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Goethe - Wetzlar And Charlotte Buff

( Originally Published 1913 )



MAY—SEPTEMBER, 1772

DURING the summer and autumn of 1772 Goethe found himself in a society and surroundings which were in curious contrast to those of Darmstadt ; and the next four months were to supply him with an experience which, wrought into one book of transcendent literary effect, was to make his name known, literally, to the ends of the earth, and which may be regarded as the most remarkable episode in his long life. It was as " the author of Werther " that he was known to the reading world, until after his death the publication of the completed Faust gradually effaced the conception of Goethe as the master-sentimentalist of European literature.

It was mainly as a temporary escape from the tedium of Frankfort that, towards the end of May, 1772, Goethe proceeded to Wetzlar, a little town on the Lahn, a confluent of the Rhine. His settlement in Wetzlar had the semblance of a serious professional purpose, since Wetzlar was the historic legal capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and the seat of the Imperial Court of Justice. If he had any such serious purpose, his experience of the place speedily dispelled it. The place itself he found distasteful ; a " little, ill-built town," be calls it, though the modern visitor finds it not unattractive, with its climbing, tortuous streets, reminiscent of the Middle Age, and with its impressive cathedral, one of the most interesting specimens of mediaeval architecture to be found in. Germany, and still unfinished Goethe's day. Instead of the spectacle of an august tribunal administering prompt and even justice, what he saw was a multitude of corrupt officials, deluded litigants, and endless delays of law. Wetzlar, in fact, he gives us to understand, destroyed any respect he may ever have had alike for judges and the law they professed to administer. He duly enrolled himself as a " Praktikant,"1 but, as was the case with the majority of that class who haunted the town, his legal activity was confined to this step. " Solitary, depressed, aimless," so he described himself to his friends during his first weeks in Wetzlar. Disgusted with law, he found refuge in the study of literature. In a long and rhapsodical letter to Herder he depicts the intellectual and spiritual experiences through which he was now passing. The Greeks were his one preoccupation. Homer, Xenophon, Plato, Theocritus, and Anacreon he had read in turn, but it was in Pindar he was now revelling, and from Pindar he was learning the lesson that only in laying firm hold of one's subject is the essence of all mastery. A sentence of Herder to the effect that " thought and feeling create the expression " had rejoiced his heart as expressing his own deepest experience. Herder had said of Glitz that its author had been spoilt by Shakespeare, and he modestly accepted the censure. Gotz, he admits, had been thought, not felt, and he would be depressed by his failure, were he not occasionally conscious that some day he would do better things.'

As in Strassburg, it was at a table d'hote that Goethe made the acquaintance of the youths who, like himself, were idling away their time in Wetzlar. To relieve the tedium of the places they had formed a fantastic society on a feudal model, with a Grand-master, Chancellor, and all the other subordinate officials—the point of the jest being that each associate bore the name and played the part of his office and title. For frolic of all kinds Goethe was ever ready ; his taste for practical joking, indeed, as we shall see, occasionally led him to play questionable pranks. Under the name of Graz von Berlichingen he became a member of the brotherhood, and, according to his own account, he contributed to the gaiety of the proceedings. Among the company, however, there were a few serious persons with tastes kindred to his own, and he specially names F. W. Cotter, Secretary of the Gotha Legation at Wetzlar, as one who, like Salzmann and Schlosser, impressed him by his character and talent. In English literature they had a common interest, and, as a poem which both admired, they each made a translation of Goldsmith's Deserted Village Gotter, according to Goethe, being the more successful in the attempt. Gotter was thus still another of those grave counsellors whom Goethe had the good fortune to discover and attach to himself amid the distracting frivolities of every society he frequented.'

" What happened to me in Wetzlar," Goethe writes in his Autobiography, " is of no great significance." But posterity has thought differently, and, if we are to judge by the consequences of what, happened to him in Wetzlar, both for himself and for the world, posterity is right.2 Be it said also, that contemporary testimony at first hand leaves us in no doubt that, but for his Wetzlar experience, one of the most remarkable phases in Goethe's development would not have found expression, and one resounding note in European literature would have been unheard.

In Leipzig and Strassburg Goethe had found objects to engage his affections, and he was not to be without a similar experience in Wetzlar. During his first weeks there he had seen no maiden to interest him, and the fact may explain his dissatisfaction during that period. After leaving in succession the circles of Sesenheim, Frankfort, and Darmstadt, he tells us, he felt a void in his heart which he could not fill. An accident at length came to fill the void. On June 9th (the date is carefully recorded) he met a girl at a ball in a neighbouring village (Garbenheim), who " made a complete conquest of him. " Her name was Charlotte Buff, the second daughter of an official of the Teutonic Order—a widower with twelve children. Charlotte, or Lotte, as he calls her, was of a different type from any of his previous loves, so that she possessed all the freshness of novelty. Though only nineteen, she had taken upon her the care of the numerous household, and discharged her duties with a motherly tact and good sense which excited general admiration. Over Lotte's personal appearance Goethe is not rapturous as in the case of Friederike ; he simply says that she had a light and graceful figure, and in the same cool tone remarks that she was one of those women who do not inspire ardent passion, but who give general pleasure. So he chose to say in the retrospect, but neither his contemporary words nor actions permit us to believe that his feeling to Lotte was merely a calm regard. In the case of Lotte his situation was materially different from what it had been in the case of Friederike. He had no rival in his relations to Friederike ; in his relations to Lotte he had one. Shortly after their first meeting he learned that Lotte was already betrothed, though the fact was not known to the world. The successful wooer was Johann Christian Kestner, a native of Hanover, and a Secretary of Legation settled in Wetzlar. Kestner was at every point the antithesis of his intruding was calm, deliberate, unimaginative, yet conspicuously a man of insight and character, with a fund of good sense and good temper, on which the situation made a large draft."Kestner must he a very good man, was the frequent remark of Merck's wife in view of the relations of the three parties to each other, and Kestner's own words prove it. It is in his Letters and Diary that we have the closest glimpse of all three, and all that he says of himself, of Lotte, and of Goethe, shows a tact and good feeling that inspire esteem.

After their first meeting at the Sall, according to Goethe's own testimony, he became Lotte's constant attendant. Soon he could not endure her absence." In her home he made himself the idol of the children ; in the beautiful surrounding country they were inseparable companions-- Kestner, when his avocations permitted, occasionally joining them. " So through the splendid summer," he records, " they lived a true German idyll." But the testimony of Kestner shows that the idyll was not without its discords. Goethe, he says, " with all his philosophy and his natural pride, had not such self-control as wholly to restrain his inclination. . . . His peace of mind suffered," and " there were various notable scenes," though Lotte showed herself a model of discretion. The situation was, in fact, an impossible one, and Goethe came to see it. Several times he made the effort to break his bonds and flee, but it was not till the beginning of September that he took the decisive step. Equally from his own and Kestner's account of the circumstances of his flight we receive the impression that his relation to Lotte was such as to make their further intercourse undesirable. The night before he went, according to Kestner, all three were together in Lotte's home, and their conversation, suggested by Lotte, turned upon the dead and the possibility of holding intercourse with them. Whichever of the three should lie first, it was agreed, should, if possible, communicate with the survivors. All through the evening Goethe was in deep dejection, knowing, as he did, that it would be the last they would spend together. The following morning he left Wetzlar without intimating his intention to any of his friends—a proceeding which his grand-aunt, resident in the town, characterised as very ill-bred," declaring that she would let the Frau Goethe know how her son had behaved. In three brief parting notes he addressed to Kestner and Lotte we have the expression of the mental tumult which his passion for Lotte had produced in him. On his return home, after the last evening he spent with them, he wrote as follows to Kestner " He is gone, Kestner ; by the time you receive this note, he is gone. Give Lotte the enclosed note. I was quite calm, but your conversation has torn me to distraction. At this moment I can say nothing more than farewell. Had I remained a moment longer with you, I could not have restrained myself, Now I am alone, and to-morrow I go. Oh, my poor head !" In the lines enclosed for Lotte he has this outburst with reference to the evening's conversation : " When I ventured to say all I felt, it was of the present world I was thinking, of your hand which I kissed for the last time,"

From this record of the Wetzlar episode, directly reproducing the relations of all the persons concerned, it is clear that Lotte was for Goethe more than the pleasant companion he represents her in his Autobiography. If his own words and those of Kestner have any meaning, his feeling towards her amounted to a passion which only the singular self-control of her and Kestner prevented from breaking bounds. Strange as it may appear, neither Lotte nor Kestner regarded one whose presence was a menace to their own peace with other feelings than esteem, and apparently even affection. He parted from Lotte, he says, " with a clearer conscience " than from Friederike, and the statement is at least borne out by what we know of the sequel to the " splendid idyll." As we shall see, he continued to remain on the most cordial terms with the two lovers, and, though with mingled feelings, he gave them his best blessing on the day which saw them united as husband and wife.

In what has been said of Goethe's relations to Lotte Buff it is the emotional side of his nature that has been before us, but from the hand of the judicious Kestner we have a portrait of the whole man which leaves nothing to be desired in its completeness and insight. Kestner's description of his first meeting with his formidable rival reminds us of the " conquering lord " whose self-assurance evoked Herder's stinging criticism. Stretched on his back on the grass under a tree, Goethe was carrying on a conversation with two acquaintances who stood by. Kestner's first decided impression was that the stranger was " no ordinary man," and that he had " genius and a lively imagination." His final and complete impression, after Goethe had left Wetzlar, he thus records :-

" He has very many gifts, is a real genius, and a man of character ; he has an extraordinarily lively imagination, and so, for the most part, expresses himself in pictures and similes. He is himself in the habit of saying that he always expresses himself in general terms, can never express himself with precision ; when he is older, however, he hopes to think and express the thought as it is. He is violent in all his emotions ; yet often exercises great self-command. His manner of thinking is noble ; as free as possible from all prejudices, he acts on the prompting of the moment without troubling whether it may please other people, is in the fashion, or whether convention permits it. All constraint is hateful to him. He is fond of children and can occupy himself much with them. He is bizarre ; in his conduct and manner there are various peculiarities which might make him disagreeable. But with children, with women, and many others he is nevertheless a favourite. For the female sex he has great respect. In principiis he is not yet fixed, and is still only endeavouring after a sure system. To say something on this point ; he thinks highly of Rousseau, but is not a blind worshipper of him. He is not what we call orthodox ; yet this is not from pride or caprice or from a desire to play a part. On certain important matters, also, he expresses himself only to few, and does not willingly disturb others in their ideas. He certainly hates scepticism, and strives after truth and settled conviction on certain subjects of the first importance ; believes even that he has already attained conviction on the most important ; but, so far as I have observed, this is not the case. He does not go to church ; not even to communion, and he prays seldom. For, says he, I am not hypocrite enough for that. At times he seems at rest with regard to certain subjects ; at other times, however, very far from being so. He reverences the Christian religion, but not as our theologians present it. He believes in a future life and a better state of existence. He strives after truth, and yet attaches more importance to feeling than to demonstration as the test of it. He has already accomplished much ; has many acquirements and much reading, but has thought and reasoned still more. He has mainly devoted himself to belles lettres and the fine arts, or rather to all branches of knowledge, only not to the so-called bread-winning ones. I wished to describe him, but to do so I should run to too great length, for he is one of whom there is a great deal to be said. In one word, he is a very remarkable man."

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