Supplementary Appendix 432a.1

Henry Wood, “Goethe’s ‘Elpenor'” [*]

Any connection between Goethe’s dramatic fragment, and the “Elpenor” in Homer’s Odyssey does not extend beyond the title of the German play. But the chief characters bear the familiar classical names Antiope and Lykus. The outline of the plot of the German play, as far as the fragment proceeds, is somewhat simpler than that presented in these ancient stories.

The widowed queen, Antiope, while on a journey with her infant son and attendants, has been robbed of this son by a well-organized band, who slay the attendants, and leave her helpless. She applies in her distress to her brother-in-law, Lykus, who reports a vain search for the robbers. On visiting Lykus, after some years have elapsed, Antiope sees Elpenor, the young son of Lykus, and is strangely attracted to him as though he were her own child. Lykus, who is described by her as ambitious and desirous of rule, is persuaded to entrust his son to Antiope during his early youth, in return for islands which she pawns to him, and her promise to remain a widow, and to make Elpenor her heir.

At the opening of the play, the time has arrived for the father to claim his son, and Lykus is hourly expected with his company. Antiope, in a parting interview with Elpenor, recites her wrongs to him, and he takes upon himself a vow — which he apparently as readily forgets — to avenge her upon those who have robbed her of her son. In the second act, the servant of Lykus, Polymetis, appears in advance of his master’s company.

We learn from his monologues that crimes yet unavenged have been committed by him. Elpenor is the son of Antiope stolen from her at Lykus’s command. Polymetis further holds in concealment in the mountains “a monster that can tear thee to pieces,” and this can be no other than the son of Lykus. Polymetis, the vicious instrument, now repents only because he feels his value to his master to be no longer what it was “in the old troublous times.” Ignorant of his master’s motives and necessities, he feels himself henceforth the despised agent of crimes, and hopes to rise again in importance by creating dire dissensions in the royal house. His apparent purpose is now to reveal the past to Antiope.

The slight results which the “Elpenor” fragment has thus far yielded to critical study seem scarcely to justify the amount of labor bestowed. Theories are innumerable, but the most remarkable feature of them is that no two propounders of a continuation agree. This state of things is due, in the first place, to the supposition that Goethe would have followed out a plot similar to that of the Greek story in some one of its forms.

But such a course is foreign to Goethe’s thought. “Iphigenie” furnishes an example of a tragic plot in which fate is appeased, and complete reconciliation is effected by purely human means. [1] Goethe’s “Elpenor” was similarly intended to expound a theme of reconciliation. The more recent studies of the fragment have made no progress in this direction. The most humane of them, that of G. Kettner, demands the death of Lykus by his own hand. Zarncke’s theory, which has profoundly influenced every subsequent study, makes out of “Elpenor” a piece planned and written for the court at Weimar, on the occasion of the birth of the crown prince (Feb. 3, 1783).

Against this view there are grave objections. Goethe’s art is symbolical. He rarely bases his art upon personifications of abstract notions (allegory) and never anticipates the results of experience in his dramatic characters. His works present no analogies to a plot which should anticipate for a new-born princeling, his arrival at the summit of his career.

An equally serious objection to Zarncke’s theory lies in the fact that Goethe’s works, especially at this period, are a portrayal — in more or less symbolical fashion — of his own life problems. From the beginning of 1781, it was Frau von Stein, and what the name implies, that kept Goethe in Weimar and at his post. The change in the tone of Goethe’s letters to her from this time is well known, and indicates a change in their relations.

He speaks of his novitiate as now closed, the Sturm and Drang period was left behind. Goethe’s changed tone, happiness and serenity alternating with tender solicitude, the utter absence of a lover’s impatience and petulence, mark the entrance into his most ideal period (1781–1786), the period of renunciation, of duties accepted and fulfilled, of taking in sail, the period during which, without binding them, he considered himself bound to Frau von Stein and her [son] Fritz, as one is bound to wife and son. Fritz was with him, too, for a period of four years (1782–1786), and was then at the age Elpenor may be supposed to have reached when the play opens.

Further, the drama was begun Aug. 11, 1781. On the 18th of the same month, he writes to Frau von Stein: “I have been with you the whole morning (in spirit), my best one, and would have written to you had not the spirits guided me to my new piece. The second scene will probably be finished to-day. Adieu. I remain and live in thy love, and I enjoy the thought that in thy fantasy thou wilt confuse me with the Uncle. Adieu, I see thee still.” And on Oct. 1, 1781, he wrote: “Fritz’s judgment of men is remarkably just. We must only seek to take care that happiness does not render him overbearing.” This seems as though written fresh from the composition of “Elpenor.”

The Geschwister, the song play Lila, and Wilhelm Meister all present analogous situations. But the all-important link between the two works Wilhelm Meister and “Elpenor” is Wilhelm’s son [in the novel Wilhelm Meister]. Felix has been sent to Natalie by Wilhelm’s mysterious friends without the latter’s knowledge, and he is brought back thence to appear to Wilhelm at the decisive moment when his Lehrbrief [apprenticeship letter] has been read. Mignon is also in the care of Natalie, and Wilhelm now enters the house carrying Felix in his arms.

In “Elpenor” the tragic catastrophe called for would be brought about effectively by Elpenor recognizing, on his reputed father’s neck, the gold chain with the graved picture of the sun by which he was to recognize Antiope’s lost son. What could be more in the line of Goethe’s invention than that Lykus, having appropriated the ornament for himself when the child was stolen from his mother, and having worn it since as a talisman, should now, on the festival day which seems destined to witness his reconciliation with Antiope in her boy, appear with this badge upon his breast?

Should this forecast be correct, the action of the play, thus dimly perceived, assumes simple, but grand outlines. Opportunity is still afforded for thwarting the plans of Polymetis, and for meting out tragic justice to him. But, above all, space is given for the inner conflicts and purification of the three main characters. Antiope is to pay her thanks at the altars which have not compelled the fulfillment of her life-poisoned vows of revenge; and Lykus, while welcoming the present, is to shudder at the past, and bow in thankfulness that the words “denn alle Schuld rācht sich auf Erden” [“For all guilt is avenged on earth,” from Wilhelm Meister] do not come true in his life.


[*] The Literary Digest 5 (1892) 1 (May 14, 1892), 38–39; originally from American Journal of Philology (Baltimore) no. 48. Back.

[1] Goethe’s first prose version of Iphigenie auf Tauris was written in 1779 and performed in Ettersburg by an amateur company in 1779; the reworked, verse version would be published in Goethe’s Schriften, vol. 3 (Leipzig 1787), 1–136.

Concerning the differences between Goethe’s Iphigenie and the version from antiquity, see Kuno Francke, Social Forces in German Literature (New York 1897), 350–52:

It is hardly necessary to dwell here on the often-drawn comparison between Goethe’s Iphigenie and the Iphigeneia of Euripides. Suffice it to say, what has also often been said before, that Goethe by freeing the Greek legend from national limitation, by imbuing it with a spirit of universal sympathy, by substituting for the conflict between the gods and mortals, between Greek and barbarian, the conflict of the human heart between its lower and its higher promptings, has given to this pathetic story its final and eternal form. —

In the background there lies the dark night of Tartarus. We hear, it seems, the muffled groan of the fettered Titans rising from it. We see in less dim outline the curse-laden heroic figures of the sons of Tantalus. Nameless horrors committed by one generation after another, — Atreus slaughtering his brother’s children; Agamemnon slain by his wife and her wanton lover; the death of Klytemnaestra at the hands of her only son, — loom up before us in gigantic and shadowy proportions. And as a living embodiment of the crime-begetting power of crime there rushes upon the scene, plainly visible in the foreground of the action, the only male survivor of this self-destroying race, Orestes, the matricide, pursued by madness and despairing of life.

Against this mass of accumulated horrors there stands out the pure saintlike figure of Iphigenie. She is the only one of her race whom the breath of perdition has not touched. In early youth a divine dispensation rescued her from the altar on which she was about to be immolated. Since then she has lived, far removed from the land of her birth, separated from all that is dear to her, in holy self-renunciation and devotion to duty, a priestess of humanity amid barbarians. It is through her healing hand, through contact with her pure humanity, that the frenzied mind of Orestes is restored to health and hope, that the ancient hereditary curse is lifted from the house of Tantalus, and a new era of human brotherhood and freedom is ushered in.

Goethe’s Iphigenie is the first great dramatic work which shows unmistakably the falling away from the titanic impetuosity and revolutionary bitterness of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ period; it is a poetic symbol of the purifying influence which the friendship with Frau von Stein exercised upon Goethe, of the classic serenity which the Italian journey (1786–87) shed upon his mind; it is a triumphal song of inner regeneration. The power of holiness over sin, of truth over deceit, of unselfish, all enduring love over wilfulness and gloom, of calm self-possession over tumultuous revolt, has never been more beautifully portrayed; in crystalline transparency and harmonious simplicity the modern stage has not its equal.

Here Georg Melchior Kraus’s painting of Goethe as Orestes and Corona Schröter as Iphigenia in the play’s premiere in its prose version in Weimar on 6 April 1779; second illustration: Iphigenia and Orestes from Wilhelm von Kaulbach, The Goethe Gallery: From the Original Drawings of Wilhelm von Kaulbach (Boston 1881):


Here one of Iphigenie’s monologues, from act 4, scene 5 (The Dramatic Works of Goethe, trans. Sir Walter Scott, E. A. Bowring, and Miss Anna Swanwick [New York 1882], here p. 65, illustration following p. 66):


I must obey him, for I see my friends
Beset with peril. Yet my own sad fate
Doth with increasing anguish move my heart.
May I no longer feed the silent hope
Which in my solitude I fondly cherished?
Shall the dire curse eternally endure?
And shall our fated race ne’er rise again
With blessings crowned? — All mortal things decay! 
The noblest powers, the purest joys of life, 
At length subside, — then, wherefore not the curse? 
And have I vainly hoped, that guarded here, 
Secluded from the fortunes of my race, 
I, with pure heart and hands, some future day, 
Might cleanse the deep defilement of our house? 
Scarce was my brother in my circling arms, 
From raging madness suddenly restored,
Scarce had the ship, long prayed for, neared the strand,
Once more to waft me to my native shores,
When unrelenting fate, with iron hand,
A double crime enjoins; commanding me
To steal the image, sacred and revered,
Confided to my care. and him deceive
To whom I owe my life and destiny. .
Let not abhorrence spring within my heart!
Nor the old Titan’s hate toward you, ye gods, 
Infix its vulture talons in my breast! 
Save me, and save your image in my soul!

For the original illustrations to the 1787 volume with Iphigenie, see Caroline’s letter to Luise Gotter and Wilhelmine Bertuch on 28 May 1784 (letter 41), note 8. Back.

© 2018 Doug Stott