Als ich noch ein Knabe war,"When I was a lad, I used to get locked up. I was alone, as in the womb, but to pass time, I had golden fantasies that I could be a hero like Prince Pipi and go throughout the world."
Sperrte man mich ein;
Und so saß ich manches Jahr
Über mir allein,
Wie im Mutterleib.
Doch du warst mein Zeitvertreib,
Und ich war ein warmer Held,
Wie der Prinz Pipi,
Und durchzog die Welt.
Goethe's father believed children should not be shielded from fear. Young Goethe and his sister were frightened by the gloomy corners of the dark old house he grew up in and and used to sneak off to sleep with the maids. The father, disguised by his dressing gown worn inside out, hid in the corners to scare them off back to their own beds. Later, Goethe wrote, "How can anyone faced with such terrors be freed from fear?" Fortunately, Goethe was securely loved. Imagination goes both ways. As he says in his poem, in dreams anyone can become a prince.
Did Erlkönig germinate on the house in the Grosser Hirschgaben, so sunny and cheerful by day ?
Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir liese verspricht?
Ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind:
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.
Stand on the vast staircase in Goethe's birthplace and imagine it's the 1750's and you're less than a metre tall. The stairs on the ground floor are wide, and ornately decorated, but past the upper floors, they narrow and twist. The maids are right at the top, past crooked gables. The only light, if you're lucky, is the moon.
The original house was destroyed in 1945, when most of old Frankfurt was carpet bombed and thousands died. It was one of the first places to be rebuilt, for Goethe represents so much that is good and noble. The basic proportions of the main building show how very different the home was from palaces and churches. The family lived in close proximity with their servants. There must have been so much activity, keeping that busy household going. While young Goethe played toy theatre with grandma, his parents were making music in the next room, the cook and maids in the kitchen, the ostlers tending horses in the yard. Romanticism isn't remote or aristocratic, but human scale.
For all his fantasies about ancient Greece, Goethe knew very well what made people tick. In one of the studies, he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, an expression of what we'd now call teenage angst.
That's why he is such a monumental figure. He straddles the classical and the Romantic, the 18th and 19th centuries, the old order and the new, the aristocracy and the peasants. He's an experimental thinker, interested in many different arts and sciences. He combines high flown philosophy with practical government. He adored young Mendelssohn, though probably didn't even see (or understand) the scores Schubert sent him. Goethe is a Renaissance man, who helped change the world.
So a visit to his birthplace is rewarding. Use your imagination, like he did. Wish away the tourists, and you're in the birthplace of the Romantic, cradled in ancient tradition. Even Goethe didn't know why the street was called Hirschgaben. Long before his time it was part of the medieval commonland, where stags were pastured, semi-domesticated, like Frankfurt itself, still rural despite being urban. Once, long ago, I drove a powerful car on the autobahn round the city, seeing the glass canyons of the banking district in the distance. Brave New Europe and the ideals it symbolizes. Goethe is as valid today as he ever was.