Goethe gave to woman a full share in the shaping of his career, and to some women a very liberal share. From boyhood he was never without a passion, and if we may believe his autobiography he experienced his first love about the age of fifteen, in the person of Gretchen, who is supposed to have been the daughter of an Offenbach innkeeper. He worshipped her as Dante worshipped Beatrice; but she treated him as a child, very much as Mary Chaworth treated Byron. There is, however, no other evidence of this first love, and it would be quite in accordance with Goethe's manner to enlarge on a very small foundation. His letters also speak of a boyish attachment to one Charitas Meixner, a friend of his sister and the daughter of a wealthy merchant of Worms. He expresses his affection for her with all the fervor of French phraseology; but if she returned it, she soon found "metal more attractive," for she married a rich burgher of her native town.
At Leipsic his choice was Kitty Schönkopf, the Ænnchen of his autobiography. She often teased him with her inconstant ways, and to this experience is due his drama, Lovers' Quarrels, as it may be styled. It is a mere trifle, a pastoral in one-act, and its only interest is as an episode from the author's life. A deeper chord is struck in the play of the Fellow Sinners, which forms a forbidding picture of the time and of the doings of the youth who wrote it. The daughter of an innkeeper has made an unhappy marriage, and is visited by a former lover, who is in good circumstances. An assignation is arranged, and the interview is witnessed by the husband who has come to steal the stranger's purse. The father, who comes in to read one of the lover's letters, is surprised and, with his daughter, accused of the theft. The real culprit is discovered, and defends himself by accusing the stranger of his conduct with his wife. Goethe also wrote at Leipsic a number of erotic songs, set to music. Moral-sensuous, he calls them; but they are certainly more sensuous than moral. They have, however, the merit of a musical and easy flow of expression, with varying moods of passion, described with remarkable elegance.
During Goethe's stay in Strasburg he conceived what he imagined to be an imperishable affection for Frederike, the daughter of a village parson, a simple and worthy man, suggesting to the poet, fresh from the study of Goldsmith, the Vicar of Wakefield. Frederike was but sixteen years of age, tall and slight, with fair hair and blue eyes, and she seems to have fallen headlong in love with Goethe, who was then only twenty-one. He addressed a number of songs to her, ten of which are found in the collection of his works. He devoted to her much of the time which he should have given to his studies, and in the winter neither storm nor cold nor darkness could keep him from riding over to the village, though twenty miles away. In spring there were picnics, water-parties, games and dances, which filled up the swiftly-flying weeks. But when, after taking his degree, the time approached for leaving Strasburg, he felt that his love was merely a dream, that it could have no serious termination. Frederike endeavored to treat the matter in the same light, and it was only in her letters that she afterward betrayed the depth and reality of her passion.
Passing by other attachments, we come to his lifelong devotion to Charlotte von Stein, a lady of the court at Weimar, wife of the master of the horse, thirty-three years of age and the mother of seven children. With all these drawbacks, Goethe's affection was undoubtedly sincere, and at the same time perfectly innocent. His letters to her extend over a period of fifty years; he called her by the most endearing epithets; and for years he made her acquainted with his every action and almost with his every thought. Most of his writings at this time were for the dramatic entertainment of the court, including a series of masks or ballets for the birthday of the grand-duchess Louise, two melodramas and several operettas. But his relations with Frau von Stein, though harmless, became every year more full of danger, and it was partly to escape from this influence that Goethe undertook his journey to Italy.
While wandering aimlessly in one of the parks near Rome, Goethe was accosted by a young girl, named Christiane Vulpius, who presented him with a petition in favor of her brother. She was a comely damsel, with golden curling locks, rosy cheeks, laughing eyes and a neatly rounded figure. The poet took her to his home, and she became his wife in conscience and the mother of his children, though he did not marry her until 1806, when the terrors of the French occupation made him anxious for his eldest son. She had little education, and he could not take her into society; but she was a good and loving wife, and her quick mother-wit fitted her for an intellectual companion. To these days of his early wedded life belong the Roman elegies, which, though Italian in form, in color and sensuality, were written in German from home experiences.