A New Translation of “Werther” Opens the Gate to Goethe
Wilhelm, what is the world to our heart without love? What a magic lantern is without light!
—from The Sufferings
of Young Werther
Bear with me please while I imagine a contemporary publisher of serious stature but limited taste and tact communicating with a 21st century incarnation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) about the denouement of his epistolary novel, The Sufferings of Young Werther (Norton paperback $13.95), newly available in Stanley Corngold’s engaging translation. The problem is that the path to the book’s moment of maximum emotional intensity is impeded by a mind-numbingly lengthy quotation from an epic poem concocted by a wily Scotsman impersonating an ancient bard he calls Ossian.
“With all due respect, Your Excellency,” says my imaginary publisher, “you’ve got us in your pocket, it’s Werther’s last moment with his beloved Lotte, he’s doomed and she knows it, down deep she’s crazy about him but she’s a good woman, a faithful wife (more’s the pity), so what does he do when he finally has her to himself (her uptight husband out of town)? He reads six and a half pages of bardic mumbojumbo by some poor man’s Tolkien who didn’t even exist, with all his Rynos and Dauras and Eraths and Ogdals and Colmas. But (no accounting for taste) she melts, he melts, and they have their moment, finally young Mr. Werther (who has no first name, never mind why) is really making out and she’s in a rapture of repressed passion, it’s happening, — I tell you, it had my heart beating like a drum machine, she’s squeezing his hands, pressing them to her breast, their ‘glowing cheeks’ are touching, ‘The world faded from them,’ he’s covering ‘her trembling, stammering lips with furious kisses.’ The reader’s feeling the book like never before! So why not just a little Ossian up front? Like maybe just the last bit about the drops of heaven, the one that pushes them over the emotional cliff?”
Goethe’s only answer is to shrug, sip some belladonna, and dissolve in a mist. In real life, even after it became known that Ossian was James McPherson’s invention, Goethe tried to justify the passage by making it symptomatic of Werther’s love-driven decline into suicidal madness, to go from “his beloved Homer” to “a death-drunk Gaelic poet,” as Corngold puts it in his introduction. The rub is that J.M. Coetzee spends a third of his massive essay in the New York Review of Books (“Storm Over Young Goethe,” April 26, 2012) expounding on McPherson’s ancient bards and quibbling about Corngold’s use of the original even while concluding that “reproducing a monstrous slab of Ossian in so short a novel is a misstep.”
But then who’s complaining? Not readers in the late 18th century and beyond who were caught up in Werthermania. Long before Byron woke up to find himself famous at roughly the same age (24-25), Goethe was already there, his Werther, in Corngold’s words, “being bought, pirated, read, translated, and imitated throughout Europe.” The luminary of the age, Napoleon himself, is said to have carried a copy in his knapsack and upon meeting Goethe in 1808 claimed to have read it seven times.
Opening the Gate
The only other time I tried to read Werther I found it almost as hard to get into as Melville’s fantastically overwrought but ultimately magnificent Pierre (which a review in 1852 called a New York Werther). Otherwise my acquaintance with Goethe’s kingdom was limited to a reading of Faust in college and Schubert’s settings of the poetry. Corngold’s translation finally opened the gate.
Comparing the new translation with Michael Hulse’s in Penguin Classics (1989), I don’t find Corngold’s that much more “modern,” perhaps because, as Michael Wood has noted, he’s been able to suggest “the modernity of the text without in any way modernizing it.” One conspicuous instance comes in the letter where Werther is describing how he’s drawn to visit his beloved Lotte in spite of himself: Hulse has it thus, “I am too close to her magic realm — snap your fingers! and there I am.” Corngold: “I am too close to her aura — whoosh! and I’m there.” Hulse’s snapping finger seems out of synch with a “magic realm,” more like a spell breaker than Corngold’s aura and whoosh, which feels casually right in a letter to a friend and suggests something closer to the telepathic instantaneity of access to his beloved that Werther fancies.
The Turning Point
In the long August 12 letter to Wilhelm that contains what is arguably the narrative’s pivotal scene, Werther expounds on the virtues of action and passion to Lotte’s eminently rational fiance, Albert, with a command that Napoleon must have appreciated. Impatient with the qualifying phrase (“True, but”) Albert uses following his account of an accident with a loaded gun, Werther admits a fondness for him, “up until his True, but; for isn’t it self-evident that every statement admits of exceptions? But the man is so eager to justify himself! When he thinks he’s said something in haste, a generality, a half-truth, he won’t stop limiting, modifying, and adding on and taking back, until there’s nothing left of the statement.” At this point, when language falls short, Goethe has Werther foreshadow his own fate by abruptly putting one of Albert’s guns to his forehead.
Repelled by the gesture, Albert grabs the unloaded pistol, saying he can’t imagine “that a man can be so foolish as to shoot himself.” Which inspires Werther to make his case for irrational behavior with several analogies, the last of which concerns a girl who “in an hour of ecstasy, gives herself over to the irresistible joys of love” (something Lotte comes dangerously close to doing with Werther in their last encounter). Albert contends that one “swept away by passion loses all his powers of reason and is viewed as a drunkard or a madman,” but Goethe has given all the rhetorical firepower to Werther, who delivers a vivid account of a girl who drowned herself for love, imagining every stage of the fatal affair up to the point where, feeling lost and alone, “cornered by the terrible need of her heart, she plunges down to stifle all her pains in the death that envelops her all around.”
The August 18 letter, possibly the strongest piece of writing in the book, begins with a question that led me to pencil “Schubert” in the margin: “Does it have to be this way, that whatever it is that makes a man blissfully happy in turn becomes the source of his misery?” This comes close to the emotional formula at the heart of Schubert’s music (of all music and all art, you could say), whether he’s composing lieder from Goethe’s verses or the fourth movement of the great piano sonata in B-flat, the back-and-forth dynamic that pianists are said to translate as “I know not if I’m happy — I know not if I’m sad.”
The passage that follows moves from “the full warm feeling of my heart for living nature” — the adoration of a landscape that nourished and inspired him (“how I felt like a god among the overflowing abundance”) — to a heart “undermined by the destructive force that is concealed in the totality of nature; which has never created a thing that has not destroyed its neighbor or itself,” and then to the harrowing conclusion, “And so I stagger about in fear! heaven and earth and their interweaving forces around me. I see nothing but an eternally devouring, eternally regurgitating monster.” Once again Corngold’s translation improves on Hulse’s “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.”
The Creature Reads It
Searching for signs of Werther’s impact on English literature in the late 18th-early 19th century, I found a line in Jane Austen’s epistolary juvenalia from 1790, Love and Friendship (“We were convinced he had no soul,” having “never read” the Sorrows of Werther), and in Keats from a September 1819 letter, spinning some “nonsense verses”: “A fly is in the milk pot — must he die/Circled by a humane society?/No no there mr Werter takes his spoon/Inverts it — dips the handle and lo, soon/The little struggler sav’d from perils dark/Across the teaboard draws a long wet mark.”
When Samuel Taylor Coleridge is discoursing in 1796 on the “false and bastard sensibility” that denies evils like “the continuance of the slave trade” which “by hideous spectacle or clamorous outcry are present to their senses and disturb their selfish enjoyments,” he imagines a “fine lady” whose nerves “are not shattered by the shrieks” sipping “a beverage sweetened with human blood, even while she is weeping over the refined sorrows of Werther.” Some three decades after that passage from his self-published journal, The Watchman, Coleridge pairs Wordsworth and Goethe as “spectators ab extra, — feeling for, but never with, their characters.”
The Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein finds a copy of The Sorrows “in a leathern portmanteau,” and thinks Werther “a more divine being that I had ever beheld or imagined.” Says the monster, “Besides the interest of its simple and affecting story, so many opinions are canvassed, and so many lights thrown upon what had hitherto been to me obscure subjects, that I found in it a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment …. The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder. I did not pretend to enter into the merits of the case, yet I inclined towards the opinions of the hero, whose extinction I wept, without precisely understanding it.”
In J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924,” five-year-old Seymour Glass confesses in his prodigious letter home from camp that while he was swimming in the lake, “It was suddenly borne in upon me, utterly beyond dispute, that I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but do not love the great Goethe!” Even after reading Corngold’s first-rate Werther and watching Wrong Movement (1974), Wim Wenders’s fascinating, freely adapted film of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with Nastassja Kinski making an unforgettable screen debut at 14 as Mignon, I’m still not inclined to love the great Goethe. But I did feel some affection for the version of him played by Alexander Fehling in Young Goethe in Love (2011) and I definitely loved Miriam Stein’s Lotte. Both films are available at the Princeton Public Library.