The World in Weimar. Goethe’s “Roman Elegies” and Augustan Poetry

With the Roman Elegies (1795), Johann Wolfgang Goethe explicitly resorts for the first time to a traditional genre, the Augustan love elegy. But of what use are genres, antiquity and Rome in 1800? The cycle of poems engulfs the infinite imaginary and textual space of Rome—and this in a novel and distinctly ‘Roman’ way. Goethe establishes a form of writing that is not, as before, based on translation (translatio) or competitive imitation (aemulatio), but rather makes confident, playful and skilful use of the boundless textual fundus (captio). In its imperiality, this written captio is distinctively Roman: It deliberately appropriates the foreign as its own, it is infinitely integrative. As a receptive and polyvalent genre, the elegy is ideally suited to this Roman writing project. The Roman Elegies, in their transformation of antiquity, do not monumentalize tradition. On the contrary, they are an example of living metamorphosis (Ovid). In this renewing mastery of antique and modern text strata, in this renovatio of Rome, lies a founding moment of the worldwide authority of Goethe.

The dissertation deals with the cultural and political settings of Augustan Rome, which, in their evocation of a ‘Golden Age, were immensely formative for the European classics of the modern era. The fact that German discussions around 1800 centered not so much on Roman tradition, many literary theorists rather assuming an elective Greek-German affinity, was considered a curiosity of the European discourse on antiquity. Considering the first piece of the Horen, however, reveals that Goethe’s writing after his return from Italy was Roman rather than Greek. A central concern of the work is tracing the Roman-imperial narratives that continue in Goethe’s Elegies, such as the rape of the vestal priestess Rhea Silvia by Mars—one of the founding stories of Rome. Oriented on Karl Philipp Moritz’ “Language of Imagination,” it also sheds light on Goethe’s mythical work. Myth is Goethe’s material for poetic production, not an unchanging prehistory. Goethe understands myth as a “leeway” (Moritz), which is shaped in a controlled way and guarantees the survival of poetry and poet. The urbanitas that emerges with the transformative and ironic handling of myths touches on the incipient discussion of “world literature” at the end of the 18th century. Finally, the dissertation discusses Goethe’s work on his own figure as an author, questions the theoretical reflections on the “literary field” (Bourdieu) and brings together Arendt’s reflections on authority with Augustus’ understanding of auctoritas and translatio. Goethe as a ‘world author’ cannot be understood without his elective ‘Roman affinity.’

ZfL Doctoral Fellowship 2017–2019
Head researcher(s): Jakob Gehlen


Jakob Gehlen

Welt in Weimar
Goethes Römische Elegien und die augusteische Dichtung

Periplous, Münchener Studien zur Literaturwissenschaft
Wilhelm Fink, Leiden 2020, 320 pages
ISBN: 978-3-7705-6580-1 (Print); 978-3-8467-6580-7 (E-Book)

Jakob Gehlen


12 Jun 2019 · 12.15 pm

Jakob Gehlen: Gleicht Goethe Herkules? Mythos und Werkstatt in den »Römischen Elegien«

Jugend- und Kulturzentrum »mon ami«, Goetheplatz 11, 99423 Weimar

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20 Jun 2018 · 6.00 pm

Jakob Gehlen: Augustus' Rom als Caput Mundi (Vergil, Horaz, Ovid). Rekonstruktion einer Idee

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10117 Berlin, Raum 3053

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12 Apr 2018 · 6.30 pm

Jakob Gehlen/Jakob Arnold: Status der Berührung. Theaterpraxis auf und neben der Bühne

Experimentiertheater der FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, Bismarckstraße 1, 91054 Erlangen

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