Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter VI

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

Book III

Chapter VI

THIS mingled feeling of vexation and gratitude spoiled the remainder of his day; till, towards evening, he once more found employment. Melina informed him that the Count had been speaking of a little prelude, which he wished to have produced, in honour of the Prince, on the day of his Highness’s arrival. He meant to have the great qualities of this noble hero and philanthropist personified in the piece. These Virtues were to advance together, to recite his praises, and finally to encircle his bust with garlands of flowers and laurels; behind which a transparency might be inserted, representing the princely Hat, and his name illuminated on it. The Count, Melina said, had ordered him to take charge of getting ready the verses and other arrangements; and Wilhelm, he hoped, to whom it must be an easy matter, would stand by him on this occasion.

“How!” exclaimed our friend in a splenetic tone, “have we nothing but portraits, illuminated names and allegorical figures, to show in honour of a Prince, who, in my opinion, merits quite a different eulogy? How can it flatter any reasonable man to see himself set up in effigy, and his name glimmering on oiled paper! I am very much afraid that your Allegories, particularly in the present state of the wardrobe, will furnish occasion for many ambiguities and jestings. If you mean, however, to compose the piece, or make it be composed, I can have nothing to object against it; only I desire to have no part or lot in the matter.”

Melina excused himself; alleging this to be only a casual hint of his Lordship the Count, who for the rest had left the arrangement of the piece entirely in their own hands. “With all my heart,” replied our friend, “will I contribute something to the pleasure of this noble family; my Muse has never had so pleasant an employment as to sing, though in broken numbers, the praises of a Prince who merits so much veneration. I will think of the matter; perhaps I may be able to contrive some way of bringing out our little troop, so as at least to produce some effect.”

From this moment, Wilhelm eagerly reflected on his undertaking. Before going to sleep, he had got it all reduced to some degree of order; early next morning his plan was ready, the scenes laid out; a few of the most striking passages and songs were even versified and written down.

As soon as he was dressed, our friend made haste to wait upon the Baron, to submit the plan to his inspection, and take his advice upon certain points connected with it. The Baron testified his approbation of it; but not without considerable surprise. For, on the previous evening, he had heard his Lordship talk of having ordered some quite different piece to be prepared and versified.

“To me it seems improbable,” replied our friend, “that it could be his Lordship’s wish to have the piece got ready, exactly as he gave it to Melina. If I am not mistaken, he intended merely to point out to us from a distance the path we were to follow. The amateur and critic shows the artist what is wanted; and then leaves to him the care of producing it by his own means.”

“Not at all,” replied the Baron; “his Lordship understands that the piece shall be composed according to that and no other plan, which he has himself prescribed. Yours has indeed a remote similarity with his idea; but, if we mean to accomplish our purpose, and get the Count diverted from his first thought, we shall need to employ the ladies in the matter. The Baroness especially contrives to execute such operations in the most masterly manner: the question is now, whether your plan shall so please her, that she will undertake the business; in that case it will certainly succeed.”

“We need the assistance of the ladies,” said our friend, “at any rate; for neither our company nor our wardrobe would suffice without them. I have counted on some pretty children, that are running up and down the house, and belong to certain of the servants.”

He then desired the Baron to communicate his plan to the ladies. The Baron soon returned with intelligence that they wished to speak with Wilhelm personally. That same evening, when the gentlemen sat down to play, which, owing to the arrival of a certain General, was expected to be deeper and keener than usual, the Countess and her friend, under pretext of some indisposition, would retire to their chamber; where Wilhelm, being introduced by a secret staircase, might submit his project without interruption. This sort of mystery, the Baron said, would give the adventure a peculiar charm; in particular the Baroness was rejoicing like a child, in the prospect of their rendezvous; and the more so, because it was to be accomplished secretly and against the inclination of the Count.

Towards evening, at the appointed time, Wilhelm was sent for, and led in with caution. As the Baroness advanced to meet him in a small cabinet, the manner of their interview brought former happy scenes, for a moment, to his mind. She conducted him along to the Countess’s chamber; and they now proceeded earnestly to question and investigate. He exhibited his plan with the utmost warmth and vivacity; so that his fair audience were quite decided in its favour. Our readers also will permit us to present a brief sketch of it here.

The piece was to open with a dance of children in some rural scene; their dance representing that particular game, wherein each has to wheel round and gain the other’s place. This was to be followed by several variations of their play; till at last, in performing a dance of the repeating kind, they were all to sing a merry song. Here the old Harper with Mignon should enter, and by the curiosity which they excited, gather several country people round them; the Harper would sing various songs in praise of peace, repose and joy; and Mignon would then dance the egg-dance.

In these innocent delights, they are disturbed by the sound of martial music; and the party are surprised by a troop of soldiers. The men stand on the defensive, and are overcome; the girls fly, and are taken. In the tumult all seems going to destruction, when a Person (about whose form and qualities the poet was not yet determined) enters, and by signifying that the General is near, restores composure. Whereupon the Hero’s character is painted in the finest colours; security is promised in the midst of arms; violence and lawless disorder are now to be restrained. A universal festival is held in honour of the noble-minded Captain.

The Countess and her friend expressed great satisfaction with the plan; only they maintained that there must of necessity be something of allegory introduced, to make it palatable to his Lordship. The Baron proposed that the leader of the soldiers should be represented as the Genius of Dissension and Violence; that Minerva should then advance to bind fetters on him, to give notice of the hero’s approach, and celebrate his praise. The Baroness undertook the task of persuading the Count, that this plan was the one proposed by himself with a few alterations; at the same time expressly stipulating that, without fail, at the conclusion of the piece the bust, the illuminated name, and the princely Hat, should be exhibited in due order; since otherwise her attempt was vain.

Wilhelm had already figured in his mind how delicately and how nobly he would have the praises of his hero celebrated in the mouth of Minerva; and it was not without a long struggle that he yielded in this point. Yet he felt himself delightfully constrained to yield, The beautiful eyes of the Countess, and her lovely demeanour, would easily have moved him to sin against his conscience as a poet; to abandon the finest and most interesting invention, the keenly wished-for unity of his composition, and all its most suitable details. His conscience as a burgher had a trial no less hard to undergo, when the ladies, in distributing the characters, pointedly insisted that he must undertake one himself.

Laertes had received for his allotment the part of that violent war-god; Wilhelm was to represent the leader of the peasants, who had some very pretty and tender verses to recite. After long resistance he was forced to comply: he could find no excuse, when the Baroness protested that their stage was in all respects to be regarded as a private one, and that she herself would very gladly play on it, if they could find her a fit occasion. On receiving his consent, they parted with our friend on the kindest terms. The Baroness assured him that he was an incomparable man; she accompanied him to the little stairs, and wished him good-night with a squeeze of the hand.