Everybody knows that the thrones of European literature are occupied by the triumvirate referred to in Finnegans Wake as Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper, but to most English-speaking readers the second is merely a name. German is a more difficult language to learn to read than Italian, and whereas Shakespeare, apparently, translates very well into German, Goethe is peculiarly resistant to translation into English; Hölderlin and Rilke, for example, come through much better. From a translation of Faust, any reader can see that Goethe must have been extraordinarily intelligent, but he will probably get the impression that he was too intelligent, too lacking in passion, because no translation can give a proper idea of Goethe’s amazing command of every style of poetry, from the coarse to the witty to the lyrical to the sublime.
The reader, on the other hand, who does know some German and is beginning to take an interest in Goethe comes up against a cultural barrier, the humorless idolization of Goethe by German professors and critics who treat every word he ever uttered as Holy Writ. Even if it were in our cultural tradition to revere our great writers in this way, it would be much more difficult for us to idolize Shakespeare the man because we know nothing about him, whereas Goethe was essentially an autobiographical writer, whose life is the most documented of anyone who ever lived; compared with Goethe, even Dr Johnson is a shadowy figure.
from Auden, W.H. and Elizabeth Mayer. “Introduction.” Goethe: Italian Journey. London: Penguin, 1970.
Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.