The Personification of Nature and Connections with Women in Goethe's Italian Journey

Bethany Ensslin

The non-fiction text Italian Journey, by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, contains several references to nature and landscape during the various Italian travels and nature is often viewed in a personified and feminine context. Nature is found with a capital N at the beginning of the word in almost every occasion where it is presented and Goethe seems to be presenting the reader with a personified being rather than just an inanimate entity. For Goethe, nature is a complex entity which he is in awe of, yet seeks to understand how nature presents itself and his role within it. One passage indicates an element of competition in the relationship with nature, as seen on p.310 where Goethe believes that "Nature herself shall envy" him for discovering the primal plant. Despite this example, nature is presented as the superior being in many instances, with descriptions of awe-inspiring features such as Mt. Etna (not surprisingly, a feminine name). Goethe has a great amount of respect for nature, as one is aware in quotes such as "Nature is, indeed, the only book whose every page is filled with important content (196)." The complexities of nature are presented with quotes such as "my assiduous preoccupations in the general nature of Nature (441)" and "in Nature the eye is as deceived as ours had been (391)," thus illustrating the ambiguity of clearly understanding the works of nature and the natural world. Personification is sometimes used to bring human characteristics to things that are difficult to understand, and perhaps for Goethe, personifying nature in a feminine context allows him to gain an understanding of his role as a viewer of nature. The many references to women in the text reveals Goethe's interest in and preoccupation with women, for instance "people with beautiful figures can be found everywhere (316)," and Goethe's viewing of women during his travels seems to be equally important to the viewing of nature, art, science and cultures. Goethe views nature as a sort of muse figure at times (who are always feminine figures), as he gains inspiration for his drawing and writing from both participating in nature and viewing picturesque scenery. Nature is personified in a feminine context in both indirect and direct manners. In the direct sense, nature is seen as a figure of feminine beauty, grace and fertility, all characteristics which were seen as the embodiment of females in the Romantic period, as noted further within the class presentation. The qualities which Goethe bestows upon nature are similar to the qualities which he feels that women encountered along his travels possess. The example "And what beautiful faces and figures they have (69)" is just one of several references to the beauty of women, which Goethe makes explicit notes of each time he encounters a group of people. Several instances in the text portray nature as possessing similar qualities: "The many-colored fruits and flowers which Nature adorns herself (323)" and "Nature has been at work in her joyous mood (322)." One theory for the attribution of female characteristics to nature is that during travel, males (especially those who travel in an individual manner) are still subconsciously looking for a partner. Therefore the viewing of nature in a feminine context would parallel the desire for finding a mate (I believe this was the book by Oerlemans which we used for our presentation; however I couldn't locate the book for this reference). This theory can be applied to Italian Journey in that Goethe had left behind an affair in Germany and was around middle age (late 30's) and so would likely be thinking about a prospective romance.

Nature is represented as a "Mother Earth" figure in the quotes "they (Italians) are the children of nature (145)" and "Nature has provided for all her children (173)." These references seem to provide Goethe with a closer understanding of the role of culture in nature, as he associates people as being equal under nature: "even the least of them is not hindered in his existence by the existence of the greatest (173)." Another reference to Mother Nature is in the quote "destined by Nature to universal fertility (278)" when Goethe is viewing a densely cultivated valley. The personification of nature as the mother figure indicates a sort of matrilineal hierarchy with nature being able to provide for all the living and non-living parts of the landscape. As discussed in our presentation, the references to feminine reproductive images such as fertility and bounty could symbolize a parallel between the continuity of the seasons in nature and the continuity of life, as the changing and repetition of the seasons can be viewed on a similar scale as the life cycle.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines Mother Nature as "the personification of nature as a powerful and nurturing woman (reference)" and Mother Nature can also be seen as a figure of power in the text. This idea is supported by the quote "After all, what had we seen but the hopeless struggle of men with the violence of nature (302)" in reference to Goethe's thoughts on his Sicilian trip. Other references include the volcanic activity of Mt. Vesuvius ("thousands of stones, large and small, and enveloped in clouds of ash, were launched into the air") (193) and the power and fury of the sea during a storm ("the sea was high and the boat tossed and rolled") (225).

The connection between nature and women can also be viewed in an indirect sense during several examples in the text; though the connection is not as explicit as when there was a direct comparison. Although these connections can be interpreted in several ways, it can be argued that even when nature is not directly personified as female, Goethe makes a connection by associating the presence of nature with the presence of females. The first example of this is near the beginning of the text as Goethe is traveling through a natural setting and suddenly meets a woman selling pears and peaches (37). Though this sighting was probably not uncommon for the country, the reference to the woman almost seems attached to the end of the passage about traveling in the countryside. A second example of the connections occurs in Naples, as Goethe is contemplating the acts of nature and the acts of men (this is the only instance where the word nature occurs with a lower case N). As Goethe is lost in thought and viewing experience, he is suddenly interrupted by the presence of a woman: "I was called back to myself by the presence of an amiable young lady who is accustomed to receive attentions and is not indifferent to them (188)." Similar to the previous example, the viewing of a woman is so closely linked temporally to the viewing of nature so that one cannot help but assume a connection. The next example occurs in Naples where Goethe and his friend and traveling partner Kniep are standing on a balcony overlooking a beautiful view of the lower part of the city (219). As they are enjoying the view, they are interrupted by the presence of Kniep's love interest, described with references to her incredible beauty. The connection between nature and women is captured in the quote "I was glad to see my new friend so happy under this wonderful sky and in view of the loveliest landscape in the world (219)." Another example occurs during Goethe's stay in Sicily when he is at Monte Pellegrino viewing Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo (233-5). Among the references to the natural landscape of Monte Pellegrino occur the descriptions of the statue, which appear to the reader like descriptions of a real woman rather than an inanimate object: "I saw a beautiful woman who seemed to be reclining in a kind of ecstasy (234)." The final example occurs near the end of the novel when Goethe tries to console himself in nature after he learns out that a young lady he is interested in is being married (411).

The five examples which have just been explored serve as proof for the argument that although Goethe does not directly refer to nature as being female, the presence of nature and the presence of women are connected in an indirect sense as they occur quite close together in the passages. Therefore it can be argued that Goethe is making an implicit connection between nature and women and suggesting a parallel between the viewing of nature and the viewing of women. For Goethe, perhaps there is an overlap between the two entities and his appreciation of nature parallels his appreciation for the various women of different cultures he encounters during his travels. The indirect and direct personifications of nature in a feminine context (a context which Goethe understands and appreciates) allow him to gain a better understanding of his relationship with nature.

Sources Used

1) Von Goethe, J.W. Italian Journey. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1962.

2) Houghton Mifflin Co. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 2000. accessed 2/19/2005.