Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER XII. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities) 
Goethe’s Works, illustrated by the best German artists, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1885). Vol. 5: W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities.
Part of: Goethe’s Works, 5 vols.
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Wilhelm to Natalia.
“I have been walking about for days, and cannot make up my mind to set pen to paper, there are so many things to tell: in speaking, perhaps, one thing would connect itself with another; one thing, too, would easily develop itself out of the other. Let me then, the absent one, begin only with what is most general; it will yet lead me at last to the strange matter that I have to impart.
“You have heard of the youth who, walking on the seashore, found a rudder-pin; the interest that he felt in it impelled him to procure a rudder as necessarily belonging to it. But this too was of no further use to him. He earnestly desired to get a boat, and succeeded in doing so. Yet boat, rudder, and rudder-pin were of no particular use; he provided himself with masts and sails, and so, piece by piece, with whatever is requisite for speed and convenience in navigation. By efforts adapted to his ends he attained to greater aptitude and dexterity; fortune favors him, he sees himself at last master and owner of a larger vessel, and so success increases; he wins wealth, respect, and a good name amongst the seafarers.*
“In causing you to read this pretty story again, I must confess that it is appropriate here only in the widest sense, yet it gives me an opening for expressing that which I have to say. Meanwhile, I must run through something still more remote.
“The capabilities that lie in men can be divided into general and special; the general are to be regarded as activities in a state of balanced repose, which are aroused by circumstances, and directed accidentally to this or that end. Man’s faculty of imitation is general: he will make or form in imitation of what he sees, even without the slightest inward and outward means to that end. It is always natural, therefore, that he should wish to do what he sees to be done: the most natural thing, however, would be that the son should embrace the occupation of his father. In this case it is all in one, a decided activity in an original direction, with probably an inborn faculty for a special end; then a resultant and gradually progressive exercise and a developed talent, that would have compelled us to proceed upon the beaten path, even if other impulses are developed within us, and a free choice might have led us to an occupation for which nature has given us neither capacity nor perseverance. On the average, therefore, those men are the happiest who find an opportunity of cultivating an inborn, family talent in the domestic circle. We have seen painter-pedigrees of this sort; amongst them there have been feeble talents, it is true, but in the meantime, they have brought to light something useful, and perhaps better than they would have achieved with moderate powers in any other department of their own choice.
“But as this, too, is not what I wanted to say, I must try to approach my subject from some other side.
“This is the pity of friends being far apart, that the intermediate and auxiliary members of our thoughts, which in mutual presence are reciprocally developed and interwoven as swiftly as lightning, cannot be produced and expressed in momentary connection and association. Here then, in the first place, is one of the earliest of children’s tales.
“We children, brought up in an ancient and sober city, had acquired the ideas of streets, squares, and walls, and soon, also, of ramparts, of the glacis, and of the adjoining walled gardens. But our parents, in order to take us, or rather themselves, once into the open country, had for a long time arranged, though it was continually deferred, a party, with some friends in the country. At last, one Whitsuntide, the invitation and proposal came more pressingly, and was agreed to, but only on the condition that everything should be so arranged that we might be home again by night-time; for to sleep out of one’s long-accustomed bed seemed to be an impossibility. To concentrate the pleasures of the day into so narrow a space was certainly difficult; two friends had to be visited, and their claims to so infrequent an entertainment satisfied; however, with great punctuality, there were hopes of carrying it all out.
“On the third day of the holidays all were standing, at the earliest hour, cheerful and ready. The carriage drew up at the appointed time. We had left all confinements of streets, gates, bridges, and town-ditches behind us; an open far-extending world spread itself before our inexperienced eyes. The green of cornfields and meadows lately refreshed by rain in the night, the tint more or less bright of buds on hedges and trees just bursting forth, the dazzling whiteness of the tree-blossoms diffusing itself on all sides, everything gave us a foretaste of happy Eden-like hours.
“We arrived in due time at the first halting-place, the house of a worthy clergyman. Our cordial reception soon assured us that the ecclesiastical feast now concluded was no detriment to spirits seeking rest and refreshment. I regarded the rural household for the first time with pleased interest—plough and harrow, wagon and cart, betrayed their immediate use; even the repulsive-looking manure seemed the most indispensable in the whole circuit, for it was carefully collected, and, to a certain degree, neatly stored up. Yet this first glance, directed to what was new and yet intelligible, was soon riveted by a treat: appetizing cakes, new milk, and many other country dainties were greedily regarded by us. Then the children, forsaking the little garden-plot and the hospitable arbor, quickly busied themselves in performing, in the adjoining spinney, a task which an old, kindly-disposed aunt had given them. That was to gather as many cowslips as possible, and carefully take them back to town with them, for the thrifty goodwife was in the habit of making all sorts of wholesome beverages of them.
“Whilst thus employed in the meadows, we were running backwards and forwards along banks and hedges, several of the village-children joined us, and the sweet scent of the gathered spring-flowers seemed to grow more and more refreshing and balmy. We had by this time collected such a mass of stalks and flowers that we did not know what to do with them. Now we began to pick off the yellow coronals, for it was really only with these that we had to do; each tried to fill his little hat or cap as full as possible.
“However, the eldest of these boys, the fisherman’s son, who was a little older than myself, a boy who had at once especially attracted me by his serious demeanor, did not seem to enjoy this trifling over flowers, and he invited me to walk with him to the river, which, already of considerable breadth, flowed by at a short distance. We sat down, with a couple of fishing-rods, in a shady place, where in the deep, clear, calm water many little fishes were darting hither and thither. He good-naturedly showed me what to do, and how the bait was to be fastened on the hook, and several times I was successful in whisking into the air, against their will, the smallest of these delicate creatures. As we were thus sitting quietly leaning against each other, he seemed to get tired of it, and made me observe a flat, pebbly bank which projected into the stream from our side, and that there was a most beautiful opportunity for a bathe. ‘He could not help trying it,’ he cried at last, springing up, and before I was aware, he was down, undressed, and in the water.
“As he swam very well, he soon left the shallow place, abandoned himself to the stream, and soon came up to me in the deeper water. Quite a strange feeling came over me: grasshoppers were dancing about me, ants were crawling towards me, colored beetles were clinging to the twigs, and gold-gleaming ‘sun-maidens,’ as he had called them, were hovering and flitting spirit-like at my feet, just as he, pulling out a great cray-fish from between some roots, held it up merrily, and then cleverly concealed it again at the old place with what we had caught before. It was so warm and sultry all around, one yearned to be out of the sun and in the shade, out of the cool shade in the still cooler water below. So it was easy for him to entice me down; I found an invitation, not often repeated, irresistible, and what with fear of my parents, and timidity about the unfamiliar element in addition, I was quite strangely excited. But soon undressed upon the gravel, I ventured gently into the water, but not deeper than was due to the gradually sloping bottom. Here he let me linger, went to some distance in the sustaining element, came back, and when he got out and stood up to dry himself in the fuller sunshine, my eyes seemed to be dazzled by a triple sun; so fair was the human form, of which I had never had any idea. He seemed to look at me with equal attention. Though quickly dressed, we still seemed to stand unclothed before each other; our spirits drew together, and amidst the most ardent kisses we swore eternal friendship.
“But then swiftly, swiftly, we betook ourselves home, just at the right moment, as the party were setting out on the most delightful footpath, for about an hour and a half, through bush and wood, to the bailiff’s dwelling. My friend accompanied me; we already seemed inseparable; but when, about half-way there, I asked permission to take him into the bailiff’s house, the pastor’s wife refused, with a quiet hint about the impropriety; on the other hand, she gave him a strict injunction to tell his father when he came in, that she must be sure on her return home to find some fine crayfish, that she wished to give her guests to take back to the city as a rarity. The boy went off, but pledged himself with hand and lips to wait for me in the evening at this corner of the wood.
“The party soon reached the bailiff’s, where we also found a rural household, but of a higher style. A dinner delayed in consequence of the housewife’s being over-busy, did not make me impatient; for a stroll in a well-kept pleasure-garden, in which the daughter, who was somewhat younger than I, accompanied me to show me the way, was very agreeable to me. Spring-flowers of every kind grew in tastefully laid-out plots, filling them or decking their edges. My companion was beautiful, fair-haired, and gentle; we walked confidentially together, soon held each other by the hand, and seemed to wish for nothing better. Thus we walked past tulip-beds, past narcissuses and jonquils in rows; she showed me several places where the most splendid hyacinth-bells had already just gone off. On the other hand, provision had been made for the coming seasons too; the plants of future ranunculuses and anemones were already green; the care bestowed upon numerous carnation slips promised the most abundant bloom; but the hope of many-flowered lily-stems, very wisely distributed among roses, was already budding more nearly. And how many were the bowers that promised presently both the beauty and the shade of honeysuckle, jasmine, and vine-like and creeping kinds of growth!
“When I look back, after so many years, at my situation on that occasion, it seems to me really enviable. Unexpectedly, at the same moment, the premonition of friendship and love seized me: for when I unwillingly took leave of the beautiful child, I comforted myself with the thought of disclosing these feelings to my young friend, of confiding in him, and of enjoying his sympathy together with these fresh sentiments.
“And if I add one more remark here, I may perhaps confess that in the course of life that first out-blooming of the exterior world has appeared to me as the real original nature, in comparison with which all else that later appeals to our senses seem to be but copies, which at every comparison with the former are deficient in that peculiarly original spirit and sense.
“How we must have despaired at seeing so cold, so lifeless an outward life, had not something revealed itself in our heart that glorifies nature in quite another way, whilst manifesting a creative power, to beautify ourselves in her.
“It was already dusk when we again approached the corner of the wood, where my young friend had promised to wait for me. I strained my eyesight to its utmost extent to descry his presence; and when I was unsuccessful in this, I impatiently hurried in front of the party, who walked leisurely, running to and fro amongst the bushes. I called out, I worried myself; he was not to be seen, nor did he answer; for the first time I experienced, in double and manifold degree, a passionate grief.
“The unmeasured demands of confidential affection had already developed themselves in me, there was already an irresistible need to unburden my soul, by talking, of the image of that fair-haired one, to relieve my heart of the emotions which she had awakened in me. It was full, the lips already muttered, to overflowing. I blamed the good boy aloud for violated friendship, for broken faith.
“But heavier trials were soon in store for me. From out of the first houses of the village rushed shrieking women, followed by screaming children; no one gave information or answer. Round the corner house on one side we saw a sad procession approach: it moved slowly along the street; it seemed like a funeral, but of more complicated character; there was no end to the bearing and carrying along. The shrieking continued, increased, the crowd thickened: ‘They are drowned—all drowned together!’ ‘He! who? which?’ The mothers who saw their children about them seemed consoled. But a serious-looking man came up, and said to the pastor’s wife, ‘Unhappily, I stayed out too long; Adolphus has been drowned with four others; he wished to keep his promise and mine.’ The man—it was the fisherman himself—walked on after the procession; we stood shocked and astounded. Then a little boy came up, holding out a bag: ‘Here are the crayfish, madam!’ and held the token high in the air. All were horrified at it, as at a thing of most evil omen: they questioned, inquired, and heard thus much: this last child had remained on the bank and picked up the crayfish that they threw to him from below. But then, after much questioning and cross-questioning, they found out that Adolphus and two sensible boys had gone down to and into the water; two others, younger, had joined them unasked, and could not be kept back by any scolding and threats. The first two had almost got across a rocky and dangerous place; the other two slipped, seized hold of and kept pulling each other underneath. The same thing occurred at last to the foremost two also, and they all sank in the deep water. Adolphus, being a good swimmer, would have saved himself, but in their terror they all hung on to him, and he was dragged down. This little one had then run screaming into the village, holding his bag of crayfish tight in his hands. The fisherman, accidentally late on his way home, ran off with others who were alarmed; they had dragged them out one after the other, found that they were dead, and were now bringing them in.
“The pastor, together with the father, walked sadly towards the town-house; the full moon had risen, and shone on the path of death. I followed in passionate grief; they would not let me in, I was in a terrible condition. I walked round and round the house without resting; at last I saw my opportunity, and sprang in at the open window.
“In the large room, where meetings of all kinds are held, lay the unfortunates, stretched naked upon straw, dazzling white corpses, shining also in the dim lamplight. I threw myself upon the tallest—my friend. I had no words to express my condition; I wept bitterly, and deluged his broad breast with unceasing tears. I had heard something of rubbing, which in such a case was said to be of use. I rubbed in my tears, and cheated myself with the warmth that I excited. Amidst my confusion, I thought of breathing breath into him, but the pearly rows of his teeth were fast locked; the lips, on which the parting kiss still seemed to remain, refused even the slightest symptom of response. Despairing of human aid, I had recourse to prayer: I implored, I prayed. It seemed to me as if at this moment I must perform a miracle to call forth the still indwelling soul, to lure it in again if still hovering near. I was torn away, weeping, sobbing. I sat in the carriage, and scarcely understood what my parents were saying. Our mother, as I afterwards heard so often repeated, had resigned herself to God’s will. In the meanwhile I had fallen asleep, and awoke gloomily, late next morning, in a doubtful and confused condition.
“But when I went to breakfast I found my mother, my aunt, and the cook in weighty consultation. The crayfish were not to be boiled nor brought to table; my father would not endure such a direct reminiscence of the calamity that had so lately occurred. The aunt seemed to wish most eagerly to possess herself of these uncommon creatures, but at the same time blamed me for our having forgotten to bring the cowslips with us. However, she soon seemed to be pacified about this, when those misshapen creatures crawling alive over each other were handed over to her free disposal, whereupon she took counsel with the cook as to their further treatment.
“But to make the significance of this scene clear, I must say something more of the character and personality of this woman. The peculiarities by which she was governed one could not by any means praise from a moral point of view; and yet from a civic and political point of view they produced many a good result. She was, in the proper sense of the word, miserly; for she regretted every mere penny that she had to spend, and for her requirements she looked about everywhere for substitutes that could be got for nothing, by exchange, or in any sort of fashion. Thus the cowslips were intended for tea, which she maintained to be more wholesome than any Chinese sort. God had given every land what was necessary, whether for food, for relish, or for medicine; on that account one need not have recourse to foreign countries. So in a little garden she cultivated everything that, after her notions, would make food palatable, or would be useful to the sick. She never visited another person’s garden without taking away with her something of the sort.
“This disposition and whatever resulted from it could well be pardoned, since her diligently-hoarded cash would after all be for the benefit of the family. In this matter, too, our father and mother managed to give in completely to her and be accommodating.
“Another propensity, however, one of activity, and indefatigably asserting itself, was a pride in being regarded as an important and influential person. And, in truth, she had deserved and attained this reputation, for she was clever enough to turn to her own advantage the useless, and often indeed mischievous, gossip current among women. Everything that went on in the town, and consequently even the private affairs of families, was accurately known to her, and it was not often that any matter of dispute arose without her having contrived to mix herself up in it, in which she was the more successful inasmuch as she always tried to be of some use, but managed thereby to increase her reputation and good name. Many a match had she made with which one side at least probably remained satisfied. But what she gave her attention to most was the furthering and assisting of such persons as were seeking an office or appointment, whereby she really gained a large number of clients, of whose influence she was able to avail herself in return.
“The widow of an official of some importance, an upright and strict man, she yet had learned how those whom one cannot get at by any considerable overtures are gained over by trifles.
“However, to keep on the beaten path without further digression, be it said at once that she had contrived to gain great influence over a man who occupied an important office. He was miserly like her, and, to his own misfortune, equally gluttonous and fond of dainties; so to set on the table before him, on any pretext, a tasty dish, was always her chief anxiety. His conscience was not one of the most sensitive; but his courage and audacity had also to be called into request, whenever in dubious cases he had to overcome the opposition of his colleagues and stifle the voice of duty which they brought to bear against him.
“It was precisely this case now—that she was favoring an unworthy individual: she had done all she could to push him in, the matter had taken a favorable turn for her, and now the crayfish, of which the like were indeed rarely seen, luckily came to her assistance. They were to be carefully fed up, and served up at intervals on the table of her distinguished patron, who commonly dined alone very sparely.
“As to other matters, the unfortunate calamity gave occasion to a good deal of talk and social excitement. My father was one of the first who on this occasion was impelled by a spirit of general benevolence to extend his consideration and care beyond the limits of his family and of the town. He was interested, in conjunction with certain intelligent physicians, and those connected with the police, in overcoming the great obstacles which at first opposed inoculation for smallpox. Greater carefulness in the hospital, more humane treatment of prisoners, and other kindred objects, were the end and aim of his life, or at any rate of his reading and thinking; and, as he used to give utterance to his convictions on all occasions, he thus effected a great deal of good.
“He looked upon the association of citizens, to whatever form of government it might be subjected, as a natural condition which had its good and its bad side—its ordinary courses, its years of plenty and scarcity alternately, and hailstorms, floods, and fires, no less accidentally and irregularly: the good to be seized and used, the bad to be avoided or endured. But nothing, he considered, was more desirable than the diffusion of universal goodwill, independently of every other consideration.
“As a natural consequence of such a disposition he must now needs be determined to bring again under discussion a matter of benevolence that had already been mooted before: this was the resuscitation of such as were thought to be dead, in whatever way, moreover, the outward signs of life might have been lost. During conversations of this sort I now learned that in the case of these children the reverse of what was right had been tried and applied, nay, that, in a certain sense, they had been killed. It was furthermore maintained that by opening a vein they might perhaps all have been saved. In my youthful ardor, I therefore determined in silence that I would spare no opportunity of learning everything that might be needful in such a case, especially blood-letting, and whatever else there might be of like sort.
“But how soon did daily routine carry me away! The need for friendship and love had been awakened; I looked round about me everywhere to satisfy it. Meanwhile sensibility, imagination, and intellect were occupied beyond measure by the theatre: how far I was here led, and misled, I must not repeat.
“But if after this circumstantial narrative I have still to confess that I am as far as ever from the goal of my intention, and that I can only hope to arrive at it by a circuitous route, what am I to say? How can I excuse myself? In any case I should have to bring forward what follows. If it is allowable to the humorist to mix up his matter in minutest confusion, when he impudently leaves it to his reader to find out at last in half-meanings what—if anything—is to be got out of it, should it not be permitted to the intelligent and rational man to work in a strange-seeming way towards many points, so that one may at last see them reflected and concentrated in one focus, and may learn to understand how the most varied influences surrounding a man drive him to a conclusion which he would have been able to attain in no other way, either through inward impulse or outward motive?
“From the many things which still remain for me to say, I have the choice as to which I shall take first; but this too, is a matter of indifference. You must just possess your soul in patience, read and read on; for at last there will suddenly dawn upon you, and seem quite natural, that which spoken in one word would have struck you as exceedingly strange, and in fact to such a degree, that you would hardly have cared afterwards to give a moment to these introductions in the form of explanations.
“But that I may now in some sort get in the right direction, I will take a glance back at that rudder-pin again, and call to mind a conversation that I was accidentally led to hold with our tried friend Jarno—whom I met in the mountains under the name of Montan—and which awakened certain feelings of my own in a very special way. The circumstances of our life have a mysterious course which cannot be calculated. You remember, doubtless, that case which your skilful surgeon brought out when you came to help me as I lay prostrate and wounded in the forest? It flashed in my eyes at that time with such effect, and made so deep an impression, that I was quite delighted when I found it again, years after, in the hands of a younger man. He attached no particular value to it; instruments altogether had been improved in more recent times, and were better adapted to their purpose, and I obtained it all the more easily as the acquisition of a new set was thereby facilitated. From that time I always carried it about with me, not to make any use of it, it is true; but in order to be surer of comforting recollections; it was a witness to the moment when my good fortune began, at which I was to arrive only after a long circuit.
“By chance Jarno saw it when we spent the night at the charcoal-burner’s; and he recognized it at once, and in reply to my explanation said:
“ ‘I have nothing to object to a man’s setting up such a fetish in memory of many an unlooked-for benefit, or of important results from some ordinary circumstance; it elevates us as something that points to an Incomprehensible, stimulates us in difficulties, and encourages our hopes; but it would be a finer thing if you had let yourself be enticed, through those tools, to understand their use also, and to accomplish what they mutely demand of you.’
“ ‘Let me confess,’ I replied thereto, ‘that this has occurred to me a hundred times; an inner voice stirred within me, bidding me recognize in this my peculiar vocation.’
“I thereupon told him the story of the drowned boys, and how I had heard then that they might have been saved, if they had been bled. ‘I intended to learn how to do it; but every hour made the intention weaker.’
“ ‘Then seize it now!’ replied he. ‘I have for long seen you occupied with matters that concern and bear upon the human spirit, disposition, heart, and whatever you call it all. But what have you thereby gained for yourself and others? Sorrows of the mind into which we have fallen by misfortune or our own faults; to heal these intellect can do nothing, reason little, time much; resolute activity, on the other hand, everything. In this every one works with and for himself; that you have experienced in yourself and others.’
“He attacked me with angry and bitter words, as is his wont, and said many hard things that I do not care to repeat. ‘There is nothing,’ he concluded at last, ‘better worth the trouble of learning and doing than to assist the healthy man when he is injured by some accident or other; with prudent treatment, nature easily restores itself: the sick must be left to the physician; but no one needs a surgeon more than the sound and healthy man. In the quietude of country life, in the narrowest family circle, he is just as welcome as in and after the turmoil of battle; in the sweetest moments, as in the bitterest and most terrible; evil fate prevails everywhere, more dreadful than death itself, and not a whit less ruthless, nay, after a fashion, yet more noxious, more destructive to pleasure and to life.’
“You know him, and can imagine without effort that he spared me as little as the world. But he inclined most strongly to the argument which he directed against me in the name of the society at large.
“ ‘Your universal culture,’ said he, ‘and all institutions for that end, are foolishness. The thing is, that a man should understand something quite definitely, do it with an excellence which scarce anyone else in the immediate neighborhood could attain; and in our association particularly this is a self-evident matter. You are just of an age when a man forms any plan with intelligence, judges what lies before him with discernment, grapples with it from the right side, and directs his capacities and abilities to the right end.’
“Why, then, need I proceed to express what is a self-understood matter? He made it clear to me that I could obtain a dispensation from the restless life so strangely enjoined, though it might be difficult for me to obtain it. ‘You are one of that sort of men,’ he said, ‘who easily grow accustomed to a place, but not to an occupation. To all such a restless state of life is prescribed, in order, perhaps, that they may attain to a surer manner of life. If you will devote yourself in earnest to the most divine of all employments, to heal without miracles, and to perform miracles without words, I will use my influence in your favor.’ So he spoke hurriedly, adding all such cogent reasons as his eloquence was able to muster.
“Here then, I am disposed to make an end: but you shall very soon learn circumstantially how I have made use of the permission to remain a longer time at certain places; how I have succeeded in applying myself to the profession for which I have always had a secret liking, and of thoroughly training myself therein. Enough, in the great undertaking for which you are preparing yourself, I shall prove myself a useful, a necessary member of the society, and I shall fall into your paths with a certain assurance—with some amount of pride; for to be worthy of you is a laudable pride.”
[* ] Goethe had made use of this story before, in his journey on the Rhine in the years 1814-1815.—D.