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The Works of J. W. von Goethe/Volume 12/Letters from Switzerland/Part I

< The Works of J. W. von Goethe‎ | Volume 12‎ | Letters from Switzerland


How do all my descriptions disgust me, when I read them over! Nothing but your advice, your command, your injunction, could have induced me to attempt anything of the kind. How many descriptions, too, of these scenes, had I not read before I saw them! Did these, then, afford me an image of them, or, at best, but a mere vague notion? In vain did my imagination attempt to bring the objects before it: in vain did my mind try to revolve from them some thoughts. Here I now stand contemplating these wonders; and what are my feelings in the midst of them! I can think of nothing, I can feel nothing; and how willingly would I both think and feel! The glorious scene before me excites my soul to its inmost depths, and impels me to be doing; and yet what can I do—what do I? I now sit down and scribble and describe. Away with you, ye descriptions! Delude my friend, make him believe that I am doing something,—that he sees and reads something.

Were, then, these Switzers free?—free, these opulent burghers in their little pent-up towns?—free, those poor devils on their rocks and crags? What is it that man cannot be made to believe, especially when he cherishes in his heart the memory of some old tale of marvel? Once, forsooth, they did break a tyrant's yoke, and might, for the moment, fancy themselves free; but out of the carcass of the single oppressor the good sun, by a strange new birth, has hatched a swarm of petty tyrants. And so, now, they are ever telling that old tale of marvel: one hears it till one is sick of it. They formerly made themselves free, and have ever since remained free; and now they sit behind their walls, hugging themselves with their customs and laws—their philandering and philistering. And there, too, on the rocks, it is surely fine to talk of liberty, when for six months of the year they, like the marmot, are bound hand and foot by the snow.

Alas! how wretched must any work of man look in the midst of this great and glorious Nature, but especially such sorry, poverty-stricken works as these black and dirty little towns, such mean heaps of stones and rubbish! Large rubble and other stones on the roofs, too, that the miserable thatch may not be carried off from the top of them; and then the filth, the dung, and the gaping idiots! When here you meet with man and the wretched work of his hands, you are glad to run away immediately from both.

That there are in man very many intellectual capacities which in this life he is unable to develop, which, therefore, point to a better future and to a more harmonious state of existence,—on this point we are both agreed. But, further than this, I cannot give up that other fancy of mine, even though, on account of it, you may again call me, as you have so often done already, a mere enthusiast. For my part, I do think that man feels conscious, also, of corporeal qualities of whose mature expansion he can have no hope in this life. This, most assuredly, is the case with flying. How strongly, at one time, used the clouds, as they drove along the blue sky, to tempt me to travel with them to foreign lands! and now in what danger do I stand, lest they should carry me away with them from the mountain-peak as they sweep violently by! What desire I feel to throw myself into the boundless regions of the air, to poise over the terrific abyss, or to alight on some otherwise inaccessible rock! With what a longing do I draw deeper and deeper breath, when, in the dark blue depth below me, the eagle soars over rocks and forests, or, in company and in sweet concord with his mate, wheels in wide circles round the eyry to which he has entrusted his young! Must I, then, never do more than creep up to the summits? Must I always go on clinging to the highest rocks, as well as to the lowest plain? and when I have at last, with much toil, reached the desired eminence, must I still anxiously grasp at every holding-place, shudder at the thought of return, and tremble at the chance of a fall?

With what wonderful properties we are born! What vague aspirations rise within us! How rarely do imagination and our bodily powers work in opposition! Peculiarities of my early boyhood again recur. While I am walking, and have a long road before me, my arms go dangling by my side; I at times make a grasp, as if I would seize a javelin, and hurl it, I know not at whom or what; and then I fancy an arrow is shot at me which pierces me to the heart: I strike my hand upon my breast, and feel an inexpressible sweetness; and then after this I soon revert to my natural state. Whence comes this strange phenomenon? what is the meaning of it? and why does it invariably recur under the same figures, in the same bodily movement, and with the same sensation?

I am repeatedly told that the people who have met me on my journey are little satisfied with me. I can readily believe it, for neither has any one of them contributed to my satisfaction. I cannot tell how it comes to pass that society oppresses me, that the forms of politeness are disagreeable to me, that what people talk about does not interest me, that all they show to me is either quite indifferent, or else produces an impression quite opposite to what they expect. When I am shown a drawing or painting of any beautiful spot, immediately a feeling of disquiet arises within me which is utterly inexpressible. My toes within my shoes begin to bend, as if they would clutch the ground: a cramp-like motion runs through my fingers. I bite my lips, and hasten to leave the company I am in, and throw myself down, in the presence of the majesty of nature, on the first seat, however inconvenient. I try to take in the scene before me with my eye, to seize all its beauties; and on the spot I love to cover a whole sheet with scratches which represent nothing exactly, but which, nevertheless, possess an infinite value in my eyes, as serving to remind me of the happy moment whose bliss even this bungling exercise could not mar. What means, then, this strange effort to pass from art to nature, and then back again from nature to art? If it gives promise of an artist, why is steadiness wanting to me? If it calls me to enjoyment, wherefore, then, am I not able to seize it? I lately had a present of a basket of fruit. I was in raptures at the sight of it, as of something heavenly,—such riches, such abundance, such variety, and yet such affinity! I could not persuade myself to pluck off a single berry: I could not bring myself to take a single peach or a fig. Most assuredly this gratification of the eye and the inner sense is the highest and most worthy of man: in all probability it is the design of Nature, when the hungry and thirsty believe that she has exhausted herself in marvels merely for the gratification of their palate. Ferdinand came and found me in the midst of these meditations. He did me justice, and then said, smiling, but with a deep sigh, "Yes, we are not worthy to consume these glorious products of Nature: truly it were a pity. Permit me to make a present of them to my beloved?" How glad was I to see the basket carried off! How did I love Ferdinand! How did I thank him for the feeling he had excited in me, for the prospect he gave me! Ay, we ought to acquaint ourselves with the beautiful: we ought to contemplate it with rapture, and attempt to raise ourselves up to its height. And, in order to gain strength for that, we must keep ourselves thoroughly unselfish: we must not make it our own, but rather seek to communicate it, indeed, to make a sacrifice of it to those who are dear and precious to us.

How sedulously we are shaped and moulded in our youth! how constantly we then are called on to lay aside now this, now that, bad feeling! But what, in fact, are our so-called bad feelings, but so many organs by means of which man is to aid himself in life? How people worry a poor child in whom but a little spark of vanity is discovered! and yet what a poor miserable creature is a man who has no vanity at all! I will now tell you what has led me to make all these reflections. The day before yesterday we were joined by a young fellow who was most disagreeable to me and Ferdinand. His weak points were so prominent, his emptiness so manifest, and the care he bestowed on his outward appearance so obvious, that we looked down upon him as far inferior to ourselves; and yet he was everywhere received better than we. Among other of his follies he wore a waistcoat of red satin, which round the neck was so cut as to look like the ribbon of some order or other. We could not refrain from joking about this piece of absurdity. But he let them all pass; for he drew a good profit from it, and perhaps secretly laughed at us. For host and hostess, coachman, waiter, and chambermaid, and, indeed, not a few of our fellow travellers, were taken in by this seeming ornament, and showed greater politeness to him than to us. Not only was he always first waited upon, but, to our great humiliation, we saw that all the pretty girls in the inns bestowed all their stolen glances upon him. And then, when it came to the reckoning, which his eminence and distinction had enhanced, we had to pay our full shares. Who, then, was the fool in the game? Assuredly not he.

There is something pretty and instructive about the symbols and maxims which one here sees on all the stoves. Here you have the drawing of one of these symbols which particularly caught my fancy. A horse, tethered by his hind foot to a stake, is grazing round it as far as his tether will permit: beneath is written, "Allow me to take my allotted portion of food." This, too, will be the case with me when I come home, and, like the horse in the mill, shall have to work away at your pleasure, and in return, like the horse here on the stove, shall receive a nicely measured dole for my support. Yes, I am coming back; and what awaits me was certainly well worth all the trouble of climbing up these mountain heights, of wandering through these valleys, and seeing this blue sky, of discovering that there is a nature which exists by an eternal, voiceless necessity, which has no wants, no feelings, and is divine; whilst we, whether in the country or in the towns, have alike to toil hard to gain a miserable subsistence, and at the same time struggle to subject everything to our lawless caprice, and call it liberty.

Ay, I have ascended the Furca,—the summit of St. Gothard. These sublime, incomparable scenes of nature will ever stand before my eye. Ay, I have read the Roman history in order to gain from the comparison a distinct and vivid feeling what a thoroughly miserable being I am.

Never has it been so clear to me as during these last few days, that I, too, could be happy on moderate means; could be quite as happy as any one else, if only I knew a trade,—an exciting one, indeed, but yet one which had no consequences for the morrow, which required nothing but industry and attention at the time, without calling for either foresight or retrospection. Every mechanic seems to me the happiest of mortals: all he has to do is already settled for him, what he can do is fixed and known. He has not to rack his brains over the task that is set him. He works away without thinking, without exertion or haste, but still with diligence and pleasure in his work, like a bird building its nest, or a bee constructing its cells. He is but a degree above the beasts, and yet he is a perfect man. How do I envy the potter at his wheel, or the joiner behind his bench!

Tilling the soil is not to my liking: this first and most necessary of man's occupations is disagreeable to me. In it man does but ape Nature, who scatters her seeds everywhere; whereas man would choose that a particular field should produce none but one particular fruit. But things do not go on exactly so: the weeds spring up luxuriantly; the cold and wet injures the crop, or the hail cuts it off entirely. The poor husbandman anxiously waits throughout the year to see how the cards will decide the game with the clouds, and determine whether he shall win or lose his stakes. Such a doubtful, ambiguous condition may be right suitable to man in his present ignorance, while he knows not whence he came, nor whither he is going. It may, then, be tolerable to man to resign all his labours to chance; and thus the parson, at any rate, has an opportunity, when things look thoroughly bad, to remind him of Providence, and to connect the sins of his flock with the incidents of Nature.

So, then, I have nothing to joke Ferdinand about! I, too, have met with a pleasant adventure. Adventure!—why do I use the silly word? There is nothing of adventure in a gentle attraction which draws man to man. Our social life, our false relations—those are adventures, those are monstrosities; and yet they come before us as well known, and as nearly akin to us, as uncle and aunt.

We had been introduced to Herr Tüdou; and we found ourselves very happy among this family,—rich, open-hearted, good-natured, lively people, who in the society of their children, in comfort and without care, enjoy the good which each day brings with it, their property, and their glorious neighbourhood. We young folks were not required, as is too often the case in so many formal households, to sacrifice ourselves at the card-table in order to humour the old. On the contrary, the old people—father, mother, and aunts—gathered round us, when, for our own amusement, we got up some little games in which chance and thought and wit had their counteracting influence. Eleonora, for I must now at last mention her name,—the second daughter (her image will for ever be present to my mind),—a slim slight frame, delicately chiselled features, a bright eye, a palish complexion, which in young girls of her age is rather pleasing than disagreeable, as being a sign of no very incurable a malady: on the whole, her appearance was extremely agreeable. She seemed cheerful and lively, and every one felt at his ease with her. Soon, indeed, I may venture to say at once,—at once, on the very first evening, she made me her companion: she sat by my side; and, if the game separated us a moment, she soon contrived to find her old place again. I was gay and cheerful. My journey, the beautiful weather, the country—all had contributed to produce in me immoderate cheerfulness,—ay, I might almost venture to say a state of excitement. I derived it from everything, and imparted it to everything: even Ferdinand seemed to forget his fair one. We had almost exhausted ourselves in varying our amusements, when we at last thought of the "game of matrimony." The names of the ladies and of the gentlemen were thrown separately into two hats, and then the pairs were drawn out one by one. On each couple as determined by the lot, one of the company whose turn it might happen to be had to write a little poem. Every one of the party—father, mother, and aunts—were obliged to put their names in the hats. We cast in, besides, the names of our acquaintances, and, to enlarge the number of candidates for matrimony, we threw in those of all the well-known characters of the literary and of the political world. We commenced playing, and the first pairs that were drawn were highly distinguished personages. It was not every one, however, who was ready at once with his verses. She, Ferdinand and myself, and one of the aunts, who wrote very pretty verses in French—we soon divided among ourselves the office of secretary. The conceits were mostly good, and the verses tolerable. Hers, especially, had a touch of nature about them which distinguished them from all others. Without being really clever, they had a happy turn: they were playful without being bitter, and showed good-will toward every one. The father laughed heartily; and his face was lit up with joy when his daughter's verses were declared to be the best, after mine. Our unqualified approbation highly delighted him. We praised, as men praise unexpected merit,—as we praise an author who has bribed us. At last out came my lot, and chance had taken honourable care of me. It was no less a personage than the Empress of all the Russias, who was drawn to be my partner for life. The company laughed heartily at the match; and Eleonora maintained that the whole company must try their best to do honour to so eminent a consort. All began to try: a few pens were bitten to pieces. She was ready first, but wished to read last. The mother and the aunt could make nothing of the subject; and although the father was rather matter-of-fact, Ferdinand somewhat humourous, and the aunts rather reserved, still, through all, you could see friendship and good-will. At last it came to her turn. She drew a deep breath, her ease and cheerfulness left her: she did not read, but rather lisped it out, and laid it before me to read it to the rest. I was astonished, amazed. Thus does the bud of love open in beauty and modesty. I felt as if a whole spring had showered upon me all its flowers at once. Every one was silent. Ferdinand lost not his presence of mind. "Beautiful!" he exclaimed, "very beautiful! He deserves the poem as little as an empire." "If only we have rightly understood it," said the father. The rest requested I would read it once more. My eyes had hitherto been fixed on the precious words: a shudder ran through me from head to foot. Ferdinand, who saw my perplexity, took the paper up and read it. She scarcely allowed him to finish before she drew out the lots for another pair. The game was not kept up long after this, and refreshments were brought in.

Shall I, or shall I not? Is it right of me to hide in silence anything from him to whom I tell so much, nay, all? Shall I keep back from you a great matter, when I yet weary you with so many trifles which assuredly no one would ever read but you who have taken so wonderful a liking for me? or shall I keep back anything from you, because it might, perhaps, give you a false, not to say an ill, opinion of me? No: do you know me better than I even know myself. If I should do anything which you do not believe possible I could do, you will amend it: if I should do anything deserving of ensure, you will not spare me; you will lead me and guide me whenever my peculiarities entice me off the right road.

My joy, my rapture, at works of art when they are true, when they are immediate and speaking expressions of Nature, afford the greatest delight to every collector, to every dilettante. Those, indeed, who call themselves connoisseurs, are not always of my opinion; but I care nothing for their connoisseurship when I am happy. Does not living nature vividly impress itself on my sense of vision? Do not its images remain fixed in my brain? Do not they there grow in beauty, delighting to compare themselves, in turn, with the images of art which the mind of others has also embellished and beautified? I confess to you that my fondness for Nature arises from the fact of my always seeing her so beautiful, so lovely, so brilliant, so ravishing, that the simulation of the artist, even his imperfect imitation, transports me almost as much as if it were a perfect type. It is, however, only such works of art as bespeak genius and feeling, that have any charms for me. Those cold imitations which confine themselves to the narrow circle of a certain meagre mannerism, of mere painstaking diligence, are to me utterly intolerable. You see, therefore, that my delight and taste cannot well be riveted by a work of art, unless it imitates such objects of nature as are well known to me; so that I am able to test the imitation by my own experience of the originals. Landscape, with all that lives and moves therein; flowers and fruit-trees; Gothic churches; a portrait taken directly from Nature,—all this I can recognise, feel, and, if you like, judge of. Honest W—— amused himself with this trait of my character, and, in such a way that I could not be offended, often made merry with it at my expense. He sees much farther in this matter than I, and I shall always prefer that people should laugh at me while they instruct than that they should praise without benefiting me. He had noticed what things I was most immediately pleased with, and, after a short acquaintance, did not hesitate to avow, that, in the objects that so transported me, there might be much that was truly estimable, and which time alone would enable me to distinguish.

But I turn from this subject, and must now, however circuitously, come to the matter, which, though reluctantly, I cannot but confide to you. I can see you in your room, in your little garden, where, over a pipe of tobacco, you will probably break the seal, and read this letter. Can your thoughts follow me into this free and motley world? Will the circumstances and true state of the case become clear to your imagination? And will you be as indulgent toward your absent friend as I have often found you when present?

When my artistic friend became better acquainted with me, and judged me worthy of being gradually introduced to better pieces of art, he one day, not without a most mysterious look, took me to a case, which, being opened, displayed a life-size Danae receiving in her lap the golden shower. I was amazed at the splendour of the limbs, the magnificence of the posture and arrangement, the intense tenderness and the intellectuality of the sensual object; and yet I did but stand before it in silent contemplation. It did not excite in me that rapture, that delight, that inexpressible pleasure. My friend, who went on descanting upon the merits of the picture, was too full of his own enthusiasm to notice my coldness, and delighted to have an opportunity of pointing out to me in this painting the distinctive excellences of the Italian school.

But the sight of this picture has not made me happy: it has made me uneasy. What! said I to myself,—in what a strange case do we civilised men find ourselves, with our many conventional restraints! A mossy rock, a waterfall, rivets my eye so long that I can tell everything about it,—its heights, its cavities, its lights and shades, its hues, its blending tints, and reflections: all is distinctly present to my mind, and, whenever I please, comes vividly before me in a most happy imitation. But of that masterpiece of Nature, the human frame, of the order and symmetry of the limbs,—of all this I have but a very general notion, which, in fact, is no notion at all. My imagination presents to me anything but a vivid image of this glorious structure; and, when art presents an imitation of it to my eye, it awakens in me no sensation, and I am unable to judge of the merits of the picture. No, I will remain no longer in this state of stupidity. I will stamp on my mind the shape of man, as well as that of a cluster of grapes, or of a peach-tree.

I induced Ferdinand to bathe in the lake. What a glorious shape my friend has! How duly proportioned all his limbs are! what fulness of form! what dour of youth! What a gain to have enriched my imagination with this perfect model of manhood! Now I can people the woods, the meadow, and the hills, with similar fine forms. I can see him as Adonis chasing the boar, or as Narcissus contemplating himself in the mirror of the spring.

But alas! my imagination cannot furnish as yet a Venus holding him from the chase, a Venus bewailing his death, or a beautiful Echo casting one sad look more on the cold corpse of the youth before she vanishes for ever. I have therefore resolved, cost what it will, to see a female form in the state in which I have seen my friend.

When, therefore, we reached Geneva, I made arrangements, in the character of an artist, to complete my studies of the nude figure, and to-morrow evening my wish is to be gratified.

I cannot avoid going to-day with Ferdinand to a grand party. It will form an excellent foil to the studies of this evening. Well enough do I know those formal parties, where the old women require you to play at cards with them, and the young ones to ogle with them; where you must listen to the learned, pay respect to the parson, and give way to the noble; where the numerous lights show you scarcely one tolerable form, and that one hidden and buried beneath some barbarous load of frippery. I shall have to speak French, too,—a foreign tongue,—the use of which always makes a man appear silly, whatever he may think of himself, since the best he can express in it is nothing but commonplace and the most obvious of remarks, and that, too, only with stammering and hesitating lips. For what is it that distinguishes the blockhead from the really clever man, but the peculiar quickness and vividness with which the latter discerns the nicer shades and proprieties of all that comes before him, and expresses himself thereon with facility? Whereas the former (just as we all do with a foreign language) is forced on every occasion to have recourse to some ready-found and conversational phrase or other. To-day I will calmly put up with the sorry entertainment, in expectation of the rare scene of Nature which awaits me.

My adventure is over. It has fully equalled my expectation, nay, surpassed it; and yet I know not whether to congratulate or to blame myself on account of it.