Dichtung und Wahrheit

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Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth; 1811–1833) is an autobiography by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that comprises the time from the poet's childhood to the days in 1775, when he was about to leave for Weimar.


The book is divided into four parts, the first three of which were written and published between 1811–14, while the fourth was written mainly in 1830-31 and published in 1833. Each part contains five books. The whole covers the first 26 years of its author's life. Goethe held that “the most important period of an individual is that of his development.”[1]


Goethe dictated schemes and drafts for Dichtung und Wahrheit, after he had finished his Theory of Colours, in summer 1810 in Carlsbad.[2] He first worked on the autobiography parallelly to his work on Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years; since January 1811, the autobiography became the main subject of his endeavor.[2] Goethe asked Bettina von Arnim to send him the notes that she had written down about his youth on the basis of meetings she had had with his mother out of a related interest. When Bettina had complied with this wish, the poet mainly used her notes for a depiction of his mother, Aristeia der Mutter, which he did not include into the autobiography.[2] He also asked Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich von Trebra, Karl Ludwig von Knebel, and Johann Friedrich Heinrich Schlosser for help.[3]

Goethe's intentions[edit]

Goethe wrote Dichtung und Wahrheit from the point of view of the scientist, the historian and the artist. As a scientist, he desired to picture his life as developing stage by stage “according to those laws which we observe in the metamorphosis of the plants.” As a historian, he portrayed the general conditions of the times and revealed the relations between them and the individual. As an artist, he did not feel tied down to facts for their own sake, but selects those that were of significance and moulded them so that they might become parts of a work of art.[1]

As far as art is concerned, the word Dichtung (both poetry and fiction in English) was chosen to indicate through an ingenious ambiguity that the author had, in a considerably systematic way, selected those events which he counted worthwhile to be mentioned. Goethe has also, namely regarding Friederike Brion, created a partially fictitious image of some figures and events that necessarily would show the related figures and events more clearly than any attempt to describe them as exactly as possible, in an outward sense, could have done.[4] Germanists have even doubted that the figure of Gretchen, that first appears as a barmaid, had at all really existed, though she reappears as the central female character Margarete resp. Gretchen in Goethe's drama Faust.[5]


The material in the first three parts is distributed in such a way that Goethe's childhood is narrated from book one to the middle of book six, the account of his student days begins with the latter half of the sixth book and continues through the 11th book, books 12-15 are given to the consideration of his early manhood, when his first great successes as an author were realized. In spite of important experiences, part four does not open a new phase in Goethe's development, but it does bring the outer course of his life to its most decisive turning point — his departure from Weimar.[1]

Goethe depicts his happy childhood in Frankfurt, his relationship with his sister Cornelia, and his infatuation with Gretchen. Gretchen is described as "unbelievably beautiful", but Goethe also mentions that she had appeared superficial to him, when he heard she had referred to him as to a child, in the course of criminal investigations. Goethe moreover depicts his love-affairs with Anna Katharina Schönkopf during his time as a student in Leipzig, with Friederike Brion during his time in Strasburg, and with the Frankfurt banker's daughter Lili Schönemann. Dichtung und Wahrheit also mirrors Goethe's development as a poet and partly expounds the changes in the author's thinking that were brought about by the Seven Years' War and the French occupation, while other experiences throughout are presented and colored.


  1. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainEwald Eiserhardt (1920). "Poetry and Truth". In Rines, George Edwin. Encyclopedia Americana. 
  2. ^ a b c Karl Robert Mandelkow, Bodo Morawe: Goethes Briefe. 1. edition. Vol. 3: Briefe der Jahre 1805-1821. Christian Wegner publishers, Hamburg 1965, p. 569
  3. ^ Karl Robert Mandelkow, Bodo Morawe: Goethes Briefe. 1. edition. Vol. 3: Briefe der Jahre 1805-1821. Christian Wegner publishers, Hamburg 1965, p. 569-570
  4. ^ Herman Grimm: Goethe. Vorlesungen gehalten an der Königlichen Universität zu Berlin. Vol. 1. J.G. Cotta'sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger, Stuttgart / Berlin 1923, p. 67-68
  5. ^ Karl Goedeke: Goethes Leben. Cotta / Kröner, Stuttgart around 1883, p. 16

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