Goethe was a poet, dramatist, amateur scientist, and man of letters. His lyrical style helped to invigorate German literature, and he is widely considered to be Germany’s greatest poet. Goethe also engaged in various kinds of scientific research, including work on plant and human morphology and on the theory of color. Born to a wealthy family in Frankfurt and educated by private tutors, Goethe studied at the universities of Leipzig and Strasbourg and was licensed to practice law. He also found time to study drawing and to expand his interests in writing. A ruptured blood vessel in his lung brought him back to Frankfurt to recover before he could finish his degree at Leipzig. In 1770, he moved to Strasbourg, where he finished his education.
There, Goethe’s talent flourished under the influence of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who stimulated Goethe’s interest in classic literature. Goethe’s epistolary novella of 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, relates the story of a young man with a deeply romantic temperament whose unrequited love affair leads him to suicide, presumed to be inspired by Goethe’s infatuation with a married woman, Charlotte Buff, and the suicide of another lawyer. The book was a European bestseller, and, it is said, the favorite reading matter of Napoleon I. It was also blamed for a rash of suicides of lovesick young people that broke out across Europe, giving the name “the Werther Effect” to copycat suicides.
Goethe’s early Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) works were followed by the more mature neoclassicism of such dramas as Iphigenia in Tauris (1779) and many others. In 1775, Goethe accepted an invitation to become adviser to Karl August, the duke of Weimar, at whose court he remained for the rest of his life. Trips to Italy in 1786–1788 and again in 1790 strongly influenced his writing and philosophy along neoclassical lines. In The Tragedy of Faust (Part I first published 1808; Part II in 1833), Goethe’s best-known and most widely read work, he tells of a man who makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, which may cost him his soul. Unlike other, earlier Faust figures, Goethe’s Faust expresses the author’s belief that it is the natural state of man to seek perfection, but that he may come to contemplate suicide when dejected by his failure to know everything.
Published in four parts, Goethe’s autobiography, Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (translated as Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life) (vols. I, 1811, II, 1812, III, 1814, IV, 1833), makes reference to his own weariness of life—due in part, he intimates, to reading English poetry—and his thoughts of suicide, both how he conceived of doing it and what helped him to overcome the thought. He also describes the relationship between his own experiences and the composition of The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, from The Works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ed. Nathan Haskell Dole, trs. Thomas Carlyle and R. D. Boylan. Boston: The Wyman-Fogg Company, 1901, pp. 43-51, 53-54, 74, 87-92, 99, 105-108, 112-113, 123, 125-126, 132-133. Also available from Project Gutenberg Release #2527; The Auto-Biography of Goethe; Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life, Book XIII, tr. John Oxenford. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848, pp. 502-509. Also available from Project Gutenberg Release #2527.
from THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER
Believe me, dear Wilhelm, I did not allude to you when I spoke so severely of those who advise resignation to inevitable fate. I did not think it possible for you to indulge such a sentiment. But in fact you are right. I only suggest one objection. In this world one is seldom reduced to make a selection between two alternatives. There are as many varieties of conduct and opinion as there are turns of feature between an aquiline nose and a flat one.
You will, therefore, permit me to concede your entire argument, and yet contrive means to escape your dilemma.
Your position is this, I hear you say: “Either you have hopes of obtaining Charlotte, or you have none. Well, in the first case, pursue your course, and press on to the fulfillment of your wishes. In the second, be a man, and shake off a miserable passion, which will enervate and destroy you.” My dear friend, this is well and easily said.
But would you require a wretched being, whose life is slowly wasting under a lingering disease, to despatch himself at once by the stroke of a dagger? Does not the very disorder which consumes his strength deprive him of the courage to effect his deliverance?
You may answer me, if you please, with a similar analogy, “Who would not prefer the amputation of an arm to the periling of life by doubt and procrastination!” But I know not if I am right, and let us leave these comparisons.
Enough! There are moments, Wilhelm, when I could rise up and shake it all off, and when, if I only knew where to go, I could fly from this place.
Certainly Albert is the best fellow in the world. I had a strange scene with him yesterday. I went to take leave of him; for I took it into my head to spend a few days in these mountains, from where I now write to you. As I was walking up and down his room, my eye fell upon his pistols. “Lend me those pistols,” said I, “for my journey.” “By all means,” he replied, “if you will take the trouble to load them; for they only hang there for form.” I took down one of them; and he continued, “Ever since I was near suffering for my extreme caution, I will have nothing to do with such things.” I was curious to hear the story. “I was staying,” said he, “some three months ago, at a friend’s house in the country. I had a brace of pistols with me, unloaded; and I slept without any anxiety. One rainy afternoon I was sitting by myself, doing nothing, when it occurred to me—I do not know how—that the house might be attacked, that we might require the pistols, that we might—in short, you know how we go on fancying, when we have nothing better to do. I gave the pistols to the servant, to clean and load.
He was playing with the maid, and trying to frighten her, when the pistol went off—God knows how!—the ramrod was in the barrel; and it went straight through her right hand, and shattered the thumb. I had to endure all the lamentation, and to pay the surgeon’s bill; so, since that time, I have kept all my weapons unloaded. But, my dear friend, what is the use of prudence? We can never be on our guard against all possible dangers. However,”—now, you must know I can tolerate all men till they come to “however;” for it is self-evident that every universal rule must have its exceptions. But he is so exceedingly accurate, that, if he only fancies he has said a word too precipitate, or too general, or only half true, he never ceases to qualify, to modify, and extenuate, till at last he appears to have said nothing at all. Upon this occasion, Albert was deeply immersed in his subject: I ceased to listen to him, and became lost in reverie. With a sudden motion, I pointed the mouth of the pistol to my forehead, over the right eye. “What do you mean?” cried Albert, turning back the pistol. “It is not loaded,” said I. “And even if not,” he answered with impatience, “what can you mean? I cannot comprehend how a man can be so mad as to shoot himself, and the bare idea of it shocks me.”
“But why should any one,” said I, “in speaking of an action, venture to pronounce it mad or wise, or good or bad? What is the meaning of all this? Have you carefully studied the secret motives of our actions? Do you understand—can you explain the causes which occasion them, and make them inevitable? If you can, you will be less hasty with your decision.”
“But you will allow,” said Albert, “that some actions are criminal, let them spring from whatever motives they may.” I granted it, and shrugged my shoulders.
“But still, my good friend,” I continued, “there are some exceptions here too. Theft is a crime; but the man who commits it from extreme poverty, with no design but to save his family from perishing, is he an object of pity, or of punishment? Who shall throw the first stone at a husband, who, in the heat of just resentment, sacrifices his faithless wife and her perfidious seducer? or at the young maiden, who, in her weak hour of rapture, forgets herself in the impetuous joys of love? Even our laws, cold and cruel as they are, relent in such cases, and withhold their punishment.”
“That is quite another thing,” said Albert; “because a man under the influence of violent passion loses all power of reflection, and is regarded as intoxicated or insane.”
“Oh! You people of sound understandings,” I replied, smiling, “are ever ready to exclaim ‘Extravagance, and madness, and intoxication!’ You moral men are so calm and so subdued! You abhor the drunken man, and detest the extravagant; you pass by, like the Levite, and thank God, like the Pharisee, that you are not like one of them. I have been more than once intoxicated, my passions have always bordered on extravagance: I am not ashamed to confess it; for I have learned, by my own experience, that all extraordinary men, who have accomplished great and astonishing actions, have ever been decried by the world as drunken or insane. And in private life, too, is it not intolerable that no one can undertake the execution of a noble or generous deed, without giving rise to the exclamation that the doer is intoxicated or mad? Shame upon you, ye sages!”
“This is another of your extravagant humours,” said Albert: “you always exaggerate a case, and in this matter you are undoubtedly wrong; for we were speaking of suicide, which you compare with great actions, when it is impossible to regard it as anything but a weakness. It is much easier to die than to bear a life of misery with fortitude.”
I was on the point of breaking off the conversation, for nothing puts me so completely out of patience as the utterance of a wretched commonplace when I am talking from my inmost heart. However, I composed myself, for I had often heard the same observation with sufficient vexation; and I answered him, therefore, with a little warmth, “You call this a weakness—beware of being led astray by appearances. When a nation, which has long groaned under the intolerable yoke of a tyrant, rises at last and throws off its chains, do you call that weakness? The man who, to rescue his house from the flames, finds his physical strength redoubled, so that he lifts burdens with ease, which, in the absence of excitement, he could scarcely move; he who, under the rage of an insult, attacks and puts to flight half a score of his enemies,—are such persons to be called weak? My good friend, if resistance be strength, how can the highest degree of resistance be a weakness?”
Albert looked steadfastly at me, and said, “Pray forgive me, but I do not see that the examples you have adduced bear any relation to the question.” “Very likely,” I answered; “for I have often been told that my style of illustration borders a little on the absurd. But let us see if we cannot place the matter in another point of view, by inquiring what can be a man’s state of mind who resolves to free himself from the burden of life,—a burden often so pleasant to bear,—for we cannot otherwise reason fairly upon the subject.
“Human nature,” I continued, “has its limits. It is able to endure a certain degree of joy, sorrow, and pain, but becomes annihilated as soon as this measure is exceeded. The question, therefore, is, not whether a man is strong or weak, but whether he is able to endure the measure of his sufferings. The suffering may be moral or physical; and in my opinion it is just as asburd to call a man a coward who destroys himself, as to call a man a coward who dies of a malignant fever.”
“Paradox, all paradox!” exclaimed Albert. “Not so paradoxical as you imagine,” I replied. “You allow that we designate a disease as mortal when nature is so severely attacked, and her strength so far exhausted, that she cannot possibly recover her former condition under any change that may take place.
“Now, my good friend, apply this to the mind; observe a man in his natural, isolated condition; consider how ideas work, and how impressions fasten on him, till at length a violent passion seizes him, destroying all his powers of calm reflection, and utterly ruining him.
“It is in vain that a man of sound mind and cool temper understands the condition of such a wretched being, in vain he counsels him. He can no more communicate his own wisdom to him than a healthy man can instil his strength into the invalid, by whose bedside he is seated.”
Albert thought this too general. I reminded him of a girl who had drowned herself a short time previously, and I related her history.
She was a good creature, who had grown up in the narrow sphere of household industry and weekly-appointed labour; one who knew no pleasure beyond indulging in a walk on Sundays, arrayed in her best attire, accompanied by her friends, or perhaps joining in the dance now and then at some festival, and chatting away her spare hours with a neighbour, discussing the scandal or the quarrels of the village,—trifles sufficient to occupy her heart. At length the warmth of her nature is influenced by certain new and unknown wishes. Inflamed by the flatteries of men, her former pleasures become by degrees insipid, till at length she meets with a youth to whom she is attracted by an indescribable feeling; upon him she now rests all her hopes; she forgets the world around her; she sees, hears, desires nothing but him, and him only. He alone occupies all her thoughts. Uncorrupted by the idle indulgence of an enervating vanity, her affection moving steadily toward its object, she hopes to become his, and to realise, in an everlasting union with him, all that happiness which she sought, all that bliss for which she longed. His repeated promises confirm her hopes: embraces and endearments, which increase the ardour of her desires, overmaster her soul. She floats in a dim, delusive anticipation of her happiness; and her feelings become excited to their utmost tension. She stretches out her arms finally to embrace the object of all her wishes—and her lover forsakes her. Stunned and bewildered, she stands upon a precipice. All is darkness around her. No prospect, no hope, no consolation—forsaken by him in whom her existence was centred! She sees nothing of the wide world before her, thinks nothing of the many individuals who might supply the void in her heart; she feels herself deserted, forsaken by the world; and, blinded and impelled by the agony which wrings her soul, she plunges into the deep, to end her sufferings in the broad embrace of death. See here, Albert, the history of thousands; and tell me, is not this a case of physical infirmity? Nature has no way to escape from the labyrinth: her powers are exhausted: she can contend no longer, and the poor soul must die.
“Shame upon him who can look on calmly, and exclaim, ‘The foolish girl! she should have waited; she should have allowed time to wear off the impression; her despair would have been softened, and she would have found another lover to comfort her.’ One might as well say, ‘The fool, to die of a fever! Why did he not wait till his strength was restored, till his blood became calm? All would then have gone well, and he would have been alive now.’”
Albert, who could not see the justice of the comparison, offered some further objections, and, amongst others, urged that I had taken the case of a mere ignorant girl. But how any man of sense, of more enlarged views and experience, could be excused, he was unable to comprehend. “My friend!” I exclaimed, “man is but man; and, whatever be the extent of his reasoning powers, they are of little avail when passion rages within, and he feels himself confined by the narrow limits of nature, It were better, then—but we will talk of this some other time,” I said, and caught up my hat. Alas! My heart was full; and we parted without conviction on either side. How rarely in this would do men understand each other!
It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my eyes, and, instead of prospects of eternal life, the abyss of an ever open grave yawned before me. Can we say of anything that it exists when all passes away,—when time, with the speed of a storm, carries all things onward,—and our transitory existence, hurried along by the torrent, is either swallowed up by the waves or dashed against the rocks? There is not a moment but preys upon you, and upon all around you,—not a moment in which you do not yourself become a destroyer. The most innocent walk deprives of life thousands of poor insects: one step destroys the fabric of the industrious ant, and converts a little world into chaos. No: it is not the great and rare calamities of the world, the floods which sweep away whole villages, the earthquakes which swallow up our towns, that affect me. My heart is wasted by the thought of that destructive power which lies concealed in every part of universal nature. Nature has formed nothing that does not consume itself, and every object near it: so that, surrounded by earth and air, and all the active powers, I wander on my way with aching heart; and the universe is to me a fearful monster, for ever devouring its own offspring.
I could scarcely contain myself, and was ready to throw myself at her feet. “Explain yourself!” I cried. Tears flowed down her cheeks. I became quite frantic. She wiped them away, without attempting to conceal them. “You know my aunt,” she continued; “she was present: and in what light does she consider the affair! Last night, and this morning, Werther, I was compelled to listen to a lecture upon my acquaintance with you. I have been obliged to hear you condemned and depreciated; and I could not—I dared not—say much in your defence.”
Every word she uttered was a dagger to my heart. She did not feel what a mercy it would have been to conceal everything from me. She told me, in addition, all the impertinence that would be further circulated, and how the malicious would triumph; how they would rejoice over the punishment of my pride, over my humiliation for that want of esteem for others with which I had often been reproached. To hear all this, Wilhelm, uttered by her in a voice of the most sincere sympathy, awakened all my passions; and I am still in a state of extreme excitement. I wish I could find a man to jeer me about this event. I would sacrifice him to my resentment. The sight of his blood might possibly be a relief to my fury. A hundred times have I seized a dagger, to give ease to this oppressed heart. Naturalists tell of a noble race of horses that instinctively open a vein with their teeth, when heated and exhausted by a long course, in order to breathe more freely. I am often tempted to open a vein, to procure for myself everlasting liberty.
Ossian has superseded Homer in my heart. To what a world does the illustrious bard carry me! To wander over pathless wilds, surrounded by impetuous whirlwinds, where, by the feeble light of the moon, we see the spirits of our ancestors; to hear from the mountain-tops, mid the roar of torrents, their plaintive sounds issuing from deep caverns, and the sorrowful lamentations of a maiden who sighs and expires on the mossy tomb of the warrior by whom she was adored. I meet this bard with silver hair; he wanders in the valley; he seeks the footsteps of his fathers, and, alas! he finds only their tombs. Then, contemplating the pale moon, as she sinks beneath the waves of the rolling sea, the memory of bygone days strikes the mind of the hero,—days when approaching danger invigorated the brave, and the moon shone upon his bark laden with spoils, and returning in triumph. When I read in his countenance deep sorrow, when I see his dying glory sink exhausted into the grave, as he inhales new and heart-thrilling delight from his approaching union with his beloved, and he casts a look on the cold earth and the tall grass which is so soon to cover him, and then exclaims, “The traveler will come,—he will come who has seen my beauty, and he will ask, ‘Where is the bard,—where is the illustrious son of Fingal?’ He will walk over my tomb, and will seek me in vain!” Then, O my friend, I could instantly, like a true and noble knight, draw my sword, and deliver my prince from the long and painful languor of a living death, and dismiss my own soul to follow the demigod whom my hand had set free!
Witness, Heaven, how often I lie down in my bed with a wish, and even a hope, that I may never awaken again. And in the morning, when I open my eyes, I behold the sun once more, and am wretched. If I were whimsical, I might blame the weather, or an acquaintance, or some personal disappointment, for my discontented mind; and then this insupportable load of trouble would not rest entirely upon myself. But, alas! I feel it too sadly. I am alone the cause of my own woe, am I not? Truly, my own bosom contains the source of all my sorrow, as it previously contained the source of all my pleasure. Am I not the same being who once enjoyed an excess of happiness, who, at every step, saw paradise open before him, and whose heart was ever expanded toward the whole world? And this heart is now dead, no sentiment can revive it; my eyes are dry; and my senses, no more refreshed by the influence of soft tears, wither and consume my brain, I suffer much, for I have lost the only charm of life: that active, sacred power which created worlds around me,—it is no more. When I look from my window at the distant hills, and behold the morning sun breaking through the mists, and illuminating the country around, which is still wrapped in silence, whilst the soft stream winds gently through the willows, which have shed their leaves; when glorious nature displays all her beauties before me, and her wondrous prospects are ineffectual to extract one tear of joy from my withered heart,—I feel that in such a moment I stand like a reprobate before heaven, hardened, insensible, and unmoved. Oftentimes do I then bend my knee to the earth, and implore God for the blessing of tears, as the desponding labourer in some scorching climate prays for the dews of heaven to moisten his parched corn.
But I feel that God does not grant sunshine or rain to our importunate entreaties. And oh, those bygone days, whose memory now torments me! Why were they so fortunate? Because I then waited with patience for the blessings of the Eternal, and received his gifts with the grateful feelings of a thankful heart.
What is the destiny of man, but to fill up the measure of his sufferings, and to drink his allotted cup of bitterness? And if that same cup proved bitter to the God of heaven, under a human form, why should I affect a foolish pride, and call it sweet? Why should I be ashamed of shrinking at that fearful moment, when my whole being will tremble between existence and annihilation, when a remembrance of the past, like a flash of lightning, will illuminate the dark gulf of futurity, when everything shall dissolve around me, and the whole world vanish away? Is not this the voice of a creature oppressed beyond all resource, self-deficient, about to plunge into inevitable destruction, and groaning deeply at its inadequate strength, “My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?” And should I feel ashamed to utter the same expression? Should I not shudder at a prospect which had its fears, even for him who folds up the heavens like a garment?
She does not feel, she does not know, that she is preparing a poison which will destroy us both; and I drink deeply of the draught which is to prove my destruction. What mean those looks of kindness with which she often—often? no, not often, but sometimes, regards me, that complacency with which she hears the involuntary sentiments which frequently escape me, and the tender pity for my sufferings which appears in her countenance?
THE EDITOR TO THE READER.
We have only, then, to relate conscientiously the facts which our diligent labour has enabled us to collect, to give the letters of the deceased, and to pay particular attention to the slightest fragment from his pen, more especially as it is so difficult to discover the real and correct motives of men who are not of the common order.
Sorrow and discontent had taken deep root in Werther’s soul, and gradually imparted their character to his whole being. The harmony of his mind became completely disturbed; a perpetual excitement and mental irritation, which weakened his natural powers, produced the saddest effects upon him, and rendered him at length the victim of an exhaustion against which he struggled with still more painful efforts than he had displayed, even in contending with his other misfortunes. His mental anxiety weakened his various good qualities; and he was soon converted into a gloomy companion, —always unhappy and unjust in his ideas, the more wretched he became.
The vain attempt Werther had made to save the unhappy murderer was the last feeble glimmering of a flame about to be extinguished. He sank almost immediately afterward into a state of gloom and inactivity, until he was at length brought to perfect distraction by learning that he was to be summoned as a witness against the prisoner, who asserted his complete innocence.
His mind now became oppressed by the recollection of every misfortune of his past life. The mortification he had suffered at the ambassador’s, and his subsequent troubles, were revived in his memory. He became utterly inactive. Destitute of energy, he was cut off from every pursuit and occupation which compose the business of common life; and he became a victim to his own susceptibility, and to his restless passion for the most amiable and beloved of women, whose peace he destroyed. In this unvarying monotony of existence his days were consumed; and his powers became exhausted without aim or design, until they brought him to a sorrowful end.
A few letters which he left behind, and which we here subjoin, afford the best proofs of his anxiety of mind and of the depth of his passion, as well as of his doubts and struggles, and of his weariness of life.
Dear Wilhelm, I am reduced to the condition of those unfortunate wretches who believe they are pursued by an evil spirit. Sometimes I am oppressed not by apprehension or fear, but by an inexpressible internal sensation, which weighs upon my heart, and impedes my breath! Then I wander forth at night, even in this tempestuous season, and feel pleasure in surveying the dreadful scenes around me.
Yesterday evening I went forth. A rapid thaw had suddenly set in: I had been informed that the river had risen, that the brooks had all overflowed their banks, and that the whole vale of Walheim was under water! Upon the stroke of twelve I hastened forth. I beheld a fearful sight. The foaming torrents rolled from the mountains in the moonlight,—fields and meadows, trees and hedges, were confounded together; and the entire valley was converted into a deep lake, which was agitated by the roaring wind! And when the moon shone forth, and tinged the black clouds with silver, and the impetuous torrent at my feet foamed and resounded with awful and grand impetuosity, I was overcome by a mingled sensation of apprehension and delight. With extended arms I looked down into the yawning abyss, and cried, “Plunge!” For a moment my senses forsook me, in the intense delight of ending my sorrows and my sufferings by a plunge into that gulf! And then I felt as if I were rooted to the earth, and incapable of seeking an end to my woes! But my hour is not yet come: I feel it is not. O Wilhelm, how willingly could I abandon my existence to ride the whirlwind, or to embrace the torrent! and then might not rapture perchance be the portion of this liberated soul?
I turned my sorrowful eyes toward a favourite spot, where I was accustomed to sit with Charlotte beneath a willow after a fatiguing walk. Alas! It was covered with water, and with difficulty I found even the meadow. And the fields around the hunting-lodge, thought I. Has our dear bower been destroyed by this unpitying storm? And a beam of past happiness streamed upon me, as the mind of a captive is illumined by dreams of flocks and herds and bygone joys of home! But I am free from blame. I have courage todie! Perhaps I have,—but I still sit here, like a wretched pauper, who collects fagots, and begs her bread from door to door, that she may prolong for a few days a miserable existence which she is willing to resign.
What is the matter with me, dear Wilhelm? I am afraid of myself! Is not my love for her of the purest, most holy, and most brotherly nature? Has my soul ever been sullied by a single-sensual desire? But I will make no protestations. And now, ye nightly visions, how truly have those mortals understood you, who ascribe your various contradictory effects to some invincible power! This night—I tremble at the avowal—I held her in my arms, locked in a close embrace: I pressed her to my bosom, and covered with countless kisses those dear lips which murmured in reply soft protestations of love. My sight became confused by the delicious intoxication of her eyes. Heavens! Is it sinful to revel again in such happiness, to recall once more those rapturous moments with intense delight? Charlotte! Charlotte! I am lost! My senses are bewildered, my recollection is confused, mine eyes are bathed in tears—I am ill; and yet I am well—I wish for nothing—I have no desires—it were better I were gone.
Under the circumstances narrated above, a determination to quit this world had now taken fixed possession of Werther’s soul. Since Charlotte’s return, this thought had been the final object of all his hopes and wishes; but he had resolved that such a step should not be taken with precipitation, but with calmness and tranquillity, and with the most perfect deliberation.
His troubles and internal struggles may be understood from the following fragment, which was found, without any date, amongst his papers, and appears to have formed the beginning of a letter to Wilhelm.
“Her presence, her fate, her sympathy for me, have power still to extract tears from my withered brain.
“One lifts up the curtain, and passes to the other side,—that is all! And why all these doubts and delays? Because we know not what is behind—because there is no returning—and because our mind infers that all is darkness and confusion, where we have nothing but uncertainty.”
His appearance at length became quite altered by the effect of his melancholy thoughts; and his resolution was now finally and irrevocably taken, of which the following ambiguous letter, which he addressed to his friend, may appear to afford some proof.
On Monday morning, the 21st of December, he wrote to Charlotte the following letter, which was found, sealed, on his bureau after his death, and was given to her. I shall insert it in fragments; as it appears, from several circumstances, to have been written in that manner.
“It is all over, Charlotte: I am resolved to die! I make this declaration deliberately and coolly, without any romantic passion, on this morning of the day when I am to see you for the last time. At the moment you read these lines, O best of women, the cold grave will hold the inanimate remains of that restless and unhappy being who, in the last moments of his existence, knew no pleasure so great as that of conversing with you! I have passed a dreadful night—or rather, let me say, a propitious one; for it has given me resolution, it has fixed my purpose. I am resolved to die. When I tore myself from you yesterday, my senses were in tumult and disorder; my heart was oppressed, hope and pleasure had fled from me for ever, and a petrifying cold had seized my wretched being. I could scarcely reach my room. I threw myself on my knees; and Heaven, for the last time, granted me the consolation of shedding tears. A thousand ideas, a thousand schemes, arose within my soul; till at length one last, fixed, final thought took possession of my heart. It was to die. I lay down to rest; and in the morning, in the quiet hour of awakening, the same determination was upon me. To die! It is not despair: it is conviction that I have filled up the measure of my sufferings, that I have reached my appointed term, and must sacrifice myself for thee. Yes, Charlotte, why should I not avow it? One of us three must die: it shall be Werther. O beloved Charlotte! this heart, excited by rage and fury, has often conceived the horrid idea of murdering your husband—you—myself! The lot is cast at length. And in the bright, quiet evenings of summer, when you sometimes wander toward the mountains, let your thoughts then turn to me: recollect how often you have watched me coming to meet you from the valley; then bend your eyes upon the churchyard which contains my grave, and, by the light of the setting sun, mark how the evening breeze waves the tall grass which grows above my tomb. I was calm when I began this letter, but the recollection of these scenes makes me weep like a child.”
He trembled; his heart was ready to burst: then, taking up the book again, he recommenced reading, in a voice broken by sobs.
“Why dost thou waken me, O spring? Thy voice woos me, exclaiming, I refresh thee with heavenly dews; but the time of my decay is approaching, the storm is nigh that shall wither my leaves. To-morrow the traveler shall come, —he shall come, who beheld me in beauty: his eye shall seek me in the field around, but he shall not find me.”
“For the last, last time I open these eyes. Alas! they will behold the sun no more. It is covered by a thick, impenetrable cloud. Yes, Nature! put on mourning: your child, your friend, your lover, draws near his end! This thought, Charlotte, is without parallel; and yet it seems like a mysterious dream when I repeat—this is my last day! The last! Charlotte, no word can adequately express this thought. The last! To-day I stand erect in all my strength—to-morrow, cold and stark, I shall lie extended upon the ground. To die! What is death? We do but dream in our discourse upon it. I have seen many human beings die; but, so straitened is our feeble nature, we have no clear conception of the beginning or the end of our existence. At this moment I am my own—or rather I am thine, thine, my adored!—and the next we are parted, severed—perhaps for ever! No, Charlotte, no! How can I, how can you, be annihilated? We exist. What is annihilation? A mere word, an unmeaning sound that fixes no impression on the mind. Dead, Charlotte! laid in the cold earth, in the dark and narrow grave! I had a friend once who was everything to me in early youth. She died. I followed her hearse; I stood by her grave when the coffin was lowered; and when I heard the creaking of the cords as they were loosened and drawn up, when the first shovelful of earth was thrown in, and the coffin returned a hollow sound, which grew fainter and fainter till all was completely covered over, I threw myself on the ground; my heart was smitten, grieved, shattered, rent—but I neither knew what had happened, nor what was to happen to me. Death! the grave! I understand not the words.—Forgive, oh, forgive me! Yesterday—ah, that day should have been the last of my life! Thou angel!—for the first—first time in my existence, I felt rapture glow within my inmost soul. She loves, she loves me! Still burns upon my lips the sacred fire they received from thine. New torrents of delight overwhelm my soul. Forgive me, oh, Forgive!
“See, Charlotte, I do not shudder to take the cold and fatal cup, from which I shall drink the draught of death. Your hand presents it to me, and I do not tremble. All, all is now concluded: the wishes and the hopes of my existence are fulfilled. With cold, unflinching hand I knock at the brazen portals of Death.
“Oh, that I had enjoyed the bliss of dying for you! how gladly would I have sacrificed myself for you, Charlotte! And could I but restore peace and joy to your bosom, with what resolution, with what joy, would I not meet my fate! But it is the lot of only a chosen few to shed their blood for their friends, and by their death to augment, a thousand times, the happiness of those by whom they are beloved.
“I wish, Charlotte, to be buried in the dress I wear at present: it has been rendered sacred by your touch. I have begged this favour of your father. My spirit soars above my sepulcher. I do not wish my pockets to be searched, The knot of pink ribbon which you wore on your bosom the first time I saw you, surrounded by the children—Oh, kiss them a thousand times for me, and tell them the fate of their unhappy friend! I think I see them playing around me. The dear children! How warmly have I been attached to 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 then think that I should journey this road. But peace! I pray you, peace!
“They are loaded—the clock strikes twelve, I say amen. Charlotte, Charlotte! farewell, farewell!”
from TRUTH AND POETRY: FROM MY OWN LIFE
How nearly such a mental dialogue is akin to a written correspondence, is clear enough; only in the latter one sees returned the confidence one has bestowed, while in the former, one creates for oneself a confidence which is new, ever-changing, and unreturned. When, therefore, he had to describe that disgust which men, without being driven by necessity, feel for life, the author necessarily hit at once upon the plan of giving his sentiments in letters; for all gloominess is a birth, a pupil of solitude—and what is more opposed to it than a cheerful society? The enjoyment in life felt by others is to him a painful reproach; and thus, by that which should charm him out of himself, he is directed back to his inmost soul. If he at all expresses himself on this matter, it will be by letters; for no one feels immediately opposed to a written effusion, whether it be joyful or gloomy, while an answer containing opposite reasons gives the lonely one an opportunity to confirm himself in his whims,—an occasion to grow still more obdurate. The letters of Werther, which are written in this spirit, have so various a charm, precisely because their different contents were first talked over with several individuals in such ideal dialogues, while it was afterwards in the composition itself that they appeared to be directed to one friend and sympathizer. To say more on the treatment of a little book which has formed the subject of so much discussion, would be hardly advisable, but, with respect to the contents, something may yet be added.
That disgust at life has its physical and its moral causes; the former we will leave to the investigation of the physician, the latter to that of the moralist, and in a matter so often elaborated, only consider the chief point, where the phenomenon most plainly expresses itself. All comfort in life is based upon a regular recurrence of external things. The change of day and night—of the seasons, of flowers and fruits, and whatever else meets us from epoch to epoch, so that we can and should enjoy it—these are the proper springs of earthly life. The more open we are to these enjoyments, the happier do we feel ourselves; but if the changes in these phenomena roll up and down before us without our taking interest in them, if we are insensible to such beautiful offers, then comes on the greatest evil, the heaviest disease—we regard life as a disgusting burden. It is said of an Englishman, that he hanged himself that he might no longer dress and undress himself every day. I knew a worthy gardener, the superintendent of the laying out of a large park, who once cried out with vexation, “Shall I always see these clouds moving from east to west?” The story is told of one of our most excellent men, that he saw with vexation the returning green of spring, and wished that, by way of change, it might once appear red. These are properly the symptoms of a weariness of life, which does not unfrequently result in suicide, and which, in thinking men, absorbed in themselves, was more frequent than can be imagined.
Nothing occasions this weariness more than the return of love. The first love, it is rightly said, is the only one, for in the second, and by the second, the highest sense of love is already lost. The conception of the eternal and infinite, which elevates and supports it, is destroyed, and it appears transient like everything else that recurs. The separation of the sensual from the moral, which, in the complicated, cultivated world sunders the feelings of love and desire, produces here also an exaggeration which can lead to no good.
Moreover, a young man soon perceives in others, if not in himself, that moral epochs change as well as the seasons of the year. The graciousness of the great, the favour of the strong, the encouragement of the active, the attachment of the multitude, the love of individuals—all this changes up and down, and we can no more hold it fast than the sun, moon, and stars. And yet these things are not mere natural events; they escape us either by our own or by another’s fault; but change they do, and we are never sure of them.
But that which most pains a sensitive youth is the unceasing return of our faults; for how late do we learn to see that while we cultivate our virtues, we rear our faults at the same time. The former depend upon the latter as upon their root, and the latter send forth secret ramifications as strong and as various as those which the former send forth in open light. Because now we generally practise our virtues with will and consciousness, but are unconsciously surprised by our faults, the former seldom procure us any pleasure, while the latter constantly bring trouble and pain. Here lies the most difficult point in self-knowledge, that which makes it almost impossible. If we conceive, in addition to all this, a young, boiling blood, an imagination easily to be paralyzed by single objects, and, moreover, the uncertain movements of the day, we shall not find unnatural an impatient striving to free oneself from such a strait.
However, such gloomy contemplations, which lead him who has resigned himself to them into the infinite, could not have developed themselves so decidedly in the minds of the German youths, had not an outward occasion excited and furthered them in this dismal business. This was caused by English literature, especially the poetical part, the great beauties of which are accompanied by an earnest melancholy, which it communicates to every one who occupies himself with it. The intellectual Briton, from his youth upwards, sees himself surrounded by a significant world, which stimulates all his powers; he perceives, sooner or later, that he must collect all his understanding to come to terms with it. How many of their poets have in their youth led a loose and riotous life, and soon found themselves justified in complaining of the vanity of earthly things? How many of them have tried their fortune in worldly occupations, have taken parts, principal or subordinate, in parliament, at court, in the ministry, in situations with the embassy, shown their active co-operation in the internal troubles and changes of state and government, and if not in themselves, at any rate in their friends and patrons, frequently made sad and pleasant experiences! How many have been banished, imprisoned, or injured with respect to property!
Even the circumstance of being the spectator of such great events calls man to seriousness; and whither can seriousness lead farther than to a contemplation of the transient nature and worthlessness of all earthly things? The German also is serious, and thus English poetry was extremely suitable to him, and, because it proceeded from a higher state of things, even imposing. One finds in it throughout a great, apt understanding, well practised in the world, a deep, tender heart, an excellent will, an impassioned action,—the very noblest qualities which can be praised in an intellectual and cultivated man; but all this put together still makes no poet. True poetry announces itself thus, that, as a worldly gospel, it can by internal cheerfulness and external comfort free us from the earthly burdens which press upon us. Like an air-balloon, it lifts us, together with the ballast which is attached to us, into higher regions, and lets the confused labyrinths of the earth lie developed before us as in a bird’s-eye view. The most lively, as well as the most serious works, have the same aim of moderating both pleasure and pain by a felicitous intellectual form. Let us only in this spirit consider the majority of the English poems, chiefly morally didactic, and on the average they will only show us a gloomy weariness of life. Not only Young’s Night Thoughts, where this theme is pre-eminently worked out, but even the other contemplative poems stray, before one is aware of it, into this dismal region, where the understanding is presented with a problem which it cannot solve, since even religion, much as it can always construct for itself, leaves it in the lurch. Whole volumes might be compiled, which could serve as a commentary to this frightful text—
“Then old age and experience, hand in hand,
Lead him to death, and make him understand,
After a search so painful and so long,
That all his life he has been in the wrong.”
What further makes the English poets accomplished misanthropes, and diffuses over their writings the unpleasant feeling of repugnance against everything, is the fact that the whole of them, on account of the various divisions of their commonwealth, must devote themselves for the best part, if not for the whole of their lives, to one party or another. Because now a writer of the sort cannot praise and extol those of the party to which he belongs, nor the cause to which he adheres, since, if he did, he would only excite envy and hostility, he exercises his talent in speaking as badly as possible of those on the opposite side, and in sharpening, nay, poisoning the satirical weapons as much as he can. When this is done by both parties, the world which lies between is destroyed and wholly annihilated, so that in a great mass of sensibly active people, one can discover, to use the mildest terms, nothing but folly and madness. Even their tender poems are occupied with mournful subjects. Here a deserted girl is dying, there a faithful lover is drowned, or is devoured by a shark before, by his hurried swimming, he reaches his beloved; and if a poet like Gray lies down in a churchyard, and again begins those well-known melodies, he too may gather round him a number of friends to melancholy. Milton’s Allegro must scare away gloom in vehement verses, before he can attain a very moderate pleasure; and even the cheerful Goldsmith loses himself in elegiac feelings, when his Deserted Village, as charmingly as sadly, exhibits to us a lost Paradise which his Traveller seeks over the whole earth.
I do not doubt that lively works, cheerful poems, can be brought forward and opposed to what I have said, but the greatest number, and the best of them, certainly belong to the older epoch; and the newer works, which may be set down in the class, are likewise of a satirical tendency, are bitter, and treat women especially with contempt.
Enough: those serious poems, undermining human nature, which, in general terms, have been mentioned above, were the favourites which we sought out before all others, one seeking, according to his disposition, the lighter elegiac melancholy, another the heavy oppressive despair, which gives up everything. Strangely enough, our father and instructor, Shakespeare, who so well knew how to diffuse a pure cheerfulness, strengthened our feeling of dissatisfaction. Hamlet and his soliloquies were spectres which haunted all the young minds. The chief passages every one knew by heart and loved to recite, and every body fancied he had a right to be just as melancholy as the Prince of Denmark, though he had seen no ghost, and had no royal father to avenge.
But that to all this melancholy a perfectly suitable locality might not be wanting, Ossian had charmed us even to the Ultima Thule, where on a gray, boundless heath, wandering among prominent moss-covered grave-stones, we saw the grass around us moved by an awful wind, and a heavily clouded sky above us. It was not till moonlight that the Caledonian night became day; departed heroes, faded maidens, floated around us, until at last we really thought we saw the spirit of Loda in his fearful form.
In such an element, with such surrounding influences, with tastes and studies of this kind, tortured by unsatisfied passions, by no means excited from without to important actions, with the sole prospect that we must adhere to a dull, spiritless, citizen life, we became—in gloomy wantonness—attached to the thought, that we could at all events quit life at pleasure, if it no longer suited us, and thus miserably enough helped ourselves through the disgusts and weariness of the days. This feeling was so general, that Werther produced its great effect precisely because it struck a chord everywhere, and openly and intelligibly exhibited the internal nature of a morbid youthful delusion. How accurately the English were acquainted with this sort of wretchedness is shown by the few significant lines, written before the appearance of Werther—
“To griefs congenial prone,
More wounds than nature gave he knew,
While misery’s form his fancy drew
In dark ideal hues and horrors not its own.”
Suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew. Montesquieu grants his heroes and great men the right of killing themselves as they think fit, since he says that it must be free to every one to close the fifth act of his tragedy as he pleases. But here the discourse is not of those persons who have led an active and important life, who have sacrificed their days for a great empire, or for the cause of freedom, and whom one cannot blame if they think to follow in another world the idea which inspires them, as soon as it has vanished from the earth. We have here to do with those whose life is embittered by a want of action, in the midst of the most peaceful circumstances in the world, through exaggerated demands upon themselves. Since I myself was in this predicament, and best knew the pain I suffered in it, and the exertion it cost me to free myself, I will not conceal the reflections which I made, with much deliberation, on the various kinds of death which one might choose.
There is something so unnatural in a man tearing himself away from himself, not only injuring, but destroying himself, that he mostly seizes upon mechanical means to carry his design into execution. When Ajax falls upon his sword, it is the weight of his body which does him the last service. When the warrior binds his shield-bearer not to let him fall into the hands of the enemy, it is still an external force which he secures, only a moral instead of a physical one. Women seek in water a cooling for their despair, and the extremely mechanical means of fire-arms ensure a rapid act with the very least exertion. Hanging, one does not like to mention, because it is an ignoble death. In England one may first find it, because there, from youth upwards, one sees so many hanged, without the punishment being precisely dishonourable. By poison, by opening the veins, the only intention is to depart slowly from life; and that most refined, rapid, and painless death by an adder, was worthy of a queen, who had passed her life in pleasure and brilliancy. But all these are external aids, enemies with which man forms an alliance against himself.
When now I considered all these means, and looked about further in history, I found among all those who killed themselves no one who did this deed with such greatness and freedom of mind, as the Emperor Otho. He, having the worst of it as a general, but being by no means reduced to extremities, resolves to quit the world for the benefit of the empire, which, in some measure, already belongs to him, and for the sake of sparing so many thousands. He has a cheerful supper with his friends, and the next morning it is found that he has plunged a sharp dagger into his heart. This deed alone seemed to me worthy of imitation; and I was convinced that whoever could not act in this like Otho, had no right to go voluntarily out of the world. By these convictions, I freed myself not so much from the danger as from the whim of suicide, which in those splendid times of peace, and with an indolent youth, had managed to creep in. Among a considerable collection of weapons, I possessed a handsome, well polished dagger. This I laid every night by my bed, and before I extinguished the candle, I tried whether I could succeed in plunging the sharp point a couple of inches deep into my heart. Since I never could succeed in this, I at last laughed myself out of the notion, threw off all hypochondriacal fancies, and resolved to live. But to be able to do this with cheerfulness, I was obliged to solve a poetical problem, by which all that I had felt, thought, and fancied upon this important point, should be reduced to words. For this purpose I collected the elements which had been at work in me for a few years; I rendered present to my mind the cases which had most afflicted and tormented me; but nothing would come to a definite form; I lacked an event, a fable, in which they could be overlooked.
All at once I heard the news of Jerusalem’s death, and immediately after the general report, the most accurate and circumstantial description of the occurrence, and at this moment the plan of Werther was formed, and the whole shot together from all sides, and became a solid mass, just as water in a vessel, which stands upon the point of freezing, is converted into hard ice by the most gentle shake. To hold fast this singular prize, to render present to myself, and to carry out in all its parts a work of such important and various contents was the more material to me, as I had again fallen into a painful situation, which left me even less hope than those which had preceded it, and foreboded only sadness, if not vexation.