Rhythmus (Rhythm)

Charlotte Lee

The lexeme Rhythmus has a long history of its own. In the context of Goethe’s thought, it needs to be approached via both his theoretical discussions of the term and his handling of rhythm in his literary work. Goethe conceives of rhythm in terms of its materiality, and its major philosophical opportunity is the intense connection that it offers between subject and object. Goethe’s attitude to meter—that is, rhythm organized for the purposes of poetic production—was ambivalent: although he mastered any number of different verse forms, he remained suspicious of poetic rhythms that were too metronomic. The creative tension of rhythm is an implicit theme in various works and is explored through two examples in this entry: the poem “Der Musensohn” (1774/1800; The Son of the Muses) and the character Mignon from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship).

  1. Introduction
  2. The Tonlehre: Polarity and Embodiment
  3. The Ambivalence of Meter
  4. “Der Musensohn”: Productive Tensions
  5. Mignon: Interrupted Potential
  6. Conclusion: The Interplay of Force and Form
  7. Notes
  8. Works Cited and Further Reading


Throughout the course of its history, the concept of rhythm has undergone significant evolution. The philologist Émile Benveniste argued in 1951 that the notion of rhythm that had become the norm, namely “as any kind of continuous activity which breaks down into a meter based on temporal alternation,”1 was in fact an innovation of Plato’s, born of his application of the concept ρυθμός (rythmos) to dance movement and influenced also by Socrates (Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, 335). Prior to this, Benveniste explained, ρυθμός tended to denote form which was “moving, mobile, fluid,” and “improvised, momentary, modifiable” (Benveniste Problèmes de linguistique générale, 33)2—and not, therefore, characterized by regular alternation. Among theorists of rhythm, there has been in the past few decades a surge in interest in the pre-Socratic definition, and a concurrent impulse to distance the term from the Platonic understanding.3 For the most part, Goethe’s own approach to rhythm conforms to the understanding of the phenomenon which has traditionally been more prominent; that is, rhythm as characterized by repetition and periodicity. There are also signs, however, that his approach was flexible and that he might have sympathized with the modernist and postmodernist suspicion of regularity blindly admired.

Goethe’s observations on rhythm are scattered through his letters, autobiographical works, and other discursive writings; they are plentiful enough, but not innumerable. We might have expected more from the master of German poetry, but, as Henri Lefebvre comments, a rhythm felt is not the same as a rhythm understood. There is, in fact, something daunting about rhythm as a philosophical concept:

Everybody thinks they know what this word [rhythm] means. In fact, everybody senses it in a manner that falls a long way short of knowledge: rhythm enters into the lived; though that does not mean it enters into the known. There is a long way to go from observation to definition, and even further from the grasping of some rhythm (of an air in music, or of respiration, or of the beatings of the heart) to the conception that grasps the simultaneity and intertwinement of several rhythms, their unity in diversity.4

Here, Lefebvre captures the paradox of rhythm: the experience of rhythm can be vivid and immediate, but it tends to elude satisfactory definition. Goethe, of course, is quite capable of moving from observation to definition, but he picks his moment for doing so. Moreover, rhythm is in a singular position as a concept, for it is both a principle that can be defined (whatever the difficulties of that undertaking) and a phenomenon that is made manifest. The richest parts of Goethe’s understanding of rhythm, therefore, are not confined to abstract treatments in his discursive writing; rather, his handling of rhythm in his literary works also accomplishes important philosophical work, both conscious and intuitive, by allowing its meaning to be felt and experienced in the act of reading.

The Tonlehre: Polarity and Embodiment

Slight in compass and incomplete though it is, Goethe’s Tonlehre (1810; Tone Theory) contains some of his most focussed reflections on the phenomenon of rhythm. Originally conceived as a pendant to the Farbenlehre (1810; Color Theory), it exists in two formats: as a text in note form, and as a table, a version of which is still on display in Goethe’s bedroom in the Goethe-Nationalmuseum in Weimar. “Ton” (tone, note) in the musical sense (as opposed to the sheer physics of sound) is indeed the primary subject of the embryonic treatise, as a major source of stimulus for the development of the Tonlehre was an exchange with the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758–1832) about the relation of major and minor modes in music. When Goethe writes about rhythm in the text, he is thinking in the first instance of the rhythms of music. The relevance of his observations extends beyond the musical sphere, however, since in his reflections on rhythm in the Tonlehre, Goethe is thinking about, indeed enacting, philosophical principles that are at the heart of his entire oeuvre.

The first of these principles is the notion of Polarität (polarity). First developed in his scientific work of the 1790s, given additional philosophical impetus through his collaboration with Schelling, and ultimately taken as a pendant to the phenomenon of Steigerung (intensification), Polarität is a central motif in Goethe’s thinking, from optics to botany, and to his conception of the workings of the natural world in general. That it is also a key structuring idea behind the Tonlehre is evident in the section which deals with rhythm in the most detail (though still in the form of sketched notes):

Der ganze Körper wird angeregt zum Schritt (Marsch); zum Sprung (Tanz und Gebärdung).
Alle organische Bewegungen manifestieren sich durch Diastolen und Systolen; ein anderes ist, den Fuß aufheben, ein anderes ihn niedersetzen. Hier erscheint Gewicht und Gegengewicht der Rhythmik: Arsis, Aufschlag; Thesis, Niederschlag; Taktarten (gleiche, ungleiche).5
The whole body is stimulated to step (march); to jump (dance and gesture).
All organic movements manifest themselves through diastoles and systoles; it is one thing to lift the foot, another to place it down. Here, the weight and counterweight of rhythm becomes apparent: arsis, accented [or upbeat]; thesis, unaccented [or downbeat]; types of beat (equal, unequal).

Rhythm here is conceptualized as the regular alternation between poles, or opposites: diastole and systole (that is, the two phases of the cardiac cycle), and arsis and thesis (terms from Greek dance to describe the lowering and lifting of the foot, respectively, later applied to poetry to denote stressed and unstressed syllables). This easy linking, conflation even, of the natural (heartbeat) and the artistic (dance and poetry) in the attempt to help rhythm “enter into the known,” can be found elsewhere in Goethe’s oeuvre. Take, for example, the last of the five stanzas or short poems which make up “Talismane” (Talismans) in the West-östlicher Divan (1819; West-Eastern Divan):

Im Atemholen sind zweyerley Gnaden:
Die Luft einziehn, sich ihrer entladen.
Jenes bedrängt, dieses erfrischt;
So wunderbar ist das Leben gemischt.
Du danke Gott, wenn er dich preßt,
Und dank’ ihm, wenn er dich wieder entläßt. (FA 1.3.1:15)
In our breathing there are two kinds of blessing: / Inhaling air and exhaling it. / The latter is pressure, the former refreshes; / Life is thus wonderfully mixed. / Thank thou God, when he presses you, / And thank him when he releases you.

Here, the alternation between poles, exemplified in the natural rhythm of breathing in and breathing out, is described as a blessing. The comfort of these “organic movements,” as Goethe calls them in the Tonlehre, is conveyed, indeed reinforced, through the multiple internal symmetries of the poem: the rhyming couplets, the matching of words with their opposites (einziehn [. . .] entladen [inhaling [. . .] exhaling]; preßt…entläßt [presses [. . .] releases]; etc.), and, not least, the speech rhythms. Interestingly, these lines do not conform to a single recognizable meter; but again, pleasing patterns and symmetries emerge across the two halves of a unit, be it a line or a couplet. Both the Tonlehre and “Talismane,” then, invite the reader to appreciate the flexible structuring, the separating and binding, which is the work of rhythm—although, as other examples will clarify, Goethe is far from complacent in his enjoyment of the phenomenon.

The second key philosophical principle evident in Goethe’s reflections on rhythm in the Tonlehre is the unabashed emphasis on materiality and on thorough embodiment.6 Rhythm and the body—the whole body, indeed—share the section heading, and the first observation concerns the urge that musical rhythms may engender in the listener to move, as in the example of the march or the dance. The most essential bodily rhythm of diastole and systole is then taken as a symbol for all other life-giving alternations. Goethe’s choice of vocabulary and imagery emphasizes the materiality of rhythm. Although rhythms can of course exist independently of the human bodies that might experience them, Goethe immediately gravitates to hearts that beat and feet that march in his conceptual treatment of the phenomenon. Moreover, the focus on entrainment (another way of understanding “angeregt”) at the beginning of the extract makes plain that the locus of rhythm is both the original external signal (in this case, sound) and the sensorimotor system of the perceiver, and thus that rhythm is a means of intense connection between the subject and the external world. This is central to Goethe’s methodology, in the Tonlehre and elsewhere: the Tonlehre, like the Farbenlehre (Color Theory), can be understood as part of Goethe’s mission “to found a subjective science,” his belief that “[t]he true science, which brings us closest to reality, is, and has to be, a study of Nature’s appearing, a phenomenology.”7 Rhythm and color are, for Goethe, primary phenomena that can only be studied insofar as the scientist also accounts for the effects that they produce in the perceiving subject.

The Ambivalence of Meter

Poetry, in addition to music, can offer opportunities for the scientific study of rhythm, above all through meter; that is to say, organized rhythm, “a quality of the poet’s chosen language, both emerging from and having an effect on that language.”8 For some poets of Goethe’s era, such as Klopstock and Hölderlin, meter was an opportunity both for practical experimentation and for theoretical reflection. Goethe, however, did not experiment with meter as obsessively as some of his contemporaries, nor does he seem to have been inclined (or, perhaps, equal) to the task of writing an extensive theoretical treatment of it. In addition, his letters and autobiographical writings allude in a number of places to a sense of insecurity in relation to prosody. In the Italienische Reise (1816–17; Italian Journey), for example, he writes: “Iphigenia [sic] in Jamben zu übersetzen hätte ich nie gewagt, wäre mir in Moritzens Prosodie nicht ein Leitstern erschienen”9 (FA 1.15.1: 168; I should never have dared to transpose Iphigenia into iambs, had a guiding star not appeared in the form of Moritz’s prosody). In a letter to Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1798, he likewise comments: “Da Sie denn doch einmal ein so erklärter Deutscher sind, so wünschte ich daß Sie noch mit Brinkmann eine Prosodie unserer Sprache zu Stande brächten […] es wäre kein geringes Verdienst, besonders um Poeten von meiner Natur die nun einmal keine grammatische Ader in sich fühlen” (FA 2.4:575; Given that you are a German of such illumination, I could wish that you and Brinkmann would also produce a prosodic guide to our language […] it would be no small accomplishment, particularly for poets such as myself, who have not a single grammatical vein in them). For one who composed with such rhythmic fluency, this ambivalence in relation to prosody is perhaps surprising: after all, the extraordinary variety of meters deployed in Faust is evidence that he could not only master any given rhythmic pattern, but also switch between patterns as a character’s situation or experience demanded.10

There may, of course, be an element of false humility in Goethe’s claim not to have a single “grammatical vein” in his body, and a backhanded compliment in his suggestion that Humboldt write the definitive guide to prosody. To judge by the dislike that he expresses in a different letter for “die moderne Rhythmik ohne Poesie” (modern rhythm without poetry),11 having too many “grammatical” veins or bones does not necessarily make for good poetry. He is still more heavy-handed elsewhere, for example in this notice on Carl Simrock’s translation of the Nibelungenlied: “Wir haben ganz nulle Gedichte wegen lobenswürdiger Rhythmik preisen hören” (WA 1.42.2: 474; We have heard quite worthless poetry feted on account of praiseworthy rhythms). In addition, his knowledge that prosodic systems must be challenged if they are to be kept fresh is signalled in “Nachbildung” (Emulation), one of a number of poetological pieces in the West-östlicher Divan (West-Eastern Divan):

Zugemeßne Rhythmen reizen freilich,
Das Talent erfreut sich wohl darin;
Doch wie schnelle widern sie abscheulich,
Hohle Masken ohne Blut und Sinn;
Selbst der Geist erscheint sich nicht erfreulich,
Wenn er nicht, auf neue Form bedacht,
Jener toten Form ein Ende macht. (FA 1.3.1:32)
Measured rhythms may well be delightful, / Talent certainly rejoices in them; / Yet how quickly they become repulsive, / Hollow masks with neither blood nor sense; / Even the spirit can take no pleasure, / If, set on new form, / It does not put an end to dead form.

Whereas the previous strophe had expressed admiration for the “Reimart” (style of rhyme) of the poet’s models (Hafez above all in this cycle), now, in this second and final strophe, the emphasis is on finding “new form.” Rhythms that are “measured,” “weighed out,” come in for particular suspicion: attractive they may be, but they soon wear thin. Goethe’s aversion to too much “grammar” in the making of poetry, implied here and made explicit elsewhere, is likely to be indicative of his own method. He wrote, of course, with a keen awareness of metric conventions, but this awareness had to be accompanied by a certain spontaneity for his characteristically flexible verse to be possible. He claims in Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) that: “Die Ausübung dieser Dichtergabe konnte zwar durch Veranlassung erregt und bestimmt werden; aber am freudigsten und reichlichsten trat sie unwillkürlich, ja wider Willen hervor” (FA 1.4:732; This my poetic gift could, it is true, be aroused and directed into practice by circumstance; yet it was at its most joyful and most fruitful when it could appear spontaneously, indeed against my will). Goethe’s own portrayals of his approach to writing need to be approached with caution—particularly, indeed, in Dichtung und Wahrheit. The image of himself as a naïve sleepwalker, who composed without calculation, is somewhat disingenuous. Nonetheless, the claim that there is something “unwillkürlich” (spontaneous, involuntary) about the creation of true poetry is quite plausible, for it is, arguably, at that delicate juncture between technical stability and the force of the “unwillkürlich” that “Poesie” happens. This embrace of the formal and the intuitive, the schematic structure and the fluid movement, is characteristic of Goethe’s conceptual thinking in general. Rhythm in poetic variations allows both him, and the reader/listener, to perform and experience materially such thinking.

“Der Musensohn”: Productive Tensions

For all his professed reservations about prosody, Goethe’s experimentation with rhythmic possibilities in his poetry took myriad forms: from conventional binary and ternary bases (iambic or trochaic, and dactylic or anapaestic, respectively), to the free rhythms of his early poetry, to his revival of the elegiac distich in the Römische Elegien (1795; Roman Elegies). The poem “Der Musensohn” (The Son of the Muses), composed in 1774 and published in 1800, makes a particularly interesting case study. It is centrally concerned with rhythm:

Und nach dem Takte reget,
Und nach dem Maß beweget,
Sich alles an mir fort. (FA 1.1:644)
And all keep time with me, / And all move / In measure with me.12

The poem is also an excellent demonstration both of Goethe’s instinctive exploitation of prosodic conventions and of the principle that the “rhythm” of a poem “involves many factors besides meter” (Attridge, Poetic Rhythm, 8).

The figure of the “Musensohn” is evocative both of Orpheus (because he is a musician) and of Hermes, the messenger-god with winged sandals. In keeping with this second set of allusions—and, indeed, reminiscent of the Tonlehre—movement has a key role to play. As well as being himself continually, indeed relentlessly, in motion, the speaker is thrilled by the never-ending march of the seasons, the constant (even rhythmic) self-renewal of life, and his enthusiasm is infectious, both for other characters in the poem (“der stumpfe Bursche,” the dull lad, and “das steife Mädchen,” the stiff girl), and, arguably, for the reader. Verbs of movement abound, especially in the first strophe (“schweifen,” ramble; “geht’s,” goes; “reget,” stirs; “beweget,” moves), and motion is also part of the texture of the poem. Its form has been compared to a dance figure, owing to the sense of a pause or rounding off—like that in a dance—created by the masculine (stressed) rhymes at the end of each stanza.13 Above all, there is a strong sense of rhythmic expectation. The piece is written in a form particularly popular in eighteenth-century rococo poetry (Goethe Handbuch I, 267): three iambic feet per line, with a predominantly feminine (unstressed) rhyme pattern, but the third and the sixth lines forming masculine rhymes. The rhythm seems to trip along inexorably, given momentum by the slight additional weight on the opening syllables of some lines (“durch” and “mein” in the first strophe can be read as possible examples of secondary stress), and given lightness by the unstressed feminine rhymes with which two-thirds of the lines end.

Yet, on closer inspection, another rhythmic possibility emerges. The meter is iambic—that is, in a foot, an unstressed syllable (x) is followed by a stressed one (/): the line “Und nach dem Takte reget,” therefore, is scanned x / x / x / x. The natural shape of many of the key words in the poem, however, is trochaic, with a stressed syllable preceding an unstressed one, / x: thus, in the opening lines of the poem, we have “schweifen” ([/ x], to ramble), “pfeifen” ([/ x], to whistle), “Liedchen” ([/ x], little song). The dynamism of the poem derives partly from a productive tussle, deep beneath the surface, between different rhythmic currents: between the rising iambs, which are already in slight tension with the “natural” tendencies of German,14 and the ghosts of trochees, a falling measure akin to a footstep. The trochaic undercurrent could be said to challenge the main iambic pattern, keeping it in check, requiring it to justify its presence. The secondary pattern provides an additional pulse; this, in turn, gives the iambic pattern the skipping energy for which this poem is famous. The competition between the two tendencies comes to a head in the final line, “Auch endlich wieder aus?” (Literally, “Also at last again.” Taken together, the final two lines have been translated as: “When shall I at last find rest again / On her bosom?”; Wigmore, Schubert, 115.) Here, two intrinsically trochaic words, “endlich” and “wieder,” are enclosed in two further syllables, “auch” and “aus,” which assert their own unity through assonance and, with gentle pressure, force the other two to become part of the iambic totality. Even here, though, the predominance of the iamb is challenged. “Auch” can be read as unstressed, but it is probably weightier than that, forming at least a secondary stress, or possibly even a full one. Thus, in this final line, too, the pattern threatens to unravel even as the reader thinks to perceive it.

The relationship between the iambic and trochaic currents of the poem could be described as dialectical in the Hegelian sense: in their encounter, they alter one another and themselves, and the process is generative of movement.15 There is motion in the syllabic patterns of that final line, patterns which are at once assertive and fleeting, and the productive tension between iamb and trochee throughout generates in the reader or listener an urge to move. In “Der Musensohn,” movement could be infinite. There is no clear end to the speaker’s journey, and this is reflected on the formal level: just as the implicit rhythmic ambiguity refuses quite to resolve itself in the final line, so the poem ends not with a full stop, but with a question. There is longing in the final strophe, especially “weit von Haus” (far from home); the foreignness which is an inevitable part of the speaker’s mode of living comes to the fore, and the strain of forever being a source of inspiration makes itself felt. Yet “Der Musensohn” is not “The Red Shoes,” the fairy-tale of the girl forced to dance without end; in Goethe’s poem, the speaker’s potentially eternal dance is not a moral sentence imposed on him. The joy expressed by the speaker is qualified, but not dissipated, in the final strophe. This is a poem of becoming rather than of homecoming, and in this sense too rhythmic practice executes conceptual work. The mutual challenge of iamb and trochee, and even the basic alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables, is not a simple juxtaposition of opposites, an empty oscillation, but a productive encounter. Thus “Son of the Muses,” like “Ganymed,” can be understood as a figure of thought:16 the conceptual journey takes us through the joy and (briefly) the intimidation of ever-expanding experience.

Mignon: Interrupted Potential

Mignon, from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–96; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), is a figure as closely associated with motion as the “Musensohn.” Although the novel is replete with dancers, fencers, and acrobats, Mignon’s movement is given more sustained attention than that of any other character. The “egg dance” which she performs for Wilhelm in Book Two, Chapter Eight, is one of the most famous moments in the work. She moves with breath-taking agility, weaving around and over the eggs, which she has laid out on the rug beneath her, without breaking any of them; and the dance is highly rhythmic, with Mignon using castanets to reinforce “Takt und Melodie” (FA 1.9:469; beat and melody), and with the whole number forming a cycle of repeats, each given the momentum of “einen neuen Stoß” (FA 1.9:469; a new thrust) from the strange accompanying music. The spectacle is compelling, as the effect of rhythm so often is, but at the same time discomfiting for Wilhelm. Indeed, the performance is almost too rhythmic: Mignon is described as dancing “wie ein aufgezogenes Räderwerk,” “[u]naufhaltsam, wie ein Uhrwerk” (FA 1.9:469; like a wound-up mechanism; inexorably, like clockwork). The piece which she performs for Wilhelm is, in some ways, a dance of captivity, the strict rhythms a reminder of the enslavement and coercion to which she had previously been subject.

By the time that Wilhelm (and with him, the reader) witnesses it, however, the egg dance has also begun to acquire a new significance: it has become associated, namely, with defiance. It was Mignon’s refusal to perform the dance which occasioned the beating at the hands of her then master, and this violent act which in turn motivated Wilhelm to pay for her release. Later in the novel, she will likewise defy Serlo’s order to dance the piece. From the time of her liberation from slavery (if not, alas, from all her suffering), the egg dance becomes a gift to protect, rather than a trick to perform; and Mignon will offer it to Wilhelm alone, out of devotion. At this moment in Book Two, the rhythms of the dance can be understood both as the residual habitus of the child formerly held in captivity, who has come to live “wie ein aufgezogenes Räderwerk” (like a wound-up mechanism), and as the expression of an artist who has the skill to grasp, in the words of Lefebvre quoted at the beginning of this entry, “the simultaneity and intertwinement of several rhythms”—in this case, to synchronize her complex movements with the strange melody. Her castanets, which she brings to bear on both with perfect timing, add a prominent marker of regularity but also bestow a flavour of the Mediterranean, a hint of energy from her native Italy. As a character, moreover, Mignon is far from mechanical or puppet-like. In the account of her early years, which he gives after her death, the Marquis describes her natural facility for music and her love of exploring and climbing. She has great creative ability, and her instinct is to roam widely. Throughout the novel, she displays depth of emotion and plenty of the “unwillkürlich” (spontaneous) quality which, as we have seen, is essential to poetic inspiration. Her dance performs the dialectic of conceptual thinking for Goethe, the unity that embraces a tension between structure and freedom, form and intuition.

Yet, in Mignon, through no fault of her own, that quality does not meet with stability. Her egg-dance is precarious, extreme, and, as we have seen, highly ambivalent. If her artistry pushes rhythm to its limits, her life is unable to settle into any kind of stable pattern. Her mother’s guilt at the inadvertent act of incest that led to Mignon’s conception prevented her from bonding fully with her; Mignon grew up in the care of others before eventually being kidnapped; and the attachment which she develops to Wilhelm is (in her eyes) under constant threat from his amorous relationships. The disrupted rhythms of her life are reflected in her impeded speech and, above all, in the increasingly debilitating cardiac problems from which she suffers. Sometimes her heart stops altogether, especially after an emotional shock; at other points, it beats too wildly. In Mignon, the master performer and manipulator of rhythm, the most fundamental structuring forces of life face a constant struggle, her potential forever interrupted. She serves as a reminder that “organic movements,” such as the straightforward alternation between diastole and systole, are rhythms to be cherished rather than taken for granted. Through her, too, the role of rhythm in establishing ontological security is powerfully and painfully adumbrated.

Conclusion: The Interplay of Force and Form

From Goethe’s more focused reflections on rhythm and meter, and from the literary examples explored in detail above, two faces of the phenomenon emerge: rhythm as force, and rhythm as form.17 Rhythm in poetry and music is a force so powerful that it can stimulate movement, as Goethe comments in the Tonlehre. It produces visceral effects on the body of the receiver. At the same time, rhythm gives form: the alternation between beats and offbeats, or between stressed and unstressed syllables, is a crucial part of the material structure and shape of music and poetry. Of course, form can also be a hindrance, and Goethe seems particularly concerned about the propensity of rhythm to become mechanical, and therefore empty, or worse. His skepticism is evident in disparaging remarks scattered throughout his oeuvre, as we have seen, and Mignon’s egg dance is in some ways the epitome of form as coercion. Yet there is, Goethe seems to suggest, always the opportunity, however muted, for redemption. By the time the reader witnesses it, Mignon’s dance of captivity has become a dance of defiance, and she observes its rhythms out of choice rather than obligation The poet’s imperative in “Nachbildung” to sweep away old rhythmic forms and start anew if their force has faded is similarly modulated elsewhere in Goethe’s poetological work by the possibility of formal revitalization through marriage with intuitive or “spontaneous” thought.

For the two modes, force and form, are not inimical; rather, they are complementary. Force cannot exist without form, and form is lifeless unless animated by force. Force in this sense is not the property of any old rhythm. The ticking of a metronome does not itself stimulate in the listener a desire to move; this effect is only made possible by the particular textures of the piece of music or poetry of which the metronome’s beat is but an abstraction. In the case of “Der Musensohn,” force arises in the interstices between the primary and secondary rhythmic patterns which constitute the material form of the poem. In many cases, though, only one rhythmic base is required to generate force, if created with skill and handled in a spirit of challenge.

That “if” points to the element of “je ne sais quoi” in the creation of any rhythm that is more than an empty ticking. It speaks to the necessary role of intuition in thinking. If there is magic in its generation, there is also magic in its effects, as Goethe notes: “Der Rhythmus hat etwas Zauberisches, sogar macht er uns glauben, das Erhabene gehöre uns an” (FA 1.13:28; Rhythm has a magical quality, it even makes us believe that the sublime belongs to us). This maxim from Über Kunst und Alterthum (1816–32; On Art and Antiquity) encapsulates the ambivalence, above all in respect of poetic meter, that has emerged at points in this survey. Goethe suggests that rhythm has a spellbinding power, but that, by the same token, it may also deceive us into imagining our powers of perception and expression to be greater than they in fact are. Nonetheless, the “magic” of rhythm should not be underestimated, and it is a magic that Goethe knew how to deploy in his own poetic practice—and the “wonder” of thinking that motivates his conceptualizations. In “Der Musensohn,” he exploits it with a combination of instinct and consummate skill to simulate, and—in anticipation, perhaps, of his observations in the Tonlehre—to stimulate movement. Through Mignon’s egg dance, Goethe suggests both the quiet horror of unnatural regularity and the wonder of artistic rhythmicality; from the sadness of her disrupted existence, we might take the message that the truest “magic” is in the everyday achievement, to return to Lefebvre’s words, of rhythm “enter[ing] into the lived.”

  1. Émile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), 335. Original French: “tout ce qui suppose une activité continue décomposé par le mètre en temps alternés.” Hereafter cited as (Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale). Except where stated, translations from German and from French are my own.
  2. Original French: “ce qui est mouvant, mobile, fluide,” and “la forme improvisée, momantanée, modifiable.”
  3. For a useful summary of these tendencies, see Lexi Eikelboom, Rhythm: A Theological Category (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 4–14.
  4. Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore (London: Continuum, 2004), 77.
  5. Unless otherwise noted, 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.: Deutsche Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013), 1.25:182. Hereafter cited as FA in the body of the text.
  6. See the entry “Begriff (Concept)” in the GLPC for a discussion of the integration of the physical and the mental in words such as “begreifen” and its expressive modifications. See also the entry “Ach (Ah, Alas)” on Goethe’s understanding of the conjunction of materiality and spirituality.
  7. Nicholas Boyle, “Embodied Cognition: Goethe’s Farbenlehre as Phenomenology,” German Life and Letters 70.4 (2017): 478–90 (490).
  8. Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 8. Hereafter cited as (Attridge, Poetic Rhythm).
  9. This is likely to be in part a retrospective editorial intervention in order to pay tribute to Moritz, who died in 1793: although the Versuch was published in 1786, it is unlikely that Goethe would have had a copy at the decisive period of work on Iphigenie, though he may have discussed versification with Moritz in person. See notes to FA 1.15.2.
  10. For detailed treatment of the myriad rhythms in Faust, see e.g. John R. Williams, Goethe’s Faust (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987), 221-231, and Ritchie Robertson, “Literary Techniques and Aesthetic Texture in Faust”, in A Companion to Goethe’s Faust, Parts I and II, ed. Paul Bishop (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001), 1–27.
  11. Letter to Knebel, 14. March 1807. See the Weimar edition (WA), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Werke. Herausgegeben im Auftrage der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen, 133 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1887–1919), 4.19: 283. Hereafter cited as WA in the body of the text.
  12. Translation by Richard Wigmore, Schubert: The Complete Song Texts. Texts of the Lieder and Italian Songs, with English Translations (London: Gollancz, 1992), 115. Hereafter cited as (Wigmore, Schubert) in the body of the text. I shall use a combination of Wigmore’s translations and my own in this section of the analysis.
  13. Goethe Handbuch I, ed. by Bernd Witte et al. (Stuttgart & Weimar: Metzler, 1996), 267. Hereafter cited as (Goethe Handbuch I) in the body of the text.
  14. For a fuller explanation of this idea, see Brian A. Rowley, “‘Iambic Trochees’, or, On Not Being Able to Scan,” Publications of the English Goethe Society 37 (1967):142–74.
  15. See, for example, Hegel’s notion of “dialektische Bewegung” (dialectical movement; his emphasis) in the “Einleitung” (Introduction) to his Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of Spirit). G.W.F. Hegel, Werke in zwanzig Bänden, eds. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp, 1970), 3:78.
  16. See the entry “Begriff (Concept)” in the GLPC.
  17. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer of the entry for suggesting this focus and formulation.

Works Cited and Further Reading

  • Attridge, Derek. Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Benveniste, Émile. Problèmes de linguistique générale, vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, 1966.
  • Boyle, Nicholas. “Embodied Cognition: Goethe’s Farbenlehre as Phenomenology.” German Life and Letters 70.4 (2017): 478–90.
  • Eikelboom, Lexi. Rhythm: A Theological Category. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche. Edited by Hendrik Birus, Dieter Borchmeyer, Karl Eibl et al. 40 vols. Frankfurt a.M.: Deutsche Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethes Werke. Herausgegeben im Auftrage der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen. 133 vols. Weimar: Böhlau, 1887–1919.
  • Hegel, G.W.F. Werke in zwanzig Bänden. Edited by Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel. 20 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970.
  • Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Translated by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London: Continuum, 2004.
  • Robertson, Ritchie. “Literary Techniques and Aesthetic Texture in Faust.” In A Companion to Goethe’s Faust, Parts I and II, edited by Paul Bishop, 1–27. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001.
  • Rowley, Brian A. “‘Iambic Trochees’, or, On Not Being Able to Scan.” Publications of the English Goethe Society 37 (1967): 142–74.
  • Wigmore, Richard. Schubert: The Complete Song Texts. Texts of the Lieder and Italian Songs, with English Translations. London: Gollancz, 1992.
  • Williams, John R. Goethe’s Faust. London: Allen & Unwin, 1987.
  • Goethe Handbuch: in vier Bänden. Edited by Bernd Witte et al. 4 vols. Stuttgart & Weimar: Metzler, 1996.