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Die Leiden des jungen Werthers
by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's semi-autobiographical recollection of tortured love was so successful in its day that young men would wear blue jackets in remembrance of Werther. Napoleon said that he had read it six times. It is considered a foundation of the German Sturm und Drang school of romantic writing, beginning Goethe's career as the leading writer of his era
I have carefully collected whatever I have been able to learn of the story of poor Werther, and here present it to you, knowing that you will thank me for it. To his spirit and character you cannot refuse your admiration and love: to his fate you will not deny your tears. And thou, good soul, who sufferest the same distress as he endured once, draw comfort from his sorrows; and let this little book be thy friend.
I "I Have Found an Angel"
May 4. What a strange thing is the heart of man. To leave my dearest friend, and yet to feel happy! I know you will forgive me, and I in return will promise that I will no longer worry myself over every petty stab of fortune. Poor Leonora! And yet I was not to blame. Was I in fault that, while I was pleasantly entertained by the charms of her sister, her feeble heart conceived a passion for me? And yet I am not wholly blameless. Did I not encourage her emotion? Did I not--but what is man that he dares so to accuse himself? Beyond doubt, the sufferings of mankind would be far less did they but endure the present with equanimity, instead of raking up the past for memories of sorrow.
A wonderful calm has come over me; I am alone, and feel that a spot like this was created for the happiness of souls like mine. You ask if you shall send me books; I pray you spare me. My heart craves for no excitement; I need strains to soothe me, and I find them to perfection in my Homer.
May 17. I have formed many acquaintances, but as yet have found no friends. If you inquire what sort of people are here, I answer "the same as everywhere." The human race is a monotonous affair. The majority labours nearly all its time for mere subsistence, and is then so distressed to have a small portion of freedom still unemployed that it exerts even greater efforts to get rid of it.
I have just become acquainted with a very worthy person, the district judge. They tell me how charming it is to see him in the midst of his family of nine. His eldest daughter is much spoken of. He has invited me to go and see him.
June 16. Why do I not write to you? You should have guessed that I was pre-occupied; that, in a word, that I have made a friend who has won my heart. I have found--I know not what. An angel? Nonsense! Everyone so describes his mistress. And yet I cannot tell you how perfect she is, or why so perfect. Between ourselves, I have been three times on the point of throwing down my pen, ordering my horse, and riding out. And yet this morning I determined not to ride to-day; and I keep running to the window to see how high the sun is.
I could not restrain myself; go to her I must. I have just returned, Wilhelm, and while I eat my supper I will write to you. I had already made the acquaintance of her aunt, the judge's sister, and with her I was going to accompany Charlotte to a ball given by some young people in the neighbourhood. While we were on our way to fetch her, my companion was loud in her praises of her niece's beauty and charm. "Take care, however," she added, "that you do not lose your heart." "Why?" I asked. "Because she is already betrothed to a most excellent man."
As the door opened, I saw before me the most charming sight that I have ever beheld. Six children, of various ages, were running about the hall and surrounding a lady of medium height, with a lovely figure, dressed in a robe of simple white, trimmed with pink ribbons. She held a loaf of brown bread, and was cutting slices for the little ones all round. She apologised for not being quite ready, explaining that household duties had made her forget the children's supper, which they always preferred to take from her. I uttered some unmeaning compliment, but my whole soul was absorbed by her air, her voice, her manner. You who know me can imagine how I gazed upon her rich, dark eyes; how my soul gloated over her warm lips and fresh glowing cheeks.
Never did I dance more lightly; I felt myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object. And, oh, Wilhelm, I vowed at that moment that no maiden whom I loved should ever waltz with another than myself, if I went to perdition for it.
Returning from the ball, there was a most magnificent sunrise. Our companions were asleep. Charlotte asked me if I did not wish to sleep too, and begged me not to stand on ceremony. Looking deep into her eyes, I answered, "As long as those eyes remain open, there is no fear for mine." We continued awake until we reached her door. I left her, asking her permission to call in the course of the day. She consented, and I went Since then, sun, moon, and stars may pursue their course; I know not whether it is day or night; the whole world is nothing to me.
June 21. My days are as happy as those reserved by God for His elect, and whatever be my fate hereafter, I can never say that I have not tasted joy--the purest joy of life. Little did I think when I selected this spot for my home that all heaven lay within half a league of it.
How childish is man. To be disturbed about a mere look. We had been to Walheim, but during our walk I thought I saw in Charlotte's eyes--I am a fool, but forgive me. You should see her eyes. However, to be brief, as the ladies were preparing to drive away I watched her eyes; they wandered from one to another, but they did not alight on me--on me who saw nothing but her. She noticed me not. The carriage drove off, and my eyes filled with tears. Suddenly I saw Charlotte's bonnet leaning out of the window, and she turned to look back--was it at me? I know not, and in uncertainty is my consolation. Perhaps she turned to look at me. Perhaps. Good-night. What a child I am!
July 10. Someone asked me the other day how I like her. How I like her! What sort of creature must he be who merely likes Charlotte? Whose entire being were not absolutely filled with her? Like her! One might as well ask if I like Ossian.
July 13. No, I am not deceived. In her dark eyes I read a real interest in me. Yes, I feel it, and I believe my own heart which tells me--dare I say it?--that she loves me. How the idea exalts me in my own eyes. And as you can understand my feelings, I may say to you, how I honour myself because she loves me.
I do not know a man able to take my place in her heart; yet when she speaks of Albert with so much warmth and affection, I feel like a soldier who has been stripped of all his honours. Sometimes when we are talking, in the eagerness of conversation she comes closer to me, and her balmy breath reaches my lips, I feel that I could sink into the earth for very joy. And yet, Wilhelm, if I know myself, and should ever dare--you understand me--No, no; my heart is not so corrupt; it is weak, but is not that a degree of corruption?
She is to me a sacred being; how her simplest song enchants me. Sometimes, when I am ready to commit suicide, she sings some favourite air, and instantly the gloom and madness are dispersed.
July 24. Yes, dear Charlotte. I will arrange everything. Only give me more commissions; the more the better. One thing, however, I must request you--use no more writing-sand with the letters you send me! Today, I raised your letter to my lips, and it set my teeth on edge.
II Bereft of Comfort
July 30. Albert is arrived, and I must take my departure. Were he the best of men, and I absolutely beneath him, I could not endure to see him in possession of my perfect being. Enough! her betrothed is here. A fine fellow, whom I cannot help liking. And he is so considerate; he has not given Charlotte one kiss in my presence. Heaven reward him for it. He is free from ill-humour, which you know is the fault I detest most. I do not ask whether he may not now and then tease her with some little jealousies, as I know that in his place I should not be entirely free from such feelings.
August 8. I am amazed to see from my diary, which I have somewhat neglected of late, how deliberately I have entangled myself, step by step. But even though I see the result plainly, I have no thought of acting with any greater prudence. And yet I feel that if only I knew where to go, I would abandon everything and fly from this place.
And yet I feel that, if I were not a fool, I could enjoy life here most delightfully. Admitted into this charming family, loved by the father as a son, by his children as a second father, and by Charlotte! Furthermore, Albert welcomes me with the heartiest affection, and loves me, next to Charlotte, more than all the world.
August 21. In vain do I stretch out my arms towards her when I wake in the morning. In vain do I seek for her when some innocent dream has happily deceived me, and placed me near her in the fields when I have seized her hand and covered it with kisses. Tears flow from my oppressed heart; and, bereft of all comfort, I weep over my future woes.
August 28. This is my birthday, and early in the morning I received a packet from Albert. I found within one of the pink ribbons which Charlotte wore in her dress the first time I saw her, and which I had often asked her to give me. With it were two volumes of Wetstein's Homer, a book I had often wished for. How well they understood those little attentions of friendship, so superior to costly presents, unhappy being that I am. Why do I thus deceive myself? What is to be the outcome of all this wild, aimless, endless passion? I cannot pray except to her. Oh, Wilhelm, the hermit's cell, his sackcloth and girdle of thorns, would be luxury and indulgence compared with what I have to suffer.
October 20. I have taken the plunge, and following your repeated advice, I have taken a post with the ambassador. We arrived here yesterday. If he were less peevish and morose all would be well. As it is, he occasions me continual annoyance; he is the most punctilious blockhead in the world. He does everything step by step, with the paltry fussiness of an old woman; and he is a man whom it is impossible to please, because he is never pleased with himself.
January 20. I have but one being here to interest me, my dear Charlotte--a Miss B----. She resembles you, if indeed anyone can possibly resemble you. "Ah," you will say, "he has learnt to pay fine compliments." And this is partly true; I have been very agreeable lately, as it was not in my power to be otherwise. But I must tell you of Miss B----. She has abundance of soul, which flashes from her deep blue eyes. Her rank is a torment to her, and satisfies no single desire of her heart. She knows you, my dear Charlotte, as I have told her all about you, and renders homage to your merits; but her homage is not exacted, but voluntary--she loves you, and delights to hear you made the subject of conversation. Adieu! Is Albert with you, and what is he to you? Forgive the question.
February 20. I thank you, Albert, for having deceived me. I waited for the news that your wedding-day was fixed, and I meant on that day to remove Charlotte's picture from the wall, and bury it with some old papers that I wish destroyed. You are now united, and the picture remains. Well, let it remain. Why should it not?
III "I Can Remain No Longer"
June 11. Say what you will, I can remain here no longer. Why should I remain? The prince is as gracious to me as anyone could be, and yet I am not at my ease. There is, indeed, nothing in common between us; he is a man of understanding, but quite of the ordinary kind. His conversation gives me no more amusement than I should derive from an ordinary well-written book. Whither am I going? I think it would be better for me to visit the mines in----. But I am only deluding myself thus. You know that I only want to be near my dear Charlotte once more. I smile at the suggestion of my heart, but I obey its dictates.
July 29. Dear Wilhelm, my whole frame feels convulsed when I see Albert put his arms round that slender waist. Oh, the very thought of folding that dearest of heaven's creatures in one's arms.
And--shall I avow it? Why should I not?--she would have been happier with me than with him. Albert is not the man to satisfy the wishes of such a heart. He wants a certain sensibility; he wants--in short, their hearts do not beat in unison. But, Wilhelm, he loves her with his whole heart, and what does not such a love deserve?
September 5. Charlotte had written a letter to her husband in the country, where he was detained on business. It began: "My dearest love, return as soon as possible. I await you with a thousand raptures!"
A friend who arrived brought word that he could not return immediately. Her letter fell into my hands. I read it, and smiled. She asked the reason. "What a heavenly treasure is imagination," I exclaimed. "I fancied for a moment that this was written to me." She paused, and seemed displeased. I was silent.
September 6. It cost me much to part with the blue coat which I wore the first time I danced with Charlotte. But I could not possibly wear it any longer. But I have ordered a new one, precisely similar, even to the collar and sleeves, as well as a new waistcoat and pantaloons. But it does not produce the same effect upon me. I know not how it is, but I hope in time I shall like it better.
October 10. Only to gaze into her dark eyes is to me a source of happiness. And what grieves me is that Albert does not seem so happy as he--as I--as he hoped to be--as I should have been--if--. I am no friend to these pauses, but here I cannot express myself otherwise; and probably I am explicit enough.
October 19. Alas the void--the fearful void which I feel in my bosom! Sometimes I think, if I could only once press her to my heart, this dreadful void would be filled.
October 30. A hundred times I have been on the point of embracing her. Heavens! what a torment it is to see so much loveliness passing and repassing before us, and yet not dare to touch it. And to touch is the most natural of human instincts. Do not children touch everything that they see?
November 8. Charlotte reproves me for my excesses with so much tenderness and goodness. I have lately drunk more wine than usual. "Don't do it," she said; "think of Charlotte." "Think of you," I answered; "can such advice be necessary? Do I not ever think of you?" She immediately changed the subject to prevent me pursuing it further. My dear friend, my energies are all prostrated; she can do with me what she pleases. Yesterday, when I took leave, she seized me by the hand, and said, "Adieu, dear Werther!" It was the first time she had ever called me "dear." I have repeated it a hundred times.
IV "I am Resolved to Die"
November 24. She is sensible of my sufferings. This morning her look pierced my soul. I found her alone; she was silent, and only gazed steadfastly at me. Oh, who can express my emotions? I was quite overcome, and bending down, pronounced this vow to myself, "Beautiful lips, which angels guard, never will I seek to profane your purity with a kiss." And yet, oh, I wish--But, alas, my heart is darkened by doubt and indecision. Could I but taste felicity, and then die to expiate the sin. What sin?
December 21. I am lost. My senses are bewildered, my recollection is confused, my eyes are bathed in tears. I am ill, and yet am well. I wish for nothing; I have no desires; it were better I were gone. I saw Charlotte to-day; she was busy preparing some little gifts for her brothers and sisters, to be given to them on Christmas Day. "You shall have a gift too," she said, "if you behave well." "And what do you call behaving well?" I asked. "What should I do; what can I do?" "Thursday night," she answered, "is Christmas Eve; the children are all to be here, and my father too; there is a present for each of them. Do you come likewise, but do not come before that time!"
I started. She must have seen my emotion, for she continued, hastily "I desire that you will not. It must be so; I ask it of you as a favour, for my own peace and tranquillity. We cannot go on in this manner any longer!" It were idle to attempt to describe my emotions I was as if paralysed; it was as if the sun had suddenly gone out. When I recollected myself, Charlotte was trying to speak on some indifferent topic. "No, Charlotte," I explained, "I understand you perfectly. I will never see you again!"
December 22. It is all over, Charlotte; I am resolved to die. I make this declaration deliberately and coolly, without any romantic passion, on the morning of the day when I am to see you for the last time. At the moment that you read these lines the cold grave will hold the remains of that restless and unhappy being who, in his last moments of existence, knew no pleasure so great as that of conversing with you.
When I tore myself from you yesterday my senses were in tumult and disorder. I could scarcely reach my room. A thousand ideas floated through my mind. At last one fixed, final thought took possession of my heart. It was to die. Oh, beloved Charlotte, this heart, excited by rage and fury, has often conceived the horrid idea of murdering your husband--you--myself.
What do they mean by saying that Albert is your husband? He may be so for this world, and in this world it is a sin to love you--to wish to tear you from his embrace. Yes, it is a crime, and I suffer the punishment--but I have enjoyed the full delight of my sin. I have inhaled a balm that has revived my soul; from this hour you are mine; yes, Charlotte, you are mine. I do not dream, I do not rave. Drawing nearer to the grave my perceptions become clearer. We shall exist; we shall see each other again.
I wish to be buried in the dress I wear at present; it has been made sacred by your touch. How warmly I have loved you, Charlotte. Since the first hour I saw you, how impossible have I found it to leave you. This ribbon must be buried with me; it was a present from you on my birthday. How confused it all appears. Little did I think then that I should journey on this road. But peace, I pray you, peace.
Both my pistols are loaded. The clock strikes twelve. I say Amen. Charlotte! Charlotte! Farewell! Farewell!
A neighbour saw the flash, and heard the report of the pistol; but, as everything remained quiet, he thought no more of it.
In the morning, at six o'clock, the servant went into Werther's room with a candle. He found his master stretched upon the floor, weltering in his blood, and the pistols at his side. He called, he took him in his arms, but received no answer. The servant ran for a surgeon, and then went to fetch Albert. Charlotte heard the ringing of the bell: a cold shudder seized her. She wakened her husband, and they both rose. The servant, bathed in tears faltered forth the dreadful news. Charlotte fell senseless at Albert's feet.
That night the old steward, at the hour of eleven, caused the body to be interred in the place which Werther had selected for himself. The body was carried by labourers. No priest attended.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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