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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Wilhelm Meister’s Introduction to Shakespeare
By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
 
From ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’: Translation of Thomas Carlyle

“HAVE you never,” said Jarno, taking him aside, “read one of Shakespeare’s plays?”  1
  “No,” replied Wilhelm: “since the time when they became more known in Germany, I have myself grown unacquainted with the theatre; and I know not whether I should now rejoice that an old taste and occupation of my youth, has been by chance renewed. In the mean time, all that I have heard of these plays has excited little wish to become acquainted with such extraordinary monsters, which appear to set probability and dignity alike at defiance.”  2
  “I would advise you,” said the other, “to make a trial, notwithstanding: it can do one no harm to look at what is extraordinary with one’s own eyes. I will lend you a volume or two; and you cannot better spend your time than by casting everything aside, and retiring to the solitude of your old habitation, to look into the magic lantern of that unknown world. It is sinful of you to waste your hours in dressing out these apes to look more human, and teaching dogs to dance. One thing only I require,—you must not cavil at the form; the rest I can leave to your own good sense and feeling.”  3
  The horses were standing at the door; and Jarno mounted with some other cavaliers, to go and hunt. Wilhelm looked after him with sadness. He would fain have spoken much with this man who though in a harsh, unfriendly way, gave him new ideas,—ideas that he had need of.  4
  Oftentimes a man, when approaching some development of his powers, capacities, and conceptions, gets into a perplexity from which a prudent friend might easily deliver him. He resembles a traveler, who, at but a short distance from the inn he is to rest at, falls into the water: were any one to catch him then and pull him to the bank, with one good wetting it were over; whereas, though he struggles out himself, it is often at the side where he tumbled in, and he has to make a wide and weary circuit before reaching his appointed object.  5
  Wilhelm now began to have an inkling that things went forward in the world differently from what he had supposed. He now viewed close at hand the solemn and imposing life of the great and distinguished, and wondered at the easy dignity which they contrived to give it. An army on its march, a princely hero at the head of it, such a multitude of co-operating warriors, such a multitude of crowding worshipers, exalted his imagination. In this mood he received the promised books; and ere long, as may be easily supposed, the stream of that mighty genius laid hold of him and led him down to a shoreless ocean, where he soon completely forgot and lost himself….  6
  Wilhelm had scarcely read one or two of Shakespeare’s plays, till their effect on him became so strong that he could go no further. His whole soul was in commotion. He sought an opportunity to speak with Jarno; to whom, on meeting with him, he expressed his boundless gratitude for such delicious entertainment.  7
  “I clearly enough foresaw,” said Jarno, “that you would not remain insensible to the charms of the most extraordinary and most admirable of all writers.”  8
  “Yes!” exclaimed our friend: “I cannot recollect that any book, any man, any incident of my life, has produced such important effects on me, as the precious works to which by your kindness I have been directed. They seem as if they were performances of some celestial genius descending among men, to make them by the mildest instructions acquainted with themselves. They are no fictions! You would think, while reading them, you stood before the inclosed awful Books of Fate, while the whirlwind of most impassioned life was howling through the leaves, and tossing them fiercely to and fro. The strength and tenderness, the power and peacefulness of this man, have so astonished and transported me, that I long vehemently for the time when I shall have it in my power to read further.”  9
  “Bravo!” said Jarno, holding out his hand, and squeezing our friend’s. “This is as it should be! And the consequences which I hope for will likewise surely follow.”  10
  “I wish,” said Wilhelm, “I could but disclose to you all that is going on within me even now. All the anticipations I have ever had regarding man and his destiny, which have accompanied me from youth upwards often unobserved by myself, I find developed and fulfilled in Shakespeare’s writings. It seems as if he cleared up every one of our enigmas to us, though we cannot say, Here or there is the word of solution. His men appear like natural men, and yet they are not. These, the most mysterious and complex productions of creation, here act before us as if they were watches, whose dial-plates and cases were of crystal, which pointed out according to their use the course of the hours and minutes; while at the same time you could discern the combination of wheels and springs that turn them. The few glances I have cast over Shakespeare’s world incite me, more than anything beside, to quicken my footsteps forward into the actual world, to mingle in the flood of destinies that is suspended over it; and at length, if I shall prosper, to draw a few cups from the great ocean of true nature, and to distribute them from off the stage among the thirsting people of my native land.”  11
 
 
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