Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born at Frankfort-on-the-Main on the 28th of August, 1749. His father was a councillor and a man of wealth, education and high social position; his mother was the daughter of the Imperial councillor, Textor. His mother invented stories for his early boyhood; he learned French from an officer quartered in his father's house; the best of teachers were provided for him, and when only eight years old he was able to write, though not very correctly, in the German, French, Italian, Greek and Latin languages. His beauty, his precocious talent, his bright, sparkling, lovable nature, procured him an indulgent freedom rarely granted to children, and gave him at the start that independence and self-reliance which he preserved throughout his life.
Young Goethe began to compose even before he began to write; for expression, in his case, was co-existent with feeling and thought. Before he was twelve years old he planned and partly wrote a romance which illustrates his wonderful acquirements. The characters are seven brothers and sisters, scattered in different parts of Europe. One of them writes in German, another in English, a third in French, a fourth in Italian, a fifth in Latin, a sixth in Greek, and a seventh in the Jewish-German dialect. At an age when most boys are struggling unwillingly with the rudiments of knowledge, Goethe had laid a broad basis for all future studies, and grasped with passionate eagerness every opportunity of anticipating them. There have been similar instances of precocity, but the informing and mastering genius was lacking. The boy assimilated and turned to immediate use all that he learned, and his creative power was developed many years in advance of the usual period. He soon became a hero in the youthful society of Frankfort--a poet, an improvisatore and a wit, astonishing his associates by his brilliancy and daring, and at the same time offending his severely respectable father.
At the age of sixteen he was sent to the university of Leipsic to study jurisprudence; but he soon wearied of it, as well as of logic and rhetoric, as they were then taught. Except botany and mineralogy, he neglected all graver studies, gave much of his time to society, and imagined himself in love with a maiden two or three years older than himself. His life at Leipsic, it must be confessed, was very wild and irregular. The scornful independence of others, which he asserted, began to show itself in excesses, and at the end of three years he went home with a hemorrhage of the lungs and a tumor on the neck. More than a year was needed for his entire recovery, and during this period his better nature began to assert itself. He regained his lost balance; his literary aspirations revived, and gradually grew into earnestness and coherence.