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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Hermann and Dorothea.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.



THERE the three men, however, still sat conversing together,

With mine host of the Lion, the village doctor, and pastor;

And their talk was still on the same unvarying subject,

Turning it this way and that, and viewing from every direction.

But with his sober judgment the excellent pastor made answer:

“Here will I not contradict you. I know that man should be always

Striving for that which is better; indeed, as we see, he is reaching

Always after the higher, at least some novelty craving.

But be careful ye go not too far, for with this disposition

Nature has given us pleasure in holding to what is familiar;

Taught us in that to delight to which we have long been accustomed.

Every condition is good that is founded on reason and nature.

Many are man’s desires, yet little it is that he needeth;

Seeing the days are short and mortal destiny bounded.

Ne’er would I censure the man whom a restless activity urges,

Bold and industrious, over all pathways of land and of ocean,

Ever untiring to roam; who takes delight in the riches,

Heaping in generous abundance about himself and his children.

Yet not unprized by me is the quiet citizen also,

Making the noiseless round of his own inherited acres,

Tilling the ground as the ever-returning seasons command him.

Not with every year is the soil transfigured about him;

Not in haste does the tree stretch forth, as soon as ’tis planted,

Full-grown arms towards heaven and decked with plenteous blossoms.

No: man has need of patience, and needful to him are also

Calmness and clearness of mind, and a pure and right understanding.

Few are the seeds he intrusts to earth’s all-nourishing bosom;

Few are the creatures he knows how to raise and bring to perfection.

Centred are all his thoughts alone on that which is useful.

Happy to whom by nature a mind of such temper is given,

For he supports us all! And hail, to the man whose abode is

Where in a town the country pursuits with the city are blended.

On him lies not the pressure that painfully hampers the farmer,

Nor is he carried away by the greedy ambition of cities;

Where they of scanty possessions too often are given to aping,

Wives and daughters especially, those who are higher and richer.

Blessed be therefore thy son in his life of quiet employment;

Blessed the wife, of like mind with himself, whom he one day shall choose him.”

Thus he spoke; and scarce had he ended when entered the mother,

Holding her son by the hand, and so led him up to her husband.

“Father,” she said, “how oft when we two have been chatting together,

Have we rejoiced in the thought of Hermann’s future espousal,

When he should bring his bride to be the light of our dwelling!

Over and over again the matter we pondered: this maiden

Fixing upon for him first, and then that, with the gossip of parents.

But that day is now come; and Heaven at last has the maiden

Brought to him hither, and shown him; and now his heart has decided.

Said we not always then he should have his own choice in the matter?

Was it not just now thy wish that he might with lively affection

Feel himself drawn to some maiden? The hour is come that we hoped for.

Yes; he has felt and has chosen and come to a manly decision.

That same maiden it is that met him this morning, the stranger:

Say he may have her, or else, as he swears, his life shall be single.”

“Give her me, father,” so added the son: “my heart has elected

Clear and sure; she will be to you both the noblest of daughters.”

But the father was silent. Then hastily rose the good pastor,

Took up the word and said: “The moment alone is decisive;

Fixes the life of man, and his future destiny settles.

After long taking of counsel, yet only the work of a moment

Every decision must be; and the wise alone seizes the right one.

Dangerous always it is comparing the one with the other

When we are making our choice, and so confusing our feelings.

Hermann is pure. From childhood up I have known him, and never

E’en as a boy was he wont to be reaching for this and the other:

What he desired was best for him too, and he held to it firmly.

Be not surprised and alarmed that now has appeared of a sudden,

What thou hast wished for so long. It is true that the present appearance

Bears not the form of the wish, exactly as thou hadst conceived it:

For our wishes oft hide from ourselves the object we wish for;

Gifts come down from above in the shapes appointed by Heaven.

Therefore misjudge not the maiden who now of thy dearly beloved,

Good and intelligent son has been first to touch the affections:

Happy to whom at once his first love’s hand shall be given,

And in whose heart no tenderest wish must secretly languish.

Yes: his whole bearing assures me that now his fate is decided.

Genuine love matures in a moment the youth into manhood;

He is not easily moved; and I fear that if this be refused him,

Sadly his years will go by, those years that should be the fairest.”

Straightway then in a thoughtful tone the doctor made answer,

On whose tongue for a long time past the words had been trembling:

“Pray let us here as before pursue the safe middle course only.

Make haste slowly: that was Augustus the emperor’s motto.

Willingly I myself place at my well-beloved neighbor’s disposal,

Ready to do him what service I can with my poor understanding.

Youth most especially stands in need of some one to guide it.

Let me therefore go forth that I may examine the maiden,

And may question the people among whom she lives and who know her.

Me ’tis not easy to cheat: I know how words should be valued.”

Straightway the son broke in, and with winged words made he answer:

“Do so, neighbor, and go and make thine inquiries; but with thee

I should be glad if our minister here were joined in the errand:

Two such excellent men would be irreproachable judges.

O my father! believe me, she’s none of those wandering maidens,

Not one of those who stroll through the land in search of adventure,

And who seek to ensnare inexperienced youth in their meshes.

No: the hard fortunes of war, that universal destroyer,

Which is convulsing the earth and has hurled from its deep foundations

Many a structure already, have sent the poor girl into exile.

Are not now men of high birth, the most noble, in misery roaming?

Princes fly in disguise and kings are in banishment living.

So alas! also is she, the best among all of her sisters,

Driven an exile from home; yet, her personal sorrows forgetting,

She is devoted to others; herself without help, she is helpful.

Great is the want and the suffering over the earth that are spreading:

Shall not some happiness, too, be begotten of all this affliction,

And shall not I in the arms of my wife, my trusted companion,

Look back with joy to the war, as do ye to the great conflagration?”

Outspoke the father then in a tone of decision, and answered:

“Strangely thy tongue has been loosened, my son, which many a year past

Seemed to have stuck in thy mouth, and only to move on compulsion!

I must experience to-day, it would seem, what threatens all fathers,

That the son’s headstrong will the mother with readiness favors,

Showing too easy indulgence; and every neighbor sides with them

When there is aught to be carried against the father and husband.

But I will not oppose you, thus banded together: how could I?

For I already perceive here tears and defiance beforehand.

Go ye therefore, inquire, in God’s name, bring me the daughter,

But if not so, then the boy is to think no more of the maiden.”

Thus the father. The son cried out with joyful demeanor,

“Ere it is evening the noblest of daughters shall hither be brought you,

Such as no man with sound sense in his breast can fail to be pleased with.

Happy, I venture to hope, will be also the excellent maiden.

Yes; she will ever be grateful for having had father and mother

Given once more in you, and such as a child most delights in.

Now I will tarry no longer, but straightway harness the horses,

Drive forth our friends at once on the footsteps of my beloved,

Leaving them then to act for themselves, as their wisdom shall dictate,

Guide myself wholly, I promise, according to what they determine,

And, until I may call her my own, ne’er look on the maiden.”

Thus he went forth: the others meanwhile remained in discussion,

Rapid and earnest, considering deeply their great undertaking.

Hermann hasted straightway to the stable, where quietly standing

Found he the spirited stallions, the clean oats quickly devouring,

And the well-dried hay that was cut from the richest of meadows.

On them without delay the shining bits he adjusted,

Hastily drew the straps through the buckles of beautiful plating,

Firmly fastened then the long broad reins, and the horses

Led without to the court-yard, whither the willing assistant

Had with ease, by the pole, already drawn forward the carriage.

Next to the whipple-tree they with care by the neatly kept traces

Joined the impetuous strength of the freely travelling horses.

Whip in hand took Hermann his seat and drove under the doorway.

Soon as the friends straightway their commodious places had taken,

Quickly the carriage rolled off, and left the pavement behind it,

Left behind it the walls of the town and the fresh-whitened towers.

Thus drove Hermann on till he came to the well-known causeway.

Rapidly, loitering nowhere, but hastening up hill and down hill.

But as he now before him perceived the spire of the village,

And no longer remote the garden-girt houses were lying,

Then in himself he thought that here he would rein up the horses.

Under the solemn shade of lofty linden-trees lying,

Which for centuries past upon this spot had been rooted,

Spread in front of the village a broad and grass-covered common,

Favorite place of resort for the peasants and neighboring towns-folk.

Here, at the foot of the trees, sunk deep in the ground was a wellspring;

When you descended the steps, stone benches you found at the bottom,

Stationed about the spring, whose pure, living waters were bubbling

Ceaselessly forth, hemmed in by low walls for convenience of drawing.

Hermann resolved that here he would halt, with his horses and carriage,

Under the shade of the trees. He did so, and said to the others:

“Here alight, my friends, and go your ways to discover

Whether the maiden in truth be worthy the hand that I offer.

That she is so, I believe; naught new or strange will ye tell me.

Had I to act for myself, I should go with speed to the village,

Where a few words from the maiden’s own lips should determine my fortune.

Ye will with readiness single her out from all of the others,

For there can scarcely be one that to her may be likened in bearing.

But I will give you, besides, her modest attire for a token:

Mark, then, the stomacher’s scarlet, that sets off the arch of her bosom,

Prettily laced, and the bodice of black fitting close to her figure;

Neatly the edge of her kerchief is plaited into a ruffle,

Which with a simple grace her chin’s rounded outline encircles;

Freely and lightly rises above it the head’s dainty oval;

And her luxuriant hair over silver bodkins is braided;

Down from under her bodice, the full, blue petticoat falling,

Wraps itself, when she is walking, about her neatly shaped ankles.

Yet one thing will I say, and would make it my earnest petition,—

Speak not yourselves with the maiden, nor let your intent be discovered;

Rather inquire of others, and hearken to what they may tell you.

When ye have tidings enough to satisfy father and mother,

Then return to me here, and we will consider what further.

So did I plan it all out in my mind while driving you hither.”

Thus he spoke. The friends thereupon went their way to the village,

Where, in the houses and gardens and barns, the people were swarming;

Wagons on wagons stood crowded together along the broad highway.

Men for the harnessed horses and lowing cattle were caring,

While the women were busy in drying their clothes on the hedges,

And in the running brook the children were merrily splashing.

Making their way through the pressure of wagons, of people and cattle,

Went the commissioned spies, and to right and to left looked about them,

If they a figure might see that answered the maiden’s description;

But not one of them all appeared the beautiful damsel.

Denser soon grew the press. A contest arose round the wagons

’Mongst the threatening men, wherein blended the cries of the women.

Rapidly then to the spot, and with dignified step, came an elder,

Joined the clamoring group, and straightway the uproar was silenced,

As he commanded peace, and rebuked with a fatherly sternness.

“Has, then, misfortune,” he cried, “not yet so bound us together,

That we have finally learned to bear and forbear one another,

Though each one, it may be, do not measure his share of the labor?

He that is happy, forsooth, is contentious! Will sufferings never

Teach you to cease from your brawls of old between brother and brother?

Grudge not one to another a place on the soil of the stranger;

Rather divide what ye have, as yourselves ye would hope to find mercy.”

Thus spoke the man and all became silent: restored to good humor,

Peaceably then the people arranged their cattle and wagons.

But when the clergyman now had heard what was said by the stranger,

And had the steadfast mind of the foreign justice discovered,

He to the man drew near and with words of meaning addressed him:

“True it is, father, that when in prosperity people are living,

Feeding themselves from the earth, which far and wide opens her bosom,

And in the years and months renews the coveted blessings,—

All goes on of itself, and each himself deems the wisest,

Deems the best, and so they continue abiding together,

He of greatest intelligence ranking no higher than others;

All that occurs, as if of itself, going quietly forward.

But let disaster unsettle the usual course of existence,

Tear down the buildings about us, lay waste the crops and the garden,

Banish the husband and wife from their old, familiar-grown dwelling,

Drive them to wander abroad through nights and days or privation,—

Then, ah then! we look round us to see what man is the wisest,

And no longer in vain his glorious words will be spoken.

Tell me, art thou not judge among this fugitive people,

Father, who thus in an instant canst bid their passions be quiet?

Thou dost appear to-day as one of those earliest leaders,

Who through deserts and wanderings guided the emigrant nations.

Yea, I could even believe I were speaking with Joshua or Moses.”

Then with serious look the magistrate answered him, saying:

“Truly our times might well be compared with all others in strangeness,

Which are in history mentioned, profane or sacred tradition;

For who has yesterday lived and to-day in times like the present,

He has already lived years, events are so crowded together.

If I look back but a little, it seems that my head must be hoary

Under the burden of years, and yet my strength is still active.

Well may we of this day compare ourselves unto that people

Who, from the burning bush, beheld in the hour of their danger

God the Lord: we also in cloud and in fire have beheld him.”

Seeing the priest was inclined to speak yet more with the stranger,

And was desirous of learning his story and that of his people,

Privately into his ear his companion hastily whispered:

“Talk with the magistrate further, and lead him to speak of the maiden.

I, however, will wander in search, and as soon as I find her,

Come and report to thee here.” The minister nodded, assenting;

And through the gardens, hedges, and barns, went the spy on his errand.