“Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” by J. W. Goethe

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship a novel by Johann Wolfang von Goethe, published in 1795-96.

From Chapter XI

Wilhelm received a letter from his brother-in-law, Werner, convincing him, with sound reasons and economical reality, to terminate his travels and to return to the family business where he is much needed after the death of his father.

Well as this letter might be penned, and full of it economical truths as it was, Wilhelm felt displeased with it for more than one reason. The praise bestowed  on him for his pretended statistical, technological, and rural knowledge was a silent reprimand. The ideal of the happiness of civic life, which his brother sketched, by no means charmed him: on the contrary, a secret spirit of contradiction dragged him forcibly the other way. He convinced himself that, except on the stage, he could nowhere find that mental culture which he longed to give himself: he seemed to grow the more decided in his resolution, the more strongly Werner, without knowing it, opposed him. Thus assailed, he collected all his argument together, and buttressed his opinions in his mind the more carefully, the more desirable he reckoned it to show them in a favourable light to Werner; and in this manner he produced an answer, which also we insert.

Wilhelm replies:

The letter is so well written, and so prudently and wisely conceived, that no objection can be made to it. Only thou must pardon me, when I declare that one may think, maintain, and do directly the reverse, and yet be in the right as well as thou. Thy mode of being and imagining appears to turn on boundless acquisition, and a light,  mirthful manner of enjoyment: I need scarcely tell thee , that in all this I find little that can charm me.

First, however, I am sorry to admit, that my journal is none of mine.  Under the pressure of necessity, and to satisfy my father, it was patched together by a friend’s heliport of many books: and though in words I know the object it relates to, and more of the like sort, I by no means understand them, or can occupy myself about them.  What good it were for me to manufacture perfect iron while my own bread is full of dross?  What would it stead to me to put properties of land in order, while I am at variance with myself?

To speak it in a word, the cultivation of my individual self, here as I am, has from my youth upwards been constantly, though dimly, my wish and purpose. The same intention I still cherish, but the means of realising it are now grown somewhat clearer.  I have seen more of life than thou believest, and profited more by it also. Give some attention, then, to what I say, though it should not altogether tally with thy own opinions.

Had I been a nobleman, our dispute would soon have been decided;  but, being a simple burgher (citizen), I must take a path of my own: and I fear it may be difficult to make thee understand me.  I know not how it is in foreign countries, but in Germany, a universal, and, if I may say so, personal cultivation is beyond the reach of anyone except a nobleman.  a burgher may acquire merit; by excessive efforts he might even educate his mind; but his personal qualities are lost, or worse than lost, let hm struggle as he will.  Since the nobleman, frequenting the society of the most polished, is compelled to give himself a polished manner; since this manner, neither door nor gate being shut against him, grows at last an unconstrained one; since in court or camp, his figure, his person, are part of his possessions, and, it may be, the most necessary part, — he has reason enough to put some values on them, and to show that he puts some. A certain stately grace in common things, a sort of gay elegance in earnest and important ones, becomes him well; for it shows him to be everywhere in equilibrium. He is a public person; and the more cultivated his movements, the more sonorous his voice, the more staid and measured his whole being is, the more perfect is he. If to high and low, to friends and relations, he continues still the same, then nothing can be said against him, none may wish him otherwise. His coldness must be reckoned clearness of head, his dissimulation prudence. If he can rule himself externally at every moment of his life, no man has aught more demand of him and whatever else there may be in him or about him, capacities, talents, wealth, all seem gifts of supererogation.*

Now imagine any burgher offering ever to pretend to these advantages, he will utterly fail, and the more completely, the greater inclination and the more endowments nature may have given him for that mode of being.

Since,  in common life, the nobleman is hampered by no limits; since kings or kinglike figures, do not differ from him, — he can everywhere advance with silent consciousness, as if before his equals: everywhere he is entitled to press forward, whereas nothing more beseems the burgher than the quiet feeling of the limits that are drawn round him. The burgher may not ask himself, “What art thou?”  He can only ask himself “What hast thou? What discernment, talent, wealth?” If the nobleman, merely by his personal carriage, offers all that can be asked  of him, the burgher by his personal carriage offers nothing, and can offer nothing. The former has a right to seem: the latter is compelled to be, and what he aims at seeming becomes ludicrous and tasteless. The former does and makes, the latter but effects and procures; he must cultivate some single gifts in order to be useful; and it is beforehand settled, that, in his manner of existence, there is no harmony, and can be none, since he is bound to make himself of use in one department, and so has to relinquish all the others.

Perhaps the reason for this difference is not the usurpations with the nobles, and the submission of the burgers, but the Constitution of society itself. Whether it will ever alter, and how, is to me of no small importance: my present business is to meet my own case, as matters actually stand; to consider by what means I may save myself, and reach the object which I cannot live in peace without.

Now, this harmonious cultivation of my nature, which has been denied me by birth, is exactly what I'm most long for. Since leaving thee, I have gained much by voluntary practice: I have laid aside much of my wanted embarrassment, and can be myself in very tolerable style. My speech and voice I have likewise been attending to; and I may say, without much vanity, that in society I do not cause displeasure. But I will not conceal from thee, that my inclination to become a public person, and to please and influence in a larger circle, is daily growing more insuperable. With this, there is combined my love for poetry and all that is related to it; and the necessity I feel to cultivate my mental faculties and tastes, that so, in this enjoyment henceforth indispensable, and may esteem as good, the good alone, as beautiful, the beautiful alone. Thou seest well, that for me all this is nowhere to be met with except upon the stage; but in this element alone can I fit and cultivate myself according to my wishes. On the boards** a polished man appears in his splendour with personal accomplishments, just as he does so in the upper classes of society; body and spirit must advance with equal steps in all his studies; and there I shall have it in my power at once to be and seem as well as anywhere. If I further long for solid occupations, we have there mechanical vexations in abundance: I may give my patience daily exercise.

Dispute not with me on this subject; for, ere thou writest, this step is taken. In compliance with the ruling prejudices, I will change my name; as indeed that of Meister , or Master does not suit me. Farewell! Our Fortune is in good hands: on that subject I shall not disturb myself. What I need I will, as occasion calls, require from thee: it will not be much, for I hope my art will be sufficient to maintain me.”

Scarcely was the letter sent away, when our friend made good his words. To the great surprise of Serlo (Editor: the manager of the theatre) and the rest, he once declared that he was ready to become an actor, and bind himself by a contract on reasonable terms. 

  • Definition of supererogation: the act of performing more than is required by duty, obligation, or need.
  • ** Definition of  ‘on the boards’:  on the stage

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From Chapter III

WILHELM had scarcely read one or two of Shakspeare’s plays, till their effect on him became so strong that he could go no farther. His whole soul was in commotion. He sought an opportunity to speak with Jarno; to whom, on meeting with him, he expressed his boundless gratitude for such delicious entertainment.

“I clearly enough foresaw,” said Jarno, “that you would not remain insensible to the charms of the most extraordinary and most admirable of all writers.”

“Yes!” exclaimed our friend; “I cannot recollect that any book, any man, any incident of my life, has produced such important effects on me, as the precious works, to which by your kindness I have been directed. They seem as if they were performances of some celestial genius, descending among men, to make them, by the mildest instructions, acquainted with themselves. They are no fictions! You would think, while reading them, you stood before the unclosed awful Books of Fate, while the whirlwind of most impassioned life was howling through the leaves, and tossing them fiercely to and fro. The strength and tenderness, the power and peacefulness of this man have so astonished and transported me, that I long vehemently for the time when I shall have it in my power to read farther.”

“Bravo!” said Jarno, holding out his hand, and squeezing our friend’s: “this is as it should be! And the consequences, which I hope for, will likewise surely follow.”

“I wish,” said Wilhelm.


© Graham Dixon 2017