Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XVI

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

Book IV

Chapter XVI

“LET me also put a question,” said Aurelia. “I have looked at Ophelia’s part again; I am contented with it, and conceive that under certain circumstances I could play it. But tell me, should not the poet have furnished the insane maiden with another sort of songs? Could not one select some fragments out of melancholy ballads for this purpose? What have double meanings and lascivious insipidities to do in the mouth of such a noble-minded person?”

“Dear friend,” said Wilhelm, “even here I cannot yield you one iota. In these singularities, in this apparent impropriety, a deep sense is hid. Do we not understand from the very first what the mind of the good soft-hearted girl was busied with? Silently she lived within herself, yet she scarce concealed her wishes, her longing; the tones of desire were in secret ringing through her soul; and how often may she have attempted, like an unskilful nurse, to lull her senses to repose with songs which only kept them more awake? But at last, when her self-command is altogether gone, when the secrets of her heart are hovering on her tongue, that tongue betrays her, and in the innocence of insanity she solaces herself, unmindful of king or queen, with the echo of her loose and well-beloved songs: Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day; and By Gis and by Saint Charity.”

He had not finished speaking, when all at once an extraordinary scene took place before him, which he could not in any way explain.

Serlo had walked once or twice up and down the room without evincing any special object. On a sudden, he stepped forward to Aurelia’s dressing-table; caught hastily at something that was lying there, and hastened to the door with his booty. No sooner did Aurelia notice this, than springing up, she threw herself in his way; laid hold of him with boundless vehemence, and had dexterity enough to clutch an end of the article which he was carrying off. They struggled and wrestled with great obstinacy; twisted and threw each other sharply round: he laughed; she exerted all her strength: and as Wilhelm hastened towards them, to separate and soothe them, Aurelia sprang aside with a naked dagger in her hand, while Serlo cast the scabbard, which had stayed with him, angrily upon the floor. Wilhelm started back astonished; and his dumb wonder seemed to ask the cause why so violent a strife, about so strange an implement, had taken place between them.

“You shall judge betwixt us,” said the brother. “What has she to do with sharp steel? Do but look at it. That dagger is not fit for any actress: point like a needle’s, edge like a razor’s! What good is it? Passionate as she is, she will one day chance to do herself a mischief. I have a heart’s hatred at such singularities: a serious thought of that sort is insane, and so dangerous a plaything is not in taste.”

“I have it back!” exclaimed Aurelia, and held the polished blade aloft; “I will now keep my faithful friend more carefully. Pardon me,” she cried, and kissed the steel, “that I have so neglected thee.”

Serlo was like to grow seriously angry. “Take it as thou wilt, brother,” she continued: “how knowest thou but, under this form, a precious talisman may have been given me; so that, in extreme need, I may find help and counsel in it? Must all be hurtful that looks dangerous?”

“Such talk without a meaning might drive one mad,” said Serlo, and left the room with suppressed indignation. Aurelia put the dagger carefully into its sheath, and placed it in her bosom. “Let us now resume the conversations which our foolish brother has disturbed,” said she, as Wilhelm was beginning to put questions on the subject of this quarrel.

“I must admit your picture of Ophelia to be just,” continued she; “I cannot now misunderstand the object of the poet: I must pity, though, as you paint her, I shall rather pity her than sympathise with her. But allow me here to offer a remark, which in these few days you have frequently suggested to me. I observe with admiration the correct, keen, penetrating glance with which you judge of poetry, especially dramatic poetry: the deepest abysses of invention are not hidden from you, the finest touches of representation cannot escape you. Without ever having viewed the objects in nature, you recognise the truth of their images: there seems, as it were, a presentiment of all the universe to lie in you, which by the harmonious touch of poetry is awakened and unfolded. For in truth,” continued she, “from without, you receive not much: I have scarcely seen a person that so little knew, so totally misknew the people he lived with, as you do. Allow me to say it: in hearing you expound the mysteries of Shakspeare, one would think you had just descended from a synod of the gods, and had listened there while they were taking counsel how to form men; in seeing you transact with your fellows, I could imagine you to be the first large-born child of the Creation, standing agape, and gazing with strange wonderment and edifying good-nature, at lions and apes and sheep and elephants, and true-heartedly addressing them as your equals, simply because they were there, and in motion like yourself.”

“The feeling of my ignorance in this respect,” said Wilhelm, “often gives me pain; and I should thank you, worthy friend, if you would help me to get a little better insight into life. From youth, I have been accustomed to direct the eyes of my spirit inwards rather than outwards; and hence it is very natural that to a certain extent I should be acquainted with man, while of men I have not the smallest knowledge.”

“In truth,” said Aurelia, “I at first suspected that, in giving such accounts of the people whom you sent to my brother, you meant to make sport of us; when I compared your letters with the merits of these persons, it seemed very strange.”

Aurelia’s remarks, well-founded as they might be, and willing as our friend was to confess himself deficient in this matter, carried with them something painful, nay offensive to him: so that he grew silent, and retired within himself, partly to avoid showing any irritated feeling, partly to search his mind for the truth or error of the charge.

“Let not this alarm you,” said Aurelia: “the light of the understanding it is always in our power to reach; but this fulness of the heart no one can give us. If you are destined for an artist, you cannot long enough retain the dim-sightedness and innocence of which I speak; it is the beautiful hull upon the young bud; woe to us if we are forced too soon to burst it! Surely it were well, if we never knew what the people are, for whom we work and study.

“Oh! I too was in that happy case, when I first betrod the stage, with the loftiest opinion of myself and of my nation. What a people, in my fancy, were the Germans; what a people might they yet become! I addressed this people; raised above them by a little joinery, separated from them by a row of lamps, whose glancing and vapour threw an indistinctness over everything before me. How welcome was the tumult of applause, which sounded to me from the crowd; how gratefully did I accept the present, offered me unanimously by so many hands! For a time I rocked myself in these ideas; I affected the multitude, and was again affected by them. With my public I was on the fairest footing; I imagined that I felt a perfect harmony betwixt us, and that on each occasion I beheld before me the best and noblest of the land.

“Unhappily it was not the actress alone that inspired these friends of the stage with interest; they likewise made pretensions to the young and lively girl. They gave me to understand, in terms distinct enough, that my duty was not only to excite emotion in them, but to share it with them personally. This unluckily was not my business: I wished to elevate their minds; but to what they called their hearts I had not the slightest claim. Yet now men of all ranks, ages and characters, by turns afflicted me with their addresses; and it did seem hard that I could not, like an honest young woman, shut my door, and spare myself such a quantity of labour.

“The men appeared, for most part, much the same as I had been accustomed to about my aunt; and here again I should have felt disgusted with them, had not their peculiarities and insipidities amused me. As I was compelled to see them, in the theatre, in open places, in my house, I formed the project of spying out their follies, and my brother helped me with alacrity to execute it. And if you reflect that, up from the whisking shopman and the conceited merchant’s son, to the polished calculating man of the world, the bold soldier and the impetuous prince, all in succession passed in review before me, each in his way endeavouring to found his small romance, you will pardon me if I conceived that I had gained some acquaintance with my nation.

“The fantastically-dizened student; the awkward, humbly-proud man of letters; the sleek-fed, gouty canon; the solemn, heedful man of office; the heavy country-baron; the smirking, vapid courtier; the young erring parson; the cool, as well as the quick and sharply-speculating merchant: all these I have seen in motion; and I swear to you that there were few among them fitted to inspire me even with a sentiment of toleration: on the contrary, I felt it altogether irksome to collect, with tedium and annoyance, the suffrages of fools; to pocket those applauses in detail, which in their accumulated state had so delighted me, which in the gross I had appropriated with such pleasure.

“If I expected a rational compliment upon my acting; if I hoped that they would praise an author whom I valued, they were sure to make one empty observation on the back of another, and to name some tasteless piece in which they wished to see me play. If I listened in their company, to hear if some noble, brilliant, witty thought had met with a response among them, and would reappear from some of them in proper season, it was rare that I could catch an echo of it. An error that had happened, a mispronunciation, a provincialism of some actor; such were the weighty points by which they held fast, beyond which they could not pass. I knew not, in the end, to what hand I should turn: themselves they thought too clever to be entertained; and me they imagined they were well entertaining, if they romped and made noise enough about me. I began very cordially to despise them all; I felt as if the whole nation had, on purpose, deputed these people to debase it in my eyes. They appeared to me so clownish, so ill-bred, so wretchedly instructed, so void of pleasing qualities, so wretchedly instructed, so void of pleasing qualities, so tasteless; I frequently exclaimed: No German can buckle his shoes, till he has learned to do it of some foreign nation!

“You perceive how blind, how unjust and splenetic I was; and the longer it lasted, my spleen increased. I might have killed myself with these things: but I fell into the contrary extreme; I married, or rather let myself be married. My brother, who had undertaken to conduct the theatre, wished much to have a helper. His choice lighted on a young man, who was not offensive to me; who wanted all that my brother had, genius, victory, spirit and impetuosity of mind; but who also in return had all that my brother wanted, love of order, diligence, and precious gifts in housekeeping and the management of money.

“He became my husband, I know not how; we lived together, I do not well know why. Enough, our affairs went prosperously forward. We drew a large income; of this my brother’s activity was the cause. We lived with a moderate expenditure; and that was the merit of my husband. I thought no more about world or nation. With the world I had nothing to participate: my idea of the nation had faded away. When I entered on the scene, I did so that I might subsist; I opened my lips because I durst not continue silent, because I had come out to speak.

“Yet let me do the matter justice. I had altogether given myself up to the disposal of my brother. His objects were applause and money; for, between ourselves, he has no dislike to hear his own praises, and his outlay is always great. I no longer played according to my own feeling, to my own conviction; but as he directed me: and if I did it to his satisfaction, I was content. He steered entirely by the caprices of the public. Money flowed upon us; he could live according to his humour, and so we had good times with him.

“Thus had I fallen into a dull, handicraft routine. I spun out my days without joy or sympathy. My marriage was childless, and not of long continuance. My husband grew sick; his strength was visibly decaying; anxiety for him interrupted my general indifference. It was at this time that I formed an acquaintance, which opened a new life for me; a new and quicker one, for it will soon be done.”

She kept silence for a time, and then continued: “All at once my prattling humour falters; I have not the courage to go on. Let me rest a little. You shall not go, till you have learned the whole extent of my misfortune. Meanwhile, call in Mignon, and ask her what she wants.”

The child had more than once been in the room, while Aurelia and our friend were talking. As they spoke lower on her entrance, she had glided out again, and was now sitting quietly in the hall, and waiting. Being bid return, she brought a book with her, which its form and binding showed to be a small geographical atlas. She had seen some maps, for the first time at the parson’s house, with great astonishment; had asked him many questions, and informed herself so far as possible about them. Her desire to learn seemed much excited by this new branch of knowledge. She now earnestly requested Wilhelm to purchase her the book; saying she had pawned her large silver buckle with the printseller for it, and wished to have back the pledge tomorrow morning, as this evening it was late. Her request was granted; and she then began repeating several things she had already learned; at the same time, in her own way, making many very strange inquiries. Here again one might observe, that, with a mighty effort, she could comprehend but little and laboriously. So likewise was it with her writing, at which she still kept busied. She yet spoke very broken German: it was only when she opened her mouth to sing, when she touched her cithern, that she seemed to be employing an organ by which, in some degree, the workings of her mind could be disclosed and communicated.

Since we are at present on the subject, we may also mention the perplexity which Wilhelm had of late experienced from certain parts of her procedure. When she came or went, wished him good-morning or good-night, she clasped him so firmly in her arms, and kissed him with such ardour, that often the violence of this expanding nature gave him serious fears. The spasmodic vivacity of her demeanour seemed daily to increase; her whole being moved in a restless stillness. She would never be without some piece of packthread to twist in her hands; some napkin to tie in knots; some paper or wood to chew. All her sports seemed but the channels which drained off some inward violent commotion.

The only thing that seemed to cause her any cheerfulness was being near the boy Felix, with whom she could go on in a very dainty manner.

Aurelia, after a little rest, being now ready to explain to her friend a matter which lay very near her heart, grew impatient at the little girl’s delay, and signified that she must go; a hint, however, which the latter did not take; and at last, when nothing else would do, they sent her off expressly and against her will.

“Now or never,” said Aurelia, “must I tell you the remainder of my story. Were my tenderly-beloved and unjust friend but a few miles distant, I would say to you: ‘Mount on horseback, seek by some means to get acquainted with him; on returning you will certainly forgive me, and pity me with all your heart.’ As it is, I can only tell you with words how amiable he was, and how much I loved him.

“It was at the critical season, when care for the illness of my husband had depressed my spirits, that I first became acquainted with this stranger. He had just returned from America, where, in company with some Frenchmen, he had served with much distinction under the colours of the United States.

“He addressed me with an easy dignity, a frank kindliness; he spoke about myself, my state, my acting, like an old acquaintance, so affectionately and distinctly, that now for the first time I enjoyed the pleasure of perceiving my existence reflected in the being of another. His judgments were just, though not severe; penetrating, yet not void of love. He showed no harshness; his pleasantry was courteous, with all his humour. He seemed accustomed to success with women; this excited my attention: he was never in the least importunate or flattering; this put me off my guard.

“In the town he had intercourse with few; he was often on horseback, visiting his many friends in the neighbourhood, and managing the business of his house. On returning, he would frequently alight at my apartments; he treated my ever-ailing husband with warm attention; he procured him mitigation of his sickness by a good physician. And taking part in all that interested me, he allowed me to take part in all that interested him. He told me the history of his campaigns; he spoke of his invincible attachment to military life, of his family relations, of his present business. He kept no secret from me; he displayed to me his inmost thoughts, allowed me to behold the most secret corners of his soul: I became acquainted with his passions and his capabilities. It was the first time in my life that I enjoyed a cordial, intellectual intercourse with any living creature. I was attracted by him, borne along by him, before I thought about inquiring how it stood with me.

“Meanwhile I lost my husband, nearly just as I had taken him. The burden of theatrical affairs now fell entirely on me. My brother, not to be surpassed upon the stage, was never good for anything in economical concerns: I took the charge of all; at the same time, studying my parts with greater diligence than ever. I again played as of old; nay with new life, with quite another force. It was by reason of my friend, it was on his account that I did so; yet my success was not always best when I knew him to be present. Once or twice he listened to me unobserved; and how pleasantly his unexpected applauses surprised me you may conceive.

“Certainly I am a strange creature. In every part I played, it seemed as if I had been speaking it in praise of him; for that was the temper of my heart, the words might be anything they pleased. Did I understand him to be present in the audience, I durst not venture to speak out with all my force; just as I would not press my love or praise on him to his face: was he absent, I had then free scope; I did my best, with a certain peacefulness, with a contentment not to be described. Applause once more delighted me; and when I charmed the people, I longed to call down among them: ‘This you owe to him!’

“Yes, my relation to the public; to the nation, had been altered by a wonder. On a sudden they again appeared to me in the most favourable light; I felt astonished at my former blindness.

“How foolish, said I often to myself, was it to revile a nation; foolish simply since it was a nation. Is it necessary, is it possible, that individual men should generally interest us much? Not at all! The only question is, whether in the great mass there exists a sufficient quantity of talent, force and capability, which lucky circumstances may develop, which men of lofty minds may direct upon a common object. I now rejoiced in discovering so little prominent originality among my countrymen; I rejoiced that they disdained not to accept of guidance from without; I rejoiced that they had found a leader.

“Lothario—allow me to designate my friend by this his first name which I loved—Lothario had always presented the Germans to my mind on the side of valour; and shown me, that when well commanded, there was no braver nation on the face of the earth; and I felt ashamed that I had never thought this the first quality of a people. History was known to him; he was in connexion and correspondence with the most distinguished persons of the age. Young as he was, his eye was open to the budding youthhood of his native country; to the silent labours of active and busy men in so many provinces of art. He afforded me a glimpse of Germany; what it was, and what it might be; and I blushed at having formed my judgment of a nation from the motley crowd, that press themselves into the wardrobe of a theatre. He made me look upon it as a duty that I too, in my own department, should be true, spirited, enlivening. I now felt as if inspired, every time I stepped upon the boards. Mediocre passages grew golden in my mouth; had any poet been at hand to support me adequately, I might have produced the most astonishing effects.

“So lived the young widow for a series of months. He could not want me; and I felt exceedingly unhappy when he stayed away. He showed me the letters he received from his relations, from his amiable sister. He took an interest in the smallest circumstances that concerned me; more complete, more intimate no union ever was than ours. The name of love was not mentioned. He went and came, came and went—And now, my friend, it is high time that you too should go.”