Access to Goethe can be arduous; tools to facilitate our approach are always welcome. This year they come in the contrasting formats of a 1,000-page-volume of “essential” translations and a paperback addition to Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series. Together they reduce a prolific life’s work to manageable proportions, bearing in mind that the first complete edition of Goethe in German ran to 143 volumes and was put together over a period of thirty-two years.
The dimensions of Goethe’s legacy are less of a hindrance than its diversity. This multi-talented individual was active, over a lifespan of eighty-two years, as a poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, librettist, translator, biographer, diarist, conversationalist, critic, theatre director, collector, painter, sculptor and in many other capacities. He was no less committed to the sciences, conducting experiments and extending the frontiers of knowledge in botany, optics, colour theory, climatology and all aspects of human and animal biology. As a Minister and Privy Councillor, he served in the government of the semi-independent state of Saxony-Weimar, and participated as an observer in military campaigns in the wake of the French Revolution.