1. Introduction: Maß and Masse
  2. Self-measure, Societal Standards (Werther, Tasso)
  3. Experimental Reference Points
  4. Experiments in (Im)moderation: Die Wahlverwandtschaften
  5. Aesthetic and Poetic Experiences of Moderation
  6. The Measure of Life as Poetic Art
  7. Conclusion
  8. Notes
  9. Works Cited and Further Reading

Introduction: Maß and Masse

Maß connotes moderation and measure as a subjective experience, an aesthetic category, and an empirical phenomenon. But before describing the specific features of Goethe’s Maß as a concept, it is important to survey the linguistic context of Maß and its related words around 1800 and to clarify a potential misconception. According to Adelung’s dictionary (1774–86), in its earliest usage the word Maß indicated the extent of something or a limit, such as a property boundary line. Maß later came to refer to the estimation of both abstract things (such as the amount of one’s suffering or the extent of one’s service) and the most common objects of daily life (such as a length of fabric, a draught of beer, or a quantity of grain for harvest). There are at least two words in German that appear similar to MaßMaße and Masse—one of which is a false cognate. One finds Maße, for example, in the Stoic words of wisdom, Maße ist zu allen Dingen gut (moderation is good in all things). Whereas Die Maße is essentially the same as das Maß—“only with a different gender,”1 as Adelung helpfully points out—Masse has a distinct etymology and should not be grouped together with the other two terms. While Maß and Maße are derived from the Middle High German Mez or Mezz, the word Masse comes from the Latin massa and refers to the material composition of a body. Goethe, without conflating Maß and Masse within a single etymological history, nonetheless likes to play creatively with their near homonymy. After all, etymological differences aside, it makes intuitive sense that material considerations will have a role to play in descriptions of Maß that take into account measure, containment, and the construction of form.

Such is the case in an episode from Goethe’s first Italian journey dated September 16, 1787, where he observes the ruins of a first-century Roman amphitheater in Verona. Goethe begins his speculation on how a structure such as the amphitheater came to be with the simple observation that “[w]enn irgend etwas Schauwürdiges auf flacher Erde vorgeht” (MA 15:42; when something worthy of being watched takes place on flat ground), people will come to see it, and those in the back of the crowd will look for ways to elevate themselves for a better view. From the mere act of bringing in carts and laying down planks to sit on, a rudimentary crater is formed. And if such shows take place frequently, a simple scaffold might be constructed to accommodate more viewers. Gradually, the structure of the amphitheater will emerge that embodies a particular relationship of crowd and event:

Wenn [das Volk] sich so beisammen sah, mußte es über sich selbst erstaunen, denn da es sonst nur gewohnt, sich durch einander laufen zu sehen, sich in einem Gewühle ohne Ordnung und sonderliche Zucht zu finden, so sieht das vielköpfige, vielsinnige, schwankende hin und her irrende Tier, sich zu einem edlen Körper vereinigt, zu einer Einheit bestimmt, in eine Masse verbunden und befestigt, als Eine Gestalt, von Einem Geiste belebt. Die Simplicität des Oval ist jedem Auge auf die angenehmste Weise fühlbar, und jeder Kopf dient zum Maße, wie ungeheuer das Ganze sey. Jetzt wenn man es leer sieht, hat man keinen Maßstab, man weiß nicht, ob es groß oder klein ist. (MA 15:42–43)
When the population (das Volk) saw itself gathered in such a way, it must have marveled at itself, for since it was otherwise only accustomed to seeing itself running about all over the place, finding itself in a throng with no order or particular discipline, the many-headed, many-minded, here-and-there wobbling and straying animal thus sees itself united in a noble body, determined as a unity, bound and secured into one mass (Masse), and, as a single form, enlivened by a single spirit,. The simplicity of the oval is sensible to every eye in the most pleasant way, and every head serves as the measure (Maße) of how immense its entirety may be. Now, when one sees it empty, one has no standard of measure (Maßstab), one does not know whether it is great or small.

Contained in these few words is an entire creation narrative, one whose point of departure and further development rely entirely on human culture rather than a divinity. From the most rudimentary act of artistic performance—something “worthy of being watched” (Schauwürdiges) that causes people to pause in their brutish meanderings—emerges a form that grows in scale proportionately to the size of the crowd.2 The interdependence of crowd and amphitheater is such that the structure gives form and spirit to the otherwise disparate bodies, while the human body (in particular, the head) serves as the measure of the greatness of the structure. Goethe, as a latecomer to the Veronese spectacle, keenly feels the emptiness of the headless amphitheater as a lack of adequate aesthetic appreciation, a missing human measure as Maßstab that impresses itself as a sense of historical belatedness.3

The passage from Die Italienische Reise raises more questions than answers concerning the relationship of mass and measure, Masse and Maß. One can ask, for example, what the criteria are in Goethe’s writings for a usage of Maß that either relies upon or distances itself from some notion of a material substrate or what standards define a Maßstab. For even though the amphitheater has its own architectural style and beauty of form, the actual function of the structure is of central importance, and the actual Maßstab for judging it relies on the physical presence of the human within the structure (which is markedly different from, say, the appreciation of a painting or a sculpture). These questions are taken up in other contexts in Goethe’s writing, above all in those situations where an individual struggles with self-moderation, whether alone or—as an ethical question—within the dynamics of a group.

Self-measure, Societal Standards (Werther, Tasso)

Instances of characters who have failed to achieve some sense of “moderation” in their personal lives may well come more readily to mind than positive examples. Consider, for example, the case of one of Goethe’s best-known protagonists, Werther. “Mäßigen Sie Sich!” (Moderate yourself!) says Lotte to Werther in their final conversation before his suicide, and—what is apparently one and the same thing—“Seyn Sie ein Mann” (MA 2.2:443; Be a man!). But well before Werther’s immoderate exchange with Lotte, he has an opportunity to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of moderation as a way of life in a conversation with none other than Lotte’s fiancé, Albert. Werther, tired of Albert’s pontificating, picks up one of Albert’s unloaded pistols and holds it to his head—the same gesture that, with a loaded weapon, will lead to his death at the end of the novel. Here, however, the gesture leads to a discussion of suicide that is purely theoretical: Albert innately abhors the act and finds it senseless, while Werther becomes enraged at Albert’s lack of psychological understanding as to what could motivate such an act in the first place. Werther prefers those people who—unlike Albert—have the courage to give way to their passions and wilder inclinations, whatever society may say, whereas Albert compares such actions to those of a drunk or a madman. Werther’s response is illuminating for its critique of moderation as a societal norm because, according to his point of view, self-moderation is not just a personal choice, but also a moral concern. Werther clearly sympathizes with a portion of the population that, from Albert’s perspective, is marginalized:

Ach ihr vernünfitgen Leute, rief ich lächelnd aus. Leidenschaft! Trunkenheit! Wahnsinn! Ihr steht so gelassen, so ohne Teilnehmung da, ihr sittlichen Menschen! scheltet den Trinker, verabscheut den Unsinnigen, geht vorbei wie der Priester und dankt Gott wie der Pharisäer, daß er euch nicht gemacht hat so wie einen von diesen. Ich bin mehr als einmal trunken gewesen, meine Leidenschaften waren nie weit vom Wahnsinn, und beides reut mich nicht: denn ich habe in meinem Maße begreifen lernen, wie man alle außerordentliche Menschen, die etwas Großes, etwas Unmöglichscheinendes wirkten, von jeher für Trunkene und Wahnsinnige ausschreien mußte. (MA 2.2:388–89; from the second edition published in 1786/87)
Ah, you reasonable people, I exclaimed, smiling. Passion! Inebriation! Insanity! You stand so calmly there, so disinterested, you moral people! Scold the drunk, loathe the irrational person, pass on by, like the priest, and thank God, like the hypocrite, that He has not made you like one of these. I have been drunk more than once, my passions were never far from insanity, and I regret neither: for I have learned in my measure (in meinem Maße) how one has always felt compelled to condemn extraordinary men who accomplish something great, something apparently impossible, as drunks and madmen.

In this passage, it becomes clear that Werther’s immoderate outbursts are more than contingent emotional responses. They are part of his worldview: a rationally contemplated and accepted way of being. To some degree it is a question of calibration. What Werther claims to have learned “in my measure” (in meinem Maße) is precisely that his standard of measurement, what defines morally and socially acceptable behavior, aligns more with the marginalized as opposed to the mainstream. Albert, of course, who does not lose his cool during this exchange and, generally speaking, who is a stranger to the exclamation mark, belongs to the latter group.

Additionally, the encounter with Albert serves as a foil to Lotte’s final conversation with Werther, because comparing the two makes it possible to learn another thing about immoderation: that it may be contagious and so have implications both for social interactions and, from a narrative point of view, for how they are related. Despite all his emotional outbursts, however, Werther is not able to incite Albert, who simply chides him for his childish whims and outrageous declarations.

With Lotte, the object of Werther’s relentless desire and immoderate passion, it is a different matter altogether.4 Despite all her determination to do what is right and proper, she is infected by Werther.5 If there is any doubt that immoderation as Unmäßigkeit can be contagious, one need only consider the contradiction between the content and the increasingly passionate tone of the encounter from December 20th, which the following sentences exemplify: “Werther, Sie können, Sie müssen uns wieder sehen, nur mäßigen Sie sich. O, warum mußten Sie mit dieser Heftigkeit, dieser unbezwinglich-haftenden Leidenschaft für alles, was Sie einmal anfassen, geboren werden! (MA 2.2:443; Werther, you may, you must see us again, only moderate yourself. O, why did you have to be born with this vehemence, with this uncontrollable, gripping passion for everything once you have caught hold of it!). That Lotte is not in a position to contain or moderate Werther, or that his immoderation places her in mortal danger, is also made clear in the laconic statement that follows the news of Werther’s death: “Man fürchtete für Lottens Leben” (MA 2.2:465; one feared for Lotte’s life). The final sentences of the novel are notable for their brevity, even terseness. A clue as to why can be found in the shortest of all the novel’s paragraphs: “ Von Alberts Bestürzung, von Lottens Jammer laßt mich nichts sagen” (MA 2.2:465; Of Albert’s dismay, of Lotte’s misery, I can say nothing). For all its silence, it lends itself to two different readings. On the one hand, it is possible that the narrator cannot convey the affective responses of these two characters, that such sorrow defies narration. But, on the other hand, it may well be a tacit acknowledgement of the danger that such immoderate language, such unbridled passion, whether of love or of sorrow, poses in the first place. One only need look into the contentious reception history of this novel to understand that such a danger was thought, at least by some, to be all too real.6 That Goethe stages the intervention of a third position in the form of a concerned narrative voice equally distanced from Werther’s immoderate and Albert’s equally moderate tendencies also underscores the fact that the ethical questions posed by the novel and Werther’s radical position with regard to them are tangible enough for the readership as to require an extra diegetic level of distancing at the end.

Goethe’s literary experiments in individual immoderation within contexts of varying societal norms occur against the backdrop of a century preoccupied with the balance between moderation and immoderation as a problem for the visual arts, poetry, and aesthetics, with Lessing’s Laokoon being one of the key touchpoints of discussion.7 Fortunately, the immoderation of passion as it erupts in defiance of the standards and norms of society is not always a fatal condition in Goethe’s writings, although its consequences are usually severe. Consider the case of Torquato Tasso, the protagonist of the eponymous play from 1790. Prior to its publication, there was some speculation among the literary community that Goethe’s rendering of the sixteenth-century poet renowned for his melancholy would amount to a Werther redux. Although there are quite a few reasons why Tasso is no Werther, the most pertinent one for the present entry is that their respective standards of measure are diametrically opposed. Such differences point to the fact that Goethe is conducting a broader narrative experiment involving distinct test cases where moderation is concerned. For Werther, the standard is always himself, as his conversation with Albert makes all too clear: Werther allows himself immoderate passions simply because he sees no reason not to; his calibration of social norms does not take other people into consideration or uses them only as a foil. Tasso, by contrast, is a compass needle in search of magnetic north; he seeks a standard beyond himself. Consider, for example, the exchange between Tasso and the Princess at the end of Act II, Scene I. Tasso declares his love for the Princess, who, despite her evident fondness for him, advises moderation:

Nicht weiter, Tasso! Viele Dinge sind’s,
Die wir mit Heftigkeit ergreifen sollen:
Doch andre können nur durch Mäßigung
Und durch Entbehren unser eigen werden. (MA 6.1:699)
No further, Tasso! There are many things / Which we wish to grasp hastily: / Yet others can only through moderation / And through renunciation belong to us.

However tempting it may be to note a structural parallel to Lotte and Werther based upon this passage, any such comparison falls apart in the aftermath of the conversation. Lotte asks that Werther moderate himself, a request that he refuses in order to pursue his internal drive. The Princess, in the course of her conversation with Tasso, orders him to go seek an external reference point for good behavior in the form of the minister Antonio, a command which Tasso hastens to fulfill, despite resistance from Antonio. Unlike Werther, Tasso is bound to a geopolitical location: the court of Alfonso Il d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (1533–97). Some readers make a biographical connection out of this detail and see in Tasso the artist and Antonio the statesman “the divided responsibilities that Goethe had to fulfill at the Weimar court,”8 while others reject a reading of Tasso either as “a portrayal of an artist” or “as a portrayal of the conflict between artist and society” because, as David Pugh argues, “Tasso is too specific an individual and his problems arise from too specific a constellation of circumstances for the significance of the action to be generalized in that way.”9 Antonio, a minister of state ruled by his head more than his heart, warns Tasso that, from the perspective of an overly passionate soul, a person acting with decorum might appear too self-contained:

Der Mäßige wird öfters kalt genannt
Von Menschen, die sich warm vor andern glauben,
Weil sie die Hitze fliegend überfällt.(MA 6.1:701)
The moderate man is often called cold / By those who believe themselves to be warmer than others / Because the heat of passion grasps them.

This passage recalls Werther’s frustrations with the cool and collected Albert. Certainly, Antonio’s criticism of those who are absorbed more with themselves than with the affairs of the world apply as much to Werther as to Tasso: “Es ist wohl angenehm, sich mit sich selbst / Beschäft’gen, wenn es nur so nützlich wäre” (MA 6.1:701; It is certainly pleasant, to occupy oneself / With one’s self, if only it were as useful). According to Antonio, we cannot be our own standard of reference for how to act: only by living and social interaction—the school of life—do we learn such things:

Inwendig lernt kein Mensch sein Innerstes
Erkennen. Denn er mißt nach eigenem Maß
Sich bald zu klein und leider oft zu groß.
Der Mensch erkennt sich nur im Menschen, nur
Das Leben lehret jedem was er sei. (MA 6.1:701–2)
Internally no man learns to know his innermost self.
For he measures himself by his own standard,
First too small and unfortunately often too great.
Man only knows himself in men, only
Life teaches each one what he may be.

Werther’s mistake was to trust in his own faculty of self-calibration. He desired to pull Lotte into his own private orbit with his “clinging passion,” rather than allow for socialization to occur according to norms which, by definition, pertain to all, not just to him. Lotte’s advice to Werther, at least in the key passage cited above, is also negative: do not be as you are. In contrast, Tasso is offered a philosophical lifeline: to construct a standard based on an external reference point rather than one’s own internal self-estimation. Antonio embodies successful self-regulation, being moderate in word and deed. That he practices his own advice to use social norms as exempla for individual behavior is also clear in his tendency to generalize all comments into a universal third person, like a living, breathing epigram. Tasso, however, takes Antonio’s bonmots very personally:

O nimm mich, edler Mann, an deine Brust,
Und weihe mich, den Raschen, Unerfahrnen,
Zum mäßigen Gebrauch des Lebens ein. (MA 6.1:702)
O clasp me, noble man, to your breast,
And initiate me, who is hasty and inexperienced,
Into the measured use of life.

One can debate the point as to how successful the character Tasso is in his attempts at moderation. Avital Ronell has raised this question and elevated it to the problem of genre, advocating for a reading of Torquato Tasso as a “monstrous conception” because it hovers between novel and drama and because of what she refers to as an inexorable progress “toward the text (Gewebe) of entombment and madness.”10 Tasso is more successful than Werther, but not by much; he comes to perceive Antonio as his enemy and, in a clear structural collapse of both court etiquette and external/internal standards of “measured” behavior, he commits the grave offense of embracing the princess. Some readers have pointed to the play’s final tableau, “in which Tasso clings to Antonio like a stranded seafarer in distress grips a rock,”11 either as a statement for how these two figures are joined by necessity, or as an expression of difference: the freedom-seeking poet as opposed to the “landlocked” statesman.12

Experimental Reference Points

The questions of how to find and where to position the right measure or Maß in a given situation pertain to both Goethe’s poetic and his scientific writings. As a theoretical question formulated in a scientific context, one finds the question of measure as Maßstab most clearly articulated in Goethe’s 1792 essay, “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt” (The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject). With Antonio’s words from Torquato Tasso fresh in mind, the conceptual problem will sound familiar to us, despite the different context, because the very first lines of the essay extol both the virtues and the dangers associated with an internalized standard of measure:

Sobald der Mensch die Gegenstände um sich her gewahr wird, betrachtet er sie in Bezug auf sich selbst, und mit Recht. Denn es hängt sein ganzes Schicksal davon ab, ob sie ihm gefallen oder mißfallen, ob sie ihn anziehen oder abstoßen, ob sie ihm nutzen oder schaden. Diese ganz natürliche Art, die Sachen anzusehen und zu beurteilen scheint so leicht zu sein als sie notwendig ist, und doch ist der Mensch dabei tausend Irrtümern ausgesetzt, die ihn oft beschämen und ihm das Leben verbittern. (MA 4.2:321)
As soon as an individual becomes aware of the objects around him, he observes them in relation to himself, and rightfully so. For his entire fate depends upon whether they please or displease him, whether they attract or repel him, whether they help him or harm him. This completely natural way of contemplating and judging things seems to be as easy as it is necessary, and yet one is thereby exposed to thousands of errors, which often cause him shame and make his life bitter.

There are various kinds of judgments that we make using ourselves as a reference point, ranging from aesthetic ones that invoke pleasure or displeasure, to those judgements through which we evaluate the risk of physical harm. It is reasonable in some cases for a standard of measure to be formulated within ourselves, for our own benefit: I am likely to be more invested in the personal sense of pleasure inspired by beauty of a flower in bloom than in what a stranger might think about the same flower. The observation that such judgments based on subjective standards are natural in such instances, but risky when it comes to scientific research, is the point of departure for Goethe’s essay: the errors we might possibly make by relying too much on ourselves and not enough on both the knowledge of other people and the attentiveness to the objects themselves can lead to embarrassing and painful situations:

Ein weit schwereres Tagewerk übernehmen diejenigen, die durch den Trieb nach Kenntniß angefeuert die Gegenstände der Natur an sich selbst und in ihren Verhältnissen unter einander zu beobachten streben, [denn] Von einer Seite verlieren sie den Maßstab der ihnen zu Hülfe kam, wenn sie als Menschen die Dinge in Bezug auf sich betrachten. Eben den Maßstab des Gefallens und Mißfallens, des Anziehns und Abstoßens, des Nutzens und Schadens, diesem sollen sie ganz entsagen, sie sollen als gleichgültige und gleichsam göttliche Wesen suchen und untersuchen was ist und nicht was behagt (MA 4.2:321–22)
A far more difficult task is the one those people undertake who, fired up by the drive for knowledge, strive to observe the objects of nature on their own and in their relations to each other, [for] on one side they soon miss the standard of measure (Maßstab) which was of help to them when they, as humans, observed things in relationship to themselves. They must completely renounce this standard the standard of measure (Maßstab) according to pleasure and displeasure, attraction and repulsion, usefulness and harm; they, as indifferent and, as it were, divine beings, must seek and investigate that which is, and not that which pleases.

Goethe’s essay decries any observer who claims to practice scientific observation based on an internalized reference point without formulating an objective Maßstab. The alternative that is offered, however, still depends upon a notion of Maß as measure and proportion. The botanist who wishes to learn about plants cannot learn much from the study of a single one but must instead “mit einem gleichen ruhigen Blicke sie alle ansehen und übersehen und den Maßstab zu dieser Erkenntnis, die Data der Beurteilung nicht aus sich, sondern aus dem Kreise der Dinge nehmen, die er beobachtet” (MA 4.2:322; with an even, calm gaze, contemplate and consider them all and take the standard of measure for this knowledge, the data of judgment, not from himself, but from the circle of objects which he observes).13 This is a somewhat different understanding of Maßstab than we have seen before: one comprised of a synthetic overview of differences, relationships, and proportions. And through a parallel that in some ways anticipates later nature-philosophical claims made by Schelling that the relations in the natural world have a correspondence to those of the human mind, the “Versuch als Vermittler” essay also posits that a “well organized human,” who is “moderate” [mäßig] either by nature or by circumstances, is the one who is best equipped with the judiciousness necessary to acquire such a knowledge of nature in the first place.

By this point, it should be clear that there are multiple perspectives on Maß articulated within these examples from Goethe’s writing which show the broad use of this term and cognates such as Maßstab, mäßig, and Mäßigung (along with their negations). There is the perspective of those individuals who determine their own Maßstab and thereby permit a kind of immoderate behavior (which, strictly speaking, is not immoderate according to their own standards, but rather a different calibration of “normal”). This perspective is associated with an intensity of experience: strong outbursts of emotion, deep feeling, and passionate love. Then there is the perspective of those for whom Maß is determined according to an externally defined reference point: the perspective of a society which observes, measures, and judges individual Maß, or the purported neutrality of an impersonal scientific method of observing phenomena in a way that does not relate them to notions of individual use and pleasure. This is not to say that these two perspectives are always clearly delineated in Goethe’s writings. Sometimes, their calculated blurring becomes part of a textual poetics. Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities) is a case in point.

Experiments in (Im)moderation: Die Wahlverwandtschaften

Die Wahlverwandtschaften is well-known for its depictions of the romantic relationships that ensue when an aristocratic couple, Eduard and Charlotte, tip the balance of their household equilibrium by inviting two other people, the young Ottilie and the Hauptmann, to come live with them. In the case of Charlotte and the Hauptmann, their growing attraction is moderated by a sense of social decorum; their self-moderation is firmly rooted in what is proper. The objective regulation of their attraction through external social norms finds its correlation in one of the other themes of the book, the cultivation of nature. As the overseer of a massive landscaping project, the Hauptmann develops a topographical map

auf welcher das Gut mit seinen Umgebungen, nach einem ziemlich großen Maßstabe charakteristisch und faßlich durch Federstriche und Farben dargestellt war, und welche der Hauptmann durch einige trigonometrische Messungen sicher zu gründen wußte. (MA 9:309–10)
upon which the estate and its environs, according to a rather large scale (Maßstab), was represented characteristically and comprehensively with pen and colors, and which the Hauptmann knew to establish thoroughly through a few trigonometric measurements.

We can contrast the Hauptmann’s mathematically minded, measured and measuring temperament with that of Ottilie and Eduard. Ottilie herself is a special case. When the reader is first introduced to her through reports on her progress at a girls’ school, her primary fault seems to be an excess of self-control, down to the “great moderation” (große Mäßigkeit) of her food consumption, for which she is reproached by the headmistress (MA 9:307). As for Eduard, exuberance and immoderate excess is second nature to him. And, in a complementary fashion, just as the Hauptmann’s self-control is on display through his approach to the cultivation of nature, so too nature should bend to Eduard’s boundless love for Ottilie. According to Eduard,

Die Wege sollen gebahnt seyn, damit Ottilie bequem sie gehen, die Sitze schon an Ort und Stelle, damit Ottilie dort ruhen könne. [. . .] In Eduards Gesinnungen, wie in seinen Handlungen, ist kein Maß mehr. Das Bewußtseyn zu lieben und geliebt zu werden treibt ihn ins Unendliche. [. . .] Ottiliens Gegenwart verschlingt ihm alles: er ist ganz in ihr versunken; keine andre Betrachtung steigt vor ihm auf, kein Gewissen spricht ihm zu; alles was in seiner Natur gebändigt war bricht los, sein ganzes Wesen strömt gegen Ottilien. (MA 9:370)
[t]he paths should be dug so that Ottilie can walk comfortably on them, the seats already in place, so that Ottilie can rest there [. . .] In Eduard’s thoughts, as in his actions, there is no more moderation (Maß). The consciousness of loving and being loved drives him into the infinite [. . .] Ottilie’s presence devours everything in him: he is completely immersed in her; no other consideration occurs to him, no conscience speaks to him; everything which was bound within his nature breaks free, his entire being flows toward Ottilie.

In counterpoint to the Hauptmann’s theoretical approach to landscaping, Eduard’s first impulse is to carve his immoderate love for Ottilie into the very ground. The excess of Eduard’s passion, however, accompanied by the actions of being “devoured” by the other and “immersing” himself in her very being, also make the location of Eduard’s standard of measure, his personal Maßstab, difficult to define. Is this a case of purely subjective self-indulgence, in the spirit of Werther, or is it more the case that a lack of differentiation between the loving and beloved individuals makes the placement of such reference points moot?

There is a further connection back to Werther in that these examples of immoderation are accompanied by particular narrative strategies: the clear and present danger when it comes to ungovernable passions is a spillover into narrative excess. In both cases, the obsessive preoccupation with the beloved object corresponds to a similar preoccupation with a particular use of language; the narrative correlation to such relentless passion is the drive to repetition. In addition to the passage cited just above, there are others in Die Wahlverwandtschaften which express the same sentiment in almost identical language, such as one finds in the descriptions of Eduard’s preparation for Ottilie’s birthday: “Eduards Neigung war aber gränzenlos. Wie er sich Ottilien zuzueignen begehrte, so kannte er auch kein Maß des Hingebens, Schenkens, Versprechens” (MA 9:376; Eduard’s attraction was, however, boundless. As he desired to make Ottilie his own, he thus knew no measure [Maß] of devotion, giving, and promising). Whereas the narrator in Werther clamps down at the end of the novel, expressing the danger of infectious passion in sentences marked by extreme brevity, the narrator of the Die Wahlverwandtschaften uses a different narrative strategy to explore the danger of immoderation. In both cases it becomes clear that separation. whether by death or distance, is the only hope for resolution, but the narrator of Die Wahlverwandtschaften uses embedded narratives as a way of dramatizing the unexpected moments of danger, rather than the expected ones which Charlotte and the Hauptmann so vigilantly ward against. Take, for example, the case of the visitor who thinks to entertain the assembled company with a story embedded as a novella and given the title “Die wunderliche Nachbarkinder” (The Odd Neighborhood Children).14 The tale recounts the adventures of two children who narrowly escape drowning. At the end of the story, after having fallen passionately in love: “sie [. . .] fielen sich mit unmäßiger Leidenschaft [. . .] gewaltsam in die Arme” (MA 9:481; they rushed with boundless passion violently into each other’s arms). The traveler is understandably dismayed when his tale causes the usually composed Charlotte to exit hastily from the room. The reason is that Charlotte recognizes the tale as the true story (though embellished with poetic detail) of an episode from the Hauptmann’s youth. The significance of this episode is closely connected to the question of how one interprets Charlotte’s distress. Is it a reminder that her current idealized image of the Hauptmann as a paragon of moderate and socially acceptable behavior might in fact be a fiction? Or perhaps it is the shock of realizing that the immoderation of passion can, in fact, exceed narrative frames of containment that causes her to leave the room in order to retreat to a separate, more regulated environment, as is her habit?

Aesthetic and Poetic Experiences of Moderation

If Charlotte’s rejection of the novella is understood in terms of an extreme response to an aesthetic experience—a response which itself performs a kind of controlled immoderation typical of Charlotte and the Hauptmann—then it can be situated within a broader category of aesthetic experiences in Goethe’s writings linked by the way they define themselves, whether positively or negatively, in terms of Maß and moderation. Such a category encompasses a wide range of experiences, the most extreme of which is the encounter with the natural sublime, such as Goethe describes in his journey to Switzerland in 1797 on a visit to the Rhine Falls. In the section of the Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790; Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgement) devoted to the analytic of the sublime, Kant writes about nature that it is “in its chaos, or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided it gives signs of magnitude and power, that nature chiefly excites the ideas of the sublime.”15 Unlike the beautiful in nature, for whose judgment “we must seek a ground external to ourselves,” for the sublime we seek such a ground “merely in ourselves and the attitude of mind that introduces sublimity into the representation of nature.”16 As a matter of sheer quantity, rather than quality, the sublime offers a different, aesthetically motivated understanding of immoderation as Unmäßigkeit which, in this context, loses all connotations of moral transgression. So, too, does Goethe’s description begin with a perception of “Licht- und Schattenmassen” (light- and shadow-masses) before unfolding as a joint appreciation of the beautiful and the sublime:

Wir fuhren näher an ihn hinan; es ist ein herrlicher Anblick, aber man fühlt wohl, daß man keinen Kampf mit diesem Ungeheuer bestehen kann. [. . .] In dem ungeheuern Gewühle war das Farbenspiel herrlich. Von dem großen überströmten Felsen schien sich der Regenbogen immerfort herabzuwälzen, in dem er in dem Dunst des herunterstürzenden Schaumes entstand. [. . .] Herrlicher war das Farbenspiel in dem Augenblick der sinkenden Sonne, aber auch alle Bewegung schien schneller, wilder und sprühender zu werden. Leichte Windstöße kräuselten lebhafter die Säume des stürzendne Schaumes, Dunst schien mit Dunst gewaltsamer zu kämpfen, und indem die ungeheure Erscheinung immer sich selbst gleich blieb, fürchtete der Zuschauer dem Uebermaß zu unterliegen und erwartete als Mensch jeden Augenblick eine Katastrophe. (MA 4.2:707)
We drove closer to it; it is a glorious sight, but one certainly feels that one cannot survive any struggle with this monstrosity. [. . .] In the monstrous turmoil, the play of colors was glorious. From the great crags, streaming with water, the rainbow seemed to constantly turn upwards, in that it emerged in the mist of the downward rushing foam. [. . .] More glorious was the play of color in the moment of the setting sun, but also all movement seemed to become faster, wilder, and more spirited. Light wind gusts rippled the fringes of the plummeting foam, mist seemed to fight more violently with mist, and in that the monstrous apparition always stayed the same, the observer feared to succumb to its excess (Übermaß) and, as human, awaited every moment a catastrophe.

Goethe’s account of his visit to the Rhine waterfalls reintroduces the perception of Masse into an awareness of Maß in a peculiar way, through “masses” of light and shadow which are, in themselves, not substantial. Against the backdrop of this initial visual dichotomy emerge descriptions of the beautiful, in the form of the rainbow, and of the sublime, in the immensity of the falls as an entire phenomenon. Throughout his account, Goethe’s anxiety as he observes the spectacle is palpable,17 which recalls Kant’s positioning of awareness of the sublime within the individual. When immoderation presents itself as sheer quantity—as the excess (Übermaß) of nature as opposed to the immoderation (Unmäßigkeit) of human passion, defined by immense extensity as opposed to intensity—the threat to the self might be the same, but the danger of exceeding some notion of Maß is much different. Goethe, in his observation of the falls, plays with danger by constructing a hypothetical threat to himself as individual observer, whereas Werther’s immoderation bleeds into the social sphere. One other notable feature of Goethe’s description of the Rhine falls that has much to do with a personal sense of measure concerns the constant references to a theatrical production. These are not staged exactly as one might expect, because Goethe occupies the dual roles of actor and spectator: “Ich trat wieder auf die Bühne an den Sturz heran” (MA 4.2:705; I once again stepped onto the stage at the ledge), he writes, in order to better observe the “Schauspiel” (MA 4.2:705; spectacle) of the falls at dusk. This doubling—the state of being on stage and observing the spectacle—reappears in Goethe’s dual role of spectator (Zuschauer) and man (Mensch) at the end of the passage. Structurally, it articulates the same danger as Charlotte experienced when listening to the novella: the threat that the boundary between art and life is more porous than one thinks.

The structural elements of spectator and spectacle which circulate as metaphors through the description of the Rhine Falls are naturally more pronounced in that work of Goethe’s where the theater has an important role to play in the school of life, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship). And at the beginning of the novel, Wilhelm and his lover Marianne are both reprimanded for their lack of moderation: she for her excessive desire for Wilhelm, and Wilhelm for his “unmäßige Leidenschaft” (immoderate passion) for the theater, to the point where his mother threatens to tighten the parental purse strings (MA 5:11). Like Werther, though here in relation to the life of the stage, Wilhelm shows reluctance to follow good advice when it comes to self-moderation. Goethe’s novel taps into the cultural phenomenon of “theatromania,” which was a much-discussed psychological phenomenon in the eighteenth century.18 At the same time, however, one can also observe in the novel a more positive formulation of the rapport between the artistic performer and the work of art. It is not Wilhelm, however, but rather another member of the traveling theater troop, Laertes, who speaks most eloquently to the aesthetic value of Maß as measure or moderation when it comes to performing:

Ich gebe mich weder für einen großen Schauspieler noch Sänger; aber das weiß ich, daß, wenn die Musik die Bewegungen des Körpers leitet, ihnen Leben giebt und ihnen zugleich das Maß vorschreibt, wenn Deklamation und Ausdruck schon von dem Kompositeur auf mich übertragen werden, so bin ich ein ganz andrer Mensch, als wenn ich im prosaischen Drama das alles erst erschaffen und Takt und Deklamation mir erst erfinden soll, worin mich noch dazu jeder Mitspielenede stören kann. (MA 5:129)
I don’t consider myself to be a great actor or singer; but this I know, that whenever music guides the movements of the body, gives them life and at the same time proscribes their measure (Maß), when declamation and expression are already transferred to be by the composer, then I am an entirely different person, than when I, in prosaic drama, have to create all of that and have to invent meter (Takt) and declamation for myself, wherein everyone acting alongside me might disturb it.

With these words, another significant feature of the notion of Maß in Goethe’s writings makes its debut: Maß as moderation expressed through musical rhythm and poetic meter. For Laertes, an actor who prefers musical theater to all other forms, it is a radically transformative experience: he acquires a second life, an external sense of measure, and becomes a “different person” altogether. His experience is dramatic proof that the perception of an external standard of measure need not be unidirectional: rather than being limited by the transfer of musical declamation and expression from the composer to Laertes so that he is moved like one of Wilhelm’s marionettes across the stage, Laertes perceives this experience as a positively valued moment of creativity.19

The Measure of Life as Poetic Art

The question of what role Maß as moderation and measure plays when it comes to poetic output is a difficult one to answer. As Wolfgang Kayser reminds us, the idea of measure and limit is inherent in the act of poetic writing. For Kayser, “Ordnungseinheiten” (units of order) in poems reach from the poetic line and its rhythm through to the stanza and poem as a whole: “[I]mmer hat der Vers der die Kraft, uns Dinge als ‘in Ordnung’ erscheinen zu lassen, die uns in er Prosa völlig auseinander brächen” (Verse has always had the power to allow things to appear to us ‘in order,’ which would for us, in prose writing, completely fall apart ).20 Goethe, for all of his poetic production—more than 3,000 poems, by most estimates—was more reticent when it came to providing his readers with a programmatic work that succinctly summarized his views on the moderation understood as the expression of a kind of order or disorder in poetic form. In one of his recorded conversations with Goethe, Johann Peter Eckermann indirectly provides a reason for this: “Wir sprachen über Rhythmus im allgemeinen und kamen darin überein, daß sich über solche Dinge nicht denken lasse. ‘Der Takt,’ sagte Goethe, ‘kommt aus der poetischen Stimmung, wie unbewußt. Wollte man darüber denken, wenn man ein Gedicht macht, man würde verrückt und brächte nichts Gescheites zustande’” (MA 19:310; We spoke about rhythm in general and agreed that one cannot think about such things. “Rhythm,” said Goethe, “comes from the poetic mood, as if unconscious. If one wanted to think about it, whenever one creates a poem, one would become crazy and never get anything reasonable done”).

Elisa Ronzheimer, in a recent work on meter and verse forms used by Goethe and his contemporaries, takes a line from the paralipomena to Faust II—“Gehalt bringt die Form mit / Form ist nie ohne Gehalt” (Content carries form / Form is never without content)21—as a point of departure for her observations on Goethe’s relation to antique verse forms and his poetic experiments. She notes that Goethe had a “heikles” (delicate) relationship to those poetic meters handed down from antiquity; that he was critical of such conservative voices as Johann Christoph Gottsched; and that he was also critical of those poets too preoccupied with “technical” matters.22 For examples of strategic “immoderation” executed as disruptions of poetic meter, then, one can look to Faust II; but for the purposes of the present meditation on Maß, it is easier to use an individual poem as an example. The question of how the “measure” of poetry can be used as a vehicle for other kinds of speculative thinking can be illustrated by focusing on an excerpt from Goethe’s poem “Der Musensohn” (The Son of Muses). This poem, whose first draft is thought to date from the year 1774, was published in 1800, in volume 7 of Göthe’s neue Schriften (Goethe’s New Writings). From a technical point of view, it consists of five strophes, six lines each, written in iambic trimeter.23 Other readers have commented on the poem’s resistance to interpretation: “Is it a satirical roleplay, is it a (renewed) avowal for the artistic standards of measure (die Maßgaben der Kunst), is it an act of skeptical distancing coming to light behind the mask of a son of the Muses?”24 Rather than trying to answer any one of those questions, I would like to emphasize how the poem uses the idea of “measure,” both in the sense of Takt and of Maß. Here is just the first stanza of “Der Musensohn,” accompanied by nineteenth century translation by William Gibson:

Durch Feld und Wald zu schweifen,
Mein Liedchen wegzupfeifen,
So gehts von Ort zu Ort!
Und nach dem Takte reget,
Und nach dem Maß beweget
Sich alles an mir fort. (MA 6.1:43)
Through field and forest straying
My little song goes playing,
So on from place to place!
And to the time and measure,
And at my rhythmic pleasure
All moves with me apace.25

Compared to these lines, Laertes’ description of the pleasure of performance in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre pales in comparison. Laertes, moved by music and rhythm (something external to him), becomes a different person. By contrast, the son of the muses, due to his genealogical ties to the very principles of music, dance, and the arts, is a more immediate embodiment of artistic performance than Laertes can ever hope to be. The son of the muses is art; Laertes merely performs it. The ideal presented in “Der Musensohn” is therefore the total synchronization of living and artistic rhythms: the natural movement of the body is the most perfect artifice of dance.


Maß is a surprisingly useful concept for Goethe, broadly applicable in discursive contexts ranging from ethics, science, and aesthetics to various narrative genres. Based on the examples that have been central to this entry, one can see particular dimensions to the Maß concept come into increasingly sharper focus, such as when it becomes a reference point for a kind of self-knowledge (in particular, how one understands and positions oneself in the context of social norms), or for ethical judgements attempting to generalize standards of behavior. Goethe takes such ethical questions concerning the particular rules or logic governing individual practices and behavior and shapes them into poetic experiments that test the limits of both the spoken and the written word. By invoking easily generalized questions: What is the standard of “normal” behavior? What determines the standards for aesthetic harmony as opposed to excess? What allows an individual experience to be more broadly accepted, whether in a scientific, social, or natural context? Maß underscores a potential sense of unity across the different conceptual categories. Maß also lends itself to various kinds of literary structures, ranging from dialogues and arguments to poetic works and theatrical forms. It allows for the staging not only of what should be said, from an ethical point of view, but also what can be said, from the point of view of a narrative order that is, at times, at risk of being overrun, even as, at fleeting moments, the experience of most perfect rhythmic accord between a subject and its surroundings may be achieved.

  1. See “Maße” in Adelung’s Grammatisch-critisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart, part 3, from M-Scr (Wien: Bauer, 1811), column 98.
  2. In this context, see William J. Lillyman, “The Question of the Autonomy of Art: The Origins of Goethe’s Classicism and French Eighteenth-Century Neoclassical Architectural Theory,” Goethe Yearbook 7 (1994), 101 and Norbert Puszkar, “Goethes Volksbegriff und Habermas’ Begriff der ‘Lebenswelt’: Die Kultur der norditalienischen Städte in der Italienischen Reise,” German Studies Review 30.1 (2007), 81.
  3. On Goethe’s experience at the amphitheater, see Richard Block, The Spell of Italy: Vacation, Magic, and the Attraction of Goethe (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2006), 128.
  4. Hans-Peter Schwander comments on the dialogues between Werther and Lotte in Alles um Liebe? Zur Position Goethes im modernen Liebesdiskurs (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1997), 27.
  5. See Michelle Faubert on the intersections between biology and literature in the Romantic era in “Werther Goes Viral: Suicidal Contagion, Anti-Vaccination, and Infectious Sympathy,” Literature and Medicine 34.2 (2016), 407.
  6. On immoderation as a problem for aesthetics and rhetoric, see Zachary Sng, “Parenthyrsos: On the Medium which is not One,” MLN 125.5 (2010), 1029–49.
  7. See Alexander Mathäs, Beyond Posthumanism. The German Humanist Tradition and the Future of the Humanities (New York: Berghahn, 2020), 128.
  8. David Pugh, “Goethe the Dramatist,” Cambridge Companion to Goethe, edited by Lesley Sharp (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 79.
  9. See also Frederick Burwick, Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1996), 106.
  10. Avital Ronell, “Taking it Philosophically: Torquato Tasso’s Women as Theorists,” MLN 100.3 (1985), 600–1.
  11. Mathäs, Beyond Posthumanism, 130.
  12. Hans Reiss, “Goethe’s Torquato Tasso: Poetry and Political Power,” The Modern Language Review 87.1 (1992), 108–9.
  13. To be sure, Goethe was well aware that empirical observations are ultimately at the mercy of the adequacy of our sense perception. J. M. van der Laan elaborates on this point in a broader argument that discusses the concepts of essay and experiment as the focal points of “Versuch als Vermittler.” Cf. J. M. van der Laan, “Über Goethe, Essays, und Experimente,” in Literarische Experimentalkulturen: Poetologien des Experiments im 19. Jahrhundert, edited by Marcus Kraus and Nicolas Pethes (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005), 245.
  14. On the embedded novella, see Christopher Chiasson, “Much Ado about Nothing? The Absence of Events in Die Wahlverwandtschaften,” Goethe Yearbook 26 (2019), 49–64.
  15. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment, edited by Paul Guyer and translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 130.
  16. Ibid.
  17. One need only refer to the terse note, “Betrachtungen über die Sicherheit neben der entsetzlichen Gewalt” (MA 4.2:705; Observations on safety alongside the terrible power).
  18. See especially the section on “Theatromania” in Schmaus, Psychosomatik, 65–71.
  19. For an analysis of how moderation functions with regard to another character, the “Schöne Seele,” see my “Observing the Neutral, circa 1800” published in the Goethe Yearbook (2017).
  20. Wolfgang Kayser, Kleine deutsche Versschule (Berlin: Francke Verlag, 1946), 12.
  21. Elisa Ronzheimer, Poetologien des Rhythmus um 1800. Metrum und Versform bei Klopstock, Hölderlin, Novalis, Tieck und Goethe (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), 146.
  22. Ronzheimer, Poetologien des Rhythmus, 148–50.
  23. See also Inge Wild, “Der Musensohn,” Goethe Handbuch, vol. 1. Gedichte, edited by Regine Otto and Bernd Witte (Stuttgart, Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 2004), 267.
  24. Jochen Golz, “Der Musensohn,” in Goethezeit – Zeit für Goethe, edited by Konrad Feilchenfeldt, Kristina Hasenpflug, Gerhard Kurz, and Renate Moering (Berlin: De Gruyter 2003), 17.
  25. William Gibson, The Poems of Goethe (London: Simpkin Marshall & co., 1883), 86.

Works Cited and Further Reading