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Celebrating the natural harmony of the stream, grasses, and the beautiful wellspring where the peasant girls come to fetch water in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774), Goethe’s eponymous hero embraces pastoral nature with a passion. He partakes in a traditional pastoral setting of rustic, idyllic landscapes rife with “simple” peasant folk, happy children, and agricultural pursuits far from the complexities of urban or courtly life—at least in the first part of the novel. This idealized pastoral framework with its peaceful green hills and valleys appears isolated from—or, more precisely, abstracted from—the urban sites where the authors of such poems and tales inevitably write and where, apparently, corrupted wealthy sophisticates rage political and economic battles. Yet according to ecocritic Terry Gifford, the pastoral trope is actually not so one-sided and simplistic; this literary form encompasses complex, often ironic tensions, including the primary oppositions between the (gritty) urban and the (garden-like) rural, between the always already lost “Golden Age” and a messier present time, between myth and history, and between an overtly artificial “utopia” and concrete “realism,” as well as the intentional acknowledgment that the green vision is hyperbolic yet precisely therefore able to provide a social critique through artifice. Even the pastoral’s common insistence on avoiding all mention of politics can function as a form of critique, with its utopian, conflict-free zone inevitably suggesting the opposite, much in the way that a utopia can describe a “no-place” that critiques what actually is. The pastoral tensions in these polarities resonate all the more powerfully because they cannot be bridged; their mythic nostalgia can reveal stark contrasts in social, political, chronological, and, most significantly for ecocriticism, ecological terms.


Winner of the Goethe Society of North America Essay Prize, 2015. This prize honors the best essays on Goethe, his times, and/or contemporary figures for the year.




North American Goethe Society

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Goethe Yearbook