Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), p. 65 (Letter of 18 August)


Did it really have to be like this?--that the source of Man's contentment becomes the source of his misery?

My heart's immense and ardent feeling for living Nature, which overwhelmed me with so great a joy and made the world about me a very paradise, has now become an unbearable torment, a demon that goes with me everywhere, torturing me. At other times, when I gazed from the crags across the river to those hilltops yonder, taking in the entire fertile valley and seeing all about me burgeoning and putting forth new life; when I saw the mountains, clad from foot to peak with thick and mighty trees, and the winding valleys shaded by the most delightful woods, and the river flowing gently amongst the whispering reeds and mirroring the lovely clouds which a soft evening breeze wafted across the heavens; and when I heard the birds carolling in the forest all around, and millions of midges danced their giddy dance in the last red glow of sunlight, and a last setting ray brought forth the humming beetle from its grassy retreat, and all the busy buzzing made me study the ground, where the moss that gains its sustenance from the unyielding rocks, and the heath that grows on the barren sand, revealed to me the inmost, sacred warmth of the life of Nature--at such times, how ardently my heart embraced it all: I felt as if I had been made a god in that overwhelming abundance, and the glorious forms of infinite Creation moved in my soul, giving it life. Immense mountains surrounded me, chasms yawned at my feet, streams swollen by rain tumbled headlong, rivers flowed below me and the forests and mountains resounded; and I could see those immeasurable and incomprehensible powers at work in the depths of the earth, and above the earth's surface, beneath the heavens, there teemed all the infinite species of Creation. Everything, all of it, is peopled with myriad forms; and then mankind comes building its nests, crowding together safely in little houses, and supposes it rules over the whole wide world! Poor fool! imagining everything to be so small, because you are yourself so small.--From the most inaccessible of mountains, to the desert where no man has ever set foot, to the very ends of the unknown ocean, breathes the spirit of the eternal Creator, rejoicing in every speck of dust that is alive and knows Him.--Ah, how often in former times did I long for the wings of a crane that passed overhead, to fly to the shores of the measureless sea, and there drink the full joy of Life from the foaming goblet of the Eternal, and taste, if only for a single moment, with the limited power that is in my breast, one drop of the blessed serenity of that Being who makes all things, in Himself and through Himself.

Dear brother, only the recollection of those times gives me any pleasure. Even the effort of recalling those inexpressible feelings and uttering them once more uplifts my soul, and then leaves me doubly aware of the fearfulness of the condition I am now in.

It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my soul, and this scene of infinite life had been transformed before my eyes into the abyss of the grave, forever open wide. Can you say that anything is, when in fact it is all transient? and all passes by as fast as any storm, seldom enduring in the full force of existence, but ah! torn away by the torrent, submerged beneath the waves and dashed against the rocks? There is not one moment that does not wear you away, and those who are close to you, nor any one moment when you yourself are not a destroyer, of necessity: the most innocent of walks costs thousands of wretched grubs their lives, one step wrecks what the ant laboriously built and treads a little world into an ignominious grave underfoot. Ha! It is not the major but rare catastrophes of the world, the floods that wash away your villages, the earthquakes that sallow up your cities, that move me; what wastest my heart away is the corrosive power that lies concealed in the natural universe--in Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbour and itself. And so I go my fearful way betwixt heaven and earth and all their active forces; and all I can see is a monster, forever devouring, regurgitating, chewing and gorging.

Whew! Werther's quivering sensibility, which invests nature with his own emotions, has taken him a long way from the garden scene of the first letter (to read, click here). This impassioned letter, written shortly before Werther attempts to free himself from his suicidal melancholy by leaving to work for the ambassador, reminds us of the maddened melancholy to which the sensibilious soul can find itself prey. The horror at the death of the "wretched grubs" also reminds us of the scene in A Sentimental Journey in which Yorick weeps over the dead ass (to read, click here).

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