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

The son of a prosperous, educated family, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), was a towering figure in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literary and cultural life. His genius as a poet and man of letters was recognized and celebrated throughout all of Europe. In his early works, including The Sorrows of Young Werther, he offered, in the name of human emotion and aesthetically charged Nature, an impassioned critique of narrow Enlightenment rationalism. Yet, as an heir to Enlightenment universalism, he also spoke out for common humanity and against the elitism of the aristocratic old regime. Many fundamental themes of later German and European Romanticism are evident in this text, which tells the story of a young man named Werther who falls in love with Charlotte, an intellectually gifted and emotionally sensitive woman married to the rationalist physician Albert.

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The Sorrows of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Book One

May 4, 1771

How glad I am to have got away! My dear friend, what a thing is the heart of man! To leave you, from whom I was inseparable, whom I love so much, and yet be happy! I know you will forgive me. Were not all my other attachments especially designed by fate to torment a heart like mine? Poor Leonore! And yet I was not to blame. Was it my fault, that, while the capricious charms of her sister afforded me agreeable entertainment, a passion for me developed in her poor heart? And yet—am I wholly blameless? Did I not encourage her emotions? Did I not find pleasure in those genuine expressions of Nature, which, though but little amusing in reality, so often made us laugh? Did I not—but oh! What is man, that he dares so to accuse himself? My dear friend, I promise you, I will change; I will no longer, as has ever been my habit, continue to ruminate on every petty annoyance which fortune may have in store for me; I will enjoy the present, and the past shall be for me the past. No doubt you are right, my best of friends, there would be far less suffering amongst mankind, if men—and God knows why they are so constituted—did not use their imaginations so assiduously in recalling the memory of past sorrow, instead of bearing an indifferent present.

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