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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Excerpts from The Sorrows of Young Werther [Die Leiden des jungen Werthers] (1774)

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I have become acquainted also with a very worthy fellow, the district judge, a straightforward and kindly man. I am told it is most delightful to see him in the midst of his children, of whom he has nine. They talk a good deal about his eldest daughter. He has invited me to visit him, and I will do so soon. He lives at one of the prince’s hunting lodges, an hour and half walk from here, which he obtained leave to occupy after the loss of his wife, since it is too painful to him to live in town at his official residence.

I have also come across a few other curious fellows who are in every respect annoying and most intolerable in their demonstrations of friendship. Good-by. This letter will please you; it is quite factual.

May 22

That the life of man is but a dream has been realized before; and I too am everywhere haunted by this feeling. When I consider the narrow limits within which our active and our contemplative faculties are confined; when I see how all our energies are directed at little more than providing for mere necessities, which again have no further end than to prolong our wretched existence; and then realize that all our satisfaction concerning certain subjects of investigation amounts to nothing more than passive resignation, in which we paint our prison walls with bright figures and brilliant prospects; all this, Wilhelm, makes me silent. I examine my own life and there find a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream my way through the world.

All learned teachers and doctors are agreed that children do not understand the cause of their desires; but no one likes to think that grown-ups too wander about this earth like children, not knowing whence they come or whither they go, influenced as little by fixed motives, but ruled like children by biscuits, sugarplums, and the rod—and yet I think it is so obvious!

I know what you will say in reply, and I am ready to admit it, that they are happiest who, like children, live for the day, amuse themselves with their dolls, dress and undress them, and eagerly watch the cupboard where Mother has locked up her sweets; and when at last they get what they want, eat it greedily and exclaim, “More!” These are certainly happy creatures; but I envy those others just as much who dignify their paltry employments, and sometimes even their passions, with high-sounding phrases, representing them to mankind as gigantic achievements performed for their welfare and glory. Happy the man who can be like this! But he who humbly realizes what all this means, who sees with what pleasure the cheerful citizen converts his little garden into a paradise, and how patiently even the unhappy people pursue their weary way under their burden, and how all alike wish to behold the light of the sun a little longer; yes, such a man is at peace, and creates his world out of his own soul—happy, because he is a human being. And then, however confined he may be, he still preserves in his bosom the sweet feeling of liberty, and knows that he can quit this prison whenever he likes.

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