And P is for Polymath

Born 250 years ago, Goethe is one of the greatest figures of European civilization: poet, playwright, scientist, prime minister, author of the first bestseller and founder of modern German literature. Kevin Jackson presents an A to Z of his life and works
A is for Auden WH Auden not only admired the man he called "Mr G", he felt a deep affection for him. It saddened Auden to think that the British, though we are happy enough to agree that Goethe should join Dante and Shakespeare in the triad of Major League European writers ("Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper", Joyce called the old firm in Finnegans Wake), seldom bother to read him. Auden tried hard to pique our interest, and the three sprightly essays he wrote on Goethe provide an ideal short introduction: they can be found in his collection Forewords and Afterwords.

B is for Biology Goethe was as much a scientist as an artist, and carried out research in botany, geology, physics, psychology and meteorology: one historian has even credited him with having provided the groundwork for modern weather forecasting. His most substantial discovery, however, was in the field of biology. In March 1784, Goethe refuted conventional wisdom by showing that the inter-maxillary bone - a part of the jaw - existed in man as well as the other mammals. Despite this anatomical coup, Goethe the scientist is best remembered for his rather more eccentric work in optics, which is why...

C is for Colour Partly an attack on Newton (or what he thought Newton was saying), Goethe's Theory of Colours is a fascinating, if fanciful, work which cost him many years of effort. "I do not repent it at all," he told a friend a few years before his death, "though I have expended half a life upon it. Perhaps I might have written half-a-dozen tragedies more; that is all, and people enough will come after me to do that."

D is for `Dichtung und Wahrheit' Or Poetry and Truth, Goethe's detailed autobiographical account of his youth. Why so detailed? "The most important part of an individual's life is that of development... Afterwards begins the conflict with the world, and that is interesting only in its results." That, at least, is what he told the man who has been described as "Goethe's photocopier"...

E is for Eckermann As Boswell to Johnson, so Eckermann to Goethe. Nietzsche called Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe (1836) "the best German book there is".

F is for `Faust' He began Part One in his early twenties: he put the finishing touches to Part Two some 60 years later, on 22 July 1831, may have fiddled with it a bit shortly before his death in 1832. In short, this vast play was his life's work. David Luke's prize-winning translation for Oxford World's Classics is the one to buy. If you've already enjoyed Luke, try the looser versions by Louis MacNeice, Howard Brenton and Randall Jarrell.

G is for German It is not true to say that Goethe invented the German language, but it's not altogether preposterous, either. In the careful words of the scholar TJ Reed: "He was the first to explore fully (which means that he virtually created) the expressive registers of modern German."

H is for `Hermann und Dorothea' Not much read now, except by specialists, and noted in reference books mainly as an instance of that rare literary form, the verse novel, but in its own day (1798) a considerable success with the reading public. "Almost the only one of my larger poems that still satisfies me," was Goethe's verdict in old age.

I is for Italy On 2 September 1786, aged 37 and suffering from the onset of what we now call a mid-life crisis, Goethe adopted the pseudonym of "Herr Moeller" and made a bolt for Italy. The two years he spent in and around Rome changed him utterly: he gorged his eyes on the art and architecture, he learned to draw and, it appears, he enjoyed his first adult love. Auden, contrasting portraits painted before and after the stay in Rome, asserted that the latter showed "a man who has known sexual satisfaction". The book which immortalised these experiences, the Italian Journey (Italienische Reise), was co-translated by Auden, who hoped that it was the text most likely to wean English readers from their assumption that Goethe is a tiresome old bore.

J is for Jaxthausen The main setting of Goetz von Berlichingen, Goethe's earliest play, written in 1773 when he was 24. Heavily influenced by Shakespeare, Goetz is a sprawling, episodic and often violent work set in the early years of the 16th century. John Arden wrote a free but powerful adaptation of the play in 1965, calling it Ironhand. A major revival is long overdue.

K is for Knowledge Who was the last great polymath? Leonardo? Pico della Mirandola? Well, if Goethe did not acquired competence in every human endeavour, it wasn't for want of trying. (Only astronomy failed to catch his interest.) And if anyone since the Renaissance has actually known "all there is to be knowed", that man was not Mr Toad, but Mr G.

L is for Lehrjahre That is, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), Goethe's long novel about a young man's coming of age. Schlegel thought its publication an event as momentous as the French Revolution. Though this now seems a trifle excessive, the book has lasted surprisingly well, and fragments from it still crop up in the most unexpected places. Jean-Luc Godard quoted it extensively in his film about a later generation of French revolutionaries, La Chinoise, and Wim Wenders took it as the basis for his road movie Wrong Movement.

M is for Music Beethoven (Egmont overture), Schubert ("Wer nie sein Brot"), Schumann (Scenes from Faust), Liszt (A Faust Symphony), Gounod (Faust) Wolf ("Kennst du das Land"), Mahler (Symphony No 8)... outside Germany, Goethe is often better known for inspiring composers than as an artist in his own right. A music lover himself (he may have beaten Schelling to the famous perception that architecture is "frozen music"), he might not have been too disgruntled at the fact.

N is for Nature "I have never observed Nature with a view to poetic production," he told Eckermann. Early Goethe has been compared to Wordsworth, albeit, one should probably add, a Wordsworth with degrees in geology, botany, meteorology, anatomy, physics.

O is for Orientalism At the age of 65, Goethe re-invented himself for the nth time by writing a group of poems, the West-oestlicher Divan, in imitation of the Persian lyricist Mahommed Shams-ud-din, otherwise known as Hafiz. Many of these are erotic; a few - the Shenke (Cupbearer) group - nonchalantly homoerotic. Calm yourself, gay scholars: there's not much else in his oeuvre to win Goethe a place in any homosexual pantheon.

P is for Poetry "Goethe is, above all else, a poet" - TJ Reed. And, like all poets, stubbornly hard to translate. Here's one valiant attempt, by Longfellow, of one of his most famous poems:

ber allen Gipfeln

Ist Ruh.

In allen Wipfeln

Spurest du

Kaum einen Hauch

Die Vogelein schweigen

Im Walde.

Warte nur, balde

Ruhest du auch.

O'er all the hill-tops

Is quiet now

In all the tree-tops

Hearest thou

Hardly a breath;

The birds are asleep

in the trees.

Wait, soon like these

Thou, too, shalt rest.

Q is for Quality Goethe's scientific writings place so much stress on the importance of qualitative rather than quantitative knowledge that people thought that he was an enemy of mathematics in all its forms. Not so, he replied; mathematics are "the most sublime and useful science", but only in their proper place. "It would be foolish for a man not to believe in his mistress's love because she cannot prove it mathematically."

R is for Roman Elegies Or Romische Elegien (c1788-90), Goethe's first fully Classical work, written after his Italian journey, in emulation of the love poets Catullus, Propertius and Tibullus. It is blissfully sexy, full of lifted skirts, discarded corsets and creaking beds; Auden seems to have known what he was talking about.

S is for `Sturm und Drang' Literally "Storm and Stress," the nickname of a group of wild young writers of the 1770s, of whom Goethe was the star.

T is for `Torquato Tasso' A verse drama (published 1790) based on the Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso (1554-1595), about which it is conventional to remark that it says more about Goethe than Tasso, and considerably less conventional to remark that it is the first drama of "the Romantic dilemma between the demands of the aesthetic and of the practical life" (David Luke).

U is for `Urphanomen' or "primal phenomenon" - in Goethe's philosophy, a kind of archetype or essential form which the intelligent eye may detect in its particular manifestations, such as the "primal plant" (Urpflanze), a basic structure uniting all existing plants. The literary historians say that this idea burst upon him in Palermo. The keepers of the botanical gardens in Padua, where you can see the "Goethe Tree" to this day, say otherwise.

V is for Victorians "Minds like Goethe's are the common property of all nations," Carlyle insisted in the preface to his 1824 translation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Victorian intellectuals agreed: for the likes of George Eliot, G Lewes and Matthew Arnold, Goethe was one of the formative spirits of the modern world. Arnold wrote that "no persons [are] so thoroughly modern, as those who have felt Goethe's influence most deeply".

W is for Weimar This small German principality was Goethe's base for almost all his productive life, from 1775 when he accepted the invitation to become its Prime Minister; a provincial backwater which, thanks to him, became a cultural whirlpool.

X is for `Xenian' The name of a collection of sarcastic squibs written by Goethe and Schiller. Goethe was proud of them: "The good effects which the Xenian had upon the German literature of their time are beyond calculation."

Y is for `Young Werther' or Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774), the short novel about a sensitive lad who affects a blue frock-coat and kills himself after an unhappy love affair. This precocious bestseller made Goethe at 25 famous throughout Europe - "an early exemplar of the rock star", as an American critic recently wrote - and it remained the one book everyone who visited him in Weimar was bound to know. (Napoleon told Goethe that he had read it seven times.) Some historians say that the stories about its prompting a wave of copycat suicides are apocryphal, but it does seem to have boosted sales of blue frock-coats. Its enduring popularity made Young Werther something of a stone around the neck of its ageing author; and yet...

Z is for Zelter On 3 December 1812, at the age of 73, Goethe told his good friend Karl Freidrich Zelter that he felt quite capable of writing a second Werther, which would make people's hair stand on end. For all his hard-won serenity - to put it more crudely, his reputation as a tedious old wise man - Goethe plainly felt that his work was far from finished. In a sense, it remains unfinished. As Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human: "one can claim that Goethe's effect has not yet been fully realised, and that his time is yet to come".

Goethe Weekend tomorrow and Sunday at the South Bank Centre, London, SE1 with concerts and readings. Tel: 0171 960 4242 or Further information on other events throughout this year can be found on