Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XI

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

Book II

Chapter XI

AFTER a short consideration he called the landlord, and bade him mark to his account both the damage and the regular charge. At the same time he learned, not without vexation, that his horse had been so hard ridden by Laertes last night, that, in all probability, it was foundered, as they term it, the farrier having little hope of its recovering.

A salute from Philina, which she threw him from her window, restored him in some degree to a more cheerful humour; he went forthwith into the nearest shop to buy her a little present, which, in return for the powder-knife, he still owed her; and it must be owned that, in selecting his gift, he did not keep himself within the limits of proportional value. He not only purchased her a pair of earrings; but added likewise a hat and neckerchief, and some other little articles, which he had seen her lavishly throw from her on the first day of their acquaintance.

Madam Melina, happening to observe him as he was delivering his presents, took an opportunity before breakfast to rate him very earnestly about his inclination for this girl; at which he felt the more astonished, the less he thought it merited. He swore solemnly, that he had never once entertained the slightest notion of attaching himself to such a person, whose whole manner of proceeding was well known to him: he excused himself as well as possible for his friendly and polite conduct towards her; yet did not by any means content Madam Melina, whose spite grew ever more determined, as she could not but observe that the flatteries by which she had acquired for herself a sort of partial regard from our friend, were not sufficient to defend this conquest from the attacks of a lively, younger and more gifted rival.

As they sat down to table, her husband joined them, likewise in a very fretful humour; which he was beginning to display on many little things, when the landlord entered to announce a player on the harp. “You will certainly,” he said, “find pleasure in the music and the songs of this man: no one who hears him can forbear to admire him, and bestow something on him.”

“Let him go about his business,” said Melina; “I am anything but in a trim for hearing fiddlers, and we have singers constantly among ourselves disposed to gain a little by their talent.” He accompanied these words with a sarcastic sidelook at Philina: she understood his meaning; and immediately prepared to punish him, by taking up the cause of the Harper. Turning towards Wilhelm: “Shall we not hear the man?” said she; “shall we do nothing to save ourselves from this miserable ennui?”

Melina was going to reply, and the strife would have grown keener, had not the person it related to at that moment entered. Wilhelm saluted him, and beckoned him to come near.

The figure of this singular guest set the whole party in astonishment; he had found a chair before any one took heart to ask him a question, or make any observation. His bald crown was encircled by a few gray hairs; and a pair of large blue eyes looked out softly from beneath his long white eyebrows. To a nose of beautiful proportions was subjoined a flowing hoary beard, which did not hide the fine shape and position of his lips; and a long dark-brown garment wrapped his thin body from the neck to the feet. He began to prelude on the harp, which he had placed before him.

The sweet tones which he drew from his instrument very soon inspirited the company.

“You can sing too, my good old man,” said Philina.

“Give us something that shall entertain the spirit and the heart as well as the senses,” said Wilhelm. “The instrument should but accompany the voice; for tunes and melodies without words and meaning seem to me like butterflies or finely-variegated birds, which hover round us in the air, which we could wish to catch and make our own; whereas song is like a blessed genius that exalts us towards heaven, and allures the better self in us to attend him.”

The old man looked at Wilhelm; then aloft; then gave some trills upon his harp, and began his song. It contained a eulogy on minstrelsy; described the happiness of minstrels, and reminded men to honour them. He produced his song with so much life and truth, that it seemed as if he had composed it at the moment, for this special occasion. Wilhelm could scarcely refrain from clasping him in his arms; but the fear of awakening a peal of laughter detained him in his chair; for the rest were already in half-whispers making sundry very shallow observations, and debating if the Harper was a Papist or a Jew.

On asking about the author of the song, the man gave no distinct reply; declaring only that he was rich in songs, and anxious that they should please. Most of the party were now merry and joyful: even Melina was grown frank in his way; and whilst they talked and joked together, the old man began to sing the praise of social life, in the most sprightly style.

He described the loveliness of unity and courtesy, in soft, soothing tones. Suddenly his music became cold, harsh and jarring, as he turned to deplore repulsive selfishness, shortsighted enmity and baleful division; and every heart willingly threw off those galling fetters, while borne on the wings of a piercing melody, he launched forth in praise of peacemakers, and sang the happiness of souls that, having parted, meet again in love.

Scarcely had he ended, when Wilhelm cried to him: “Whoever thou art, that as a helping spirit comest to us, with a voice which blesses and revives, accept my reverence and my thanks! Feel that we all admire thee, and confide in us if thou wantest anything.”

The old man spoke not; he threw his fingers softly across the strings: then struck more sharply, and sang:

  • “What notes are those without the wall,
  • Across the portal sounding?
  • Let’s have the music in our hall,
  • Back from its roof rebounding.”
  • So spoke the king, the henchman flies;
  • His answer heard, the monarch cries:
  • “Bring in that ancient minstrel.”
  • “Hail, gracious king, each noble knight!
  • Each lovely dame, I greet you!
  • What glittering stars salute my sight!
  • What heart unmov’d may meet you!
  • Such lordly pomp is not for me,
  • Far other scenes my eyes must see:
  • Yet deign to list my harping.”
  • The singer turns him to his art,
  • A thrilling strain he raises;
  • Each warrior hears with glowing heart,
  • And on his lov’d one gazes.
  • The king, who liked his playing well,
  • Commands, for such a kindly spell,
  • A golden chain be given him.
  • “The golden chain give not to me;
  • Thy boldest knight may wear it,
  • Who cross’d the battle’s purple sea
  • On lion-breast may bear it:
  • Or let it be thy chancellor’s prize,
  • Amid his heaps to feast his eyes,
  • Its yellow glance will please him.
  • “I sing but as the linnet sings,
  • That on the green bough dwelleth
  • A rich reward his music brings,
  • As from his throat it swelleth:
  • Yet might I ask, I’d ask of thine
  • One sparkling draught of purest wine,
  • To drink it here before you.”
  • He view’d the wine, he quaff’d it up:
  • “O draught of sweetest savour!
  • O happy house, where such a cup
  • Is thought a little favour!
  • If well you fare, remember me,
  • And thank kind Heaven, from envy free,
  • As now for this I thank you.”
  • When the Harper, on finishing his song, took up a glass of wine that stood poured out for him, and, turning with a friendly mien to his entertainers, drank it off, a buzz of joyful approbation rose from all the party. They clapped hands, and wished him health from that glass, and strength to his aged limbs. He sang a few other ballads, exciting more and more hilarity among the company.

    “Old man,” said Philina, “dost thou know the tune, The shepherd deck’d him for the dance?”

    “O yes!” said he; “if you will sing the words, I shall not fail for my part of it.”

    Philina then stood up, and held herself in readiness. The old man commenced the tune; and she sang a song, which we cannot impart to our readers, lest they might think it insipid, or perhaps undignified.

    Meanwhile the company were growing merrier and merrier; they had already emptied several flasks of wine, and were now beginning to get very loud. But our friend, having fresh in his remembrance the bad consequences of their late exhilaration, determined to break up the sitting; he slipped into the old man’s hand a liberal remuneration for his trouble, the rest did something likewise; they gave him leave to go and take repose, promising themselves another entertainment from his skill in the evening.

    When he had retired, our friend said to Philina: “In this favourite song of yours I certainly find no merit, either moral or poetical; yet, if you were to bring forward any proper composition on the stage, with the same arch simplicity, the same propriety and gracefulness, I should engage that strong and universal approbation would be the result.”

    “Yes,” said Philina, “it would be a charming thing indeed to warm oneself at ice.”

    “After all,” said Wilhelm, “this old man might put many a player to the blush. Did you notice how correctly the dramatic part of his ballads was expressed? I maintain, there was more living true representation in his singing, than in many of our starched characters upon the stage. You would take the acting of many plays for a narrative, and you might ascribe to these musical narratives a sensible presence.”

    “You are hardly just!” replied Laertes. “I pretend to no great skill either as a player or a singer; yet I know well enough, that, when music guides the movements of the body, at once affording to them animation and a scale to measure it; when declamation and expression are furnished me by the composer, I feel quite a different man from what I do w hen, in prose-dramas, I have all this to create for myself; have both gesture and declamation to invent, and am perhaps disturbed in it too by the awkwardness of some partner in the dialogue.”

    “This much I know,” said Melina, “the man certainly may put us to the blush in one point, and that a main one. The strength of his talent is shown by the profit he derives from it. Even us, who perhaps ere long shall be embarrassed where to get a meal, he persuades to share our pittance with him. He has skill enough to wile the money from our pockets with an old song; the money that we should have used to find ourselves employment. So pleasant an affair is it to squander the means which might procure subsistence to oneself and others.”

    This remark gave the conversation not the most delightful turn. Wilhelm, for whom the reproach was peculiarly intended, replied with some heat; and Melina, at no time over studious of delicacy and politeness, explained his grievances at last in words more plain than courteous. “It is now a fortnight,” said he, “since we looked at the theatrical machinery and wardrobe which is lying pawned here; the whole might be redeemed for a very tolerable sum. You then gave me hopes that you would lend me so much; and hitherto I do not see that you have thought more of the matter, or come any nearer a determination. Had you then consented, we should ere now have been under way. Nor has your intention to leave the place been executed; nor has your money in the mean time been spared: at least there are people who have always skill to create opportunities for scattering it faster and faster away.”

    Such upbraidings, not altogether undeserved, touched Wilhelm to the quick. He replied with keenness, nay with anger; and, as the company arose to part, he took hold of the door, and gave them not obscurely to understand that he would no longer continue with such unfriendly and ungrateful people. He hastened down, in no kindly humour, and seated himself upon the stone bench without the door of his inn; not observing that, first out of mirth, then out of spleen, he had drunk more wine than usual.