Erotica Romana by Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Goethe's artistic career was often troubled by the public's unwillingness to accept his art as art, and by what he felt as an indecorous search for the connection between what he wrote and his life. In one of the "Erotica Romana" we find him railing so viciously at his readership that he preferred to revise the elegy before making it public (IV--it is left unchanged in this translation, which hews to the manuscript). The outburst has to do with his early novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), whose hero and heroine the public eagerly sought in "real life." Goethe was long identified with that popular work and no doubt plagued by many a query which, he felt, distracted from the artistic issues.
But a curious public should not have to bear all the blame: Goethe's writings are among the most unabashedly autobiographical in world literature. They are so frank and utterly open as to carry well beyond the reality of objective events into the much more intimately real imaginative world. That may be why Goethe chose a word with mystical, religious overtones when he called all his writings "fragments of a great confession"--this from an autobiography thoughtfully entitled Poetry and Truth. Virtually everything he wrote, all of his poems and novels and dramas, are fairly conscious self-revelation, a mysterious blend of external and imaginative reality. What wonder if several generations of readers have been tempted to separate the two?
But with the so-called Roman Elegies it is probably impossible to discover just where they may render people or places with accuracy, or how far the fantasies are removed from events. The question can be stated in a much cruder way, and it usually is: During Goethe's stay in Rome (1786-88), an unmarried man in his late thirties, did he take a mistress, or do the Roman Elegies merely throw out a pleasant fiction of what might have been? Scholars (being scholars) have generally looked at the problem exactly that way and argued on one side or the other of an imponderable question.
The uncertain boundary between "poetry and truth" had made the reception of the Roman Elegies difficult for Goethe's contemporaries, too. Entirely apart from their friend's actual carryings-on in Rome (or elsewhere), the good people of Weimar just could not reconcile themselves to such a display of sensual experience, be it real or imagined, in this open, pagan and positive tone. The best example of such dissonance came out in Goethe's old pal and liege lord, Carl August Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Himself a notorious philanderer who often urged Goethe to indulge in casual liaisons, the Duke was just scandalized when Goethe allowed a part of his manuscript "Erotica Romana" to be published simply as "Elegien" in Friedrich Schiller's Die Horen, 1795.