IT may be that I have never read to the core any one grand, representative book. How, indeed, amid the tumult and toss of our sea-sick life, is one to do so ? How, again, while the presses of all literary capitals swarm with books that in one way or another demand attention, shall one do justice to books which are to be read as life is lived,— not in a minute ? Only by some hardihood can one pronounce it possible. But if to any great book I have done this justice, it is to that above named.
At the first reading, “ Wilhelm Meister,” as a whole, was quite opaque to me, while some of the details were unpleasing, and the coolness of tone seemed to betoken coldness of heart; and it was only the observations and aphorisms, scattered like a profusion of pearls through the work, that drew me to it a second time. On a second reading, a year later, I began to see that the characters were representative of permanent classes, — that they were not only “ samples to judge of,” as Carlyle says, but samples by which to judge of human nature. At a third reading, after another interval, I began to get some glimpse of a total significance. And when, a year later, I took the book with me to the coast of Maine, and lived with it, in-doors and out, for a solid month, this significance came forth clearly, and made that month’s reading almost equivalent to a great experience.
It is now nearly ten years, since, chiefly for my own behoof, but also not without an ultimate eye to publication, I drew up a formal statement of that which the book stood for to my mind. Time has added much to that material; for the work steadily grew upon me, and now and then extorted, as it were, notes, special dissertations, word-clutches at the meaning of the whole. And now, taking a hint from the handsome new edition, I propose to smelt this rough ore and send it forth, to fare as it may with the readers of the “Atlantic.” The liberal editor allows me two papers of not far from ten pages each, in which to make this statement, — not, one sees, without some tolerant wish that a smaller space had sufficed. But even now I cast aside half my material, and double my labor in seeking brevity for the rest.
The typical history of growth in a human spirit, — “Wilhelm Meister” is that. Can you conceive of a theme more enticing ? And this, too, treated by one of the master minds of the world. Why do not we shut up our shops, and leave the streets deserted, till the import of this has been exhausted ? Who can afford to pass it by ? Precious, indeed, must be his time, who for this has none !
The history, I said, is typical. Botanists picture for us a plant which represents the idea of all vegetable form. Goethe, who led botanists to this central treatment, here takes up growth in a human soul, and proceeds with it in a similar way. He recognizes those spiritual forces which, obscurely or visibly, work in all; he recognizes equally the conditions, inward and outward, under which growth takes place ; he depicts these in their advent, their collisions, their interplay, their result.
A spiritual physiology we may name it. He gives not merely the typical form, but also the working processes, and the type of these. Nor does he merely enumerate and describe these, after the manner of science, but pictures them in their total action and final unity. Of such a work, wrought out with so much of penetration and power, one can speak coolly enough only by effort.
But the whole is not yet said. Not only does he delineate the idea of growth in man, but he assumes this as the central use and meaning of the world. “ Positive philosophy ” will groan. Give it the smelling-bottle, and leave it. Goethe does not deign it even a denial; without pausing to say, he sovereignly assumes, that Nature, as her supreme function, is the schoolmistress of man. For the results enshrined in his spirit, suns shine, worlds wheel, and systems “ move in mystic dance, not without song.” Through the long toil out of chaos to orderly completion and green fertility, Nature bore in her heart one constant, inspiring hope, — at last to educate a man. To this end are all times and seasons ; to this end are government, property, labor, rest, pain, and peace ; the world of things and the world of events alike draw meekly near to the crescent soul, and tender to it their total result, saying,— “In thee, only in thee, do we come at length to use.”
This, then, is the task at which Goethe toiled for many an earnest year. He will read through world to man, and through all man’s fortunes, inward and outward, to the complete constitution and perfect architectures of his spirit. Let him succeed in that, and the word of words for our century and for many centuries is spoken. “ Positive philosophy,” with complacent sciolism, may still coldly asseverate that the world is a dead congeries of “laws,” into whose realm man is cast to take pot-luck in the universe ; but we shall know better. The worldling may still find all good and all evil in the mere fortunes of man ; we shall see beyond these. The fatalist may persist in regarding limits and conditions as the all in all of life ; we shall see them as a foothold for growth. Once that the spirit of man appears as the final recipient and vessel of uses, the orderly emptiness of world-law is filled with a meaning, while the wild welter of man’s fortunes and the rigid fixity of his conditions find alike sufficing centre around which their orbit is drawn.
Observe, however, that we have here no piece of system - making. Goethe does not attempt a final scientific theory of existence. He pictures life from this point of view. If you can feel the verity in this picture, you may then feel the same verity in that picture which Another has painted, namely, in life itself.
Observe, once more, that even here life is depicted only from one of its two poles, and that, perhaps, the lesser. The theme is Growth, and this growth is considered as proceeding from definite elements contained in man’s being, and proceeding to definite results still contained in his being. “ Faust ” assumes the opposite pole. Its theme is Destiny. It regards man’s life as sweeping down upon him from heights above his thought, and proceeding to ends beyond his imagination. His existence appears as fashioned in essence and end by predestinating power, and the Eternal “ takes the responsibility.”
The artist must choose his point of view. It is impossible to paint the house at once from the inside and from the outside. “ Faust ” is properly an epic poem; “Wilhelm Meister” is a prose epic, — and prose, not from lack of metre, but precisely from its point of view. It treats life, not as proceeding from the bosom and moving to the ends of benign Destiny, but as contained in thought, will, character, aspiration, love, and as contingent, rather than eternally predestined, in its result. Much of religious grandeur, therefore, — to the great disgust of Novalis,— it loses; much of economic value it gains. A prose picture : yet even here we read through all else to man, and through all else in man himself to the upbuilding of his spirit. As Goethe reads life, let us see if we can read his book.
We assume, then, his point of view. Growth, — our eyes are given us that we may see this as the end, all else as material and means. Prices and kingdoms may rise or fall ; we are not indifferent ; but the immortal architectures of man’s spirit are priceless, and here the sceptres are indeed held by divine right.
What, now, — every one will hasten to question, — what are the chief forces that induce or regulate growth ? What is their typical order in appearance and combination ? What is the complete result ? To these questions Wilhelm Meister is Goethe’s answer.
The first place in the list of producing forces is given by him to Imagination. He makes Wilhelm describe, with elaborate, and lingering detail, a puppet-show which in childhood enchanted him, and whose mechanism he afterwards possessed and managed with enduring fascination. Mariana yawns in listening ; the lounging novel-reader will yawn too. But under this tedious triviality, as the reader of stock-novels will deem it, lurks a meaning serious enough to entice all save those who are indeed trivial. It indicates the playinstinct in children as the first fountain of growth. Nature justifies Goethe. How grave and absorbed are children at their play ! With what touching implicit faith do they assume this as something that pays for its costs ! Crabtree scowls ; Moneybags pooh-poohs ; but Nature is too strong for them, and the children play on. It is significant. In truth, a child's faculty for play, that is, for imaginative engagement, is the prime measure of his capacity for growth. Follow his play, you who would know him, — follow it with studious, sympathetic eye ; for in the range and depth of imaginative interest it displays you read the promise of his being. The child that is not fascinated by his fancies is of a meagre nature, and will come to nothing great.
Why is imagination so concerned in growth ? That I call a delightful question, and could run with rejoicing to answer it ; but here, not without effort, I must pass it by. There is more to be said upon it than we have space for now: some other day. Enough now that imagination is so concerned with growth ; enough that Nature, by the being of every child born into the world, makes oath to the fact.
But there is a spice of devil in this angel. Of old, when the sons of God came together, Satan came with them ; and still, when the primal powers of man’s soul assemble to perform their grand act of worship, which is the complete upbuilding of a human spirit. Factitious Tendency, the father of mischief, is punctually at hand. So in young Wilhelm. He craves free play for the divine energies of his being. But the hard actual world resists him ; instead of offering itself humbly as a vehicle for his fine imaginings, it tries to make a mere tool of him. So he flies from it in scorn. The cold, spacious emptiness of his father’s life, the shrivelled content of old Werner’s,—-these show him the quality of real life. Fie upon reality, then ! He will away, and find a concocted play-world, where all shall suit his purpose, and where he shall have nothing to do but picture forth in beauty his inward being.
He finds this, poor boy, in the stage. There no reality will exist but such as is made for his purposes. There his fine imaginations may have it all their own way. There, in heroic costume and by gas-light, his sole business shall be to express sublime sentiments in the most effective manner, while all the surroundings are strictly accessory. How fine to discover an heroic situation dumbly begging him to appear and be its speaking lay-figure !
Making play, instead of ennobling work till through that the soul can play, — that is child’s play. Finding spiritual deliverance in a there, in a “gotup ” situation, — that is romanticism. And it is the representative error of nobly imagining youth.
But lay-figure heroics are not heroism ; and the made-up situation proves more straitening than that situation which God has made for all, namely, the real world. The stage is found to be wooden as its own boards. It gives Wilhelm for companions a crew of spiritual incapables, who have excellent appetites at others’ cost, who higgle, bicker, sneak away from duty, are good for nothing, and pretend everything ; while, but for his escape, it would make his own life a mere cul-de-sac with a slough at the end.
Yet he is boy-wise as well as boy-foolish. His imaginations fertilize, though they mislead him. His impulse to live over the world, rather than under it, is the vital impulse of the human soul.
But long before imagination has proceeded to the results named, another grand fructifying force has come to its aid, namely, Love. “ The ever-womanly leadeth us on.” Love, — it is, we may say, a chemical change in the man, like the conversion of starch into sugar, or grape-juice into wine. Full of sweetness and sweet intoxication, it belongs to the profoundest economies of Nature ; and he who with his whole soul and body has once loved is another being henceforth. Acid or even putrid fermentations may set in ; but what he was before he cannot be again. Goethe, therefore, follows Nature in placing this next to imagination as a producer of growth, — next in Nature and in Goethe’s pages, because its alliance with imagination is so immediate and intimate. He who does not idealize does not love.
But here also is peril. Love, while filling Wilhelm’s being with those precious heats which are the blind substance of all chivalry and nobility, clothes the stage with the added enchantment of Mariana’s presence, and so bewitches the poor youth with still more of that “false tendency” which is his proper Satan. Moreover, by rushing headlong toward consummation, and overleaping the bounds of prudential morality, it brings both upon Mariana and himself sore retributions. Her, poor child, it hurries to the grave ; him it pushes to the grave’s brink, and stores even his recovered strength with anguish and a lifelong regret.
Goethe is accused of immorality. He does, indeed, depict grave errors without exclaiming over them, without holding up his hands, or playing any pantomime of horror. Moreover, a love pure in its essence, but heedless in its procedure, he persists in naming pure, though heedless. But he indicates, with a rigor that is even appalling, the retributions which pursue levity and precipitation, not to mention things worse. I have read many books which gave more moral stimulation than “Wilhelm Meister ” ; I have never read any which, while frankly acknowledging that Nature’s blessing goes more with noble essence than with decorous form, yet indicates with equal power the iron nerve of moral law that runs through and through the world.
And now, as third performer in this real drama of growth, comes forward a redoubtable figure, the Sense of Self. His reputation, indeed, is not of the best. All, it is true, embrace him privately ; but most think it decorous to disavow him in public.
On the whole, I is a very serviceable pronoun ; and equally its complement in consciousness is serviceable. Welcome, Ego, to your place ! The feeling of Self is the nominative, the naming case, in the syntax of consciousness. But, as, by the rules of grammar, the nominative is to be made the subject of a verb, so in the grammar of growth this self-feeling is subjected to the grand verbum, the action and total significance of one's existence.
Bring it out, then, clearly, pronounce it with due distinctness and force, that it may be clearly and definitely subjected.
Nature attends to that. She secures the nominative in her spiritual syntax. And so there is a period in earlier life when this feeling of self is getting pronounced. Very pronounced it is sometimes, a little severe in its emphasis upon delicate ears. And, indeed, if it come without adjective, without gentle qualification, almost any hearer must confess that he has known sounds more musical.
In Wilhelm it is sweetly qualified with love and imagination. It appears in luxuriant dreams of the poet’s life, — of him who is not merely a penpoet, but a living lyric, a poet in heart and soul. “And this life of true glory,” cries the heart of Wilhelm, “ may be mine, mine ! ” A gentle and magnanimous egoism, but still an egoism. But the due subjection of this self-feeling will come duly ; in the qualifications that even now make it lovely the sure promise of that is contained.
Fourth in order appears a much prettier figure, namely, Philanthropy, the loving desire to serve man. It is, indeed, at first, sufficiently sweeping and ambitious. No half-way work, no boy's play here ! He will regenerate the race ; he will ennoble humanity, without sparing one caitiff of them all ; he will establish it on some perpetual mount of transfiguration ; and all by the magic of stage effect. No boy’s play !
All this, too, is noble and vital. With exquisite appreciation Goethe depicts it, seeing well how vital it is in essence, — seeing, too, how vapory it is in form. Who knows better than he that to crave service, and to crave it in love, and to crave it without limit, is of the very substance of all that enriches man ? To whomsoever this divine longing is foreign all the profound uses of life are foreign ; he is barren as beach-sand.
Humanity, however, is not swung away from its mud-moorings so easily ; probably would only go adrift and come to wreck, if it were : witness the French Revolution. Sing, bird, in the tree-tops ! but when you fly, think not to make the pines fly with you ! It is only by slow vital assimilations that man is ameliorated. We do our best in digging and fertilizing a little about the roots, or in bearing pollen, like bees, from flower to flower. We do our best by a little meek furtherance of Nature. And this meekness of labor is no less necessary for ourselves than for those we would serve. Ambitious world-mending is, on one side, self-flattery.
Meanwhile horrible tragedies of charlatanism, or terrible tragedies of disgust and despair await an incontinent enthusiasm for the rôle of Providence.
Wilhelm’s nature has now been greatly enriched. But all that has enriched has also imperilled. Imagination, love, self-feeling, and philanthropy have stored his breast with golden wealth ; but they are one and all making over that wealth to a false tendency. Long before this, however, Goethe has brought in chastening, tempering forces, by which these riches may be economized.
First, and in the person of Jarno, enters the Critical Understanding. True as steel, cold and keen as steel also, antipathetic to all sentiment, clear and decisive partly by what he has and partly by what he has not, Jarno offers with unsparing rigor to shear away Wilhelm's illusions, not seeing that in these very illusions runs an artery rich in his reddest life-blood.
Critical understanding, the disenchanter,— light without heat or color, — begins at a certain period in nobly imagining and impassioned youth to break through the cloudy glories, and shame all with its cold glare. That sudden skeptic shame ! Do you know it, reader ? Do you remember moments when all that had glorified life seemed suddenly to stand before yon a detected impostor, a beggar playing king, and now stripped to his rags ? All, me ! and how pathetically old and wise the neophyte becomes all at once ! He will be fooled no longer, he! Love, friendship, philanthropy, — he has looked under the words, and found all they covered, namely, nothing. Henceforth he will hunt sentiment out of him, as it were a wolf. Henceforth he will measure out his life by hand, and be purely — and barrenly — “ reasonable.”
Unhappy, could he succeed. A mere life of the understanding is just one degree better than idiocy. Sweep out imagination, and all the angels go with it. To freeze the heated geysers of the soul ? It were to freeze the core of the world. Better to be nobly moon-struck than turned into a pillar of salt, even were it Attic salt. Better to be Don Quixote than a very archangel Sancho.
And yet unhappy is the nobly impassioned and imagining soul that can never discriminate, never distinguish between the central suggestions of the soul and the chance directions these may have taken. It is he of all men who needs just this, discrimination. Is there any tragedy like that of Don Quixote ? A god blinded by his own light ! An Olympian charging upon windmills, while a toad squats aside and grins at the spectacle ! The ludicrousness is but the last sting of the tragedy. On the whole, critical understanding must have heed. The divine mania of the soul must listen even to this Sancho with his wise saws. Hard it is for the higher to become pupil of the lower, to accept and use its very contempt, and yet forbear to learn contempt of itself, stooping only to conquer. Yet even this must be. Heat is divine, but cold also is necessary. The cloudy glories of rich impassioned spirits, the vapors that float, scarlet and gold, in their heavens, must strike against the icy mountain-tops of common-sense, that the cold may condense them into fruitful rain. Hence thunder, lightning, storm, and wild commotion in the soul ; but hence harvest also. The first great inward struggle is this between heat and cold ; and where the heats are tropical, the collision is violent. Yet these contraries must both work into the great economies of life.
Cold — cold prudence and choice — appears first in its embodiment, Jarno, who symbolizes its secret beginnings in Wilhelm. But then and there its beginnings are only symbolized. Soon, however, disappointment bitterer than death, with sickness, remorse, horror, enters and chills him to the core. Ah, and so these clouds of glory are only raw vapor and mist, after all ! The rainy season has set in. “ Let’s into the house,” says Prudence; “let ’s box ourselves up nicely, and get some comfort, since that is the whole of life.” No, he will not do that; he will stand out, and be drenched, and realize the full extent of his illusion. Henceforth his one employment shall be to taunt his heart with its own hopes, to put all the summer blossom and beauty of his former imaginations beside this wintry death-in-life, and shame them by the contrast.
This period in Wilhelm’s life is wrought out in Goethe’s picture with extreme power.
But he recovers himself, slowly. And Goethe’s great knowledge of human nature is shown in this, that Wilhelm does not regain his ennobling imaginations while holding fast to the cool suggestions of prudence. No, he reverts to the former, forsaking the latter. The cold season has passed over him, and seemingly left nothing behind. With health and joy, his illusions, one by one, one and all, return. I find this true. Oscillation between opposite poles, — how long it lasts ! A powerful experience comes, and all seems changed in one’s being; it passes, and nothing seems changed. “ Is there for me,” one might cry, “only this aimless seesaw ? To-day Don Quixote, to-morrow Sancho, next day Don Quixote again,— is that to go on forever?” Happy is he, provided his poverty be not his exemption, who has never wrung his hands in utter despair of finding centrality, unity, at last, — a centre where the divine passion and afflatus of the heart are reconciled with the hard-eyed perceptions of common-sense.
But life is not a mere pendulum. Nature works to her ends. There is oscillation, but also growth. And so, though Wilhelm recurs to his illusions, and even embodies them by going upon the stage, the seeds of discriminating judgment are sown in his heart, and are already germinating.
Travel, with observation of men, and the attempt to work with them, sobers him further. He begins to recognize limits and conditions, and to do so without surrendering his hopes and happy dreams. He perceives, little by little, that there are some men who can give and receive help, and some who can do neither,—some with whom one can nobly coöperate, others whose hands approach his own only to obstruct and entangle. He sees that he himself is limited, and that possibly the world might not fare so much better in his hands than in those of its Maker. It dawns upon him, that, on the whole, he is not here to make worlds, but to work in a limited sphere and for limited results. And yet his hopes and imaginations are not put to shame ; for he feels, that, even amid these iron limits of labor and effect, a result of unlimited, absolute worth is also getting wrought.
And now, in this harmonizing of heat and cold into one tempered economy, in this recognition of limits and conditions, without surrender of inspiring imagination and hope, he approaches the term of his wandering, and nears home.
This consummation is hastened in what may seem a singular way, — by reading Shakspeare. These matchless pictures of real life give him, as life itself had never given, the feeling of real. The sentiment of Reality, for the first time, awakens in power. It is much, almost infinitely much, he perceives, to be just this, real. The smallest reality •—-so with some astonishment he discovers— affords more scope to imagination itself than any conceivable magnificence of make-belief. Real, — rooted in eternal Nature, with a pedigree older than the stars ! Is not any pebble, if we consider its advent into existence and its cosmic relations, enough, not only to occupy, but to beggar imagination ? Existence, — is not that the one inexhaustible fact ? He feels it so, and in that feeling the contending opposites of his being come to sudden reconciliation.
Reality, — the hard, cold, critical understanding has done no worse than to insist upon that. But it has insisted upon that after its own cold fashion, as a mere frozen surface, giving no warm and fruitful hospitality to the divine seeds of hope, love, and imagination. On the other hand, the angels of Wilhelm’s heart have fled away from reality because they accepted this representation. Suddenly they find this their true home. Now, then, they will sow in the clouds no longer. Reality, beneath its hard, limited outside, opens to them its divine bosom, and says, “ Ye also are real: sow here.”
And now the boards feel thin under Wilhelm’s feet. Enough of these. Enough of masquerading. Enough of make-belief heroics: belief, accepting limits and conditions, that on them and out of them it may build the spiritual architectures of life, is heroism. Enough of play-acting: work is the true play. Moral imagination has found its home and its freedom in the real; and therewith the first epoch of his life rounds into completion, passes over its virtue to another, and in his life there is an ending and a beginning.
In what consists this complete beginning? In this, that he now gets his eye on himself in a wholly new way. He sees his being as a spiritual whole, a complete design in the thought of Eternal Nature, which design he is religiously bound to divine and serve. To serve Creative Reality even in the regards he bestows upon himself, — in coming to that aim and action, he, for the first time, beholds his being with a pure eye. “ To say it in a word," he writes to Werner, “ the cultivation of my individual self, here as I am, has, from my youth upward, been constantly, though dimly, my wish and purpose. The same intention I still cherish, but the means of realizing it are now grown somewhat clearer.” 1
“ Selfish ” is that ? It is not the goal, but it is not selfish. Only as the sense of self is subordinated, only as it not only resigns dominion, but becomes a loyal steward in the household of the soul, happy in obedience, can one arrive at real self-culture, —that is, accept his being at the hands of Formative Nature as a design to be served. While selffeeling holds one in close grip, he can never so much as see his being in this pure, objective way, any more than he can look back into his own eyes. The very act of receiving it as the farm which he is to till, — as a spiritual whole, to which all parts, all partial acts and interests, and the sense of self among them, are to be subordinated and made serviceable,-— this implies not merely a liberation from egoism, but much more, namely, utilization of it. Real self-culture consists in the happy and obedient service of uses in one’s own spirit. The uses of the world, we have said, are enshrined in the spirit of man ; when one can freely and faithfully serve these, his life as a whole human being has begun.
Self-culture, in the Goethean sense, is, then, a much nobler and more religious affair than the popular notion makes it. But even this, I repeat, is, in Goethe’s view, simply the complete beginning. True, the usual notion is different. Some, that suppose themselves his followers, rest finally in self-culture ; many, who think this the goal of Goethe’s own life, inveigh against him accordingly. Did men, however, always wait to understand ere condemning, much virtuous indignation would never come to use. Precious is virtuous indignation ; nevertheless, here there is for it no suitable occasion. Wilhelm goes on toward spiritual ripeness ; we follow his advance.
The next step is symbolized by that charming episode, “ Confessions of a Fair Saint,” whose relation to the whole work many critics profess themselves unable to see, — indeed, I know not whether any critic has seen clearly what, nevertheless, is clearly there to be seen. Religion is flowering in Wilhelm’s soul. He rests softly in Absolute Reality, in That which eternally, infinitely IS. It is a deepening to infinitude of his feeling for the Real. From superficial, he comes to divine Reality, and finds this not only sufficing, but inspiring, not only commanding obedience, but blessing, exalting, crowning, making it royal.
This is not directly shown in Wilhelm himself, but symbolized by his interest in the narrative of another. In Wilhelm it is hidden, — a-flowermg, but secret. The very design is to suggest that his religion does not come out of him, and become formal, but remains in him, in vital, creative intimacy with his entire being. For it is one point of Goethe’s art to hint at secret processes in the soul by some external representative, — and the appearance of principal personages in this work is always connected with some suggestion of that kind. They stand for what they are in themselves ; they have also their direct influence on Wilhelm ; and they also symbolize that which cannot be directly shown in his inward growth.
Wilhelm comes to his knees before Absolute Reality; kneeling, he accepts his being. Self-culture henceforth has got its baptism, freedom its law and its blessing of obedience, which leave it freedom still.
Has the reader some misgiving that I foist this interpretation upon the book ? There is not, indeed, a direct syllable to this effect. What assurance, then, that this interpretation is not gratuitous ?
This, first, — the “ Confessions ” are there; hence are related to the import of the whole. But perhaps the reader thinks, with the redoubtable Mr. Lewes, that the work is not a whole at all, but a piece of patchwork. If so, this reason will not weigh with him.
But my interpretation is conclusively affirmed in another way. The Wilhelm of the seventh book is no longer the Wilhelm of the fifth. We leave him on one side this episode, we find him on the other, and he is not the same man. He has suffered a sea-change ; for his keel has been wetted in the waters of Eternity. The Abbé recognizes him with difficulty.
It is the old secret. No man can look on Absolute Reality, and live in the antecedent quality of his life. He is a new man henceforth,—: consumed and created.
And now we come to the consummate act and epoch of his life. He has found himself; he is now to give himself, and, in giving, is to find himself anew. He is to lose and find himself in social uses. In this sacred act of social immersion, by which, since it can now be done sanely, he is to be, not dissipated, but divinely assured to himself, his spirit and Goethe’s work at last rest.
The key-note to this part of the work is struck in the cool tones of Jarno. “It is right,” he says, “that a man, when he first enters upon life, should think highly of himself, should determine to attain many high distinctions, should endeavor to make all things possible ; but when his education has proceeded to a certain pitch, it is advantageous for him that he learn to lose himself among a mass of men, that he learn to live for the sake of others, and to forget himself in an activity prescribed by duty'.”
Wilhelm approaches this higher act by degrees.
First, by an exalted and matured love of woman. It is not here a fume and sweet intoxication in the blood, but a true passion of the soul, a profound yearning to ally his spirit. By an inward necessity, he must give himself to one other, and from that other receive himself again, made sacred with Nature’s baptism. The need of this reciprocation is stronger with him than even his election of a particular person with whom to establish it. So, when it becomes impossible for Theresa to accept his hand, he passes soon to Natalia, to whom, however, his attraction is subtler and older.
On this follows the deep self-devotion of fatherhood. The longing to bestow his soul pushes beyond the love of woman, and looks for another object, where the giving is more simple, because the visible return is less. But here again he does not wish to give himself officiously,— to thrust himself unbidden into the household of another life ; he would do it in simple obedience to Nature. Therefore, when of those who seem to know everything he can ask one question and no more, there is just one question which his very soul asks : — “Is Felix indeed my son ? ”
“ Hail to thee for the question ! ” cries the providential Abbé. “ Hail to thee, my son ! Thy apprenticeship is ended. Nature pronounces thee free.”
Yes, when he craves of Nature, not aggrandizement, but a duty, — when he entreats her commands to bestow of all that is deepest and dearest in his spirit on another, and yet to do it so in simple response to her behest that in all he shall give only what is due, — then he is free. No self-flattery here ; no feeling that he is performing some wonderful piece of self-sacrifice, which puts the universe under obligations to him. He would give all, but give where he owes all, not only in obedience, but in meek thankfulness.
This done, he can go farther. Established indestructibly in the unity of his own being, established also in these devout relationships, he is prepared to enter into ampler relations, carrying into these the same obedience to Nature, the same sense of giving only what is due. Accordingly, he passes into noble mutualities of coöperation, service, and love with his equals, with those superior to himself, and with those to whom he is superior, not defrauded of his being, but secured in its possession, by that self-surrender.
Not at a leap, indeed, does he attain to this dignity of life. Causeless suspicions infest him ; again and again he snatches himself back, and retreats into spiritual isolation. Like an uncertain swimmer, who, wading into deep water, draws back in sudden alarm as his feet begin to lift themselves buoyantly from the sands, so he is smitten with jealous fear, and hastens to regain his former foothold, just when his immersion in social use and fellowship was becoming complete. But ever as he grows surer of himself, and ever as he rests more trustfully in eternal Reality, he becomes more capable of yielding trust to those who deserve it, and yielding himself to those unto whom he rightly belongs.
And so lost and found, so self-given and self-contained, so abandoned to the high uses of life, and by that very act saved, by that act secured to himself in spiritual wholeness, Goethe leaves him at the close of the Apprenticeship: for of the Travels, which is another mine of suggestion, I do not speak here.
To sum all. The whole work climbs steadily to this consummate act of selfsurrender without self-dissipation, without self-flattery, without officiousness, and without reserve. But in order that one may give himself nobly, he must nobly have himself to give. To this end there are prerequisites. First, fructification, a rich development of heats and fruitful powers ; and of the nature and order of these Goethe aims to give account. Secondly, a due tempering of these by the cold, faithful severities of understanding and experience. Third, as resulting, a high repose in Reality, — high, because one reposes there, not in base compromise with it or with himself, but in hope, in duty, in imagining heroism of heart. Fourthly and finally, comes a relation to one’s own being, at once utterly religious and utterly sane, whereby one commands himself in obedience to the total law and uses of his spirit. Having achieved this, one may go forward, through further experience and deeper life, to that act of religious and sane self-bestowal, wherein he first becomes, in the full, majestic sense, a man.
- The citations are from Carlyle's translation. It is of no use to do over again what is already thoroughly done.↩