Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: October 2013

Meistersänger als Beruf: The Maieutics of Poetic Vocation in “Erklärung eines alten Holzschnittes …”

from Special Section on Goethe's Lyric Poetry
  • Edited by Daniel Purdy, Associate Professor of German at Pennsylvania State University. Book review editor Catriona MacLeod is Associate Professor of German at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
  • pp 59-78


There are at least two stories to be told about Goethe's lyric poetry. According to one, the power of the artist (and we all know Goethe is the consummate artist) grows from passions and drives that are crystallized in experience and expressed in art. This “hermeneutics of experience” produces the “myth of unmediated expressivity” that is central to the biographical story about Goethe (or, more recently, about Goethe!), a story that nonetheless persists in different forms, on different premises, in the various considerations of “Goethe” as a coherent unit, an author with a project who produces a certain discourse.

In the second story about this author-person's lyric poetry, a story told by David Wellbery in his pathbreaking study The Specular Moment, Goethe presents a recodification of intimacy (Wellbery adapts Niklas Luhmann's language of encoding and recoding here) in the form of “the lyric.” More than lyric poetry in the usual sense, “the lyric” is a new discourse, and its reader is held to operate differently from the reader of previous poetic discourse by “an effort of empathetic projection” onto the speaking lyric subject that amounts to “grasp[ing], through an act of divination, the subjectivity that alone gives the text its coherence.” From Erlebnis criticism to a partially Luhmann-inspired discourse analysis, from the idyll to the lyric as a particular formation beginning in 1770-71, this story posits and performs decisive breaks with tradition in claiming for Goethe and itself a modernity that begins in the now of lyric subjectivity and the critical subjectivity that would project the former onto or into the latter.