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


Chapter I

FELIX skipped into the garden; Wilhelm followed him with rapture: a lovely morning was displaying everything with fresh charms; our friend enjoyed the most delightful moment. Felix was new in the free and lordly world; nor did his father know much more than he about the objects, concerning which the little creature was repeatedly and unweariedly inquiring. At last they joined the gardener, who had to tell them the names and uses of a multitude of plants. Wilhelm looked on Nature as with unscaled eyes; the child’s new-fangled curiosity first made him sensible how weak an interest he himself had taken in external things, how small his actual knowledge was. Not till this day, the happiest of his life, did his own cultivation seem to have commenced: he felt the necessity of learning, being called upon to teach.

Jarno and the Abbé did not show themselves again till evening, when they brought a guest along with them. Wilhelm viewed the stranger with amazement; he could scarce believe his eyes: it was Werner; who, likewise, for a moment hesitated in his recognition. They embraced each other tenderly; neither of them could conceal that he thought the other greatly altered. Werner declared that his friend was taller, stronger, straighter; that he had become more polished in his looks and carriage. “Something of his old true-heartedness, I miss, however,” added he. “That too will soon appear again,” said Wilhelm, “when we have recovered from our first astonishment.”

The impression Werner made upon his friend was by no means so favourable. The honest man seemed rather to have retrograded than advanced. He was much leaner than of old; his peaked face appeared to have grown sharper, his nose longer; brow and crown had lost their hair; the voice, clear, eager, shrill, the hollow breast and stooping shoulders, the sallow cheeks, announced indubitably that a melancholic drudge was there.

Wilhelm was discreet enough to speak but sparingly of these great changes; while the other, on the contrary, gave free course to his friendly joy. “In truth,” cried he, “if thou hast spent thy time badly, and, as I suppose, gained nothing, it must be owned thou art grown a piece of manhood such as cannot fail to turn to somewhat. Do not waste and squander me this too again; with such a figure thou shalt buy some rich and beautiful heiress.” “I see,” said Wilhelm, smiling, “thou wilt not belie thy character. Scarcely hast thou found thy brother after long absence, when thou lookest on him as a piece of goods, a thing to speculate on, and make profit by.”

Jarno and the Abbé did not seem at all astonished at this recognition; they allowed the two to expatiate on the past and present as they pleased. Werner walked round and round his friend; turned him to this side and to that; so as almost to embarrass him. “No!” cried he, “such a thing as this I never met with, and yet I know that I am not mistaken. Thy eyes are deeper, thy brow is broader; thy nose has grown finer, thy mouth more lovely. Do but look at him, how he stands; how it all suits and fits together! Well, idling is the way to grow. But for me, poor devil,” said he, looking at himself in the glass, “if I had not all this while been making store of money, it were over with me altogether.”

Werner had got Wilhelm’s last letter; the distant trading house, in common with which Lothario meant to purchase the estates, was theirs. On that business Werner had come hither, not dreaming that he should meet with Wilhelm on the way. The Baron’s lawyer came; the papers were produced; Werner reckoned the conditions reasonable. “If you mean well,” said he, “as you seem to do, with this young man, you will of yourselves take care that our part be not abridged: it shall be at my friend’s option whether he will take the land, and lay out a portion of his fortune on it.” Jarno and the Abbé protested that they did not need this admonition. Scarcely had the business been discussed in general terms, when Werner signified a longing for a game at ombre; to which, in consequence, Jarno and the Abbé set themselves along with him. He was now grown so accustomed to it, that he could not pass the evening without cards.

The two friends, after supper, being left alone, began to talk, and question one another very keenly, touching everything they wished to have communicated. Wilhelm spoke in high terms of his situation, of his happiness in being received among such men. Werner shook his head and said: “Well, I see, we should believe nothing that we do not see with our eyes. More than one obliging friend assured me thou wert living with a wild young nobleman, wert supplying him with actresses, helping him to waste his money; that, by thy means, he had quarrelled with every one of his relations.” “For my own sake, and the sake of these worthy gentlemen, I should be vexed at this,” said Wilhelm, “had not my theatrical experience made me tolerant to every sort of calumny. How can men judge rightly of our actions, which appear but singly or in fragments to them; of which they see the smallest portion; while good and bad takes place in secret, and for most part nothing comes to light but an indifferent show? Are not the actors and actresses in a play set up on boards before them; lamps are lit on every side; the whole transaction is comprised within three hours; yet scarcely one of them knows rightly what to make of it.”

Our friend proceeded to inquire about his family, his young comrades, his native town. Werner told, with great haste, of changes that had taken place, of changes that were still in progress. “The women in our house,” said he, “are satisfied and happy; we are never short of money. One half of their time they spend in dressing; the other in showing themselves when dressed. They are as domestic as a reasonable man could wish. My boys are growing up to prudent youths. I already, as in vision, see them sitting, writing, reckoning, running, trading, trucking: each of them, as soon as possible, shall have a business of his own. As to what concerns our fortune, thou wilt be contented with the state of it. When we have got these lands in order, thou must come directly home with me; for it now appears as if thou too couldst mingle with some skill in worldly undertakings. Thanks to thy new friends, who have set thee on the proper path. I am certainly a fool: I never knew till now how well I liked thee, now when I cannot gape and gaze at thee enough, so well and handsome thou lookest. That is in truth another form than the portrait which was sent thy sister; which occasioned such disputes at home. Both mother and daughter thought young master very handsome indeed, with his slack collar, half-open breast, large ruff, sleek pendent hair, round hat, short waistcoat, and wide pantaloons; while I, on the other hand, maintained that the costume was scarce two finger-breadths from that of Harlequin. But now thou lookest like a man; only the queue is wanting, in which I beg of thee to bind thy hair; else some time or other, they will seize thee as a Jew, and demand toll and tribute of thee.”

Felix in the mean time had come into the room; and as they did not mind him, he had laid himself upon the sofa, and was fallen asleep. “What urchin is this?” said Werner. Wilhelm at that moment had not the heart to tell the truth; nor did he wish to lay a still ambiguous narrative before a man, who was by nature anything but credulous.

The whole party now proceeded to the lands, to view them, and conclude the bargain. Wilhelm would not part with Felix from his side; for the boy’s sake, he rejoiced exceedingly in the intended purchase. The longing of the child for cherries and berries, the season for which was at hand, brought to his mind the days of his own youth, and the manifold duties of a father, to prepare, to procure, and to maintain for his family a constant series of enjoyments. With what interest he viewed the nurseries and the buildings! How zealously be contemplated repairing what had been neglected, restoring what had fallen! He no longer looked upon the world with the eyes of a bird of passage: an edifice he did not now consider as a grove that is hastily put together, and that withers ere one leaves it. Everything that he proposed commencing was to be completed for his boy; everything that he erected was to last for several generations. In this sense, his apprenticeship was ended: with the feeling of a father, he had acquired all the virtues of a citizen. He felt this, and nothing could exceed his joy. “O needless strictness of morality,” exclaimed he, “while Nature in her own kindly manner trains us to all that we require to be! O strange demands of civil society, which first perplexes and misleads us, then asks of us more than Nature herself! Woe to every sort of culture which destroys the most effectual means of all true culture, and directs us to the end, instead of rendering us happy on the way!”

Much as he had already seen in his life, it seemed as if the observation of the child afforded him his first clear view of human nature. The theatre, the world had appeared before him, only as a multitude of thrown dice, every one of which upon its upper surface indicates a greater or a smaller value; and which, when reckoned up together, make a sum. But here in the person of the boy, as we might say, a single die was laid before him, on the many sides of which the worth and worthlessness of man’s nature were legibly engraved.

The child’s desire to have distinctions made in his ideas grew stronger every day. Having learned that things had names, he wished to hear the name of everything: supposing that there could be nothing which his father did not know, he often teased him with his questions, and caused him to inquire concerning objects, which but for this he would have passed without notice. Our innate tendency to pry into the origin and end of things was likewise soon developed in the boy. When he asked whence came the wind, and whither went the flame, his father for the first time truly felt the limitation of his own powers; and wished to understand how far man may venture with his thoughts, and what things he may hope ever to give account of to himself or others. The anger of the child, when he saw injustice done to any living thing, was extremely grateful to the father, as the symptom of a generous heart. Felix once struck fiercely at the cook for cutting up some pigeons. The fine impression this produced on Wilhelm was, indeed, ere long disturbed, when he found the boy unmercifully tearing sparrows in pieces, and beating frogs to death. This trait reminded him of many men, who appear so scrupulously just when without passion, and witnessing the proceedings of other men.

The pleasant feeling, that the boy was producing so fine and wholesome an influence on his being, was in short time troubled for a moment, when our friend observed that in truth the boy was educating him more than he the boy. The child’s conduct he was not qualified to correct: its mind he could not guide in any path but a spontaneous one. The evil habits which Aurelia had so violently striven against, had all, as it seemed, on her death, assumed their ancient privileges. Felix still never shut the door behind him, he still would not eat from a plate; and no greater pleasure could befall him than when he happened to be overlooked, and could take his bit immediately from the dish, or let the full glass stand, and drink out of the bottle. He delighted also very much when he could set himself in a corner with a book, and say with a serious air: “I must study this scholar stuff!” though he neither knew his letters nor would learn them.

Thus, when Wilhelm thought how little he had done for Felix, how little he was capable of doing, there arose at times a restlessness within him, which appeared to counterbalance all his happiness. “Are we men, then,” said he, “so selfishly formed that we cannot possibly take proper charge of any one without us? Am I not acting with the boy exactly as I did with Mignon? I drew the dear child towards me; her presence gave me pleasure; yet I cruelly neglected her. What did I do for her education, which she longed for with such earnestness? Nothing! I left her to herself, and to all the accidents to which in a society of coarse people she could be exposed. And now for this boy, who seemed so interesting before he could be precious to thee, has thy heart ever bid thee do the smallest service to him? It is time that thou shouldst cease to waste thy own years and those of others: awake, and think what thou shouldst do for thyself, and for this good being, whom love and nature have so firmly bound to thee.”

This soliloquy was but an introduction to admit that he had already thought, and cared, and tried, and chosen: he could delay no longer to confess it. After sorrow, often and in vain repeated, for the loss of Mariana, he distinctly felt that he must seek a mother for the boy; and also that he could not find one equal to Theresa. With this gifted lady he was thoroughly acquainted. Such a spouse and helpmate seemed the only one to trust oneself to, in such circumstances. Her generous affection for Lothario did not make him hesitate. By a singular destiny, they two had been forever parted; Theresa looked upon herself as free; she had talked of marrying, with indifference indeed, but as of a matter understood.

After long deliberation, he determined on communicating to her everything he knew about himself. She was to be made acquainted with him, as he already was with her. He accordingly began to take a survey of his history: but it seemed to him so empty of events, and in general so little to his credit, that he more than once was on the point of giving up his purpose. At last, however, he resolved on asking Jarno for the Roll of his Apprenticeship, which he had noticed lying in the Tower: Jarno said it was the very time for that, and Wilhelm consequently got it.

It is a feeling of awe and fear, which seizes on a man of noble mind, when conscious that his character is just about to be exhibited before him. Every transition is a crisis; and a crisis presupposes sickness. With what reluctance do we look into the glass after rising from a sick-bed! The recovery we feel: the effects of the past disease are all we see. Wilhelm had, however, been sufficiently prepared; events had already spoken loudly to him, and his friends had not spared him. If he opened the roll of parchment with some hurry, he grew calmer and calmer the farther he read. He found his life delineated with large sharp strokes; neither unconnected incidents, nor narrow sentiments perplexed his view; the most bland and general reflections taught without shaming him. For the first time, his own figure was presented to him; not indeed, as in a mirror, a second self; but as in a portrait, another self; we do not, it is true, recognise ourselves in every feature; but we are delighted that a thinking spirit has so understood us, that such gifts have been employed in representing us, that an image of what we were exists, and may endure when we ourselves are gone.

Wilhelm next employed himself in setting forth the history of his life, for the perusal of Theresa; all the circumstances of it were recalled to memory by what he had been reading; he almost felt ashamed that, to her great virtues, he had nothing to oppose which indicated a judicious activity. He had been minute in his written narrative; he was brief in the letter which he sent along with it. He solicited her friendship, her love, if it were possible; he offered her his hand, and entreated for a quick decision.

After some internal contest whether it was proper to impart this weighty business to his friends, to Jarno and the Abbé, he determined not to do so. His resolution was so firm, the business was of such importance, that he could not have submitted it to the decision of the wisest and best of men. He was even cautious enough to carry his letter with his own hand to the nearest post. From his parchment roll it appeared with certainty enough that, in very many actions of his life, in which he had conceived himself to be proceeding freely and in secret, he had been observed, nay guided; and perhaps the thought of this had given him an unpleasant feeling; and he wished at least in speaking to Theresa’s heart, to speak purely from the heart; to owe his fate to her decision and determination only. Hence in this solemn point he scrupled not to give his overseers the slip.