August 28, 1749

On this day ini 1749 one of my best friends was born. I try to find a way to celebrate this event every year but this year? I have no idea. Maybe just this post.

I think anyone who reads has a favorite author and they are favorites for probably infinite reasons. I met Goethe at exactly the right moment in my little trajectory around the sun. It was accidental. It was 1998 and I had taken a class to the library for a scavenger hunt at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA. I had been invited to visit a friend in Italy (another story) that Christmas, but I didn’t know much about Italy. I was wandering around the stacks for a useful book about Italy while my students worked. I found a big surprise, Goethe (whose work I had never read) had written about Italy. The book was Italian Journey. I went to the desk and learned I couldn’t check it out without an ID card. I didn’t then have one. One of the librarians, seeing what I wanted, checked it out for me.

I went home, read Italian Journey over the weekend, and fell in love on every page. Who WAS this man?

I took Goethe with me everywhere I went after that, either in the form of some book or other or in my mind.

Once on a plane from Salt Lake City (a plane change point from Billings, MT) to San Diego, I sat by a little boy. He was playing a video game. When I sat down and got settled, he asked if I had a pen he could borrow so he could keep score. I did so I handed it to him. I was traveling (as I did for a long time) with Conversations with Goethe (Gespräche mit Goethe) which is the book compiled by Goethe’s end-of-life secretary, Johann Peter Eckermann. I opened my book as the plane took off and started to read. In a little while the kid — who later told me he was 7 years old — touched my arm and said, “Do you want to have a conversation?”

Of course I did. Talking to kids is great. It was a wide ranging talk that involved learning that this kid was fascinated by WW II and thought German engineers had designed cool planes because of the rotary engine. I learned he’d been staying at his grandparents (a-HA) but then I learned why. His brother had been killed in a car accident only a few months before and his mom was devastated. The family was on its way to Mexico for the New Year and maybe to help his mom recover. I said I was very sorry. “Me too,” the little boy said. Then, “Have you been to Germany?”

“Only barely,” I said. “I have friends in Switzerland and we went to a couple towns on the border.”

“Can you speak German?” he asked me.

“A little.”

“I want to learn German.”

“It’s a great language,” I said. “My favorite writer was from Germany.” I showed him my book.

Then I thought about this kid’s mom and how smart this kid was. “German’s a lot like English,” I said. “I bet if I wrote something for you, you could guess some of the words.”


We had a huge supply of cocktail napkins on which I’d been drawing WW II airplanes and he’d been identifying them. I took a new one and wrote:

Alles geben die Götter, die unendlichen,
Ihren Lieblingen ganz,
Alle Freuden, die unendlichen,
Alle Schmerzen, die unendlichen, ganz.

The kid was incredibly brave compared to a lot of people and fearlessly went at it. “I see ‘all’ and ‘end’.”

“Wow,” I said. “What if I tell you sometimes ‘t’ is ‘d’ in English?”

“Is that god?”

“Good job.”

“It IS like English. What does it mean?”

I wrote my simple translation on the back of the napkin and handed it to him. He read it thoughtfully with great respect. Then I showed him how the words of Goethe’s poem in German corresponded with the words in English so he could see the relationships.

“Can I give this to my mother?” he asked. “She needs it.”

“It’s yours,” I said.

We all got off the plane in San Diego. I knew I’d been deeply privileged that day.

You can hear the poem recited in German here. It’s lovely


More or less: All is given by the eternal gods to those they love, whole. All joy, unending. All sorrow (suffering), unending, whole.

I’m not a German scholar so this isn’t a very artistic translation. People argue about the meaning of words (schmerzen, freuden, unendlichen, Götter) but I don’t want to. I know I’m not the king of this stuff. I also know that words have connotations in their own languages that are often untranslatable. BUT I think the whole meaning — Ganz! — of this poem is clear in every language, even in a primitive translation like mine.

I taught a summer literature class one year. On the first day one of the students said, “I hate poetry. Are you going to make us read it?”

I laughed and said, “It’s a literature class. What do you think?”

Of course I talked of Goethe during that class. A couple of years later she showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”


“Well there’s a bag in the department office for you. I can’t believe they didn’t give it to you.” We went together and she handed it to me. “I found it at a yard sale.”

It is the most amazing book. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1871 compilation of poetry by European writers starting with the Anglo/Saxons. Inside is a scattering of maple leaves. There are thousands of poems and poets in that book, from the Middle Ages to Longfellow’s own historical moment, but of them all the frontispiece is…

55 thoughts on “August 28, 1749

  1. I really enjoyed the part about your conversation with the boy. If people would take the time to talk to children as equals, they could learn so many things!

  2. “Do you want to have a conversation?” oh, Martha. My heart just melted. You are a magnet for kids and dogs. Truly remarkable.

  3. That boy was braver than I; I can’t make heads or tails of the German. Worse, I’m none to sure about the meaning in English. 🙂
    Sounds quite fatalistic: if the gods love you they give you unending good and sorrow. And if they don’t, you get neither? As you say, the meaning is probably clear in German to a Deutchophone.

    • The meaning is clear to me. It’s a poem about acceptance, resignation and faith. Who is not loved by the gods (god)? Everyone is. Everyone’s life is filled with both unending joy and unending sorrow. That is the nature of life.

      • Did a bit of research. According Wiki, Nietzsche Goethe had “a kind of almost joyous and trusting fatalism…a faith that only in the totality everything redeems itself and appears good and justified.” This helps me get the sense of his quote.
        Neat the way this boy asked to have a conversation! I hope his family made it through their loss okay.

        • Goethe’s wonderful. I’ve read everything translated into English. He’s an inspiring (to me) man who lived through incredible times. He had one son, not a really great guy, kind of a ne’er do well, who died at a young adult age. His wife and children lived with Goethe. Lucky for me, he lived a long life and wrote a LOT.

          You and Wiki can say “fatalism.” I’m not labeling it. Goethe was not just a poet, playwright, novelist. He was also a scientist and a passionate student of nature. He was a true polymath. In my opinion what might be labeled “fatalism” is simply the awareness and acceptance of the workings of nature. I don’t consider that “fatalism” but more realism. There is absolutely no sense in anything of Goethe’s that I have read that implies any sense of predeterminism. If anyone fulfilled William Cullen Bryant’s admonition in “Thanatopsis” it’s Goethe who actually did,

          “…live, that when thy summons comes to join
          The innumerable caravan, which moves
          To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
          His chamber in the silent halls of death,
          Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
          Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
          By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
          Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
          About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

      • Ya captured the essence of the poem quite clearly and it really helped my own limited understanding of the German language! I learned So Much Goethe that I may just become a Goth👹🤬🤐🤡😆just saying🤟🏾✅Martha is a national treasure whom I cannot wait to learn from🙏✊✅❤️😆

  4. What an amazing relationship you have with Goethe’s work!

    I did not even know of Goethe until a college course I took about the various interpretations of Faust and that is where I met him.

    That boy was very intelligent. And you are a very kind person. I’m sure his mother gained a lot from the book you gave him.

    • Actually, all I gave him was a four line poem. 😀

      I never met Goethe in school and I’m glad. Something weird happened to a lot of writers in classes, like the blood was drained out of them by the professors! :p You must have had a good teacher.

        • Those courses sound fun. “The Many Lives of Faust” is a great title — definitely accurate. I love Faust and I love the way God is portrayed in Faust. That’s the kind of compassion and faith in one’s creation a legit deity should embody.

  5. I love the way this post spools out and then wraps up! The accidental introduction – almost like a “meet cute” followed by a long and loving relationship! And the little boy’s story tugs on the heart strings! You are wonderful and the stories of your life fascinating to me!!

  6. I don’t think it was coincidence that you were seated next to that 7 year old boy on the plane. It was meant to be. You gave him an incredible gift. Your time. Your attention. Your wisdom (yeah, that too). I will bet he may still have that cocktail napkin. I love conversations with children – especially the younger ones.
    I was not familiar with Goethe, so thank you for the introduction. 🙂

    • If you’re interested, I wrote a post a while ago that puts Goethe in historical context.

      The day of that flight was incredibly strange. It was Christmas time 2001. I didn’t look like most people who flew to Montana and I got wanded three times in the Billings Airport and pulled out of line twice. I had to get on the comparatively small plane after all the other passengers had seen that. It was embarrassing and angering and humiliating. But when I changed planes in Salt Lake there was that little boy. It was like god was saying, “Oh, Martha, I’m sorry you had to go through that. Listen, there’s nothing wrong with you and I will show you, OK?”

      I don’t think it was an accident, either.

      • Thanks for the link to your previous post! That does sound like a strange and upsetting series of events – just a few months after 9/11 too. No accident about your encounter with the little boy. ❤️

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