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Friday, May 4, 2012

GOETHE'S WERTHER: The Discovery of the Sentimental Self

Goethe, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers(1774): The Discovery of the Sentimental Self

Wilhelm Amberg, Vorlesung aus Goethes Werther (Young Girls Reading Goethe's Werther), 1870


I have referred previously to various elements characteristic of the Romantic work of art, as well as of the “romantic personality” or “romantic spirit” that it arguably reflects, in a search for common denominators which might help us arrive at a more general definition of Romanticism. I suggested that a “psychology” of Romanticism would be both a cause of the work of art and of the response it evokes in the individual consciousness. In either case, the search hangs on the existence of an individualized “psyche,” a “self,” that can feel, remember, hope and evoke. In order for Romanticism to be born, a “self” had to be discovered first, in consciousness, in art and literature, in philosophy, and in the consciousness of that “self” as reflected in social interaction.

Fuseli. Study for Self, 1780-90, Victoria and Albert Museum

In an early work of Goethe, a short book entitled The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, we come upon, arguably, the initial discovery of that “self” that would later expand into the full-blown spirit of Romanticism. Why do I say 'discovery?' After all, the sentimental ego, - the consciousness of sentiment that expresses itself in a voice that always says “I” - had appeared before in the eighteenth century, - in the Nouvelle Héloïse and the Confessions of Rousseau, for example. But in the case of Werther, the discovery was that of its public, for the book was disseminated among an unprecedentedly large and new readership, eager for the printed word and scattered throughout Europe and America in numbers that had not been registered before. The effect of this short novel was such that it was followed by an epidemic of copy-cat suicides. It was a success because it reflected an intellectual fashion of the times, prevalent among readers of books. Napoleon carried the book with him on campaign, in his knapsack.

The second sentence of the first paragraph of this book asks “What is the heart of man?” This is a novel inquiry, and one which Werther will answer by telling us what is in his own heart. It is a question that had never been asked that way before. The reader is asked to explore the “heart” of a man, his emotions, sentiments, passions, and the entire panoply of feeling that constitutes the guide to his actions and that leads eventually to his premature and senseless death.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel. It is actually the internal dialogue of Goethe with himself arising from an incident in his life that he now looks back upon and unfolds in dozens of letters which no one ever answers, nor is meant to answer. Goethe explores the feelings, the sorrows, of a fictional character, Werther, that was once himself. It could, according to Goethe’s modern biographer, Nicholas Boyle, have been equally well translated as ‘the passion and death of young Werther,’ for, Boyle argues, it is a representation of Goethe’s own symbolic “Christ-figure” as lived and experienced in his own self, short of the final desperate act of suicide. Cf. Nicholas Boyle, Goethe: The Poet and The Age, vol. 1, (Oxford, 1992)

The young Goethe

Werther believes that he commits suicide for love. Frustrated in his passion for Charlotte (Lotte), he sacrifices his life for his love, or at least that is what he thinks he's doing. I will describe in further detail below how the events in the novel are drawn form Goethe’s own experiences as a law clerk at the Reichskammergericht, the Imperial Courts of Law, in Wetzlar, during the years 1772-73, and how it is a faithful and detailed description of both the world of the town and the surrounding countryside of his own day, as well as of the cult of sentimentality (Empfindsamkeit) prevalent then among Germany’s incipient bourgeoisie. Goethe articulated the psychology of the reading public, the urban middle class, of the then quite fractured German polity. In this book, he combined the social and cultural phenomenon of his time, Germany in the 1770’s,with a preoccupation with sentiment and character, and he did so, as Nicholas Boyle points out, with “a voice that said “I” of internal longing and division.”

I will attempt to explain how Sentimentalism, - an amalgam of the Leibnizian idea of the individual soul, which he called the “window-less” Monad, for reasons I shall further attempt to clarify, - with the character ideal of the Pietists, so intellectually fashionable among the Germans of the 1770’s, is reflected in Goethe's little book, and how, within this mix, German, and indeed European Romanticism was born.

Caspar David Friedrich, Mountain landscape with Rainbow (Gebirglandschaft mit den Regenbogen), 1810, now in Essen. In this painting, the individual self, dwarfed by Nature, passively contemplates the enormous, beautiful, and awesome landscape of the natural environment that surrounds and overwhelms him, and which is the fate that shapes his life. This is the very essence of Romanticism.


Leipzig in the Eighteenth Century

The idea of a book for the German reading public arose in the young Goethe almost despite his experiences when a student in Leipzig.

When Goethe arrived in Leipzig in 1765, the city had a reputation for enlightenment, vigorous trade, studious endeavor, as it was a University town, and a liberality in its way of life that contrasted with that of Dresden, the capital of Saxony and residence of the Saxon Prince-Electors. But the Court influenced the city of Leipzig by its absence, though its familiar Baroque splendor in nearby Dresden made itself felt quite directly. It came alive for Goethe in the person of a friend he made there as he began his studies at the University.

Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch (1738-1809), was Goethe’s only friend and constant companion during the last two years of Goethe’s University studies in Leipzig, from 1766 to 1768. He was the Tutor of Count Lindenau, the son of the Chief Equerry of the Court in Dresden, and held to the courtly conventions and exquisite style of an aristocratic taste for etiquette, fashion, art and literature, in contrast to Goethe’s own bourgeois Frankfurt background.

The slightly older Behrisch was a decisive influence on Goethe, causing him to revise some of his artistic and literary preconceptions. The courtier Behrisch had nothing but contempt for the printed word, for its readers, and for the world of printing and publishing, and he encouraged Goethe to put down his literary work in handwritten calligraphy, so that its distribution would be limited to the select few, rather than be made public in print for the benefit of the many.

Count Lindenau was the owner of the Hotel Auerbach, and its now famous Cellar in the basement, and these premises became one of Goethe’s favorite haunts when he joined Behrisch in disdainful isolation from the society of students and plebeians. Nicholas Boyle, has this to say about the friendship:

“In Leipzig, and in the person of Behrisch, Goethe firs experienced the seductions of a courtly culture that was the personal affair of a few select individuals, elevated above the anonymous mass of the public – and the public, as Leipzig showed with especial clarity, was something created by ugly mechanical devices such as printing-presses, which, so Behrisch claimed, deformed their operators, and by the lowly workings of trade.” [Boyle, op.cit., Oxford, 1992, p. 68]

Leipzig in the 1770's

Goethe would not take the advise of Behrisch for very long. The Sorrows of Young Werther is addressed to the anonymous bourgeois reading public of printed books. A lot would happen before Goethe would chose this path for his literary expression, but the weight of the alternative made his eventual decision more significant, as he chose a deliberately “democratic” outlet for his own self-revelation. The influence of Behrisch, and its disposition toward restricting his output for the benefit of a select, hence ‘aristocratic,’ audience remained with him, however. The division of loyalties would re-emerge again for him at the court in Weimar. The Tiefurt Journal (1781-1784), originated by the Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia, and to which Goethe contributed for a while, was a hand-written collection of writings that was meant for the eyes of only eleven individuals at the court.


Goethe returned home from Leipzig in 1768, very ill. During his recovery he became acquainted with Pietism, of which more below, through the influential personality of Susanna von Klettenberg, a relative of his. When he recovered, although already thinking seriously about dedicating his life to literature, he submitted to his father's wish that he finish his law career by obtaining his license, and so he proceeded to matriculate at the University of Strasbourg for that purpose.

Two events occur during Goethe's life in Strasbourg that bear on the origins of Werther. One is his love for Friederike Brion; the other, his seminal meeting with Herder. The affair with Brion, whom he betrayed, taught him the feeling of guilt. His deferential friendship with Johann Gottfried Herder expanded his literary horizons, taught him Ossian, Shakespeare and the value of folkloric poetry (Volkspoesie). Most relevant with regards to Werther, Goethe was exposed for the first time to the bourgeois literature of the English, the novels of Oliver Goldsmith, Laurence Sterne, and Jonathan Swift. Their irony alerted him to the possibility of incorporating his own emotions, feelings and experiences into a work of literature, just as these authors had written their own ironic sensibility into their works and expressed thereby an 'attitude' that colored every detail of the life and experience to which their works referred.

Friederike Brion in Alsatian costume


Goethe returned to Frankfurt to live in the home of his parents and practice law in the city with Georg Schlosser, his future brother in law. Schlosser was an experienced lawyer who was also involved in social issues and concerned with the education of the poor, about which he published a treatise. He introduced Goethe to Johann Heinrich Merck, the Military Paymaster for the Landgraf of Darmstadt, a man who recognized Goethe's talent and fostered it, while guiding him in the world of affairs. Merck and Schlosser would recruit Goethe as an editor for their journal of reviews, the Frankfurter Gelehrter Anzeiger (Frankfurt Literary Advertiser), providing Goethe with an opportunity to expand his literary career during the year 1772.

The "realism" of Schlosser and Merck, both men of the world, would counter-balance the aristocratic influence of Behrisch and the sentimentalism of Goethe's Pietist friends.

Johann Heinrich Merck (1741-1791)

But it would actually be through Merck that Goethe became acquainted with a circle of authors devoted to a 'sentimentalist' approach to literary creativity whose center of gravity was the city of Darmstadt. Their sources were British, but translated to a typically German emphasis on personal interiority. Sentiment (Empfindsamen) informed both their writing and the spirit of their interactions with each other. For them, the existence of God, soul and immortality were proved by the indisputable existence of feelings.

Among these authors were Cristoph Martin Wieland, the future editor of Der Teutsche Merkur in Weimar, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Sophie von La Roche, Caroline Flachsland, Herder's fiance, and Franz Michael Leuchsenring, tutor of the Crown Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt, who, as the apostle of sentiment, was their guiding light. What brought these various individuals together was their cult of sensibility which the rising generation in Germany had learned from Rousseau, and particularly from the English novelists, Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne, or from the poetry of Thomas Gray. They gave themselves the name of “Gemeinschaft der Heiligen” (Society of Saints). Werther would be the critical manifesto of this cult of sensibility.

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), statue at the Herderkirche in Weimar

However, Goethe persisted in successfully straddling the worlds of Sentimentalism, of Herder's thought, as well as the more mundane world of the Frankfurt Advertiser. The latter was a practical and worldly publication that hoped to say much more about the political condition of Germany than the Sentimentalists would ever have considered. The unstated goal of the Advertiser was to create an all-German readership, a political nation, and its interest in language, both for its own sake and for its reflection on German history and thought, derived from, or at least mirrored, the work and interests of Herder. Merck himself proposed to actively influence Goethe in the direction of documentary realism. “Your endeavor, your unswerving aim,” he wrote to Goethe, “is to give poetic form to the real. Others seek to realize the so-called poetic, the imaginative, and the result is nothing but stupid nonsense.”


Despite his increasingly active literary career, and the enthusiasm with which he pursued it, Goethe once again submitted to his father's wishes when he chose to take up lodgings at Wetzlar in order to acquire further experience in the practice of the law as a matriculated probationer (Praktikant) before the Imperial Cameral Court (Reichskammergericht), which was, since 1693, located in that town. He was to be in Wetzlar from mid-May, 1772 to the Fall of that year, and his experiences there became the plot of Werther.

The photo above shows the building that was the former hall of the Reichskammergericht in Wetzlar

Goethe spent more time reading Homer and Pindar than attending to his legal practice. He may have read Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse at this time as well. In early summer, he met Charlotte Buff at a dance in the nearby town of Garbenheim. She was the daughter of a functionary of the Teutonic Order in the village, a widower, and Charlotte was his oldest child. Goethe would visit her at their home in Garbenheim, surrounded by the younger children she supervised. He was already acquainted with Charlotte's betrothed, Johann Christian Kestner, a member of the Hannover Legation settled in Wetzlar, and they had a cordial relationship.

Goethe soon fell passionately in love with Charlotte. For a time,the three of them shared some time and conversation together, but by mid-August, tension had developed between them and Goethe had to leave. He corresponded with Merck on the matter, and dramatized the relationship in his mind and in his parting messages to both Kestner and Charlotte. As will become evident, the plot of Werther follows Goethe's experience in Wetzlar to the letter.

Portrait of Charlotte Buff

An acquaintance of Goethe's student days in Leipzig, the shy and withdrawn Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, was also a student at the Imperial Court in Wetzlar. On October 30, 1772, Jerusalem borrowed Kestner's hunting-pistols and shot himself at his home. A copy of Lessing's play Emilia Galotti was found next to his body. There were rumors that he had been in love with the wife of a friend. The story reached Goethe during a later visit to Wetzlar. He was deeply shocked. He saw the similarities between his own situation and Jerusalem's, and attributed it to similar causes: solitude, frustration and disappointed love. Kestner wrote a detailed report of the incident, which he made available to Goethe and upon which Goethe then relied when he began to write Werther about a year after the event.

GOETHE'S RETURN TO FRANKFURT: (1773-1774): The Writing of the Novel

Upon his return to Frankfurt, Goethe gravitated to the circle of his Sentimentalist friends in order to assuage his deep disappointment and his pain. The mood was conducive to the sentimentalism of the “saints” of Darmstadt, since the passion he felt was, at bottom, frustrated desire, and that kind of indulgence in personal sorrows was the very purpose of this cult. One of the more prominent “saints” would later write in his Journal that “[i]f another and later species comes to reconstruct the human being from the evidence of our sentimental writings they will conclude it to have been a heart with testicles.” (cited in Boyle, op. cit, at p. 139). Sexual repression, softened into delicate emotion, caused sweet tears to overflow.

Sentimentalist portraiture:
Andrea Appiani, Two Children of the Artist, 1808

Nevertheless, a distance was growing intellectually between Goethe and his sentimentalist friends. The effort throughout the year 1773 to publish his play Götz von Berlichingen, a heroic drama about an Imperial knight of the sixteenth century, both poet and mercenary, whose reputation could be used as an appeal for a unity of German historical and literary consciousness, had involved Goethe in a decidedly Herderian intellectual direction. As well, he tired of the aristocratic religiosity of the Sentimentalists. As author and thinker, he wrote to Lavater, he had embarked on a life that sought to replace the 'word of God' by the 'word of men.' With his work at the Frankfurt Advertiser and his published drama on Götz, Goethe was laying the foundations of what later came to be known as the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement in Germany, a literary programme that would be the precursor of Romanticism. But alone among those favoring this trend, Goethe's work preserved the cult of sentiment.

Illustration for Goethe's play, Götz von Berlichingen

The account of Jerusalem's death had led to a strong desire in Goethe to articulate his experience in Wetzlar in some creative literary form, and in the course of 1773 he would address himself to the task. But it was not until the beginning of 1774 that a new experience would cause both his sentiments and his wish to document a real personal experience to crystallize into the little book that would make him famous throughout Europe.

We have it from Goethe's own hand that it was a new and“painful situation” that gave him the necessary stimulus to resume his work on Werther and to carry it to a conclusion during the winter of 1773-74. He fell in love with the daughter of his friend Sophie von La Roche, Maximiliane, whom he had met when she was sixteen and still unattached, in the autumn of 1772. Since then he had kept up a sentimental correspondence with Sophie in which he made occasional references to his continued interest in her daughter. “Your Maxe,” he wrote in August 1773, in typical sentimentalist fashion, “I cannot do without so long as I live, and I shall always venture to love her.” He was twenty-four at the time.

Portrait of Maximiliane von La Roche

However, on January 9th, 1774, Maximiliane was married to Peter Brentano, a wealthy dealer in herrings, oil, and cheese, a widower with five children, with whom she settled in Frankfurt. Goethe immediately became an assiduous frequenter of the Brentano household, as he had been at Lotte Buff's home in Wetzlar, and he was not initially unwelcome to the young wife, whose new surroundings were in unpleasant contrast to those of the home she had left. But Brentano was not so magnanimous as Kestner, and he soon had a confrontation with Goethe which resulted in Goethe's expulsion from the house.

The experience was a haunting repetition, albeit somewhat more farcical, of his sad parting from Lotte Buff. During the winter he had asked Merck to return the letters he had written to him from Wetzlar, for he needed them as raw material. Early in February of 1774, he resumed his work on the novel, and, writing “almost in a state of somnambulism,” finished it within a few weeks, by April, 1774.

Title page of the 1774 edition of Werther


[All quotations from the novel are from the Dover edition of 2002, translated by Thomas Carlyle and R.D. Boylan, and edited by Nathan Haskell Dole.]

The novel is structured in the form of letters, most of them written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm. With the exception of a few letters he writes to Lotte and her fiancee, Albert, or in some instances to both, and a few that seem to have no correspondent at all, the rest are all written to this one man, who appears to be a serious man, sober and centered in comparison to Werther, and a good and reliable friend, concerned over Werther's welfare and willing to take instructions from him, such as to relay messages to Werther's mother. But there are no responses from Wilhelm, nor is Wilhelm the one who discloses these letters to us, but rather a mysterious “Editor,” whose name we shall never know and who is not Wilhelm nor any other known character in the novel.

The Editor knows everything about Werther (“I have felt it my duty to collect accurate information from the mouths of persons well acquainted with [Werther's] history”), and both introduces the letters, with a short and ominous Preface, and concludes the story with a lengthy appendix that contains the narrative of the final days, the death, and the funeral of Werther, with corroboration by means of several letters of Werther to Wilhelm and others that were written a few days or hours prior to his suicide.

The novel is written in 'real time,' beginning shortly after Werther's arrival in the unnamed town, on May 4, 1771, and concluding with his suicide just before Christmas of 1772. But the frequency of the letters is uneven. There is a two and a half-week period of silence when Werther first becomes infatuated with Lotte; a month and half elapses at the conclusion of Book I, after Werther leaves Wahlheim, and from September 10 to October 20, 1771, there are no letters at all. Book II begins with the letter of October 20, 1771, but then another month passes without correspondence, a lapse that serves to convey Werther's dissatisfaction with his new environment and the pain of his absence from beloved Wahlheim.

After his return to Wahlheim, in August of 1772, the letters are once again regularly spaced, until the denoument in December.

The Editor's appendix is written as straight-forward narrative, but includes the last letters from Werther to Wilhelm, to Albert and Lotte, and an undated note, all of which ostensibly came into the Editor's possession after Werther's death.


The novel's emphasis is on mood, which is what primarily holds the reader's attention, rather than on plot. But a plot must be outlined: What does Werther write about in his letters?

The first six weeks of letters enable us to become acquainted with Werther and his environment.

When the novel begins, with his letter to Wilhelm of May 4, 1771, Werther is in a jubilant mood, after having just escaped from a failed liaison with a woman named Leonora, a reference to Goethe's own close call with Friederike Brion during his Strasbourg days. Werther has settled in an unnamed rural town, determined to spend some time painting, sketching, and taking excursions around the countryside. He describes the beauties of Nature and the loveliness of the people he watches, young women at the well, children at play, while he speculates on the sentimental life, - “Children are closest to my heart.” (Letter of June 29).

Werther does not accomplish much, other than contemplation, and he is critical of the 'emptiness of the seeking life,' preferring to admire passively what he regards as the easier, presumably because non-ambitious, lifestyle of the peasants. He makes the acquaintance of many of the locals, including two peasant brothers, Hans and Philip, and a country lad who is in love with a widow who employs him. He also discourses at length about his aesthetic inclinations, a subject I will discuss further below. (Letters of May 10, 17 and 30).

Werther meets Lotte

Werther discovers Wahlheim (the actual Garbenheim), a village a short distance away from his town, and is charmed. His love of the town increases after he meets the village bailiff's daughter, Lotte, at a dance. Their interaction is immediately successful - they are both enthusiasts for Sentimentalist literature, avid book readers, and they exchange views on Oliver Goldsmith and the contemporary German poet Klopstock, as well as ancient authors like Homer and the fictive Ossian. Lotte, however, is engaged to Albert, a good and kindly fellow, who is due to return shortly. Werther must resign himself to no more than a friendship with Lotte.

Werther meets Lotte

The letters beginning with the one of May 26, 1771, and ending with the last letter prior to his departure at the end of Book I, reveal Werther's happiest days. It is here that he joyfully 'discovers' Wahlheim (May26), here that he meets Lotte and becomes totally infatuated with her, and, after a 2 1/2 week break in correspondence, breathlessly breaks the news to Wilhelm (June 16). He will then also discover his literary commonalities with Lotte, the works and authors they love in common, and will describe her in the full context of her family relations and obligations (June 16). Werther's dislike for his mother, (Letter of May 5, 1772), would appear to motivate his search for an alternative family.

Sentimental portraiture: Henry Raeburn's Boy with a Rabbitt

In the following weeks, Werther grows more and more infatuated with Lotte, cherishing her unique charm and insight as she uncomplainingly carries the burden of motherhood. She is the eldest of eight children, and assumed the responsibility of caring for her siblings after her mother's death. However, Albert returns, and Werther must meet the man who has Lotte's heart. After determining that he will leave, Werther nonetheless stays, forming a friendship with Albert, whom he finds to be both intelligent and open-minded, though much more sensible than himself.

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Sommer, 1807

Werther was enjoying a glorious summer. Upon Albert's arrival, he grows increasingly infatuated with Lotte. He can't resist feeling that Lotte would be happier with him; they are both initiates, after all, in the intense, subjective emotionalism of the current literature, and Albert is not. However, the faithful Lotte has no intention of betraying her beloved, and Werther determines, at Wilhelm's recommendation, to take an official position at Court in another city rather than remain in an impossible triangular relationship. After a dramatic exchange with Lotte, and a moonlit walk with both of them, Werther leaves Wahlheim without informing either of his plan.

Book II begins at Werther's new location, the town where the Court is located (the actual Wetzlar). The letters beginning with that of October 20, 1771 and ending with that of May 5, 1772, announcing his departure from the place where he held his job at Court, pertain to his failed term of employment with an Ambassador. His official position as some sort of adjutant to this Ambassador, whom he loathes, is a great disappointment to him. He clashes with his employer, who is as meticulous and cerebral as Werther is spontaneous and emotional. Werther also despises the social scene that governs his new environment, in which the aristocratic class rules over all, though he cultivates rewarding friendships with two aristocrats, Count C. and Fräulein von B. But whatever there could be to his position that he might have considered congenial vanishes on the day that he is publicly snubbed at one of Count C.'s social functions.(Letter of March 15, 1772).

Werther writing

The letters beginning with that of May 9, 1772 describe the process of Werther's return to his beloved. Humiliated, he resigns from his position and travels with another friend, a Prince, to the Prince's hunting-lodge. This situation, too, is short-lived, as Werther finds himself irrevocably drawn back to Wahlheim and to Lotte, even though in the interim he has learned, as he reveals in his letter to Albert and Lotte of February 20, 1772, that the couple has married and concealed the news from him until after the event.

When Werther returns to Wahlheim, he discovers that his infatuation with Lotte has only grown stronger during the separation. As Lotte herself suggests to him, the impossibility of his possessing her seems to feed his obsession. Albert and Werther become increasingly estranged, he wishfully imagines Albert's death (Letter of August 21, 1772), and Lotte is caught in the middle.

As well, the countryside has taken a turn away from the idyllic: Werther's beloved walnut-trees, where he would sit with Charlotte, have been cut down, the young Hans is dead, and the country lad's tale of love has ended in murder. Meanwhile, Werther meets Heinrich, a former employee of Lotte's father, who has been driven mad by an unrequited and concealed passion for her, a passion that mirrors his own. Werther feels increasingly hopeless. There is hiatus in his correspondence with Wilhelm, from December 6 to December 20, and by then the Editor has taken over the narrative.

The final section of the novel is entitled “The Editor to the Reader.” We no longer hear Werther's voice, the voice that always says “I”, and the narrative becomes journalistic. The Editor tells the reader of the final days of Werther, before Christmas of 1772, and includes the final letters that Werther wrote to Wilhelm prior to his suicide, a sealed letter to Charlotte, to be opened after his death, a farewell to Albert, and an undated note, wherein he hints of his decision to kill himself.

In the first of these letters, Werther describes a fearful storm and flood, which reflect the turmoil within his own soul. (Letter of December 12). In the last letter, written on December 20, Werther appears to agree with Wilhelm's suggestion that he return home, although he procrastinates, and asks Wilhelm to ask his mother to pray for his soul.

In a very objective manner, the Editor fills us in on several incidents that occur in the course of the month of December, leading up to the fateful denoument. The Editor is omniscient; he tells us not only what is in the heart and mind of Werther but also what is in the heart and mind of Albert, who expresses to Lotte his desire that she tell Werther to visit her less frequently. Three days before Christmas of 1772, in an attempt to salvage what is left of their relationship, Lotte issues her ultimatum and orders Werther not to visit her until Christmas Eve when he will be just another friend attending the festivities. Werther decides that he cannot live on such terms with Lotte, electing instead to kill himself and he reveals his decision in a long letter to Charlotte, written over several days, which he leaves sealed for her to read after his death. In defiance of her ultimatum, he pays Charlotte a final visit, during which he reads to her several of the songs of Ossian and then forcefully and repeatedly kisses her. He is ordered to leave and never to see her again.

Werther's suicide discovered

At home, alone, Werther continues his letter to Charlotte with lengthy farewells. He then sends his servant to ask for Albert's hunting pistols for a journey. Albert instructs Charlotte to hand the fatal weapons to the servant. Ambiguities, the ambivalence of the couple, tease the reader from between the Editor's sober lines: might Werther have been saved? Albert's weapons reach their destination. Werther is joyous when he hears that Charlotte has handled the guns. He finally concludes his letter to her and writes farewell notes to Wilhelm and Albert, arranges his papers and, with a calmness hitherto unknown to his restless soul, shoots himself in the head at midnight. He lingers unconscious until morning and is found by his servant. Lotte, Albert and Lotte's brothers and sisters are summoned and watch him die. On his bureau lies an open copy of Lessing's Emilia Galotti. He is buried at night, and no priest is present.

Werther's Death

„Es ist interessant zu sehen, mit welchem glücklichen Instinkt alles, was dem sentimentalischen Charakter Nahrung gibt, im Werther zusammengedrängt ist: schwärmerische unglückliche Liebe, Empfindsamkeit für Natur, Religionsgefühle, philosophischer Kontemplationsgeist, endlich, um nichts zu vergessen, die düstre, gestaltlose, schwermütige Ossianische Welt.“

Friedrich Schiller

[It is interesting to see how, and with what felicitous instinct, everything that gives sustenance to the sentimental personality comes together in the character of Werther: the wistfulness of unhappy love, the sensitivity for Nature, the religious feelings, the philosophical spirit of contemplativeness, and finally, so as to leave nothing out, the sepulchral, formless, melancholic world of Ossian. Friedrich Schiller]


Werther and Lotte

I referred above to the first paragraph of the first letter of the book, the key to its position as the fountainhead of later Romantic literature: “What is the heart of man?” Throughout the book, Werther writes to his friend Wilhelm about the laws of the heart, and it is given to us, his readers, to understand that his gradual abdication from reason and from life is the surrender to the guidance of his "heart." The clearest exposition of his argument is in a dialogue Werther has with Albert over the virtue of suicide, and it is suicide that the book is primarily about: the love that leads to suicide. I discuss Werther's argument in favor of suicide below, but suffice it to say at this point that it is precisely in this final act of self-destruction that Goethe places the heart, or Sentiment, in opposition to Reason and hence throws his gauntlet in defiance to the Enlightenment.

Throughout the novel we read examples of the primacy of sentiment in the character of Werther. A character is a “conscience,” and the conscience of Werther is not impelled by duty, but by sentiment. The contrast between his early days in Wahlheim and his tour of duty with the Ambassador, where he is expected to submit to obligation, is sharp enough to convey the sense that responsibility is an enemy of all that Werther holds dear: his loves, his creativity, his adoration of Nature in landscape and in himself and his beloved.

Sentimental Portraiture: Portrait of Karl August of Weimar and his siblings

Werther is not however a love story, but the story of the self-destruction of a feeling heart, of a sentimental soul. The feeling heart is Werther's “self.” The whole book is the voice of Werther alone, the voice that always says “I”, and this voice has its only source in Werther’s own sensibility. It is the development of Werther’s mood that holds our attention, not the development of the plot. Feeling, - Werther's feeling, - is All! As stated above, it is through the existence of sentiment, of feelings and emotions, that the Sentimentalists prove the existence of God, of the soul and immortality.

Before they turn to self-destruction, Werther's feelings are all about his infatuation with Charlotte. It is this overwhelming passion that governs his sentiments towards such other preoccupations of his as his creative genius, the landscape, or the good peasants he meets in Wahlheim. When his “love” becomes despair, these other interests will also lose their luster.

Werther and Lotte

Werther's feelings for Lotte are uncompromising and forceful. There can be no moderation or temperance in “romantic” love, no compromise or subordination. Werther loathes lukewarm feeling, be it in love or in literature: “You should see how foolish I look in company when her name is mentioned, particularly when I am asked plainly how I like her. How I like her! - I detest the phrase. What sort of creature must he be who merely liked Charlotte, whose whole heart and senses were not entirely absorbed by her. Like her! Some one asked me lately how I liked Ossian.” (Letter of July 10, 1771)

Nicholas Boyle, points out that Werther's appropriation of everything about him– “my Waldheim,” “my Homer,” “my walnut-trees” – reveals an inability of his sensitivity to capture the phenomenal world. Sentiment fails to grasp its “object” because it dwells exclusively in the interior of the self. Sentiment is only mere subject, mere “I” conceived as feelings and emotions, and there is no “real” world outside for this sentimental ego to seek to possess. The self has no windows looking onto the outside. As well, since its own inner world is the world of sentiment, the only way to know the self is by means of its pure expression of sentiment. We can only know the self of another by acquaintance with the feelings of the other. Accordingly, the literature of the self must be confessional, both an inspection and a revelation of the private inner life of the self, depending on what side of the book we are on. Therefore, Werther must of necessity be an epistolary novel.

Sentimental Portraiture: Pietro Rotari, Young Girl Writing a Love Letter, 1755

This conjunction of the inner-directed life with the exploration of the life of sentiment has its obvious roots in Pietism, which Goethe had learned from Susanna von Klettenberg and from his Sentimentalist friends, but also in the philosophy of the time in Germany, which centered on Leibniz's rationalism, and which constituted the world-view and the spirit of the times, the Zeitgeist, of officialdom in Goethe's time. I will discuss both very briefly, so as to provide a background to the Sentimentalist phenomenon in German literature.



Pietism is a movement in the Lutheran Church, most influential between the latter part of the 17th century and the middle of the18th. It was a movement designed to awaken the Lutheran Church from its lethargy and dogmatism, and from what appeared to be a growing intellectuality and rationality that was supplanting the precepts of the Bible and replacing the emotions with logic and philosophy. Its first great leader was Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705) of Frankfurt, a German theologian who began to hold devotional meetings in 1670. His Collegia Pietatis (Schools of Piety) were designed to bring Christians into helpful fellowship and increase Bible study. Spener's book, Pia desideria (1675), emphasized the need for earnest Bible study and the belief that the lay members of the church should have part in its spiritual control. Although Spener did not intend separation from the church, his repudiation of the importance of doctrine and his desire to limit church membership to those who had experienced personal regeneration tended to undermine orthodoxy, and Pietism was severely attacked.

After Spener's death, his work was carried on by August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), but by then Pietism had already entered a period of decline. Its effect was strongest in northern and central Germany, particularly in Prussia, but reached into Switzerland, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe. Although the movement bore resemblance to aspects of Puritanism, such as the use of distinctive dress and the renunciation of worldly pleasures, the essential aim of the true Pietist was to place the spirit of Christian living above the letter of doctrine.

Pietism has a natural affinity for state absolutism in that it was a religion which concentrates on inward psychological motivations, from which the individual can then conceive of the state of his soul. Although it is a religion which avoids public worship, which focuses rather on the small intimate group and the leadership of one of its members, it is also a religion that openly opposes ecclesiastical hierarchies and, most importantly, advocates harmony with the State and the prevailing social and political order. Thus, Francke’s famous orphanage at Halle had as one of its principal functions the recruitment of Prussian military chaplains.

Pietism served to reconcile the individual with a unified rational order, and in this sense, it complemented the prevailing philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) which was the philosophy of German officialdom. Leibniz understood the universe to be a harmonious rationally comprehensible order, consistent with the Absolutist State, and his main concern was the place within this system of the individual self, the human being’s rational soul, regarded as the unit of which all reality consists. His Monadologie, of 1714, interpreted individual life in terms of pure inwardness. The Monad, says Leibniz, is the individual self, the human soul, a force which reflects within it all of the cosmos in its perfect rational ordering, and which is in no way altered or determined by forces external to it, such as the forces of cause and effect. The individual evolves from within itself independently, according to a rational pattern which reflects the harmonious evolution of the entire world, including the State. The Monad has no windows open to the world, for, although it appears to interact with the world and with other Monads, its law of development, the law of its own being, is totally autonomous.

Leibniz (1646-1716)

Leibniz's philosophy is a consistent rationalism. In his view, the universe forms one context in which each occurrence can be seen in relation to every other. Since the universe is the result of a divine plan, Leibniz calls it “the best of all possible worlds,” even though it contains evil as a necessary ingredient. The Monads are the ultimate constituents, the basic element, of the universe, closed off from their surroundings, and each of which represents the universe from a different point of view. Being simple, Monads are immaterial and thus cannot act. Apparent interaction is explained in terms of the principle of a pre-established harmony, pre-established, that is, by God. Magnified to the level of the political state, this is a vision of self-contained individuals, living within a harmonic and established order, which was, in effect, the eighteenth century German autocratic State.

Illustration of Leibniz and Queen Sophie Charlotte of Prussia at the Palace grounds of Charlottenburg, in Berlin.

It should be quite evident, therefore, that Pietism and Leibnizian Monadology constitute an essential philosophical context, a pre-condition as it were, for the gradual development of Romanticism, since, in either case, both feed into that unique preoccupation with the self, the individual soul and its destiny, which flows into the Romantic psychology. At the point when, by way of Sentimentalism, Pietist inwardness becomes detached from the rationalism of the eighteenth century, the soil is prepared for the Romanticism that followed. That point is reached in Goethe's Werther.


Two portraits of emotion: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, The Ill-Humored Man, and Portrait of the Artist As He Imagines Himself Laughing, 1783

From the exploration of the "Law of the Heart," I turn now to what may be described as some of the main distinctive characteristics of this subjective "self," the "self" whose heart it is, invented in the eighteenth century, characteristics which forecast some of the main elements of the later Romantic movement. I begin with the element of irrationality that motivates the sentimental self.

The Law of the Heart is autonomous from Reason, as it is based on feelings and emotions, and may, because of that autonomy, lead to madness. Werther's encounter with the mad youth, Heinrich, towards the end of the novel is of particular interest precisely for this reason, in that it foreshadows Werther's own self-abandon and self-destruction, and hence illustrates the irrationality to which the sentimental self is subject.

The incident of the mad youth is described in the letter to Wilhelm of November 30, 1772, after Werther has lost all hope in his infatuation with Charlotte and declared his heart to be dead, and it is written only four days before Charlotte's ultimatum.

We learn that Heinrich was a secretary to Charlotte's father, and that he lost his reason over his infatuation with Charlotte. “Think, whilst you peruse this plain narration,” Werther writes to Wilhelm, “what an impression the circumstance has made upon me!” (Letter of December 1, 1772). When Werther comes upon him, Heinrich is out in the countryside, looking for flowers to take to “his mistress,” but can find none in the wintry landscape and cannot understand why they will not grow. Heinrich speaks wistfully to Werther of his past happiness, while Werther, observing the youth's “swimming eyes,” concludes that Heinrich is deranged.

Shortly, Heinrich's mother comes to fetch her son, and Werther inquires about Heinrich's madness. He was a good youth once, she tells him, and lived a responsible life, before he became melancholic, and it has been only six months since he is as calm as at present, says the mother, for before that he was chained down and raving in a madhouse. The happiness he talks of, she adds, is the happiness he experienced in the madhouse while unconscious.

As Werther walks away, he engages the youth in an imaginary dialogue: “'You were happy!' I exclaimed, as I returned quickly to the town, 'as gay and contented as a man can be!' God of heaven! And is this the destiny of man? Is he only happy before he has acquired his reason, or after he has lost it? 'Unfortunate being! And yet I envy your fate. I envy the delusion to which you are a victim.'” (Letter of November 30, 1772).

Is a man happy only before he has acquired his reason, or after he has lost it, asks Werther? Those are the only two choices. The way forward under the Law of the Heart must therefore be the way out of Reason, and into unconsciousness. In the mad youth, Werther envies the madness that has yet failed to totally possess him, and which in the end will lead him to suicide and to the unconsciousness he seeks, for the madness of Heinrich foreshadows Werther's own.

In turn, Charlotte, caught in the middle of a most disturbing triangular relationship, abets Werther's madness, whether consciously or not, by awakening his sexual desire. The letters begin to intimate the repression of sexual desire in both of them. In the peculiar letter to Wilhelm of September12, 1772, Werther describes a scene where Lotte is playing with a canary. She describes the bird as a “new friend,” and then kisses the bird on its beak. She wants Werther to kiss the bird as well, which Werther does. Werther is hungry for more: “A kiss,” I observed, “does not seem to satisfy him [the bird]: he wishes for food, and seems disappointed by these unsatisfactory endearments.” Lotte then makes the bird eat seeds from her lips. The episode is distressing for Werther: “I turned my face away. She should not act thus. She ought not to excite my imagination with such displays of heavenly innocence and happiness, nor awaken my heart from its slumbers, in which it dreams of the worthlessness of life! And why not? Because she knows how much I love her.”

Despite his protestations of her innocence, it is evident in that letter that the sexual boundaries between Werther and Lotte are gradually starting to blur. Werther begins to express his sexual desire for Lotte in his correspondence, as in his short letter to Wilhelm of October 30, 1772: “One hundred times have I been on the point of embracing her. Heavens! What a torment it is to see so much loveliness passing and re-passing before us, and yet not dare to lay hold of it! And laying hold is the most natural of human instincts. Do not children touch everything they see? And I!”

The Baroque, in contrast to the Romantic, attempts to achieve balance and equilibrium under the rule of Reason: Sculpture at the Palace Gardens of Herrenhausen in Hanover

Nothing more than the total frustration of his sexual desire lies in store for Werther, and his letters begin to reveal an accelerating breakdown. Nature mediates between him and reality. Following the episode of the canary, where Nature is a go-between in a dissimulated sexual tryst, Werther writes about the felling of his beloved walnut-trees by a careless and unfeeling landlord. Under these trees he used to sit with Charlotte in their visits to the countryside together. “Those glorious trees, the very sight of which has so often filled my heart with joy .. . .” (Letter of September 15).

His despair increases. Less than a week later he reports to Wilhelm that his favored reading of Homer's epics has been replaced in his heart by the gloom of McPherson's Ossian. In his last meeting with Lotte, Werther will read endless pages of Ossian to her, a passion he is certain they share, although we do not have Lotte's word for it. 'Pathless wilds', 'impetuous windstorms', 'deep sorrows' and 'dying glory', sinking exhausted into the grave, what Schiller describes as the “sepulchral, formless, melancholic world of Ossian,” such are the pessimistic thoughts that forecast Werther's decision to end his life. His is a heart that has tired of sentiment, and with the death of hope comes the death of any feeling of nostalgia, for there is no longer any path that leads back home. He wonders whether he will be missed by Charlotte.

“Yes, such is the frailty of man, that even there, where he has the greatest consciousness of his own being, where he makes the strongest and most forcible impression, even in the memory, in the heart, of his beloved, there also he must perish, - vanish, - and that quickly.” (Letter of October 26).

“Oh, so vergänglich ist der Mensch, daß er auch da, wo er seines Daseins eigentliche Gewißheit hat, da, wo er den einzigen wahren Eindruck seiner Gegenwart macht, in dem Andenken, in der Seele seiner Lieben, daß er auch da verlöschen, verschwinden muß, und das so bald!” (Am 26. Oktober)

Charlotte at Werther's tomb


The question of nostalgia, a key element of the later Romantic movement, is raised in the very first of Werther's letters to Wilhelm, (Letter of May 4, 1771): “No doubt you are right, my best of friends, there would be far less suffering amongst mankind, if men – and God knows why they are so fashioned – did not employ their imaginations so assiduously in recalling the memory of past sorrow, instead of bearing their present lot with equanimity.”

Nostalgia, in its guise as escapism, is described as a voyage, from the present here to the distant there. The “native soil,” for which the voyage is undertaken, is love: “in the arms of his wife,”or in “the affections of his children,” his “own cottage,” the goal is home. As it was for Odysseus.

“Distance, my friend, is like futurity. A dim vastness is spread before our souls: the perceptions of our mind are as obscure as those of our vision; and we desire earnestly to surrender up our whole being, that it may be filled with the complete and perfect bliss of one glorious emotion. But alas! When we have attained our object, when the distant there becomes the present here, all is changed: we are as poor and circumscribed as ever, and our souls still languish for unattainable happiness. . . . So does the restless traveler pant for his native soil, and find in his own cottage, in the arms of his wife, in the affections of his children, and in the labor necessary for their support, that happiness which he had sought in vain through the wide world.” (Letter of June 21, 1771).

And after his disappointment with the world of work and normative society, Werther does precisely that, he returns to visit the home of his childhood. He laments that many things have changed, but in fact only his own feelings for himself have changed. The "I" has changed, and little else of note:

“I have paid my visit to my native place with all the devotion of a pilgrim, and have experienced many unexpected emotions. . . . I got out of the carriage, and sent it on before, that alone, and on foot, I might enjoy vividly and heartily all the pleasure of my recollections. . . . How things have since changed! Then, in happy ignorance, I sighed for a world I did not know, where I hoped to find every pleasure and enjoyment which my heart could desire, and now, on my return from that wide world, O my friend, how many disappointed hopes and unsuccessful plans have I brought back!” (Letter of May 9, 1772).

But the law of the heart will finally take Werther back to his beloved:

“Whither am I going? I will tell you in confidence. I am obliged to continue a fortnight longer here, and then I think it would be better for me to visit the mines in ______. But I am only deluding myself thus. The fact is, I wish to be near Charlotte again, - that is all. I smile at the suggestions of my heart, and obey its dictates.” (Letter of July 18, 1772)

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ELEMENT: Genius and Frustrated Creativity

Because the sentimentalist novel is perforce a subjective revelation of the inner self, it follows that it must also be autobiographical, at least to some extent. The autobiographical element in ‘Werther’ is quite transparent. Werther’s birthday is on August 28th, as is Goethe’s; Werther goes to work at the court in Wetzlar, as did Goethe; he meets Charlotte, betrothed to the kind and understanding Albert, as Goethe met Charlotte Buff, betrothed to the kind and understanding Kestner. Goethe’s own experience of infatuation and melancholy, frustration and despair, is recapitulated in the story of Werther, who, however, proceeds in the end to kill himself. This melancholy is that of Goethe’s own generation, which accounts for the instantaneous and enormous success of the novel.

By contrast: The 'great man' of action of the eighteenth century Baroque is depicted as taking on his life with grace, equipoise and equanimity: Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Henry Fane with his Guardians, detail

In a much later retrospective, Goethe said of the Werther type: “We are dealing here with those who lost the taste for life essentially for want of action, in the most peaceful state imaginable, through exaggerated demands upon themselves.” The 'demands' to which he is referring are the demands of "genius," the requirement that men in their youth are to be ‘creators.’ This “genius” theory has its origins in Leibniz's Monad, another import in the Sturm und Drang tradition from Leibnizian rationalism: “Prometheus” and, particularly,“Wandrers Sturmlied” (appended below) are Goethe’s poems of the period which best illustrate this notion. The Monad, the individual soul, perceives the world from within itself as the reflection of the cosmos. It is self-sufficient, windowless, but in its perception, creative. The more intense its perceptions, the more forceful, the more creative it is. This 'more forceful' Monad is the “Genius” of Romanticism, although Leibniz does not call it thus. But it is in his notion of the Monad as self-creative substance that the idea of the Genius originates.

In the joyful early days of his first arrival, Werther refers often to his need and capacity to create, and of his inability to do so:

“I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.” (Letter of May 10, 1771)

“. . . I often think with longing, Oh, would I could describe these conceptions, could impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God! O my friend – but it is too much for my strength- I sink under the weight of the splendor of these visions!” (Letter of May 10, 1771)

The cult of sentiment fosters the idea of “genius,” and in so doing deflects all creative energy from any alternative option for individual fulfillment in the world of action. The sentimental self must find its salvation through genius or not at all, for there are no social or political avenues for salvation under consideration. When Werther is snubbed by the aristocracy in Book II, he seeks refuge in Homer, and in bitter resentment. There is no other alternative, for the world of convention denies him the possibility of self-expression:

“O my friend! Why is it that the torrent of genius so seldom bursts forth, so seldom rolls in full-flowing stream, overwhelming your astounded soul? Because, on either side of this stream, cold and respectable persons have taken up their abodes, and, forsooth, their summer-houses and tulip-beds would suffer from the torrent; wherefore they dig trenches, and raise embankments betimes, in order to avert the impending danger.” (Letter of May 26, 1771)

The notion of “Genius” and its frustration lead in turn to the prescription of salvation through self-murder. Goethe himself recognized this in old age, thinking back on his generation:

“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.” (The Auto-Biography of Goethe, Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life, trans. By John Oxenford, Esq. London, 1848, p. 507)

For Kant, genius was by no means without rules or restraint, as it became for the wildest among those who fell in with the Sturm und Drang movement. It was rather the origin and source of all genuine rules: “the talent of the innate disposition (ingenium) through which nature gives rules to art.” (Critique of Judgment, PP. 46). And in this definition of Kant's Goethe saw a significant change. He saw in Kant the critical solution of the old conflict between “genius” and “rules,” which had dominated the poetics of the eighteenth century. “The word genius,” Goethe wrote of his own youth in the Sturm und Drang period, “became a universal watch-word. . . It was long before the time wherein it could be said that genius is that power of man which gives laws and rules through acting and doing. In those days it manifested itself only when it broke existing laws, overthrew established rules, and declared itself untrammeled . . . And so I found an almost greater obstacle to developing and expressing myself in the false cooperation of those who agreed with me than in the opposition of those who disagreed.” (Dichtung und Wahrheit, Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life, PartIV, Book XIX)

The aristocratic elegance, poise and equilibrium of these porcelain figurines, so typical of the Baroque and Rococo period in German art, is precisely what Werther, and Goethe, sought to get out from under and break away from.


In Werther, Goethe will defy rules and conventions in the service of sentiment. As a question of style and 'technique', Goethe's genius becomes manifest by the manner in which he uses disjointed language in order to break its conventional boundaries and thus better express the torrent of Werther's “romantic” emotion and temperament. Sentimental expression and feeling overcome the observance of proper rules of grammar and diction. There are innumerable examples of this novel mode of expression in Werther, but suffice it to quote the following, written in Werther's first outburst of infatuation with Lotte, and a subsequent letter as he neared his final breakdown, to illustrate his stylistic revolution:

“Why do I not write to you? You lay claim to learning, and ask such a question. You should have guessed that I am well – that is to say – in a word, I have made an acquaintance who has won my heart: I have – I know not.” (Letter of June 16)

[“Warum ich dir nicht schreibe? - Fragst du das und bist doch auch der Gelehrten einer. Du solltest raten, daß ich mich wohl befinde, und zwar - Kurz und gut, ich habe eine Bekanntschaft gemacht, die mein Herz näher angeht. Ich habe – ich weiß nicht.” (Am 16. Junius)]

“Only to gaze upon her dark eyes is to me a source of happiness! And what grieves me, is, that Albert does not seem so happy as he – hoped to be– as I should have been – if – I am no friend to these pauses, but here I cannot express it otherwise; and probably I am explicit enough.” (Letter of October 10, 1772)

[“Wenn ich nur ihre schwarzen Augen sehe, ist mir's schon wohl! Sieh, und was mich verdrießt, ist, daß Albert nicht so beglückt zu sein scheinet, als er – hoffte – als ich – zu sein glaubte – wenn – Ich mache nicht gern Gedankenstriche, aber hier kann ich mich nicht anders ausdrücken – und mich dünkt deutlich genug.” (Am 10. Oktober)]

The contrast: Perfection, poise and elegance, in a Baroque figure in the gardens of Herrenhausen, Hanover


Werther was written by Goethe for the anonymous bourgeois reading public of printed books. This is something of which he must have been quite intentionally aware, if for no other reason, because of the counter-availing influence of Ernst Behrisch, his friend of the Leipzig days, who had urged him to write his works in hand-written calligraphy for the select few. But his work with the Frankfurt Advertiser, and the influence of Merck, had led him in an opposite direction.

In Werther we read hostility to the few, or at least, towards the hierarchical society of estates. It is probably anachronistic to refer to this as a “class” consciousness, more than a decade before the French Revolution. The society of the eighteenth century, in Germany no less than in the countries to the west, was organized along the line of rigid estates, or corporate social hierarchies, based on inherited wealth, power and status, and it is to the expression of this organization in social commerce that Goethe directs his attacks in Werther. Although the book was written when the American Revolution was still in the future, the temper of the democratic revolution was already present in its pages.

The Society of Estates portrayed: Sir Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Alexander, 10th. Duke of Hamilton (1782)

What exactly was the 'democratic' revolution? In the last four decades of the eighteenth century, most of Europe and America were swept by a single revolutionary movement, which, in the argument of the historian R. R. Palmer, questioned “the possession of government, or any public power by any established, privileged, closed or self-recruiting groups of men.” This movement, which Palmer defines as “democratic,” “. . . denied that any person could exercise coercive authority simply by his own right, or by right of his status, or by right of “history,” either in the old-fashioned sense of custom and inheritance, or in any newer dialectical sense, unknown to the eighteenth century, in which “history” might be supposed to give some special elite or revolutionary vanguard a right to rule. The “democratic revolution” emphasized the delegation of authority and the removability of officials, precisely because . . . . neither delegation nor removability were much recognized in actual institutions.” (R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolutions, Volume I: The Challenge, A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, Princeton, 1959, pp.4-5).

The Society of Estates: The Court of Karl August in Weimar

In Werther, the conflict between the self and the corporate institutions which hemmed it in appears in the form of Werther's loathing for the social constraints imposed on him when he takes on a position as an adjutant to an Ambassador. The scene is set for this conflict at the beginning of Book II of the novel. For Book II is an inverted mirror image of Book I with regards to the underlying social assumptions, and Werther's place in them, which are therein revealed. In Book I, Werther is on top, and he makes patronizing and condescending statements about the peasants of Wahlheim.

“I know very well that we are not all equal, nor can be so, but it is my opinion that he who avoids the common people, in order not to lose their respect, is as much to blame as a coward who hides himself from his enemy because he fears defeat.” (Letter of May15, 1771).

“. . . I occasionally forget myself, and take part in the innocent pleasures which are not yet forbidden to the peasantry, and enjoy myself . . .with genuine freedom and sincerity, . . . .” (Letter of May 17, 1771).

By contrast, in Book II Werther is at the bottom and resents the arrogance of his social superiors, the aristocrats and court officials he meets in the course of his official assignments. He is snubbed. But his behavior, leading to resignation from office, is erratic and irrational.

Henry Raeburn, Portrait of Master William Blair

In a reflection which suggests the possibility of a“bourgeois psyche,” Werther evaluates himself on the basis of how he measures up against the achievements and the status of others. (Letter of October 20, 1771). But in accordance with his own inability and disinclination to act, he condemns the very striving that would lead to achievement and high status, a life he describes with disgust as “the seeking life.” “Oh, the brilliant wretchedness, the weariness, that one is doomed to witness among the silly people whom we meet in society here! The ambition of rank! How they watch, how they toil, to gain precedence!” (Letter of December 24, 1771).

However, in the spirit of bourgeois egalitarianism, and consonant with the “democratic” revolutionary impetus of the times as described by R. R. Palmer, Werther also consoles himself by condemning distinctions of rank between the aristocracy and himself. Since Werther reasons by way of sentiment and cannot perceive himself as more than mere subject, his condemnation is framed in terms of spiritual impediments, rather than class opposition: “. . . I would not have these institutions prove a barrier to the small chance of happiness which I may enjoy on this earth.” (Letter of December 24, 1771).

The episode of his snubbing, described in a letter to Wilhelm of March 15, 1772, reveals the core of his conflict. While acting in accordance to what is expected of him, 'toiling to gain precedence' by making the rounds with his superiors in serious discussion, he lingers on at a reception for courtly aristocrats where he is clearly not wanted. His unwelcome presence is made very clear to him. Embarrassed and mortified, he finally withdraws from the assembly and walks off to the countryside by himself, to read Homer. But the effect is devastating on his sensitive ego, particularly after his friend and erstwhile ally, the Fräulein von B., relates to him the reactions and comments of those who had snubbed him. Werther feels humiliated and defeated, and the incident leads to his resignation and departure from the city. “[M]y heart became embittered.”

W.H. Auden, who is of the opinion that Werther is an egocentric monster, and that Goethe intended us to see him that way, cites Werther's resignation as the preeminent example of his selfishness. He writes,
“If a man thinks the social conventions of his time and place to be silly or wrong, there are two courses of behavior that will earn him an outsider's respect. Either he may keep his opinions to himself and observe the conventions with detached amusement, or he may deliberately break them for the pleasure of the shock he causes. . . . Werther, by staying on when it is clear that his presence is unwelcome, defies the company, but his precious ego is hurt by their reactions, and he resigns from his post, returns to Lotte and disaster for all.”

Werther's social discomfort and anger betrays a ressentiment in the bourgeois personality, and it foreshadows the coming period of social turbulence, deracination and realignment that accompanies the Age of Revolutions, a period of social dislocation that had not been seen in Europe since the Reformation. Werther's discomfort is an aspect of social hatred towards the “estates” society of his time, the social structure of hierarchical conventions organized as a pyramid of static castes, as opposed to rival classes, where status was determined by the circumstances of birth rather than by relative merit in the competition for worldly success.

The German Bourgeoisie: Tischbein, Familie Reclam [Portrait of the Reclam Family] Berlin (1790)

Werther's reaction to his social circumstances raises the question of social conflict in the light of its later “romantic” portrayal, and it also raises a question regarding the “romantic personality,” both crucial elements in an analysis of the Romantic Movement, for what contemporaries, and later critics, often saw as the progressive and beneficial effects of a heroic social emancipation, Nietzsche, for one, would interpret as ressentiment. It is a question that must be analyzed: to what extent is the romantic personality a resentful personality? It is the problem of Rousseau.

AFTERMATH: The Fate of Werther and the Epidemic of Suicides

Werther became a success among the reading public because it mirrored the then fashionable cult of sentimentality, and because the public took to reading the novel Werther in the same way that Werther himself devoured his own books in the course of the fictional story. As mentioned before, Goethe recognized this in his retrospective autobiography: “. . . 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.” (The Auto-Biography of Goethe, Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life, trans. By John Oxenford, Esq. London, 1848, p. 507)

Werther's suicide, the self-destruction of a sentimental conscience, is the consequence of the “morbid youthful delusion” Goethe is referring to. In the book, the letter of August 12, 1771, wherein Werther narrates to Wilhelm his discussion with Albert about suicide, is therefore of crucial importance, and I will take a moment to review it in detail.

Eighteenth Century hunting pistols

In the letter, Werther tells Albert he intends to take a trip in the mountains for a few days and, spotting Albert's pistols, he asks to borrow them for his journey. This is precisely what he will do in December, once he has made his decision to kill himself, and it is exactly what the young student in Wetzlar, K.W. Jerusalem, did in real life when he decided to commit suicide. At this point, all is still in the future. Albert responds by telling Werther about an accident that occurred while his servants were cleaning the pistols and how he has since distrusted having them around and has kept them unloaded. As Albert is going on about this, Werther suddenly points the mouth of the pistol to his forehead above his eye, thus forecasting his own suicide. Albert's response is one of shock and incomprehension.

What follows is a defense of suicide that anticipates Goethe's statement in Dichtung und Wahrheit, above, to the effect that the pain of unsatisfied genius was assuaged by the available option of self-murder. To Albert's objection that suicide is "unreason," Werther responds that its rationality lies in the causes, once identified. And he goes further in justifying any act that is committed, as Albert puts it, “under the influence of violent passion.” Werther's argument is a defense of "unreason." When Albert states that suicide is an act of weakness, Werther responds that it requires strength to cast off the yoke of an unbearable burden: “The question, therefore, is, not whether a man is strong or weak, but whether he is able to endure the measure of his sufferings.” In the end, Albert and Werther “parted without conviction on either side.”

Werther's argument, however, bears on the question of why in his old age Goethe would describe “romanticism” to Eckermann as a sickness. For the difference between Albert and Werther in this dialogue seems to center on whether or not the 'self ' is willing and able to withstand suffering in the service of a higher goal, or at least in the service of the continuation of life itself, despite its bleakness, a proposition that Albert would seem to be arguing by appealing to moral duty, and which Werther altogether rejects. The Classical, in contrast to the Romantic, could therefore be understood as a position in favor of life and duty deriving from a condition of strength, of physical and psychic good health, “wherein it could be said that genius is that power of man which gives laws and rules through acting and doing,” as Goethe put it in Dichtung und Wahrheit, and which is an iteration of Spinoza's conclusion that all that is morally good is active and all that is morally bad is passive.

Goethe in 1819

But in his youthful Sturm und Drang period, Goethe felt that suicide was a welcome escape from the sufferings of frustrated creativity, from the torture of “unsatisfied passions,” and from the death of hope, although he himself chose to escape by recording his lived experience as literature. Of the writing of his first version of Werther, he would say in his old age: “I had rescued myself more by this composition than by any other, from a stormy element which had tossed me forcibly to and fro, through my own fault and that of others, through accident and choice, through intention and haste, through stiff-neckedness and weakness. I felt as after a general confession, happy and free again, and entitled to a new life.” Dichtung und Wahrheit, (Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life) Book XIII.

The enormous success of the novel, the Werther-fever (Wertherfieber), is a tribute to Goethe's ability to fuse together the fashionable tastes of the reading public with the argument, then so prevalent, that social and cultural conditions deprived youth of an outlet for promotion and individual creativity, an argument he placed in the mind of Werther. In the same way that Werther was led to suicide by the despair of inactivity, submission, and passive contemplation, his young readers reacted accordingly to their own despair, enamored of that passivity of pure feeling which never succeeds in becoming either creative or productive. The book found an echo in the despair of young people throughout Europe and reports of Werther-related suicides were recorded until well into the nineteenth century. Werther was a trap of subjectivity.


As the abyss between the self and the real world was not bridged in Werther, unless by means of Albert's hunting pistols, the generation of Romanticism that followed preoccupied themselves with the attempt of straddling this gap, and any and all gaps that could conceivably yield to the power of their imagination. A brief look at the story of Undine reveals one way in which Romanticism moved beyond the narrow subjectivity of the sentimental self that is so famously enshrined in Werther.

Undine is a short Romantic novel written in the first decade of the nineteenth century by the German author Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué (1777 – 1843), and it is a wonderful example of the manner in which the Romantics attempted to bridge the dualism implicit in the earlier literature ofthe Sturm und Drang: the dualism between the "self" and "Nature" - the world around it.

Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué

De la Motte was heavily influenced by his contemporary Romantics, particularly by August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845). His work is very much within the tradition of this genre, of which he is one of its most accomplished representatives. The short novel Undine is his best known work.



Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason laid strict rules to limit transcendent inquiry beyond what we can know through sensual perception and understanding. He set the rules limiting the power of what he called our "faculty" of understanding in his quest to answer the question “what can I know?” Anything that could not be subordinated to the Categories of the Understanding was beyond our ability to know. But in the later sections of the First Critique, which he entitled the Transcendental Dialectic, he admitted that the noumenon, the thing in itself which causes our sensations but is unknowable in itself, had a heuristic or regulative function in relation to the understanding. The noumenon, or thing-in-itself, he argued, is knowable only by Reason. It is the Idea behind and beyond the phenomenon it causes in our minds, the latter being known through empirical knowledge and understanding.

Thus Kant proposed the existence of two worlds: the one we know through our perceptions and understandings, which exists within our own heads, as it were, and the one out there, outside of our skulls, which we cannot really ever know for sure. The realm of the noumena that cause our perceptions was relegated to metaphysics.

This was the import of Kant's First Critique. But, moving on from the epistemological to the ethical and aesthetic concerns of the Second and Third Critiques, the function of these Ideas, the noumena, grew in importance to the point at which they began to operate as if real and constitutive concepts when it came to knowing our moral imperatives and our making of aesthetic judgments, such as those about what is and what is not morally right or beautiful. The self-enclosure of Kant’s system seemed to open out as both moral behavior and art offered access to the heretofore 'forbidden' noumenal realm.

Coleridge, who learned his Idealism during the trip he made to Germany in 1799, believed that Kant had compromised himself due to political conditions in Prussia. “I could not believe,” he wrote in the Biographia, “it was possible for him to have meant no more by his Noumenon, or THING IN ITSELF, than his mere words express: or that in his own conception he confined the whole plastic power to the forms of the intellect, leaving for the external cause, the materiale of our sensations, a matter without form.” (Biographia Literaria, I, 155).


For Coleridge, it was the limits that Kant had placed upon scientific endeavors to penetrate the metaphysical sphere that constituted the highest value of Kant’s work. Coleridge argued in favor of a form of direct knowledge of the noumenal realm, which was the basis of a richer human experience than any which science could provide. This was, he believed, the purport of Kant’s own statement in the 1787 Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason: “I have . . . found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the preconception that it is possible to make headway in metaphysics without a previous criticism of pure reason is the source of all that unbelief, always very dogmatic, which wars against morality.”


Following the impact of Kant's critical philosophy, the Idealist philosophers that succeeded him sought to move beyond what they saw as Kant’s compromise between a strictly phenomenal world of sensible objects and a strictly noumenal world of absolute Ideas, and to make the Absolute (the Ideal) apply to the here and now of every-day existence. They sought to incorporate the noumenon into the dialectical structure of their philosophical systems. They attacked Kant as a dualist. Fichte, for example, argued that the thing-in-itself (the noumenon) could not possibly be the “cause” of our experience because causality fell within the Categories of the Understanding, by Kant’s own criterion. How could causality condition the unconditioned? The argument that the noumenon is the cause of experience is an unwarranted application of a category of the understanding to a non-empirical object. By Kant's own terminology, therefore, it is impossible for us to argue the existence of this un-real noumenal world he imagined existed out there. And thus the Idealists pretended to dismiss Kant's entire architecture of thought by dismissing the separation between the noumenal and phenomenal realms that Kant had installed therein.


The Idealists would have us replace the unconditioned noumenal realm by their notion of Self-Consciousness, a “subject which becomes its own object.” Self-Consciousness has the unconditioned power of a ‘substantial ego’ - that is to say, of a really-existing and perceptible, knowable, self, - affording it immediate knowledge of its own ground. The gap between the noumenal and the phenomenal, they argued, could thus be bridged. Self-consciousness afforded us the ability to bring together the phenomenal world within us and the metaphysical world outside us.

In this intellectual environment German Romanticism grew apace. What appealed to the Romantics about the self-consciousness systems of the Idealists, particularly that of Schelling, is that it argued that the knowledge of 'self' endows man with insight into the rationality and purposiveness of the whole natural universe. For Schelling the identification of mind and nature is based upon a form of intuitive knowledge, a gnosis, which affords an immediate and direct comprehension unlocking the secrets of Nature. He was inspired by myth, which does not distinguish between a symbolic and a rational experience of reality. Goethe had already said that the universal shimmers through the particular. For Schelling, the ‘shimmering’ was the gnosis.

Not limited to empirical inquiry and barred from the knowledge of the noumenon, Schelling argued, the creative mind of the poet is provided with an immediate insight into the transcendental powers which, in turn, construct the ultimate phenomenon experienced by the senses. There, in that insight, the creation of an alien experience, the experience of a truth that transcends the sphere of control of the scientific method, was possible through a self-consciousness that culminated in the work of art.


This is the ground of the work of art of the Romantic period, which seeks to transcend the real and empirical and penetrate the mystery of the "unknown," which is itself, in turn, the poet's equivalent to the philosophers' noumenon. Such is the background of Coleridge's great poems, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan,’ as well as of the fairy tales of the German Romantics.

In his book on German Romanticism, (German Romanticism and Its Institutions, Princeton, 1990), Theodore Ziolkowski remarks on three facets of the Romantic image that characterized the work of three prominent German Romantics: “Eichendorff was fascinated by the ambivalence of a nature at once serene and threatening and by the tension between the security of home and the demonic lure of the unfamiliar. Novalis was philosophically and scientifically convinced that death represented an extension of life, and he saw that tranquil death reflected in the nocturnal side of nature that he portrayed so vividly in his writings. And Hoffmann, like the characters of his fiction, sometimes teetered precariously on the line between reality and imagination, between bourgeois sobriety and the poet’s frenzy.” (pp. 3-4).

These three 'facets,' outlined by Ziolkowski, correspond to the two realms that Romanticism intended to bridge, the realm of the supernatural or fantastic and the realm of the empirical phenomenon, and of every-day reality. The security of home and the lure of the unfamiliar, the objects of reality and the objects of the imagination, the natural and the supernatural, these are the polarities that Romanticism sought to overcome in its artistic output. It was the dualism implicit in the Kantian critique that Kant himself had sought to bridge by way of the Categorical Imperative and the Aesthetic Judgment of Taste in his Second and Third Critiques, respectively. The Romantics now sought to use these tools to bring the strange and unfamiliar, - the supernatural, - into the life of the real.

Jose Antonio Villarrubia (b. 1961), Undine, (n.d.)


The story of Undine is all about elemental forces of Nature engaging with human beings. The water-spirits that are the main protagonists of the story, Undine and her “uncle” Kühleborn, are agents without cause, noumena, forces that are perceived to operate, but do so beyond the law of causality that governs the phenomenal world.

A spirit of the rivers and of water has exchanged a human little girl,the daughter of a fisherman, for an underwater sprite named Undine. As the story begins, the fisherman and his wife have lost their daughter, who has drowned. Shortly thereafter, Undine appears on their doorstep, a beautiful little girl, presumably of the same age as their lost daughter. The fisherman and his wife do not know that Undine is a “spirit,” and they adopt her. She grows up to be a lovely and spirited young maiden in their home, which is located on a peninsula that projects onto a lake.

As she grows older, the maiden Undine becomes increasingly more beautiful, but occasionally spiteful and unruly. One day a knight appears at the fisherman’s home. He has braved the forest, where he experienced various haunting encounters with spirits, and was compelled towards the peninsula where the fisherman’s house is located. The knight, Huldbrand von Ringstetten, falls in love with Undine.

Undine then tells Huldbrand that she is a mermaid, that she has no soul, and that she has been placed on earth because she wants to marry a human being in order to thereby acquire a human soul.


Huldbrand and Undine marry, but during the wedding ceremony he meets once again with Bertalda, a woman he had been attracted to before his trip into the forest. Bertalda is jealous of Undine, and seeks to undo the bond between the young married couple. Undine notices this and decides to befriend Bertalda.

As a gesture of friendship towards Bertalda, and wanting to makeup for Bertalda’s disappointment, Undine reveals to her guests that Bertalda is the long-lost daughter of the fisherman and his wife, whom she has invited to be present at the announcement. Horrified by this revelation, which threatens her social status, Bertalda denies it, and heaves insults at the fisherman and his wife who are present, turning her back on them. Her behavior causes her to be outcast, and to make amends for this unintended grievance towards her, Undine invites Bertalda to come and live with her and Huldbrand at the castle in Ringstetten.

Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911), Undine, 1882

Life in the castle is not easy for Undine, nor is her marriage. Huldbrand’s desire for Bertalda begins to surface and deepen, and he begins to tire of Undine. Undine orders a certain spring of water in the castle to be sealed. It is the conduit through which her “uncle” Kühleborn comes to spy on her life and to do ill to the humans around her. Kühleborn mistrusts both Huldbrand and Bertalda, and acts to protect Undine. But Undine does not want him around, and believes that Huldbrand will be loyal to her if she acts like a human being. The spring is sealed, but Bertalda, who relies on the water for her skin care, is offended and leaves the castle in a rage into the night.

A harrowing rescue follows, where Huldbrand and Bertalda are almost drowned by Kühleborn, but they return safely due to Undine’s intervention and some sort of normalcy returns to the castle.

Chauncey B. Ives, Undine, 1884

When the three protagonists decide to take a trip down the Danube together to visit Vienna, the denoument of the story begins. The tricks of Kühleborn, who rules the Danube and constantly creates difficulties for the travelers, increasingly irritate Huldbrand, to the point where he becomes angry with Undine and berates her for not being a human being. His anger and contempt are too much for Undine. The magic is broken and, forlorn, she plunges into the Danube and vanishes beneath the waves.

A desperate Huldbrand returns to his castle full of pain and regret, sobbing for the dead Undine. But Undine is not dead. She lives under the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. When Huldbrand finally decides to marry Bertalda, the spirits condemn him to die for his unfaithfulness. He is warned in a dream, but proceeds with his wedding plans. On the wedding night, Bertalda notices a blemish on her skin and orders her servants to unseal the spring and bring her some of its waters. Through the spring, Undine returns and suffocates Huldbrand with tears and watery kisses. She is present at the funeral, uninvited, but Bertalda appears to forgive her, and Huldbrand’s tomb is surrounded by the waters of Undine.

What are we to make of this story? The spirits have no soul, but desire one. Undine is prepared to forgo her magical powers, which defy the laws of causation, for the sake of obtaining a human soul. As pure Nature, she is a creature of causality, but in contrast to the humans around her she is not so, because she originates beyond the phenomenal world. Yet she seeks to possess a human soul, which is a metaphor for free will, and thus to raise herself above the world of phenomena, which is the Natural world of the elements. This is accomplished by love. It is her love for Huldbrand that makes Undine human, temporarily, and his eventual rejection of her love leads her back to her element.

Ernst Haeckel, Mädchen (1904)

The free passage from the phenomenal to the supernatural realm is characteristic of Romanticism, and it is a way of bridging the gap rather than highlighting it. To quote Ziolkowski once again: “. . . it was one of the principal aims of that generation to overcome the split between mind and matter, rationalism and sentimentalism, reason and emotion, which characterized the eighteenth century. Romanticism discovered history precisely because, in that temporal dimension, the kind of change, development,and synthesis could take place that was exemplified by Fichte’s “productive imagination” and the energy of Hegel’s dialectics.” (German Romanticism, p. 5)

John Waterhouse, Undine, 1872

The “Genius” poems of Goethe

[The following two poems were obtained on the internet and I have no further reference to their source. The English translation, of unknown origin, follows.]


Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus,
Mit Wolkendunst!
Und übe, Knaben gleich,
Der Disteln köpft,
An Eichen dich und Bergeshöhn!
Mußt mir meine Erde
Doch lassen stehn,
Und meine Hütte,
Die du nicht gebaut,
Und meinen Herd,
Um dessen Glut
Du mich beneidest.
Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres
Unter der Sonn als euch Götter.
Ihr nähret kümmerlich
Von Opfersteuern
Und Gebetshauch
Eure Majestät
Und darbtet, wären
Nicht Kinder und Bettler
Hoffnungsvolle Toren.

Da ich ein Kind war,
Nicht wußte, wo aus, wo ein,
Kehrte mein verirrtes Aug
Zur Sonne, als wenn drüber wär
Ein Ohr zu hören meine Klage,
Ein Herz wie meins,
Sich des Bedrängten zu erbarmen.
Wer half mir wider
Der Titanen Übermut?
Wer rettete vom Tode mich,
Von Sklaverei?
Hast du's nicht alles selbst vollendet,
Heilig glühend Herz?
Und glühtest, jung und gut,
Betrogen, Rettungsdank
Dem Schlafenden dadroben?
Ich dich ehren? Wofür?
Hast du die Schmerzen gelindert
Je des Beladenen?
Hast du die Tränen gestillet
Je des Geängsteten?
Hat nicht mich zum Manne geschmiedet
Die allmächtige Zeit
Und das ewige Schicksal,
Meine Herren und deine?
Wähntest du etwa,
Ich sollte das Leben hassen,
In Wüsten fliehn,
Weil nicht alle Knabenmorgen-
Blütenträume reiften?

Hier sitz ich, forme Menschen
Nach meinem Bilde,
Ein Geschlecht, das mir gleich sei,
Zu leiden, weinen,
Genießen und zu freuen sich,
Und dein nicht zu achten,
Wie ich.


Cover thy spacious heavens, Zeus,
With clouds of mist,
And, like the boy who lops
The thistles' heads,
Disport with oaks and mountain-peaks,
Yet thou must leave
My earth still standing;
My cottage too, which was not raised by thee;
Leave me my hearth,
Whose kindly glow
By thee is envied.
I know nought poorer
Under the sun, than ye gods!
Ye nourish painfully,
With sacrifices
And votive prayers,
Your majesty:
Ye would e'en starve,
If children and beggars
Were not trusting fools.
While yet a child
And ignorant of life,
I turned my wandering gaze
Up tow'rd the sun, as if with him
There were an ear to hear my wailings,
A heart, like mine,
To feel compassion for distress.
Who help'd me
Against the Titans' insolence?
Who rescued me from certain death,
From slavery?
Didst thou not do all this thyself,
My sacred glowing heart?
And glowedst, young and good,
Deceived with grateful thanks
To yonder slumbering one?
I honour thee! and why?
Hast thou e'er lighten'd the sorrows
Of the heavy laden?
Hast thou e'er dried up the tears
Of the anguish-stricken?
Was I not fashion'd to be a man
By omnipotent Time,
And by eternal Fate,
Masters of me and thee?
Didst thou e'er fancy
That life I should learn to hate,
And fly to deserts,
Because not all
My blossoming dreams grew ripe?

Here sit I, forming mortals
After my image;
A race resembling me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
As I!

Wanderers Sturmlied

Wen du nicht verlässest, Genius,
Nicht der Regen, nicht der Sturm
Haucht ihm Schauer übers Herz.
Wen du nicht verlässest, Genius,
Wird dem Regengewölk,
Wird dem Schloßensturm
Wie die Lerche,
Du da droben.
Den du nicht verlässest, Genius,
Wirst ihn heben übern Schlammpfad
Mit den Feuerflügeln.
Wandeln wird er
Wie mit Blumenfüßen
Über Deukalions Flutschlamm,
Python tötend, leicht, groß,
Pythius Apollo.
Den du nicht verlässest, Genius,
Wirst die wollnen Flügel unterspreiten,
Wenn er auf dem Felsen schläft,
Wirst mit Hüterfittichen ihn decken
In des Haines Mitternacht.
Wen du nicht verlässest, Genius,
Wirst im Schneegestöber
Nach der Wärme ziehn sich Musen,
Nach der Wärme Charitinnen.
Umschwebt mich, ihr Musen, ihr Charitinnen!
Das ist Wasser, das ist Erde,
Und der Sohn des Wassers und der Erde,
Über den ich wandle
Ihr seid rein, wie das Herz der Wasser,
Ihr seid rein, wie das Mark der Erde,
Ihr umschwebt mich, und ich schwebe
Über Wasser, über Erde,
Soll der zurückkehren,
Der kleine, schwarze, feurige Bauer?
Soll der zurückkehren, erwartend
Nur deine Gaben, Vater Bromius,
Und helleuchtend umwärmend Feuer?
Der kehren mutig?
Und ich, den ihr begleitet,
Musen und Charitinnen alle,
Den alles erwartet, was ihr,
Musen und Charitinnen,
Umkränzende Seligkeit,
Rings ums Leben verherrlicht habt,
Soll mutlos kehren?
Vater Bromius!
Du bist Genius,
Jahrhunderts Genius,
Bist, was innre Glut
Pindarn war,
Was der Welt
Phöbus Apoll ist.
Weh! Weh! Innre Wärme,
Glüh entgegen
Phöb Apollen;
Kalt wird sonst
Sein Fürstenblick
Über dich vorübergleiten,
Auf der Zeder Kraft verweilen,
Die zu grünen
Sein nicht harrt.
Warum nennt mein Lied dich zuletzt?
Dich, von dem es begann,
Dich, in dem es endet,
Dich, aus dem es quillt,
Jupiter Pluvius!
Dich, dich strömt mein Lied,
Und kastalischer Quell
Rinnt ein Nebenbach,
Rinnet Müßigen,
Sterblich Glücklichen
Abseits von dir,
Der du mich fassend deckst,
Jupiter Pluvius!
Nicht am Ulmenbaum
Hast du ihn besucht,
Mit dem Taubenpaar
In dem zärtlichen Arm,
Mit der freundlichen Ros umkränzt,
Tändelnden ihn, blumenglücklichen
Sturmatmende Gottheit!
Nicht im Pappelwald
An des Sybaris Strand,
An des Gebirgs
Sonnebeglänzter Stirn nicht
Faßtest du ihn,
Den Blumen-singenden,
Freundlich winkenden
Wenn die Räder rasselten,
Rad an Rad rasch ums Ziel weg,
Hoch flog
Jünglinge Peitschenknall,
Und sich Staub wälzt',
Wir vom Gebirg herab
Kieselwetter ins Tal,
Glühte deine Seel Gefahren, Pindar,
Mut. – Glühte? –
Armes Herz!
Dort auf dem Hügel,
Himmlische Macht!
Nur so viel Glut,
Dort meine Hütte,
Dorthin zu waten!

The Wanderer's Storm-Song
[Goethe says of this ode,that it is the only one remaining out of several strange hymns and dithyrambscomposed by him at a period of great unhappiness, when the love-affair betweenhim and Friederike Brion had been broken off by him. He used to sing them whilewandering wildly about the country. This particular one was caused by his beingcaught in a tremendous storm on one of these occasions. He calls it ahalf-crazy piece, or halbunsinn.]

He whom thou ne'er leavest, Genius,
Feels no dread within his heart
At the tempest or the rain.
He whom thou ne'er leavest, Genius,
Will to the rain-clouds,
Will to the hailstorm,
Sing in reply
As the lark sings,
Oh thou on high!
Him whom thou ne'er leavest, Genius,
Thou wilt raise above the mud-track
With thy fiery pinions.
He will wander,
As, with flowery feet,
Over Deucalion's dark flood,
Python-slaying, light, glorious,
Pythius Apollo.
Him whom thou ne'er leavest, Genius,
Thou wilt place upon thy fleecy pinion
When he sleepeth on the rock,--
Thou wilt shelter with thy guardian wing
In the forest's midnight hour.
Him whom thou ne'er leavest, Genius,
Thou wilt wrap up warmly
In the snow-drift;
Tow'rd the warmth approach the Muses,
Tow'rd the warmth approach the Graces.
Ye Muses, hover round me!
Ye Graces also!
That is water, that is earth,
And the son of water and of earth
Over which I wander,
Like the gods.
Ye are pure, like the heart of the water,
Ye are pure like the marrow of earth,
Hov'ring round me, while I hover
Over water, o'er the earth
Like the gods.
Shall he, then, return,
The small, the dark, the fiery peasant?
Shall he, then, return, waiting
Only thy gifts, oh Father Bromius,
And brightly gleaming, warmth-spreading fire?
Return with joy?
And I, whom ye attended,
Ye Muses and ye Graces,
Whom all awaits that ye,
Ye Muses and ye Graces,
Of circling bliss in life
Have glorified--shall I
Return dejected?
Father Bromius!
Thourt the Genius,
Genius of ages,
Thou'rt what inward glow
To Pindar was,
What to the world
Phoebus Apollo.
Woe! Woe Inward warmth,
Glow, and vie with
Phoebus Apollo!
Coldly soon
His regal look
Over thee will swiftly glide,--
Linger o'er the cedar's strength,
Which, to flourish,
Waits him not.
Why doth my lay name thee the last?
Thee, from whom it began,
Thee, in whom it endeth,
Thee, from whom it flows,
Jupiter Pluvius!
Tow'rd thee streams my song.
And a Castalian spring
Runs as a fellow-brook,
Runs to the idle ones,
Mortal, happy ones,
Apart from thee,
Who cov'rest me around,
Jupiter Pluvius!
Not by the elm-tree
Him didst thou visit,
With the pair of doves
Held in his gentle arm,--
With the beauteous garland of roses,--
Caressing him, so blest in his flowers,
Storm-breathing godhead!
Not in the poplar grove,
Near the Sybaris' strand,
Not on the mountain's
Sun-illumined brow
Didst thou seize him,
The flower-singing,
Sweetly nodding
When the wheels were rattling,
Wheel on wheel tow'rd the goal,
High arose
The sound of the lash
Of youths with victory glowing,
In the dust rolling,
As from the mountain fall
Showers of stones in the vale--
Then thy soul was brightly glowing, Pindar--
Glowing? Poor heart!
There, on the hill,--
Heavenly might!
But enough glow
Thither to wend,
Where is my cot!