen is resigned, anticipating, and envisioning her death. She sees Faust momentarily as a hostile physical force. Now Mephistopheles urges flight, as ever. Run from the unacceptable and the tragic, is his message. His appearance is the last straw, since Gretchen believes him the Devil incarnate, and she throws herself on Divine Mercy, while fearing for Faust’s soul. Mephistopheles cries out that she is judged, but a voice from above, offering the grace and mercy she seeks, cries out that she is saved. Obeying the Church’s message of faith and penitence, she is a candidate for redemption, as a sinner but an unwitting one, a criminal but without murderous intent. Regardless of his own beliefs which were hardly conventional, Goethe brings Part I to a traditional enough close. A sinner is rescued. But Faust and Mephistopheles flee.

The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 37 [Detail], William Blake

‘The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 37 [Detail]’ - William Blake (British, 1757 - 1827), Yale Center for British Art

The impression of Faust we are left with is that of an emotional, but selfish and self-centred individual, careless, irresponsible, and ultimately a disaster to those he enters into relationship with. It will be a long road for him to redemption. And Goethe’s task in Part II is to convince us that Faust is, as the initial scene in Heaven anticipated, by striving ceaselessly, drawing nearer the light and away from the darkness. Goethe could take an immoralist or amoralist position and show us Faust merely forgetting, and going on to other things. That would make ‘Faust’ a highly interesting, but not a totally ethical or convincing addition to the few exalted works of western literature. It would leave us with the feelings we get from say contemplating Lermontov’s Pechorin in ‘A Hero of our Time’ or any other of the superfluous men of the Romantic and post-Romantic age, a certain distaste for their selfishness while acknowledging the accuracy of the portrait of a certain kind of failure of character and sensibility.

Great works of Western art are ultimately great moral works, either by revealing our ethical issues and dilemmas as say Homer and Ovid do, using a sensitive narrative style and in a deeply humanist context, or attempting to resolve them head-on as Dante and Tolstoy do by showing the consequences of action and the contrasting paths of selfishness and selflessness. If Goethe is to truly engage our attention and feelings, by taking a moralist position (particularly if he is to end Part II as he does with all the trappings of conventional religion, following through on the concept of the traditional ‘Faust’ morality play) then he has to demonstrate Faust as a candidate for redemption. That means he must show Faust’s character developing over time, and allow us to judge his creative activity and his overall worth, by assessing his whole life, or he must show Faust ending in true remorse and a desperately recovered faith, in a conventional Christian ending. He of course has the alternative of condemning Faust as Marlowe did.

It is useful to take stock of Faust as a character at this point. So far he has emerged as a restless Romantic spirit, dissatisfied with the inadequacy of traditional means of achieving ultimate truth, and fulfilment. He sees the self and the soul, heart or inner spirit as sacrosanct, and the world and society as lacking, particularly social institutions and conventions. Everything for him cloys and fades. He is possessed of frustrated yearning, and a feeling of claustrophobia. This is indeed the Romantic, and to some extent the Modern position. He follows a path of directed energy or ceaseless activity to which Mephistopheles, with Divine consent, spurs him, seeking to achieve satisfaction and contentment in achievement. His self-centredness makes him effective at manipulation rather than relationship, solitude rather than engagement, and also means that while not intending to cause harm or pain, he is lacking in foresight and careless of the consequences to others. There is evidence of deep powers of feeling, and an ability to empathise particularly with Nature, but in his selfish mode he is destructive of human values. The pact has established that he does not expect to find lasting fulfilment, and undertakes to strive endlessly. And we have seen him turn away from conventional and unconventional knowledge and learning, and, led by Mephistopheles, pass through the merely sensual world of the common man, and the world of sexual love enhanced by feeling.

We might expect him in future to investigate the worlds of wealth and power, of beauty and of true creative effort. Along the way we might look for evidence of his capacity for true love, and relationship, for community and human empathy.