Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter III

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

Book V

Chapter III

“THY letter is so well written, and so prudently and wisely conceived, that no objection can be made to it. Only thou must pardon me, when I declare that one may think, maintain and do directly the reverse, and yet be in the right as well as thou. Thy mode of being and imagining appears to turn on boundless acquisition, and a light mirthful manner of enjoyment: I need scarcely tell thee, that in all this I find little that can charm me.

“First, however, I am sorry to admit, that my journal is none of mine! Under the pressure of necessity, and to satisfy my father, it was patched together by a friend’s help, out of many books; and though in words I know the objects it relates to, and more of the like sort, I by no means understand them, or can occupy myself about them. What good were it for me to manufacture perfect iron, while my own breast is full of dross? What would it stead me to put properties of land in order, while I am at variance with myself?

“To speak it in a word; the cultivation of my individual self, here as I am, has from my youth upwards been constantly though dimly my wish and my purpose. The same intention I still cherish, but the means of realising it are now grown somewhat clearer. I have seen more of life than thou believest, and profited more by it also. Give some attention then to what I say, though it should not altogether tally with thy own opinions.

“Had I been a nobleman, our dispute would soon have been decided; but being a simple burgher, I must take a path of my own; and I fear it may be difficult to make thee understand me. I know not how it is in foreign countries; but in Germany, a universal, and if I may say so, personal cultivation is beyond the reach of any one except a nobleman. A burgher may acquire merit; by excessive efforts he may even educate his mind; but his personal qualities are lost, or worse than lost, let him struggle as he will. Since the nobleman, frequenting the society of the most polished, is compelled to give himself a polished manner; since this manner, neither door nor gate being shut against him, grows at last an unconstrained one; since, in court or camp, his figure, his person, are a part of his possessions, and it may be the most necessary part,—he has reason enough to put some value on them, and to show that he puts some. A certain stately grace in common things, a sort of gay elegance in earnest and important ones, becomes him well; for it shows him to be everywhere in equilibrium. He is a public person, and the more cultivated his movements, the more sonorous his voice, the more staid and measured his whole being is, the more perfect is he. If to high and low, to friends and relations, he continues still the same, then nothing can be said against him, none may wish him otherwise. His coldness must be reckoned clearness of head, his dissimulation prudence. If he can rule himself externally at every moment of his life, no man has aught more to demand of him; and whatever else there may be in him or about him, capacities, talents, wealth, all seem gifts of supererogation.

“Now imagine any burgher offering ever to pretend to these advantages, he will utterly fail; and the more completely, the greater inclination and the more endowments nature may have given him for that mode of being.

“Since, in common life, the nobleman is hampered by no limits: since kings, or kinglike figures do not differ from him, he can everywhere advance with a silent consciousness, as if before his equals, everywhere he is entitled to press forward; whereas nothing more beseems the burgher than the quiet feeling of the limits that are drawn round him. The burgher may not ask himself: ‘What are thou?’ He can only ask: ‘What has thou? What discernment, knowledge, talent, wealth?’ If the nobleman, merely by his personal carriage, offers all that can be asked of him, the burgher by his personal carriage offers nothing, and can offer nothing. The former had a right to seem; the latter is compelled to be, and what he aims at seeming becomes ludicrous and tasteless. The former does and makes, the latter but effects and procures; he must cultivate some single gifts in order to be useful, and it is beforehand settled, that in his manner of existence there is no harmony, and can be none, since he is bound to make himself of use in one department, and so has to relinquish all the others.

“Perhaps the reason of this difference is not the usurpation of the nobles, and the submission of the burghers, but the constitution of society itself. Whether it will ever alter, and how, is to me of small importance: my present business is to meet my own case, as matters actually stand; to consider by what means I may save myself, and reach the object which I cannot live in peace without.

“Now this harmonious cultivation of my nature, which has been denied me by birth, is exactly what I most long for. Since leaving thee, I have gained much by voluntary practice: I have laid aside much of my wonted embarrassment, and can bear myself in very tolerable style. My speech and voice I have likewise been attending to; and I may say, without much vanity, that in society I do not cause displeasure. But I will not conceal from thee, that my inclination to become a public person, and to please and influence in a larger circle, is daily growing more insuperable. With this, there is combined my love for poetry and all that is related to it; and the necessity I feel to cultivate my mental faculties and tastes, that so, in this enjoyment henceforth indispensable, I may esteem as good the good alone, as beautiful the beautiful alone. Thou seest well, that for me all this is nowhere to be met with except upon the stage; that in this element alone can I effect and cultivate myself according to my wishes. On the boards, a polished man appears in his splendour with personal accomplishments, just as he does so in the upper classes of society; body and spirit must advance with equal steps in all his studies; and there I shall have it in my power at once to be and seem, as well as anywhere. If I farther long for solid occupations, we have there mechanical vexations in abundance; I may give my patience daily exercise.

“Dispute not with me on this subject: for ere thou writest, the step is taken. In compliance with the ruling prejudices, I will change my name, as indeed that of Meister of Master does not suit me. Farewell! Our fortune is in good hands: on that subject I shall not disturb myself. What I need I will, as occasion calls, require from thee: it will not be much; for I hope my art will be sufficient to maintain me.”

Scarcely was the letter sent away, when our friend made good his words. To the great surprise of Serlo and the rest, he at once declared that he was ready to become an actor, and bind himself by a contract on reasonable terms. With regard to these they were soon agreed: for Serlo had before made offers, with which Wilhelm and his comrades had good reason to be satisfied. The whole of that unlucky company, wherewith we have had so long to occupy ourselves, was now at once received; and except perhaps Laertes, not a member of it showed the smallest thankfulness to Wilhelm. As they had entreated without confidence, so they accepted without gratitude. Most of them preferred ascribing their appointment to the influence of Philina, and directed their thanks to her. Meanwhile the contracts had been written out, and were now a-signing. At the moment when our friend was subscribing his assumed designation, by some inexplicable concatenation of ideas, there arose before his mind’s eye the image of that green in the forest, where he lay wounded in Philina’s lap. The lovely Amazon came riding on her gray palfrey from the bushes of the wood; she approached him, and dismounted. Her humane anxiety made her come and go; at length she stood before him. The white surtout fell down from her shoulders; her countenance, her form began to glance in radiance, and she vanished from his sight. He wrote his name mechanically only, not knowing what he did; and felt not, till after he had signed, that Mignon was standing at his side, was holding by his arm, and had softly tried to stop him and pull back his hand.