Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) – the German novelist, playwright, natural philosopher, art theorist and statesman – remembered mostly for his tragic play Faust, famously remarked that “Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words.”
A reader and defender of poetry, he composed it throughout his life – it was, for him, an autobiographical vehicle. In 2005, Penguin Classics published a collection of Goethe’s poetry that spans over sixty years. The Selected Poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is broadly divided into three sections: I. The younger Goethe (1770-1786), II. Classical and Middle Years (1786-1810) and III. The later Goethe (1810-1832).
Here is a poem, short and profound, from the book – translated by David Luke of Christ Church, Oxford:
NATURE AND ART
Nature and Art, they go their separate ways,
It seems; yet all at once they find each other.
Even I no longer am a foe to either;
Both equally attract me nowadays.
Some honest toil’s required; then, phase by phase,
When diligence and wit have worked together
To tie us fast to Art with their good tether,
Nature again may set our hearts ablaze.
All culture is like this; the unfettered mind,
The boundless spirit’s mere imagination,
For pure perfection’s heights will strive in vain.
To achieve great things, we must be self-confined:
Mastery is revealed in limitation
And law alone can set us free again.
The last three lines are the stuff of thousands and thousands of scholarly papers. Rules – of form, of content – are important in the realm of creativity, Goethe asserts. It is an opinion not many would want to hear today. Too unrestrained, art simply loses its expressive value. A writer who made a point similar to Goethe’s was G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936). In his book Orthodoxy (1908), he wrote: “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”
Featured: Detail of Evening by Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840)