Goethe’s Faust Part 1

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T’was Saturday morning and I had somewhat of a hangover, I hadn’t the energy for emerging myself in a whole novel only something with short bursts – poetry maybe.

I decided to ‘casually read’ Faust Part 1, I knew that this is a book that is considered an epic masterpiece and this was one of the reasons why it had been sitting on my shelf gathering dust for years, epic masterpieces are by default epic undertakings to undertake.

Three weeks later I had finished, engrossed by every stanza. I felt a sort of quiet unease as if I had missed something or that I had actually not missed anything and I was supposed to feel like I missed something. I wandered over different directions in Goethe’s thinking, some brilliant others confusing. I began thinking in rhyming verse as if my mind had caught a kind of disease.

I came to a solid conclusion that many others have arrived at:  Faust is a masterpiece, it is one that is little worn and battered and somewhat difficult to understand but still a masterpiece.

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Faust was a bit of a surprise, sometimes I find poetry a little bit extravagant, and in the case of epic poems by say Homer or Dante, I find them difficult (but not impossible) to access due to the translation issues and the vast gulf in time and culture between me and the poet.

In Faust there are translation issues, some stanzas just didn’t seem to have the rhythm of others or even rhyme at all,  I guess not every German word is going to rhyme perfectly with an English translated one. Although it is surprising just how much work translators have put into making it flow and rhyme. I did wonder what Faust the German version was like, if I where able to read it in German would I be a little more critical about the short stanzas that do not flow or rhyme or have any link to the narrative?

Translation issues aside, Faust did surprise me, it turned out to be many different things, it can be candid, humorous, subtle, serious, insightful and clear. The poetry has so many nuances, the carefully selected words mix emotions like a paint palette, skillfully rendering a picture that becomes more interesting as you progress.

The central narrative is interesting and hard to unpick, superficially the story is fairly simple: A educated professor and doctor has had enough of the world and feels he has come to an end of all knowledge, he courts Mephistopheles who brokers a deal with him that he can give him what he wants. Mephistopheles promises he can give him what he wants if he only signs a pact with him. Faust signs the pact and they begin the adventure.

Faust starts by drinking a witches brew which I was lead to believe was a fountain of youth elixir to make him young again. Before Mephistopheles can even introduce him to any of his devilish plans, Faust has a chance meeting with Gretchen a 14 year old girl who Faust is prepared to peruse at all costs.

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It is funny here that Mephistopheles seems a bit surprised at his choice, nevertheless Faust choses his poison and he goes about doing his job weaving and manipulating events to let Faust get what he wants. Gretchen works out to be a faithful christian and tricky for the Mephistopheles to turn to the dark side, but she turns and the whole thing predictably turns to tears.

Faust kills Gretchen’s brother Valentin after he tries to get revenge for ruining Gretchen’s good name and Faust exits the scene descending into a kind of weird sort of underworld where he finds out the fate of Gretchen who murdered her mother with a sleeping potion (so Faust could sneak in and get a quickly) Faust finds the he got Gretchen pregnant and she then had to kill her infant child in shame.

We find Gretchen then in jail where she has gone into a kind of insanity and Faust tries to get her out but her own guilt and shame makes her stay where she awaits gods judgment. Part 1 ends with both Faust and Mephistopheles leaving together.

The poem it reads more like some kind of waking nightmare, it is really very odd at times in a lyrical and enjoyable way. Faust’s interrelationship with the devil is interesting, you are never quite sure who is leading who. Sometimes you feel that Faust is actually leading the devil and he is just sort of standing back in awe of Faust’s desire. 

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The world in which Faust inhabits seemed very remote to the modern reader, Faust has this ‘troubled intellectual’ narrative that so often appears in literature from this time. The main character (usually male) troubles over a female and spends the entirety of the book, novel, poem trying to find ways to get into bed with her. In this case it was a 14 year old girl, and besides the obvious creepiness of the situation I was left wondering why we are being burdened with it. Some critics have likened Gretchen to the German state, or representing other things but there is no attempt to persuade the reader she is anything but a 14 year old girl.

The story is undeniably alluring even with it’s flaws, there are shining gems of wisdom and prose that easily outdo those of Shakespeare. Because of it’s ambiguity the reader is forced to think for themselves and this creates a power that draws you in even further. Faust is deep, so deep and thick its like being stuck in molasses.

However it is worth the effort and anyone who has an interest in poetry should make this part of their canon.

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