Happy Goethe’s Birthday!!!

Twenty years ago on this day I taught my first university writing class at San Diego State University. It was truly one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of teaching writing at SDSU from the moment I learned my ex and I would be moving to San Diego in 1984. I started my San Diego teaching career at SDSU, but teaching ESL in a department of extended studies, not the REAL university.

I did not know that the way teachers were hired was changing, not really in a good way, but in a way that led me to two classes in the department of Rhetoric and Writing. Both were sophomore level classes. I loved my bosses and I loved the campus. Leaving it behind was one of the few difficult things about moving back to Colorado.

I thought it was auspicious that I began my teaching life at SDSU on August 28, 1999, Goethe’s 250th birthday.

I first got to know Goethe in 1998 in the library at a community college where I taught. My students were doing a scavenger hunt for the OED in which, when they found it, they would look up “dork.” I scavenged for a book about Italy because I was in luv’ and going to Italy (maybe) that December to see the man. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. I’d actually met Goethe superficially a couple of times before on a Zürich street near St. Peter’s Church, but that’s another blog post. I didn’t have my ID card so one of the guys working in the library checked it out for me.

It was the most amazing book I’d read. In it I found the person I most wanted to talk to, the person I most needed to meet.

Wanderer’s Night Song, I (1776)

Der du von dem Himmel bist,
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest,
Den, der doppelt elend ist,
Doppelt mit Erquickung füllest;
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süßer Friede,
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!
Thou that from the heavens art,
Every pain and sorrow stillest,
And the doubly wretched heart
Doubly with refreshment fillest,
I am weary with contending!
Why this rapture and unrest?
Peace descending
Come ah, come into my breast!

Wanderer’s Night Song, II (1782)

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
O’er all the hilltops 
Is quiet now, 
In all the treetops 
Hearest thou 
Hardly a breath; 
The birds are asleep in the trees: 
Wait, soon like these 
Thou too shalt rest. (Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

This was no caprice. It has remained a strong and informative — though one-way — relationship.

A year or so later, I taught a couple of little poems by Goethe to my students in a summer literature class. Many of my students said they hated poetry, but you know, you gotta’ do what you gotta’ do. I didn’t realize how much of a dent the little Goethe poems I wrote on the blackboard made until one sunny autumn day one of my students from that class showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”

I looked at her. “No,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed.

She was an African/American woman in her late 30’s who’d come to summer school at a community college where I taught. She brought her son to class every day. The very first day she said, “Don’t teach poetry. I hate it. It doesn’t make sense.” Her goal was a business degree from SDSU. She was working on getting her transfer credits. She succeeded.

I said, “I have to teach poetry. It’s a literature class.” She shrugged.

“Those ladies in the office said they’d give it to you. I guess they forgot. It’s probably in the office somewhere.” We took off for the office and there was a shopping bag tucked away in a corner of the place where faculty mailboxes were. “Here,” she said. “I saw this at a yard sale and I knew I had to give it to you.” She opened it and there was….


10 thoughts on “Happy Goethe’s Birthday!!!

  1. I really do my best with Goethe. Of course I read the original German text. I have even read a couple of his prose books, but I don’t think I have got the feelings for it that I should have.

    • I don’t think there’s any “should”. I think it’s all just a matter of personal taste and maybe where we are at the moment in life when we “meet” an author. Goethe’s novels are, for our time, kind of “so what?”

  2. What a lovely story, Martha. It’s given me a nice warm glow to start the day. ❤ That must have been so rewarding and moving to receive this beautiful book from someone who had professed to hate poetry. It just goes to show what a good teacher you are. 🙂

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