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

Book II

Chapter II

ACCUSTOMED in this way to torment himself, he now also attacked what still remained to him, what next to love, and along with it, had given him the highest joys and hopes, his talent as a poet and actor, with spiteful criticisms on every side. In his labours he could see nothing but a shallow imitation of prescribed forms, without intrinsic worth; he looked on them as stiff school-exercises, destitute of any spark of nature, truth, or inspiration. His poems now appeared nothing more than a monotonous arrangement of syllables, in which the most trite emotions and thoughts were dragged along and kept together by a miserable rhyme. And thus did he also deprive himself of every expectation, every pleasure, which, on this quarter at least, might have aided the recovery of his peace.

With his theatric talent it fared no better. He blamed himself for not having sooner detected the vanity, on which alone his pretension had been founded. His figure, his gait, his movements, his mode of declamation, were severally taxed; he decisively renounced every species of advantage or merit, that might have raised him above the common run of men, and so doing he increased his mute despair to the highest pitch. For, if it is hard to give up a woman’s love, no less painful is the task to part from the fellowship of the Muses, to declare ourselves forever undeserving to be of their community; and to forego the fairest and most immediate kind of approbation, what is openly bestowed on our person, our voice and our demeanour.

Thus then our friend had long ago entirely resigned himself, and set about devoting his powers with the greatest zeal to the business of trade. To the surprise of friends, and to the great contentment of his father, no one was now more diligent than Wilhelm, on the exchange or in the counting-house, in the saleroom or the warehouses; correspondence and calculations, all that was intrusted to his charge, he attended to and managed with the greatest diligence and zeal. Not in truth with that warm diligence which to the busy man is its own reward, when he follows with constancy and order the employment he was born for; but with the silent diligence of duty, which has the best principle for its foundation, which is nourished by conviction, and rewarded by conscience; yet, which oft, even when the clearest testimony of our minds is crowning it with approbation, can scarcely repress a struggling sigh.

In this manner he had lived for a time, assiduously busied, and at last persuaded that his former hard trial had been ordained by fate for the best. He felt glad at having thus been timefully, though somewhat harshly warned about the proper path of life; while many are constrained to expiate more heavily, and at a later age, the misconceptions into which their youthful inexperience has betrayed them. For, each man commonly defends himself as long as possible from casting out the idols which he worships in his soul, from acknowledging a master error, and admitting any truth which brings him to despair.

Determined as he was to abandon his dearest projects, some time was still necessary to convince him fully of his misfortune. At last, however, he had so completely succeeded by irrefragable reasons in annihilating every hope of love, of poetical performance, or stage-representation, that he took courage to obliterate entirely all the traces of his folly, all that could in any way remind him of it. For this purpose he had lit a fire in his chamber one cool evening, and brought out a little chest of reliques, among which were multitudes of small articles, that, in memorable moments, he had begged or stolen from Mariana. Each withered flower brought to his mind the time when it bloomed fresh among her hair; each little note the happy hour to which it had invited him; each ribbon-knot the lovely resting-place of his head, her beautiful bosom. So occupied, was it not to be expected that each emotion, which he thought long since quite dead, should again begin to move? Was it not to be expected that the passion, over which, when separated from his mistress, he had gained the victory, should, in the presence of these memorials, again gather strength? We first observe how dreary and disagreeable an overclouded day is, when a single sunbeam pierces through, and offers to us the exhilarating splendour of a serene hour.

Accordingly, it was not without disturbance that he saw these reliques, long preserved as sacred, fade away from before him in smoke and flame. Sometimes he shuddered and hesitated in his task; he had still a pearl necklace and a flowered neckerchief in his hands, when he resolved to quicken the decaying fire with the poetical attempts of his youth.

Till now he had carefully laid up whatever had proceeded from his open, since the earliest unfolding of his mind. His papers yet lay tied up in a bundle at the bottom of the chest, where he had packed them, purposing to take them with him in his elopement. How altogether different were his feelings now in opening them, and his feelings then in tying them together!

If we happen, under certain circumstances, to have written and sealed and dispatched a letter to a friend, which, however, does not find him, but is brought back to us, and we open it at the distance of some considerable time, a singular emotion is produced in us, on breaking up our own seal, and conversing with our altered self as with a third person. A similar and deep feeling seized our friend, as he now opened this packet, and threw the scattered leaves into the fire; which was flaming fiercely with its offerings, when Werner entered, expressed his wonder at the blaze, and asked what was the matter.

“I am now giving proof,” said Wilhelm, “that I am serious in abandoning a trade for which I was not born.” And with these words he cast the second packet likewise into the fire. Werner made a motion to prevent him; but the business was already done.

“I cannot see how thou shouldst bring thyself to such extremities,” said Werner. “Why must these labours, because they are not excellent, be annihilated?”

“Because either a poem is excellent, or it should not be allowed to exist. Because each man, who has no gift for producing first-rate works, should entirely abstain from the pursuit of art, an seriously guard himself against every deception on that subject. For it must be owned, that in all men there is a certain vague desire to imitate whatever is presented to them; and such desires do not prove at all that we possess the force within us necessary for succeeding in these enterprises. Look at boys, how, whenever rope-dancers have been visiting the town, they go scrambling up and down, and balancing on all the planks and beams within their reach, till some other charm calls them off to other sports, for which perhaps they are as little suited. Hast thou never marked it in the circle of our friends? No sooner does a dilettante introduce himself to notice, than numbers of them set themselves to learn playing on his instrument. How many wander back and forward on this bootless way! Happy they, who soon detect the chasm that lies between their wishes and their powers!”

Werner contradicted this opinion; their discussion became lively, and Wilhelm could not without emotion employ against his friend the arguments with which he had already so frequently tormented himself. Werner maintained that it was not reasonable wholly to relinquish a pursuit for which a man had some propensity and talent, merely because he never could succeed in it to full perfection. There were many vacant hours, he said, which might be filled up by it; and then by and by some result might be produced, which would yield a certain satisfaction to himself and others.

Wilhelm, who in this matter was of quite a different opinion, here interrupted him, and said with great vivacity: “How immensely, dear friend, do you err in believing that a work, the first presentation of which is to fill the whole soul, can be produced in broken hours scraped together from other extraneous employment! No, the poet must live wholly for himself, wholly in the objects that delight him. Heaven has furnished him internally with precious gifts; he carries in his bosom a treasure that is ever of itself increasing; he must also live with his treasure, undisturbed from without, in that still blessedness which the rich seek in vain to purchase with their accumulated stores. Look at men, how they struggle after happiness and satisfaction! Their wishes, their toil, their gold, are ever hunting restlessly; and after what? After that which the poet has received from nature,—the right enjoyment of the world; the feeling of himself in others; the harmonious conjunction of many things that will seldom exist together.

“What is it that keeps men in continual discontent and agitation? It is, that they cannot make realities correspond with their conceptions, that enjoyment steals away from among their hands, that the wished-for comes too late, and nothing reached and acquired produces on the heart the effect which their longing for it at a distance led them to anticipate. Now fate has exalted the poet above all this, as if he were a god. He views the conflicting tumult of the passions; sees families and kingdoms raging in aimless commotion; sees those inexplicable enigmas of misunderstanding, which frequently a single monosyllable would suffice to explain, occasioning convulsions unutterably baleful. He has a fellow-felling of the mournful and the joyful in the fate of all human beings. When the man of he world is devoting his days to wasting melancholy, for some deep disappointment; or, in the ebullience of joy, is going out to meet his happy destiny, the lightly-moved and all-conceiving spirit of the poet steps forth, like the sum from night to day, and with soft transitions tunes his heart to joy or woe. From his heart, his native soil, springs up the lovely flower of wisdom; and if others, while waking, dream, and are pained with fantastic delusions from their every sense, he passes the dream of life like one awake, and the strangest of incidents is to him but a part both of the past and of the future. And thus the poet is at once a teacher, a prophet, a friend of gods and men. How! thou wouldst have him descend from his height to some paltry occupation? He who is fashioned like the bird to hover round the world, to nestle on the lofty summits, to feed on buds and fruits, exchanging gaily one bough for another, he ought also to work at the plough like an ox; like a dog to train himself to the harness and draught; or perhaps, tied up in a chain, to guard a farm-yard by his barking!”

Werner, it may well be supposed, had listened with the greatest surprise. “All true,” he rejoined, “if men were but made like birds, and though they neither spun nor weaved, could yet spend peaceful days in perpetual enjoyment; if, at the approach of winter, they could as easily betake themselves to distant regions, could retire before scarcity, and fortify themselves against frost.”

“Poets have lived so,” exclaimed Wilhelm, “in times when true nobleness was better reverenced; and so should they ever live. Sufficiently provided for within, they had need of little from without; the gift of communicating lofty emotions and glorious images to men, in melodies and words that charmed the ear, and fixed themselves inseparably on whatever objects they referred to, of old enraptured the world, and served the gifted as a rich inheritance. At the courts of kings, at the tables of the great, beneath the windows of the fair, the sound of them was heard, while the ear and the soul were shut to all beside; and men felt, as we do when delight comes over us, and we stop with rapture if among the dingles we are crossing the voice of the nightingale starts out touching and strong. They found a home in every habitation of the world, and the lowliness of their condition but exalted them the more. The hero listened to their songs; and the conqueror of the earth did reverence to a poet, for the felt that without poets, his own wild and vast existence would pass away like a whirlwind, and be forgotten forever. The lover wished that he could feel his longings and his joys so variedly and so harmoniously as the poet’s inspired lips had skill to show them forth; and even the rich man could not of himself discern such costliness in his idol grandeurs, as when they were presented to him shining in the splendour of the poet’s spirit, sensible to all worth, and exalting all. Nay, if thou wilt have it, who but the poet was it that first formed gods for us; that exalted us to them, and brought them down to us?”

“My friend,” said Werner, after some reflection, “it has often grieved me, that thou shouldst strive by force to banish from thy soul what thou feelest so vividly. I am greatly mistaken, if it were not better for thee in some degree to yield to these propensities, than to waste thyself by the contradictions of so hard a piece of self-denial, and with the enjoyment of this one guiltless pleasure to renounce the enjoyment of all others.”

“Shall I confess it,” said the other, “and wilt thou not laugh at me if I acknowledge, that these ideas pursue me constantly; that, let me fly them as I will, when I explore my heart, I find all my early wishes yet rooted there firmly, nay more firmly than ever? Yet what now remains for me, wretched that I am? Ah! whoever should have told me that the arms of my spirit, with which I was grasping at infinity, and hoping with certainty to clasp something great and glorious, would so soon be crushed and smote in pieces; whoever should have told me this, would have brought me to despair. And yet now, when judgment had been passed against me; now when she, that was to be as my divinity to guide me to my wishes, is gone forever, what remains but that I yield up my soul to the bitterest woes? O my brother! I will not deceive you: in my secret purposes, she was as the hook on which the ladder of my hopes was fixed: See! With daring aim the mounting adventurer hovers in the air; the iron breaks, and he lies broken and dismembered on the earth. No, there is no hope, no comfort for me more! I will not,” he cried out, springing to his feet, “leave a single fragment of these wretched papers from the flames.” He then seized one or two packets of them, tore them up, and threw them into the fire. Werner endeavoured to restrain him, but in vain. “Let me alone!” cried Wilhelm; “what should these miserable leaves do here? To me they give neither pleasant recollections, nor pleasant hopes. Shall they remain behind to vex me to the end of my life? Shall they perhaps one day serve the world for a jest, instead of awakening sympathy and horror? Woe to me! my doom is woe! Now I comprehend the wailings of the poets, of the wretched whom necessity has rendered wise. How long did I look upon myself as invulnerable and invincible; and alas! I am now made to see that a deep and early sorrow can never heal, can never pass away; I feel that I shall take it with me to my grave. No! not a day of my life shall escape this anguish, which at last must crush me down; and her image too shall stay with me, shall live and die with me, the image of the worthless!—O my friend! if I must speak the feeling o my heart,—the perhaps not altogether worthless! Her situation, the crookedness of her destiny, have a thousand times excused her in my mind. I have been too cruel; you steeled me in your own cold unrelenting harshness; you held my wavering senses captive, and hindered me from doing for myself and her what I owed to both. Who knows to what a state I may have brought her; my conscience by degrees presents to me, in all its heaviness, in what helplessness, in what despair I may have left her. Was it not possible that she might clear herself? Was it not possible? How many misconceptions throw the world into perplexity; how many circumstances may extort forgiveness for the greatest fault! Often do I figure her as sitting by herself in silence, leaning on her elbows. ‘This,’ she says, ‘is the faith, the love he swore to me! With this hard stroke to end the delicious life which made us one!’” He broke out into a stream of tears, while he threw himself down with his face upon the table, and wetted the remaining papers with his weeping.

Werner stood beside him in the deepest perplexity. He had not anticipated this fierce ebullition of feeling. More than once he had tried to interrupt his friend, more than once to lead the conversation elsewhere, but in vain; the current was too strong for him. It remained that long-suffering friendship should again take up her office. Werner allowed the first shock of sorrow to pass over, while by his silent presence he testified a pure and honest sympathy. And thus they both remained that evening: Wilhelm sunk in the dull feeling of old sorrows; and the other terrified at this new outbreaking of a passion, which he thought his prudent counsels and keen persuasion had long since mastered and destroyed.