Versatility is the least of poetic virtues. It may seem an impressive sign of poetic prowess to be able to turn out a poem on any subject, in any of several styles, but even if the poems are each effective in their own way, on their own terms, the “virtue” of versatility can end up working against a poet. Poetic infinitude is not the result of many kinds of well-written poems—the oeuvre as a multifarious universe—but a single style that can be modulated infinitely.
Goethe the Poet is the archetype of the multifarious poet, the sum total of whose poems ends up having a lesser impact than that of the unified poet. The poetic pressure head disperses as mist. I am considering, mind you, “the poet Goethe”—generalizations about even this circumscribed region of the Goethean oeuvre requires us to reconcile opposites and blur the exceptions. Goethe wrote himself into this poetic bind by being, essentially, boundless. All kinds of poetic styles, voices, tones, and forms came easily to him, from the very earliest stages of his career. The German language offered him no resistance. Whatever he wished to do, he could do. A versatile mind matched his versatile tongue. Why stick with and develop a single verse form when he could mix and match them as he pleased, as in Faust? His total output contains good examples of every sort of poem under the sun, as any Englished Selected will reveal. There are youthful love lyrics and slightly vulgar elegies (at least they were considered vulgar in his time—they come off as pretty milquetoast nowadays), witty philosophical quatrains, satirical epigrams, High Romantic love poems; the discursive, the lyric, the lyric-epic; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Most of the Selecteds I have read exclude the true diversity of his poetic output, excluding the longer narrative poems Hermann und Dorothea and Reineke Fuchs out of a late-20th-century fixation on the non-narrative, short-poem format. There is something missing when we think of Goethe the Poet, and this crucial deficiency is any clear mental image of a Goethe Poem—or more crucially, any Goethean Feel. Because Goethe could write anything at all, a Goethe poem could be any poem at all. To be anyone at all is, poetically, to be no one.
Contrast his poetic output with that of more obviously “limited” writers. His fellow 19th-century German writer Holderlin is the most obvious one, but there are some tempting examples of unitary American poets, past and present: Consider Whitman and Dickinson, Billy Collins and Kay Ryan. All of these poets have a remarkable uniformity in their work, even Whitman, who claims to contain multitudes, but hews to a single aesthetic and in many cases a single tone. (Where is the slyly witty tone in Whitman, where the hushed incantatory prayerful tone, where the self-effacing storyteller’s tone? You find these multitudes in Goethe. Whitman is always Whitman and only Whitman, even when he’s identifying, perforce, with everybody.) Dickinson has more variation in tone, yet her style, like Ryan’s, is among the best examples we have of a single verse form doggedly pursued. This unitary nature is why we have a mental image of these poets. Their dedication to one tone and effect (think of the striking uniformity of Collins’s work) creates a poetic selfhood. When we say each name, we know of whom we speak.
Great poets seem to settle on a single style or effect and use it to house (and, I suspect, generate) their poetry. Some do this early. Dickinson keeps at her quatrain and quatrain-variants. Ryan has no iambic pentameter sestinas or long-lined free verse poems in her early volumes. In other cultures, Rumi produces the ghazal and its related form the ruba’i endlessly. Likewise Hafiz and Ghalib. The ghazal is a capacious form in rhyme-rich languages that, like Persian and Urdu, let sentences end naturally in small verbs or prepositions (which takes the pressure off of both the monorhyme and the refrain). In other words, it can “fit” a lot of heaven and earth in it. The versatility and flexibility display themselves within a single unifying verse form—so Dante rants against Popes, regrets earthly passion, and praises the angels all in the same supple terza rima. He is a many-minded poet, but his devotion to one form gives his great poem unity. Goethe’s great poem, Faust, is disjunct in materials and in modes; it is so disjunct, it can be excerpted almost at will. There is no more heterogenous poem in literary history. You may nominate the Mahabharata or the Cantos of Pound—but actually, both of those poems possess a greater unity than Goethe’s Faust. Both are products of a single weltanschauung—one was created by a single culture, the other by a single, idiosyncratic, cutting-and-pasting mind.
Faust, by contrast, between its First and Second Parts actually shifts its nature. It does so as a kind of formal mimesis of medieval and post-medieval European intellectual history. The first part shows us an internally coherent system. The Faust-legend inherited by Goethe is executing itself. Part One shows a great clanking machinery of temptation and damnation with which we are all familiar. The feel is medieval European, complete with a devil. Everything is working out appropriately until Margarete is “saved.” It happens at the end—she is going to be damned for fooling around with Faust—and then a voice cries out that she’s saved, she’s going to heaven, in the face of Immutable Law (which was code all along, we realize suddenly, for social disdain). The future has arrived with Margarete’s ascension. But Faust Part II is going to show the future happening in an odd way—the way it happened with Europe. Europe is going to go forward by going retro. So in Faust Part II, we get Helen of Troy, and a “Classical Walpurgisnacht,” and a wild effusion of old-school classical references, complete with a child of Faust and Helen named Euphorion.
This idea of coupling medieval scholasticism with classical learning and the union being fertile—that is Goethe’s invention, and it’s pretty much what happened in Europe. It’s a birds-and-the-bees origin-story of European science, and through that, of the modern world. Euphorion kills himself young by jumping off a cliff. A cautionary parable for the splitters of atoms!
It took Goethe’s versatility and felicity to embody the Scotus-and-Ovid odd-couple nature of the European mind. What scattered his poems gave him an adaptive advantage when it came to writing this work. There is only one other poem, to my knowledge, that does this: Dante’s. The difference is that unlike Faust, which exemplifies the European synthesis but separating the elements, the Comedy enacted and embodied the European synthesis in a unified form. (It did so centuries before that synthesis’s full effects would be seen, and not just in the Italian Renaissance. There was an intense classical bent to Germany’s universities during the fertile century preceding Hitler; the century of Humboldt, Burckhardt, and Heimholtz may come to be seen, in time, as a second Renaissance.)
A few words of summary and expansion for one of my longer, more rambling posts.
Goethe changed his verse line and rhyme schemes to fit the occasion or situation or subject, both in Faust and in his shorter poems. Goethe’s versatile poetic mind did not find a single capacious, versatile form, as Shakespeare did in blank verse or Dante did in terza rima, that could remain externally the same and yet change with the changing occasions of his poetry.
Most great poets find one style and modulate it infinitely rather than write, as Goethe did, in an infinite number of styles. To assign a (probably unnecessary) value judgement: It is “better” to be single-minded than to be scattershot because you give readers, and the future, a clear sense of who you are and what they can expect. Creation of expectation is key in all reader-writer relationships. Only after an expectation has been created can it be met (a gratifying reading experience) or exceeded (an even more gratifying reading experience). With Goethe the Poet, you never know which Goethe you are going to get.
Finally, this “scattered” tendency extends to Goethe’s master poetic work, Faust. The work does in a disjunct fashion exactly what Dante’s Commedia did centuries earlier in a unified fashion. The traditional, metaphysical (Christian) structure has vanished between Dante and the young Goethe of the end of Faust Part I. Margarethe and Faustus will not share the fate of Franscesca and Paolo. Something has come between the two poets, and that something is modernity.
I am wary of setting up a false division here between “scatterbrained” and “single-minded” poets. It’s not like every poet fits into one or the other category. In fact, this “scatterbrained” appearance arises only when everything, as in Goethe’s case, is more or less equally good. A writer like Browning threw out hundreds of poems in all sorts of styles and tones, but we remember him primarily as a writer of a few keenly constructed dramatic monologues, and there’s a very good reason for that, as a look through his Collected Poems will quickly reveal. Time (with the help of the anthologist) turns multifarious poets into poets of a single form or effect. Their appearance to us is shaped, not least by large-scale trends in poetic taste. These also truncate a writer’s oeuvre, even when the lesser stuff isn’t all that “less.” So Tennyson has gotten distilled, for most readers, to In Memoriam, at the expense of his dialect poems and his blank verse narrative poems. Similarly, Keats and Shelley have been purged to their shorter page-or-so “lyric” poems. Who reads Endymion? Keats wrote Odes. Who reads Prometheus Unbound? Shelley wrote poems about the West Wind and a skylark. Eliot’s longer dramatic poems have diminished in significance; we read and speak about them considerably less than Eliot’s more Eliot-ish poems, The Waste Land and Four Quartets. On a side note, a time will come when his Practical Cats will shake off that Weber musical and be read in its own right as some of the best comic verse of the 20th century. Eliot ought to be known as a multifarious, grab-bag poet like Goethe, but Eliot limited his published output very drastically. His lyrical-philosophical poetry was so much better than his dramatic and comic verse (in both of which he performed, in my opinion, better than his contemporaries), that Eliot has come to seem single-minded. His poetry isn’t composed of distinct peaks of more or less identical altitude, as in Goethe. Eliot’s poetry has three peaks, and one is higher than the other two. (But all three are Himalayas.)