J.W. von Goethe (17491832). The Sorrows of Werther.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Book II: Paras. 5092
At first the peasant-lad answered my inquiries with a sort of subdued melancholy, which seemed to me the mark of a timid disposition; but as we grew to understand each other, he spoke with less reserve, and openly confessed his faults, and lamented his misfortune. I wish, my dear friend, I could give proper expression to his language. He told me, with a sort of pleasurable recollection, that after my departure his passion for his mistress increased daily, until at last he neither knew what he did nor what he said, nor what was to become of him. He could neither eat nor drink nor sleep: he felt a sense of suffocation; he disobeyed all orders, and forgot all commands involuntarily; he seemed as if pursued by an evil spirit, till one day, knowing that his mistress had gone to an upper chamber, he had followed, or rather, been drawn after her. As she proved deaf to his entreaties, he had recourse to violence. He knows not what happened; but he called God to witness that his intentions to her were honourable, and that he desired nothing more sincerely than that they should marry, and pass their lives together. When he had come to this point, he began to hesitate, as if there was something which he had not courage to utter, till at length he acknowledged with some confusion certain little confidences she had encouraged, and liberties she had allowed.
He broke off two or three times in his narration, and assured me most earnestly that he had no wish to make her bad, as he termed it, for he loved her still as sincerely as ever; that the tale had never before escaped his lips, and was only now told to convince me that he was not utterly lost and abandoned. And here, my dear friend, I must commence the old song which you know I utter eternally. If I could only represent the man as he stood, and stands now before me,could I only give his true expressions, you would feel compelled to sympathise in his fate. But enough: you, who know my misfortune and my disposition, can easily comprehend the attraction which draws me towards every unfortunate being, but particularly towards him whose story I have recounted.
On perusing this letter a second time, I find I have omitted the conclusion of my tale; but it is easily supplied. She became reserved towards him, at the instigation of her brother who had long hated him, and desired his expulsion from the house, fearing that his sisters second marriage might deprive his children of the handsome fortune they expected from her; as she is childless. He was dismissed at length; and the whole affair occasioned so much scandal that the mistress dared not take him back, even if she had wished it. She has since hired another servant, with whom, they say, her brother is equally displeased, and whom she is likely to marry; but my informant assures me that he himself is determined not to survive such a catastrophe.
This love, then, this constancy, this passion, is no poetical fiction. It is actual, and dwells in its greatest purity amongst that class of mankind whom we term rude, uneducated. We are the educated, not the perverted! But read this story with attention, I implore you. I am tranquil to-day, for I have been employed upon this narration: you see by my writing that I am not so agitated as usual. Read and reread this tale, Wilhelm: it is the history of your friend! My fortune has been and will be similar; and I am neither half so brave nor half so determined as the poor wretch with whom I hesitate to compare myself.
Charlotte had written a letter to her husband in the country, where he was detained by business. It commenced, My dearest love, return as soon as possible: I await you with a thousand raptures. A friend who arrived, brought word that, for certain reasons, he could not return immediately. Charlottes letter was not forwarded, and the same evening it fell into my hands. I read it, and smiled. She asked the reason. What a heavenly treasure is imagination! I exclaimed; I fancied for a moment that this was written to me.
It cost me much to part with the blue coat which I wore the first time I danced with Charlotte. But I could not possibly wear it any longer. But I have ordered a new one, precisely similar, even to the collar and sleeves, as well as a new waistcoat and pantaloons.
A canary at the moment flew from a mirror, and settled upon her shoulder. Here is a new friend, she observed, while she made him perch upon her hand: he is a present for the children. What a dear he is! Look at him! When I feed him, he flutters with his wings, and pecks so nicely. He kisses me, too,only look!
I turned my face away. She should not act thus. She ought not to excite my imagination with such displays of heavenly innocence and happiness, nor awaken my heart from its slumbers, in which it dreams of the worthlessness of life! And why not? Because she knows how much I love her.
It makes me wretched, Wilhelm, to think that there should be men incapable of appreciating the few things which possess a real value in life. You remember the walnut-trees at S, under which I used to sit with Charlotte, during my visits to the worthy old vicar. Those glorious trees, the very sight of which has so often filled my heart with joy, how they adorned and refreshed the parsonage-yard, with their wide-extended branches! and how pleasing was our remembrance of the good old pastor, by whose hands they were planted so many years ago! The schoolmaster has frequently mentioned his name. He had it from his grandfather. He must have been a most excellent man; and, under the shade of those old trees, his memory was ever venerated by me.
The schoolmaster informed us yesterday, with tears in his eyes, that those trees had been felled. Yes, cut to the ground! I could, in my wrath, have slain the monster who struck the first stroke. And I must endure this!I, who, if I had had two such trees in my own court, and one had died from old age, should have wept with real affliction. But there is some comfort left,such a thing is sentiment,the whole village murmurs at the misfortune; and I hope the vicars wife will soon find, by the cessation of the villagers # presents, how much she has wounded the feelings of the neighbourhood. It was she who did it,the wife of the present incumbent (our good old man is dead),a tall, sickly creature, who is so far right to disregard the world as the world totally disregards her. The silly being affects to be learned, pretends to examine the canonical books, lends her aid towards the new-fashioned reformation of Christendom, moral and critical, and shrugs up her shoulders at the mention of Lavaters enthusiasm. Her health is destroyed, on account of which she is prevented from having any enjoyment here below. Only such a creature could have cut down my walnut-trees! I can never pardon it. Hear her reasons. The falling leaves made the court wet and dirty; the branches obstructed the light; boys threw stones at the nuts when they were ripe, and the noise affected her nerves, and disturbed her profound meditations, when she was weighing the difficulties of Kennicot, Semler, and Michaels. Finding that all the parish, particularly the old people, were displeased, I asked why they allowed it. Ah, sir! they replied, when the steward orders, what can we poor peasants do? But one thing has happened well. The steward and the vicar (who for once thought to reap some advantage from the caprices of his wife) intended to divide the trees between them. The revenue-office, being informed of it, revived an old claim to the ground where the trees had stood, and sold them to the best bidder. There they still lie on the ground. If I were the sovereign, I should know how to deal with them all,vicar, steward, and revenue-office. Sovereign, did I say? I should in that case care little about the trees that grew in the country.
Only to gaze upon her dark eyes is to me a source of happiness! And what grieves me is that Albert does not seem so happy as hehoped to beas I should have beenifI am no friend to these pauses, but here I cannot express it otherwise; and probably I am explicit enough.
Ossian has superseded Homer in my heart. To what a world does the illustrious bard carry me! To wander over pathless wilds, surrounded by impetuous whirlwinds, where, by the feeble light of the moon, we see the spirits of our ancestors; to hear from the mountain-tops, mid the roar of torrents, their plaintive sounds issuing from deep caverns, and the sorrowful lamentations of a maiden who sighs and expires on the mossy tomb of the warrior by whom she was adored. I meet this bard with silver hair; he wanders in the valley; he seeks the footsteps of his fathers, and, alas! he finds only their tombs. Then, contemplating the pale moon, as she sinks beneath the waves of the rolling sea, the memory of bygone days strikes the mind of the hero,days when approaching danger invigorated the brave, and the moon shone upon his bark laden with spoils, and returning in triumph. When I read in his countenance deep sorrow, when I see his dying glory sink exhausted into the grave, as he inhales new and heart-thrilling delight from his approaching union with his beloved, and he casts a look on the cold earth and the tall grass which is so soon to cover him, and then exclaims, The traveller will come,he will come who has seen my beauty, and he will ask, Where is the bard,where is the illustrious son of Fingal? He will walk over my tomb, and will seek me in vain! Then, O my friend, I could instantly, like a true and noble knight, draw my sword, and deliver my prince from the long and painful languor of a living death, and dismiss my own soul to follow the demigod whom my hand had set free!
Yes, I feel certain, Wilhelm, and every day I become more certain, that the existence of any being whatever is of very little consequence. A friend of Charlottes called to see her just now. I withdrew into a neighbouring apartment, and took up a book; but, finding I could not read, I sat down to write. I heard them converse in an undertone: they spoke upon indifferent topics, and retailed the news of the town. One was going to be married; another was ill, very ill,she had a dry cough, her face was growing thinner daily, and she had occasional fits. N is very unwell, too, said Charlotte. His limbs begin to swell already, answered the other; and my lively imagination carried me at once to the beds of the infirm. There I see them struggling against death, with all the agonies of pain and horror; and these women, Wilhelm, talk of all this with as much indifference as one would mention the death of a stranger. And when I look around the apartment where I now am,when I see Charlottes apparel lying before me, and Alberts writings, and all those articles of furniture which are so familiar to me, even to the very inkstand which I am using,when I think what I am to this familyeverything. My friends esteem me; I often contribute to their happiness, and my heart seems as if it could not beat without them; and yetif I were to die, if I were to be summoned from the midst of this circle, would they feelor how long would they feelthe void which my loss would make in their existence? How long! Yes, such is the frailty of man, that even there, where he has the greatest consciousness of his own being, where he makes the strongest and most forcible impression, even in the memory, in the heart of his beloved, there also he must perish,vanish,and that quickly.
I could tear open my bosom with vexation to think how little we are capable of influencing the feelings of each other. No one can communicate to me those sensations of love, joy, rapture, and delight which I do not naturally possess; and though my heart may glow with the most lively affection, I cannot make the happiness of one in whom the same warmth is not inherent.
One hundred times have I been on the point of embracing her. Heavens! what a torment it is to see so much loveliness passing and repassing before us, and yet not dare to lay hold of it! And laying hold is the most natural of human instincts. Do not children touch everything they see? And I!
Witness, Heaven, how often I lie down in my bed with a wish, and even a hope, that I may never awaken again! And in the morning, when I open my eyes, I behold the sun once more, and am wretched. If I were whimsical, I might blame the weather, or an acquaintance, or some personal disappointment, for my discontented mind; and then this insupportable load of trouble would not rest entirely upon myself. But, alas! I feel it too sadly; I am alone the cause of my own woe, am I not? Truly, my own bosom contains the source of all my pleasure. Am I not the same being who once enjoyed an excess of happiness, who at every step saw paradise open before him, and whose heart was ever expanded towards the whole world? And this heart is now dead; no sentiment can revive it. My eyes are dry; and my senses, no more refreshed by the influence of soft tears, wither and consume my brain. I suffer much, for I have lost the only charm of life: that active, sacred power which created worlds around me,it is no more. When I look from my window at the distant hills, and behold the morning sun breaking through the mists, and illuminating the country around, which is still wrapped in silence, whilst the soft stream winds gently through the willows, which have shed their leaves; when glorious Nature displays all her beauties before me, and her wondrous prospects are ineffectual to extract one tear of joy from my withered heart,I feel that in such a moment I stand like a reprobate before heaven, hardened, insensible, and unmoved. Oftentimes do I then bend my knee to the earth, and implore God for the blessing of tears, as the desponding labourer in some scorching climate prays for the dews of heaven to moisten his parched corn.
But I feel that God does not grant sunshine or rain to our importunate entreaties. And oh, those bygone days, whose memory now torments me! why were they so fortunate? Because I then waited with patience for the blessings of the Eternal, and received his gifts with the grateful feelings of a thankful heart.
Charlotte has reproved me for my excesses, with so much tenderness and goodness! I have lately been in the habit of drinking more wine than heretofore. Dont do it, she said; think of Charlotte! Think of you! I answered; need you bid me do so? Think of youI do not think of you: you are ever before my soul! This very morning I sat on the spot where, a few days ago, you descended from the carriage, and She immediately changed the subject to prevent me from pursuing it farther. My dear friend, my energies are all prostrated; she can do with me what she pleases.
I thank you, Wilhelm, for your cordial sympathy, for your excellent advice; and I implore you to be quiet. Leave me to my sufferings. In spite of my wretchedness, I have still strength enough for endurance. I revere religion,you know I do. I feel that it can impart strength to the feeble and comfort to the afflicted; but does it affect all men equally? Consider this vast universe: you will see thousands for whom it has never existed, thousands for whom it will never exist, whether it be preached to them or not; and must it, then, necessarily exist for me? Does not the Son of God himself say that they are his whom the Father has given to him? Have I been given to Him? What if the Father will retain me for himself, as my heart sometimes suggests? I pray you, do not misinterpret this. Do not extract derision from my harmless words. I pour out my whole soul before you. Silence were otherwise preferable to me, but I need not shrink from a subject of which few know more than I do myself. What is the destiny of man, but to fill up the measure of his sufferings, and to drink his allotted cup of bitterness? And if that same cup proved bitter to the God of heaven, under a human form, why should I affect a foolish pride, and call it sweet? Why should I be ashamed of shrinking at that fearful moment when my whole being will tremble between existence and annihilation; when a remembrance of the past, like a flash of lightning, will illuminate the dark gulf of futurity; when everything shall dissolve around me, and the whole world vanish away? Is not this the voice of a creature oppressed beyond all resource, self-deficient, about to plunge into inevitable destruction, and groaning deeply at its inadequate strength: My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me? And should I feel ashamed to utter the same expression? Should I not shudder at a prospect which had its fears even for him who folds up the heavens like a garment?
She does not feel, she does not know that she is preparing a poison which will destroy us both; and I drink deeply of the draught which is to prove my destruction. What mean those looks of kindness with which she oftenoften? no, not often, but sometimesregards me, that complacency with which she hears the involuntary sentiments which frequently escape me, and the tender pity for my sufferings which appears in her countenance?
Yesterday, when I took leave, she seized me by the hand, and said, Adieu, dear Werther. Dear Werther! It was the first time she ever called me dear: the sound sunk deep into my heart. I have repeated it a hundred times; and last night, on going to bed, and talking to myself of various things, I suddenly said, Good night, dear Werther! and then could not but laugh at myself.
I cannot pray, Leave her to me! and yet she often seems to belong to me. I cannot pray, Give her to me! for she is anothers. In this way I affect mirth over my troubles; and if I had time, I could compose a whole litany of antitheses.
She is sensible of my sufferings. This morning her look pierced my very soul. I found her alone, and she was silent; she steadfastly surveyed me. I no longer saw in her face the charms of beauty or the fire of genius; these had disappeared. But I was affected by an expression much more touching,a look of the deepest sympathy and of the softest pity. Why was I afraid to throw myself at her feet? Why did I not dare to take her in my arms, and answer her by a thousand kisses? She had recourse to her piano for relief, and in a low and sweet voice accompanied the music with delicious sounds. Her lips never appeared so lovely: they seemed but just to open, that they might imbibe the sweet tones which issued from the instrument, and return the heavenly vibration from her lovely mouth. Oh, who can express my sensations! I was quite overcome, and bending down, pronounced this vow: Beautiful lips, which the angels guard, never will I seek to profane your purity with a kiss. And yet, my friend, oh, I wishbut my heart is darkened by doubt and indecisioncould I but taste felicity, and then die to expiate the sin! What sin?
Oftentimes I say to myself, Thou alone art wretched: all other mortals are happy; none are distressed like thee. Then I read a passage in an ancient poet, and I seem to understand my own heart! I have so much to endure! Have men before me ever been so wretched?
About dinner-time I went to walk by the river-side, for I had no appetite. Everything around seemed gloomy; a cold and damp easterly wind blew from the mountains, and black, heavy clouds spread over the plain. I observed at a distance a man in a tattered coat; he was wandering among the rocks, and seemed to be looking for plants. When I approached, he turned round at the noise; and I saw that he had an interesting countenance, in which a settled melancholy, strongly marked by benevolence, formed the principal feature. His long black hair was divided, and flowed over his shoulders. As his garb betokened a person of the lower order, I thought he would not take it ill if I inquired about his business; and I therefore asked what he was seeking. He replied, with a deep sigh, that he was looking for flowers, and could find none. But it is not the season, I observed, with a smile. Oh, there are so many flowers! he answered, as he came nearer to me. In my garden there are roses and honey-suckles of two sorts: one sort was given to me by my father; they grow as plentifully as weeds. I have been looking for them these two days, and cannot find them. There are flowers out there, yellow, blue, and red; and that centaury has a very pretty blossom: but I can find none of them. I observed his peculiarity, and therefore asked him, with an air of indifference, what he intended to do with his flowers. A strange smile overspread his countenance. Holding his finger to his mouth, he expressed a hope that I would not betray him; and he then informed me that he had promised to gather a nosegay for his mistress. That is right, said I. Oh! he replied, she possesses many other things as well; she is very rich. And yet, I continued, she likes your nosegays. Oh, she has jewels and crowns! he exclaimed. I asked who she was. If the states-general would but pay me, he added, I should be quite another man. Alas! there was a time when I was so happy; but that is past, and I am now He raised his swimming eyes to heaven. And you were happy once? I observed. Ah would I were so still! was his reply. I was then as gay and contented as a man can be. An old woman, who was coming towards us, now called out: Henry, Henry! where are you? We have been looking for you everywhere. Come to dinner. Is he your son? I inquired, as I went towards her. Yes, she said; he is my poor, unfortunate son. The Lord has sent me a heavy affliction. I asked whether he had been long in this state. She answered: He has been as calm as he is at present for about six months. I thank Heaven that he has so far recovered. He was for one whole year quite raving, and chained down in a madhouse. Now he injures no one, but talks of nothing else than kings and queens. He used to be a very good, quiet youth, and helped to maintain me; he wrote a very fine hand. But all at once he became melancholy, was seized with a violent fever, grew distracted, and is now as you see. If I were only to tell you, sir I interrupted her by asking what period it was in which he boasted of having been so happy. Poor boy! she exclaimed, with a smile of compassion, he means the time when he was completely deranged,a time he never ceases to regret,when he was in the madhouse, and unconscious of everything. I was thunderstruck. I placed a piece of money in her hand, and hastened away.
You were happy! I exclaimed, as I returned quickly to the town, as gay and contented as a man can be! God of heaven! and is this the destiny of man? Is he only happy before he has acquired his reason or after he has lost it? Unfortunate being! And yet I envy your fate; I envy the delusion to which you are a victim. You go forth with joy to gather flowers for your princess in winter, and grieve when you can find none, and cannot understand why they do not grow. But I wander forth without joy, without hope, without design; and I return as I came. You fancy what a man you would be if the states-general paid you. Happy mortal, who can ascribe your wretchedness to an earthly cause! You do not know, you do not feel, that in your own distracted heart and disordered brain dwells the source of that unhappiness which all the potentates on earth cannot relieve.
Let that man die unconsoled who can deride the invalid for undertaking a journey to distant, healthful springs,where he often finds only a heavier disease and a more painful death,or who can exult over the despairing mind of a sinner who, to obtain peace of conscience and an alleviation of misery, makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre. Each laborious step which galls his wounded feet in rough and untrodden paths pours a drop of balm into his troubled soul, and the journey of many a weary day brings a nightly relief to his anguished heart.
Will you dare call this enthusiasm, ye crowd of pompous declaimers? Enthusiasm? O God! thou seest my tears. Thou hast allotted us our portion of misery; must we also have brethren to persecute us, to deprive us of our consolation, of our trust in thee and in thy love and mercy? For our trust in the virtue of the healing root or in the strength of the vine,what is it else than a belief in thee, from whom all that surrounds us derives its healing and restoring powers. Father, whom I know not,who wert once wont to fill my soul, but who now hidest thy face from me,call me back to thee; be silent no longer! Thy silence shall not delay a soul which thirsts after thee. What man, what father, could be angry with a son for returning to him suddenly, for falling on his neck, and exclaiming, I am here again, my father! Forgive me if I have anticipated my journey, and returned before the appointed time! The world is everywhere the same,a scene of labour and pain, of pleasure and reward; but what does it all avail? I am happy only where thou art, and in thy presence am I content to suffer or enjoy. And wouldst thou, Heavenly Father, banish such a child from thy presence?
Wilhelm, the man about whom I wrote to you,that man so enviable in his misfortunes,was secretary to Charlottes father; and an unhappy passion for her, which he cherished, concealed, and at length discovered, caused him to be dismissed from his situation. This made him mad. Think, whilst you peruse this plain narration, what an impression the circumstance has made upon me! But it was related to me by Albert with as much calmness as you will probably peruse it.
I implore your attention. It is all over with me. I can support this state no longer. To-day I was sitting by Charlotte. She was playing upon her piano a succession of delightful melodies, with such intense expression! Her little sister was dressing her doll upon my lap. The tears came into my eyes. I leaned down, and looked intently at her wedding-ring; my tears fell-immediately she began to play that favourite, that divine air which has so often enchanted me. I felt comfort from a recollection of the past, of those bygone days when that air was familiar to me; and then I recalled all the sorrows and the disappointments which I had since endured. I paced with hasty strides through the room, my heart became convulsed with painful emotions. At length I went up to her, and exclaimed with eagerness, For Heavens sake, play that air no longer! She stopped, and looked steadfastly at me. She then said, with a smile which sunk deep into my heart: Werther, you are ill; your dearest food is distasteful to you. But go, I entreat you, and endeavour to compose yourself. I tore myself away. God, thou seest my torments, and wilt end them!
How her image haunts me! Waking or asleep, she fills my entire soul! Soon as I close my eyes, here, in my brain, where all the nerves of vision are concentrated, her dark eyes are imprinted. HereI do not know how to describe it; but if I shut my eyes, hers are immediately before me: dark as an abyss they open upon me, and absorb my senses.
And what is man,that boasted demigod? Do not his powers fail when he most requires their use? And whether he soar in joy or sink in sorrow, is not his career in both inevitably arrested? And whilst he fondly dreams that he is grasping at infinity, does he not feel compelled to return to a consciousness of his cold, monotonous existence?