Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter I

J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Book III

Chapter I

  • Know’st thou the land where lemon-trees do bloom,
  • And oranges like gold in leafy gloom;
  • A gentle wind from deep blue heaven blows,
  • The myrtle thick, and high the laurel grows?
  • Know’st thou it, then?
  • ’Tis there! ’tis there,
  • O my belov’d one, I with thee would go!
  • Know’st thou the house, its porch with pillars tall?
  • The rooms do glitter, glitters bright the hall,
  • And marble statues stand, and look me on:
  • What’s this, poor child, to thee they’ve done?
  • Know’st thou it, then?
  • ’Tis there! ’tis there,
  • O my protector, I with thee would go!
  • Know’st thou the mountain bridge that hangs on cloud?
  • The mules in mist grope o’er the torrent loud,
  • In caves lie coil’d the dragon’s ancient brood,
  • The crag leaps down and over it the flood:
  • Know’st thou it, then?
  • ’Tis there! ’tis there
  • Our way runs; O my father, wilt thou go?
  • NEXT morning, on looking for Mignon about the house, Wilhelm did not find her; but was informed that she had gone out early with Melina, who had risen betimes to receive the wardrobe and other apparatus of his theatre.

    After the space of some hours, Wilhelm heard the sound of music before his door. At first he thought it was the Harper come again to visit him; but he soon distinguished the tones of a cithern, and the voice which began to sing was Mignon’s. Wilhelm opened the door; the child came in, and sang him the song we have just given above.

    The music and general expression of it pleased our friend extremely, though he could not understand all the words. He made her once more repeat the stanzas, and explain them; he wrote them down, and translated them into his native language. But the originality of its turns he could imitate only from afar; its childlike innocence of expression vanished from it in the process of reducing its broken phraseology to uniformity, and combining its disjointed parts. The charm of the tune, moreover, was entirely incomparable.

    She began every verse in a stately and solemn manner, as if she wished to draw attention towards something wonderful, as if she had something weighty to communicate. In the third line, her tones became deeper and gloomier; the Know’st thou it, then? was uttered with a show of mystery and eager circumspectness; in the ’T is there! ’tis there! lay a boundless longing; and her I with thee would go! she modified at each repetition, so that now it appeared to entreat and implore, now to impel and persuade.

    On finishing her song for the second time, she stood silent for a moment, looked keenly at Wilhelm, and asked him, “Know’st thou the land?” “It must mean Italy,” said Wilhelm: “where didst thou get the little song?” “Italy!” said Mignon with an earnest air: “If thou go to Italy, take me along with thee; for I am too cold here.” “Hast thou been there already, little dear?” said Wilhelm. But the child was silent, and nothing more could be got out of her.

    Melina entered now; he looked at the cithern; was glad that she had rigged it up again so prettily. The instrument had been among Melina’s stage-gear; Mignon had begged it of him in the morning; and then gone to the old Harper. On this occasion, she had shown a talent she was not before suspected of possessing.

    Melina had already got possession of his wardrobe, with all that pertained to it; some members of the town magistracy had promised him permission to act, for a time, in the place. He was now returning with a merry heart and a cheerful look. His nature seemed altogether changed; he was soft, courteous to every one, nay fond of obliging, and almost attractive. He was happy, he said, at now being able to afford employment to his friends, who had hitherto lain idle and embarrassed; sorry, however, that at first he could not have it in his power to remunerate the excellent actors whom fortune had offered him, in a style corresponding to their talents and capacities; being under the necessity, before all other things, of discharging his debt to so generous a friend as Wilhelm had proved himself to be.

    “I cannot describe,” said he to Wilhelm, “the friendliness which you have shown, in helping me forward to the management of a theatre. When I found you here, I was in a very curious predicament. You recollect how strongly I displayed to you, on our first acquaintance, my aversion to the stage; and yet, on being married, I was forced to look about for a place in some theatre, out of love to my wife, who promised to herself much joy and great applause, if so engaged. I could find none, at least no constant one; but in return I luckily fell in with some commercial men, who, in extraordinary cases, were enabled to employ a person that could handle his pen, that understood French, and was not without a little skill in ciphering. I managed pretty well in this way, for a time; I was tolerably paid; got about me many things which I had need of, and did not feel ashamed of my work. But these commissions of my patrons came to an end; they could afford me no permanent establishment: and ever since, my wife has continued urging me still more to go upon the stage again; though, at present, alas, her own situation is none of the favourablest for exhibiting herself, with honour, in the eyes of the public. But now, I hope, the establishment, which by your kind help I have the means of setting up, will prove a good beginning for me and mine; you I shall thank for all my future happiness, let matters turn out as they will.”

    Wilhelm listened to him with contentment: the whole fraternity of players were likewise moderately satisfied with the declarations of the new manager; they secretly rejoiced that an offer of employment had occurred so soon; and were disposed to put up, at first, with a smaller salary; the rather, that most of them regarded the present one, so unexpectedly placed within their reach, as a kind of supplement, on which a short while ago they could not count. Melina made haste to profit by this favourable temper; he endeavoured in a sly way to get a little talk with each in private; and ere long had, by various methods, so cockered them all, that they did not hesitate to strike a bargain with him, without loss of time; scarcely thinking of this new engagement, or reckoning themselves secure at worst of getting free again after six weeks’ warning.

    The terms were now to be reduced to proper form, and Melina was considering with what pieces he would first entice the public, when a courier riding up informed the Stallmeister, that his lord and lady were at hand; on which the latter ordered out his horses.

    In a short time after this, the coach with its masses of luggage rolled in; two servants sprang down from the coach-box before the inn; and Philina, according to her custom, foremost in the way of novelties, placed herself within the door.

    “Who are you?” said the Countess entering the house.

    “An actress, at your Excellency’s service,” was the answer; while the cheat, with a most innocent air, and looks of great humility, courtesied, and kissed the lady’s gown.

    The Count, on seeing some other persons standing round, who also signified that they were players, inquired about the strength of their company, their last place of residence, their manager. “Had they but been Frenchmen,” said he to his lady, “we might have treated the Prince with an unexpected enjoyment, and entertained him with his favourite pastime at our house.”

    “And could we not,” said the Countess, “get these people, though unluckily they are but Germans, to exhibit with us at the Castle, while the Prince stays there? Without doubt, they have some degree of skill. A large party can never be so well amused with anything as with a theatre; besides the Baron would assist them.”

    So speaking they went up-stairs; and Melina presented himself above, as manager. “Call your folk together,” said the Count, “and place them before me, that I may see what is in them. I must also have the list of pieces you profess to act.”

    Melina, with a low bow, hastened from the room, and soon returned with his actors. They advanced in promiscuous succession; some, out of too great anxiety to please, introduced themselves in a rather sorry style; the others, not much better, by assuming an air of unconcern. Philina showed the deepest reverence to the Countess, who behaved with extreme graciousness and condescension; the Count, in the mean time, was mustering the rest. He questioned each about his special province of acting; and signified to Melina, that he must rigorously keep them to their several provinces; a precept which the manager received with the greatest devotion.

    The Count then stated to each in particular what he ought especially to study, what about his figure or his postures ought to be amended; showed them luminously in what points the Germans always fail; and displayed such extra-ordinary knowledge, that all stood in the deepest humility, scarcely daring to draw their breath, before so enlightened a critic and so right honourable a patron.

    “What fellow is that in the corner?” said the Count, looking at a subject, who had not yet been presented to him, and who now approached; a lean shambling figure, with a rusty coat patched at the elbows, and a woful periwig covering his submissive head.

    This person, whom, from the last Book, we know already as Philina’s darling, had been wont to enact pedants, tutors and poets; generally undertaking parts in which any cudgelling or ducking was to be endured. He had trained himself to certain crouching, ludicrous, timid bows; and his faltering, stammering speech befitted the characters he played, and created laughter in the audience; so that he was always looked on as a useful member of the company, being moreover very serviceable and obliging. He approached the Count in his own peculiar way; bent himself before him, and answered every question with the grimaces and gestures he was used to on the stage. The Count looked at him, for some time, with an air of attentive satisfaction and studious observation; then turning to the Countess, “Child,” said he, “consider this man well: I will engage for it, he is a great actor, or may become so.” The creature here, in the fulness of his heart, made an idiotic bow; the Count burst into laughing, and exclaimed: “He does it excellently well! I bet this fellow can act anything he likes; it is pity that he has not been already used to something better.”

    So singular a prepossession was extremely galling to the rest; Melina alone felt no vexation, but completely coincided with the Count, and answered with a prostrate look: “Alas! it is too true; both he and others of us have long stood in need of such encouragement, and such a judge, as we now find in your Excellency.”

    “Is this the whole company?” inquired the Count.

    “Some of them are absent,” said the crafty Melina; “and at any rate, if we should meet with support, we could soon collect abundant numbers from the neighbourhood.”

    Philina in the mean while was saying to the Countess: “There is a very pretty young man above, who without doubt would shortly become a first-rate amateur.”

    “Why does not he appear?” said the Countess.

    “I will bring him,” cried Philina, hastening to the door.

    She found our friend still occupied with Mignon; she persuaded him to come down. He followed her with some reluctance; yet curiosity impelled him: for hearing that the family were people of rank, he longed much to know more of them. On entering the room his eyes met those of the Countess, which were directed towards him. Philina led him to the lady, while the Count was busied with the rest. Wilhelm made his bow; and replied to several questions from the fair dame, not without confusion of mind. Her beauty and youth, her graceful dignity and refined manner, made the most delightful impression on him; and the more so, as her words and looks were accompanied with a certain bashfulness, one might almost say embarrassment. He was likewise introduced to the Count, who however took no special notice of him; but went to the window with his lady, and seemed to ask her about something. It was easy to observe that her opinion accorded strongly with his own; that she even tried to persuade him, and strengthen him in his intentions.

    In a short while, he turned round to the company, and said: “I must not stay at present, but I will send a friend to you; and if you make reasonable proposals, and will take very great pains, I am not disinclined to let you play at the Castle.”

    All testified their joy at this; Philina in particular kissed the hands of the Countess with the greatest vivacity.

    “Look you, little thing,” said the lady, patting the cheeks of the light-minded girl, “look you, child, you shall come to me again; I will keep my promise; only you must dress better.” Philina stated in excuse that she had little to lay out upon her wardrobe; and the Countess immediately ordered her waiting-maids to bring from the carriage a silk neckerchief and an English hat, the articles easiest to come at, and give them to her new favourite. The Countess herself then decked Philina, who continued very neatly to support, by her looks and conduct, that saint-like, guiltless character she had assumed at first.

    The Count took his lady’s hand and led her down. She bowed to the whole company with a friendly air, in passing by them; she turned round again towards Wilhelm, and said to him, with the most gracious mien: “We shall soon meet again.”

    These happy prospects enlivened the whole party: every one of them gave free course to his hopes, his wishes, his imaginations; spoke of the parts he would play, and the applause he would acquire. Melina was considering how he might still, by a few speedy exhibitions, gain a little money from the people of the town, before he left it; while others went into the kitchen, to order a better dinner than of late they had been used to.