J.W. von Goethe (17491832). Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
DURING this conversation, they kept walking up and down the garden, and Natalia gathered various flowers of singular forms, entirely unknown to Wilhelm, who began to ask their names, and occupy himself about them.
You know not, said Natalia, for whom I have been plucking these? I intend them for my uncle, whom we are to visit. The sun is shining even now so bright on the Hall of the Past, I must lead you in, this moment; and I never go to it, without a few of the flowers which my uncle liked particularly, in my hand. He was a peculiar man, susceptible of very strange impressions. For certain plants and animals, for certain neighbourhoods and persons, nay for certain sorts of minerals, he had an especial love, which he was rarely able to explain. Had I not, he would often say, from youth, withstood myself, and striven to form my judgment upon wide and general principles, I had been the narrowest and most intolerable person living. For nothing can be more intolerable than circumscribed peculiarity, in one from whom a pure and suitable activity might be required. And yet he was obliged to confess, that life and breath would almost leave him, if he did not now and then indulge himself, not from time to time allow himself a brief and passionate enjoyment of what he could not always praise and justify. It is not my fault, said he, if I have not brought my inclinations and my reason into perfect harmony. On such occasions he would joke with me, and say: Natalia may be looked upon as happy while she lives: her nature asks nothing which the world does not wish and use.
So speaking, they arrived again at the house. Natalia led him through a spacious passage, to a door, before which lay two granite Sphinxes. The door itself was in the Egyptian fashion, somewhat narrower above than below; and its brazen leaves prepared one for a serious or even a gloomy feeling. Wilhelm was in consequence agreeably surprised, when his expectation issued in a sentiment of pure cheerful serenity, as he entered a hall, where art and life took away all recollection of death and the grave. In the walls all round, a series of proportionable arches had been hollowed out, and large sarcophaguses stood in them: among the pillars in the intervals between them, smaller openings might be seen, adorned with urns and similar vessels. The remaining spaces of the walls and vaulted roof were regularly divided; and between bright and variegated borders, within garlands and other ornaments, a multitude of cheerful and significant figures had been painted, upon grounds of different sizes. The body of the edifice was covered with that fine yellow marble, which passes into reddish; clear blue stripes of a chemical substance happily imitating lapis-lazuli, while they satisfied the eye with contrast, gave unity and combination to the whole. All this pomp and decoration showed itself in the chastest architectural forms: and thus every one who entered felt as if exalted above himself, while the coöperating products of art, for the first time, taught him what man is and what he may become.
Opposite the door, on a stately sarcophagus, lay a marble figure of a noble-looking man, reclined upon a pillow. He held a roll before him; and seemed to look at it with still attention. It was placed so that you could read with ease the words which stood there: Think of living.
Natalia took away a withered bunch of flowers, and laid the fresh one down before the figure of her uncle. For it was her uncle whom the marble represented: Wilhelm thought he recognised the features of the venerable gentleman, whom he had seen, when lying wounded in the green of the forest. Here he and I passed many an hour, said Natalia, while the hall was getting ready. In his latter years, he had gathered several skilful artists round him; and his chief delight was to invent or superintend the drawings and cartoons for these pictures.
Wilhelm could not satisfy himself with looking at the objects which surrounded him. What a life, exclaimed he, in this Hall of the Past! One might with equal justice name it Hall of the Present and the Future. Such all were, such all will be. There is nothing transitory but the individual who looks at and enjoys it. Here, this figure of the mother pressing her infant to her bosom will survive many generations of happy mothers. Centuries hence, perhaps some father will take pleasure in contemplating this bearded man, who has laid aside his seriousness, and is playing with his son. Thus shamefaced will the bride sit for ages, and amid her silent wishes, need that she be comforted, that she be spoken to; thus impatient will the bridegroom listen on the threshold whether he may enter.
The figures Wilhelm was surveying with such rapture were of almost boundless number and variety. From the first jocund impulse of the child, merely to employ its every limb in sport, up to the peaceful sequestered earnestness of the sage, you might, in fair and living order, see delineated how man possesses no capacity or tendency without employing and enjoying it. From the first soft conscious feeling, when the maiden lingers in pulling up her pitcher, and looks with satisfaction at her image in the clear fountain, to those high solemnities when kings and nations invoke the Gods at the altar to witness their alliances, all was depicted, all was forcible and full of meaning.
It was a world, it was a heaven, that in this abode surrounded the spectator; and beside the thoughts which those polished forms suggested, beside the fellings they awoke, there still seemed something farther to be present, something by which the whole man felt himself laid hold of. Wilhelm too observed this, though unable to account for it. What is this, exclaimed he, which, independently of all signification, without any sympathy that human incidents and fortunes may inspire us with, acts on me so strongly and so gracefully? It speaks to me from the whole, it speaks from every part; thought I have not fully understood the former, though I do not specially apply the latter to myself! What enchantment breathes from these surfaces, these lines, these heights and breadths, these masses and colours! What is it that makes these figures so delightful, even when slightly viewed, and merely in the light of decorations? Yes, I feel it: one might tarry here, might rest, might view the whole, and be happy; and yet feel and think something altogether different from aught that stood before his eyes.
And certainly if we were able to describe how happily the whole was subdivided, how everything determined by its place, by combination or by contrast, by uniformity or by variety, appeared exactly as it should have done, producing an effort as perfect as distinct, we should transport the reader to a scene, from which he would not be in haste to stir.
Four large marble candelabra rose in the corners of the hall; four smaller ones were in the midst of it, around a very beautifully worked sarcophagus, which, judging from its size, might once have held a young person of middle stature.
Natalia paused beside this monument; she laid her hand upon it as she said: My worthy uncle had a great attachment to this fine antique. It is not, he would often say, the first blossoms alone that drop; such you can keep above in these little spaces; but fruits also, which, hanging on their twigs, long give us the fairest hope, whilst a secret worm is preparing their too early ripeness and their quick decay. I fear, continued she, his words have been prophetic of that dear little girl, who seems withdrawing gradually from our cares, and bending to this peaceful dwelling.
As they were about to go, Natalia stopped and said: There is something still which merits your attention. Observe these half-round openings aloft on both sides. Here the choir can stand concealed while singing; these iron ornaments below the cornice serve for fastening-on the tapestry, which, by order of my uncle, must be hung round at every burial. Music, particularly song, was a pleasure he could not live without: and it was one of his peculiarities that he wished the singer not to be in view. In this respect, he would say, they spoil us at the theatre; the music there is, as it were, subservient to the eye; it accompanies movements, not emotions. In oratorios and concerts, the form of the musician constantly disturbs us: true music is intended for the ear alone; a fine voice is the most universal thing that can be figured; and while the narrow individual that uses it presents himself before the eye, he cannot fail to trouble the effect of that pure universality. The person whom I am to speak with, I must see, because it is a solitary man, whose form and character gives worth or worthlessness to what he says: but, on the other hand, whoever sings to me must be invisible; his form must not confuse me, or corrupt my judgment. Here, it is but one human organ speaking to another; it is not spirit speaking to spirit, not a thousandfold world to the eye, not a heaven to the man. On the same principles, in respect of instrumental music, he required that the orchestra should as much as possible be hid; because by the mechanical exertions, by the mean and awkward gestures of the performers, our feelings are so much dispersed and perplexed. Accordingly he always used to shut his eyes while hearing music; thereby to concentrate his whole being on the single pure enjoyment of the ear.
Mignon rushed in at the open door: she was foremost, but out of breath, and could not speak a word. Felix, still at some distance, shouted out: Mamma Theresa is come! The children had run a race, as it seemed, to bring the news. Mignon was lying in Natalias arms, her heart was beating fiercely.
They had scarcely composed themselves from this surprise, this sort of consternation, when Theresa entered. She flew to Natalia; clasped her and Mignon in her arms. Then turning round to Wilhelm, she looked at him with her clear eyes, and said: Well, my friend, how is it with you? You have not let them cheat you? He made a step towards her; she sprang to him, and hung upon his neck. O my Theresa! cried he.
Felix pulled her by the gown, and cried: Mamma Theresa, I am here too! Natalia stood, and looked before her: Mignon on a sudden clapped her left hand on her heart; and stretching out the right arm violently, fell with a shriek at Natalias feet, as dead.
The fright was great: no motion of the heart or pulse was to be traced. Wilhelm took her on his arm, and hastily carried her away; the body hung lax over his shoulders. The presence of the Doctor was of small avail: he and the young Surgeon, whom we know already, strove in vain. The dear little creature could not be recalled to life.
Natalia beckoned to Theresa: the latter took her friend by the hand and led him from the room. He was dumb, not uttering a word; he durst not meet her eyes. He sat down with her upon the sofa, where he had first found Natalia. He thought with great rapidity along a series of fateful incidents, or rather he did not think, but let his soul be worked on by the thoughts which would not leave it. There are moments in life, when past events, like winged shuttles, dart to and fro before us, and by their incessant movements weave a web, which we ourselves, in a greater or less degree, have spun and put upon the loom. My friend, my love! said Theresa, breaking silence, as she took him by the hand: Let us stand together firmly in this hour, as we perhaps shall often have to do in similar hours. These are occurrences, which it takes two united hearts to suffer. Think, my friend, feel that thou art not alone; show that thou lovest thy Theresa by imparting thy sorrows to her! She embraced him, and drew him softly to her bosom: he clasped her in his arms and pressed her strongly towards him. The poor child, cried he, used in mournful moments to seek shelter and protection in my unstable bosom: let the stability of thine assist me in this heavy hour. They held each other fast; he felt her heart beat against his breast; but in his spirit all was desolate and void; only the figures of Mignon and Natalia flitted like shadows across the waste of his imagination.
Natalia entered. Give us thy blessing! cried Theresa: Let us, in this melancholy moment, be united before thee! Wilhelm had hid his face upon Theresas neck: he was so far relieved that he could weep. He did not hear Natalia come; he did not see her; but at the sound of her voice his tears redoubled. What God has joined I will not part, she answered, smiling; but to unite you is not in my power; nor am I gratified to see that sorrow and sympathy seem altogether to have banished from your hearts the recollection of my brother. At these words, Wilhelm started from Theresas arms. Whither are you going? cried the ladies. Let me see the child, said he, whom I have killed! Misfortune when we look upon it with our eyes is smaller than when our imagination sinks the evil down into the recesses of the soul. Let us view the departed angel! Her serene countenance will say to us that it is well with her. As his friends could not restrain the agitated youth, they followed him; but the worthy Doctor with the Surgeon met them, and prevented them from coming near the dead. Keep away from this mournful object, said he; and allow me, so far as I am able, to give some continuance to these remains. On this dear and singular being I will now display the beautiful art not only of embalming bodies, but of retaining in them a look of life. As I foresaw her death, the preparations are already made; with these helps I shall undoubtedly succeed. Give me but a few days, and ask not to see the child again till I have brought her to the Hall of the Past.
The young Surgeon had in his hands that well-known case of instruments. From whom can he have got it? Wilhelm asked the Doctor. I know it very well, replied Natalia: he has it from his father, who dressed your wounds when we found you in the forest.
Then I have not been mistaken! I recognised the band at once! cried Wilhelm. O get it for me! It was this that first gave me any hint of my unknown benefactress. What weal and woe will such a thing survive! Beside how many sorrows has this band already been, and its threads still hold together! How many mens last moments has it witnessed, and its colours are not yet faded! It was near me in one of the fairest hours of my existence, when I lay wounded on the ground, and your helpful from appeared before me, and the child whom we are now lamenting sat with its bloody hair, busied with the tenderest care to save my life!
It was not long that our friends could converse about this sad occurrence; that Theresa could inquire about the child, and the probable cause of its unexpected death: for strangers were announced; who, on making their appearance, proved to be well-known strangers. Lothario, Jarno and the Abbé entered. Natalia met her brother: among the rest, there was a momentary silence. Theresa, smiling on Lothario, said: You scarcely expected to find me here; of course, it would not have been advisable that we should visit one another at the present time: however, after such an absence, take my cordial welcome.
Lothario took her hand, and answered: If we are to suffer and renounce, it may as well take place in the presence of the object whom we love and wish for. I desire no influence on your determination; my confidence in your heart, in your understanding and clear sense, is still so great, that I willingly commit to your disposal my fate and that of my friend.
The conversation turned immediately to general, nay we may say, to trivial topics. The company soon separated into single pairs, for walking. Natalia was with her brother; Theresa with the Abbé our friend was left with Jarno in the Castle.
The appearance of the guests at the moment when a heavy sorrow was oppressing Wilhelm, had, instead of dissipating his attention, irritated him and made him worse: he was fretful and suspicious, and unable or uncareful to conceal it, when Jarno questioned him about his sulky silence. What is the use of saying more? cried Wilhelm. Lothario with his helpers is come: and it were strange if those mysterious watchmen of the tower, who are constantly so busy, did not now exert their influence on us, to effect I know not what strange purpose. So far as I have known these saintly gentlemen, it seems to be in every case their laudable endeavour to separate the united, and to unite the separated. What sort of web their weaving will produce, may probably to unholy eyes be forever a riddle.
It stands with you, said Wilhelm, whether you will risk your eloquence on an attention so distracted. My mind is so engaged at present, that I know not whether I can take a proper interest in these very dignified adventures.
Your pleasing humour shall not hinder me, said Jarno, from explaining this affair to you. You reckon me a clever fellow; I want to make you reckon me an honest one; and what is more, on this occasion I am bidden speak.I could wish, said Wilhelm, that you did it of yourself, and with an honest purpose to inform me; but as I cannot hear without suspicion, wherefore should I hear at all?If I have nothing better to do, said Jarno, than tell you stories, you too have time to listen to me; and to this you may perhaps feel more inclined, when I assure you, that all you saw in the tower was but the relics of a youthful undertaking, in regard to which the greater part of the initiated were once in deep earnest, though all of them now view it with a smile.
So, with these pompous signs and words, you do but mock? cried Wilhelm. With a solemn air, you lead us to a place inspiring reverence by its aspect; you make the strangest visions pass before us; you give us rolls full of glorious mystic apophthegms, of which in truth we understand but little; you disclose to us, that hitherto we have been pupils; you solemnly pronounce us free; and we are just as wise as we were.Have you not the parchment by you? said the other. It contains a deal of sense: those general apophthegms were not picked up at random; though they seem obscure and empty to a man without experiences to recollect while reading them. But give me the Indenture as we call it, if it is at hand.Quite at hand, cried Wilhelm; such an amulet well merits being worn upon ones breast.Well, said Jarno, smiling, who knows whether the contents of it may not one day find place in your head and heart?
He opened the Roll, and glanced over the first half of it. This, said he, regards the cultivation of our gifts for art and science; of which let others speak: the second treats of life; here I am more at home.
He then began to read passages, speaking between whiles, and connecting them with his remarks and narrative. The taste of youth for secrecy, for ceremonies, for imposing words, is extraordinary; and frequently bespeaks a certain depth of character. In those years, we wish to feel our whole nature seized and moved, even though it be but vaguely and darkly. The youth who happens to have lofty aspirations and forecastings, thinks that secrets, and effect much by means of them. It was with such views that the Abbé favoured a certain Society of young men; partly according to his principle of aiding every tendency of nature, partly out of habit and inclination; for in former times he had himself been joined to an association, which appears to have accomplished many things in secret. For this business I was least of all adapted. I was older than the rest; from youth I had thought clearly; I wished in all things nothing more than clearness; I felt no interest in men, but to know them as they were. With the same taste I gradually infected all the best of our associates; and this circumstance had almost given a false direction to our plan of culture. For we now began to look at nothing but the errors and the narrowness of others, and to think ourselves a set of highly-gifted personages. Here the Abbé came to our assistance: he taught us, that we never should inspect the conduct of men, unless we at the same time took an interest in improving it; and that through action only could we ever be in a condition to inspect and watch ourselves. He advised us, however, to retain the primary forms of the Society: hence there was still a sort of law in our proceedings; the first mystic impressions might be traced in the constitution of the whole.
At length, as by a practical similitude, it took the form of a corporate trade, whose business was the arts. Hence came the names of Apprentices, Assistants, and Masters. We wished to see with our own eyes, and to form for ourselves a special record of our own experience in the world. Hence those numerous confessions, which in part we ourselves wrote, in part made others write; and out of which the several Apprenticeships were afterwards compiled. The formation of his character is not the chief concern with every man. Many merely wish to find a sort of recipe for comfort, directions for acquiring riches, or whatever good they aim at. All such, when they would not be instructed in their proper duties, we were wont to mystify, to treat with juggleries and every sort of hocus-pocus, and at length to shove aside. We advanced none to the rank of Masters, but such as clearly felt and recognised the purpose they were born for, and had got enough of practice to proceed along their way with a certain cheerfulness and ease.
In my case, then, cried Wilhelm, your ceremony has been very premature; for since the day when you pronounced me free, what I can, will, or shall do, has been more unknown to me than ever.We are not to blame for this perplexity; perhaps good fortune will deliver us. In the mean time listen: He in whom there is much to be developed will be later in acquiring true perceptions of himself and of the world. There are few who at once have Thought and the capacity of Action. Thought expands, but lames; Action animates, but narrows.
I beg of you, cried Wilhelm, not to read me any more of that surprising stuff. These phrases have sufficiently confused me before.I will stick by my story, then, said Jarno, half rolling up the parchment, into which, however, he kept casting frequent glances. I myself have been of less service to the cause of our Society and of my fellowmen than any other member. I am but a bad schoolmaster; I cannot bear to look on people making awkward trials; when I see a person wandering from his path, I feel constrained to call to him, although it were a night-walker going straight to break his neck. On this point, I had a continual struggle with the Abbé, who maintains that error can never be cured except by erring. About you, too, we often argued. He had taken an especial liking to you; and it is saying something to have caught so much of his attention. For me, you must admit, that every time we met, I told you just the naked truth.Certainly, you spared me very little, said the other, and I think you still continue faithful to your principles.What is the use of sparing, answered Jarno, when a young man of many good endowments is taking a quite false direction?Pardon me, said Wilhelm, you have rigorously enough denied me any talent for the stage; I confess to you, that though I have entirely renounced the art, I cannot think myself entirely incapable.And with me, said Jarno, it is well enough decided, that a person who can only play himself is no player. Whoever cannot change himself, in temper and in form, into many forms, does not deserve the name. Thus you, for example, acted Hamlet and some other characters extremely well; because in these, your form, your disposition and the temper of the moment suited. For an amateur theatre, for any one who saw no other way before him, this would perhaps have answered well enough. But, continued Jarno, looking on the roll, we should guard against a talent which we cannot hope to practise in perfection. Improve it as we may, we shall always in the end, when the merit of the master has become apparent to us, painfully lament the loss of time and strength devoted to such botching.
Do not read! cried Wilhelm: I entreat you earnestly; speak on, tell, inform me! So the Abbé aided me in Hamlet: he provided me a ghost?Yes; for he asserted that it was the only way of curing you, if you were curable.And on this account he left the veil, and bade me fly?Yes, he hoped that having fairly acted Hamlet, your desire of acting would be satiated. He maintained that you would never go upon the stage again: I believed the countrary, and I was right. We argued on the subject, that very evening when the play was over.You saw me act, then?I did indeed.And who was it that played the Ghost?That I cannot tell you; either the Abbé or his twin brother; but I think the latter, for he is a little taller.You have secrets from each other, then?Friends may and must have secrets from each other; but they are not secrets to each other.
What gives him such a value in our estimation, answered Jarno, what in some degree secures him the dominion over all of us, is the free sharp eye that nature has bestowed on him for all the powers which dwell in man, and are susceptible of cultivation, each according to its kind. Most men, even the most accomplished, are but limited: each prizes certain properties in others and himself; these alone he favours, these alone will he have cultivated. Directly the reverse is the procedure of our Abbé: for every gift he has a feeling; every gift he delights to recognise and forward. But I must look into my roll again! It is all men that make up mankind; all powers taken together that make up the world. These are frequently at variance: and as they endeavour to destroy each other, Nature holds them together, and again produces them. From the first animal tendency to handicraft attempts, up to the highest practising of intellectual art; from the inarticulate crowings of the happy infant, up to the polished utterance of the orator and singer; from the first bickerings of boys up to the vast equipments by which countries are conquered and retained; from the slightest kindliness and the most transitory love, up to the fiercest passion and the most earnest covenant; from the merest perception of sensible presence up to the faintest presentiments and hopes of the remotest spiritual future; all this and much more also lies in man, and must be cultivated: yet not in one, but in many. Every gift is valuable, and ought to be unfolded. When one encourages the beautiful alone, and another encourages the useful alone, it takes them both to form a man. The useful encourages itself; for the multitude produce it, and no one can dispense with it: the beautiful must be encouraged; for few can set it forth, and many need it.
Hold! hold! cried Wilhelm: I have read it all.Yet a line or two! said Jarno: Here is our worthy Abbé to a hairsbreadth: One power rules another; none can cultivate another: in each endowment, and not elsewhere, lies the force which must complete it: this many people do not understand, who yet attempt to teach and influence.I too do not understand it, answered Wilhelm.You will often hear the Abbé preach on this text; and, therefore, Let us merely keep a clear and steady eye on what is in ourselves; on what endowments of our own we mean to cultivate; let us be just to others; for we ourselves are only to be valued in so far as we can value.For Heavens sake, no more of these wise saws! I feel them to be but a sorry balsam for a wounded heart. Tell me rather, with your cruel settledness, what you expect of me, how and in what manner you intend to sacrifice me.For every such suspicion, I assure you, you will afterwards beg our pardon. It is your affair to try and choose; it is ours to aid you. A man is never happy till his vague striving has itself marked out its proper limitation. It is not to me that you must look, but to the Abbé: it is not of yourself that you must think, but of what surrounds you. Thus, for instance, learn to understand Lotharios superiority; how his quick and comprehensive vision is inseparably united with activity; how he constantly advances; how he expands his influence, and carries every one along with him. Wherever he may be, he bears a world about with him: his presence animates and kindles. Observe our good Physician, on the other hand! His nature seems to be directly the reverse. If the former only works upon the general whole, and at a distance, the latter turns his piercing eye upon the things that are beside him; he rather furnishes the means for being active, than himself displays or stimulates activity. His conduct is exactly like the conduct of a good domestic manager; he is busied silently, while he provides for each in his peculiar sphere; his knowledge is a constant gathering and expending, a taking in and giving out on the small scale. Perhaps Lothario in a single day might overturn what the other had for years been employed in building up: but perhaps Lothario also might impart to others, in a moment, strength sufficient to restore a hundredfold what he had overturned.It is but a sad employment, answered Wilhelm, to contemplate the sublime advantages of others at a moment when we are at variance with ourselves. Such contemplations suit the man at ease; not him whom passion and uncertainty are agitating.Peacefully and reasonably to contemplate is at no time hurtful, answered Jarno: and while we use ourselves to think of the advantages of others, our own mind comes insensibly to imitate them; and every false activity, to which our fancy was alluring us, is then willingly abandoned. Free your mind, if you can, from all suspicion and anxiety. Here comes the Abbé: be courteous towards him, till you have learned still farther what you owe him. The rogue! There he goes between Natalia and Theresa; I could bet he is contriving something. As in general he likes to act the part of Destiny a little; so he does not fail to show a taste for making matches, when he finds an opportunity.
Wilhelm, whose angry and fretful humour all the placid prudent words of Jarno had not bettered, thought his friend exceedingly indelicate for mentioning marriage at a moment like the present; he answered with a smile indeed, but a rather bitter one: I thought the taste for making matches had been left to those that had a taste for one another.