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The Sorrows of Werter

By Johann Wolfgang Goethe



June 16.

WHY don't I write to you? -- Do you pretend to penetration, and ask such a question? You should have guessed that I was well, but that -- in a word, I had found a person that is still nearer to my heart -- that I had found -- I know not what I have found.

Regularly to give you an account how I learnt to distinguish the most amiable of women, would be difficult. I am contented, happy; and consequently a bad historian.

I must not call her an angel; that, you will tell me, every body says of the woman he loves: and yet I cannot describe to you how perfect she is, nor why she is so perfect; she has captivated all my senses.

So much simplicity, with such an understanding; so mild, and yet so animat- {25} ed; a mind so placid, and a life so active. But all these are only the common-place phrases of abstract ideas, and don't express a single character of feature. Some other time -- but it must be now or never. For, between ourselves, I have, since I began my letter been several times going to throw down my pen and fly to her. I made a vow not to go thither this morning; and I run every moment to the window to see if the sun is still high.

I was not able to hold out; I went there: I am now returned; and whilst I am eating my bread and butter, will write to you, my dear friend. Nothing can be more touching than to see her in the midst of her little family. But if I go on in this manner, you will know no more at the end of my letter, than you do at the beginning. Be all attention then: for I shall endeavour to give some method and order to my relation, and enter into a great many details.

I wrote you word some time ago, that {26} I had made an acquaintance with Mr. J. the prince's steward; and that he had invited me to go and see him in his retirement, or rather in his little kingdom. I neglected going, however: and perhaps should never have gone, if chance had not discovered to me the hidden treasure which it contained.

Some of our young men proposed a little dance in the country, in which I very readily joined. I chose a good pretty girl for my partner, and rather agreeable too, but nothing very striking; and it was agreed that I should take a coach, and with my partner and her aunt, should call upon Charlotte, and carry her to the ball. "You will see a very charming girl," said the young lady, when we came into the avenue which leads to the hunting-lodge. "And take care you don't fall in love with her," added her aunt. "Why?" said I. "Because she is already engaged to a very worthy man," she replied, "who is now gone to settle his af- {27} fairs upon the death of his father, and solicit a very lucrative employment." This intelligence appeared a matter of great indifference to me. When we arrived at the gate, the sun was sunk near the tops of the mountains, the air was heavy, and low black clouds seemed to be gathering in the horizon. The women began to be apprehensive, and I foresaw myself a great probability of our party being interrupted; but in order to give them comfort, I put on a very sagacious look, and assured them the weather would be fine.

I got out of the coach. A maid came down, and desired us to wait one minute for her mistress. I crossed the court, went up stairs, and as I entered the apartment I saw six children, the eldest of which was but eleven years old, all jumping round a young woman, very elegantly shaped, and dressed in a plain white gown with pink ribands. She had a brown loaf in her hand, and was cutting slices of bread and butter, which she distributed in a grace- {28} ful and affectionate manner to the children, according to their age and appetite. Each held up its little hands all the time the slice was cutting, thanked Charlotte when he received it, and then ran to the door to see the company, and look at the coach which was come to fetch her. "I beg pardon," she said, "for having given you the trouble to come up, and am sorry to make the ladies wait; but dressing, and some family business, made me forget to give my children their little meal, and they don't like to receive it from any body else." I muttered something, I don't know what -- my whole soul was taken up with her air, her voice, her manner; and before I could recover myself, she ran into her room for her gloves and fan. Whilst she was gone the little ones eyed me askance. I went up to the youngest, who has a most pleasing countenance: he drew back, and Charlotte, just then coming in, said, "Lewis, shake hands with your cousin." The little fellow held out his hand {29} very readily, and I gave him a kiss. "My cousin," said I to the amiable Charlotte, as I handed her down, "do you think I deserve the happiness of being related to you?" She archly replied, "Oh! I have such a number of cousins, I should be sorry you were the most undeserving of the whole set." When Charlotte took leave of them, she desired Sophy, who was the eldest of those left at home, to take great care of the children, and to go to her papa when he returned from walking. She told the little ones to mind their sister Sophy as much as if it was herself; and some promised faithfully that they would: but a little fair girl, of six years old, looked rather discontented, and said, "but she an't Charlotte though for all that, and, Charlotte, we love you best." During this time the two eldest boys had got up behind the coach, and at my request she gave them leave to go to the end of the wood, upon condition that they would sit very still, and hold fast.

{30} We had but just seated ourselves in the carriage, talked about the new fashions and the little hats, and the company we were to meet at the ball, when Charlotte stopped the coach, and made her brothers get down. They would kiss her hand before they went: the eldest shewed all the tender affection of a boy of fifteen, and the youngest a great deal of warmth and affection. She desired them again to give her love to the children ; and we drove on.

The old lady asked her if she had read the book she had lent to her. "I cannot say I have." said Charlotte, "and I will return it to you. I confess I was not pleased with that, any more than with the first which you sent me." Imagine my surprize, when, having asked the title, she told me it was -----. Penetration and judgment appeared in everything she said; each expression seemed to light up her features with new charms and new rays of genius, which {31} were unfolded by degrees as she found herself understood.

"When I was very young," she added, "I loved romances better than any thing in the world. Nothing could equal my delight, when I got into a corner on a holiday, and entered with my whole heart and soul into all the joy and sorrow of a Miss Jenny. I confess that sort of reading has still some charms for me; but as I don't read much, the books I do read should be suited to my taste. I prefer the authors who don't carry me to scenes too far removed from my own situation in life, but where I may suppose myself and those that are about me; and whole stories are interesting, touching, like the life I lead in the bosom of my family; which, without being absolutely paradise, is a continual source of satisfaction and delight." I endeavoured to conceal the emotion which these last words occasioned; and it did not last long; for, after she had given her opinion of the Vicar of Wake- {32} field, &c. &c. with equal justness and discernment, I could hold no longer; and I began with great eagerness to tell her what were my own thoughts on the subjects. After some time, when Charlotte at length addressed herself to the other two ladies, I just perceived that they were still in the coach. The old lady looked at me several times with an air of raillery, which however I did not at all mind.

We then talked of dancing. "If it is a fault to love dancing," said she, "I will freely own that I am extremely guilty; no amusement is more agreeable to me. If any thing disturbs me I go to my harpsichord, play some of the lively airs I have danced to and all is forgotten." You know me, and will figure to yourself my countenance whilst she was speaking -- My looks steadfastly fixed upon her fine black eyes; my very soul attached to her's and seizing her ideas so strongly, that I hardly heard the words which expressed them. At length I got out of the {33} coach like one that dreams; and I found myself in the assembly-room, without knowing how I came there.

They began with minuets. I took out one lady after another, and exactly those who were most disagreeable could not bring themselves to leave off. Charlotte and her partner began an English country dance. Imagine my delight when they came to do the figure with us. You should see Charlotte: she seems to dance with all her heart and soul, and as if she was born for nothing else; her figure is all elegance, lightness, and grace. I asked her to dance the second country dance with me; she was engaged, but promised herself to me for the third; telling me at the same time, with the most agreeable freedom, that she was very fond of allemandes. "It is the custom here," said she, "for every couple to dance the allemandes together; but my partner will be delighted if I save him the trouble, for he does the walse very ill; I observe the lady {34} you dance with is in the same situation. I am sure by your English country dances, that you must do the walse very well yourself; so that, if it is agreeable to you to dance the allemandes with me, do you propose it to my partner; I will propose it to your's." We went to settle this affair; and it was agreed that during the allemandes, Charlotte's partner should attend upon mine.

We began; and at first amused ourselves with making every possible turn with our arms. How graceful and animated all her motions! When the walse commenced, all the couples, which were whirling round, at first jostled against each other. We very judiciously kept aloof till the awkward and clumsy had withdrawn; when we joined in there were but two couples left. I never in my life was so active; I was more than mortal. To hold in my arms the most lovely of women, to fly with her like the wind, and lose sight of every other object! -- But I {35} own to you, I then determined, that the woman I loved, and to whom I had pretensions, should never do the walse with any other man. -- You will understand this.

We took a few turns in the room to recover our breath; and then Charlotte sat down, and I brought her a few slices of lemon, all indeed that were left, which I stole from those who were making the negus: she eat some with sugar, and seemed to be refreshed by them; but I was obliged in politeness to offer them to the lady who sat next to Charlotte, and she very injudiciously took some.

We were the second couple in the third country dance. As we were going down (and heaven knows with what extacy I looked at her arms, and her eyes which bore the impression of a natural and lively pleasure) a lady of a certain age, whose agreeable countenance had struck me at first sight, looked at Charlotte, and smiled; then held up her finger in a threatening at- {36} titude, and in a very significant tone of voice said, "Albert! Albert!"

"Who is this Albert," said I to Charlotte, "if it is not impertinent?" She was going to answer, when we were obliged to separate for hands six round at bottom; and in crossing over I thought I perceived that she looked pensive. "Why should I conceal it from you?" said she, when she gave me her hand to lead out of sides; "Albert is a worthy man to whom I am engaged." I had been told this before by the ladies in the coach, but I had not then seen Charlotte; I did not know her value. I seemed to hear it for the first time. I was distressed, confused, wrong in the figure, and put every body out; and Charlotte, by pushing one and pulling another, with great difficulty set us right again.

Whilst we were dancing, the lightning, which had for some time been seen in the horizon, and which I had declared to be only summer lightning, and proceeding {37} entirely from heat, became much more violent, and the thunder was heard thro' all the noise of the fiddles. Three ladies run out of the set; their partners followed; the confusion became general, and the music stopped. When any distress or terror comes upon us in a scene of amusement, it has a stronger effect on our minds, either because the contrast makes us feel it more keenly; or rather, perhaps, because our senses being open to impressions of all kinds, the shock is more forcibly and quickly perceived. This circumstance may account in some measure for the extraordinary contortions and shrieks of the ladies. One of the most courageous sat down with her back to the window and stopped her ears; another knelt down before her, and hid her face in her lap; a third shoved herself between them, and embraced her little sister, shedding at the same time a torrent of tears: some insisted upon going home; others, still more distressed, did not attend to their indis- {38} creet partners, who were stealing from their lips those sighs that were addressed to heaven. Some of the gentlemen went down stairs to drink a bottle quietly; and the rest of the company very willingly followed the mistress of the house, who had the good sense to conduct us to a room darkened by close window-shutters. As soon as we came into it, Charlotte drew the chairs round, made us sit down in a ring, and was eager to begin some little play.

More than one of our belles drew up and looked prim, in hopes of some agreeable consequences from the forfeits. "Let us play at counting," said Charlotte. "Observe, I am to go from right to left; you are to count one after the other as you sit, and count fast: whoever stops or mistakes is to have a box on the ear, and so on till we have counted to a thousand." It was pleasant to see her go round with her hand up. "One," says the first, "two," the second, "three," the third, {39} and so on, till Charlotte went faster and faster. One then mistook; instantly a box on the ear; the next laughed instead of saying the following number -- another box on the ear; and still faster and faster. I had two for my share; I fancied they were harder than the rest, and was much delighted. A general confusion and laughter put an end to the play, long before we got to a thousand. The storm ceased; the company formed into little parties; Charlotte returned to the assembly-room, and I followed her. As we were going, she said, "The blows I inflicted made them forget their apprehensions; I myself was as afraid as anybody, but by affecting courage to keep up the spirits of the company, I really lost my fears." We went to the window, and still heard the thunder at a distance; a soft rain watered the fields, and filled the air with the most delightful and refreshing smells. Leaning upon her arm, Charlotte fixed her eyes on the country before us, then raised them {40} to heaven, and then turned them upon me; they were wet: she put her hand upon mine, and said, "Klopstock*!" I was oppressed with the sensations I then felt; I sunk under the weight of them; I bent down upon her hand, and wetted it with my tears; as I raised myself, I looked stedfastly in her face. Divine Klopstock! why didst thou not see thy apotheosis in those eyes? And thy name, so often profaned, why is it ever pronounced by any voice but Charlotte's?

* A celebrated German poet, author of the Messiah.