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BOOK II. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, vol. 2 (Faust 1 & 2, Egmont, Natural Daughter, Sorrows of Young Werther) 
Goethe’s Works, illustrated by the best German artists, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1885). Vol. 2.
Part of: Goethe’s Works, 5 vols.
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WE arrived here yesterday. The ambassador is indisposed, and will not go out for some days. If he were less peevish and morose all would be well. I see but too plainly that Heaven has destined me to severe trials; but courage! a light heart may bear anything. A light heart! I smile to find such a word proceeding from my pen. A little more lightheartedness would render me the happiest being under the sun. But must I despair of my talents and faculties, whilst others of far inferior abilities parade before me with the utmost self-satisfaction? Gracious Providence! to whom I owe all my powers, why didst thou not withhold some of those blessings I possess, and substitute in their place a feeling of self-confidence and contentment?
But patience! all will yet be well; for I assure you, my dear friend, you were right; since I have been obliged to associate continually with other people, and observe what they do, and how they employ themselves, I have become far better satisfied with myself. For we are so constituted by nature that we are ever prone to compare ourselves with others, and our happiness or misery depends very much on the objects and persons around us. On this account, nothing is more dangerous than solitude; there our imagination, always disposed to rise, taking a new flight on the wings of fancy, pictures to us a chain of beings of whom we seem the most inferior. All things appear greater than they really are, and all seem superior to us. This operation of the mind is quite natural; we so continually feel our own imperfections, and fancy we perceive in others the qualities we do not possess, attributing to them also all that we enjoy ourselves, that by this process we form the idea of a perfect, happy man—a man, however, who only exists in our own imagination.
But when, in spite of weakness and disappointments, we set to work in earnest, and persevere steadily, we often find that, though obliged continually to tack, we make more way than others who have the assistance of wind and tide; and, in truth, there can be no greater satisfaction than to keep pace with others, or outstrip them in the race.
I begin to find my situation here more tolerable. I find a great advantage in being much occupied; and the number of persons I meet, and their different pursuits, create a varied entertainment for me. I have formed the acquaintance of the Count C—, and I esteem him more and more every day. He is a man of strong understanding and great discernment; but though he sees further than other people he is not on that account cold in his manner, but is capable of inspiring and returning the warmest affection. He appeared interested in me on one occasion when I had to transact some business with him. He perceived, at the first word, that we understood each other, and that he could converse with me in a different tone from what he used with others. I cannot sufficiently esteem his frank and open kindness to me. It is the greatest and most genuine of pleasures to observe a great mind in sympathy with our own.
As I anticipated, the ambassador occasions me infinite annoyance. He is the most punctilious blockhead under heaven. He does everything step by step, with the trifling minuteness of an old woman, and he is a man whom it is impossible to please because he is never pleased with himself. I like to do business regularly and cheerfully, and when it is finished, to leave it. But he constantly returns my papers to me, saying, “They will do,” but recommending me to look over them again, as “one may always improve by using a better word, or a more appropriate participle.” I then lose all patience and wish myself at the devil. Not a conjunction, not an adverb must be omitted; he has a deadly antipathy to all those transpositions of which I am so fond, and if the music of our periods is not tuned to the established official key, he cannot comprehend our meaning. It is deplorable to be connected with such a fellow.
My acquaintance with the Count C— is the only compensation for such an evil. He told me frankly the other day that he was much displeased with the difficulties and delays of the ambassador; that people like him are obstacles both to themselves and to others; but,” added he, “one must submit like a traveller who has to ascend a mountain; if the mountain was not there the road would be both shorter and pleasanter, but there it is, and he must get over it.”
The old man perceives the Count’s partiality for me; this annoys him, and he seizes every opportunity to depreciate the Count in my hearing. I naturally defend him, and that only renders matters worse. Yesterday he made a blow at me in allusion to him. “The Count,” he said, “is a man of the world and a good man of business; his style is good, and he writes with facility; but like other geniuses he has no solid learning.” He looked at me with an expression that seemed to ask if I felt the blow? But it did not produce the desired effect: I despise a man who can think and act in such a manner. However, I made a stand, and answered with no little warmth. The Count, I said, was a man entitled to respect alike for his character and his acquirements. I had never met a person whose mind was stored with more useful and extensive knowledge—who had, in fact, mastered such an infinite variety of subjects, and who yet retained all his activity for the details of ordinary business. This was altogether beyond his comprehension and I took my leave, lest my anger should be too highly excited by some new absurdity on his part.
And you are to blame for all this, you who persuaded me to bend my neck to this yoke, by preaching a life of activity to me. If the man who plants vegetables and carries his corn to town on market-days, is not more usefully employed than I am, then let me work ten years longer at the galleys to which I am now chained.
Oh! the brilliant wretchedness, the weariness that one is doomed to witness among the silly people whom we meet in society here! The ambition of rank; how they watch, how they toil to gain precedence! What poor and contemptible passions are displayed in their utter nakedness! We have a woman here, for example, who never ceases to entertain the company with accounts of her family and her estates. Any stranger would consider her a silly being, whose head was turned by her pretensions to rank and property; but she is in reality even more ridiculous—the daughter of a mere magistrate’s clerk from this neighborhood. I cannot understand how human beings can so debase themselves.
Every day I observe more and more the folly of judging of others by ourselves; and I have so much trouble with myself, and my own heart is in such constant agitation, that I am well content to let others pursue their own course if they only allow me the same privilege.
What provokes me most is the unhappy extent to which distinctions of rank are carried. I know perfectly well how necessary are inequalities of condition, and I am sensible of the advantages I myself derive therefrom—but I would not have these institutions prove a barrier to the small chance of happiness which I may enjoy on this earth.
I have lately become acquainted with a Miss B—, a very agreeable girl, who has retained her natural manners in the midst of artificial life. Our first conversation pleased us both equally, and at taking leave I requested permission to visit her. She consented in so obliging a manner that I waited with impatience for the arrival of the happy moment. She is not a native of this place but resides here with her aunt. The countenance of the old lady is not prepossessing. I paid her much attention, addressing the greater part of my conversation to her, and in less than half an hour I discovered what her niece subsequently acknowledged to me, that her aged aunt, having but a small fortune, and a still smaller share of understanding, enjoys no satisfaction except in the pedigree of her ancestors, no protection save in her noble birth, and no enjoyment but in looking from her castle over the heads of the humble citizens. She was, no doubt, handsome in her youth, and in her early years probably trifled away her time in rendering many a poor youth the sport of her caprice; in her riper years she has submitted to the yoke of a veteran officer, who, in return for her person and her small independence, has spent with her what we may designate her age of brass. He is dead, and she is now a widow and deserted. She spends her iron age alone, and would not be approached except for the loveliness of her niece.
January 8th, 1772.
What beings are men, whose whole thoughts are occupied with form and ceremony, who for years together devote their mental and physical exertions to the task of advancing themselves but one step, and endeavoring to occupy a higher place at the table. Not that such persons would otherwise want employment; on the contrary, they give themselves much trouble by neglecting important business for such petty trifles. Last week a question of precedence arose at a sledging party, and all our amusement was spoiled.
The silly creatures cannot see that it is not place which constitutes real greatness, since the man who occupies the first place but seldom plays the principal part. How many kings are governed by their ministers—how many ministers by their secretaries? Who, in such cases, is really the chief? He, as it seems to me, who can see through the others, and possesses strength or skill enough to make their power or passions subservient to the execution of his own designs.
I must write to you from this place, my dear Charlotte, from a small room in a country inn, where I have taken shelter from a severe storm. During my whole residence in that wretched place D—, where I lived amongst strangers—strangers, indeed, to this heart—I never at any time felt the smallest inclination to correspond with you; but in this cottage, in this retirement, in this solitude, with the snow and hail beating against my lattice-pane, you are my first thought. The instant I entered, your figure rose up before me, and the remembrance! O my Charlotte, the sacred, tender remembrance! Gracious Heaven! restore to me the happy moment of our first acquaintance.
Could you but see me, my dear Charlotte, in the whirl of dissipation; how my senses are dried up, but my heart is at no time full. I enjoy no single moment of happiness; all is vain—nothing touches me. I stand, as it were, before the raree-show, I see the little puppets move, and I ask whether it is not an optical illusion. I am amused with these puppets, or rather, I am myself one of them, but when I sometimes grasp my neighbor’s hand, I feel that it is not natural, and I withdraw mine with a shudder. In the evening I say I will enjoy the next morning’s sunrise, and yet I remain in bed; in the day I promise to ramble by moonlight, and I nevertheless remain at home. I know not why I rise, nor why I go to sleep.
The leaven which animated my existence is gone, the charm which cheered me in the gloom of night and aroused me from my morning slumbers, is forever fled.
I have found but one being here to interest me, a Miss B—. She resembles you, my dear Charlotte, if any one can possibly resemble you. “Ah!” you will say, “he has learned to pay fine compliments.” And this is partly true. I have been very agreeable lately, as it was not in my power to be otherwise. I have, moreover, a deal of wit, and the ladies say that no one understands flattery better—or falsehoods, you will add, since the one accomplishment invariably accompanies the other. But I must tell you of Miss B. She has abundance of soul which flashes from her deep blue eyes. Her rank is a torment to her and satisfies no one desire of her heart. She would gladly retire from this whirl of fashion, and we often picture to ourselves a life of undisturbed happiness in distant scenes of rural retirement; and then we speak of you, my dear Charlotte, for she knows you and renders homage to your merits, but her homage is not exacted, but voluntary—she loves you and delights to hear you made the subject of conversation.
Oh, that I were sitting at your feet in your favorite little room, with the dear children playing around us. If they became troublesome to you I would tell them some appalling goblin story, and they would crowd around me with silent attention. The sun is setting in glory; his last rays are shining on the snow which covers the face of the country; the storm is over, and I must return to my dungeon. Adieu! Is Albert with you, and what is he to you? God forgive the question!
For a week past we have had the most wretched weather, but this to me is a blessing, for during my residence here not a single fine day has beamed from the heavens but has been lost to me by the intrusion of somebody. During the severity of rain, sleet, frost and storm, I congratulate myself that it cannot be worse indoors than abroad, nor worse abroad than it is within doors, and so I become reconciled. When the sun rises bright in the morning and promises a glorious day, I never omit to exclaim, “There now, they have another blessing from Heaven which they will be sure to destroy; they spoil everything—health, fame, happiness, amusement—and they do this generally through folly, ignorance, or imbecility, and always, according to their own account, with the best intentions. I could often beseech them, on my bended knees, to be less resolved upon their own destruction.
I fear that my ambassador and I shall not continue much longer together. He is really growing past endurance. He transacts his business in so ridiculous a manner, that I am often compelled to contradict him and do things my own way, and then, of course, he thinks them very ill done. He complained of me lately on this account at Court and the minister gave me a reprimand,—a gentle one it is true, but still a reprimand. In consequence of this I was about to tender my resignation, when I received a letter, to which I submitted with great respect on account of the high, noble and generous spirit which dictated it. He endeavored to soothe my excessive sensibility, paid a tribute to my extreme ideas of duty, of good example, and of perseverance in business, as the fruit of my youthful ardor,—an impulse which he did not seek to destroy but only to moderate, that it might have proper play and be productive of good. So now I am at rest for another week and no longer at variance with myself. Content and peace of mind are valuable things. I could wish, my dear friend, that these precious jewels were less transitory.
God bless you, my dear friends, and may he grant you that happiness which he denies to me!
I thank you, Albert, for having deceived me. I waited for the news that your wedding-day was fixed, and I intended on that day, with solemnity, to take down Charlotte’s profile from the wall, and to bury it with some other papers I possess. You are now united and her picture still remains here. Well, let it remain! Why should it not? I know that I am still one of your society, that I still occupy a place uninjured in Charlotte’s heart, that I hold the second place therein, and I intend to keep it. Oh! I should become mad if she could forget.—Albert! that thought is hell. Farewell, Albert—farewell, angel of heaven—farewell, Charlotte!
I have just had a sad adventure which will drive me from hence. I lose all patience!—Death!—It is not to be remedied, and you are alone to blame, who urged and impelled me to fill a post for which I was by no means suited. I have now reason to be satisfied, and so have you! But that you may not again attribute this fatality to my impetuous temper, I send you, my dear sir, a plain and simple narration of the affair, as a mere chronicler of facts would describe it.
The Count of C— likes me, and distinguishes me: it is well known, and I have mentioned this to you a hundred times. Yesterday I dined with him; it is the day on which the nobility are accustomed to assemble at his house in the evening. I never once thought of the assembly, nor that we subalterns did not belong to such society. Well! I dined with the Count, and after dinner we adjourned to the large hall; we walked up and down together, and I conversed with him and with Colonel B. who joined us, and in this manner the hour for the assembly approached. God knows I was thinking of nothing, when who should enter but the honorable Lady S., accompanied by her noble husband and their silly, scheming daughter, with her small waist and flat neck—and with disdainful looks and a haughty air, they passed me by. As I heartily detest the whole race, I determined upon going away, and only waited till the Count had disengaged himself from their impertinent prattle to take leave, when the agreeable Miss B. came in. As I never meet her without experiencing a heartfelt pleasure, I stayed and talked to her, leaning over the back of her chair, and did not perceive till after some time that she seemed a little confused, and ceased to answer me with her usual ease of manner. I was struck with it. “Heavens!” I said to myself, “can she too be like the rest?” I felt annoyed and was about to withdraw; but I remained, notwithstanding, forming excuses for her conduct, fancying she did not mean it, and still hoping to receive some friendly recognition. The rest of the company now arrived. There was the Baron F— in an entire suit that dated from the coronation of Francis I., the Chancellor N— with his deaf wife, the shabbily-dressed I—, whose old-fashioned coat bore evidence of modern repairs—this crowned the whole. I conversed with some of my acquaintance, but they answered me laconically. I was engaged in observing Miss B—, and did not notice that the women were whispering at the end of the room, that the murmur extended by degrees to the men, that Madame S— addressed the Count with much warmth (this was all related to me subsequently by Miss B.), till at length the Count came up to me and took me to the window.—“You know our ridiculous customs,” he said; “I perceive the company is rather displeased at your being here; I would not on any account—” “I beg your excellency’s pardon,” I exclaimed; “I ought to have thought of this before, but I know you will forgive this little inattention. I was going,” I added, “some time ago, but my evil genius detained me,” and I smiled and bowed to take my leave. He shook me by the hand in a manner which expressed everything. I hastened at once from the illustrious assembly, sprang into a carriage and drove to M—. I contemplated the setting sun from the top of the hill, and read that beautiful passage in Homer, where Ulysses is entertained by the hospitable herdsmen. This was indeed delightful.
I returned home to supper in the evening. But few persons were assembled in the room; they had turned up a corner of the table-cloth and were playing at dice. The good-natured A— came in; he laid down his hat when he saw me, approached me and said, in a low tone,—“You have met with a disagreeable adventure.” “I!” I exclaimed. “The Count obliged you to withdraw from the assembly!” “Deuce take the assembly,” said I; “I was very glad to be gone.” “I am delighted,” he added, “that you take it so lightly; I am only sorry that it is already so much spoken of.” The circumstance then began to pain me. I fancied that every one who sat down, and even looked at me, was thinking of this incident, and my heart became embittered.
And now I could plunge a dagger into my bosom, when I hear myself everywhere pitied, and observe the triumph of my enemies, who say that this is always the case with vain persons, whose heads are turned with conceit, who affect to despise forms and such petty, idle nonsense.
Say what you will of fortitude, but show me the man who can patiently endure the laughter of fools when they have obtained an advantage over him. ’Tis only when their nonsense is without foundation that one can suffer it without complaint.
Everything conspires against me. I met Miss B— walking to-day. I could not help joining her; and when we were at a little distance from her companions I expressed my sense of her altered manner towards me. “O Werther!” she said, in a tone of emotion, “you who know my heart, how could you so ill interpret my distress? What did I not suffer for you from the moment you entered the room! I foresaw it all—a hundred times was I on the point of mentioning it to you. I knew that the S—s and T—s, with their husbands, would quit the room rather than remain in your company; I knew that the Count would not break with them: and now so much is said about it.” “How!” I exclaimed, and endeavored to conceal my emotion, for all that Adelin had mentioned to me yesterday recurred to me painfully at that moment. “Oh, how much it has already cost me!” said this amiable girl, while her eyes filled with tears. I could scarcely contain myself, and was ready to throw myself at her feet. “Explain yourself!” I cried. Tears flowed down her cheeks. I became quite frantic. She wiped them away, without attempting to conceal them. “You know my aunt,” she continued—“she was present, and in what light does she consider the affair! Last night and this morning, Werther, I was compelled to listen to a lecture upon my acquaintance with you. I have been obliged to hear you condemned and depreciated, and I could not—I dared not—say much in your defence.”
Every word she uttered was a dagger to my heart. She did not feel what a mercy it would have been to conceal everything from me. She told me, in addition, all the impertinence that would be further circulated, and how the malicious would triumph; how they would rejoice over the punishment of my pride, over my humiliation for that want of esteem for others with which I had often been reproached. To hear all this, Wilhelm, uttered by her in a voice of the most sincere sympathy, awakened all my passions, and I am still in a state of extreme excitement. I wish I could find a man to jeer me about this event. I would sacrifice him to my resentment: the sight of his blood might possibly be a relief to my fury. A hundred times have I seized a dagger to give ease to this oppressed heart. Naturalists tell of a noble race of horses that instinctively open a vein with their teeth, when heated and exhausted by a long course, in order to breathe more freely. I am often tempted to open a vein to procure for myself everlasting liberty.
I have tendered my resignation to the Court. I hope it will be accepted, and you will forgive me for not having previously consulted you. It is necessary I should leave this place. I know all you will urge to induce me to stay, and therefore—. I beg you will soften this news to my mother. I am unable to do anything for myself; how, then, should I be competent to assist others? It will afflict her that I should have interrupted that career which would have made me first a privy councillor, and then minister, and that I should look behind me in place of advancing. Argue as you will, combine all the reasons which should have induced me to remain—I am going; that is sufficient. But that you may not be ignorant of my destination, I may mention that the Prince of — is here. He is much pleased with my company; and having heard of my intention to resign, he has invited me to his country house to pass the spring months with him. I shall be left completely my own master; and as we agree on all subjects but one, I shall try my fortune, and accompany him.
Thanks for both your letters. I delayed my reply and withheld this letter till I should obtain an answer from the Court. I feared my mother might apply to the minister to defeat my purpose. But my request is granted—my resignation is accepted. I shall not recount with what reluctance it was accorded, nor relate what the minister has written; you would only renew your lamentations. The Crown Prince has sent me a present of five-and-twenty ducats; and indeed such goodness has affected me to tears. For this reason I shall not require from my mother the money for which I lately applied.
I leave this place to-morrow; and as my native place is only six miles from the highroad, I intend to visit it once more, and recall the happy dreams of my childhood. I shall enter at the same gate through which I came with my mother, when, after my father’s death, she left that delightful retreat to immure herself in your melancholy town. Adieu, my dear friend; you shall hear of my future career.
I have paid my visit to my native place with all the devotion of a pilgrim, and have experienced many unexpected emotions. Near the great elm tree, which is a quarter of a league from the village, I got out of the carriage and sent it on before, that alone, and on foot, I might enjoy vividly and heartily all the pleasure of my recollections. I stood there under that same elm which was formerly the term and object of my walks. How things have since changed! Then, in happy ignorance, I sighed for a world I did not know, where I hoped to find every pleasure and enjoyment which my heart could desire; and now, on my return from that wide world, O my friend, how many disappointed hopes and unsuccessful plans have I brought back!
I contemplated the mountains which lay stretched out before me, and I thought how often they had been the object of my dearest desires. Here used I to sit for hours together with my eyes bent upon them, ardently longing to wander in the shade of those woods—to lose myself in those valleys, which form so delightful an object in the distance! With what reluctance did I leave this charming spot when my hour of recreation was over and my leave of absence expired! I drew near to the village—all the well-known old summer-houses and gardens were recognized again; I disliked the new ones, and all other alterations which had taken place. I entered the village, and all my former feelings returned. I cannot, my dear friend, enter into details, charming as were my sensations; they would be dull in the narration. I had intended to lodge in the market-place, near our old house. As soon as I entered I perceived that the schoolroom, where our childhood had been taught by that good old woman, was converted into a shop. I called to mind the sorrow, the heaviness, the tears and oppression of heart which I experienced in that confinement. Every step produced some particular impression. A pilgrim in the Holy Land does not meet so many spots pregnant with tender recollections, and his soul is hardly moved with greater devotion. One incident will serve for illustration. I followed the course of a stream to a farm, formerly a delightful walk of mine, and I paused at the spot where as boys we used to amuse ourselves with making ducks and drakes upon the water. I recollected so well how I used formerly to watch the course of that same stream, following it with inquiring eagerness, forming romantic ideas of the countries it was to pass through; but my imagination was soon exhausted, while the water continued flowing farther and farther on, till my fancy became bewildered by the contemplation of an invisible distance. Exactly such, my dear friend, so happy and so confined, were the thoughts of our good ancestors. Their feelings and their poetry were fresh as childhood. And when Ulysses talks of the immeasurable sea and of the boundless earth, his epithets are true, natural, deeply felt and mysterious. Of what importance is it that I have learned with every schoolboy that the world is round? Man needs but little earth for enjoyment, and still less for his final repose.
I am at present with the Prince at his hunting-lodge. He is a man with whom one can live happily. He is honest and unaffected. There are, however, some strange characters about him, whom I cannot at all understand. They do not seem vicious, and yet they do not carry the appearance of thoroughly honest men. Sometimes I am disposed to believe them honest, and yet I cannot persuade myself to confide in them. It grieves me to hear the Prince occasionally talk of things which he has only read or heard of, and always with the same view in which they have been represented by others.
He values my understanding and talents more highly than he does my heart, and I am alone proud of the latter. It is the sole source of everything, of our strength, of our happiness and our misery. All the knowledge I possess every one else can acquire, but my heart is exclusively my own.
I have had a plan in my head, of which I did not intend to speak to you until it was accomplished. Now that it has failed I may as well mention it. I wished to enter the army, and had long been desirous of taking the step. This, indeed, was the chief reason for my coming here with the Prince, as he is a general in the — service. I communicated my design to him during one of our walks together. He disapproved of it, and it would have been actual madness not to have listened to his reasons.
Say what you will, I can remain here no longer. Why should I remain? I am weary of it. The Prince is as gracious to me as any one could be, and yet I am not at my ease. There is, indeed, nothing in common between us. He is a man of understanding, but quite of the ordinary kind. His conversation affords me no more amusement than I should derive from the perusal of a well-written book. I shall remain here a week longer, and then start again on my travels. My drawings are the best things I have done since I came here. The Prince has a taste for the arts, and would improve if his mind were not fettered by cold rules and mere technical ideas. I often lose patience when, with a glowing imagination I am giving expression to art and nature, he interferes with learned suggestions, and uses at random the technical phraseology of artists.
Once more I am a wanderer, a pilgrim, through the world. But what else are you?
Whither am I going? I will tell you in confidence. I am obliged to continue a fortnight longer here, and then I think it would be better for me to visit the mines in —. But I am only deluding myself thus. The fact is, I wish to be near Charlotte again—that is all. I smile at the suggestions of my heart and obey its dictates.
No! no! it is yet well—all is well. I, her husband! O God, who gave me being, if thou hadst destined this happiness for me, my whole life would have been one continual thanksgiving! But I will not murmur. Forgive these tears! forgive these fruitless wishes! She—my wife! Oh, the very thought of folding that dearest of Heaven’s creatures in my arms! Dear Wilhelm, my whole frame feels convulsed when I see Albert put his arms around her slender waist!
And shall I avow it? Why should I not, Wilhelm? She would have been happier with me than with him! Albert is not the man to satisfy the wishes of such a heart. He wants a certain sensibility; he wants—in short, their hearts do not beat in unison! How often, my dear friend, in reading a passage from some interesting book, when my heart and Charlotte’s seemed to meet, and in a hundred other instances, when our sentiments were unfolded by the story of some fictitious character, have I felt that we were made for each other! But, dear Wilhelm, he loves her with his whole soul, and what does not such a love deserve?
I have been interrupted by an insufferable visit. I have dried my tears and composed my thoughts. Adieu, my best friend!
I am not alone unfortunate! All men are disappointed in their hopes and deceived in their expectations. I have paid a visit to my good old woman under the lime trees. The eldest boy ran out to meet me. His exclamation of joy brought out his mother, but she had a very melancholy look. Her first word was, “Alas! dear sir, my little John is dead!” He was the youngest of her children. I was silent. “And my husband has returned from Switzerland without any money, and if some kind people had not assisted him he must have begged his way home. He was taken ill with fever on his journey.” I could answer nothing, but made the little one a present. She invited me to take some fruit; I complied, and left the place with a sorrowful heart.
My sensations are constantly changing. Sometimes a happy prospect opens before me; but, alas! it is only for a moment; and then when I am lost in reverie I cannot help saying to myself, “If Albert were to die?—Yes, she would become—and I should be—” And so I pursue a chimera, till it leads me to the edge of a precipice, at which I shudder.
When I pass through the same gate and walk along the same road which first conducted me to Charlotte, my heart sinks within me at the change that has since taken place. All, all is altered! No sentiment, no pulsation of my heart is the same. My sensations are such as would occur to some departed prince whose spirit should return to visit the superb palace which he had built in happy times, adorned with costly magnificence, and left to a beloved son, but whose glory he should find departed and its halls deserted and in ruins.
I sometimes cannot understand how she can love another, how she dares love another, when I love nothing in this world so completely, so devotedly, as her—when I know only her, and have no other possession than her in the world.
It is even so! As Nature puts on her autumn tints, it becomes autumn with me and around me. My leaves are sere and yellow, and the neighboring trees are divested of their foliage. Do you remember my writing to you about a peasant boy shortly after my arrival here? I have just made inquiries about him in Walheim. They say he has been dismissed from his service, and is now avoided by every one. I met him yesterday on the road, going to a neighboring village. I spoke to him, and he told me his story. It interested me exceedingly, as you will easily understand when I repeat it to you. But why should I trouble you? Why should I not reserve all my sorrow for myself? Why should I continue to give you occasion to pity and blame me? But no matter; this also is part of my destiny.
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 followed her, or rather felt attracted 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 honorable, 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 which she had encouraged and freedoms which 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 sympathize 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.
Upon 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 sister’s second marriage might deprive his children of the handsome fortune which 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, the 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 story is neither exaggerated nor embellished; indeed, I have weakened and impaired it in the narration, by the necessity of using the more refined expressions of society.
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 re-read 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. Charlotte’s 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!” She paused and seemed displeased. I was silent.
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.
But it does not produce the same effect upon me. I know not how it is; but I hope in time I shall like it better.
She has been absent for some days. She went to meet Albert. To-day I visited her; she rose to receive me, and I kissed her hand most tenderly.
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!”
She held the bird to her mouth, and he pressed her sweet lips with so much fervor, that he seemed to feel the excess of bliss which he enjoyed.
“He shall kiss you, too,” she added, and then she held the bird towards me. His little beak moved from her mouth to mine, and the delightful sensation seemed like the forerunner of the sweetest bliss.
“A kiss,” I observed, “does not seem to satisfy him; he wishes for food, and seems disappointed by these unsatisfactory endearments.”
“But he eats out of my mouth,” she continued, and extended her lips to him containing seed, and she smiled with all the charm of a being who has allowed an innocent participation of her love.
I turned my head 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 vicar’s wife will soon find, by the cessation of the villagers’ presents, what a wound she has inflicted upon the feelings of the neighborhood. 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 Lavater’s enthusiasm. Her health is destroyed, which prevents her from having any enjoyment here below. Such a creature alone 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 Michaelis. 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 he—hoped to be—as I should have been—if—. I am no friend to these pauses, but here I cannot express myself 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 mountaintops, 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.
Alas! the void—the fearful void, which I feel in my bosom! Sometimes I think if I could only once—but once—press her to my heart, this dreadful void would be filled.
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 Charlotte’s called to see her just now; I withdrew into a neighboring apartment and took up a book; but finding I could not read I sat down to write. I heard their conversation; they spoke upon ordinary 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 Charlotte’s apparel lying before me, and Albert’s 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 family—everything. My friends esteem me; I often contribute to their happiness, and my heart seems as if it could not beat without them; and yet—if I were to die, if I were to be summoned from the midst of this circle, would they feel—or how long would they feel, the 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.
October 27th. Evening.
I possess so much, but my love for her absorbs it all. I possess so much, but without her I have nothing.
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 touch it! And to touch 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 sorrow, as it previously contained 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 wrapt 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 laborer, 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 O 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 drunk more wine than usual. “Don’t do it!” she said; “think of Charlotte!” “Think of you!” I answered; “can such advice be necessary—do I not ever think of you? And yet mine are not thoughts; you live within my soul. This very morning I was sitting in the spot where, a few days ago, you descended from the carriage, and—.” She immediately changed the subject, to prevent me from pursuing it further. 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 spread out 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 often—often—no, not often, but sometimes regards 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 yesterday night, on going to bed, and talking to myself of various things, I suddenly said, “Good-night, dear Werther!” I recollected myself and laughed.
I cannot pray for strength to renounce her, for she seems to belong to me. I cannot pray that she may be given to me, for she is the property of another. 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 wish—but my heart is darkened by doubt and indecision—could 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?
I shall never be myself again! Wherever I go some fatality occurs to distract me. Even to-day—alas, for our destiny! alas, for human nature!
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 a man at a distance 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 for. 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 honeysuckles 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 above 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 is 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 labor and of 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 would’st 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 Charlotte’s 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 favorite, 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 with eagerness exclaimed, “For Heaven’s 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 endeavor 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. Here—I 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?