Confusion in Weimar

By Stefan Höppner

Goethe was introduced to the pastor Georg Christoph Tobler in Switzerland in 1779, and two years later, the two men met again in Weimar. When Tobler’s rhapsodic text “Die Natur” (Nature) appeared in the "Tiefurter Journal" in 1782/83, most assumed that Goethe was the author. A mistake which even the renowned journal "Nature" failed to rectify in its first issue of 1869 – one that even the great poet himself had no small part in propagating.

“By Goethe”: Tobler’s text appeared in the first issue of the journal "Nature" in 1869 – and was attributed to Goethe. © Nature Publishing Group

While examining Goethe’s private books and his borrowed volumes from the Ducal Library for the MWW project “Goethe’s Libraries in Weimar”, we regularly encounter minor incidents which are worth retelling, but haven’t found any resonance in the annals of literary history. This is where we report about rare manuscripts, underrated writers and lesser-known stories from Goethe’s circle. Part one of the new blog series “Weimar’s Hidden Treasures“.


The best-known text by this Swiss author was penned by Goethe – or at least that is what most people assumed. “Die Natur” is just a few pages long, a rhapsodic text about the essence underlying certain phenomena. The short fragment is written in the effusive style of “Sturm und Drang”. Its short passages read like aphorisms: “[Nature] eternally creates new forms; that which is, has never been before – that which comes, will never come again. – Everything is new and yet the ancient form remains.”

“Die Natur” first appeared in 1782/83 in the handwritten issue of the "Tiefurter Journal", in which the circle of acquaintances around Weimar Duchess Anna Amalia discussed contemporary literature. Goethe chose not to reveal the author’s identity, but most readers assumed that he himself wrote the piece. Charlotte von Stein, however, identified the author as the Zurich-born Georg Christoph Tobler.

No real chemistry

Born in 1757, Tobler was a theologian by profession. At the age of twenty, he was ordained as a pastor, which didn’t keep him from taking long journeys. But Goethe met him in his home country of Switzerland in 1779. In 1781, Tobler spent six months in Weimar where he took up residence with the former ducal tutor Karl Ludwig von Knebel. He met with Goethe several times, but no real chemistry ever developed between them. The visitor wrote the following about Goethe and Frau von Stein: “I am unable to feel neither an ideal degree of respect for her nor a high degree of tenderness toward Goethe, who has treated me far, undeservedly far, more decently, amiably and unobtrusively as I would have supposed.”

“Die Natur” was presumably written here in Weimar. Goethe was at a loss when confronted with the text again in 1828. It clearly bore the character of his former secretary’s handwriting. Goethe admitted: “I cannot actually remember writing these observations, but they do correspond to the ideas that had formed in my mind at that time.” He had long forgotten that Tobler had written them. Aside from that, he found the essay rather wanting and naïve.

However, a genuine treasure in Tobler’s hand is stored in the collection of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar. Tobler had made a name for himself as a translator of ancient literature. In 1781/82 he completed a two-volume Sophocles edition, the first German translation of his complete works ever. At the same time, he was working on another project – the transcription of Aeschylus’s collected dramas. It was this “translating being” whom Goethe felt an affinity toward and to which end Goethe attempted to motivate the Swiss guest. Tobler commenced his work on Aeschylus in Weimar and completed it in Zurich the following winter. When he finished, he sent the remaining plays to Weimar. “The Suppliants” (“Die Flehenden”) and “The Libation Bearers” (“Die am Grabe Opfernden”) do still exist in second copy, although both originate from a copyist’s hand.

Falsely attributed authorship

Even in later years, Goethe remained interested in Tobler’s translations. In 1797, he borrowed five of the plays from the Ducal Library, where they were stored at the time, so that he could study them at leisure. Today the manuscripts are stored in the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv. Three dramas by Euripides, also stored in the archive, were presumably translated by Georg Christoph Tobler as well.

Although Tobler was the first to complete a German translation of Aeschylus’ complete works, the manuscripts have never been published. The translation of the play “Prometheus Unbound” (“Der befreite Prometheus”), which Wieland published in his "Teutscher Merkur" in 1782, was Tobler’s self-produced work. A play by Aeschylus of the same name once existed, but has been lost. Three of the Weimar texts are in circulation at several universities as photomechanical reprints dating back to 1970. However, an official edition of Tobler’s translations of Aeschylus does not exist today.

Unintentional posthumous fame

Tobler achieved posthumous fame, albeit unintentionally and without specific mention of his name. When the renowned journal "Nature" was first published in 1869, the first issue featured “Die Natur” – naturally “by Goethe”. The foreword was written by the evolutionary biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a comrade-in-arms to Charles Darwin and grandfather of Aldous Huxley, the author of the novel "Brave New World".  

He writes that he could think of “no more appropriate preface to a journal, the aim of which was to mirror that fashioning by nature of a picture of herself in the mind of man which is called the progress of science.” In this respect, Thomas Huxley was right – even if he didn’t know its true author: Georg Christoph Tobler.

PD Dr. Stefan Höppner is head of the MWW research project “Writers’ Libraries” based in Weimar.