(By Johann Wolfgang Goethe) (Part I, 1808, Part II, 1832)
While a student, Goethe conceived his epic poem. (The story itself is an old one, first dramatized at length by Marlowe in 1593.) He tinkered with it through the 1770s, put out a fragment in 1790, published the first part (honouring Schiller) and then put it down – for 17 years. He eventually finished Part II (commonly recognised as the most daring portion – it is remarkably “out there”, quite heretical in fact) and then sealed it for posterity. It has been estimated that you’d need a day (i.e. 24 hours) to stage the whole drama, so what we normally get is a savagely expurgated version of Part 1 (our review of the 1960 German production featuring Gustaf Gründgens will come out in the next couple of months and our review of Gounod’s opera is here).
Part I is a superb working of the familiar story – a heavenly bet, a disenchanted scholar, a bargain for a soul, a punctured romance and Walpurgis night. The story was to plumb the depths of human consciousness in a search for eternal happiness, but Goethe got lost along the way (like Gogol) and we are thankful. But we got an unsurpassed analysis of a risk-filled deal:
Here to your service I will bind me;
Beck when you will, I will not pause or rest;
But in return when yonder you will find me,
Then likewise shall you be at my behest.*
The yonder is to me a trifling matter.
Should you this world to ruins shatter,
The other then may rise, its place to fill.
‘Tis from this earth my pleasure springs,
And this sun shines upon my sufferings;
When once I separate me from these things,
Let happen then what can and will.
(In other words, live now, pay later…Diners’ Club!)
Mephisto, see you there –
Far off she stands, alone – a girl so pale and fair?
She drags herself but slowly from that place.
She seems to move with shackled feet.
I must confess, I thought it was the face –
That she looks like my Gretchen sweet.
Do let that be! That is of good to none.
It is a magic image, lifeless eidelon.
It is not well to meet that anywhere;
Man’s blood grows frigid from that rigid stare;
And he is turned almost to stone.
(Be careful of what attracts you).
Which brings us to Faust, Part II, which Harold Bloom described as “the most peculiar yet canonical work of Western literature.”**
Among numerous richly mythological adventures, a boy in a bell-jar suicides orgiastically at Galatea’s feet:
What flames round the sea-shell, at Galatea’s feet?
Now mighty it flares up, now lovely, now sweet,
As if with love’s pulsing ’twere touched and arrayed.
Homunculus is it, by Proteus swayed….
The symptoms are those of a masterful yearning,
Prophetic of agonized throbbing and burning.
He’ll shatter himself on the glittering throne.
See it flame, now it flashes, pours forth – it is done!
Helen of Troy (to Faust):
Alas, an ancient truth is verified in me:
That bliss and beauty never lastingly unite.
The bond of life is rent no less than that of love;
Bewailing both, I say with sorrow: Fare thee well!
And cast myself once more, once only, in thine arms.
Receive, Persephone, receive the boy and me.
Mephisto prepares to cash in after Faust, blinded by worry, advances to his imagined apotheosis and instead stumbles into the grave the wicked dead mummies (lemurs) have prepared:
The body lies, and ere the spirit flee,
I’ll quickly show the blood-writ scroll;
But they’ve so many means – alas for me! –
To cheat the Devil out of many a soul.
As Mephisto laments, the unworthy Faust is being prepared as Mr Chips for a rapprochement in heaven:
Una Paenitentium (formerly Gretchen):
Bend, oh bend now,
Matchless, attend Thou,
Thy radiance spend now,
Look on my bliss in charity.
My early lover,
His troubles over,
Comes back to me.
All earth comprises
Is symbol alone;
What there ne’er suffices
As fact here is known:
All past the humanly
Wrought here in love;
Draws us above.
[* Faust is almost impervious to English translation – here we rely on George Madison Priest in the 1952 Encyclopaedia Britannica edition.] [**The Western Canon, chapter 9.]