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Goethe - After Wetzlar

( Originally Published 1913 )



1772-1773

IN Gotz von Berlichingen Goethe had given expression to the ideals and emotions he had brought with him from Strassburg ; Shakespeare and the memory of Friederike had been the main impulses to its production. As the result of his experience at Wetzlar, he was filled with a new inspiration, which, though it did not immediately find utterance, left him no repose till it was embodied in a work in which the man and the artist in him equally found deliverance. That the conception came to him shortly after his leaving Wetzlar we have conclusive evidence. In the beginning of November, 1772, after his return to Frankfort from Wetzlar, he received the news that a youth named Jerusalem, a casual acquaintance of his own,' had committed suicide as the result of an unhappy love adventure.

Goethe had made Jerusalem's acquaintance in Leipzig, Jerusalem called Goethe a Geck., a coxcomb, a descripLon which, ,ss we have seen, was not inapplicable to him in his Leipzig days. Jerusalem was a friend of Lessing, who highly esteemed him, and after his death published his MSS.

Instantly, Goethe tells us in his Autobiography, the plan of Werther shaped itself in his mind ; and his contemporary letters bear out the statement. Immediately on receiving the news of Jerusalem's death, he wrote to Kestner for a detailed account of all the circumstances, and he made a careful copy of the information with which Kestner supplied him. In point of fact, it was not till after more than a year that Werther came to fruition, but that he was in labour with the portentous birth all its lineaments were to show.

But before Werther came to birth, Goethe went through another experience which was to form an essential part of its tissue. Merck, to whom Goethe attributes the chief influence over him during this Frankfort period, was again the intermediary. Before Goethe left Wetzlar, Merck had arranged that they should meet at Ehrenbreitstein, where he would introduce Goethe to a family resident there. The family was that of Herr von la Roche, a Privy Councillor in the service of the Elector of Trier, and it consisted of himself, his wife and two daughters. The head of the house, a matter-of-fact man of the world, plays no part in Goethe's relations to the family. It was Frau von la Roche to whom, as a desirable acquaintance, Merck specially wished to introduce his friend, and the sequel proved that he had rightly divined their mutual affinities. The cousin of Wieland, with whom she had had a liaison before her marriage, she was now past forty, but, according to Goethe's description of her, she possessed all the charm of youth with the dignity and repose of maturity. What is evident is, that Goethe saw in her the type of a high-bred woman such as had not yet crossed his path. In his reminiscence of her, his words have a warmth which is in notable contrast to the coldness of his portrait of Lotte Buff. " She was a most wonderful woman," he writes "I knew no other to compare with her. Slight and delicately formed, rather tall than short, she had contrived even in advanced years to retain a certain elegance both of form and bearing which pleasingly combined the manner of a Court lady with that of a dignified burgess's wife." In addition to these graces, Frau von la Roche had precisely the temperament and the mental qualities that appealed to Goethe in the emotional phase through which he was now passing. She lived in the same world of sentiment as the ladies of the Darmstadt circle, and she had the gift of effusive utterance, as she had shown in a novel in the manner of Richardson which had brought her some celebrity.

With Frau von la Roche Goethe established a Platonic relation which he assiduously cultivated during the remainder of his residence in Frankfort, but there was another member of the household to whom he was attracted by a livelier feeling. This was the elder of the two daughters, Maximiliane by name, a girl of seventeen, whose charms were subsequently to be given to the lady of Werther's infatuation. From what we have seen of Goethe's inflammability, we are prepared for the naïve remark in which he records his new sensation. " It is a very pleasant sensation," he says, " when a new passion begins to stir in us before the old one is quite extinct. So, as the sun sets, we gladly behold the moon rise on the opposite horizon, and rejoice in the double splendour of the two heavenly lights." Be it said that the atmosphere of the household was provocative of relaxed feelings. Goethe was not the only guest. Besides Merck there was a youth named Leuchsenring whose special line of activity had endeared him to a wide circle. Leuchsenring made it his business to enter into correspondence with susceptible souls whose effusions he carried about with him in dispatch-boxes and was in the habit of reading aloud to sympathetic listeners. The reading of these precious documents was part of the entertainment of the circle in which Goethe now found himself, and he assures us that he enjoyed it. We see, therefore, the world in which he was now moving—a world in which those who belonged to it made it their first concern to titillate their sensibilities, and squandered their emotions with a profusion and abandonment in which self-respecting reserve was forgotten. It was a world wide as the poles apart from that of Sesenheim, where human relations were founded on natural feeling and only the language of the heart was spoken. Once again Goethe had taken on the hue of his surroundings. In Leipzig he had been what we have seen him ; now under the influence of Darmstadt he appears in still another phase-4o be by no means the last.

From Goethe's connection with the family of von la Roche was to come the occasion which immediately prompted the production of Werther, but more than a year was to elapse before the occasion came, and in the interval his own mental experiences were to supply him with further materials which were to find expression in that work. In his correspondence of the period we have the fullest revelation of these experiences, and they leave us with the impression that he spoke only the literal truth when he tells us in his Autobiography that, on being delivered of Werther, he felt as if he had made a general confession. The same period, moreover, is signalised by a succession of minor productions which, though they did not attain to the celebrity of Gotz and Werther, exhibit a range of intellectual interests and a play of varied moods which materially enhance our conceptions of his genius.

The circumstances in which Goethe had left Friederike had precluded subsequent communications with her and her family ; in the case of the Wetzlar circle there was no such impediment to future epistolary intercourse. He had left Lotte Buff, as he tells us, with a clearer conscience than he had left Friederike, and on the part of Lotte and Kestner there was apparently no feeling that prompted a breach of their relations with him. For more than a year he kept up assiduous communications with Wetzlar ; then his letters became less frequent and finally ceased when changes in the circumstances of both parties effaced their mutual interests. While the correspondence was in full flood, however, Goethe's letters leave us in no doubt as to the real nature of his passion for Lotte ; if words mean anything, his memories of her were a cause of mental unrest to which other distractions of the time gave a morbid direction, and which threatened to end in moral collapse.

A few extracts from his letters to Wetzlar will reveal his state of mind during the months that immediately followed his return to Frankfort. Within a week after his return we have these hurried lines addressed to Kestner : " God bless you, dear Kestner, and tell Lotte that I sometimes imagine I could forget her ; but then comes the recitative, and I am worse than ever." In the same month (September) he again addresses Kestner " I would not desire to have spent my days better than I did at Wetzlar, but God send me no more such days ! . . . This have just said to Lotte's silhouette." In the beginning of November he paid a flying visit to Wetzlar, and apparently had reason to regret it. " Certainly, Kestner," he wrote the day after he left, " it was time that I should go ; yesterday evening, as I sat on the sofa, I had thoughts for which I deserve hanging." On Christmas Day he writes still at the same high pitch " It is still night, dear Kestner, and I have risen to write again by the morning light, which recalls pleasant memories of past days. a . . Immediately on my arrival here I had pinned up Lotte's silhouette ; while I was in Darmstadt, they placed my bed here, and there to my great joy hangs Lotte's picture at its head." In April, 1773, Kestner and Lotte were married, and Goethe insisted, against Kestner's wish, on sending the bride her marriage-ring, which was accompanied by the following note : " May the remembrance of me as of this ring be ever with you in your happiness. Dear Lotte, after a long interval we shall see each other again, you with the ring on your finger, and me always yours. I affix no name nor surname. You know well who writes." A few days later we have the following words in a letter to Kestner : " To part from Lotte, I do not yet understand how it was possible. . . . It cost me little, and yet I don't understand how it was possible. There is the rub." In the course of the summer Kestner removed to Hanover, where be had received an official appointment, and took his wife with him. The correspondence then became less frequent, though on both sides it was maintained in the same friendly spirit. Only for a time, on the publication of Werther, as we shall see, was there the shadow of possible estrangement.

Alienated lovers," is Goethe's remark, already quoted, " become the best friends, if only they can be properly managed " ; and Goethe showed himself an adept in this art of management.

While Goethe was pouring forth his confessions to Kestner and Lotte, his circumstances at home were not such as to conduce to calm of mind. Frankfort remained as distasteful to him as ever. " The Frankfurters," he wrote to Kestner, " are an accursed folk; they are so pig-headed that nothing can be made of them." With his father his relations had not become more cordial after his return from Wetzlar. " Lieber Gott," he wrote on receiving a letter from his father, " shall I then also become like this when I am old? Shall my soul no longer attach itself to what is good and amiable ? Strange the belief that the older a man becomes, the freer he becomes from what is worldly and petty. He becomes increasingly more worldly and petty."' His father's insistence on his attention to legal business was a permanent cause of mutual misunderstanding. " let my father do as he pleases ; he daily seeks to enmesh me more and more in the affairs of the town, and I submit."

In his sister Cornelia, as formerly, he had a sympathetic confidant equally in his affairs of the heart and in his literary and artistic ambitions, but in the course of the year 1773 he was deprived of her soothing and stimulating influence. In October she was betrothed to J. G. Schlosser, who has already been noted as one of Goethe's sager counsellors, and the marriage took place on November 1st. " I rejoice in their joy," he wrote to Sophie von la Roche, " though, at the same time, it is mostly to my own loss." Other friends, also, in the course of the same year, he complains, were departing and leaving him in dreary solitude. " My poor existence," he writes to Kestner, " is becoming petrified. This summer everyone is going—Merck with the Court to Berlin, his wife to Switzerland, my sister, and Fraulein Flachsland, you, everybody. And I am alone. If I do not take a wife or hang myself, say that life is right dear to me, or something, if you like, which does me more honour."1 So in May he describes himself as alone and daily becoming more so ; in October as " entirely alone," and as indescribably rejoiced at the return of Merck towards the close of the year.

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