J.W. von Goethe (17491832). The Sorrows of Werther.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticism and Interpretation
By Thomas Carlyle
BY degrees, however, after not a little suffering in many hard contests with himself and his circumstances, Goethe began to emerge from these troubles: light dawned on his course; and his true destination, a life of literature, became more and more plain to him. His first efforts were crowned with a success well calculated to confirm him in such purposes. Götz von Berlichingen, an historical drama of the Feudal Ages, appeared in 1773; by the originality both of its subject and its execution, attracting the public eye to the young author: and next year his Sorrows of Werther rose like a literary meteor on the world; and carried his name on its blazing wings, not only over Germany, but into the remotest corners of Europe. The chief incident of this work had been suggested by a tragical catastrophe, which had occurred in his neighbourhood, during a residence at Wetzlar: the emotions and delineations which give life to it; the vague impassioned longing, the moody melancholy, the wayward love and indignation, the soft feeling and the stern philosophy, which characterize the hero, he had drawn from his own past or actual experience.
The works just mentioned, though noble specimens of youthful talent, are still not so much distinguished by their intrinsic merits, as by their splendid fortune. It would be difficult to name two books which have exercised a deeper influence on the subsequent literature of Europe than these two performances of a young author; his first fruits, the produce of his twenty-fourth year. Werther appeared to seize the hearts of men in all quarters of the world, and to utter for them the word which they had long been waiting to hear. As usually happens, too, this same word once uttered was soon abundantly repeated; spoken in all dialects, and chanted through all the notes of the gamut, till at length the sound of it had grown a weariness rather than a pleasure. Sceptical sentimentality, view-hunting, love, friendship, suicide, and desperation, became the staple of literary ware; and though the epidemic, after a long course of years, subsided in Germany, it reappeared with various modifications in other countries; and everywhere abundant traces of its good and bad effects are still to be discerned.
But overlooking these spiritual genealogies, which bring little certainty and little profit, it may be sufficient to observe of Berlichingen and Werther, that they stand prominent among the causes, or, at the very least, among the signals, of a great change in modern Literature. The former directed mens attention with a new force to the picturesque effects of the Past; and the latter, for the first time, attempted the more accurate delineation of a class of feelings, deeply important to modern minds; but for which our elder poetry offered no exponent, and perhaps could offer none, because they are feelings that arise from passion incapable of being converted into action, and belong chiefly to an age as indolent, cultivated, and unbelieving, as our own. This, notwithstanding the dash of falsehood which may exist in Werter itself, and the boundless delirium of extravagance which it called forth in others, is a high praise which cannot justly be denied it.From German Romance (1827).