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

Book II

Chapter XIII

IN the restless vexation of his present humour, it came into his head to go and see the old Harper, hoping by his music to scare away the evil spirits that tormented him. On asking for the man, he was directed to a mean publichouse in a remote corner of the little town; and, having mounted up-stairs there to the very garret, his ear caught the fine twanging of the harp coming from a little room before him. They were heart-moving, mournful tones, accompanied by a sad and dreary singing. Wilhelm glided to the door; and, as the good old man was performing a sort of voluntary, the few stanzas of which, sometimes chanted, sometimes in recitative, were repeated more than once, our friend succeeded, after listening for a while, in gathering nearly this:

  • Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
  • Who never spent the darksome hours
  • Weeping and watching for the morrow,
  • He knows ye not, ye gloomy Powers.
  • To earth, this weary earth, ye bring us,
  • To guilt ye let us heedless go,
  • Then leave repentance fierce to wring us:
  • A moment’s guilt, an age of woe!
  • The heart-sick plaintive sound of this lament pierced deep into the soul of the hearer. It seemed to him as if the old man were often stopped from proceeding by his tears; his harp would alone be heard for a time, till his voice again jointed it in low broken tones. Wilhelm stood by the door; he was much moved; the mourning of this stranger had again opened the avenues of his heart; he could not resist the claim of sympathy, or restrain the tears which this woe-begone complaint at last called forth. All the pains that pressed upon his soul seemed now at once to loosen from their hold; he abandoned himself without reserve to the feelings of the moment. Pushing up the door, he stood before the Harper. The old man was sitting on a mean bed, the only seat, or article of furniture, which his miserable room afforded.

    “What feelings hast thou not awakened in me, good old man!” exclaimed he. “All that was lying frozen at my heart thou hast melted, and put in motion. Let me not disturb thee; but continue, in solacing thy own sorrows, to confer happiness upon a friend.” The Harper was about to rise, and say something; but Wilhelm hindered him, for he had noticed in the morning that the old man did not like to speak. He sat down by him on the straw bed.

    The old man wiped his eyes, and asked, with a friendly smile, “How came you hither? I meant to wait upon you in the evening again.”

    “We are more quiet here,” said Wilhelm. “Sing to me what thou pleasest, what accords with thy own mood of mind, only proceed as if I were not by. It seems to me that today thou canst not fail to suit me. I think thee very happy that, in solitude, thou canst employ and entertain thyself so pleasantly; that, being everywhere a stranger, thou findest in thy own heart the most agreeable society.”

    The old man looked upon his strings, and, after touching them softly by way of prelude, he commenced and sang:

  • Who longs in solitude to live,
  • Ah! soon his wish will gain;
  • Men hope and love, men get and give,
  • And leave him to his pain.
  • Yes, leave me to my moan!
  • When from my bed
  • You all are fled,
  • I still am not alone.
  • The lover glides with footstep light:
  • His love, is she not waiting there?
  • So glides to meet me, day and night,
  • In solitude my care,
  • In solitude my woe:
  • True solitude I then shall know
  • When lying in my grave,
  • When lying in my grave,
  • And grief has let me go.
  • We might describe with great prolixity, and yet fail to express the charms of the singular conversation, which Wilhelm carried on with this wayfaring stranger. To every observation which our friend addressed to him, the old man, with the nicest accordance, answered in some melody, which awakened all the cognate emotions, and opened a wide field to the imagination.

    Whoever has happened to assist at a meeting of certain devout people, who conceive that, in a state of separation from the Church, they can edify each other in a purer, more affecting, and more spiritual manner, may form to himself some conception of the present scene. He will recollect how the leader of the meeting would append to his words some verse of a song, that raised the soul till, as he wished, she took wing; how another of the flock would ere long subjoin, in a different tune, some verse of a different song; and to this again a third would link some verse of a third song; by which means the kindred ideas of the songs to which the verses belonged were indeed suggested, yet each passage by its new combination became new and individualised, as if it had been first composed that moment; and thus, from a well-known circle of ideas, from well-known songs and sayings, there was formed, for that particular society in that particular time, an original whole, by means of which their minds were animated, strengthened and refreshed. So likewise did the old man edify his guest: by known and unknown songs and passages, he brought feelings near and distant, emotions sleeping and awake, pleasant and painful, into a circulation, from which, in Wilhelm’s actual state, the best effects might be anticipated.