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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
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Published by Urban Romantics
First published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Urban Romantics
All Rights Reserved.
Whether it be that the quantity of genius among ourselves and the French, and the number of works more lasting than brass produced by it, have of late been so considerable as to make us independent of additional supplies; or that, in our ancient aristocracy of intellect, we disdain to be assisted by the Germans, whom, by a species of second sight, we have discovered, before knowing any thing about them, to be a tumid, dreaming, extravagant, insane race of mortals,—certain it is, that hitherto our literary intercourse with that nation has been very slight and precarious. After a brief period of not too judicious cordiality, the acquaintance on our part was altogether dropped: nor, in the few years since we partially resumed it, have our feelings of affection or esteem been materially increased. Our translators are unfortunate in their selection or execution, or the public is tasteless and absurd in its demands; for, with scarcely more than one or two exceptions, the best works of Germany have lain neglected, or worse than neglected: and the Germans are yet utterly unknown to us. Kotzebue still lives in our minds as the representative of a nation that despises him; Schiller is chiefly known to us by the monstrous production of his boyhood; and Klopstock by a hacked and mangled image of his “Messiah,” in which a beautiful poem is distorted into a theosophic rhapsody, and the brother of Virgil and Racine ranks little higher than the author of “Meditations among the Tombs.”
But of all these people there is none that has been more unjustly dealt with than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. For half a century the admiration—we might almost say the idol—of his countrymen, to us he is still a stranger. His name, long echoed and re-echoed through reviews and magazines, has become familiar to our ears; but it is a sound and nothing more: it excites no definite idea in almost any mind. To such as know him by the faint and garbled version of his “Werther,” Goethe figures as a sort of poetic Heraclitus; some woe-begone hypochondriac, whose eyes are overflowing with perpetual tears, whose long life has been spent in melting into ecstasy at the sight of waterfalls and clouds, and the moral sublime, or dissolving into hysterical wailings over hapless love-stories, and the miseries of human life. They are not aware that Goethe smiles at this performance of his youth, or that the German Werther, with all his faults, is a very different person from his English namesake; that his Sorrows are in the original recorded in a tone of strength and sarcastic emphasis, of which the other offers no vestige, and intermingled with touches of powerful thought, glimpses of a philosophy deep as it is bitter, which our sagacious translator has seen proper wholly to omit. Others, again, who have fallen in with Retsch’s “Outlines” and the extracts from “Faust,” consider Goethe as a wild mystic, a dealer in demonology and osteology, who draws attention by the aid of skeletons and evil spirits, whose excellence it is to be extravagant, whose chief aim it is to do what no one but himself has tried. The tyro in German may tell us that the charm of “Faust” is altogether unconnected with its preternatural import; that the work delineates the fate of human enthusiasm struggling against doubts and errors from within, against scepticism, contempt, and selfishness from without; and that the witch-craft and magic, intended merely as a shadowy frame for so complex and mysterious a picture of the moral world and the human soul, are introduced for the purpose, not so much of being trembled at as laughed at. The voice of the tyro is not listened to; our indolence takes part with our ignorance; “Faust” continues to be called a monster; and Goethe is regarded as a man of “some genius,” which he has perverted to produce all manner of misfashioned prodigies,—things false, abortive, formless, Gorgons and hydras, and chimeras dire.
Now, it must no doubt be granted, that, so long as our invaluable constitution is preserved in its pristine purity, the British nation may exist in a state of comparative prosperity with very inadequate ideas of Goethe; but, at the same time, the present arrangement is an evil in its kind,—slight, it is true, and easy to be borne, yet still more easy to be remedied, and which, therefore, ought to have been remedied ere now. Minds like Goethe’s are the common property of all nations; and, for many reasons, all should have correct impressions of them.
It is partly with the view of doing something to supply this want, that “Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre” is now presented to the English public. Written in its author’s forty-fifth year, embracing hints or disquisitions on almost every leading point in life and literature, it affords us a more distinct view of his matured genius, his manner of thought, and favorite subjects, than any of his other works. Nor is it Goethe alone whom it portrays: the prevailing taste of Germany is likewise indicated by it. Since the year 1795, when it first appeared at Berlin, numerous editions of “Meister” have been printed: critics of all ranks, and some of them dissenting widely from its doctrines, have loaded it with encomiums; its songs and poems are familiar to every German ear; the people read it, and speak of it, with an admiration approaching in many cases to enthusiasm.
That it will be equally successful in England, I am far indeed from anticipating. Apart from the above considerations,—from the curiosity, intelligent or idle, which it may awaken,—the number of admiring, or even approving, judges it will find can scarcely fail of being very limited. To the great mass of readers, who read to drive away the tedium of mental vacancy, employing the crude phantasmagoria of a modern novel, as their grandfathers employed tobacco and diluted brandy, “Wilhelm Meister” will appear beyond endurance weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable. Those, in particular, who take delight in “King Cambyses’ vein,” and open “Meister” with the thought of “Werther” in their minds, will soon pause in utter dismay; and their paroxysm of dismay will pass by degrees into unspeakable contempt. Of romance interest there is next to none in “Meister;” the characters are samples to judge of, rather than persons to love or hate; the incidents are contrived for other objects than moving or affrighting us; the hero is a milksop, whom, with all his gifts, it takes an effort to avoid despising. The author himself, far from “doing it in a passion,” wears a face of the most still indifference throughout the whole affair; often it is even wrinkled by a slight sardonic grin. For the friends of the sublime, then,—for those who cannot do without heroical sentiments, and “moving accidents by flood and field,”—there is nothing here that can be of any service.
Nor among readers of a far higher character, can it be expected that many will take the praiseworthy pains of Germans, reverential of their favorite author, and anxious to hunt out his most elusive charms. Few among us will disturb themselves about the allegories and typical allusions of the work; will stop to inquire whether it includes a remote emblem of human culture, or includes no such matter; whether this is a light, airy sketch of the development of man in all his endowments and faculties, gradually proceeding from the first rude exhibitions of puppets and mountebanks, through the perfection of poetic and dramatic art, up to the unfolding of the principle of religion, and the greatest of all arts,—the art of life,—or is nothing more than a bungled piece of patchwork, presenting in the shape of a novel much that should have been suppressed entirely, or at least given out by way of lecture. Whether the characters do or do not represent distinct classes of men, including various stages of human nature, from the gay, material vivacity of Philina to the severe moral grandeur of the uncle and the splendid accomplishment of Lothario, will to most of us be of small importance; and the everlasting disquisitions about plays and players, and politeness and activity, and art and nature, will weary many a mind that knows not and heeds not whether they are true or false. Yet every man’s judgment is, in this free country, a lamp to himself: whoever is displeased will censure; and many, it is to be feared, will insist on judging “Meister” by the common rule, and, what is worse, condemning it, let Schlegel bawl as loudly as he pleases. “To judge,” says he, “of this book,—new and peculiar as it is, and only to be understood and learned from itself, by our common notion of the novel, a notion pieced together and produced out of custom and belief, out of accidental and arbitrary requisitions,—is as if a child should grasp at the moon and stars, and insist on packing them into its toy-box.” Unhappily the most of us have boxes, and some of them are very small.
Yet, independently of these its more recondite and dubious qualities, there are beauties in “Meister” which cannot but secure it some degree of favor at the hands of many. The philosophical discussions it contains; its keen glances into life and art; the minute and skilful delineation of men; the lively, genuine exhibition of the scenes they move in; the occasional touches of eloquence and tenderness, and even of poetry, the very essence of poetry; the quantity of thought and knowledge embodied in a style so rich in general felicities, of which, at least, the new and sometimes exquisitely happy metaphors have been preserved,—cannot wholly escape an observing reader, even on the most cursory perusal. To those who have formed for themselves a picture of the world, who have drawn out, from the thousand variable circumstances of their being, a philosophy of life, it will be interesting and instructive to see how man and his concerns are represented in the first of European minds: to those who have penetrated to the limits of their own conceptions, and wrestled with thoughts and feelings too high for them, it will be pleasing and profitable to see the horizon of their certainties widened, or at least separated with a firmer line from the impalpable obscure which surrounds it on every side. Such persons I can fearlessly invite to study “Meister.” Across the disfigurement of a translation, they will not fail to discern indubitable traces of the greatest genius in our times. And the longer they study, they are likely to discern them the more distinctly. New charms will successively arise to view; and of the many apparent blemishes, while a few superficial ones may be confirmed, the greater and more important part will vanish, or even change from dark to bright. For, if I mistake not, it is with “Meister” as with every work of real and abiding excellence,—the first glance is the least favorable. A picture of Raphael, a Greek statue, a play of Sophocles or Shakspeare, appears insignificant to the unpractised eye; and not till after long and patient and intense examination, do we begin to descry the earnest features of that beauty, which has its foundation in the deepest nature of man, and will continue to be pleasing through all ages.
If this appear excessive praise, as applied in any sense to “Meister,” the curious sceptic is desired to read and weigh the whole performance, with all its references, relations, purposes, and to pronounce his verdict after he has clearly seized and appreciated them all. Or, if a more faint conviction will suffice, let him turn to the picture of Wilhelm’s states of mind in the end of the first book, and the beginning of the second; the eulogies of commerce and poesy, which follow; the description of Hamlet; the character of histrionic life in Serlo and Aurelia; that of sedate and lofty manhood in the uncle and Lothario. But, above all, let him turn to the history of Mignon. This mysterious child, at first neglected by the reader, gradually forced on his attention, at length overpowers him with an emotion more deep and thrilling than any poet since the days of Shakspeare has succeeded in producing. The daughter of enthusiasm, rapture, passion, and despair, she is of the earth, but not earthly. When she glides before us through the light mazes of her fairy dance, or twangs her cithern to the notes of her homesick verses, or whirls her tambourine and hurries round us like an antique Mænad, we could almost fancy her a spirit; so pure is she, so full of fervor, so disengaged from the clay of this world. And when all the fearful particulars of her story are at length laid together, and we behold in connected order the image of her hapless existence, there is, in those dim recollections,—those feelings so simple, so impassioned and unspeakable, consuming the closely shrouded, woe-struck, yet ethereal spirit of the poor creature,—something which searches into the inmost recesses of the soul. It is not tears which her fate calls forth, but a feeling far too deep for tears. The very fire of heaven seems miserably quenched among the obstructions of this earth. Her little heart, so noble and so helpless, perishes before the smallest of its many beauties is unfolded; and all its loves and thoughts and longings do but add another pang to death, and sink to silence utter and eternal. It is as if the gloomy porch of Dis, and his pale kingdoms, were realized and set before us, and we heard the ineffectual wail of infants reverberating from within their prison-walls forever.
“Continuò auditæ voces, vagitus et ingens,
Infantumque animæ flentes in limine primo:
Quos dulcis vitæ exsortes, et ab ubere raptos,
Abstulit atra dies, et funere mersit acerbo.”
The history of Mignon runs like a thread of gold through the tissue of the narrative, connecting with the heart much that were else addressed only to the head. Philosophy and eloquence might have done the rest, but this is poetry in the highest meaning of the word. It must be for the power of producing such creations and emotions, that Goethe is by many of his countrymen ranked at the side of Homer and Shakspeare, as one of the only three men of genius, that have ever lived.
But my business here is not to judge of “Meister” or its author, it is only to prepare others for judging it; and for this purpose the most that I had room to say is said. All I ask in the name of this illustrious foreigner is, that the court which tries him be pure, and the jury instructed in the cause; that the work be not condemned for wanting what it was not meant to have, and by persons nowise called to pass sentence on it.
Respecting my own humble share in the adventure, it is scarcely necessary to say any thing. Fidelity is all the merit I have aimed at: to convey the author’s sentiments, as he himself expressed them; to follow the original, in all the variations of its style,—has been my constant endeavor. In many points, both literary and moral, I could have wished devoutly that he had not written as he has done; but to alter any thing was not in my commission. The literary and moral persuasions of a man like Goethe are objects of a rational curiosity, and the duty of a translator is simple and distinct. Accordingly, except a few phrases and sentences, not in all amounting to a page, which I have dropped as evidently unfit for the English taste, I have studied to present the work exactly as it stands in German. That my success has been indifferent, I already know too well. In rendering the ideas of Goethe, often so subtle, so capriciously expressive, the meaning was not always easy to seize, or to convey with adequate effect. There were thin tints of style, shades of ridicule or tenderness or solemnity, resting over large spaces, and so slight as almost to be evanescent: some of these I may have failed to see; to many of them I could do no justice. Nor, even in plainer matters, can I pride myself in having always imitated his colloquial familiarity without falling into sentences bald and rugged, into idioms harsh or foreign; or in having copied the flowing oratory of other passages, without at times exaggerating or defacing the swelling cadences and phrases of my original. But what work, from the translating of a German novel to the writing of an epic, was ever as the workman wished and meant it? This version of “Meister,” with whatever faults it may have, I honestly present to my countrymen: if, while it makes any portion of them more familiar with the richest, most gifted of living minds, it increase their knowledge, or even afford them a transient amusement, they will excuse its errors, and I shall be far more than paid for all my labor.
The play was late in breaking up: old Barbara went more than once to the window, and listened for the sound of carriages. She was waiting for Mariana, her pretty mistress, who had that night, in the afterpiece, been acting the part of a young officer, to the no small delight of the public. Barbara’s impatience was greater than it used to be, when she had nothing but a frugal supper to present: on this occasion Mariana was to be surprised with a packet, which Norberg, a young and wealthy merchant, had sent by the post, to show that in absence he still thought of his love.
As an old servant, as confidant, counsellor, manager, and housekeeper, Barbara assumed the privilege of opening seals; and this evening she had the less been able to restrain her curiosity, as the favor of the open-handed gallant was more a matter of anxiety with herself than with her mistress. On breaking up the packet, she had found, with unfeigned satisfaction, that it held a piece of fine muslin and some ribbons of the newest fashion, for Mariana; with a quantity of calico, two or three neckerchiefs, and a moderate rouleau of money, for herself. Her esteem for the absent Norberg was of course unbounded: she meditated only how she might best present him to the mind of Mariana, best bring to her recollection what she owed him, and what he had a right to expect from her fidelity and thankfulness.
The muslin, with the ribbons half unrolled, to set it off by their colors, lay like a Christmas present on the small table; the position of the lights increased the glitter of the gilt; all was in order, when the old woman heard Mariana’s step on the stairs, and hastened to meet her. But what was her disappointment, when the little female officer, without deigning to regard her caresses, rushed past her with unusual speed and agitation, threw her hat and sword upon the table, and walked hastily up and down, bestowing not a look on the lights, or any portion of the apparatus.
“What ails thee, my darling?” exclaimed the astonished Barbara. “For Heaven’s sake, what is the matter? Look here, my pretty child! See what a present! And who could have sent it but thy kindest of friends? Norberg has given thee the muslin to make a night-gown of; he will soon be here himself; he seems to be fonder and more generous than ever.”
Barbara went to the table, that she might exhibit the memorials with which Norberg had likewise honored her, when Mariana, turning away from the presents, exclaimed with vehemence, “Off! off! Not a word of all this to-night. I have yielded to thee; thou hast willed it; be it so! When Norberg comes, I am his, am thine, am any one’s; make of me what thou pleasest; but till then I will be my own; and, if thou hadst a thousand tongues, thou shouldst never talk me from my purpose. All, all that is my own will I give up to him who loves me, whom I love. No sour faces! I will abandon myself to this affection, as if it were to last forever.”
The old damsel had abundance of objections and serious considerations to allege: in the progress of the dialogue, she was growing bitter and keen, when Mariana sprang at her, and seized her by the breast. The old damsel laughed aloud. “I must have a care,” she cried, “that you don’t get into pantaloons again, if I mean to be sure of my life. Come, doff you! The girl will beg my pardon for the foolish things the boy is doing to me. Off with the frock. Off with them all. The dress beseems you not; it is dangerous for you, I observe; the epaulets make you too bold.”
Thus speaking, she laid hands upon her mistress: Mariana pushed her off, exclaiming, “Not so fast! I expect a visit to-night.”
“Visit!” rejoined Barbara: “you surely do not look for Meister, the young, soft-hearted, callow merchant’s son?”
“Just for him,” replied Mariana.
“Generosity appears to be growing your ruling passion,” said the old woman with a grin: “you connect yourself with minors and moneyless people, as if they were the chosen of the earth. Doubtless it is charming to be worshipped as a benefactress.”
“Jeer as thou pleasest. I love him! I love him! With what rapture do I now, for the first time, speak the word! This is the passion I have mimicked so often, when I knew not what it meant. Yes! I will throw myself about his neck: I will clasp him as if I could hold him forever. I will show him all my love, will enjoy all his in its whole extent.”
“Moderate yourself,” said the old dame coolly, “moderate yourself. A single word will interrupt your rapture: Norberg is coming! Coming in a fortnight! Here is the letter that arrived with the packet.”
“And, though the morrow were to rob me of my friend, I would conceal it from myself and him. A fortnight! An age! Within a fortnight, what may not happen, what may not alter?”
Here Wilhelm entered. We need not say how fast she flew to meet him, with what rapture he clasped the red uniform, and pressed the beautiful wearer of it to his bosom. It is not for us to describe the blessedness of two lovers. Old Barbara went grumbling away: we shall retire with her, and leave the happy two alone.
When Wilhelm saluted his mother next morning, she informed him that his father was very greatly discontented with him, and meant to forbid him these daily visits to the playhouse. “Though I myself often go with pleasure to the theatre,” she continued, “I could almost detest it entirely, when I think that our fireside-peace is broken by your excessive passion for that amusement. Your father is ever repeating, ‘What is the use of it? How can any one waste his time so?’”
“He has told me this already,” said Wilhelm, “and perhaps I answered him too hastily; but, for Heaven’s sake, mother, is nothing, then, of use but what immediately puts money in our purse? but what procures us some property that we can lay our hands on? Had we not, for instance, room enough in the old house? and was it indispensable to build a new one? Does not my father every year expend a large part of his profit in ornamenting his chambers? Are these silk carpets, this English furniture, likewise of no use? Might we not content ourselves with worse? For my own part, I confess, these striped walls, these hundred times repeated flowers and knots and baskets and figures, produce a really disagreeable effect upon me. At best, they but remind me of the front curtain of our theatre. But what a different thing it is to sit and look at that! There, if you must wait for a while, you are always sure that it will rise at last, and disclose to you a thousand curious objects to entertain, to instruct, and to exalt you.”
“But you go to excess with it,” said the mother. “Your father wishes to be entertained in the evenings as well as you: besides, he thinks it diverts your attention; and, when he grows ill-humored on the subject, it is I that must bear the blame. How often have I been upbraided with that miserable puppet-show, which I was unlucky enough to provide for you at Christmas, twelve years ago! It was the first thing that put these plays into your head.”
“Oh, do not blame the poor puppets! do not repent of your love and motherly care! It was the only happy hour I had enjoyed in the new empty house. I never can forget that hour; I see it still before me; I recollect how surprised I was, when, after we had got our customary presents, you made us seat ourselves before the door that leads to the other room. The door opened, but not, as formerly, to let us pass and repass: the entrance was occupied by an unexpected show. Within it rose a porch, concealed by a mysterious curtain. All of us were standing at a distance: our eagerness to see what glittering or jingling article lay hid behind the half-transparent veil was mounting higher and higher, when you bade us each sit down upon his stool, and wait with patience.
“At length all of us were seated and silent: a whistle gave the signal; the curtain rolled aloft, and showed us the interior of the temple, painted in deep-red colors. The high-priest Samuel appeared with Jonathan, and their strange alternating voices seemed to me the most striking thing on earth. Shortly after entered Saul, overwhelmed with confusion at the impertinence of that heavy-limbed warrior, who had defied him and all his people. But how glad was I when the little dapper son of Jesse, with his crook and shepherd’s pouch and sling, came hopping forth, and said, ‘Dread king and sovereign lord, let no one’s heart sink down because of this: if your Majesty will grant me leave, I will go out to battle with this blustering giant!’ Here ended the first act, leaving the spectators more curious than ever to see what further would happen; each praying that the music might soon be done. At last the curtain rose again. David devoted the flesh of the monster to the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field: the Philistine scorned and bullied him, stamped mightily with both his feet, and at length fell like a mass of clay, affording a splendid termination to the piece. And then the virgins sang, ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands!’ The giant’s head was borne before his little victor, who received the king’s beautiful daughter to wife. Yet withal, I remember, I was vexed at the dwarfish stature of this lucky prince; for the great Goliath and the small David had both been formed, according to the common notion, with a due regard to their figures and proportions. I pray you, mother, tell me what has now become of those puppets? I promised to show them to a friend, whom I was lately entertaining with a history of all this child’s work.”
“I can easily conceive,” said the mother, “how these things should stick so firmly in your mind: I well remember what an interest you took in them,—how you stole the little book from me, and learned the whole piece by heart. I first noticed it one evening when you had made a Goliath and a David of wax: you set them both to declaim against each other, and at length gave a deadly stab to the giant, fixing his shapeless head, stuck upon a large pin with a wax handle, in little David’s hand. I then felt such a motherly contentment at your fine recitation and good memory, that I resolved to give you up the whole wooden troop to your own disposal. I did not then foresee that it would cause me so many heavy hours.”
“Do not repent of it,” said Wilhelm: “this little sport has often made us happy.” So saying, he got the keys, made haste to find the puppets, and, for a moment, was transported back into those times when they almost seemed to him alive, when he felt as if he himself could give them life by the cunning of his voice and the movements of his hands. He took them to his room, and locked them up with care.
If the first love is indeed, as I hear it everywhere maintained to be, the most delicious feeling which the heart of man, before it or after, can experience, then our hero must be reckoned doubly happy, as permitted to enjoy the pleasure of this chosen period in all its fulness. Few men are so peculiarly favored: by far the greater part are led by the feelings of their youth into nothing but a school of hardship, where, after a stinted and checkered season of enjoyment, they are at length constrained to renounce their dearest wishes, and to learn forever to dispense with what once hovered before them as the highest happiness of existence.
Wilhelm’s passion for that charming girl now soared aloft on the wings of imagination. After a short acquaintance, he had gained her affections: he found himself in possession of a being, whom, with all his heart, he not only loved, but honored; for she had first appeared before him in the flattering light of theatric pomp, and his passion for the stage combined itself with his earliest love for woman. His youth allowed him to enjoy rich pleasures, which the activity of his fancy exalted and maintained. The situation of his mistress, too, gave a turn to her conduct which greatly enlivened his emotions. The fear lest her lover might, before the time, detect the real state in which she stood, diffused over all her conduct an interesting tinge of anxiety and bashfulness; her attachment to the youth was deep; her very inquietude appeared but to augment her tenderness; she was the loveliest of creatures while beside him.
When the first tumult of joy had passed, and our friend began to look back upon his life and its concerns, every thing appeared new to him: his duties seemed holier, his inclinations keener, his knowledge clearer, his talents stronger, his purposes more decided. Accordingly, he soon fell upon a plan to avoid the reproaches of his father, to still the cares of his mother, and, at the same time, to enjoy Mariana’s love without disturbance. Through the day he punctually transacted his business, commonly forbore attending the theatre, strove to be entertaining at table in the evening; and, when all were asleep, he glided softly out into the garden, and hastened, wrapped up in his mantle, with all the feelings of Leander in his bosom, to meet his mistress without delay.
“What is this you bring?” inquired Mariana, as he entered one evening, with a bundle, which Barbara, in hopes it might turn out to be some valuable present, fixed her eyes upon with great attention. “You will never guess,” said Wilhelm.
Great was the surprise of Mariana, great the scorn of Barbara, when the napkin, being loosened, gave to view a perplexed multitude of span-long puppets. Mariana laughed aloud, as Wilhelm set himself to disentangle the confusion of the wires, and show her each figure by itself. Barbara glided sulkily out of the room.
A very little thing will entertain two lovers; and accordingly our friends, this evening, were as happy as they wished to be. The little troop was mustered: each figure was minutely examined, and laughed at, in its turn. King Saul, with his golden crown and his black velvet robe, Mariana did not like: he looked, she said, too stiff and pedantic. She was far better pleased with Jonathan, his sleek chin, his turban, his cloak of red and yellow. She soon got the art of turning him deftly on his wire: she made him bow, and repeat declarations of love. On the other hand, she refused to give the least attention to the prophet Samuel; though Wilhelm commended the pontifical breastplate, and told her that the taffeta of the cassock had been taken from a gown of his own grandmother’s. David she thought too small; Goliath was too big; she held by Jonathan. She grew to manage him so featly, and at last to extend her caresses from the puppet to its owner, that, on this occasion, as on others, a silly sport became the introduction to happy hours.
Their soft, sweet dreams were broken in upon by a noise which arose on the street. Mariana called for the old dame, who, as usual, was occupied in furbishing the changeful materials of the playhouse wardrobe for the service of the play next to be acted. Barbara said the disturbance arose from a set of jolly companions, who were just then sallying out of the Italian tavern hard by, where they had been busy discussing fresh oysters, a cargo of which had just arrived, and by no means sparing their champagne.
“Pity,” Mariana said, “that we did not think of it in time: we might have had some entertainment to ourselves.”
“It is not yet too late,” said Wilhelm, giving Barbara a louis-d’or: “get us what we want, then come and take a share with us.”
The old dame made speedy work: erelong a trimly covered table, with a neat collation, stood before the lovers. They made Barbara sit with them: they ate and drank, and enjoyed themselves.
On such occasions, there is never want of enough to say. Mariana soon took up little Jonathan again, and the old dame turned the conversation upon Wilhelm’s favorite topic. “You were once telling us,” she said, “about the first exhibition of a puppet-show on Christmas Eve: I remember you were interrupted just as the ballet was going to begin. We have now the pleasure of a personal acquaintance with the honorable company by whom those wonderful effects were brought about.”
“Oh, yes!” cried Mariana: “do tell us how it all went on, and how you felt then.”
“It is a fine emotion, Mariana,” said the youth, “when we bethink ourselves of old times, and old, harmless errors, especially if this is at a period when we have happily gained some elevation, from which we can look around us, and survey the path we have left behind. It is so pleasant to think, with composure and satisfaction, of many obstacles, which often with painful feelings we may have regarded as invincible,—pleasant to compare what we now are with what we then were struggling to become. But I am happy above others in this matter, that I speak to you about the past, at a moment when I can also look forth into the blooming country, which we are yet to wander through together, hand in hand.”
“But how was it with the ballet?” said Barbara. “I fear it did not quite go off as it should have done.”
“I assure you,” said Wilhelm, “it went off quite well. And certainly the strange caperings of these Moors and Mooresses, these shepherds and shepherdesses, these dwarfs and dwarfesses, will never altogether leave my recollection while I live. When the curtain dropped, and the door closed, our little party skipped away, frolicking as if they had been tipsy, to their beds. For myself, however, I remember that I could not go to sleep: still wanting to have something told me on the subject, I continued putting questions to every one, and would hardly let the maid away who had brought me up to bed.
“Next morning, alas! the magic apparatus had altogether vanished; the mysterious veil was carried off; the door permitted us again to go and come through it without obstruction; the manifold adventures of the evening had passed away, and left no trace behind. My brothers and sisters were running up and down with their playthings; I alone kept gliding to and fro: it seemed to me impossible that two bare door-posts could be all that now remained, where the night before so much enchantment had been displayed. Alas! the man that seeks a lost love can hardly be unhappier than I then thought myself.”
A rapturous look, which he cast on Mariana, convinced her that he was not afraid of such ever being his case.
“My sole wish now,” continued Wilhelm, “was to witness a second exhibition of the play. For this purpose I had recourse, by constant entreaties, to my mother; and she attempted in a favorable hour to persuade my father. Her labor, however, was in vain. My father’s principle was, that none but enjoyments of rare occurrence were adequately prized; that neither young nor old could set a proper value on pleasures which they tasted every day.
“We might have waited long, perhaps till Christmas returned, had not the contriver and secret director of the spectacle himself felt a pleasure in repeating the display of it, partly incited, I suppose, by the wish to produce a brand-new harlequin expressly prepared for the afterpiece.
“A young officer of the artillery, a person of great gifts in all sorts of mechanical contrivance, had served my father in many essential particulars during the building of the house; for which, having been handsomely rewarded, he felt desirous of expressing his thankfulness to the family of his patron, and so made us young ones a present of this complete theatre, which, in hours of leisure, he had already carved and painted, and strung together. It was this young man, who, with the help of a servant, had himself managed the puppets, disguising his voice to pronounce their various speeches. He had no great difficulty in persuading my father, who granted, out of complaisance to a friend, what he had denied from conviction to his children. In short, our theatre was again set up, some little ones of the neighborhood were invited, and the play was again represented.
“If I had formerly experienced the delights of surprise and astonishment, I enjoyed on this second occasion the pleasure of examining and scrutinizing. How all this happened was my present concern. That the puppets themselves did not speak, I had already decided; that of themselves they did not move, I also conjectured; but, then, how came it all to be so pretty, and to look just as if they both spoke and moved of themselves? and where were the lights, and the people that managed the deception? These enigmas perplexed me the more, as I wished to be at the same time among the enchanters and the enchanted, at the same time to have a secret hand in the play, and to enjoy, as a looker-on, the pleasure of illusion.
“The play being finished, preparations were making for the farce: the spectators had risen, and were all busy talking together. I squeezed myself closer to the door, and heard, by the rattling within, that the people were packing up some articles. I lifted the lowest screen, and poked in my head between the posts. As our mother noticed it, she drew me back: but I had seen well enough that here friends and foes, Saul and Goliath, and whatever else their names might be, were lying quietly down together in a drawer; and thus my half-contented curiosity received a fresh excitement. To my great surprise, moreover, I had noticed the lieutenant very diligently occupied in the interior of the shrine. Henceforth, Jack-pudding, however he might clatter with his heels, could not any longer entertain me. I sank into deep meditation: my discovery made me both more satisfied, and less so, than before. After a little, it first struck me that I yet comprehended nothing: and here I was right; for the connection of the parts with each other was entirely unknown to me, and every thing depends on that.”
“In well adjusted and regulated houses,” continued Wilhelm, “children have a feeling not unlike what I conceive rats and mice to have: they keep a sharp eye on all crevices and holes, where they may come at any forbidden dainty; they enjoy it also with a fearful, stolen satisfaction, which forms no small part of the happiness of childhood.
“More than any other of the young ones, I was in the habit of looking out attentively, to see if I could notice any cupboard left open, or key standing in its lock. The more reverence I bore in my heart for those closed doors, on the outside of which I had to pass by for weeks and months, catching only a furtive glance when our mother now and then opened the consecrated place to take something from it, the quicker was I to make use of any opportunities which the forgetfulness of our housekeepers at times afforded me.
“Among all the doors, that of the storeroom was, of course, the one I watched most narrowly. Few of the joyful anticipations in life can equal the feeling which I used to have when my mother happened to call me, that I might help her to carry out something, whereupon I might pick up a few dried plums, either with her kind permission, or by help of my own dexterity. The accumulated treasures of this chamber took hold of my imagination by their magnitude: the very fragrance exhaled by so multifarious a collection of sweet-smelling spices produced such a craving effect on me, that I never failed, when passing near, to linger for a little, and regale myself at least on the unbolted atmosphere. At length, one Sunday morning, my mother, being hurried by the ringing of the church-bells, forgot to take this precious key with her on shutting the door, and went away, leaving all the house in a deep Sabbath stillness. No sooner had I marked this oversight than, gliding softly once or twice to and from the place, I at last approached very gingerly, opened the door, and felt myself, after a single step, in immediate contact with these manifold and long-wished-for means of happiness. I glanced over glasses, chests, and bags, and drawers and boxes, with a quick and doubtful eye, considering what I ought to choose and take; turned finally to my dear withered plums, provided myself also with a few dried apples, and completed the forage with an orange-chip. I was quietly retreating with my plunder, when some little chests, lying piled over one another, caught my attention,—the more so as I noticed a wire, with hooks at the end of it, sticking through the joint of the lid in one of them. Full of eager hopes, I opened this singular package; and judge of my emotions, when I found my glad world of heroes all sleeping safe within! I meant to pick out the topmost, and, having examined them, to pull up those below; but in this attempt the wires got very soon entangled: and I fell into a fright and flutter, more particularly as the cook just then began making some stir in the kitchen, which was close by; so that I had nothing for it but to squeeze the whole together the best way I could, and to shut the chest, having stolen from it nothing but a little written book, which happened to be lying above, and contained the whole drama of Goliath and David. With this booty I made good my retreat into the garret.
“Henceforth all my stolen hours of solitude were devoted to perusing the play, to learning it by heart, and picturing in thought how glorious it would be, could I but get the figures, to make them move along with it. In idea I myself became David and Goliath by turns. In every corner of the court-yard, of the stables, of the garden, under all kinds of circumstances, I labored to stamp the whole piece upon my mind; laid hold of all the characters, and learned their speeches by heart, most commonly, however, taking up the parts of the chief personages, and allowing all the rest to move along with them, but as satellites, across my memory. Thus day and night the heroic words of David, wherewith he challenged the braggart giant, Goliath of Gath, kept their place in my thoughts. I often muttered them to myself; while no one gave heed to me, except my father, who, frequently observing some such detached exclamation, would in secret praise the excellent memory of his boy, that had retained so much from only two recitations.
“By this means growing bolder and bolder, I one evening repeated almost the entire piece before my mother, whilst I was busied in fashioning some bits of wax into players. She observed it, questioned me hard; and I confessed.
“By good fortune, this detection happened at a time when the lieutenant had himself been expressing a wish to initiate me in the mysteries of the art. My mother forthwith gave him notice of these unexpected talents; and he now contrived to make my parents offer him a couple of chambers in the top story, which commonly stood empty, that he might accommodate the spectators in the one, while the other held his actors, the proscenium again filling up the opening of the door: my father had allowed his friend to arrange all this; himself, in the mean time, seeming only to look at the transaction, as it were, through his fingers; for his maxim was, that children should not be allowed to see the kindness which is felt towards them, lest their pretensions come to extend too far. He was of opinion, that, in the enjoyments of the young, one should assume a serious air; often interrupting the course of their festivities, to prevent their satisfaction from degenerating into excess and presumption.”
“The lieutenant now set up his theatre, and managed all the rest. During the week I readily observed that he often came into the house at unusual hours, and I soon guessed the cause. My eagerness increased immensely; for I well understood, that, till Sunday evening, I could have no share in what was going on. At last the wished-for day arrived. At five in the evening my conductor came, and took me up with him. Quivering with joy, I entered, and descried, on both sides of the framework, the puppets all hanging in order as they were to advance to view. I considered them narrowly, and mounted on the steps, which raised them above the scene, and allowed me to hover aloft over all that little world. Not without reverence did I look down between the pieces of board, and recollect what a glorious effect the whole would produce, and feel into what mighty secrets I was now admitted. We made a trial, which succeeded well.
“Next day a party of children were invited: we performed rarely; except that once, in the fire of action, I let poor Jonathan fall, and was obliged to reach down with my hand, and pick him up,—an accident which sadly marred the illusion, produced a peal of laughter, and vexed me unspeakably. My father, however, seemed to relish this misfortune not a little. Prudently shrouding up the contentment he felt at the expertness of his little boy, after the play was finished, he dwelt on the mistakes we had committed, saying it would all have been very pretty had not this or that gone wrong with us.
“I was vexed to the heart at these things, and sad for all the evening. By next morning, however, I had quite slept off my sorrow, and was blessed in the persuasion, that, but for this one fault, I had acted delightfully. The spectators also flattered me with their unanimous approval: they all maintained, that though the lieutenant, in regard to the coarse and the fine voices, had done great things, yet his declamation was in general too stiff and affected; whereas the new aspirant spoke his Jonathan and David with exquisite grace. My mother in particular commended the gallant tone in which I had challenged Goliath, and acted the modest victor before the king.
“From this time, to my extreme delight, the theatre continued open; and as the spring advanced, so that fires could be dispensed with, I passed all my hours of recreation lying in the garret, and making the puppets caper and play together. Often I invited up my comrades, or my brothers and sisters; but, when they would not come, I staid by myself not the less. My imagination brooded over that tiny world, which soon afterwards acquired another form.
“Scarcely had I once or twice exhibited the first play, for which my scenery and actors had been formed and decorated, when it ceased to give me any pleasure. On the other hand, among some of my grandfather’s books, I had happened to fall in with ‘The German Theatre,’ and a few translations of Italian operas; in which works I soon got very deeply immersed, on each occasion first reckoning up the characters, and then, without further ceremony, proceeding to exhibit the play. King Saul, with his black velvet cloak, was therefore now obliged to personate Darius or Cato, or some other pagan hero; in which cases, it may be observed, the plays were never wholly represented,—for most part, only the fifth acts, where the cutting and stabbing lay.
“It was natural that the operas, with their manifold adventures and vicissitudes, should attract me more than any thing beside. In these compositions I found stormy seas, gods descending in chariots of cloud, and, what most of all delighted me, abundance of thunder and lightning. I did my best with pasteboard, paint, and paper: I could make night very prettily; my lightning was fearful to behold; only my thunder did not always prosper, which, however, was of less importance. In operas, moreover, I found frequent opportunities of introducing my David and Goliath,—persons whom the regular drama would hardly admit. Daily I felt more attachment for the hampered spot where I enjoyed so many pleasures; and, I must confess, the fragrance which the puppets had acquired from the storeroom added not a little to my satisfaction.
“The decorations of my theatre were now in a tolerable state of completeness. I had always had the knack of drawing with compasses, and clipping pasteboard, and coloring figures; and here it served me in good stead. But the more sorry was I, on the other hand, when, as frequently happened, my stock of actors would not suffice for representing great affairs.
“My sisters, dressing and undressing their dolls, awoke in me the project of furnishing my heroes by and by with garments which might also be put off and on. Accordingly, I slit the scraps of cloth from off their bodies, tacked the fragments together as well as possible, saved a particle of money to buy new ribbons and lace, begged many a rag of taffeta, and so formed, by degrees, a full theatrical wardrobe, in which hoop-petticoats for the ladies were especially remembered.
“My troop was now fairly provided with dresses for the most important play, and you might have expected that henceforth one exhibition would follow close upon the heels of another; but it happened with me, as it often happens with children,—they embrace wide plans, make mighty preparations, then a few trials, and the whole undertaking is abandoned. I was guilty of this fault. My greatest pleasure lay in the inventive part, and the employment of my fancy. This or that piece inspired me with interest for a few scenes of it, and immediately I set about providing new apparel suitable for the occasion. In such fluctuating operations, many parts of the primary dresses of my heroes had fallen into disorder, or totally gone out of sight; so that now the first great play could no longer be exhibited. I surrendered myself to my imagination; I rehearsed and prepared forever; built a thousand castles in the air, and failed to see that I was at the same time undermining the foundations of these little edifices.”
During this recital, Mariana had called up and put in action all her courtesy for Wilhelm, that she might conceal her sleepiness. Diverting as the matter seemed on one side, it was too simple for her taste, and her lover’s view of it too serious. She softly pressed her foot on his, however, and gave him all visible signs of attention and approval. She drank out of his glass: Wilhelm was convinced that no word of his history had fallen to the ground. After a short pause, he said, “It is now your turn, Mariana, to tell me what were your first childish joys. Till now we have always been too busy with the present to trouble ourselves, on either side, about our previous way of life. Let me hear, Mariana, under what circumstances you were reared: what are the first lively impressions which you still remember?”
These questions would have very much embarrassed Mariana, had not Barbara made haste to help her. “Think you,” said the cunning old woman, “we have been so mindful of what happened to us long ago, that we have merry things like these to talk about, and, though we had, that we could give them such an air in talking of them?”
“As if they needed it!” cried Wilhelm. “I love this soft, good, amiable creature so much, that I regret every instant of my life which has not been spent beside her. Allow me, at least in fancy, to have a share in thy by-gone life; tell me every thing; I will tell every thing to thee! If possible, we will deceive ourselves, and win back those days that have been lost to love.”
“If you require it so eagerly,” replied the old dame, “we can easily content you. Only, in the first place, let us hear how your taste for the theatre gradually reached a head; how you practised, how you improved so happily, that now you can pass for a superior actor. No doubt you must have met with droll adventures in your progress. It is not worth while to go to bed now: I have still one flask in reserve; and who knows whether we shall soon all sit together so quiet and cheery again?”
Mariana cast upon her a mournful look, not noticed by Wilhelm, who proceeded with his narrative.
“The recreations of youth, as my companions began to increase in number, interfered with this solitary, still enjoyment. I was by turns a hunter, a soldier, a knight, as our games required; and constantly I had this small advantage above the rest, that I was qualified to furnish them suitably with the necessary equipments. The swords, for example, were generally of my manufacture; I gilded and decorated the scabbards; and a secret instinct allowed me not to stop till our militia was accoutred according to the antique model. Helmets, with plumes of paper, were got ready; shields, even coats of mail, were provided; undertakings in which such of the servants as had aught of the tailor in them, and the seamstresses of the house, broke many a needle.
“A part of my comrades I had now got well equipped; by degrees, the rest were likewise furbished up, though on a thriftier plan; and so a very seemly corps at length was mustered. We marched about the court-yards and gardens, smote fearfully upon each other’s shields and heads: many flaws of discord rose among us, but none that lasted.
“This diversion greatly entertained my fellows; but scarcely had it been twice or thrice repeated, when it ceased to content me. The aspect of so many harnessed figures naturally stimulated in my mind those ideas of chivalry, which for some time, since I had commenced the reading of old romances, were filling my imagination.
“Koppen’s translation of ‘Jerusalem Delivered’ at length fell into my hands, and gave these wandering thoughts a settled direction. The whole poem, it is true, I could not read; but there were passages which I learned by heart, and the images expressed in these hovered round me. Particularly was I captivated with Clorinda, and all her deeds and bearing. The masculine womanhood, the peaceful completeness of her being, had a greater influence upon my mind, just beginning to unfold itself, than the factitious charms of Armida; though the garden of that enchantress was by no means an object of my contempt.
“But a hundred and a hundred times, while walking in the evenings on the balcony which stretches along the front of the house, and looking over the neighborhood, as the quivering splendor streamed up at the horizon from the departed sun, and the stars came forth, and night pressed forward from every cleft and hollow, and the small, shrill tone of the cricket tinkled through the solemn stillness,—a hundred and a hundred times have I repeated to myself the history of the mournful duel between Tancred and Clorinda.
“However strongly I inclined by nature to the party of the Christians, I could not help declaring for the Paynim heroine with all my heart when she engaged to set on fire the great tower of the besiegers. And when Tancred in the darkness met the supposed knight, and the strife began between them under that veil of gloom, and the two battled fiercely, I could never pronounce the words,—
“’But now the sure and fated hour is nigh:
Clorinda’s course is ended,—she must die;’—
without tears rushing into my eyes, which flowed plentifully when the hapless lover, plunging his sword into her breast, opened the departing warrior’s helmet, recognized the lady of his heart, and, shuddering, brought water to baptize her.
“How my heart ran over when Tancred struck with his sword that tree in the enchanted wood; when blood flowed from the gash, and a voice sounded in his ears, that now again he was wounding Clorinda; that Destiny had marked him out ever unwittingly to injure what he loved beyond all else.
“The recital took such hold of my imagination, that what I had read of the poem began dimly, in my mind, to conglomerate into a whole; wherewith I was so taken that I could not but propose to have it some way represented. I meant to have Tancred and Rinaldo acted; and, for this purpose, two coats of mail, which I had before manufactured, seemed expressly suitable. The one, formed of dark-gray paper with scales, was to serve for the solemn Tancred; the other, of silver and gilt paper, for the magnificent Rinaldo. In the vivacity of my anticipations, I told the whole project to my comrades, who felt quite charmed with it, except that they could not well comprehend how so glorious a thing could be exhibited, and, above all, exhibited by them.
“Such scruples I easily set aside. Without hesitation, I took upon me, in idea, the management of two rooms in the house of a neighboring playmate; not calculating that his venerable aunt would never give them up, or considering how a theatre could be made of them, whereof I had no settled notion, except that it was to be fixed on beams, to have side-scenes made of parted folding-screens, and on the floor a large piece of cloth. From what quarter these materials and furnishings were to come, I had not determined.
“So far as concerned the forest, we fell upon a good expedient. We betook ourselves to an old servant of one of our families, who had now become a woodman, with many entreaties that he would get us a few young firs and birches; which actually arrived more speedily than we had reason to expect. But, in the next place, great was our embarrassment as to how the piece should be got up before the trees were withered. Now was the time for prudent counsel. We had no house, no scenery, no curtain: the folding-screens were all we had.
“In this forlorn condition we again applied to the lieutenant, giving him a copious description of all the glorious things we meant to do. Little as he understood us, he was very helpful: he piled all the tables he could get in the house or neighborhood, one above the other, in a little room: to these he fixed our folding-screens, and made a back-view with green curtains, sticking up our trees along with it.