The Joys of Young Werther

Friedrich Nicolai

The Joys of Young Werther

The Sorrows and Joys of Werther, the Man

Preceded and followed by a conversation



Hanns, a youth
Martin, a man


“The devil take the book The Sorrows of Young Werther,” said Hanns. “It pierces you to your very marrow, making all your veins swell and your brain flash, so at once you want to . . .”

“Ah yes, it’s that kind of book,” Martin replied. “He who wrote it can lie down to rest in peace, without having to worry that well-read fools will be talking of it a hundred years hence, saying: it is a rare book, you people; nobody has heard of or seen it for ninety-nine years.”

Hanns was twenty-one years of age and Martin, forty-two.

Hanns continued: “What a fellow that Werther was. Good, noble, strong. And how they misjudged him. The carrion flies came, landed upon him, sullied everything he did. And Albert, his friend, misjudged him likewise, became jealous. Ah, was there anything that was not Albert’s fault? I wouldn’t want to be Albert for all the riches in the world!

M: You wouldn’t want to be Albert? Listen, Hanns, you would be taking a major leap forward if you were Albert. Was Albert not the most upright, blameless, beneficent man, who loved Lotte with his entire soul? Should he have watched quietly while another man acted completely enamoured of his wife, turned her head and made her the subject of gossip? What on earth has Albert done that you would not want to be him?

H: That’s atrocious, did you not read how jealous he was, how rudely he spoke to Lotte when he found Werther in her company in all innocence?

M: And what if he did? Have you never spoken harshly to someone when your head was hot? Did Werther not have a head, too? And did his black blood not even suggest that he murder Albert and Lotte along with him? Should Werther be allowed to do anything and Albert nothing? Not even Werther wanted that. No, Hanns! Werther may be your hero, but the author is mine.

H: That shows that you are an old, cold, and wise man, with no sympathy for Werther and his sorrows; you do not love an honest young lad, full of life and fire, preferring to praise a stiff, dry bureaucrat such as Albert.

M: Am I that cold? I told you that I admire the author; should I then not admire Werther’s character, which is the author’s masterpiece? Who could deny this fiery, noble character their admiration and love? Who could hold back their tears at his fate, especially when narrated in such a masterly fashion and depicted so vividly? Do you think my heart’s blood was not moved as I read how he walked side by side with Albert, ‘. . . plucked flowers by the way, arranged them carefully into a nosegay, then flung them into the first stream he passed, and watched them as they floated gently away . . .’

H: If you love Werther, do you not see how good it would be if we were all like him, aware of our strengths, using them as much as possible, and nobody let themselves be moulded by law or prosperity.

M: Look, Hanns, if I see it aright, this is not what the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther wrote his book for; he did not write it for you and your ilk. He knows you better, you young fellows–Hanns, you are one of them, too–who have just left the nest and begun to look out into the wide world from the ivory tower. Nothing suits you lads, you are know-it-alls, you don’t want to learn anything of use to the world as that would be science for money’s sake, you refuse to comply with established good order, you don’t like what others do, want to be originals, want things to be different, they have been this way quite long enough, after all. What care you for law and order and states and rich men and kings and noblemen? You want to have Praetorian guards and a little fist law and clubs and migration, because then human beings would still be independent, everything would be nice and topsy-turvy. Well, well, what a life it would be if you could watch all of that happening, having your tiny souls shaken by it all and shouting: yes, that is strength, that is action! Yes, you fellows would watch and shout about it, and no more! For whatever happened in the world, you would do nothing, as there is no strength in your feeble muscles nor steadfastness in your empty minds. You talk much of strength and of constancy, but you are poor things, flitting and flirting around aimlessly. You are full of idle chatter of restricting, modeling, polishing and imitating, and yet you would not give up even one armchair cushion or one ribbon from your wig to change things. It would serve you dolls right if fist law reigned, you would have to flee the country! There is little chance of any of you greenhorns becoming Werther, you do not have what it takes. However, good Werther’s example shows us clearly what inevitably happens when someone, even with the best of heads and the noblest of hearts, always insists on doing things on his own, always has to exert his strength and goes beyond established ways and means in doing so. If there is strength and constancy in the soul–and if there is not, then all is in vain–and misfortune pushes against it, where are comfort and decisiveness to come from? Must not, as the author says so excellently himself, ‘. . . a creature oppressed beyond all resource, self-deficient, about to plunge into inevitable destruction, groan deeply at its inadequate strength’? That would not benefit you, you foals desiring to be steeds before the time has come! So go on, tug away at the rope that binds you and let yourselves be fed, do not believe that you would be better off in the forest.

H: Have you finished talking, preacher? No doubt you believe it would be good if everyone walked in a circle wearing blinkers, like a mill horse, and did not think: up, up and away, on the other side there is light and we could leap and bound freely. This is what Werther thought; he left the world when it became too much to bear. Was that not a great deed? Eh?

M: A great deed? If you carried it out, Hanns, I would say you had outdone yourself!

H: Come, you have only half a soul, only a feeble spark of the divine fire burns in your constricted chest. You ridicule a noble deed. Knowing that I can leave this prison if I wish to, is that not a sweet sense of freedom? Can you deny it?

M: If the body were the soul’s prison and not a necessary tool, that might be so, but . . .

H: Man, you are as cold as stone. Do you not feel compelled to pity Werther, pity him in the depths of your heart?

M: Pity him? Yes! Love and pity him! When so much noble power, used only for restless laxity, lies idle, mouldering, when he who could have perceived and accomplished so many important tasks follows endless raging passion, until nature succumbs underneath the strain, who would not feel pity! But only pity? What do you think–if Werther had found the man in the cheap green coat who was looking for flowers in between the rocks with a pistol in his hand instead of flowers, pressing the barrel to his forehead above his right eye, should he have waited until the shot had occurred, shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘That man was unable to bear the measure of his woes’?

H.: Well, of course . . .

M: Well, of course! If Werther owed this to another human being, did he not owe it even more to himself?

H: Look at you, standing there and speaking as wisely as a book! As if Werther could have acted so circumspectly in the tempest of his sorrows. If someone died of a fever, would you say, like Luke in the comedy: Why did he not have himself cured? Couldn’t the fool have waited? He died so quickly.

M: Good, you admit that a man who wants to destroy his body is in as unnatural a state as someone suffering from fever. But I would not tell a sick man to wait before he dies until his humours have improved, his blood has cooled, his strength recovered. I would say: my friend, you are lying in a narrow chamber full of foul vapours, open the window, outside is our dear Lord’s pure air that rejuvenates all creatures, drink a julep that will cool your blood, take a potion that will alleviate decay and give you strength! Werther owed this to himself, too. After all, the whole world lay before him. And did he, one of the noblest of men, not owe the world his achievements? Why did he want to be unique? If people wanted to have him, attached themselves to him, their paths were the same as his even for only a short time, why did he not stroll a little further along their path with them, only because they were human beings, a very good kind of folk? He would have been on much better terms with himself. The many people, all the different kinds of figures that were only colourful puppetry to Werther, imprisoned in himself and his passions as he was, would have become a healing remedy, cooling and strengthening him, if he had taken part and considered: they are what I am, human. The powers that lay idle within him, if he had developed and used them, then soon he would have liked the world at least as much as he liked the small boy he kissed regardless of his runny nose, and the world would have offered him its hand, just as the ingenuous child did.

H: That’s all well and good; but Werther had already gone too far, things could have been no other way, they necessarily had to happen that way.

M: Understand me. If you regard Werther as clay in the hand of the sculptor, as a character in the poet’s hand, then things had to happen that way. Indeed, the author constructed all of this infatuated character’s traits with rare skill, introducing all events, even minor ones, with admirable subtlety in such a way that the terrible catastrophe, whose purpose it is to make us sigh so bitterly, occurs as if naturally. But if you imagine Werther as a human being living in society, then he was wrong to want to be alone and to regard the people around him as strangers. He had enjoyed the benefits of society since he had been at his mother’s breast, he owed a duty to society. Shirking this duty was ingratitude and vice; fulfilling it would have been virtue and reassurance. Even after he had written the hopeless suicide letters, even then, had he considered that he could and indeed should still be a son, citizen, father, paterfamilias, and friend, then his embattled soul could have found many sources of comfort and content, had he not slammed the door on them.

H: I truly cannot see how Werther could have still become happy; no end to his suffering was in sight.

M: Let’s see. Even the slightest alteration would do; there are joys, sorrows, more joys, and all kinds of events. For example, change the single small fact: when Albert rode off to attend to his long postponed business and Werther visited Lotte for the last time, Albert and Lotte were not yet married, only as good as betrothed, the wedding was to be held at Christmas. You see, I am imagining it this way as the scene is set near Worms, where it is not as easy to get a divorce as in Brandenburg. If the story were set there, I would not change this either. Lotte could live in the same house as Albert or close by, at her aunt’s or with whomever else you please.

Albert has returned, has heard that Werther took his time and spent an hour there yesterday.

And now . . .


The Joys of Young Werther

When Albert came back from his room, where he had spent more time walking to and fro, collecting himself, than looking at his parcels, he rejoined Lotte and asked her, smiling: “So what did Werther want? You were so sure that he would not come back before Christmas Eve!”

After some evasion, Lotte, honest as a noble German girl should be, confessed all that had passed the previous evening. But as she spoke, she feared that she might have caused Albert pain through her ignorance of how to lie.

“No,” Albert said very calmly, “You have poured balm on my soul. You are not denying your noble heart in this matter, either. But you acted a little rashly, my dear Lotte. I notice that you forced him to promise that he would not return before Christmas Eve. You wanted to reassure me, because you knew that I needed to travel, because you, my dearest Lotte, noticed the jealousy that I fain would have hidden from myself. For this, I thank you.” He kissed her hand. “But when Werther broke his promise and entered the house, you should not have sat down on the sofa with him in private, reading books just the two of you. You relied on your purity of heart. That is a most noble way for a girl to think. But even the best fellow would never consider this, especially when there are obstacles to love and time is precious. O, you women! Show the best of boys that he may break a promise and go unpunished, and he will seek to break several. –Thus, dearest Lotte, you yourself set up matters in such a way that you were forced to lock yourself in the cabinet. –That was a truly shocking scene . . .”

Lotte wept bitterly.

Albert took her by the hand and said, very solemnly: “Calm yourself, dearest child. You love the boy, he is worthy of being loved by you, and you have told him–whether with your lips or your eyes, it matters not.”

Lotte interrupted him, sobbing, declaring that she did not love Werther, that rather he deserved her hatred after that last scene and she loathed him.

Loathe? Dearest little Lotte, that sounds as if you love him still. Had you said calmly that you were indifferent to the lad, I would have held my tongue, I would not have told you that I do not want to stand in the way of mutual love, that I [renounce] all claims . . .”

“Great God!” Lotte cried, sobbing loudly and covering her face with her handkerchief, “How can you mock me so cruelly! Am I not your betrothed? Yes, I will be what you want me to be, indifferent! He is worthy of loathing! I am as indifferent to him as . . .”

“As to me?” cried Albert. “That would be good for me, but not for him. For me, under these circumstances . . .”

Just then the boy came, bearing Werther’s note in which he asked Albert for his pistols.

Albert read the note. He murmured to himself: “The stubborn fellow!”, went into his room, took the pistols, loaded them himself, and gave them to the boy. “There!” he said, “take them to your master. Tell him that he needs to take care with them, they are loaded. Tell him also that I wish him a happy journey.”

Lotte was astounded–Albert now explained at length that after due deliberation he was renouncing all claims to her. He did not want to mar tender, mutual love, nor did he want to render both them and himself unhappy. But he wanted to remain their friend. For Werther’s sake, he would write to her father immediately himself; she should do the same and tell Werther nothing until she had received a reply.

After much digression and much feminine reticence, Lotte admitted to her fond love for Werther, gratefully accepted Albert’s suggestion, and went to her room to write.

As she was leaving, she turned around and voiced her fearful concern about the pistols.

“Be calm, child! A man who requests pistols from his rival is not going to shoot himself. In any case, if he . . .”

Thus they parted.

In the meantime, Werther received the pistols, set one to his head, pulled the trigger and fell to the ground. The neighbours rushed to his side, and as they realised he was still alive, he was laid upon his bed.

While this was happening, Werther’s two last letters to Lotte and his letter to Albert were delivered to the latter, and at the same time the news of Werther’s sad deed became known. However, Albert managed to conceal it from Lotte, read all of the letters and went straight to Werther’s rooms.

He found him lying on the bed, his face and clothing covered with blood. He had suffered some kind of convulsion, and now lay quietly, breathing stertorously.

The bystanders stepped away, leaving the two alone.

Werther lifted his hand slightly, offering it to Albert. “Now triumph!” he said, “Now I am out of your way!”

“I have not come to triumph,” Albert spoke calmly, “but to pity you and, if it is possible, to comfort you. But you were quick, Werther . . .”

Werther, in a voice that was almost too strong for one so severely wounded, let loose a barrage of incoherent nasty drivel in praise of the sweet sense of the freedom of leaving this prison if one desired to.

A: Dear Werther, like the freedom to break this glass, that is a freedom one need not make use of, for it is not useful, but harmful.

W: Away with you, you rational man! You are too cold-blooded to even remotely consider such a decision!

A: Indeed, I am cold-blooded, and I am well and happy that way! Do you believe that this is a noble, grand decision? Do you imagine it shows strength and resolve? Pshaw! You are a soft milksop. As soon as you can’t help yourself to as many sweets as you want whenever you like from Mother Nature’s larder, you fly off the handle, thinking she will never give you sweets again.

W: O, the words of the wise rationalist! But you know, fellow, that there was no remedy. I could never possess the one I love. And now–he buried his face in his hands–what care I for world and nature!

A: Poor fool, you value everything so poorly because you yourself are small! You could not? There was no remedy? Could I, who love you because you are a good youth, not give Lotte up to you? Take courage, Werther! I will do so now.

Werther half rose: “How? What? You could, you will! –Silence, you unfortunate man! –Your medicine is poison. –For what good will it do?” –He sank back on the bed. “No! It is nought. –You are a wicked man. –Those who are cold are wicked. –Have you theorised about how to torture me to my very end?”

A: Good Werther, you are a fool! As if cold theorising were not wiser than overheated imaginings. –Here, let me wipe off that blood. Did I not see that you were being stubborn and would insist on having your wicked way? I loaded the pistols with a bladder filled with blood, blood from a chicken that I was supposed to eat for dinner with Lotte this evening.

Werther leapt up: “O bliss . . . delight . . .” etc. –He embraced Albert. He could still scarcely believe that his friend had treated him so generously.

Albert said: “Do not speak of generosity; most is down to a little cold sense, and as for the rest, it is enough that I love a boy like you, who has the potential to still accomplish much. The matter of you and Lotte has long rankled with me. I did not like it when you cast yourself at her feet within the enclosed space behind the high bookcases; as ingenuous as you seemed in doing so, it was the kind of romantic, solemn thing that keeps going round a bridegroom’s head. I kept turning it over in my head, thinking all kinds of things. You will recall how discontent and displeasure increased, each feeding the other, when you wanted to stay on Sunday without any invitation. I thought about this and came to the vexatious conclusion that my bride was in love with you. You think me cold, Werther, and so I am when the time for it is right, but I am warm enough to love fondly and desire to be loved fondly in return. Accordingly, I saw that I could not be happy with Lotte. I already made my decision to make you happy while I was travelling, seeing that I could not be happy myself. And then we had yesterday’s scene. Lotte told me about it! Listen, Werther, that was pushing it too far! And I read your letter about it to Lotte, too. Listen, Werther, the matter is like this! Like this!”

Werther cried: “What do you mean? My love is pure as the sun–Lotte is an angel–before her, all desires fall silent.”

Albert said: “Yes, I believe you! But listen, Werther, you could have written in your last letter why you wanted to die.”

And thus they went to dinner.

A few months later, Werther and Lotte were married. Their days were nothing but love, warm and sunny like the days of spring in which they were living. They read Ossian’s poems together once more, but not the Songs of Selma or fair-eyed Dar-thula’s sad demise, but a delightful ancient song about the love of the charming Colna-dona, whose “eyes were rolling stars; her arms were white as the foam of streams. Her breast rose slowly to sight, like ocean’s heaving wave.”

After ten months had passed, a son was born, the occasion of unspeakable joy.


The Sorrows of Werther, the Man

The birth was very difficult and was followed by considerable afterpains that brought Lotte to death’s door. Werther was beside himself with pain. However, this was not the selfish pain of a man who wishes to kill himself because he desires the impossible and cannot gain it; it was the pain of companionship, the foundation of which is compassion, and which desires to give and receive comfort.

Lotte, a tender mother, was so weak that she was unable to nurse her child. A wet nurse was employed. A monster, infected with a hidden pestilence as a result of animal lust, she poisoned the tender infant, and the innocent babe unknowingly infected his mother while she was indulging in motherly caresses.

When the doctor told Werther the terrible truth, Werther struck his head against the ground and cried: “God! Why did you keep me alive? I once believed that the pain of not marrying Lotte was the greatest suffering of all, too strong for human nature to bear!”

“And you can bear this greater pain!” Albert spoke. “My friend, you were a weakling, now you have become a man! The conviviality you scorned will give you strength. You believed yourself alone when you pulled the trigger, not thinking that by doing so you were breaking your mother’s heart.”

Lotte was kept from death by a long and painful course of treatment, but the child could not be saved.

Werther, who was used to pain, bore this pain, too, but now he was to learn how to bear grief and care as well. The portion he had inherited from his father was but small, and he had never earned a living. His mother was exhausted; he could not bring himself to ask anything of her. His wife’s illness led to poverty.

Werther thus needed to take on a paid position, and it was well for him that Albert created such a position for him and instructed him on how to perform his work. Now he no longer needed to worry whether there was one conjunction too many or one inversion too few. Now he had to follow others’ wishes and not the other way around. Furthermore, this confirmed something he already knew to be true, namely that tacking requires as much strength as straight sailing and often covers greater distances. He also realised something that he had not known previously, that enduring the unavoidable conditions of life as a bourgeois citizen takes more mental fortitude that climbing a steep mountain–without intent–driven by endless raging passion, than creating a path–leading to nowhere–through an impassable forest, through thorns and hedges. But it hurt him, him who wanted to use his invigorating energy to create worlds around himself, to discover that he himself was a creature. This wounded his heart and he was in good spirits less often.

Lotte was displeased with his bad humour and wanted his heart to be filled with joy as it once had been when he gazed into her beautiful eyes, not considering that beneath those fair eyes, her pretty nose was turned up as it had not been before. Werther was often forced to travel for business and spend the day at his office, and after his work day he often went out because he was troubled and did not want to aggrieve his wife with his resentment.

Lotte, who was a good woman but did not see through his behaviour, sulked because he was not with her, and her frustrated love led her to threaten: “Well, Werther, if you do not want to keep me company, I will have to look for company elsewhere.”

There was a young, airy fellow, who had read all kinds of books, prattled on about them and made much idle chatter, most indignantly about first drafts, folk songs, and historic plays, twenty years long, each packed into three minutes like tiny devils in pandemonium. He also constantly railed against Batteux. Werther himself could have done no better. In all other respects the rascal could not measure up to Werther in the slightest, had no brain in his head and no marrow in his bones. He hopped around the womenfolk, whispering and babbling here, stroking there, offering his paw, fetching fans, offering gifts of little boxes, and this was the manner in which he approached Lotte.

Now Lotte did not like this coxcomb at all, but she wanted to hurt Werther so he would court her the way he used to, the time for which was now over, however. And the fellow grew bold and thought Lotte was his, and Werther grew morose that Lotte would tolerate such a rogue, and they had words, and Lotte would not desist, and so they continued to taunt one another until bad went to worse, and Lotte left Werther’s table and bed and moved into her father’s house.

Lotte wept day and night; she loved Werther in her soul but nevertheless did not want to have been wrong. Werther beat his fist against his forehead. “Ah,” he shouted, “This sorrow is indescribable, biting deeper than any other! Lotte is mine and does not love me; it was better when she loved me and was not mine!”


The Joys of Werther, the Man

Albert had been in Vienna for eight months on his prince’s business and returned shortly after Werther and Lotte had separated.

He found Werther lying face down on the same sofa on which he had read Ossian with Lotte.

“Now, how are things with your wife?” said Albert.

“Ha,” Werther cried when he saw him, “it is all naught, all women are false, inconstant!” –And he bit his nails.

A: Werther, go on, run head first against the wall! As if this didn’t come from you! You are a fool, Werther, and have turned poor Lotte into a fool, too. I knew her as a good country lass, cheerful and pious, she could play little games and dance happily, but also slice the children’s bread; she dearly loved domestic life, even though she knew it was no paradise, but nevertheless a source of unspeakable bliss overall. Then I fell in love with the girl and wanted her to be mine, for that was the kind of wife I needed. Then you came along and started singing at a much more elevated pitch: everything had to be fervent sentiment, great tension, no limits, no reflection; you treated your little heart like a sick child, giving in to its every whim, always living in the future, where a great, darkling whole rested before your soul, to which you wanted to give your whole being, letting yourself fall into the bliss of a single, great, glorious emotion. The tender female creature swallowed this eagerly and considered herself most happy when reeling in a delirium of affection. And indeed, my good Werther, this delirium would be better than reality if it did not have to come to an end. Now it has come to an end on your part, while the good little woman is still reeling with it, and you are surprised that you cannot agree? High, overwhelming passion, dear Werther, looks good in poetry, but makes for bad housekeeping. Fine young sir! Love is possible, but you must love with a human love, calculate your ability to love and keep to the golden mean, otherwise, if you make your girl greedy, she will starve in the very midst of pleasure! Who would have been permitted to tell you this two years ago? Today, however, matters are no different.

W: The devil take you and your insignificant, generalised pronouncements!

A: I’d let the devil take them if they were not true.

Albert travelled to see Lotte; she wept bitterly and cried: “All men are faithless, I would never have believed that Werther could leave me!!”

“Be calm, good child,” Albert said, “and consider whether you are not at fault, too. Werther did not want to tolerate a greenhorn close to you; do you not recall how uncomfortable it was for me when Werther was courting you so intently? But Werther was an honest, good fellow, and your flatterer is a popinjay. You were wrong, Lotte. Taunts put men off, and turning up your nose will not bring back lost love. Would it not be better if you loved Werther as you once did, and he you? Do you still love him?”

Once again, little Lotte sobbed bitterly: “Do I love him? God!”

Albert took Werther to the hunting lodge, the old bailiff treated him to all sorts of insults, Lotte wept and made excuses for him, Werther embraced Lotte and they journeyed back home together, completely reconciled.

Now, made more circumspect by this rashness, they richly enjoyed the delights of domestic life that are felt so deeply and yet so difficult to describe. Mutual love and trust rendered them blissfully happy. Once again, Werther was attached–only God knows how ecstatically–to his wife’s arms and eyes, which were full of the genuine expression of the most open and pure delight. He attended to his business, she brought up her children, and thus their lives flowed on like a calm stream–not as poetic a symbol as a raging torrent, but for this very reason no less suited to those who are happy.

After about sixteen years, their hard work and thriftiness had made them prosperous. Werther was now able to give up his onerous work, and so he purchased a little smallholding that lay on the side of a hill, dotted with high elms and ancient oaks. It had only a tiny house, but there were fertile fields and a garden surrounding the house in which, beneath tall trees, there was a well, cut twenty steps deep into the rock, just as Werther loved it. Here he sat himself down and once again relished the simple harmless delight of a man who serves at table a head of cabbage that he himself has grown, and in that same moment enjoys not only the cabbage itself, but also all the good days, the fine morning on which he planted it, the beautiful evenings on which he watered it and took pleasure in its continued growth, all at once. For in the cabbage fields Lotte grew vegetables and roots that filled their respectable country table. The orchard was Werther’s responsibility, and the children planted flowerbeds full of tulips and fair anemones.

All was well until a fellow came who had been to England, who had travelled on the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal, under the hill and across the Irwell, had beheld the gardens at Stowe and been told by Chambers about the gardens of the Chinese emperor, which were so wonderful and terrible it was a sheer delight. Otherwise the man was no wiser upon his return than on his departure, but he had money coming out of his ears, wanted something original, wanted to build an Oriental garden where there was no Orient; had he lived in Jeddah, he would have designed a Versailles based on Le Nôtre’s sketches. He bought the mountain above Werther’s little cabin and had great constructions erected upon it, strange and wonderful, winding hedged paths, chasms, temples, pagodas, and wildernesses. When he was finished he wished to populate the garden like the Emperor of China, all very naturally. He acquired dogs and dressed them up as wolves, tabby cats as tigers, lambs dyed yellow and brown as leopards, and shrews as ermine. The animals ran through Werther’s orchard and rubbed themselves against the trees to rid themselves of the wild-looking wooden masks tied to them. Because they could be shooed away, Werther did not pay them much attention. But now the wealthy rascal wanted to begin a major project. On the far side of the mountain he had a sizable river, and used mills to transport it upwards so as to create a waterfall on the near side, down the steep incline of the mountain. Then the fellow rejoiced, and his soul was moved as the water roared down in floods, between the century-old oak trees and over the rocks, but before anyone knew it the water had reached Werther’s garden, torn out the trees, knocked over the little garden house, and destroyed the fertile cabbage patches and beautiful beds of tulips.

Lotte tore her hair and the children wept, but experience had made Werther calm. He gazed at it all in astonishment for a while and said to himself: “I trow this man is a genius, but I can tell that geniuses make bad neighbours. It may be pleasant to speak as a genius, but acting as one often causes others nothing but harm. The waterfall is jaunty indeed, but the little house in which I happily ate my bread and butter with my loved ones, my cabbage patches, my fruit trees, my beds of tulips were good. Boldness without boundaries, soaring up into the ether, tension without relaxation, expending one’s powers unrestrictedly–this used to be my watchword. All fine and well! I do not want to constrain this genius, for the man indulging his whims in this way is rich and powerful, and lamenting will do no good. But if we could avoid this genius!”

He went to the rich neighbour, took him by the hand and led him down, and said calmly: “See here, neighbour, what havoc your waterfall has wreaked in my garden. I could sue you, but to what avail? If you buy this little estate from me, I will move away, and you can have water falling and running wherever you please.”

“My word,” the neighbour cried, “I see you are a fellow who loves greatness. Behold the trees lying with their roots in the air and the roof of the house hanging off one side and the cabbages rolling over it. Hey, neighbour! In gardens, nature is worth far more than any damned art; no theory, as they call the rubbish, could have produced such a vista.” And thus he gave Werther more than the value of the estate of his own accord.

Werther took the money, thinking to himself: “Surely roots in the soil and apples on trees are nature, too.” And so he bought another estate with a well-built house and in front of the house a square with two linden trees, just like in Wahlheim in front of the church. Here he dwelt, happy and cheerful, with Lotte and his eight children. Experience and cold, composed reflection had taught him not to think repeatedly on the little ill fortune that fate had apportioned to him, but to receive the delight that God poured out upon him with the whole of his deeply grateful heart. Reflecting upon the paths of providence, which are not blind fate but goodness and justice, had restored cheer to his parched senses, relaxed his strained nerves, and returned to him the fullness of heart he had formerly enjoyed. Now he is able to lie in the high grass near the brook’s cascade and feel, closer to the earth, between stalks and a thousand multifarious grasses, the innumerable, unfathomable shapes of all the little worms and gnats close to his heart, sense the presence of the Almighty who created us in His image, the breath of the all-loving God who carries and sustains us in eternal bliss. And what is more, it does not destroy him, he does not succumb to the splendour of these phenomena; for Lotte and his eight children, God’s best gifts to him, are lying at his side and sharing his feelings. Whenever a tumult seeks to rise in his fiery spirit, it is instantly eased by the sight of the happy serenity of these healthy, lovable creatures, the image of their father’s strength and noble spirit and their mother’s vivacity and beauty. They have already planted other flowerbeds in which tulips alternate with daffodils and hyacinths, and thanks to their industrious play the cabbage patches are bordered with rose hedges and arches of jasmine, the garden house with sweet-smelling honeysuckle, and the wall of the house facing the midday sun with vines.


“Hm!” said Hanns, “The devil take me, but it could have happened that way!”

“But of course!” Martin replied, “And a hundred other ways, too. But once you shoot yourself in earnest, they are all gone.”

H: “You are right, I will not shoot myself!”


Friedrich Nicolai

Friedrich Nicolai was born in Berlin in 1733. The son of a bookseller, he took over the family business after his father’s death. Nicolai was a prominent member of the so-called “Berlin Enlightenment” and a friend of Lessing’s, with whom he published a series of letters on German literature. While his critical and literary works were well known during his lifetime, they are now studied less in their own right and more as valuable sources on the intellectual and literary scene in late 18th- and early 19th-century Germany. Nicolai died in Berlin in 1811.

Margaret Hiley

Margaret Hiley grew up in the U.K., Canada and Germany as a bilingual speaker of English and German. She studied in Germany and Scotland and completed a PhD at the University of Glasgow in 2006. After teaching at universities in both Britain and Germany, she moved into translation in 2010, specialising in academic texts, historical texts and documents, and texts for the creative and cultural industries. She has translated numerous books and articles in fields ranging from popular history to international law and human rights. When she is not busy translating, she enjoys writing, singing, and spending time in her apple orchard.

English translation copyright (c) Margaret Hiley, 2019.