The Sorrows of Young Werther and The Romantic Era
The Romantic era was a response to the Age of the Enlightenment. Where the Age of Enlightenment favored intellect and reason, Romanticism placed emphasis on the emotional and spiritual. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe played a key role in German Romanticism, specifically with his tragic novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. In this book, Goethe touches on several characteristics of Romanticism including: the importance of emotion, the return to nature, the importance of the role of the artist, national pride, the natural good of man, the role of the Gothic landscape, encounters with the sublime, the overwhelming effects of feelings, an appreciation of medieval traditions, the importance of intuition and the role of the “noble” savage.
To begin with, there are a multitude of passages in which Werther is overcome with emotion. When describing his surroundings, he writes “I have already shed many a tear for the count, in the tumbledown little summerhouse that was his favourite spot” (Goethe, 1774/1989, p. 26). In another passage, he writes “I made my pilgrimage to my home parts with all the reverence of a true pilgrim, and was moved by a number of unanticipated feelings…so that on foot, I might let my heart dwell on all the freshness and vividness of every recollection” (p. 85). Nearly every experience Young Werther has evokes many emotions and he expresses them in detail.
Next, the Romantic idea of the importance of returning to nature is represented often in Goethe’s work. He writes “…and I lie in the long grass by the tumbling brook, and lower down, closer to the earth, I am alerted to the thousand various grasses…The glory of these visions, their power and magnificence, will be my undoing” (pp. 26-27). He also addresses the importance of nature in man’s ability to provide himself with necessities, such as food, “It is good that my heart can feel the simple and innocent pleasure a man knows when the cabbage he eats at table is one he grew himself…the fine morning he planted it, the mellow evenings he watered it and the delight he felt in its daily growth” (p45). This indicates Goethe’s appreciation of nature as a source of inspiration and emotion, as well as a way for man to provide for himself.
Goethe also addresses the importance of the role of the artist as Young Werther himself is an artist. Near the beginning of the book he writes, “I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in this feeling of peaceful existence, that my art is suffering. I could not draw now, not a single line, yet I have never been a greater painter than in these moments” (p. 26). This passage suggests that not only is the role of the artist important, but that the emotions that the artist experiences are nearly as important as the work he produces. In another passage, Young Werther writes “Then I read the work of an ancient poet and it is as if I were contemplating my own heart. I have so much to endure! Ah, have ever men before me been so miserable?” (p. 101). Goethe has a great appreciation for all artists and their ability to evoke emotion.
Next, the notion of national pride is also present in Goethe’s novel. Werther speaks fondly of the local people he encounters, “A farmer lad came out of one of the neighboring houses…I liked his way and presently we were acquainted and soon, as generally happens to me with this kind of person, intimate” (p. 35). He also writes, “But the folk are of a very fine kind! When at times I forget myself and, together with them, enjoy the pleasures that are still available to mankind…it has a very good effect on me” (p. 29). He has respect for the people of his country and the ways in which they work.
Goethe also expresses his belief in the natural good of man in this novel. He expresses how man, like children, “wander about this earth in a daze, and like children, do not know where they come from or where they are going, act as rarely as they do according to genuine motives…” (p31). This passage seems to be explaining that if man were left to do what is natural and as a result, was governed by fewer rules, he would be more care-free, much like a child. In another passage, Werther says, “’Every day we should remind ourselves…that there is nothing we can do for our friends but to leave them to their pleasures and to increase their happiness by enjoying it with them…’” (p. 49). Goethe seems to believe that man is inherently good when left to his own devices, but the restrictions and rules of society hinder this ability. He goes on to write “Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it. What a thing our human destiny is!” (p. 29).
Goethe goes into detail about the Gothic scenery that surrounds Werther. When describing the violence of a thunderstorm, he writes “If something distressing or terrible surprises us in our pleasures, it naturally makes a more powerful impression us than at other times…because our senses have been opened to feelings and we are the more susceptible to impressions” (p. 42). Perhaps the most Gothic element of the novel is the suicide of Young Werther himself. The concept of death, particularly taken one’s life because of love, is a very Gothic element of Romanticism.
In terms of the awe-inspiring effect of the sublime, there are several passages in which he is awestruck by the grandeur of nature. He writes, “I do not know whether treacherous spirits haunt these parts, or whether the warm, heavenly fantasy that makes everything seem like paradise is in my own heart…The low wall about the spring above, the tall trees that shade the place…all of this has something both attractive and awesome” (p. 27). Werther also expresses being awe-struck upon returning home, “Spread out before me I saw the mountains which a thousand times over had been the object of my wishes. I could sit here for hours on end…my inmost soul rejoicing in the woods and valleys which looked so pleasantly dusky…” (p. 85). The image of mountains and valleys being “pleasantly dusky” seems to indicate that he was overwhelmed by the size and darkness of the scene.
There are several passages in which Young Werther is completely overtaken by the feelings he is having. He writes, “My whole heart was full at that moment; the recollection of various events in the past pressed upon my soul, and tears came to my eyes.” In another passage, Werther expresses a similar reaction, “As I said these words, the recollection of a similar scene I had once been present at overwhelmed me totally. Holding my handkerchief to my eyes, I left the room…And how she chided me on the way home, for becoming too heatedly involved in everything!” (p. 49). The way in which Werther often expresses his feelings is Romantic in the importance the movement placed on sensibility over reason.
Next, Goethe expresses his appreciation for medieval tradition in several of the letters Werther writes. One passage reads, “Every word they say about the magical power of ancient music strikes me as plausible. How that simple song enthrals me!” (p. 53). This indicates that he believes that there is a truth in the ways that ancient people viewed the arts and their relevance to the time in which he was writing. Goethe also uses a medieval metaphor to express the way Werther feels when Lotte mentions Albert, “And yet, whenever she speaks of her intended, speaks of him with such warmth and love, I feel as if I had been stripped of all honour and rank and had my sword taken from me” (p. 53).
In addition to emotion and feeling, Goethe also expresses the importance of intuition in the way a man lives his life. Werther writes, “No, I am not deceiving myself! I can read a genuine interest in me and my fate in those dark eyes of hers. Yes I can feel—and I know I may trust my own heart in this…I can feel that she loves me!” (p. 53). The importance of intuition also relates to the nature of man and how if society allowed him to live his life without having to spend so much time concerned with social responsibility, his intuition would lead him to take more pleasure in nature.
Lastly, Goethe also values the idea of the “noble” savage in this novel. Werther often expresses a vast appreciation for nature and living in harmony with it. He writes, “I have never felt happier, and my feelings for Nature, down to tiny pebbles and blades of grass, have never been so full and acute…” (p. 55). He also has a disdain for people who place much importance upon their roles in society, “What people these are, whose entire souls are occupied with protocol and ceremony, who devote their devious creative energies, for years on end, to moving one place higher up at the table!” (p. 77). This is an indication of Goethe’s position on placing too much emphasis on class and using one’s “creative energies” for social movement rather than for more fruitful endeavors, such as taking in the beauty of nature or expressing that beauty through art.
Von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang (1989). The Sorrows of Young Werther (Michael Hulse Trans.). London: Penguin Books. (Original work published in 1774)