At first I was absolutely horrified by the translation that I have. I would love to give credit to someone for doing the worst translation of one of the world's greatest poets, but there is actually no information in my copy of this "novella in verse". No translator's name. No date or location of publication. I assumed that some poor sod had to put this translation together for a school project and was too embarrassed to include their name...
And then I found the exact same translation in the Harvard Classics series…it is literally a travesty that this is the authoritative text. It is little more than a direct translation of the German, awkward and jarring. I think what truly makes Goethe one of the foremost poets in the world, is that despite one of the most egregious translations of his work, between the lines are the skeletal structure of something not only profound but strikingly beautiful.
Goethe used as the backdrop of his poem an incident from 1731 when the Archbishop of Salzburg drove a thousand Protestants out of his diocese. Now, more that 60 years later, he weaves the tumultuous politics of the French Revolution into the narrative. It is no longer the Catholics recreating national identities and restructuring sovereign states, but the French. Germans, that have occupied the western side of the Rhine river for generations, have now become refugees as they flee to the eastern side to escape the forces of General Custine and his marauding military forces that have now occupied portions of the Palatinate.
Our hero, Hermann, is the son of a wealthy burgher. He is shy and good natured, hardworking and almost embarrassingly chaste. His father thinks he lacks chutzpah. The first canto, “Calliope Fate and Sympathy” comes to a close with the father bemoaning his son’s character attributes to his friends:
“Little enjoyment he finds in going about among others; Nay, he will even avoid young ladies’ society wholly; shuns the enlivening dance which all young persons delight in.”
When the refugees begin to pour into their province, Hermann’s mother puts together boxes of old linen and food and sends Hermann off to find the refugees and minister aide as best he can, while the village doctor, sitting with father and pastor, notes how chaotic tragedy can be:
“Danger, alas! as we learned ourselves in our great conflagration twenty years since, will take from a man all power of reflection, so that he grabs things worthless and leaves what is precious behind him. Here, too, with unconsidering care they were carrying with them pitiful trash, that only encumbered the horses and oxen; such as old barrels and boards, the pen for the goose, and the bird cage. “
The dutiful son makes his way to the city center to find the refugees. As he comes upon the stream of recent diaspora he sees walking among them a strong woman, skillfully leading a team of oxen. When she sees Hermann she asks if he has any extra linen on hand for the woman who has just given birth in the wagon, a rich land-owners wife, now without land and husband, her little infant lying naked in her arms. Hermann quickly gives to Dorothea all that his mother has entrusted him with, linen and provisions, and asks if she will distribute it as she sees fit. She agrees and he heads back home, a little seed in his heart quickened and beginning to bloom.
When his family asks how the aide distribution went he basically says that he was surprised by the level of want and distress that he witnessed. And on a side note mentions that in a time of war, in a time of great conflict and extreme want it seems almost unethical not to take a wife, specifically a refugee as a wife. All these women are cast off, alone and unsheltered, isn’t it the right, nay the duty of all eligible men, to take upon themselves the mantel of chivalry and to offer them their protection?
The father is caught off guard. This is a good speech. Here, here! He agrees with everything except the refugee part. Although the sentiment does remind him of his own love story which the mother jumps in to tell:
One day there’s a tragic fire. The father, only a young man, stepped through the ashes to check on what was left of the horses in his barn, while his neighbor, the young maiden next-door stepped through her own ashes to check on what remained of her hens.
“Thoughtful and grieving we stood there thus, each facing the other, now that the wall was fallen that once had divided our court-yards. Thereupon thou by the hand didst take me, and speak to me saying - Lisa, how earnest thou hither? Go back! Thou soles must be burning; hot the rubbish is here: it scorches my boots, which are stronger. And thou didst lift me up, and carry me out through the courtyard…Then thou didst set me down and kiss me; to that I objected; but thou didst answer and say with kindly significant language: See! My house lies in ruins; remain here and help me rebuild it..”
While this is all well and cute and adorable for Hermannn’s parents, the father has a very different idea for Hermann. He can be chivalrous and honorable and all that, times of war, very hard yes indeed, but when it comes to marrying, the father expects a well dowered bride, specifically from one of the girls in the other opulent family across town. The father gives him total control and free will- as long as he chooses one of the 3 daughters that live in the green house.
And perhaps on another day, the quiet and bashful Hermann would have ignored the indignities he suffered as a boy at the hands of the sisters, how they always made him feel a fool and seemed to derive great pleasure in his embarrassment, but not today. He has seen his maiden and he can settle for no one else. His father is enraged that his son would dare defy him and hurls a litany of complaints at poor Hermann’s back as Hermann runs out the door to find an orchard to cry in.
At this point the mother, in her son’s defense utters the most famous line of the poem, which you can read here. And then runs off to find him bringing us to what I believe are the worst sections of translation:
“Thus was she come at last to the end of the far-reaching garden, where stood the arbor embowered in woodbine; nor there did she find him, more than she had hitherto in all her search through the garden.”
That just makes me sad.
Anyway, so the mother finds Hermann and after a brief discussion realizes he has fallen in love. They head home and try to convince the father of a plan in which the refugee maiden has a chance, and after much deliberation, they come up with this idea: the pastor and doctor will go into the city and assess the maiden themselves, and if she actually lives up to the portrait Hermann has depicted of her, then he will be allowed to marry her.
The doctor and pastor agree and quickly find themselves in the chaos of the refugee crisis. They both look around for men of some repute where they can be given accurate assessments of Hermann’s maiden and quickly discover Dorothea is practically a super hero. She has saved women and children by defending them with her secret swordsmanship skills, she has practiced midwifery when called upon, she quickly fashions the old linens given her into baby clothes for the needy; she has a reputation only of service and diligence, a maiden without ill repute.
Parenthetically, there was a whole lot of discussion about her bosom, such as:
“Mark how the stomacher’s scarlet sets off the arch of her bosom…”
or “Happy to whom mother Nature a shape harmonious has given!”
or “Before Hermann’s eyes moved the beautiful shape of the maiden…”
Anyway, the doctor and pastor decide that while she gets an A+ in all the visual categories, they still need to make sure she is honest and virtuous and a housewifely maiden. They go in search of more gossip, but all inquiries are met only with tidings of her virtuous nature.
So it is settled, Hermann can be allowed to marry Dorothea! Hermann upon learning the happy tidings gets cold feet. Just because he’s rich and has land and a family and is not an impoverished orphan/refugee is he supposed to expect that she will just out of the blue accept his proposal? But his friends laugh at his concern and tell him to get to it and make their way home, “the stallions speeding rapidly homeward, desiring their stable”.
But Hermann is not a stallion. The clouds of dust whirl up from under the powerful hoofbeats, and Hermann stands there, watching, until the dust settles and he finally and with much trepidation makes his way to find his maiden.
Without much difficulty he finds her drawing water for the new mother and baby from a well outside the city limits, the water in the city has become foul due to people throwing waste from their horses and oxen into the drinking water.
Hermann after exchanging a few shy pleasantries, works up his gumption and begins:
“Long for that reason my mother has wished for a maid in the household, Who not with hand alone, but with heart too, will lend her assistance, taking the daughters place, whom, alas! she was early deprived of…”
While this is perhaps the most confusing and unromantic proposal ever, it does get to the heart of Goethe’s thesis: the true blessings of life come from the dutiful performance of necessary tasks.
Not surprisingly Dorothea misinterprets the proposal and thinks she is being asked to come with Hermann as a servant for his mother. He is too shy and bashful to correct her and thus ensues a hilarious / frustratingly inept comedy of errors.
As they make their way through the idyllic countryside, Dorothea, holding her small pack which encompasses the entirety of her earthly belongings, chatters happily about her new prospects:
“Early a woman should learn to serve, for that is her calling; Since through service alone she finally comes to the headship, comes to the due command that is hers of right in the household.”
(Not the modern day woman’s take on things…)
As they walk, at one point Dorothea asks how she should treat the son of her master? And his response is:
“Suffer thy heart to make answer, and follow it freely in all things,”
WHAT? He is pathologically unable to just man up and propose…when Dorothea slips and twists her ankle, he graciously upholds her not being too chivalrous to cop a feel:
“Breast was pressed against breast, and cheek against cheek. Thus he stood there fixed as a marble statue, the force of will keeping him steadfast, drew her not to him more closely but braced himself under her pressure. Thus he the glorious burden felt, the warmth of her bosom, and the perfume of her breath, over his lips was exhaling; bore with the heart of a man the majestic form of the woman.”
Finally they make their way home and the father seeing a limping maid says playfully:
“For by the bride that a man shall elect we can judge what he is himself.”
Obviously Dorothea thinks he is mocking her, since no discussion of matrimony has been had, she quickly rejects her position and says she would rather walk home, back to nothing than be forced to be ridiculed, a destitute, virtuous maiden with no one to defend her.
Instead of clearing up the confusion the pastor comes up with another test for the maiden to pass and asks what she expected. She quickly admits that she hoped deep in the secret recesses of her heart that maybe, at some point after she had proven herself, perhaps this young man would take it upon himself to marry her, but she now knows how brazen and ridiculous this was….so at the end of the day, she proposes first!
Hermans basically says, just kidding! I was going to propose but then I made you think I was hiring you as a servant and decided to just let you believe that…want to get married?!
Whether out of sheer exhaustion or an improbable amount of good will, or because she has literally no other options, Dorothea accepts this “proposal” and they live happily ever after.
While at face value this novella seems light hearted and cheery, it also strikes me as “home and heartland” propaganda, the hero is just too good. In a time of war, while the country is tossed about in a flotsam of chaos, instead of being the type of landed gentry that will take what he can from the weak and unprotected, he decides to marry them. When given the chance for a little necking, he reserves himself to just a very gentlemanly groping. So many opportunities to be a bastard and he triumphs against them all. In short this is a social commentary on how despite tragedy and political turmoil, through the morality of close knit family and community, integrity will ultimately prevail.