Any introduction referring to the subject of this book would be superfluous. It records the opinions, on the most varied topics, of one of the greatest literary geniuses of the present century, during the last ten years of a very long life. Goethe was born in August, 1749, and died in March, 1832, so that his age is seventy-three when the Conversations begin, and eighty-two when they terminate.

However, the form in which this translation is presented to the English public requires a short explanation.

In 1836, John Peter Eckermann, who gives a full account of himself in the “Introduction,” published, in two volumes, his “Conversations with Goethe.” In 1848, he published a third volume, containing additional Conversations, which he compiled from his own notes, and from that of another friend of Goethe's, M. Soret, of whom there is a short account in the “Preface to the Third or Supplemental Volume.” Both these works are dedicated to Her Imperial Highness Maria Paulouna, Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar and Eisenach.

Had I followed the order of German publication, I should have placed the whole of the Supplementary Volume after the contents of the first two; however, as the Conversations in that volume are not of a later date than the others (which, indeed, terminate with the death of Goethe), but merely supply gaps, I deemed it more conducive to the reader's convenience to re-arrange in chronological order the whole of the Conversations, as if the Supplement had not been published separately.

Still, to preserve a distinction between the Conversations of the First Book and those of the Supplement, I have marked the latter with the abbreviation “Sup.,” adding an asterisk (thus, Sup.*) when a Conversation has been furnished, not by Eckermann, but by Soret.

I feel bound to state that, while translating the First Book, I have had before me the translation by Mrs. Fuller, published in America. The great merit of this version I willingly acknowledge, though the frequent omissions render it almost an abridgement. The contents of the Supplementary Volume are now, I believe, published for the first time in the English language.

J. O. (1850.)



This collection of Conversations with Goethe took its rise chiefly from an impulse, natural to my mind, to appropriate to myself by writing any part of my experience which strikes me as valuable or remarkable.

Moreover, I felt constantly the need of instruction, not only when I first met with that extraordinary man, but also after I had lived with him for years; and I loved to seize on the import of his words, and to note it down, that I might possess them for the rest of my life.

When I think how rich and full were the communications by which he made me so happy for a period of nine years, and now observe how small a part I have retained in writing, I seem to myself like a child who, endeavouring to catch the refreshing spring shower with open hands, finds that the greater part of it runs through his fingers.

But, as the saying is that books have their destiny, and as this applies no less to the origin of a book than to its subsequent appearance in the broad wide world, so we may use it with regard to the origin of this present book. Whole months often passed away, while the stars were unpropitious, and ill health, business, or various toils needful to daily existence, prevented me from writing a single line; but then again kindly stars arose, and health, leisure, and the desire to write, combined to help me a good step forwards. And then, where persons are long domesticated together, where will there not be intervals of indifference; and where is he who knows always how to prize the present at its due rate?

I mention these things to excuse the frequent and important gaps which the reader will find, if he is inclined to read the book in chronological order. To such gaps belong much that is good, but is now lost, especially many favourable words spoken by Goethe of his widely scattered friends, as well as of the works of various living German authors, while other remarks of a similar kind have been noted down. But, as I said before, books have their destinies even at the time of their origin.

For the rest, I consider that which I have succeeded in making my own in these two volumes, and which I have some title to regard as the ornament of my own existence, with deep-felt gratitude as the gift of Providence, and I have a certain confidence that the world with which I share it will also feel gratitude towards me.

I think that these conversations not only contain many valuable explanations and instructions on science, art, and practical life, but that these sketches of Goethe, taken directly from life, will be especially serviceable in completing the portrait which each reader may have formed of Goethe from his manifold works.

Still, I am far from imagining that the whole internal Goethe is here adequately portrayed. We may, with propriety, compare this extraordinary mind and man to a many-sided diamond, which in each direction shines with a different hue. And as, under different circumstances and with different persons, he became another being, so I, too, can only say, in a very modest sense, this is my Goethe.

And this applies not merely to his manner of presenting himself to me, but to my capacity for apprehending and re-producing him. In such cases a reflection[1] takes place, as in a mirror; and it is very seldom that, in passing through another individuality, nothing of the original is lost, and nothing foreign is blended. The representations of the person of Goethe by Rauch, Dawe, Stieler, and David have all a high degree of truth, and yet each bears more or less the stamp of the individuality which produced it. If this can be said of bodily things, how much more does it apply to the fleeting, intangible objects of the mind! However it may be in my case, I trust that all those who, from mental power or personal acquaintance with Goethe, are fitted to judge, will not misinterpret my exertions to attain the greatest possible fidelity.

Having given these explanations as to the manner of apprehending my subject, I have still something to add as to the import of the work.

That which we call the True, even in relation to a single object, is by no means something small, narrow, limited; rather is it, even if something simple, at the same time something comprehensive, which like the various manifestations of a deep and widely reaching natural law, cannot easily be expressed. It cannot be disposed of by a sentence, or by sentence upon sentence, or by sentence opposed to sentence, but, through all these, one attains just an approximation, not the goal itself. So, to give a single instance, Goethe's detached remarks on poetry often have an appearance of one-sidedness, and indeed often of manifest contradiction. Sometimes he lays all the stress on the material which the world affords; sometimes upon the internal nature of the poet; sometimes the only important point is the subject; sometimes the mode of treating it; sometimes all is made to depend on perfection of form; sometimes upon the spirit, with a neglect of all form.

But all these contradictions are single sides of the True, and, taken together, denote the essence of truth itself, and lead to an approximation to it. I have, therefore, been careful, in these and similar cases, not to omit these seeming contradictions, as they were elicited by different occasions, in the course of dissimilar years and hours. I rely on the insight and comprehensive spirit of the cultivated reader, who will not be led astray by any isolated part, but will keep his eye on the whole, and properly arrange and combine each particular.

Perhaps, too, the reader will find much here which at first sight seems unimportant. But if, on looking deeper, he perceive that such trifles often lead to something important, or serve as a foundation to something which comes afterwards, or contribute some slight touch to a delineation of character, these may be, if not sanctified, at least excused, as a sort of necessity.

And now I bid a loving farewell to my so long cherished book on its entrance into the world, wishing it the fortune of being agreeable, and of exciting and propagating much that is good.

WEIMAR, 31st October, 1835.

  • [1] In the German “Spiegelung,” but “refraction” furnishes a more adequate image.—Trans.



Now, I at last see before me this long promised third part of my Conversations with Goethe: I enjoy the pleasant sensation of having overcome great obstacles.

My case was very difficult; it was like that of a mariner who cannot sail with the wind that blows to-day, but must often patiently wait whole weeks and months for a favourable gale, such as has blown years ago. When I was so happy as to write my first two parts, I could sail with a fair wind, because the freshly-spoken words were then still ringing in my ears, and the living intercourse with that wonderful man sustained me in an element of inspiration, through which I felt borne, as if on wings, to my goal.

But now when that voice has been hushed for many years, and the happiness of those personal interviews lies so far behind me, I could attain the needful inspiration only in those hours in which it was granted me to enter into my own interior, and, in undisturbed reverie, to give a fresh colouring to the past, where it began to revive within me, and I saw great thoughts, and great characteristic traits before me, like mountains; distant indeed, but nevertheless plainly discernible, and illumined as by the sun of the actual day.

Thus did my inspiration arise from my delight in that great man; the details of thought and of oral expression were again fresh, as if I had experienced them yesterday. The living Goethe was again there: I again heard the peculiarly charming sound of his voice, to which no other can compare. I saw him again in the evening, with his black frock and star, jesting, laughing, and cheerfully conversing amid the social circle in his well-lighted room. Another day, when the weather was fine, he was with me in the carriage in his brown surtout, and blue cloth cap, with his light grey cloak laid over his knees; there he was, with his countenance brown and healthy as the fresh air; his words freely flowing forth, and sounding above the noise of the wheels. Or I saw myself in the evening by the quiet taper light again transported into his study, where he sat opposite to me at his table, in his white flannel dressing-gown, mild as the impression of a well spent day. We talked about things good and great: he set before me the noblest part of his own nature, and his mind kindled my own—the most perfect harmony existed between us. He extended his hand to me across the table, and I pressed it: I then took a full glass which stood by me, and which I drank to him without uttering a word, my glances being directed into his eyes across the wine.

Thus was I again associated with him as in actual life, and his words again sounded to me as of old.

But as it is generally the case in life, that, although we can think of a dear departed one, our thoughts for weeks and months can be but transient, on account of the claims of the actual day; and that the quiet moments of such a reverie, in which we believe that we once more possess, in all its living freshness, a beloved object that we have lost, belong to a few happy hours—so was it with me with respect to Goethe.

Months often passed when my soul, engrossed by the contact of ordinary life, was dead to Goethe, and he uttered not a word to my mind. And again came other weeks and months, during which I was in a barren mood, so that nothing would bud or blossom within me. I was forced, with great patience, to let these periods of inanity pass unemployed, for anything written under such circumstances would have been worthless. I was compelled to wait for my good fortune to bestow a return of those hours when the past would stand before me in all its liveliness, and my soul would be elevated to such a degree of mental strength and sensible ease, as to be a worthy receptacle for the thoughts and feelings of Goethe; for I had to do with a hero whom I must not allow to sink. To be truly delineated he must appear in all the mildness of his disposition; in the full clearness and power of his mind; and in the accustomed dignity of his august personality—and this was no trifling requisition.

My relation to him was peculiar, and of a very intimate kind: it was that of the scholar to the master; of the son to the father; of the poor in culture to the rich in culture. He drew me into his own circle, and let me participate in the mental and bodily enjoyments of a higher state of existence. Sometimes I saw him but once a week, when I visited him in the evening; sometimes every day, when I had the happiness to dine with him either alone or in company. His conversation was as varied as his works. He was always the same, and always different. Now he was occupied by some great idea, and his words flowed forth rich and inexhaustible; they were often like a garden in spring where all is in blossom, and where one is so dazzled by the general brilliancy that one does not think of gathering a nosegay. At other times, on the contrary, he was taciturn and laconic, as if a cloud pressed upon his soul; nay, there were days when it seemed as if he were filled with icy coldness, and a keen wind was sweeping over plains of frost and snow. When one saw him again he was again like a smiling summer's day, when all the warblers of the wood joyously greet us from hedges and bushes, when the cuckoo's voice resounds through the blue sky, and the brook ripples through flowery meadows. Then it was a pleasure to hear him; his presence then had a beneficial influence, and the heart expanded at his words.

Winter and summer, age and youth, seemed with him to be engaged in a perpetual strife and change; nevertheless, it was admirable in him, when from seventy to eighty years old, that youth always recovered the ascendancy; those autumnal and wintry days I have indicated were only rare exceptions.

His self-control was great—nay, it formed a prominent peculiarity in his character. It was akin to that lofty deliberation (Besonnenheit) through which he always succeeded in mastering his material, and giving his single works that artistical finish which we admire in them. Through the same quality he was often concise and circumspect, not only in many of his writings, but also in his oral expressions. When, however, in happy moments, a more powerful demon[1] was active within him, and that self-control abandoned him, his discourse rolled forth with youthful impetuosity, like a mountain cataract. In such moments he expressed what was best and greatest in his abundant nature, and such moments are to be understood when his earlier friends say of him, that his spoken words were better than those which he wrote and printed. Thus Marmontel said of Diderot, that whoever knew him from his writings only knew him but half; but that as soon as he became animated in actual conversation he was incomparable, and irresistibly carried his hearers along.

If, on the other hand, I may now hope that I have succeeded in preserving in these conversations much that belonged to those happy moments, it is, perhaps, on the other hand, no less advantage to this book that it contains two reflections of Goethe's personality, one towards myself, the other towards a young friend.

M. Soret, of Geneva, a liberal republican, called to Weimar in the year 1822, to superintend the education of the hereditary Grand Duke, remained, from that year to Goethe's death, in very close connection with him. He was a constant guest at Goethe's table, and a frequent and welcome visitor at the evening parties; moreover, his attainments in natural science offered many points of contact on which to base a lasting intercourse. As a profound mineralogist he arranged Goethe's crystals, while his knowledge of botany enabled him to translate Goethe's “Metamorphosis of the Plants” into French, and thus to give a wider circulation to that important work. His position at court likewise brought him frequently into Goethe's presence, as he sometimes accompanied the prince to Goethe's house, while sometimes commissions to Goethe, from His Royal Highness the Archduke, and Her Imperial Highness the Archduchess, gave him occasion for visits.

These personal interviews were often recorded by M. Soret in his journals; and some years ago he was kind enough to give me a small manuscript compiled from this source, in order that I might, if I pleased, take what was best and most interesting, and introduce it into my third volume in chronological order.

These notes, which were written in French, were sometimes complete, but sometimes cursory and defective, accordingly as the author found time to make them in his hurried and often greatly occupied days. Since, however, no subject appears in his manuscript which was not repeatedly and thoroughly discussed by Goethe and myself, my own journals were perfectly adapted to complete the notes of Soret, to supply his deficiencies, and to develop sufficiently what he often had only indicated. All the conversations which are based on Soret's manuscript, or for which that manuscript has been much used, as is particularly the case in the first two years, are marked with an asterisk (*) placed against the date, to distinguish them from those which are by me alone, and which, with a few exceptions, make up the years from 1824 to 1829 (inclusive), and a great part of 1830, 1831, and 1832.

I have now nothing further to add, but the wish that this third volume, which I have so long and so fondly kept by me, will meet with that kind reception which was so abundantly accorded to the first two.

WEIMAR, 21st December, 1847.

  • [1] It is almost needless to observe that the word “demon” is here used in reference to its Greek origin, and implies nothing evil.—Trans.