Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter IX

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

Book II

Chapter IX

AFTER a restless night, which our friend spent sometimes waking, sometimes oppressed with unpleasant dreams, seeing Mariana now in all her beauty, now in woful case, at one time with a child on her arm, then soon bereaved of it, the morning had scarcely dawned, when Mignon entered with a tailor. She brought some gray cloth and blue taffeta, signifying in her own way that she wished to have a new jacket and sailor’s trousers, such as she had seen the boys of the town wearing, with blue cuffs and tyers.

Since the loss of Mariana, Wilhelm had laid aside all gay colours. He had used himself to gray, the garment of the shades; and only perhaps a sky-blue lining, or little collar of that dye, in some degree enlivened his sober garb. Mignon, eager to wear his colours, hurried on the tailor, who engaged to have his work soon ready.

The exercise in dancing and fencing, which our friend took this day with Laertes, did not prosper in their hands. Indeed, it was soon interrupted by Melina, who came to show them circumstantially how a little company was now of itself collected, sufficient to exhibit plays in abundance. He renewed the proposal that Wilhelm should advance a little money for setting them in motion; which, however, Wilhelm still declined.

Ere long Philina and the girls came in, racketing and laughing as usual. They had now devised a fresh excursion; for change of place and objects was a pleasure after which they always longed. To eat daily in a different spot was their highest wish. On this occasion they proposed a sail.

The boat, in which they were to fall down the pleasant windings of the river, had already been engaged by the Pedant. Philina urged them on: the party did not linger, and were soon on board.

“What shall we take to now?” said Philina, when all had placed themselves upon the benches.

“The readiest thing,” replied Laertes, “were for us to extemporise a play. Let each take a part that suits his character, and we shall see how we get along.”

“Excellent!” said Wilhelm. “In a society where there is no dissimulation, but where each without disguise pursues the bent of his own humour, elegance and satisfaction cannot long continue; and where dissimulation always reigns, they do not enter at all. It will not be amiss, then, that we take up dissimulation to begin with; and then, behind our masks, be as candid as we please.”

“Yes,” said Laertes, “it is on this account that one goes on so pleasantly with women; they never show themselves in their natural form.”

“That is to say,” replied Madam Melina, “they are not so vain as men, who conceive themselves to be always amiable enough, just as nature has produced them.”

In the mean time the river led them between pleasant groves and hills, between gardens and vineyards; and the young women, especially Madam Melina, expressed their rapture at the landscape. The latter even began to recite, in solemn style, a pretty poem of the descriptive sort, upon a similar scene of nature; but Philina interrupted her with the proposal of a law, that no one should presume to speak of any inanimate object. On the other hand, she zealously urged on their project of an extempore play. Old Boisterous was to be a half-pay officer; Laertes a fencing-master taking his vacation; the Pedant a Jew; she herself would act a Tyrolese, leaving to the rest to choose characters according to their several pleasures. They would suppose themselves to be a party of total strangers to each other, who had just met on board a merchant ship.

She immediately began to play her part with the Jew; and a universal cheerfulness diffused itself among them.

They had not sailed far, when the skipper stopped in his course, asking permission of the company to take in a person standing on the shore, who had made a sign to him.

“That is just what we needed,” cried Philina; “a chance passenger was wanting to complete the travelling-party.”

A handsome man came on board; whom, by his dress and his dignified mien, you might have taken for a clergyman. He saluted the party, who thanked him in their own way, and soon made known to him the nature of their game. The stranger immediately engaged to play the part of a country parson; which, in fact, he accomplished in the adroitest manner, to the admiration of all; now admonishing, now telling stories, showing some weak points, yet never losing their respect.

In the mean time, every one who had made a false step in his part, or swerved from his character, had been obliged to forfeit a pledge; Philina had gathered them with the greatest care; and especially threatened the reverend gentleman with many kisses, though he himself had never been at fault. Melina, on the other hand, was completely fleeced; shirt-buttons, buckles, every movable about his person was in Philina’s hands. He was trying to enact an English traveller, and could not by any means get into the spirit of his part.

Meanwhile the time had passed away very pleasantly. Each had strained his fancy and his wit to the utmost, and each had garnished his part with agreeable and entertaining jests.

Thus comfortably occupied, they reached the place where they meant to pass the day; and Wilhelm going out to walk with the clergyman, as both from his appearance and late character he persisted in naming him, soon fell into an interesting conversation.

“I think this practice,” said the stranger, “very useful among actors, and even in the company of friends and acquaintances. It is the best mode of drawing men out of themselves, and leading them, by a circuitous path, back into themselves again. It should be a custom with every troop of players to practise in this manner; and the public would assuredly be no loser, if every month an unwritten piece were brought forward; in which, of course, the players had prepared themselves by several rehearsals.”

“One should not, then,” replied our friend, “consider an extempore piece as, strictly speaking, composed on the spur of the moment; but as a piece of which the plan, action and division of the scenes were given, the filling-up of all this being left to the player.”

“Quite right,” said the stranger; “and in regard to this very filling-up, such a piece, were the players once trained to these performances, would profit greatly. Not in regard to the mere words, it is true; for by a careful selection of these, the studious writer may certainly adorn his work; but in regard to the gestures, looks, exclamations, and everything of that nature; in short, to the mute and half-mute play of the dialogue, which seems by degrees fading away among us altogether. There are indeed some players in Germany, whose bodies figure what they think and feel; who, by their silence, their delays, their looks, their slight graceful movements, can prepare the audience for a speech, and by a pleasant sort of pantomime combine the pauses of the dialogue with the general whole; but such a practice as this, cooperating with a happy natural turn, and training it to compete with the author, is far from being so habitual as, for the comfort of play-going people, were to be desired.”

“But will not a happy natural turn,” said Wilhelm, “as the first and last requisite, of itself conduct the player like every other artist, nay perhaps every other man, to the lofty mark he aims at?”

“The first and the last, the beginning and the end, it may well be; but in the middle, many things will still be wanting to an artist, if instruction, and early instruction too, have not previously made that of him which he was meant to be: and perhaps for the man of genius it is worse in this respect than for the man possessed of only common capabilities; the one may much more easily be misinstructed, and be driven far more violently into false courses, than the other.”

“But,” said Wilhelm, “will not genius save itself, not heal the wounds which itself has inflicted?”

“Only to a very small extent, and with great difficulty,” said the other, “or perhaps not at all. Let no one think that he can conquer the first impressions of his youth. If he has grown up in enviable freedom, surrounded with beautiful and noble objects, in constant intercourse with worthy men; if his masters have taught him what he needed first to know, for comprehending more easily what followed; if he has never learned anything which he requires to unlearn; if his first operations have been so guided, that without altering any of his habits, he can more easily produce what is excellent in future; then such a one will lead a purer, more perfect and happier life, than another man who has wasted the force of his youth in opposition and error. A great deal is said and written about education; yet I meet with very few who can comprehend, and transfer to practice, this simple yet vast idea, which includes within itself all others connected with the subject.”

“That may well be true,” said Wilhelm, “for the generality of men are limited enough in their conceptions to suppose that every other should be fashioned by education according to the pattern of themselves. Happy then are those whom fate takes charge of, and educates according to their several natures!”

“Fate,” said the other smiling, “is an excellent, but most expensive schoolmaster. In all cases, I would rather trust to the reason of a human tutor. Fate, for whose wisdom I entertain all imaginable reverence, often finds in Chance, by which it works, an instrument not over manageable. At least the latter very seldom seems to execute precisely and accurately what the former had determined.”

“You seem to express a very singular opinion,” said Wilhelm.

“Not at all!” replied the other. “Most of what happens in the world confirms my opinion. Do not many incidents at their commencement show some mighty purport, and generally terminate in something paltry?”

“You mean to jest.”

“And as to what concerns the individual man,” pursued the other, “is it not so with this likewise? Suppose Fate had appointed one to be a good player; and why should it not provide us with good players as well as other good things? Chance would perhaps conduct the youth into some puppet-show; where, at such an early age, he could not help taking interest in what was tasteless and despicable, reckoning insipidities endurable or even pleasing, and thus corrupting and misdirecting his primary impressions; impressions which can never be effaced, and whose influence, in spite of all our efforts, cling to us in some degree to the very last.”

“What makes you think of puppet-shows?” said Wilhelm, not without some consternation.

“It was an accidental instance; if it does not please you, we shall take another. Suppose Fate had appointed any one to be a great painter, and it pleased Chance that he should pass his youth in sooty huts, in barns and stables; do you think that such a man would ever be enabled to exalt himself to purity, to nobleness, to freedom of soul? The more keenly he may in his youth have seized on the impure, and tried in his own manner to ennoble it, the more powerfully in the remainder of his life will it be revenged on him; because while he was endeavouring to conquer it, his whole being has become inseparably combined with it. Whoever spends his early years in mean and pitiful society, though at an after period he may have the choice of better, will yet constantly look back with longing towards that which he enjoyed of old, and which has left its impression blended with the memory of all his young and unreturning pleasures.”

From conversation of this sort, it is easy to imagine, the rest of the company had gradually withdrawn. Philina, in particular, had stept aside at the very outset. Wilhelm and his comrade now rejoined them by a cross-path. Philina brought out her forfeits, and they had to be redeemed in many different ways. During which business, the stranger, by the most ingenious devices, and by his frank participation in their sports, recommended himself much to all the party, and particularly to the ladies; and thus, amid joking, singing, kissing, and railleries of all sorts, the hours passed away in the most pleasant manner.