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Faust I & II by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Faust I & II (1823)

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,757212,128 (3.96)228
One of the great classics of European literature, Faust is Goethe's most complex and profound work. To tell the dramatic and tragic story of one man's pact with the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power, Goethe drew from an immense variety of cultural and historical material, and a wealth of poetic and theatrical traditions. What results is a tour de force illustrating Goethe's own moral and artistic development, and a symbolic, cautionary tale of Western humanity striving restlessly and ruthlessly for progress. Capturing the sense, poetic variety, and tonal range of the German original… (more)

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English (13)  Spanish (3)  Dutch (2)  German (1)  French (1)  All languages (20)
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Found this very boring and couldn't make it further than about a quarter, but I think it may have just been an uninspiring translation. (George Madison Priest.) ( )
  FFortuna | Jun 20, 2018 |
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Erster Teil
Zweiter Teil

Reclam, Paperback, 2011.

12mo. 2 vols. 135+219 pp. Edited by Ulrich Gaier.

Part I first published, 1808.
Revised, 1828.
Reclam edition, 1999, 2000 (revised spelling).
Part II first published, 1832.
Reclam edition, 1999, 2001 (revised spelling).


This is not a review of Goethe’s Faust – I have done that elsewhere – but rather a few brief notes on translations. They will be confined to Part I, the only one I have read in the original German and the only one I consider the real Faust. (Whatever Part II may be, it is definitely not the same work.) I have read complete only one English translation, by John R. Williams first published in the Wordsworth Classics (2007), from all others mentioned below I have sampled only a few favourite passages.

Reading Faust in German, the first thing I am impressed with is how easy it is. Goethe’s rhythm and rhyming make for a compulsive reading experience. No translation can possibly convey this. Mr Williams frankly admitted he tried to preserve “as closely as possible the rhymes, metres and verse forms of Goethe’s text”, and he certainly produced a very readable, bouncing and singing text. But it’s nothing like the original.

Of course, understanding Goethe’s text is a lot harder than just reading it. No doubt I have missed a lot that an advanced German speaker, which I am not, would catch. Native German speakers, in the unlikely case that they are educated enough, would no doubt get more than either of us, poor foreigners. But not much more, I think. So far as I can tell, translators capture the general meaning pretty well, but they often miss or change the subtleties. Consider the very first words of Faust (354-9) in which Mr Williams introduces a sort of pun on theology missing from Goethe’s text but not untrue to its spirit:

Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie!
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin ich so klug wie zuvor;

Medicine, and Law, and Philosophy –
You’ve worked your way through every school,
Even, God help you, Theology,
And sweated at it like a fool.
Why labour at it any more?
You’re no wiser now than you were before.

It is fun and fascinating to see how Mr Williams negotiates a number of difficulties with sense, sound, rhythm and rhyme. He is a virtuoso. Just when you think he will break down and collapse on his instrument, he gets away with a note-perfect performance. Just two examples must suffice. Consider Mephisto’s candid self-portrait soon after he appears to Faust (1338-44) and his accepting the celestial wager because it includes playing with living people (318-22):

Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!
Und das mit Recht; denn alles, was entsteht,
Ist wert, daß es zugrunde geht;
Drum besser wär’s, daß nichts entstünde.
So ist denn alles, was ihr Sünde,
Zerstörung, kurz, das Böse nennt,
Mein eigentliches Element.

I am the spirit of perpetual negation.
And that is only right; for all
That’s made is fit to be destroyed.
Far better if it were an empty void!
So – everything that you would call
Destruction, sin, and all that’s meant
By evil, is my proper element.

Da dank ich Euch; denn mit den Toten
Hab ich mich niemals gern befangen.
Am meisten lieb ich mir die vollen frischen Wangen.
Fur einen Leichnam bin ich nicht zu Haus;
Mir geht es wie der Katze mit der Maus.

I take up your kind offer, Sire, most gratefully;
The dead are of no interest to me.
I like them fresh and full of life, well fed.
A corpse is very boring; I’m like a cat, you see –
It’s no fun once the mouse is dead.

The phrase “perpetual negation” hardly has the brevity of “stets verneint”. But it’s a striking phrase, and it does convey the meaning with precision. The rhyming in the next six lines is changed, or indeed lost, but the rhythm is admirably swift and even more effective than Goethe’s. The charming cat-and-mouse imagery is retained with minimum of modification and no loss of sense at all.

I was curious to compare as many translations as I could access online. I chose one delicious passage from “Prologue in Heaven” in which the Devil makes devastating fun of God and the pinnacle, presumably, of His creation. All in all, it seems to me I was not unlucky in choosing, completely at random because it was the only one available around, the translation of Mr Williams.

[Original, 277-92:]
Mein Pathos brächte dich gewiß zum lachen,
Hättst du dir nicht das Lachen abgewöhnt.
Von Sonn’ und Welten weiß ich nichts zu sagen,
Ich sehe nur wie sich die Menschen plagen.
Der kleine Gott der Welt bleibt stets von gleichem Schlag,
Und ist so wunderlich als wie am ersten Tag.
Ein wenig besser würd’ er leben,
Hättst du ihm nicht den Schein des Himmelslichts gegeben;
Er nennts Vernunft und braucht’s allein
Nur thierischer als jedes Thier zu seyn.
Er scheint mir, mit Verlaub von Ew. Gnaden,
Wie eine der langbeinigen Cicaden,
Die immer fliegt und fliegend springt
Und gleich im Gras ihr altes Liedchen singt;
Und läg’ er nur noch immer in dem Grase!
In jeden Quark begräbt er seine Nase.

[Trans. John R. Williams, 2007, 277-92:]
Pathos from me would make you laugh – although
I know you gave up laughing long ago.
I can’t sing hymns about the universe,
I only see how people go from bad to worse.
He hasn’t changed, your little god on earth –
He’s still peculiar as the day you gave him birth.
He’d live a better life, at least,
If you’d not given him a glimpse of heaven’s light.
He calls it reason – which gives him the right
To be more bestial than any beast.
Saving your gracious presence, Sire, I’d say
He’s like a silly grasshopper in the hay.
He chirps and sings and flitters to and fro,
And chirps the same old song and jumps about;
If only he were satisfied with that – but no,
In every pile of filth he dips his snout.

[Trans. Martin Greenberg, 1992, rev. 2014, 283-300:]
Coming from me, high-sounding sentiments
Would only make you laugh – that is, provided
Laughing is a thing Your Worship still did
About suns and worlds I don’t know beans, I only see
How mortals find their lives pure misery.
Earth’s little god’s shaped out of the same old clay,
He’s be much better off, in my opinion, without
The bit of heavenly light you dealt him out.
He calls it Reason, and the use he puts it to?
To act more beastly than beasts ever do.
To me he seems, if you’ll pardon my saying so,
Like a long-legged grasshopper all of whose leaping
Only lands him back in the grass again chirping
The tune he’s always chirped. And if only he’d
Stay put in the grass! But no! It’s an absolute need
With him to creep and crawl and strain and sweat
And stick his nose in every pile of dirt.

[Trans. A. S. Kline, 2003, 278-92:]
My pathos would be sure to make you smile,
If you had not renounced all laughter too.
You’ll get no word of suns and worlds from me.
How men torment themselves is all I see.
The little god of Earth sticks to the same old way,
And is as strange as on that very first day.
He might appreciate life a little more: he might,
If you hadn’t lent him a gleam of Heavenly light:
He calls it Reason, but only uses it
To be more a beast than any beast as yet.
He seems to me, saving Your Grace,
Like a long-legged grasshopper: through space
He’s always flying: he flies and then he springs,
And in the grass the same old song he sings.
If he’d just lie there in the grass it wouldn’t hurt!
But he buries his nose in every piece of dirt.

[Trans. Bayard Taylor, 1870-1:]
My pathos certainly would move Thy laughter,
If Thou hadst not all merriment unlearned.
Of suns and worlds I’ve nothing to be quoted;
How men torment themselves, is all I’ve noted.
The little god o’ the world sticks to the same old way,
And is as whimsical as on Creation’s day.
Life somewhat better might content him,
But for the gleam of heavenly light which Thou hast lent him:
He calls it Reason – thence his power’s increased,
To be far beastlier than any beast.
Saving Thy Gracious Presence, he to me
A long-legged grasshopper appears to be,
That springing flies, and flying springs,
And in the grass the same old ditty sings.
Would he still lay among the grass he grows in!
Each bit of dung he seeks, to stick his nose in.

Mr Taylor’s Victorian attempt, way too ponderous and formal, may be dismissed speedily. Greenberg and Kline capture the devilish mockery in a suitably informal tone, but neither seems to me preferable to Williams. All three introduce rhyme in the first two lines, even though there is none in the original. None quite captures the sardonic brutality of the last two lines. Mr Kline comes closer than the rest, perhaps, to capturing the terse quality of the rhyme “Grase/Nase”. Mephisto’s part is full of such verbal slaps.
2 vote Waldstein | Apr 4, 2018 |
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust begins with a prologue set in Heaven. The scene is modeled on the opening of the Book of Job in the Old Testament. While the angels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael praise the Lord, Mephistopheles mocks human beings as failed creations because reason makes them worse than brutes. God tells Mephistopheles that he will illuminate his servant Faust. Mephistopheles wagers with god that he can corrupt Faust instead. With the assent of god Mephistopheles goes into action.

In the next scene, Faust appears in acute despair because his intellectual studies have left him ignorant and without worldly gain and fame. In order to discover the inner secrets and creative powers of nature, he turns to black magic. Thus, he conjures up the Earth Spirit, the embodiment of the forces of nature. However, the Earth Spirit mocks Faust’s futile attempts to understand him. As he despairs of understanding nature, he prepares to poison himself.
At that moment, church bells and choral songs announcing that “Christ is arisen” distract Faust from killing himself. Celestial music charms Faust out of his dark and gloomy study for a walk in the countryside on a beautiful spring day in companionship with his fellow human beings. Observing the springtime renewal of life in nature, Faust experiences ecstasy. At this moment, Faust yearns for his soul to soar into celestial spheres.

This Easter walk foreshadows Faust’s ultimate spiritual resurrection. However, he must first undergo a pilgrimage through the vicissitudes and depths of human life. In a famous moment he proclaims that "two souls are dwelling in my breast". It is in this battle within himself that he becomes emblematic of modern man. As he battles Mephistopheles offers him a wager for his everlasting soul that will provide him a fleeting moment of satisfaction in this world. Mephistopheles commands a witch to restore Faust’s youth so that he is vulnerable to sensuous temptations. When Faust sees the beautiful young girl Margaret, he falls into lust and commands Mephistopheles to procure her. Mephistopheles devises a deadly scheme for seduction. Faust convinces Margaret, who is only fourteen years old, to give her mother a sleeping potion, prepared by Mephistopheles, so that they can make love. Mephistopheles makes poison instead; the mother never awakens.

Unwittingly, Margaret has murdered her mother. Furthermore, she is pregnant by Faust and alone. When Faust comes to visit Margaret, he finds her brother, Valentine, ready to kill him for violating his sister. Mephistopheles performs trickery so that Faust is able to stab Valentine in a duel. Dying, Valentine curses Margaret before the entire village as a harlot. Even at church, Margaret suffers extreme anguish as an evil spirit pursues her.

In contrast, Faust escapes to a witches’ sabbath on Walpurgis Night. He indulges in orgiastic revelry and debauchery with satanic creatures and a beautiful witch until an apparition of Margaret haunts him. Faust goes looking for Margaret and finds her, in a dungeon, insane and babbling. At this moment, Faust realizes that he has sinned against innocence and love for a mere moment of sensual pleasure. Even though it is the very morning of her execution, Margaret refuses to escape with Faust and Mephistopheles. Instead, she throws herself into the hands of God. As Faust flees with Mephistopheles, a voice from above proclaims, “She is saved!”

Goethe will continue his drama with a second part, but the narrative from this first section has become one of the markers for the beginning of the modern era of human culture. I have previously written about some of the ideas in this drama in my discussion of "Active vs. Reactive Man". Translated by many over the two centuries since its original publication it has become a touchstone for the study of the development of the human spirit. It has also inspired other artists to create operas and novels based on the characters from Goethe's drama. ( )
  jwhenderson | Mar 5, 2018 |
This weird, beautiful, complicated play was the work of Goethe's entire life; he wrote it over 60 years, and I doubt he was done when he died. Part II was published posthumously in 1832; it had his, uh, prehumous approval, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't have been happy to spend another ten years tweaking it. To call it an exploration of the Faust myth seems almost like an insult; it's more the distillation of everything he knew and believed, framed loosely by Faust. (And I do mean loosely.)

That's undoubtedly part of why it's so complicated. It abruptly switches scenes, themes, tone and meter; sometimes I was halfway through a scene before I even figured out what was going on. It's one of the few works where, at the halfway mark, I was already imagining what it would be like when I read it again.

That's a way of saying I didn't get it, and I didn't get it, at least not fully. Hell, it's the entire life of one of our greatest thinkers; I'm not ashamed to admit it. It's also a way of saying that I'm not sure I picked the right translation. I have nothing to compare it to, but Atkins' felt matter-of-fact - plodding - unpoetic. As well, the endnotes and introduction were cursory.

( )
3 vote AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
While I do not care for Goethe, I do like MacDonald's rhyming translation. It makes it much better to get through it! Did this for Part II so that the Kindle could read the rhyming to me with the text to speech feature. ( )
1 vote Carolfoasia | Sep 23, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
(specifically reviews the illustrations by Harry Clarke)

Clarke’s unmistakable aesthetic, which became a centerpiece of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and which he had applied to Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination just a few years earlier, lends the Goethe masterpiece an additional dimension of haunting beauty ....

» Add other authors (207 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang vonAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Anster, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Atkins, Stuart PrattEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Boehn, Max vonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Boileau, DanielTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Burwick, FrederickEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Clarke, HarryIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Coleridge, Samuel TaylorTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
de Staël, GermaineContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Delacroix, EugèneIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Erler, GotthardContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fetzer, GüntherContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hallqvist, Britt G.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kaufmann, Walter ArnoldTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leveson-Gower, FrancisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
MacNiece, LouisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McKusick, James C.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Merian-Genast, ErnstHerausgebersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Merian-Genast, ErnstAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nerval, Gérard deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Passage, Charles E.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pickerodt, GerhardAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Priest, George MadisonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raphael, AliceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Redslob, ErwinPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rollet, EdwinEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schüddekopf, CarlEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Siebertz, EngelbertIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Soane, GeorgeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Steenbergen, Alb.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vloten, J. vanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Пастернак, БорисTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Ye wavering forms draw near again as ever / When ye long since moved past my clouded eyes.
Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Hab nun, ach! die Philosophei,
Medizin und Juristerei
Und leider auch die Theologie
Durchaus studiert mit heißer Müh.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor,
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.
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Contains Faust: A Tragedy, Parts 1 AND 2. Please distinguish this LT work from: (a) either Part 1 or Part 2 alone; (b) any editions containing more than Parts 1 and 2 (such as the Urfaust, commentaries, or "Norton Critical Editions"); (c) any abridged version; or (d) any adaptations or other derivative works. Thank you.
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