Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter VII

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


Chapter VII

JARNO and Wilhelm were sitting one day by Natalia. “You are thoughtful, Jarno,” said the lady; “I have seen it in your looks for some time.”

“I am so,” answered Jarno: “a weighty business is before me, which we have for years been meditating, and must now begin to execute. You already know the outline of it: I may speak of it before our friend; for it will depend on himself, whether he too shall not share in it. You are going to get rid of me, before long: I mean to take a voyage to America.”

“To America?” said Wilhelm smiling: “Such an adventure I did not anticipate from you; still less that you would have selected me for a companion.”

“When you rightly understand our plan,” said Jarno, “you will give it a more honourable name; and perhaps yourself be tempted to embark in it. Listen to me. It requires but a slight acquaintance with the business of the world to see that mighty changes are at hand, that property is almost nowhere quite secure.”

“Of the business of the world I have no clear notion,” interrupted Wilhelm; “and it is but of late that I ever thought about my property. Perhaps I had done well to drive it out of my head still longer; the care of securing it, appears to give us hypochondria.”

“Hear me out,” said Jarno: “Care beseems ripe age, that youth may live for a time free from care: in the conduct of poor mortals, equilibrium cannot be restored except by contraries. As matters go, it is anything but prudent to have property in only one place, to commit your money to a single spot; and it is difficult again to guide it well in many. We have therefore thought of something else. From our old tower there is a society to issue, which must spread itself through every quarter of the world, and to which members from every quarter of the world shall be admissible. We shall insure a competent subsistence to each other, in the single case of a revolution happening, which might drive any part of us entirely from their possessions. I am now proceeding to America, to profit by the good connexions which our friend established while he stayed there. The Abbé means to go to Russia: if you like to join us, you shall have the choice of continuing in Germany to help Lothario, or of accompanying me. I conjecture you will choose the latter: to take a distant journey is extremely serviceable to a young man.”

Wilhelm thought a moment, and replied: “The offer well deserves consideration; for ere long the word with me must be, The farther off the better. You will let me know your plan, I hope, more perfectly. It is perhaps my ignorance of life that makes me think so; but such a combination seems to me to be attended with insuperable difficulties.”

“The most of which, till now, have been avoided,” answered Jarno, “by the circumstance, that we have been but few in number, honourable, discreet, determined people, animated by a certain general feeling, out of which alone the feeling proper for societies can spring.”—“And if you speak me fair,” said Friedrich, who hitherto had only listened, “I too will go along with you.” Jarno shook his head.

“Well, what objections can you make?” cried Friedrich. “In a new colony, young colonists will be required; these I bring with me: merry colonists will also be required; of these I make you certain. Besides, I recollect a certain damsel, who is out of place on this side of the water, the fair, soft-hearted Lydia. What is the poor thing to do with her sorrow and mourning, unless she get an opportunity to throw it to the bottom of the sea, unless some brave fellow take her by the hand? You, my benefactor,” said he, turning towards Wilhelm, “you have a taste for comforting forsaken persons: what withholds you now? Each of us might take his girl under his arm, and trudge with Jarno.”

This proposal struck Wilhelm offensively. He answered with affected calmness; “I know not whether she is unengaged; and as in general I seem to be unfortunate in courtship, I shall hardly think of making the attempt.”

“Brother Friedrich,” said Natalia, “though thy own conduct is so full of levity, it does not follow that such sentiments will answer others. Our friend deserves a heart that shall belong to him alone, that shall not at his side be moved by foreign recollections. It was only with a character as pure and reasonable as Theresa’s, that such a venture could be risked.”

“Risk!” cried Friedrich: “In love it is all risk. In the grove or at the altar, with a clasp of the arms or a golden ring, by the chirping of the cricket or the sound of trumpets and kettledrums, it is all but a risk; chance does it all.”

“I have often noticed,” said Natalia, “that our principles are just a supplement to our peculiar manner of existence. We delight to clothe our errors in the garb of universal laws; to attribute them to irresistibly-appointed causes. Do but think, by what a path thy dear will lead thee, now that she has drawn thee towards her, and holds thee fast there.”

“She herself is on a very pretty path,” said Friedrich, “on the path to saintship. A by-path, it is true, and somewhat roundabout; but the pleasanter and surer for that. Maria of Magdala travelled it, and who can say how many more? But on the whole, sister, when the point in hand is love, thou shouldst not mingle in it. In my opinion, thou wilt never marry, till a bride is lacking somewhere; in that case, thou wilt give thyself, with thy habitual charity, to be the supplement of some peculiar manner of existence; not otherwise. So let us strike a bargain with this soul-breaker, and agree about our travelling company.”

“You come too late with your proposals,” answered Jarno; “Lydia is disposed of.”

“And how?” cried Friedrich.

“I myself have offered her my hand,” said Jarno.

“Old gentleman,” said Friedrich, “you have done a feat to which, if we regard it as a substantive, various adjectives might be appended; various predicates, if we regard it as a subject.”

“I must honestly confess,” replied Natalia, “it appears a dangerous experiment to make a helpmate of a woman, at the very moment when her love for another man is like to drive her to despair.”

“I have ventured,” answered Jarno; “under a certain stipulation, she is to be mine. And, believe me, there is nothing in the world more precious than a heart susceptible of love and passion. Whether it has loved, whether it still loves, are points which I regard not. The love of which another is the object, charms me almost more than that which is directed to myself. I see the strength, the force of a tender soul, and my self-love does not trouble the delightful vision.”

“Have you talked with Lydia, then, of late?” inquired Natalia.

Jarno smiled and nodded: Natalia shook her head, and said as he rose: “I really know not what to make of you; but me you shall not mystify, I promise you.”

She was about retiring, when the Abbé entered with a letter in his hand. “Stay, if you please,” said he to her: “I have a proposal here, respecting which your counsel will be welcome. The Marchese, your late uncle’s friend, whom for some time we have been expecting, will be here in a day or two. He writes to me, that German is not so familiar to him as he had supposed; that he needs a person who possesses this and other languages to travel with him; that as he wishes to connect himself with scientific rather than political society, he cannot do without some such interpreter. I can think of no one better suited for the post than our young friend here. He knows the language; is acquainted with many things beside; and for himself, it cannot but be advantageous to travel over Germany in such society and such circumstances. Till we have seen our native country, we have no scale to judge of other countries by. What say you, my friend? What say you, Natalia?”

Nobody objected to the scheme: Jarno seemed to think his Transatlantic project would not be a hindrance, as he did not mean to sail directly. Natalia did not speak; and Friedrich uttered various saws about the uses of travel.

This new project so provoked our friend, that he could hardly conceal his irritation. He saw, in this proposal, a concerted plan for getting rid of him as soon as possible; and what was worse, they went so openly to work, and seemed so utterly regardless of his feelings. The suspicions Lydia had excited in him, all that he himself had witnessed, rose again upon his mind; the simple manner in which everything had been explained by Jarno, now appeared to him another piece of artifice.

He constrained himself, and answered: “At all events, the offer will require mature deliberation.”

“A quick decision may perhaps be necessary,” said the Abbé.

“For that I am not prepared,” answered Wilhelm. “We can wait till the Marchese comes, and then observe if we agree together. One condition must, however, be conceded first of all; that I take Felix with me.”

“This is a condition,” said the Abbé, “which will scarcely be conceded.”

“And I do not see,” cried Wilhelm, “why I should let any man prescribe conditions to me; or why, if I choose to view my native country, I must go in company with an Italian.”

“Because a young man,” said the Abbé, with a certain imposing earnestness, “is always called upon to form connexions.”

Wilhelm, feeling that he could not long retain his self-command, as it was Natalia’s presence only which in some degree assuaged his indignation, hastily made answer: “Give me a little while to think. I imagine it will not be very hard to settle whether I am called upon to form additional connexions; or ordered irresistibly, by heart and head, to free myself from such a multiplicity of bonds, which seem to threaten me with a perpetual, miserable thraldom.”

Thus he spoke, with a deeply-agitated mind. A glance at Natalia somewhat calmed him: her form and dignity, in this impassioned moment, stamped themselves more deeply on his mind than ever.

“Yes,” said he, so soon as he was by himself, “confess it, thou lovest her; thou once more feelest what it means to love with thy whole soul. Thus did I love Mariana, and deceive myself so dreadfully; I loved Philina, and could not help despising her. Aurelia I respected, and could not love; Theresa I reverenced, and paternal tenderness assumed the form of an affection for her. And now when all the feelings that can make a mortal happy meet within my heart, now am I compelled to fly! Ah! why should these feelings and convictions be combined with an insuperable longing? Why, without the hope of its fulfillment, should they utterly subvert all other happiness? Shall the sun and the world, society or any other gift of fortune, ever henceforth yield me pleasure? Shalt thou not for ever say: Natalia is not here! And yet, alas, Natalia will be always present to thee! If thou closest thy eyes, she will appear to thee; if thou openest them, her form will flit before all outward things, like the image which a dazzling object leaves behind it in the eye. Did not the swiftly-passing figure of the Amazon dwell continually in thy imagination? And yet thou hadst but seen her, thou didst not know her. Now, when thou knowest her, when thou hast been so long beside her, when she has shown such care about thee; now are her qualities impressed as deeply upon thy soul, as her form was then upon thy fancy. It is painful to be always seeking; but far more painful to have found, and to be forced to leave. What now shall I look for farther? Is there a country, a city that contains a treasure such as this? And I must travel on, and ever find inferiority? Is life, then, like a race-course, where a man must rapidly return, when he has reached the utmost end? Does the good, the excellent stand before us like a firm unmoving goal, from which with fleet horses we are forced away, the instant we appeared to have attained it? Happier are they who strive for earthly wares! They find what they are seeking in its proper climate, or they buy it in the fair.

“Come, my own boy!” cried he to Felix, who now ran frisking towards him: “be thou, and remain thou, all to me! Thou wert given me as a compensation for thy loved mother; thou wert to replace the second mother whom I meant for thee; and now thou hast a loss still greater to make good. Occupy my heart, occupy my spirit with thy beauty, thy loveliness, thy capabilities, and thy desire to use them!”

The boy was busied with a new plaything; his father tried to put it in a better state for him; just as he succeeded, Felix had lost all pleasure in it. “Thou art a true son of Adam!” cried Wilhelm “Come, my child! Come, my brother! let us wander, playing without object, through the world, as we best may.”

His resolution to remove, to take the boy along with him, and recreate his mind by looking at the world, had now assumed a settled form. He wrote to Werner for the necessary cash and letters of credit; sending Friedrich’s courier on the message, with the strictest charges to return immediately. Much as the conduct of his other friends had grieved him, his relation to Natalia remained serene and clear as ever.

He confided to her his intention: she took it as a settled thing that he would go; and if this seeming carelessness in her chagrined him, her kindly manner and her presence made him calm. She counselled him to visit various towns, that he might get acquainted with certain of her friends. The courier returned, and brought the letter which our friend required, though Werner did not seem content with this new whim. “My hope that thou wert growing reasonable,” so the letter ran, “is now again deferred. Where are you all gadding? And where lingers the lady, who, thou saidst, was to assist us in arranging these affairs? Thy other friends also are absent: they have thrown the whole concern upon the shoulders of the Lawyer and myself. Happy that he is as expert a jurist, as I am a financier; and that both of us are used to business. Fare thee well! Thy aberrations shall be pardoned thee; since but for them, our situation here could not have been so favourable.”

So far as outward matters were concerned, Wilhelm might now have entered on his journey; but there were still, for his heart, two hindrances that held him fast. In the first place, they flatly refused to show him Mignon’s body, till the funeral the Abbé meant to celebrate; and for this solemnity, the preparations were not ready. There had also been a curious letter from the country Clergyman, in consequence of which the Doctor had gone off. It related to the Harper; of whose fate Wilhelm wanted to have farther information.

In these circumstances, day or night he found no rest for mind or body. When all were asleep, he wandered up and down the house. The presence of the pictures and statues, which he knew so well of old, alternately attracted and repelled him. Nothing that surrounded him could he lay hold of or let go; all things reminded him of all; the whole ring of his existence lay before him; but it was broken into fragments, and seemed as if it would never unite again. These works of art, which his father had sold, appeared to him an omen that he himself was destined never to obtain a lasting calm possession of anything desirable in life, or always to be robbed of it so soon as gained, by his own or other people’s blame. He waded so deep in these strange and dreary meditations, that often he almost thought himself a disembodied spirit; and even when he felt and handled things without him, he could scarcely keep himself from doubting whether he was really there and alive.

Nothing but the piercing grief, which often seized him, but the tears he shed at being forced, by causes frivolous as they were irresistible, to leave the good which he had found, and found after having lost it,—restored him to the feeling of his earthly life. It was in vain to call before his mind his happy state in other respects. “All is nothing, then,” exclaimed he, “if the one blessing, which appears to us worth all the rest, is wanting!”

The Abbé told the company that the Marchese was arrived. “You have determined, it appears,” said he to Wilhelm, “to set out upon your travels with your boy alone. Get acquainted with this nobleman, however; he will be useful to you, if you meet him by the way.” The Marchese entered: he was a person not yet very far advanced in years; a fine, handsome, pleasing Lombard figure. In his youth, while in the army and afterwards in public business, he had known Lothario’s uncle; they had subsequently travelled through the greater part of Italy together; and many of the works of art, which the Marchese now again fell in with, had been purchased in his presence, and under various happy circumstances, which he still distinctly recollected.

The Italians have in general a deeper feeling for the high dignity of art than any other nation. In Italy, whoever follows the employment, tries to pass at once for artist, master and professor: by which pretensions, he acknowledges at least that it is not sufficient merely to lay hold of some transmitted excellency, or to acquire by practice some dexterity; but that a man who aims at art, should have the power to think of what he does, to lay down principles, and make apparent to himself and others how and wherefore he proceeds in this way or in that.

The stranger was affected at again beholding these productions, when the owner of them was no more; and cheered to see the spirit of his friend surviving in the gifted persons left behind him.

They discussed a series of works; they found a lively satisfaction in the harmony of their ideas. The Marchese and the Abbé were the speakers; Natalia felt herself again transported to the presence of her uncle, and could enter without difficulty into their opinions and criticisms; Wilhelm could not understand them, except as he translated their technology into dramatic language. Friedrich’s facetious vein was sometimes rather difficult to keep in check. Jarno was seldom there.

It being observed that excellent works of art were very rare in latter times, it was remarked by the Marchese: “We can hardly think or estimate how many circumstances must combine in favour of the artist: with the greatest genius, with the most decisive talent, the demands which he must make upon himself are infinite, the diligence required in cultivating his endowments is unspeakable. Now, if circumstances are not in his favour; if he observed that the world is very easy to be satisfied, requiring but a slight, pleasing. transitory show; it were matter of surprise, if indolence and selfishness did not keep him fixed at mediocrity; it were strange if he did not rather think of bartering modish wares for gold and praises, than of entering on the proper path, which could not fail in some degree to lead him to a sort of painful martyrdom. Accordingly, the artists of our time are always offering and never giving. They always aim at charming, and they never satisfy: everything is merely indicated; you can nowhere find foundation or completion. Those for whom they labour, it is true, are little better. If you wait a while in any gallery of pictures, and observe what works attract the many, what are praised and what neglected, you have little pleasure in the present, little hope in the future.”

“Yes,” replied the Abbé “and thus it is that artists and their judges mutually form each other. The latter ask for nothing but a general vague enjoyment, a work of art is to delight them almost as a work of nature; they imagine that the organs for enjoying works of art may be cultivated altogether of themselves, like the tongue and the palate; they try a picture or a poem as they do an article of food. They do not understand how very different a species of culture it requires to raise one to the true enjoyment of art. The hardest part of it, in my opinion, is that sort of separation, which a man that aims at perfect culture must accomplish in himself. It is on this account that we observe so many people partially cultivated; and yet every one of them attempting to pronounce upon the general whole.”

“Your last remark is not quite clear to me,” said Jarno, who came in just then.

“It would be difficult,” replied the Abbé “to explain it fully without a long detail. Thus much I may say: When any man pretends to mix in manifold activity or manifold enjoyment, he must also be enabled as it were to make his organs manifold and independent of each other. Whoever aims at doing or enjoying all and everything with his entire nature; whoever tries to link together all that is without him by such a species of enjoyment, will only lose his time in efforts that can never be successful. How difficult, though it seems so easy, is it to contemplate a noble disposition, a fine picture simply in and for itself; to watch the music for the music’s sake; to admire the actor in the actor; to take pleasure in a building for its own peculiar harmony and durability! Most men are wont to treat a work of art, though fixed and done, as if it were a piece of soft clay. The hard and polished marble is again to mould itself, the firm-walled edifice is contract or to expand itself, according as their inclinations, sentiments and whims may dictate; the picture is to be instructive, the play to make us better, everything is to do all. The reason is, that most men are themselves unformed, they cannot give themselves and their being any certain shape: and thus they strive to take from other things their proper shape, that all they have to do with may be loose and wavering like themselves. Everything is, in the long-run, reduced by them to what they call effect; everything is relative, say they; and so indeed it is; everything with them grows relative, except absurdity and platitude, which truly are absolute enough.”

“I understand you,” answered Jarno; “or rather I perceive how what you have been saying follows from the principles you hold so fast by. Yet with men, poor devils, we should not go to quest so strictly. I know enow of them in truth, who, beside the greatest works of art and nature, forthwith recollect their own most paltry insufficiency; who take their conscience and their morals with them to the opera; who bethink them of their loves and hatreds in contemplating a colonnade. The best and greatest that can be presented to them from without, they must first, as far as possible, diminish in their way of representing it, that they may in any measure be enabled to combine it with their own sorry nature.”