THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Our current Age of Reason has been driven by its writers, and not only in the compass of theory, but in fiction too, as exemplified by the likes of Smollett, whose recent Humphry Clinker, reviewed elsewhere in these pages, is an outward looking book, that concerns itself with the world; and a forward looking one, that extols mankind’s progress.
Now, we can all have too much of a good thing, but it seems unripe for the pendulum of fashion to reverse its course and swing back, if not towards superstition, then heart-driven folly, or ‘sentimentalism’, as critics have termed the new humour. I understand that Herr Goethe, who here gives us The Sorrows of Young Werther, is a practising lawyer of Hesse, but if this offering is a guide, he seems not only to lack the clear-headed perspicacity enjoined by his profession, but to positively celebrate the failing.
His hero, Werther, is a charming and gifted youth who is yet incorrigibly idle. He drifts through the world as though in a dream, enabled by his privileged station in life to idealise all around him, including the grind of rural labour; or as he sees it, “the joys of the man who brings to the table a head of cabbage he has grown himself.” The world as it really is, with its attendant strivings and lacerations, does not exist for him because it does not impinge upon him. The sufferings of his fellow creatures mean nothing to him, because he cannot feel them himself. The world, in fine, is as idyllic as the bubble he inhabits. This is a tale that could never have been written about a poor man.
When he forms an attachment to a woman who is promised, and later wed, to another, he refuses to countenance life without her. His parts and connections render him very likely in any of the spheres of public affairs, but rather than cultivate himself, by which process he might also make a difference to the world, he succumbs to self-pity. Gulled by Rousseau’s Gospel of Nature and the fraudulent drivel of Ossian, he sees only virtue in giving his emotions free-reign over his being, believing that such a passion as his cannot be wrong.
Glorying in torment, he wails on his cross to the deity, “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”; to himself, “No one has ever suffered like you!”; and to the unfortunate reader, “Oh, has any human heart before me ever been so wretched?” Finally, he makes an end of himself, though not before talking about it, over and over, and at some length.
This new literary mode may find favour with the public taste for gaudy emotion, but I, ad meliora, cannot celebrate the inability to see beyond one’s own passions, or the refusal to give way to reason, these being among the causes of all those vicissitudes visited upon us during the previous century. Though I have been accused of having a long memory.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is printed in Liepzig, in der Weygandschen Buchhandlung, and will cost you nothing if you want my copy; Lincoln’s Inn Chambers, first come first served.