1. Introduction
  2. Schleier (Veil) vs. Gespinst (Gossamer)
  3. Relic versus Veil: Illusions of Presence
  4. The Veil: Marker of a Limit and Threshold
  5. Conclusion
  6. Notes
  7. Works Cited and Further Reading


Throughout Goethe’s early work, the lexeme Schleier occurs as a motif within the wider field of terms for clothing, vestiary codes, and symbols.1 During his first Weimar period, the term begins to acquire an increasingly complex function, culminating in the poem “Zueignung” (1786; Dedication) in the much quoted lines: “Aus Morgenduft gewebt und Sonnenklarheit / Der Dichtung Schleier aus der Hand der Wahrheit” (Woven of morning mist and the sun’s clarity/ the veil of poetry from the hand of truth).2 For the last authoritative edition of Goethe’s works, the Ausgabe letzter Hand (1827, Last Authorized Edition), “Zueignung” was placed at the beginning of the volume of Goethe’s collected poetry, a decision which highlights how these well-known lines programmatically capture the nature, production, provenance, and function of poetry for Goethe.

In the poem “Zueignung,” the “veil of poetry” is the gift of truth, which arrives in the context of a wanderer’s experience of a natural landscape. Coming at the climax of the speaking subject’s early-morning ascent of a mountain, the narrative describes poetry as consisting of two distinct meteorological phenomena, the rising morning mist (“Nebel”; FA 1.1:9.10) and the brilliant sunshine, which initially either obfuscate or blind the speaker’s vision when encountered apart from each other. Only the combinatory art of weaving together these two distinct phenomena, the fog and the sunshine, can transform the murky haze, which had begun to envelope the wanderer like a troubled gauze (“trüber Flor”; FA 1.1:9.14) during his ascent, into the luminous fabric of the veil. Shot through with sunlight, the morning mist is transformed into the eye-opening and comforting gift of poetry, a gift bestowed on the speaker by the allegorical figure of truth.

The veil protects the wanderer from the sudden bright sunshine breaking through the morning mist, and thus opens up a vista onto the landscape beneath him, which, to that point, had been obscured by the fog. It thereby takes on the function of a screen: that which filters out an overabundance of light, makes sense of a sensory overload or surplus of information, and makes possible some form of perception. In this sense, the veil assumes, to a certain degree, what has been discussed as the defining function of language in human perception, especially by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803). However, this does not mean that one can equate, and thereby reduce, the function of poetry to that of language; for not language in general but only the veil of poetry is the gift of truth. In other words, the veil of poetry is more than a means of mediating perception: it also contains the promise of true insight, which, moreover, must be shared and passed on, as the allegorical figure of the poem tells the wanderer.

It is not only the veil of poetry’s emphatic relationship to truth that sets it apart from ordinary verbal language but also its organized particularity, its uniqueness in mediating between the individual, perceiving, embodied subject of the wanderer and his perception of his surroundings. Moreover, the veil does not just protect; it also provides a cooling comfort against the burning rays of the sun. Finally, as a piece of clothing, the veil can be more than just agreeable or pleasurable for its wearer: it can be a beautiful piece of workmanship in its own right, to be admired and appreciated by more than just its initial owner. The veil of poetry enables a relationship to truth, is an object of beauty, and entertains a special relationship to time and history in that it can and needs to be passed on. In this sense, the veil is not just the medium of language, a means of mediation in general, but a distinct, uniquely-shaped verbal artifact.

Within the traditional repertoire of images of textile production used to illustrate the nature of verbal artifacts, there are certain activities or tools that highlight specific features of the artifact. For instance, there is the imagery of spinning, which can serve as a metaphor for fabulation, often for the oral production and delivery of a made-up story for entertainment purposes, such as the sailor’s yarn. The analogy of spinning emphasizes the production of what, in theory, can be an endless thread, a thread that keeps being produced as long as it receives raw material of animal or plant fibers and is not cut. The spinning metaphor is also frequently used to emphasize the fictional, often spontaneous and improvised aspect of a verbal artifact. Whereas thread alone does not generally provide an organized entity that can serve a vestiary function, one can find examples in nature of spun threads being brought together to resemble either a loosely woven or dense and opaque veil or envelope, such as a spiderweb, woven out of the arachnid’s own sticky, secreted threads, or cocoons, which provide for insects the dense, protective envelope for the pupae during their metamorphosis into butterflies or moths.

In a similar enveloping function to that of the insect’s cocoon, there is also in the poem “Zueignung” the phenomenon of the rising morning fog or haze, characterized in the textile-derived language of gauze (“Flor”; FA 1.1:9.14), which encloses the wanderer as it morphs around his figure and obstructs his sight like an ill-fitting vestment. If seen on a spectrum of transparency and durability, the veil seems to be situated between, on the one hand, the gauzy, filmy, flimsy, ephemeral gossamer or haze of the morning mist, and, on the other hand, the firm, opaque enclosure of the cocoon. And it is exactly within the range of that spectrum that Goethe treats on one occasion the two phenomena, the one of the Schleier (veil) and the one of the Gespinst (gossamer), as nearly interchangeable. But before turning to the comparison and contrast between Schleier and Gespinst, a brief glance at how Goethe tends to draw on the imagery of textile production, of spinning and weaving exploring a relationship of this imagery with temporality and the passage of time will be warranted.

Within the visual repertoire of textile production there is not only the technology of spinning, which, from Greek antiquity onwards, especially in the image of the three Fates or Moirai (Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos), allegorizes the finitude and allotment of the individual human lifespan, but there is also the image of the loom, which has been used in many ways to visualize the temporal dimension of the verbal artefact within history, or even cosmology. In this context, Goethe coins the stunning metaphor of the “sausende Webstuhl der Zeit” (FA 1.7:37.508; time’s humming loom), which is used by the Earth Spirit in Faust I to describe the site where the latter produces “der Gottheit lebendiges Kleid” (FA 1.7:37.509; the deity’s living vestment).3 The humming loom as a metaphor for time’s fast-moving, ever-changing nature, captures this feature of the passage of time as a productive energy, which is transformed into an enlivening force, thus producing a living vestment. And this “living vestment,” depending on how we read the genitive “of the deity” (der Gottheit), either clothes a deity or brings out the divine in the human, who after all was created in the image of the deity, as Faust tries to remind the Earth Spirit in the same context.4 For the veil, when its own production in time is considered, has a particular relationship to what is perceived to be present and how. And this is the case both in a spatial and temporal sense, as far as the veil’s symbolic function is concerned.

In the following, the Schleier (veil) will be considered first in comparison to the Gespinst, which can be both the ephemeral gossamer but also the temporary enclosure of the cocoon. In a second step I shall then compare how Goethe characterizes the function of the Schleier in contrast to that of the Reliquie (relic), especially with regard to the relic’s capacity to produce a powerful presence. These two contrasting analyses of the Schleier serve to show how the veil offers a conception of poetry’s relationship to human observation and objective nature in light of the challenges of time, history, and constantly changing cultural contexts. Against this background, the third section will focus on the epistemological implications of Goethe’s use of this conceptual metaphor. In doing so, I hope to show how Goethe positions poetic language vis-à-vis the objective realms of the order of nature and the divine, in contrast to the ever-changing contexts of the order of human history.5

Schleier (Veil) vs. Gespinst (Gossamer)

While the English translation of “veil” for the German Schleier is fairly straightforward, translations of Gespinst into English can range from “gossamer,” “weave,” “yarn,” and “web,” to “cocoon” and “product” of phantasy. And whereas the lexeme Schleier occurs with relative frequency throughout Goethe’s works, the lexeme Gespinst is to be found only rarely. Within Goethe’s works, the best-known use of Gespinst may be in “Der Gott und die Bajadere” (1797; The God and the Bajadera), a ballad about a god’s visit of a temple dancer and their intense erotic encounter, which culminates in the following phrase:

Und so zu des Lagers vergnüglicher Feier
Bereiten den dunklen behaglichen Schleier
Die nächtlichen Stunden, das schöne Gespinst. (FA 1.1:694.53–55)
And so to the celebration of the joys of the bedstead,
They prepare the dark, comfortable veil,
Those nightly hours, that beautiful gossamer.

In this passage the Gespinst seems to serve as an apposition for the Schleier. They belong to the same paradigmatic column and thereby invite a comparison in view of their similarities and differences. The Schleier, in so far as it is comfortable (“behaglich”), highlights a pleasurable sensation associated with the garment function of the textile, whereas “das schöne Gespinst” (beautiful gossamer) highlights an ephemeral beauty, the product of the fleeting hours of the night. There is additionally a clever grammatical vagueness at play here: the gossamer Gespinst can also be read as the apposite of “those nightly hours.” Of course, especially in the context of an ephemeral nocturnal appearance, the Gespinst also auditorily evokes the Gespenst (specter/phantom). And finally, the comfortable veil and the beautiful gossamer are the outcome of the amorous engagement of a god with a temple dancer. And it may be precisely this encounter, at the threshold of the human and the divine, that produces both the Schleier as well as the schöne Gespinst, and in that it is both the source of the veil’s affinity with obscurity and mystery and the source of the cocoon’s rare and ephemeral beauty.

This passage in “Der Gott und die Bajadere” appears to be the only one in Goethe’s oeuvre in which Schleier and Gespinst are employed as apposites and, in this context, their relatedness might be due to the aesthetic features they share in this narrative. Gossamer and veil appear as the product of an exceptional passage of time, of those nightly hours, filled by a unique and ephemeral erotic encounter between a divinity and a temple dancer. Both veil and gossamer are entirely bound up with an aspect of subjective experience and the irretrievable passage of time, hence ephemeral, and are unique, not only because divinities tend not to frequent the same woman more than once, but also because the next morning, to her great shock, the Bajadera finds the divine lover lifeless next to her. Only in this instance of a unique, ephemeral encounter with divinity can the aspect of beauty lack an objective component and still be positively connoted. This becomes clear by comparison with another poem in which Gespinst is also associated with beauty, but in which Goethe makes clear that the reduction of the beautiful to a subjective feeling of agreeableness comes from one’s being confined to one’s own subjectivity, as if one existed in a bubble. In “Der Chinese in Rom” (1797; The Chinese in Rome), the other instance of Goethe’s rare uses of Gespinst, the Gespinst is a flimsy product, which only an unhealthy imagination would call beautiful. The first-person speaker of the poem tells us about a Chinese tourist, who sighs with disapproval when he sees the architectural monuments of Rome, which contradict his conviction “Daß an Latten und Pappen, Geschnitz und bunter Vergoldung / Sich des gebildeten Aug's feinerer Sinn nur erfreut” (FA 1.1:706.5–6, that the more refined sense of the educated eye is only delighted with card boards and paper, carvings and what is richly gilded). By contrast, for the first-person speaker of the poem, the Chinese tourist offers an image of a dreamer or enthusiast. For him, a person who praises such flimsy decorations is a Schwärmer (enthusiast):

Der sein luftig Gespinst mit der soliden Natur
Ewigem Teppich vergleicht, den echten, reinen Gesunden
Krank nennt, daß ja nur er heiße, der Kranke, gesund. (FA 1.1:706.8–10)
Who compares his airily-spun gossamer with the eternal carpet
Of solid nature, calling the true, pure, and healthy one
Sick, so that he alone, the sick one, might be called healthy.

Once again, the Gespinst—here by way of contrast with the “eternal tapestry of solid nature” (der soliden Natur / Ewigem Teppich)—is not only very fragile but also very short-lived. And due to this object’s antithetical opposition to what is durable and lasting, it provokes not only a mistaken aesthetic judgment but also a symptom of alienation from nature and health; as such, it is an expression of decadence or sickness disguised as health. Finally, this mistaken aesthetic judgment is one that is issued by a Schwärmer, meaning that it comes from a misplaced and exaggerated enthusiasm that frequently, especially since the seventeenth century, has been associated with religious fanaticism. The word Schwärmer connotes unruly believers who are guided not by a proper relationship to the divine, but instead carried away by their own subjective imagination, excited by their peers and fellow believers who are subject to the same enthusiasm.

But this word too, operates with multiples valences of meaning. Traditionally, the Schwärmer is also a flying insect. Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch (1854–1962, German Dictionary) refers to the flight of young bees in its entry for Schwärmer.6 Zoologically, Schwärmer can be the name of a moth and the verb schwärmen (to swarm) is used to designate the collective flight of insects or birds. Of interest to us, with regard to Goethe, is the fact that the Schwärmer, in the process of its development from egg to its final stage as a flying moth, also produces a Gespinst. Its larva or caterpillar secretes a great quantity of greyish-opaque threads that stick together in a shapeless tangle, providing an encasement which, in turn, is often held in place by some leaves or twigs. This kind of Gespinst then serves as a cocoon for the pupa during its transformation into its final stage of its life as a moth. In his morphological studies of the metamorphoses of moths and butterflies, Goethe describes how he studied the pupae of the “Wolfsmilch Raupe” (spurge hawk-moth). He is especially interested in the insect’s way of spinning and making its cocoon or Gespinst, for which it uses sticky secretions from its own body, mixed together with some kind of external building materials, be they crumbs of soil or pieces of leaves or saw dust, and the contrast with the silk worm, which is capable of making its cocoon entirely out of its own silky fibers: “Der Instinkt dieses Tieres ist, wie man sieht, auf äußere Bedingungen angewiesen, wogegen das Gespinst des Seidenwurms unbedingt erscheint” (FA 1.24:319; The instinct of that animal depends, as one can see, on external conditions, whereas the cocoon of the silk work is produced on its own).7

As the above quoted passage about the two different kinds of cocoons points out, there is a stark contrast between the cocoon of the spurge hawk moth, which is not exclusively made up of the insect’s own secretions, but also makes use of organic debris the caterpillar takes from its surroundings, and the silkworm’s cocoon, which stands out with regard to the material purity of its cocoon. And yet Goethe does not at all use the image of the silkworm’s production of its cocoon as a positively connoted image for artistic production, at least not when it comes to his play Tasso (1790), to the eponymous hero’s characterization of his self-involved misery, his sense of isolation and displacement due to his capacity to engage productively with the world around him. At the court of Ferrara, left with nothing but his wish to withdraw, to brood and write poetry, Tasso analogizes his circumstance to the silkworm’s instinct:

Ich halte diesen Drang vergebens auf 
Der Tag und Nacht in meinem Busen wechselt. 
Wenn ich nicht sinnen oder dichten soll, 
So ist das Leben mir kein Leben mehr. 
Verbiete du dem Seidenwurm zu spinnen, 
Wenn er sich schon dem Tode näher spinnt. 
Das köstliche Geweb entwickelt er 
Aus seinem Innersten und läßt nicht ab, 
Bis er in seinen Sarg sich eingeschlossen. 
O geb ein guter Gott uns auch dereinst 
Das Schicksal des beneidenswerten Wurms, 
Im neuen Sonnenthal die Flügel rasch 
Und freudig zu entfalten. (FA 1.5:823.3079–91)
In vain do I combat this urge
Which agitates me day and night.
If I can’t muse nor versify
Life is no longer life to me.
Try to keep the silkworm from its spinning
When it already spins itself to death.
The precious texture it develops
Out of its deep insides, and does not cease,
Until it has enclosed itself in its coffin.
Oh, that a god may one day give to us
The fate of this enviable worm,
Its wings, in a new and sun-filled vale,
with joy to suddenly unfurl.

The cocoon (“Gespinst”) that the silkworm is instinctually driven to form in order to provide a protective encasement for the pupa during its metamorphosis is analogized here to the poet’s withdrawal from society and his surrounding world into the poetic productivity of his perturbed interiority and subjectivity.

This glance at Goethe’s uses of Gespinst provides a foil to the far more widely used term Schleier. When both are seen as things that are made of thread, the crucial difference that the Gespinst accentuates is the provenance and the organization of the thread. Only the Gespinst is made up of secretions, the sticky threads which provide the cocoon for the developing larva. In a metaphorical sense, in the case of the Chinese tourist in Rome, the Gespinst characterizes the illusion that isolates observers, leading them to misrecognize and misjudge what they see in terms of their own bubble of cultural prejudice, instead of relating the observed object to the laws of objective nature. Finally, in the case of the cocoon of Tasso’s self-involved poetic production, the latter ultimately serves him like a coffin, i.e., it makes him dead to his contemporaneous world. The cocoon in Tasso’s image for his poetic brooding provides an encasement from which he can only hope to re-emerge by way of metempsychosis, say in a different incarnation like a butterfly after its metamorphosis. And in that sense, in its powerful appeal to a post-mortem reincarnation, this image of the cocoon in Tasso also darkly resonates with the beautiful gossamer (“Gespinst”) of the nightly hours of the Bajadera’s and the god’s nightly encounter, from which they both together only re-emerge in the flames of the funeral pyre.

The veil does not share the negative connotations of the term Gespinst, which rely on the latter’s enveloping function, serving as a form of encasement. Among the things belonging to the category of fabric and textiles, the Schleier, as opposed to the Gespinst, tends to be an actual woven piece of fabric, which can be used as a garment or as a cover to protect or conceal something. It might be transitory or ephemeral, but it does not have the association with formlessness or bodily secretions. And yet, as a woven fabric but also as fog or mist, the veil is not automatically or necessarily positively connoted. In fact—and this might very well be one of its key features—the veil has to some extent the capacity both to conceal and to let something appear. It is fundamentally ambivalent in its management of presence and absence, both in a spatial and temporal sense. In order to assume that function—and this will be the focus of the next brief section—the veil must not be confused with the magical function of the relic, which can make fully present the absent saint or beloved.

Relic versus Veil: Illusions of Presence

In Goethe’s early poem “Die Reliquie” (1769; The Relic), the veil is mentioned as just one of many little treasures, memory tokens, or trophies that powerfully remind a lover of his beloved:

Ein Band, ein Stückchen von dem Kleide,
Das dein geliebtes Mädchen trug.
Ein Schleier, Halstuch, Strumpfband, Ringe
Sind wirklich keine kleinen Dinge,
Allein mir sind sie nicht genug. (FA 1.1:92:3–7)
A ribbon, a piece from the dress
Worn by your beloved girl.
A veil, scarf, garter, rings,
All these are really not trivial things;
But they are not enough for me.

Though the speaker of the poem knows the value of these little fetishes, they pale in comparison with his unique treasure, a strand of his beloved’s hair. Those locks of his beloved had joined him in his amorous attention and caresses of her, which endows them with the power to make his memory of the erotic union with the beloved come to life, as the title of a later version of the same poem, “Lebendiges Andenken” (1815; Living Memory), makes clear.8

Whereas the relic’s power consists in making the absent saint or, in this case, the absent beloved fully present, the little pieces belonging to the beloved’s finery or intimate clothing (amongst which, incidentally, is a veil) actually prevent the encounter with the holy person or the beloved, by distracting from or deferring an actual encounter. In that sense, the function of these fabrics and trinkets can be compared to the function the reel of yarn holds for Freud’s grandchild in his essay on the “Fort-Da”9 game, or to the stuffed animal or favorite toy that D.W. Winnicott would call a “transitional object”10 for small children, who learn to establish the difference between self and other, subject and object through play, soothing stimulation, and, at the same time, exert a certain amount of control over the object, which evokes the maternal presence but is not identical with her. Thus, it is the power of the relic to generate an emphatic presence which alerts us, by way of contrast, to the fundamental function of the veil for the imagination and for processes of symbolization. And whereas here, in this early poem, the speaker playfully denigrates the mediating function of pieces of intimate clothing, ribbons, and other trinkets of his beloved, it is ultimately exactly in its contrast to the all-powerful relic that the veil qua transitional object comes to the fore in the larger context of Goethe’s work.

The capacity of the veil to serve as a transitional object is central to Goethe’s metaphorical or allegorical use of this textile. As we have seen, this is the case in the programmatic poetological poem “Zueignung,” where the veil is the gift of a feminine allegorical figure, who approaches the young wanderer after he has lost his vision, having been blinded by the powerful sun piercing the clouds. She bequeaths him the protective veil, coming “from the hands of truth.” And to the extent that the veil is a metaphor for poetry, she demands that it be shared and circulated; it cannot be kept as that private object, which provides comfort by evoking a powerful maternal presence.

The Veil: Marker of a Limit and Threshold

For Goethe, both the activity of veiling and unveiling and, even more so, the attempt at violently tearing down a veil are not necessarily positively connoted. He makes a point of this with regard to the study of nature as well as to the study of human culture. Take, for instance, these lines from Faust I (1808):

Geheimnißvoll am lichten Tag
Läßt sich Natur des Schleiers nicht berauben,
Und was sie deinem Geist nicht offenbaren mag,
Das zwingst du ihr nicht ab mit Hebeln und mit Schrauben. (FA 1.7:43.672–75)
Mysterious even in the light of day
Nature keeps her veil intact;
Whatever she refuses to reveal
You cannot wrench from her with screws and levers. (Salm, 55)

The secrets of nature are openly displayed and what nature does not reveal to the human spirit cannot be forcefully gained, not even by way of technological interventions.

When it comes to refraining from a willfully forced access to the secrets of nature, Goethe clearly is on the side of Schiller’s ballad “Das verschleierte Bild von Sais” (1795; The Veiled Image of Sais), with its narrative about the veiled statue of Isis, which since classical antiquity has been considered a divine incarnation of nature. According to Goethe, only if humans respect their limitations will they gradually gain insights:

[. . .] wird er ein doppelt Unendliches gewahr, an den Gegenständen die Mannigfaltigkeit des Seins und Werdens und der sich lebendig durchkreuzenden Verhältnisse, an sich selbst aber die Möglichkeit einer unendlichen Ausbildung, indem er seine Empfänglichkeit sowohl als sein Urteil immer zu neuen Formen des Aufnehmens und Gegenwirkens geschickt macht. (FA 1.24:389)
Man will discover a twofold limitlessness: first, a limitlessness in the objects of his perception, in the vast variety of all that is and all that is becoming, and in the lively relations by which these objects are intertwined; second, in himself, in the possibility of limitless learning, provided, however, that he adapts his sensibility and his judgment to new forms of receptivity and reactivity.

Whereas the lines from Faust use the image of the veil as a limit that has to be respected and as an admonition to refrain from attempts to force or overpower nature, which according to this Faust passage amounts to a futile enterprise, the passage from Goethe’s morphological writings explains how respect for this limit will lead to a process of understanding nature and its ever-changing forms insofar as the human capacity of understanding nature and recognizing its limits will react and adapt itself. Only then can the observer become part of this process and thus an element of the order of nature. In other words, only the respect for the limit can transform the limit into a threshold.

A glimpse into how this model of the veil as the marker of a limit and a threshold applies both to the study of nature and culture is provided by three subsequent stanzas of Goethe’s ironically-titled poem “Zahme Xenien” (1796; Tame Xenia). These lines also hint at how Goethe conceptualizes the position of poetry in its relationship to both the study of nature and the approach to the divine, i.e., domains that are not be subordinated to the domain of human history. The three consecutive stanzas from “Zahme Xenien” read:

Hemmet ihr verschmähten Freier
Nicht die schlechtgestimmte Leier,
So verzweifl’ ich ganz und gar;
Isis zeigt sich ohne Schleier,
Doch der Mensch, er hat den Star.
Die geschichtlichen Symbole –
Törig, wer sie wichtig hält;
Immer forschet er ins Hohle
Und versäumt die reiche Welt.
Suche nicht verborgne Weihe!
Unterm Schleier laß das Starre!
Willst Du leben, guter Narre
Sieh nur hinter dich ins Freie. (FA 1.2:676.1640–77:1651)
If you, despised suitors
Do not silence your out-of-tune lyre,
Then I give up completely.
Isis shows herself without a veil,
But mankind has cataracts.
Symbols explained by history:
He who grants them importance is quite mad.
He endlessly carries out sterile research
And lets the world's wealth escape.
Seek no secret initiation
Beneath the veil; leave alone what is fixed.
If you want to live, poor fool,
Look only behind you, toward empty space.11

The first stanza indicts the sanctimonious, mystifying veneration of Isis as the veiled goddess as a hindrance to good poetic production and, at best, as the result of the kind of resentment proper to snubbed suitors. Cataracts, an impairment of human vision, must not be confused with the supposed veil of the goddess, one that the goddess does not actually sport, nor need! In other words, the veil of the goddess is merely the cocoon of the beholder. Or, considered in a historical-philosophical context, the romantics’ infatuation with mystery cults is merely a misguided attempt at getting attention, and a projection of their own deformed sight, which prevents them from gaining objective access to both nature and the divine, symbolized by the nude figure of Isis.

Now, the first stanza seems to raise the question as to whether there is really any unmediated access to the realm of the divine or to the order of nature. Isn’t human observation always limited by language, with is inevitably embedded with prejudices? Certainly. The idea of the necessary, though imperfect, mediation of language is conceded by Goethe when he speaks of the poets’ lyre, which can be very poorly tuned. But the mediating veil of language or poetry cannot be removed or deconstructed. The philological-historicist study of how a certain phrase or term might have been constructed in this or that particular historical context and how it would have, in turn, given rise to this or that inflection in a symbol’s meaning does not provide a sudden, unmediated vision of the truth. In other words, historical philology must not be mistaken for a means of removing the veil. It is here, according to the commentary of the Deutscher Klassiker Verlag edition, that Goethe refers critically to Georg Friedrich Creuzer’s (1771–1858) historical study of ancient symbols.12

The first Xenia’s reference to Isis, who according to Goethe shows herself without a veil, also entails a textual reference to the image of the frontispiece of Alexander von Humboldt’s Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen (1807; Essay on the Geography of Plants), for which he chose the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen’s (1770–1844) engraving of Isis unveiled to which he added his dedication to Goethe, whom he called the “symbolist” (fig. 1).

Figure 1
Fig. 1. Apollo unveiling the statue of Isis. Engraving by Bertel Thorvaldsen for the dedication page to Goethe (“An Göthe.”) in Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen (1807).

Alluding to Humboldt’s dedicatory page in the Xenia, Goethe documents the scientist’s acknowledgment of how his—that is, Humboldt’s—approach to the study of nature is grounded in the same general approach to form and biodiversity as Goethe’s understanding of form, symbols, and poetic language. At stake is, on the one hand, the ability to pay attention to the concrete specifics of the empirical object at hand, instead of subsuming it under pre-conceived abstractions, but then, on the other hand, the ability to study those specific individual instances, such as specific plant species in their respective geographical niche, as expressions or affordances of general forms or phenomena. It is in this respect that Humboldt’s approach to biodiversity provided an altogether different understanding of changing forms in nature than the traditional classificatory method in the field of natural history. Specifically, in his geographical study of plants from a differentiated global perspective, which was based on his travels with the French explorer and botanist Aimé Bonpland (1773–1858) through South and Central America, Humboldt pays attention to the interdependence of certain species and their ecological surroundings, the quality of the soil, elevation, seasons, water, micro-climate, etc. without losing sight of the range of affordances of what constituted one species. Like Goethe, he affirms the study of the phenomena themselves; however, for both, this approach demands that the observer not get lost in the details of specific contexts, but instead always retain the connection of the individual phenomenon to the larger whole, such as the differentiated geography and geology of the globe. In his dedication, Humboldt recognizes the affinity between Goethe’s approach to symbols and poetry and his own approach to botany. But how would Goethe characterize his own position towards symbols, especially poetic symbols?

This question is addressed in the third of the three Xenias: Do not look for some hidden consecration and leave alone all that is fixed under the veil! Any specific historical contextualization of a poetic symbol in terms of this or that religious cult with its local specificities, institutional concerns and doctrines will not provide the living human being with relevant insight into how a specific symbol or poem elucidates a phenomenon here and now. Instead, it will yield merely partial, highly context-dependent definitions, which will become wrongly petrified if mistaken for unchanging truth. Only if the veil or symbol is also understood as an embodiment of the limits of human understanding can it also become transformed into a threshold of engaging with these limitations, and hence with expanding human understanding.13 And it is this position at the limit qua threshold, that distinguishes poetic language from ordinary language, which gives poetic language the potential for an altogether different relationship to history and historical change, and a significance that extends beyond its own historical contexts.


The main functions of the veil as a conceptual metaphor in Goethe’s work are discernable, first, in his poetological poem “Zueignung” and by way of comparison with the relic. As those discussions in this entry showed, the veil allows for a heightened, active process of negotiation between presence and absence, both in a spatial and a temporal sense, as well as between self and other, and between the blinding light of information and the total darkness of ignorance. Second, as in the ballad “Der Gott und die Bajadere,” the veil can also negotiate between the sacred and the profane by way of a comfortable obscurity. Although the veil is not mentioned in “Der Chinese in Rom,” in that poem the tapestry of the order of nature nonetheless provides the image for the true, long-lasting beauty of architecture, in contrast to the Gespinst, which is the product of misguided taste and a merely subjective aberration tantamount to a cocoon of dominant cultural norms. This raises the question of the veil’s relationship to an objective realm of truth and beauty, which appears altogether different: Whereas the cocoon serves as an isolating envelope spun out of internal secretions, which can become an echo chamber of subjective projections, the diaphanous veil separates and unites observing subject and external reality. Furthermore, the diaphanous veil also provides a metaphor for a sort of well-balanced observation, in which a distanced, respectful attention to concrete, specific phenomena found in nature is accompanied by an understanding of these phenomena as articulations of an ever changing, productive order of nature—a style of observation common to both the scientist and the poet, as evident in Goethe’s reference to Thorvaldsen’s engraving of Isis, in which the goddess’s veil is a token of mutual recognition exchanged with Alexander von Humboldt, whose approach to scientific truth corresponds to Goethe’s approach to poetic truth. Just as the truth value of scientific insight is not circumscribed by the adequacy of one particular observation of one single phenomenon, the truth value of the products of poetic language also has a different shelf-life and a different import if compared to the products of ordinary language: the veil of poetry can transcend its immediate historical contexts.

  1. See Ulrike Landfester, Der Dichtung Schleier. Zur poetischen Funktion von Kleidung in Goethes Frühwerk (Freiburg i. Breisgau: Rombach, 1995).
  2. Unless otherwise noted, translations are by the author of this article.
    Works by Goethe are cited according to the Frankfurt edition (FA): Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, eds. Hendrik Birus, Dieter Borchmeyer, Karl Eibl, et al., 40 vols. (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013), 1.1:11.95–96. Hereafter cited as FA in the body of the text.
  3. On this image as an instance of how, to Faust’s bewilderment, the cultural technique of weaving here issues from a creative divinity inaccessible to him, see Landfester, Der Dichtung Schleier, 149–50.
  4. See FA 1.7:38.510–16.
  5. For a comprehensive study of the motif of the veil, which also focusses on the late works of Goethe see Hyun-Kyu Jung’s Dissertation “Das Motiv des Schleiers in den dichterischen Werken Goethes.” PhD diss., Technische Universität Berlin, 2006: https://depositonce.tu-berlin.de/bitstream/11303/1595/1/Dokument_5.pdf, accessed 21 February 2022.
  6. See entry for “Schwärmer” in Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, ed. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 33 vols. (Leipzig and Munich: S. Hirzel and Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1854–1972), 15: column 2290–92, https://www.dwds.de/wb/dwb/schwärmer, accessed 21 February 2022.
  7. See “Über Metamorphose der Schmetterlinge am Beispiel der Wolfsmilchraupe” (FA 1.24:318–21; On the Metamorphosis of Butterflies by Taking the Example of the Spurge Hawk-Moth). The “external conditions” (FA 1.24:319) refer to crumbs of soil or small pieces of organic debris which the spurge hawk-moth needs to build its cocoon.
  8. See FA 1.2:32.
  9. See Freud's description of the game in the second chapter of “Jenseits des Lustprinzips,” in Gesammelte Werke. Chronologisch geordnet, ed. Anna Freud, vol. XIII. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1967), 3–69.
  10. Winnicott, D.W., “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” in Playing and Reality, ed. D.W. Winnicott (New York: Basic Books, 1971), 1–25.
  11. The translation is taken from Pierre Hadot’s chapter “Isis Has No Veil,” in The Veil of Isis. An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2006), 247–61.
  12. See the commentary in FA 1.2:1195, which provides links to Goethe’s references of Creuzer’s Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker (1810–1812; Symbolism and Mythology of the Ancients) as it also alerts to Alexander von Humboldt’s dedicatory page for his Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen (1807; Essay on the Geography of Plants).
  13. On Goethe’s conceptualization of the veil as threshold see also Hyun-Kyu Jung, 63–76.

Works Cited and Further Reading