Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter II

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

Book IV

Chapter II

MELINA was in hopes to get established with his company, in a small but thriving town at some distance. They had already reached the place where the Count’s horses were to turn; and now they looked about for other carriages and cattle to transport them onward. Melina had engaged to provide them a conveyance; he showed himself but niggardly, according to his custom. Wilhelm, on the contrary, had the shining ducats of the Countess in his pocket, and thought he had the fullest right to spend them merrily; forgetting very soon how ostentatiously he had produced them in the stately balance transmitted to his father.

His friend Shakspeare, whom with the greatest joy he acknowledged as his godfather, and rejoiced the more that his name was Wilhelm, had introduced him to a prince, who frolicked for a time among mean, nay vicious companions, and who, notwithstanding his nobleness of nature, found pleasure in the rudeness, indecency and coarse intemperance of these altogether sensual knaves. This ideal likeness, which he figured as the type and the excuse of his own actual condition, was most welcome to our friend; and the process of self-deception, to which already he displayed an almost invincible tendency, was thereby very much facilitated.

He now began to think about his dress. It struck him that a waistcoat, over which, in case of need, one could throw a little short mantle, was a very fit thing for a traveller. Long knit pantaloons, and a pair of lacing-boots, seemed the true garb of a pedestrian. He next procured a fine silk sash, which he tied about him, under the pretence at first of securing warmth for his person. On the other hand, he freed his neck from the tyranny of stocks; and got a few stripes of muslin sewed upon his shirt; making the pieces of considerable breadth, so that they presented the complete appearance of an ancient ruff. The beautiful silk neckerchief; the memorial of Mariana, which had once been saved from burning, now lay slackly tied beneath this muslin collar. A round hat, with a parti-coloured band, and a large feather, perfected the mask.

The women all asserted that this garb became him very well. Philina in particular appeared enchanted with it. She solicited his hair for herself; beautiful locks, which, the closer to approach the natural ideal, he had unmercifully clipped. By so doing, she recommended herself not amiss to his favour; and our friend, who, by his openhandedness, had acquired the right of treating his companions somewhat in Prince Harry’s manner, ere long fell into the humour of himself contriving a few wild tricks, and presiding in the execution of them. The people fenced, they danced, they devised all kinds of sports; and in their gaiety of heart partook of what tolerable wine they could fall in with, in copious proportions; while, amid the disorder of this tumultuous life, Philina lay in wait for the coy hero; over whom let his better Genius keep watch!

One chief diversion, which yielded the company a frequent and very pleasing entertainment, consisted in producing an extempore play, in which their late benefactors and patrons were mimicked and turned into ridicule. Some of our actors had seized very neatly whatever was peculiar in the outward manner of several distinguished people in the Count’s establishment; their imitation of these was received by the rest of the party with the greatest approbation; and when Philina produced, from the secret archives of her experience, certain peculiar declarations of love that had been made to her, the audience were like to die with laughing and malicious joy.

Wilhelm censured their ingratitude; but they told him in reply, that these gentry well deserved what they were getting, their general conduct towards such deserving people as our friends believed themselves, not having been by any means the best imaginable. The little consideration, the neglect they had experienced, were now described with many aggravations. The jesting, bantering and mimicry proceeded as before; our party were growing bitterer and more unjust every minute.

“I wish,” observed Wilhelm, “there were no envy or selfishness lurking under what you say, but that you would regard those persons and their station in the proper point of view. It is a peculiar thing to be placed, by one’s very birth, in an elevated situation in society. The man for whom inherited wealth has secured a perfect freedom of existence; who finds himself from his youth upwards abundantly encompassed with all the secondary essentials, so to speak, of human life,—will generally become accustomed to consider these qualifications as the first and greatest of all; while the worth of that mode of human life, which nature from her own stores equips and furnishes, will strike him much more faintly. The behaviour of noblemen to their inferiors, and likewise to each other, is regulated by external preferences: they give each credit for his title, his rank, his clothes and equipage, but his individual merits come not into play.”

This speech was honoured with the company’s unbounded applause. They declared it to be shameful, that men of merit should constantly be pushed into the background; and that in the great world, there should not be a trace of natural and hearty intercourse. On this latter point particularly they overshot all bounds.

“Blame them not for it,” said Wilhelm, “rather pity them! They have seldom an exalted feeling of that happiness which we admit to be the highest that can flow from the inward abundance of nature. Only to us poor creatures is it granted to enjoy the happiness of friendship, in its richest fulness. Those dear to us we cannot elevate by our countenance, or advance by our favour, or make happy by our presents. We have nothing but ourselves. This whole self we must give away; and if it is to be of any value, we must make our friend secure of it for ever. What an enjoyment, what a happiness, for giver and receiver! With what blessedness does truth of affection invest our situation! It gives to the transitory life of man a heavenly certainty; it forms the crown and capital of all that we possess.”

While he spoke thus, Mignon had come near him; she threw her little arms round him, and stood with her cheek resting on his breast. He laid his hand on the child’s head, and proceeded: “It is easy for a great man to win our minds to him; easy to make our hearts his own. A mild and pleasant manner, a manner only not inhuman, will of itself do wonders: and how many means does he possess of holding fast the affections he has once conquered! To us, all this occurs less frequently, to us it is all more difficult; and we naturally therefore put a greater value on whatever, in the way of mutual kindness, we acquire and accomplish. What touching examples of faithful servants giving themselves up to danger and death for their masters! How finely has Shakspeare painted out such things to us! Fidelity, in this case, is the effort of a noble soul struggling to become equal with one exalted above it. By stedfast attachment and love, the servant is made equal to his lord, who but for this is justified in looking on him as a hired slave. Yes, these virtues belong to the lower class of men alone; that class cannot do without them, and with them it has a beauty of its own. Whoever is enabled to require all favours easily, will likewise easily be tempted to raise himself above the habit of acknowledgment. Nay, in this sense, I am of opinion, it might almost be maintained, that a great man may possess friends, but cannot be one.”

Mignon pressed still closer towards him.

“It may be so,” replied one of the party: “we do not need their friendship, and do not ask it. But it were well if they understood a little more about the arts which they affect to patronise. When we played in the best style, there was none to mind us: it was all sheer partiality. Any one they chose to favour pleased; and they did not choose to favour those that merited to please. It was intolerable to observe how often silliness and mere stupidity attracted notice and applause.”

“When I abate from this,” said Wilhelm, “what seemed to spring from irony and malice, I think we may nearly say, that one fares in art as he does in love. And after all, how shall a fashionable man of the world, with his dissipated habits, attain that intimate presence with a special object, which an artist must long continue in, if he would produce anything approaching to perfection? a state of feeling without which it is impossible for any one to take such an interest, as the artist hopes and wishes, in his work.

“Believe me, my friends, it is with talents as with virtue; one must love them for their own sake, or entirely renounce them. And neither of them is acknowledged and rewarded, except when their possessor can practise them unseen, like a dangerous secret.”

“Meanwhile, until some proper judge discovers us, we may all die of hunger,” cried a fellow in the corner.

“Not quite inevitably,” answered Wilhelm. “I have observed that so long as one stirs and lives, one always finds food and raiment, though they be not of the richest sort. And why should we repine? Were we not, altogether unexpectedly, and when our prospects were the very worst, taken kindly by the hand, and substantially entertained? And now, when we are in want of nothing, does it once occur to us to attempt anything for our improvement; or to strive, though never so faintly, towards advancement in our art? We are busied about indifferent matters; and, like school-boys, we are casting all aside that might bring our lesson to our thoughts.”

“In sad truth,” said Philina, “it is even so! Let us choose a play; we will go through it on the spot. Each of us must do his best, as if he stood before the largest audience.”

They did not long deliberate; a play was fixed on. It was one of those which at that time were meeting great applause in Germany, and have now passed away. Some of the party whistled a symphony; each speedily bethought him of his part; they commenced; and played all the piece with the greatest attention, and really well beyond expectation. Mutual applauses circulated; our friends had seldom been so pleasantly diverted.

On finishing, they all felt exceedingly contented, partly on account of their time being spent so well, partly because each of them experienced some degree of satisfaction with his own performance. Wilhelm expressed himself copiously in their praise; the conversation grew cheerful and merry.

“You would see,” cried our friend, “what advances we should make, if we continued this sort of training, and ceased to confine our attention to mere learning by heart, rehearsing, and playing mechanically, as if it were a barren duty, or some handicraft employment. How different a character do our musical professors merit! What interest they take in their art; how correct are they in the practisings they undertake in common! What pains they are at in tuning their instruments; how exactly they observe time; how delicately they express the strength and the weakness of their tones! No one there thinks of gaining credit to himself by a loud accompaniment of the solo of another. Each tries to play in the spirit of the composer, each to express well whatever is committed to him, be it much or little.

“Should not we too go as strictly and as ingeniously to work, seeing we practise an art far more delicate than that of music; seeing we are called on to express the commonest and the strangest emotions of human nature, with elegance, and so as to delight? Can anything be more shocking than to slur over our rehearsal, and in our acting to depend on good luck, or the capricious chance of the moment? We ought to place our highest happiness and satisfaction in mutually desiring to gain each other’s approbation; we should even value the applauses of the public only in so far as we have previously sanctioned them among ourselves. Why is the master of the band more secure about his music than the manager about his play? Because, in the orchestra, each individual would feel ashamed of his mistakes, which offend the outward ear; but how seldom have I found an actor disposed to acknowledge or feel ashamed of mistakes, pardonable or the contrary, by which the inward ear is so outrageously offended! I could wish, for my part, that our theatre were as narrow as the wire of a rope-dancer, that so no inept fellow might dare to venture on it; instead of being, as it is, a place where every one discovers in himself capacity enough to flourish and parade.”

The company gave this apostrophe a kind reception; each being convinced that the censure conveyed in it could not apply to him, after acting a little while ago so excellently with the rest. On the other hand, it was agreed that during this journey, and for the future, if they remained together, they would regularly proceed with their training in the manner just adopted. Only it was thought, that as this was a thing of good humour and free will, no formal manager must be allowed to have a hand in it. Taking it for an established fact, that among good men, the republican form of government is the best, they declared that the post of manager should go round among them; he must be chosen by universal suffrage, and every time have a sort of little senate joined in authority along with him. So delighted did they feel with this idea, that they longed to put it instantly in practice.

“I have no objection,” said Melina, “if you incline making such an experiment while we are travelling; I shall willingly suspend my own directorship until we reach some settled place.” He was in hopes of saving cash by this arrangement, and of casting many small expenses on the shoulders of the little senate or of the interim manager. This fixed, they went very earnestly to counsel, how the form of the new commonwealth might best be adjusted.

“’Tis an itinerating kingdom,” said Laertes; “we shall at least have no quarrels about frontiers.”

They directly proceeded to the business, and elected Wilhelm as their first manager. The senate also was appointed, the women having seat and vote in it; laws were propounded, were rejected, were agreed to. In such playing, the time passed on unnoticed; and as our friends had spent it pleasantly, they also conceived that they had really been effecting something useful; and by their new constitution had been opening a new prospect for the stage of their native country.