Around Oxford Libraries

Faust in Oxford

by Jed Surio (MSt in Modern Languages)

Hermann Georg Fiedler’s bookplate staging himself in the scholar’s position with Goethe’s last words ‘more light’ as motto

Evanghélia Stead ‘Goethe’s Faust I outlined. Moritz Retzsch’s prints in circulation’ (open access available via Brill).

The seminar consisted of two sessions with Evanghelia Stead: on 25 October 2023 a lecture followed by a show-and-tell session making use of the vast material on ‘Faust’ and ‘Werther’ brought together by Prof. Hermann Fiedler (186 results for the search query ‘Fiedler*’ for shelfmark and ‘Faust’ for topic on SOLO) and on 27 October 2023 a presentation at the Weston Library, mainly of material from the Douce collection.

Session 1

This past week, we had the incredible privilege of hearing comparative literature Professor and book historian Evanghelia Stead talk about her research on Goethe’s Faust — one of the most prominent literary and theatrical works to come from Germany. Fittingly surrounded by the countless books and manuscripts of the Taylorian, Evanghelia’s presentation reminded us about the mutability of stories, the wonders of printed matter, and most importantly, how material books and prints can serve as cultural objects. 

As Evanghelia introduced both her talk and publication with the following quote from Shelley, it seems only appropriate to mention it in this blog post as well:

What etchings those are! I am never satiated with looking at them, and, I fear it is the only sort of translation of which Faust is susceptible — I never perfectly understood the Har[t]z Mountain scene, until I saw the etching. — And then, Margaret in the summer house with Faust! — The artist makes one envy his happiness that he can sketch such things with calmness, which I dared only look upon once, and which made my brain swim round only to touch the leaf on the opposite side of which I knew it was figured. — Whether it is that the artist has surpassed Faust, or that the pencil surpasses language in some subjects, I know not; or that I am more affected by a visible image — but the etching certainly excited me here more than the poem it illustrated.

The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones,
Oxford, At the Clarendon Press, 1964, vol. II, n° 697
[12 avril 1822] to John Gisborne

I am sure that we have all, at one point or another, felt a little bit like Shelley. There certainly must have been a time when we could not fully grasp a narrative or concept until we saw an accompanying image or illustration. Think, for instance, about when you used to read illustrated books as a child. Even if you did not understand all the words on the page, you could still get a good sense of what was happening in the narrative because of the amusing pictures. The images likely even helped you to feel much more connected to the story and more excited about reading the book.

In her presentation, Evanghelia expanded on this sentiment and discussed how images helped to shape the reception of Goethe’s Faust, particularly among readers in three primary cultural centres: Germany, France, and England. By studying the various printed versions and editions of the iconic German play, she concluded that the original prints and their copies contributed to the admiration and imaginative aura surrounding the original work.

various editions of Goethe’s Faust published in France

The spread of Goethe’s Faust across Europe begins, of course, with the play itself. However, it is through prints that the work became activated to readers who had never seen it performed in person. With these illustrations, Goethe’s story crossed borders, languages, and cultures, and this helped to welcome it into the literary canon. As Evanghelia noted, the German artist Moritz Retzsch, created a sequence of plates published in 1816 that essentially acted as diplomats for Goethe’s play. The word “diplomat” here might seem like an unusual metaphor at first for a physical item, but they truly were ambassadors of the original story. The plates contained no words nor captions — only relatively simple outlines of significant moments from the play. Yet, they were able to introduce readers to Goethe’s Faust, and they even offered a substantial synopsis of the narrative. This can be seen in plates such as Plate 21: 

In the centre of the composition, Retzsch depicts two characters engaged in an intense interaction. Look around them and you will notice that they are on a mountaintop surrounded by various plants and animals. Look a little closer, particularly towards the sky, and you will find several curious figures. These are witches flying on broomsticks. Retzsch offers us a picture of animated nature while Faust and Mephistopheles climb towards the Brocken on the Walpurgis night.

Despite the lack of text in the composition, much information is provided to the viewer. It is very clearly a pivotal part of the plot. It also shows that the characters are perhaps in a new setting — one that offers the protagonist more unknown challenges. 

The images also functioned as a type of translator. Retzsch’s outlines were free from unnecessary embellishment, and they were easily adapted by various illustrators and printmakers across Europe. In 1820, for example, the engraver Henry Moses in London created copies of the print above:

Although it includes text under the composition (which is certainly a notable change) the print displays much fidelity to the original print. In other works produced in Europe during the 19th century, some changes became more noticeable during the reproduction process. In the image below, for instance, you can see changes in the character’s facial expressions:

A detail from pl. 4, copied and circulated

Ultimately, Evanghelia’s research is about the comparisons of objects that are often thought of to be the same. She looks at big and small differences among the editions of Faust, and she uses these to learn more about the visual and literary culture of 19th-century Europe. Go ahead and watch the clips below to hear some more of Evanghelia’s wonderful insights on this topic:

discussion of Retzsch’s use of outlines

English and French translations
Influence on theatre, stage design and visual culture

After the presentation, the History of the Book students tried to step into Evanghelia’s shoes. Laid out before us were various printed editions of Goethe’s Faust and Werther from the Taylorian’s collection. Each student picked up a book, and we began to investigate them. We tried to figure out the probable audience of our books — all while keeping an eye out for the differences between each printed copy.

The books were a mix of German as well as English and French translations, and each one had its own unique feature. What could this tell us about the printing culture of its place of origin? How does this contribute to our understanding about the play’s reception? Did German books need less images because German audiences were already familiar with the story of Faust? These are some of the questions that we considered while we looked through our books. And, while we could not be entirely sure of the answers, one thing was certainly clear: these are not simply old books with pretty illustrations. Rather, they are deceptively complex items and highly important cultural objects

A translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Werther translated into English and published in Ireland with a frontispiece

Session 2

To cap off the week of Faust-mania at Oxford, Evanghelia also gave an abridged version of her presentation at the Weston Library Coffee Morning. Watch her full recorded presentation here: 


  • The shelfmarks for the Faust material from the sessions are as follows:

Faust in the Taylorian

Retzsch’s illustration of Faust

Faust in Translation

  • Faustus: from the German of Goethe. London: Boosey and Sons, 4, Broad-Street, Exchange, and Rodwell & Martin, New Bond-Street. 1821, viii, 86, [2] pages, 27 leaves of plates: illustrations ; 28 cm Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.L.930 and Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.J.860 digitised for Google Books from this copy

Retzsch’s illustration of Schiller

Other Faust illustrations

Additional Faust Material

  • Taylor Institution Main Library – X.OUT.C.19 (Pt. 1)
    Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Anster, John, 1793-1867, 1890 | London
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.J.867.1
    Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Anster, John, 1793-1867. | Clork, Harry. sic for Clarke 1925 | London : G. G. Harrap | 253 p., [21] leaves of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 28 cm
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.J.854 
    Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Binding, Rudolf Georg, 1867-1938. (1924) | (Frankfurt a.M.)
  • Taylor Institution Library 39.F.18
    Faust : eine Tragödie Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Seibertz, Engelbert, 1813-1905. 1854-58 | Stuttgart : Cotta | 2 v. in 1. illus., plates. 43 cm.
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.J.839
    Faust : eine Tragödie Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Seibertz, Engelbert, 1813-1905. 1864 | Stuttgart : T. G. Cotta | 245 p., [21] leaves of plates : ill. ; 25 cm.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers.

  • Taylor FIEDLER.ADDS.II.B.61
    Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Dunker, Balthasar Anton, 1746-1807. 1775 | Bern : Bei Beat Ludwig Valthard | 188 p. : ill. ; 16 cm.
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.ADDS.II.B.82 (v. 1-2 in 1)
    Die Leiden des jungen Werthers Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. 1775 | Zweyte ächte Auflage | Leipzig Weygand | 2 v. (224 p.) ; 8vo
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.ADDS.II.A.55 v.1
    Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.ADDS.II.A.56 v.2 
    Werther Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. 1784 | A Maestricht : Chez Jean-Edme Dufour & Philippe Roux | 2 v. ; 17 cm.
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.J.970 (2 v. in 1)
    The sorrows of Werther : a German story. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Chamberlaine, H., printer. [1785?] | Dublin : Printed by H. Chamberlaine, N⁰.5, College-Green. | 2v. : ill ; 12⁰.
  • Taylor Institution Library VET.GER.II.A.104 v.1
    Taylor Institution Library VET.GER.II.A.105 v.2
    Gli affani del Giovane Verter Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Ludger, Corrado. 1788 | Londra : Per T. Hookham … | 2 v. ; 17cm. (8vo)`
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.J.1041
    The sorrows of Werter : a German story Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Harrison and Co. (London, England), publisher. | Aubry, Philippe Charles, 1744-1812. | Gifford, John, 1758-1818. MDCCLXXXIX | London : Printed for Harrison and Co., no. 18, Paternoster-Row | 74 p. : ill. ; 4⁰
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.J.950(1)
    The sorrows of Werter : a German story. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Malthus, Daniel. [ca. 1820] | A new edition. | London : Printed for the booksellers ; York : For J. Kendrew | 131 p. : front. ; 14 cm.
  • Taylor Institution Library VET.GER.III.A.602
    Die Leiden des jungen Werther. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. 1825 | Neue Ausgabe, von dem Dichter selbst eingeleitet. | Leipzig : Weygandsche Buchhandlung | [viii], 272 p. [Kupfer]. 8vo.
  • Taylor Institution Library VET.GER.III.C.50
    Werther Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Leroux, Pierre, 1797-1871. | Sand, George, 1804-1876. | Johannot, Tony, 1803-1852. 1845 | Paris : J. Hetzel | lii, [2], 196 [1] p., [10] leaves of plates : ill. ; 27 cm.
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.J.941
    Die Leiden des jungen Werther. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. 1911 | Leipzig : Insel-Verlag | 213 p. illus., plates.
  • Taylor Institution Library FIEDLER.ADDS.IV.A.1
    Die Leiden des jungen Werther. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. 1919 | 5. Aufl. | Leipzig : Insel-Verlag | 210 [1] p. illus. (part fold). 17 cm.
  • Taylor Institution Library Main Library – EO.873.A.3
    Die Leiden des jungen Werthers Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Branca, Gerhard, Freiherr von, 1885- 1922 | Faksimile-Druck der 1. Ausg. von 1774 nach dem Handexemplar der Herzogin Anna Amalia. | Weimar : Lichtenstein | 299 p., [16] leaves of plates ; 16 cm.
  • Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection Books – BT.GOE7 – 5WER-S – C9
    Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. | Rose, William, 1894-1961. 1929 | London : The Scholartis Press | xiv p., 1 l., 126 p. : plates ; 28 cm

Faust in the Bodleian

  • Umrisse zu Goethe’s Faust. [26 plates, with letterpress. 2 pt.]. – Douce Prints d.9: beginning with bound-in letterpress brochure
  • Umrisse zu Goethe’s Faust. [26 plates, with letterpress. 2 pt.] – Vet. D6 b.2, both plates and letterpress brochure and portfolio wrapper with the tongue-shaped tip above the slit
  • Retsch’s series of twenty-six outlines, illustrative of Goethe’s tragedy of Faust
  • Retzsch, Moritz, 1779-1857. | Moses, Henry, 1782?-1870. | Boosey and Sons, bookseller. | Rodwell & Martin publisher. | Wilson, William, active 1799-1827, printer. 1820 | Dunston F 88 partial translation and plates open at the very 1st one before the one captioned “Introduction”
  • Faust, 26 gravures d’après les dessins de Retsch – Douce RR 51* open at illustrated cover Retzsch’s Outlines to Goethe’s Faust. – Douce RR 51 open at pl. 1

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