The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe

Hampl’s search for the sublime led me to thinking about the Romantic Movement. Reacting to the dry rationality of the Enlightenment, artists and young people of the 18th century turned instead to nature and the reasons of the heart. It is perhaps not surprising that such an explosion of youthful energy should, like the 1960s, come after a period of prosperity and the growth of the middle class. Impatient with bourgeois complacency and bored by their parents’ prudence, the new Romantics embraced the passions of the day for blue flowers, brooding heroes, dark ruins and terrible peaks.

I was bit surprised to realise that I had never actually read this classic. Even though today most people would associate the name Werther only with candy, the book was immensely popular in its time, making Goethe perhaps the first literary celebrity. Young people formed Werther clubs and imitated him, even wearing clothes like his. Tie-in merchandise was sold: china figurines, perfumes, fans and gloves with images of Werther and his beloved Lotte. There was even a wave of young people copying Werther’s actions, which led to the book being banned in some cities. Goethe himself compared the book to “a small firing charge . . . needed to detonate a powerful mine” and said that “everyone could now burst forth with his own exaggerated demands, unsatisfied passions, and imaginary sufferings.”

Having heard so much about the story already, I tried to approach it with an open mind. In some ways, it is the oldest story in the world. Vacationing in a rural German village, Werther meets a beautiful young woman as she delays leaving for a dance in order to cut bread for her motherless brothers and sisters. Even though he has been warned ahead of time that she is engaged to be married, he cannot help falling in love with Lotte. She, too, seems aware of the instant connection between them. The tale is told entirely through letters written by Werther to his friend, William, giving us at first hand the young man’s feelings and sensations. And such feelings!

My friend, Chris, has been talking about the two sisters in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility lately, asking who would we rather be, passionate Marianne or serious Elinor. It does often seem that siblings take on opposite roles. If the first child is introverted and quiet, then the second may be reckless and melodramatic. Of course, one wants both: Elinor’s stability enlivened by Marianne’s sense of fun.

In recent years I’ve seen too often the destructive results when people are guided by emotions rather than reason, their willingness to be conned. It is not that I never feel the passions that roiled my youth; rather it is that I don’t have to indulge them. Werther consciously chooses each step in his path. It is not that he is carried away by the strength of his feelings, but that he dwells on them and magnifies them. Even with that element of self-dramatisation, however, his openness compels sympathy. I admit, though, that I also had to sympathise with the young man’s poor employers, each in turn begging him to moderate his passions.

Goethe said that he wanted to write about a man who opens himself fully to the urgings of nature, both inside and out. Werther has a wonderful sense of oneness with the world around him: the linden trees, the stream, the cliffs.

I’m reminded of Jane Eyre, that passionate girl whose story was published 73 years after Werther appeared in 1774. One of the most fascinating things about Jane’s story is how, as she grows older and with only herself to rely on to make her way in life, she learns to contain her feelings. Her control and the banked strength of her passion give her immense power, the power that comes from knowing yourself through and through, a power far more important than what can be conferred by wealth or position. Her dignity and integrity despite her lowly station always inspire me, whereas this young man’s tale simply makes me sad.

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