Ben Hutchinson at Literary Review:
In the long history of Western culture, it is given to very few to have an entire era named after them. Socrates sits within Antiquity, Leonardo da Vinci within the Renaissance; even Shakespeare has been subsumed into the ‘Elizabethan age’. That the ‘age of Goethe’ (Goethezeit) should have become a standard term for the years spanning the Weimar poet’s active life – roughly, 1770 to 1830 – suggests, then, his overwhelming importance to the German psyche. Without Goethe, one might say, the great tradition of high culture that characterises modern Germany would never have begun; without Goethe, the archetypes of the national imagination – the raging Werther, the ageing Faust – would never have come into being.
How could one man accomplish so much? Among the many merits of Rüdiger Safranski’s masterly biography is that it explores the full range of Goethe’s achievements. Novelist and naturalist, statesman and poet, Goethe (1749–1832) made significant contributions to an astonishing array of disciplines. Not for him the narrow professional specialisations that would rapidly establish themselves in the decades following his death or the disciplinary boundaries to which lesser beings were beholden. At every new intellectual border he crossed, Goethe could announce, like Oscar Wilde but in earnest, that he had nothing to declare but his genius.