Goethe and the Ginkgo A Tree and a Poem
by Siegfried Unseld, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott
University of Chicago Press, 2003
Cloth: 978-0-226-84194-6 | Electronic: 978-0-226-84195-3


In 1815, Goethe gave symbolic expression to his intense relationship with Marianne Willemer, a recently married woman thirty-five years his junior. He gave her a leaf from the ginkgo tree, explaining that, like its deeply cleft yet still whole leaf, he was "single yet twofold." Although it is not known if their relationship was ever consummated, they did exchange love poetry, and Goethe published several of Marianne's poems in his West-East Divan without crediting her authorship.

In this beautiful little book, renowned Goethe scholar Siegfried Unseld considers what this episode means to our estimation of a writer many consider nearly godlike in stature. Unseld begins by exploring the botanical and medical lore of the ginkgo, including the use of its nut as an aphrodisiac and anti-aging serum. He then delves into Goethe's writings for the light they shed on his relationship with Marianne. Unseld reveals Goethe as a great yet human being, subject, as any other man, to the vagaries of passion.


Siegfried Unseld (1924-2002) was the publisher of Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt for fifty years. He was also a scholar of German literature and wrote four books on Goethe, including Goethe and His Publishers, published in translation by the University of Chicago Press.

Kenneth J. Northcott is a professor emeritus of German at the University of Chicago. He has translated many books, among them Thomas Bernhard's The Voice Imitator, Histrionics, and  Three Novellas, all published by the University of Chicago Press.


Translator’s Note

- Siegfried Unseld
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226841953.003.0001
[ginkgo, Goethe, Marianne Willemer, German writer, universal significance, hope]
This chapter describes the ginkgo, a tree whose leaf German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave to Marianne Willemer in September 1815 as a symbol of his loving affection. Some research shows that the ginkgo may be the oldest tree on our planet. It has fan-shaped leaves, is pest resistant, and is undemanding with respect to climate. Botanically, is cannot be classified because it is neither coniferous nor deciduous, although it represents a single family with many varieties of fossil. The chapter suggests that the ginkgo has become a new symbol of universal significance, a symbol of the invincibility of hope in our time. (pages 1 - 18)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Siegfried Unseld
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226841953.003.0002
[Goethe, Marianne Willemer, ginkgo leaf, Johann Jakob Willemer, West-östlicher Divan, lyrical work]
This chapter provides an account of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave a ginkgo leaf to Marianne Willemer on September 15, 1815. It explains that on this day that Goethe met with his friends, including Johann Jakob Willemer with his wife Marianne, and sent a ginkgo leaf with the idea “that I am single and twofold” to the latter. The chapter also suggests that Marianne provided inspiration for Goethe because it was after this event that the German writer completed West-östlicher Divan, the only full-length lyrical work that Goethe himself published during his lifetime. (pages 19 - 70)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Siegfried Unseld
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226841953.003.0003
[ginkgo, literature, Goethe, Frederic Schnack, Peter Handke]
This chapter discusses the depiction of the ginkgo in recent literature, explaining that the ginkgo has become part of literature because of its association with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It discusses works related to the ginkgo, including Frederic Schnack's poem about Goethe's mystical signature with reference to the ginkgo, Peter Handke's essay Versuch über den geglückten Tag, and Joseph Beuy's gingko sculptures. (pages 71 - 79)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online


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