Goethe took the Faust legend like so many others; but he alone saw the typical, universal element hidden in it; he alone was able to engraft his own life and the governing forces of all human life upon this wild offspring of a darker age. He began to write in 1773, after the subject had been maturing for two or three years in his brain, and by 1775 had written nearly half of the first part. It was composed very slowly, every line and couplet being carefully finished in his mind before being put upon paper. With his removal to Weimar the work ceased, and the manuscript was yellow with age when he took it with him to Italy. Two scenes were added in Rome, and in the edition of his works, published in 1790, first appears Faust ein Fragment, containing not quite two-thirds of the first part. Stimulated and encouraged by Schiller, he resumed the work in 1799 and completed the whole of the first part and a considerable portion of the second, which belonged to his plan from the start. In 1808 the first part, as we now possess it, was published; but the second part, delayed by his scientific and Oriental studies, was suffered to wait until 1824, by which time Goethe was seventy-five years old. The third act, generally called Die Helena, was published as a fragment in 1827, and the interest and curiosity which it excited encouraged Goethe, in spite of his age, to work out the whole of his grand design. In August, 1831, the second part was finished, but it was not given to the world until after his death.
There is no doubt that the loss of Schiller, the troubles that followed the battle of Jena, and the political convulsions which disturbed Germany for ten years thereafter, prevented Goethe from undertaking the second part while it was still fresh and his faculties were in their prime. We cannot but feel that much was lost by the delay; yet, on the other hand, we must admit that no other test could have so clearly proved the vigor and vitality of his genius. Three predominant elements are united in the work, and, while they are generally blended together in harmony, we are sometimes obliged to consider them separately. First, there is that broad, all-comprehensive presentation of the life of man which, at some point or other, touches the experience of all men, including the problems of good and evil, simply stated and simply solved. Secondly, there is a reflection throughout of Goethe's own life, of the phases of passion and thought through which he passed, of his own faith and doubt, his position in and toward the world. Lastly, there is, especially in the second part, matter introduced which has no direct connection with the plan of the work, and interferes with its natural evolution. In reading we can easily separate this last feature from the main design wherever we detect it; but we must endeavor not to lose sight of the constant and intimate presence of the two former elements--of Goethe's nature and human nature. Notwithstanding the breadth, ripeness and impartial quality of Goethe's mind, we catch a fleeting glimpse, here and there, of his individual presence; or, it may be, that because all his life is so clearly known to us, we see the experience lying far behind the poetry, as we cannot see it in Shakespeare.