All quotes translated by Goethe Global except where noted. Quotes translated by Goethe Global are copyrighted by Tino Markworth.
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Some people knock about
on the wall with their hammer
and believe that they hit
the nail on the head every time.
To act is easy, to think is hard;
to act according to our thought
When you’ve observed for a while
how the most sensible things fail in this world
and the most absurd often have a happy result,
you become disinclined to give advice to anyone.
Whoever in middle age wants to realize
the wishes and hopes of his youth
invariably deceives himself.
Because each decade of a person’s life
has its own happiness, its own hopes,
and its own prospects.
You will generally find that in their middle age
people frequently experience a change;
and that while in youth everything
has favored them and turned out well,
all is now completely different,
and accidents and misfortunes
are heaped one upon another.
I’m old enough to wish for quiet.
People always fancy that we
must become old to be prudent;
but, in fact, with increasing years
we have much to do to keep
ourselves as smart as we were.
One may only get old
in order to be more lenient;
I see no mistake made
that I wouldn’t have made myself.
Worry in the depth of the heart is lurking:
Her secret pangs in silence working,
She, restless, rocks herself, disturbing joy and rest:
In newer masks her face is ever dressed
By turns as house and land, as wife and child,
As water, fire, as poison, steel:
We dread the blows we never feel,
And what we never lose is yet by us
In the morning we are smartest,
but also most anxious;
because anxiety also is a kind of smartness,
though only a passive one.
Ignorance knows no anxiety.
which the true artist gives us
opens the mind;
for where words fail him,
the deed speaks.
The real artist who is truly great
finds supreme happiness in execution. …
are not satisfied with art for its own sake;
during execution they have before their eyes
only the profit
they hope to achieve through a finished work.
Poets … have to admit that their condition is indeed
a waking sleep —
and strictly speaking I do not deny
that many a thing seems dreamlike to me.
The greatest respect authors can have for their public
is to never bring forth what is expected,
but what they themselves think right and useful
for their own and for others’ stage of intellectual development.
The whole world of authors and reviewers
is all but the same as the fabled ghost fight
in which legless heroes in the air
hack each other through the middle
and then, all at once restored, sit down together
at the table with Father Odin again.
Beauty and Genius
must be removed
if you don’t want
to become their servant.
… the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead
to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect,
that the ability to feel it
should be preserved by every possible means
The beautiful is a manifestation
of secret laws of nature
which – without its appearance –
would have remained hidden from us forever.
… that it is the manner of all those persons
who attach importance to their inward cultivation,
that they altogether neglect
their outward circumstances.
Some books seem to have been written
not to teach us anything,
but to let us know
that the author has known something.
(3114) Transl. by B. Saunders
Everything we do has a consequence.
But that which is right and prudent
does not always lead to something favorable,
nor does that which is wrong
to something unfavorable;
frequently the reverse takes place. …
Therefore, we see men of the world who know this
take action with great insolence and brazenness.
However, we are forced to forget our century
if we want to work according to our convictions.
To create out of thin air was never my thing.
I’ve always thought the world more ingenious
than my own genius.
Every day we ought
to hear at least one little song,
read one good poem,
see one fine painting,
and, if it would be possible,
speak a few reasonable words.
Death is something so strange, that, regardless of all experience,
it is not believed to be possible for an object that is dear to us;
and it always occurs as something unbelievable and unexpected.
In a sense, it is an impossibility
that suddenly becomes a reality.
How difficult is it for us to weigh
what we must sacrifice
for what is to be gained.
You should always make sure to become agitated
in order to fight depression.
This is – even with the current depressing weather –
the best medical advice.
We must pay dearly for our errors
when we want to get rid of them,
and even then
we have to count ourselves lucky.
… an error is as good as a truth
to be able to move us into action and propel us on.
Because the deed is in all cases what matters
something excellent can come from such an activating error …
The excellent is rarely found,
more rarely valued.
(3205) Transl. by T. Carlyle.
… experience is nothing other than
experiencing what we do not wish to experience —
which is what it amounts to for the most part,
at least in this world.
I’m so used to being guided by fate
that I feel no more haste in me;
just sometimes faint dreams of anxiety
dawn again, but they will also disappear.
Sometimes it is as if that which we call fate
especially plays its tricks
on good and prudent people,
as it allows so many fools and villains
to stroll about quite comfortably.
There are certain things that fate obstinately sets out to do.
In vain may reason and virtue,
duty and everything sacred block its way.
Something has to happen that to it seems right
and to us seems not right;
and so it forces its own way through at last,
we may act up as much as we want.
An easily moved heart
is a wretched good
on the shaky earth.
None are more enslaved
who believe they are free
without being so.
Most labor the greater part of their time for mere subsistence;
and the scanty portion of freedom
which remains to them scares them so much
that they use every possible means to get rid of it.
But how would the deity find everywhere opportunities to create miracles
without sometimes trying it with extraordinary individuals,
whom we marvel at and don’t understand where they come from?
It is sad to see
a highly gifted individual
with philosophical mindsets
which are of no help to him.
-Goethe on Schiller
It is sad to see how an extraordinary person
often struggles with himself, his circumstances
and his time without getting anywhere. …
A state of things in which every day
brings some new aggravation
is not the right one.
When anything comes to a standstill,
we never know
if it is our own fault,
or that of the matter at hand.
I read some pieces of Molière’s every year, just as, from time to time,
I contemplate the engravings after the great Italian masters.
For we little people are not able
to retain the greatness of such things within ourselves
and so we must return to them from time to time
to refresh our impressions.
A great scholar is rarely a great philosopher …
I have been more than once intoxicated,
my passions were never far from insanity,
and neither do I regret:
For I have learned to understand that all
extraordinary men who have brought about
something great and seemingly impossible
have ever been decried as drunkards and lunatics.
All that is great and smart exists among a minority.
Writing history is a way
to get the past off your back.
… humans are darkened beings;
they know not
where they come from, nor where they go;
they know little of the world,
and least of themselves.
I also don’t know myself,
and God forbid I should!
All learned teachers and tutors are agreed
that children do not know why they want;
but that adults should stumble about this earth like children,
without knowing where they come from or where they’re going –
like them, not acting to achieve fixed aims,
and also like them, are ruled by cookies, cake, and the rod –
this is what nobody likes to believe;
and yet I think it is palpable.
Nothing is more terrible
than ignorance in action.
(3418) Transl. by B. Saunders.
Often in the course of life,
when we’re feeling completely secure in the way it unfolds,
we suddenly notice that we are caught in an error,
that we have let ourselves be taken in by persons, by things,
having dreamed up a relationship to them
that disappears immediately before the awakened eye;
and yet we cannot tear free,
a power grips us that seems incomprehensible to us.
O happy he, who still renews
The hope, from Error’s deeps to rise forever!
That which one does not know, one needs to use;
And what one knows, one uses never.
(4871) Transl. by B. Taylor.
Real life frequently loses its luster to such an extent
that sometimes you have to refresh it again
with the varnish of fiction.
We often must undertake some folly,
just to be able to live again for a while.
Life – looking so vulgar, seeming so easily
contented with the commonplace and everyday –
always quietly nurses and cherishes certain higher claims
and looks about for the means of satisfying them.
… who is able to look back on his past life
without going kind of crazy,
as he will mostly find that his willing has been right,
his doing wrong, his desires blameworthy,
yet their attainment longed for?
One look from you, one word, has dearer worth
Than all the wisdom upon earth.
Now on top of the world
Now in the depths of despair
only the soul that loves
is happy beyond compare
Luck is starting to get capricious with me.
Nothing is more odious than the majority
— because it consists of a few powerful trailblazers,
accommodating rogues, conformist weaklings,
and the crowd that trots after them
without in the least knowing what it wants.
The crowd, the majority, is necessarily always absurd and wrong, for it is lazy;
and falsehood is always much more convenient than truth.
The latter wants to be seriously researched and ruthlessly looked at and applied.
Falsehood, however, clings to every sluggish, lazy or foolish individuality,
it is like a varnish, with which you can easily coat over everything.
There is no greater consolation for mediocrity
than that the genius is not immortal.
(4821) Transl. by B. Saunders
Yet he who grasps the moment’s gift
He is the proper man
To gold still tends,
On gold depends
(3187) Transl. by B. Taylor
I keep silent about a lot of things
because I don’t like to confuse people,
and I’m content
for them to be happy about things
that annoy me.
If I am to listen to another’s opinion,
it must be expressed positively.
I have enough problematic issues myself.
[On his poem “Elegy”]
You see the product of a highly impassioned mood.
While I was caught up in it,
I would not have missed it for the world,
and now I don’t want to get back into it at any cost.
Great passions are diseases without hope.
What could cure them
is what makes them even more dangerous.
Dig in your heels where you stand! —
A maxim more necessary than ever
as, on the one hand, people are torn into large parties
but then also individuals want to assert themselves
according to their individual understanding and ability.
There is nothing for us to do but to proceed upon the path
we have struck. …
I am making as good use of my days as I can,
and at least move some pieces forward on the board.
We are sensualists as long as we are children;
idealists when we love and attribute to the
beloved object qualities it does not really possess.
Love wavers, we doubt fidelity and are skeptics
sooner than we would have believed.
The rest of life is indifferent;
we let it go as it will, and end,
like the Indian philosophers, with quietism.
I am rather of the opinion:
The more incommensurable
and the more incomprehensible to the intellect
a poetic production is,
so much the better.
My counsel is, therefore, to force nothing,
and rather to trifle and sleep away all unproductive days and hours,
than on such days to compose something
that will afterwards give one no pleasure.
We read far too much poor stuff,
which fouls time and gains us nothing.
We really should only read
what we admire …
Tell me with whom you associate,
and I will tell you who you are.
If I know what you occupy yourself with,
I know what you can become.
Usually we resist as long as possible
to the fool we nurture in our chest,
acknowledging a major error, and
admitting a truth that drives us to despair.
Act prudently is the practical side of: Know yourself.
Both must be considered neither a law nor a demand;
it’s set up like the bull’s eye
that you always have to zero in on
even if you don’t always hit it.
We are our own devils,
we drive ourselves
out of our paradise.
Too old am I to play with passion;
Too young, to be without desire.
(3183) Transl. by B. Taylor
You are never able to write to friends
about that of yourself
that was most interesting to them
because you don’t really know
what’s interesting about yourself.
Shakespeare, my friend,
if you were still with us,
there is nowhere I could live
but with you …
[Shakespeare’s] plays all revolve around the secret point …
in which the individuality of our self,
the pretended freedom of our will,
with the necessary course of the whole.
Shakespeare’s theater is a beautiful box of rarities
in which the history of the world
floats before our eyes
along the invisible thread of time.
Superstition is the poetry of life,
and so it doesn’t hurt the poet
to be superstitious.
My worthy friend, gray are all theories,
And green alone Life’s golden tree.
(4114) Transl. by B. Taylor.
… if the eternal remains
present for us at any moment,
then we do not suffer
from the fleeting time.
… only by throwing light on the past
can the present be understood.
Deep minds are compelled
to live in the past
as well as in the future.
(3011) Transl. by J. Oxenford.
The day runs away like life,
we do nothing
and yet we don’t know
where the time is going.
Art is long,
(3194) Transl. by T. Carlyle.
Seen from a distance things show less confus’d,
That in the present serve but to perplex.
(3189) Transl. by A. Swanwick.
The days and years flee with such a raging liveliness
that one can hardly think,
and downhill it seems to go even faster.
The presence of the beloved always shortens time.
Truth is inconsistent with our nature,
but not so error and for a very simple reason:
Truth demands that we should recognise
ourselves as limited, but error flatters us
with the belief that in one way or another
we are without limits.
The truth must be repeated over and over again,
because error is also repeatedly preached among us —
and not by individuals, but by the masses.
In newspapers and encyclopedias, in schools and universities,
everywhere error is on top,
at ease and comfortable in the feeling
that it has the majority on its side.
Since so many earthly things
we must hold on to
what remains …
The deed is all
and naught the fame.
(5000) Transl. by A. G. Latham.
Once you know what matters,
you stop being talkative.
We always hope, and still in every case
’Tis better far to hope than to despair;
For who can calculate the possible?
(3425) Transl. by A. Swanwick.
… the best possible will be strived for
by postulating the impossible.
It is not good for a person to be alone
and especially to work alone.
Rather, one needs sympathy and suggestions
to do anything well.
If we’re in a depressed mood
and reflecting deeply upon the wretchedness of our age,
it often seems to us
as if the world is gradually getting ready for doomsday.
And the evil accumulates from generation to
For it is not enough that we have to suffer
for the sins of our forebears,
but we hand down to our heirs
these inherited vices increased by our own.
I have no faith in the world
and have learned to despair.
The world is a bell that has a crack:
it clatters but doesn’t ring.
World and us
For as one makes the decision to become a soldier
and go to war, and courageously determines to endure
danger and hardship as well as wounds and pains and
but at the same time never imagines the particular cases
in which those generally anticipated evils may surprise us
in an extremely unpleasant manner –
so it is with everyone who ventures into the world …
… the ground shakes everywhere,
and in a storm
it doesn’t really matter
which ship of the fleet you are on.
It is a great folly to demand that people will harmonize with us;
I have never done it.
I have always regarded each person as an independent individual,
whom I endeavored to study and to understand with all their peculiarities,
but from whom I desired no further sympathy.
There is no surer way of evading the world than by art;
and no surer way of connecting to it than by art.
We can’t have the experience soon enough
of how expendable we are in the world.
It is futile to think, in this world, of adhering to our individual will.
What I wished to hold fast, I must let go;
and undeserved benefits descend upon me of their own accord.
World of Delusion
Just like in Rome there was apart from the Romans
a population of statues,
so there is apart from this real world
an almost more powerful world of delusion,
in which most people live.
My works cannot become popular;
whoever thinks so and strives for this is mistaken.
They are not written for the masses but only for individuals
who want and search for something similar,
and who are moving in similar directions.
Words are good,
but they are not the best.
is not made clear by words.
To write prose, one must have something to say;
but one who has nothing to say can still make verses and rhymes,
where one word leads to the other, and at last something comes out,
which in fact is nothing
but looks as if it were something.
… you ask for a strange thing.
I should write when I don’t feel,
should produce milk
without having given birth.
When you’re young,
you have the confidence to be able to build palaces for people,
but when it comes down to it,
you have your hands full cleaning up their crap.