Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER VIII. - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
There are but few men who care to occupy themselves with the immediate past. Either we are forcibly bound up in the present, or we lose ourselves in the long gone-by, and seek back for what is utterly lost, as if it were possible to summon it up again, and rehabilitate it. Even in great and wealthy families who are under large obligations to their ancestors, we commonly find men thinking more of their grandfathers than their fathers.
Such reflections as these suggested themselves to our assistant, as, on one of those beautiful days in which the departing winter is accustomed to imitate the spring, he had been walking up and down the great old castle garden, and admiring the tall avenues of the lindens, and the formal walks and flower-beds which had been laid out by Edward’s father. The trees had thriven admirably, according to the design of him who had planted them, and now when they ought to have begun to be valued and enjoyed, no one ever spoke of them. Hardly any one even went near them, and the interest and the outlay was now directed to the other side, out into the free and the open.
He remarked upon it to Charlotte on his return; she did not take it unkindly. “While life is sweeping us forwards,” she replied, “we fancy that we are acting out our own impulses; we believe that we choose ourselves what we will do, and what we will enjoy. But in fact, if we look at it closely, our actions are no more than the plans, and the desires of the time which we are compelled to carry out.”
“No doubt,” said the assistant. “And who is strong enough to withstand the stream of what is round him? Time passes on, and in it, opinions, thoughts, prejudices and interests. If the youth of the son falls in the era of revolution, we may feel assured that he will have nothing in common with his father. If the father lived at a time when the desire was to accumulate property, to secure the possession of it, to narrow and to gather one’s self in, and to base one’s enjoyment in separation from the world, the son will at once seek to extend himself, to communicate himself to others, to spread himself over a wide surface, and open out his closed stores.”
“Entire periods,” replied Charlotte, “resemble this father and son whom you have been describing. Of the state of things when every little town was obliged to have its walls and moats, when the castle of the nobleman was built in a swamp, and the smallest manor-houses were only accessible by a draw-bridge, we are scarcely able to form a conception. In our days, the largest cities take down their walls, the moats of the princes’ castles are filled in; cities are no more than great places, and when one travels and sees all this, one might fancy that universal peace was just established, and the golden age was before the door. No one feels himself easy in a garden which does not look like the open country. There must be nothing to remind him of form and constraint; we choose to be entirely free, and to draw our breath without sense of confinement. Do you conceive it possible, my friend, that we can ever return again out of this into another, into our former condition?”
“Why should we not?” replied the assistant. “Every condition has its own burden along with it, the most relaxed as well as the most constrained. The first presupposes abundance, and leads to extravagance. Let want reappear, and the spirit of moderation is at once with us again. Men who are obliged to make use of their space and their soil, will speedily enough raise walls up round their gardens to be sure of their crops and plants. Out of this will arise by degrees a new phase of things: the useful will again gain the upper hand; and even the man of large possessions will feel at last that he must make the most of all which belongs to him. Believe me, it is quite possible that your son may become indifferent to all which you have been doing in the park, and draw in again behind the solemn walls and the tall lindens of his grandfather.”
The secret pleasure which it gave Charlotte to have a son foretold to her, made her forgive the assistant his somewhat unfriendly prophecy of how it might one day fare with her lovely, beautiful park. She therefore answered without any discomposure: “You and I are not old enough yet to have lived through very much of these contradictions; and yet when I look back into my own early youth, when I remember the style of complaints which I used then to hear from older people, and when I think at the same time of what the country and the town then were, I have nothing to advance against what you say. But is there nothing which one can do to remedy this natural course of things? Are father and son, parents and children, to be always thus unable to understand each other? You have been so kind as to prophesy a boy to me. Is it necessary that he must stand in contradiction to his father? Must he destroy what his parents have erected, instead of completing it, instead of following on upon the same idea, and elevating it?”
“There is a rational remedy for it,” replied the assistant. “But it is one which will be but seldom put in practice by men. The father should raise his son to a joint ownership with himself. He should permit him to plant and to build; and allow him the same innocent liberty which he allows to himself. One form of activity may be woven into another, but it cannot be pieced on to it. A young shoot may be readily and easily grafted with an old stem, to which no grown branch admits of being fastened.”
The assistant was glad to have had the opportunity, at the moment when he saw himself obliged to take his leave, of saying something agreeable to Charlotte, and thus making himself a new link to secure her favor. He had been already too long absent from home, and yet he could not make up his mind to return there, until after a full conviction that he must allow the approaching epoch of Charlotte’s confinement first to pass by, before he could look for any decision from her in respect to Ottilie. He therefore accommodated himself to the circumstances, and returned with these prospects and hopes to the superior.
Charlotte’s confinement was now approaching; she kept more in her own room. The ladies who had gathered about her were her closest companions. Ottilie managed all domestic matters, hardly able, however, the while, to think what she was doing. She had indeed utterly resigned herself; she desired to continue to exert herself to the extent of her power for Charlotte, for the child, for Edward. But she could not see how it would be possible for her. Nothing could save her from utter distraction, except patiently to do the duty which each day brought with it.
A son was brought happily into the world, and the ladies declared, with one voice, it was the very image of its father. Only Ottilie, as she wished the new mother joy, and kissed the child with all her heart, was unable to see the likeness. Once already Charlotte had felt most painfully the absence of her husband, when she had to make preparations for her daughter’s marriage. And now the father could not be present at the birth of his son. He could not have the choosing of the name by which the child was hereafter to be called.
The first among all Charlotte’s friends who came to wish her joy was Mittler. He had placed expresses ready to bring him news the instant the event took place. He was admitted to see her, and, scarcely able to conceal his triumph even before Ottilie, when alone with Charlotte he broke fairly out with it; and was at once ready with means to remove all anxieties, and set aside all immediate difficulties. The baptism should not be delayed a day longer than necessary. The old clergyman, who had one foot already in the grave, should leave his blessing, to bind together the past and the future. The child should be called Otto; what name would he bear so fitly as that of his father and of his father’s friend?
It required the peremptory resolution of this man to set aside the innumerable considerations, arguments, hesitations, difficulties; what this person knew, and that person knew better; the opinions, up and down, and backwards and forwards, which every friend volunteered. It always happens on such occasions that when one inconvenience is removed, a fresh inconvenience seems to arise; and in wishing to spare all sides we inevitably go wrong on one side or the other.
The letters to friends and relations were all undertaken by Mittler, and they were to be written and sent off at once. It was highly necessary, he thought, that the good fortune which he considered so important for the family, should be known as widely as possible through the ill-natured and misinterpreting world. For indeed these late entanglements and perplexities had got abroad among the public, which at all times has a conviction that whatever happens, happens only in order that it may have something to talk about.
The ceremony of the baptism was to be observed with all due honor, but it was to be as brief and as private as possible. The people came together; Ottilie and Mittler were to hold the child as sponsors. The old pastor, supported by the servants of the church, came in with slow steps; the prayers were offered. The child lay in Ottilie’s arms, and as she was looking affectionately down at it, it opened its eyes and she was not a little startled when she seemed to see her own eyes looking at her. The likeness would have surprised anyone. Mittler, who next had to receive the child, started as well; he fancying he saw in the little features a most striking likeness to the captain. He had never seen a resemblance so marked.
The infirmity of the good old clergyman had not permitted him to accompany the ceremony with more than the usual liturgy.
Mittler, however, who was full of his subject, recollected his old performances when he had been in the ministry, and indeed it was one of his peculiarities that on every sort of occasion, he always thought what he would like to say, and how he would express himself about it.
At this time he was the less able to contain himself, as he was now in the midst of a circle consisting entirely of well-known friends. He began therefore towards the conclusion of the service, to put himself quietly into the place of the clergyman; to make cheerful speeches aloud, expressive of his duty and his hopes as godfather, and to dwell all the longer on the subject, as he thought he saw in Charlotte’s gratified manner that she was pleased with his doing so.
It altogether escaped the eagerness of the orator, that the good old man would gladly have sat down; still less did he think that he was on the way to occasion a more serious evil. After he had described with all his power of impressiveness the relation in which every person present stood toward the child, thereby putting Ottilie’s composure sorely to the proof, he turned at last to the old man with the words, “And you, my worthy father, you may now well say with Simeon, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen the saviour of this house.’ ”
He was now in full swing towards a brilliant peroration, when he perceived the old man, to whom he held out the child, first appear a little to incline towards it, and immediately after to totter and sink backwards. Hardly prevented from falling, he was lifted to a seat; but, notwithstanding the instant assistance which was rendered, he was found to be dead.
To see thus side by side birth and death, the coffin and the cradle, to see them and to realize them, to comprehend, not with the eye of imagination, but with the bodily eye, at one moment these fearful opposites, was a hard trial to the spectators; the harder, the more utterly it had taken them by surprise. Ottilie alone stood contemplating the slumberer, whose features still retained their gentle sweet expression, with a kind of envy. The life of her soul was killed; why should the bodily life any longer drag on in weariness?
But though Ottilie was frequently led by melancholy incidents which occurred in the day to thoughts of the past, of separation and of loss, at night she had strange visions given her to comfort her, which assured her of the existence of her beloved, and thus strengthened hers, and gave her life for her own. When she laid herself down at night to rest, and was floating among sweet sensations between sleep and waking, she seemed to be looking into a clear but softly illuminated space. In this she would see Edward with the greatest distinctness, and not in the dress in which she had been accustomed to see him, but in military uniform; never in the same position, but always in a natural one, and not the least with anything fantastic about him, either standing or walking, or lying down or riding. The figure, which was painted with the utmost minuteness, moved readily before her without any effort of hers, without her willing it or exerting her imagination to produce it. Frequently she saw him surrounded with something in motion, which was darker than the bright ground; but the figures were shadowy, and she could scarcely distinguish them—sometimes they were like men, sometimes they were like horses, or like trees, or like mountains. She usually went to sleep in the midst of the apparition, and when, after a quiet night, she woke again in the morning, she felt refreshed and comforted; she could say to herself, Edward still lives, and she herself was still remaining in the closest relation towards him.