The Sorrows of Young Werther
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (translated by R.D. Boylan)
Public Domain Books
I am grateful to your love, Wilhelm, for having repeated your advice so seasonably. Yes, you are right: it is undoubtedly better that I should depart. But I do not entirely approve your scheme of returning at once to your neighbourhood; at least, I should Iike to make a little excursion on the way, particularly as we may now expect a continued frost, and consequently good roads. I am much pleased with your intention of coming to fetch me; only delay your journey for a fortnight, and wait for another letter from me. One should gather nothing before it is ripe, and a fortnight sooner or later makes a great difference. Entreat my mother to pray for her son, and tell her I beg her pardon for all the unhappiness I have occasioned her. It has ever been my fate to give pain to those whose happiness I should have promoted. Adieu, my dearest friend. May every blessing of Heaven attend you! Farewell.
We find it difficult to express the emotions with which Charlotte’s soul was agitated during the whole of this time, whether in relation to her husband or to her unfortunate friend; although we are enabled, by our knowledge of her character, to understand their nature.
It is certain that she had formed a determination, by every means in her power to keep Werther at a distance; and, if she hesitated in her decision, it was from a sincere feeling of friendly pity, knowing how much it would cost him, indeed, that he would find it almost impossible to comply with her wishes. But various causes now urged her to be firm. Her hushand preserved a strict silence about the whole matter; and she never made it a subject of conversation, feeling bound to prove to him by her conduct that her sentiments agreed with his.
The same day, which was the Sunday before Christmas, after Werther had written the last-mentioned letter to his friend, he came in the evening to Charlotte’s house, and found her alone. She was busy preparing some little gifts for her brothers and sisters, which were to be distributed to them on Christmas Day. He began talking of the delight of the children, and of that age when the sudden appearance of the Christmas-tree, decorated with fruit and sweetmeats, and lighted up with wax candles, causes such transports of joy. “You shall have a gift too, if you behave well,” said Charlotte, hiding her embarrassment under sweet smile. “And what do you call behaving well? What should I do, what can I do, my dear Charlotte?” said he. “Thursday night,” she answered, “is Christmas Eve. The children are all to be here, and my father too: there is a present for each; do you come likewise, but do not come before that time.” Werther started. “I desire you will not: it must be so,” she continued. “I ask it of you as a favour, for my own peace and tranquillity. We cannot go on in this manner any longer." He turned away his face walked hastily up and down the room, muttering indistinctly, “We cannot go on in this manner any longer!” Charlotte, seeing the violent agitation into which these words had thrown him, endeavoured to divert his thoughts by different questions, but in vain. “No, Charlotte!” he exclaimed; “I will never see you any more!" “And why so?” she answered. “We may we must see each other again; only let it be with more discretion. Oh! why were you born with that excessive, that ungovernable passion for everything that is dear to you?” Then, taking his hand, she said, “I entreat of you to be more calm: your talents, your understanding, your genius, will furnish you with a thousand resources. Be a man, and conquer an unhappy attachment toward a creature who can do nothing but pity you.” He bit his lips, and looked at her with a gloomy countenance. She continued to hold his hand. “Grant me but a moment’s patience, Werther,” she said. “Do you not see that you are deceiving yourself, that you are seeking your own destruction? Why must you love me, me only, who belong to another? I fear, I much fear, that it is only the impossibility of possessing me which makes your desire for me so strong.” He drew back his hand, whilst he surveyed her with a wild and angry look. “’Tis well!” he exclaimed, “’tis very well! Did not Albert furnish you with this reflection? It is profound, a very profound remark.” “A reflection that any one might easily make,” she answered; “and is there not a woman in the whole world who is at liberty, and has the power to make you happy? Conquer yourself: look for such a being, and believe me when I say that you will certainly find her. I have long felt for you, and for us all: you have confined yourself too long within the limits of too narrow a circle. Conquer yourself; make an effort: a short journey will be of service to you. Seek and find an object worthy of your love; then return hither, and let us enjoy together all the happiness of the most perfect friendship.”
“This speech,” replied Werther with a cold smile, “this speech should be printed, for the benefit of all teachers. My dear Charlotte, allow me but a short time longer, and all will be well." “But however, Werther,” she added, “do not come again before Christmas.” He was about to make some answer, when Albert came in. They saluted each other coldly, and with mutual embarrassment paced up and down the room. Werther made some common remarks; Albert did the same, and their conversation soon dropped. Albert asked his wife about some household matters; and, finding that his commissions were not executed, he used some expressions which, to Werther’s ear, savoured of extreme harshness. He wished to go, but had not power to move; and in this situation he remained till eight o’clock, his uneasiness and discontent continually increasing. At length the cloth was laid for supper, and he took up his hat and stick. Albert invited him to remain; but Werther, fancying that he was merely paying a formal compliment, thanked him coldly, amd left the house.
Werther returned home, took the candle from his servant, and retired to his room alone. He talked for some time with great earnestness to himself, wept aloud, walked in a state of great excitement through his chamber; till at length, without undressing, he threw himself on the bed, where he was found by his servant at eleven o’clock, when the latter ventured to enter the room, and take off his boots. Werther did not prevent him, but forbade him to come in the morning till he should ring.
On Monday morning, the 21st of December, he wrote to Charlotte the following letter, which was found, sealed, on his bureau after his death, and was given to her. I shall insert it in fragments; as it appears, from several circumstances, to have been written in that manner.
“It is all over, Charlotte: I am resolved to die! I make this declaration deliberately and coolly, without any romantic passion, on this morning of the day when I am to see you for the last time. At the moment you read these lines, O best of women, the cold grave will hold the inanimate remains of that restless and unhappy being who, in the last moments of his existence, knew no pleasure so great as that of conversing with you! I have passed a dreadful night or rather, let me say, a propitious one; for it has given me resolution, it has fixed my purpose. I am resolved to die. When I tore myself from you yesterday, my senses were in tumult and disorder; my heart was oppressed, hope and pleasure had fled from me for ever, and a petrifying cold had seized my wretched being. I could scarcely reach my room. I threw myself on my knees; and Heaven, for the last time, granted me the consolation of shedding tears. A thousand ideas, a thousand schemes, arose within my soul; till at length one last, fixed, final thought took possession of my heart. It was to die. I lay down to rest; and in the morning, in the quiet hour of awakening, the same determination was upon me. To die! It is not despair: it is conviction that I have filled up the measure of my sufferings, that I have reached my appointed term, and must sacrifice myself for thee. Yes, Charlotte, why should I not avow it? One of us three must die: it shall be Werther. O beloved Charlotte! this heart, excited by rage and fury, has often conceived the horrid idea of murdering your husband you myself! The lot is cast at length. And in the bright, quiet evenings of summer, when you sometimes wander toward the mountains, let your thoughts then turn to me: recollect how often you have watched me coming to meet you from the valley; then bend your eyes upon the churchyard which contains my grave, and, by the light of the setting sun, mark how the evening breeze waves the tall grass which grows above my tomb. I was calm when I began this letter, but the recollection of these scenes makes me weep like a child.”
About ten in the morning, Werther called his servant, and, whilst he was dressing, told him that in a few days he intended to set out upon a journey, and bade him therefore lay his clothes in order, and prepare them for packing up, call in all his accounts, fetch home the books he had lent, and give two months’ pay to the poor dependants who were accustomed to receive from him a weekly allowance.
He breakfasted in his room, and then mounted his horse, and went to visit the steward, who, however, was not at home. He walked pensively in the garden, and seemed anxious to renew all the ideas that were most painful to him.
The children did not suffer him to remain alone long. They followed him, skipping and dancing before him, and told him, that after to-morrow and tomorrow and one day more, they were to receive their Christmas gift from Charlotte; and they then recounted all the wonders of which they had formed ideas in their child imaginations. “Tomorrow and tomorrow,” said he, “and one day more!” And he kissed them tenderly. He was going; but the younger boy stopped him, to whisper something in his ear. He told him that his elder brothers had written splendid New-Year’s wishes so large! one for papa, and another for Albert and Charlotte, and one for Werther; and they were to be presented early in the morning, on New Year’s Day. This quite overcame him. He made each of the children a present, mounted his horse, left his compliments for papa and mamma, and, with tears in his eyes, rode away from the place.
He returned home about five o’clock, ordered his servant to keep up his fire, desired him to pack his books and linen at the bottom of the trunk, and to place his coats at the top. He then appears to have made the following addition to the letter addressed to Charlotte:
“You do not expect me. You think I will obey you, and not visit you again till Christmas Eve. O Charlotte, today or never! On Christmas Eve you will hold this paper in your hand; you will tremble, and moisten it with your tears. I will I must! Oh, how happy I feel to be determined!”
In the meantime, Charlotte was in a pitiable state of mind. After her last conversation with Werther, she found how painful to herself it would be to decline his visits, and knew how severely he would suffer from their separation.
She had, in conversation with Albert, mentioned casually that Werther would not return before Christmas Eve; and soon afterward Albert went on horseback to see a person in the neighbourhood, with whom he had to transact some business which would detain him all night.
Charlotte was sitting alone. None of her family were near, and she gave herself up to the reflections that silently took possession of her mind. She was for ever united to a husband whose love and fidelity she had proved, to whom she was heartily devoted, and who seemed to be a special gift from Heaven to ensure her happiness. On the other hand, Werther had become dear to her. There was a cordial unanimity of sentiment between them from the very first hour of their acquaintance, and their long association and repeated interviews had made an indelible impression upon her heart. She had been accustomed to communicate to him every thought and feeling which interested her, and his absence threatened to open a void in her existence which it might be impossible to fill. How heartily she wished that she might change him into her brother, that she could induce him to marry one of her own friends, or could reestablish his intimacy with Albert.
She passed all her intimate friends in review before her mind, but found something objectionable in each, and could decide upon none to whom she would consent to give him.
Amid all these considerations she felt deeply but indistinctly that her own real but unexpressed wish was to retain him for herself, and her pure and amiable heart felt from this thought a sense of oppression which seemed to forbid a prospect of happiness. She was wretched: a dark cloud obscured her mental vision.
It was now half-past six o’clock, and she heard Werther’s step on the stairs. She at once recognised his voice, as he inquired if she were at home. Her heart beat audibly we could almost say for the first time at his arrival. It was too late to deny herself; and, as he entered, she exclaimed, with a sort of ill concealed confusion, “You have not kept your word!” “I promised nothing,” he answered. “But you should have complied, at least for my sake,” she continued. “ I implore you, for both our sakes.”
She scarcely knew what she said or did; and sent for some friends, who, by their presence, might prevent her being left alone with Werther. He put down some books he had brought with him, then made inquiries about some others, until she began to hope that her friends might arrive shortly, entertaining at the same time a desire that they might stay away.
At one moment she felt anxious that the servant should remain in the adjoining room, then she changed her mind. Werther, meanwhile, walked impatiently up and down. She went to the piano, and determined not to retire. She then collected her thoughts, and sat down quietly at Werther’s side, who had taken his usual place on the sofa.
“Have you brought nothing to read?” she inquired. He had nothing. “There in my drawer,” she continued, “you will find your own translation of some of the songs of Ossian. I have not yet read them, as I have still hoped to hear you recite them; but, for some time past, I have not been able to accomplish such a wish.” He smiled, and went for the manuscript, which he took with a shudder. He sat down; and, with eyes full of tears, he began to read.
“Star of descending night! fair is thy light in the west! thou liftest thy unshorn head from thy cloud; thy steps are stately on thy hill. What dost thou behold in the plain? The stormy winds are laid. The murmur of the torrent comes from afar. Roaring waves climb the distant rock. The flies of evening are on their feeble wings: the hum of their course is on the field. What dost thou behold, fair light? But thou dost smile and depart. The waves come with joy around thee: they bathe thy lovely hair. Farewell, thou silent beam! Let the light of Ossian’s soul arise!
“And it does arise in its strength! I behold my departed friends. Their gathering is on Lora, as in the days of other years. Fingal comes like a watery column of mist! his heroes are around: and see the bards of song, gray-haired Ullin! stately Ryno! Alpin with the tuneful voice: the soft complaint of Minona! How are ye changed, my friends, since the days of Selma’s feast! when we contended, like gales of spring as they fly along the hill, and bend by turns the feebly whistling grass.
“Minona came forth in her beauty, with downcast look and tearful eye. Her hair was flying slowly with the blast that rushed unfrequent from the hill. The souls of the heroes were sad when she raised the tuneful voice. Oft had they seen the grave of Salgar, the dark dwelling of white-bosomed Colma. Colma left alone on the hill with all her voice of song! Salgar promised to come! but the night descended around. Hear the voice of Colma, when she sat alone on the hill!
“Colma. It is night: I am alone, forlorn on the hill of storms. The wind is heard on the mountain. The torrent is howling down the rock. No hut receives me from the rain: forlorn on the hill of winds!
“Rise moon! from behind thy clouds. Stars of the night, arise! Lead me, some light, to the place where my love rests from the chase alone! His bow near him unstrung, his dogs panting around him! But here I must sit alone by the rock of the mossy stream. The stream and the wind roar aloud. I hear not the voice of my love! Why delays my Salgar; why the chief of the hill his promise? Here is the rock and here the tree! here is the roaring stream! Thou didst promise with night to be here. Ah! whither is my Salgar gone? With thee I would fly from my father, with thee from my brother of pride. Our race have long been foes: we are not foes, O Salgar!
“Cease a little while, O wind! stream, be thou silent awhile! let my voice be heard around! let my wanderer hear me! Salgar! it is Colma who calls. Here is the tree and the rock. Salgar, my love, I am here! Why delayest thou thy coming? Lo! the calm moon comes forth. The flood is bright in the vale. The rocks are gray on the steep. I see him not on the brow. His dogs come not before him with tidings of his near approach. Here I must sit alone!
“Who lie on the heath beside me? Are they my love and my brother? Speak to me, O my friends! To Colma they give no reply. Speak to me: I am alone! My soul is tormented with fears. Ah, they are dead! Their swords are red from the fight. O my brother! my brother! why hast thou slain my Salgar! Why, O Salgar, hast thou slain my brother! Dear were ye both to me! what shall I say in your praise? Thou wert fair on the hill among thousands! he was terrible in fight! Speak to me! hear my voice! hear me, sons of my love! They are silent! silent for ever! Cold, cold, are their breasts of clay! Oh, from the rock on the hill, from the top of the windy steep, speak, ye ghosts of the dead! Speak, I will not be afraid! Whither are ye gone to rest? In what cave of the hill shall I find the departed? No feeble voice is on the gale: no answer half drowned in the storm!
“I sit in my grief: I wait for morning in my tears! Rear the tomb, ye friends of the dead. Close it not till Colma come. My life flies away like a dream. Why should I stay behind? Here shall I rest with my friends, by the stream of the sounding rock. When night comes on the hill when the loud winds arise my ghost shall stand in the blast, and mourn the death of my friends. The hunter shall hear from his booth; he shall fear, but love my voice! For sweet shall my voice be for my friends: pleasant were her friends to Colma.
“Such was thy song, Minona, softly blushing daughter of Torman. Our tears descended for Colma, and our souls were sad! Ullin came with his harp; he gave the song of Alpin. The voice of Alpin was pleasant, the soul of Ryno was a beam of fire! But they had rested in the narrow house: their voice had ceased in Selma! Ullin had returned one day from the chase before the heroes fell. He heard their strife on the hill: their song was soft, but sad! They mourned the fall of Morar, first of mortal men! His soul was like the soul of Fingal: his sword like the sword of Oscar. But he fell, and his father mourned: his sister’s eyes were full of tears. Minona’s eyes were full of tears, the sister of car-borne Morar. She retired from the song of Ullin, like the moon in the west, when she foresees the shower, and hides her fair head in a cloud. I touched the harp with Ullin: the song of morning rose!