To Charlotte Von Stein, Goethe

Fate, why did you grant us this depth
Of insightful vision into our future,
So that our love, earthly happiness,
Is a thing we can trust in happily never?
Why did you grant us such intuition,
Such power to know each other’s heart,
To see, among life’s scattered throng,
The true relationship where we are? 

Oh, many thousands of us drift dumbly
Through life, our hearts scarcely known,
Floating here and there, and aimlessly
Fleeing unexpected pain, without hope:
Rejoicing again, at the unexpected
Morning radiance of swift delight:
Only we two, love-filled, wretched
Souls are denied that mutual light
Of loving without knowing one another,
Of seeing in each what each never was,
Setting out anew towards the Dream Lover,
Faltering at phantom Danger’s course.

Happy those an empty dream preoccupies,
Happy those whose presentiments prove vain!
Our every meeting, every mutual sight
Sadly confirms our presentiments, our dream.
Tell me, what does Fate intend for us?
Say, how it bound us so strictly, purely?
Oh, in some far off time you must
Have been my wife, been a sister to me.

You knew every feature of my being,
Saw the purest tremor of each nerve,
With a single glance you could read me,
Hard as I am for mortal eye to pierce:
You brought calm to my heated blood,
Guiding my wild and wandering course,
And in your arms, an angel’s arms, I could
Rest as my ravaged heart was restored.
You bound your lover fast with magic ease,
And made many a day pass gloriously.
What happiness could compare with these
Hours of rapture, thankful at your feet,
Feeling his heart flow towards your heart,
Feeling himself virtuous in your sight,
All his senses brightened by your art,
The raging blood in his veins grown quiet?

And, of all of that, but a drifting memory
Is left, round his uncertain heart again.
He feels the old truth within, eternally,
While this new state only brings him pain.
And we seem to ourselves only half alive,
The brightest day is twilight all around.
Happy are we that Fate torments our lives,
Yet can change nothing of what we found.

The German playwright, poet, novelist, intellectual, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, met Charlotte von Stein in November 1775. At the age of 33, she was seven years his senior, wife of the duke of Weimar’s master-of-horse, and the mother of seven children. she nevertheless responded warmly to Goethe, who was invited to the Weimar court by the duke, Karl August, with whom he became very close friends. For Charlotte von Stein, Goethe’s intellectual conversation and broad interests brought a breath of fresh air to provincial Weimar, which was scarcely more than a village surrounding the ducal residence. Goethe in turn fell deeply in love with Charlotte. They began an “affair” that was, for the most part, a true marriage of minds. Ten years after they met, as the letter extracted here illustrates, their relationship was still as intense as when it began. This letter is just one of more than 1,500 letters and notes that Charlotte received from him.

Before Goethe met Charlotte, he was shown a portrait of her, and wrote in response:

“It would be a magnificent spectacle to see how the world is reflected in this soul. She sees the world as it is, and yet through the medium of love. And mildness is the predominant impression.”

When they met, he found “mildness” one of her most attractive qualities. In his verses, in which he referred to her as “Lida”, he wrote of the peace and serenity she brought him. They apparently shared more than this. As Goethe wrote:

“We first know we exist when we recognize ourselves in others.”

Charlotte kept the relationship firmly within the bounds permitted by late 18th century German society. With her husband away from home, often for days at a time, Goethe was her devoted attendant. She, in turn, was his idealized love. In a letter he wrote her in September 1776–the year after they met–he clearly expressed the strain he felt at having to maintain a socially acceptable distance from her, as decorum required:

“Why should I torture your, dearest creature? Why deceive myself and plague you? We cannot be anything to each other, and we are too much to each other…”

After six years of a steadily deepening friendship, Goethe wrote a letter on March 12, 1781, which suggests a turning point in their relationship, and points to liaisons having taken place:

“My soul has grown fast to yours…I am inseparable from you, and…neither height nor depth can keep me from you. I wish there were some sort of vow or sacrament that would make me yours, visibly or legally. And my period of probation was long enough to think it all over.”

As described in the letter written three years later, extracted here, their relationship continued unresolved. Goethe became tutor to Charlotte’s son, Fritz, in 1783, which gave him further contact with her. He found consolation in the idealized image of Charlotte, present to him even when she was not there. Yet he declared himself lonely.

From about 1780 on, his creative spirit seems to have dimmed, perhaps because he felt stifled by his emotional dependance on Charlotte. His poetry from this period is more pedantic, and though he wrote a few plays for the entertainment of the court, most of his time was devoted to official duties and the scientific study of anatomy, botany, and geology. By 1785, he blamed Weimar, and perhaps Charlotte, for his unfulfilled hopes:

“I cannot and will not bury my talents,”

The following year, while vacationing in Karlsbad, Bohemia, Goethe suddenly left for Italy, incognito. He stayed for nearly two years, steeping himself in classical culture, as well as in the country’s atmosphere and warmth. In letters home–he wrote to Charlotte nearly every day–he said he felt reborn:

“Though still the same as ever, I feel transformed to the innermost marrow.”

He returned to Weimar in 1788. Charlotte–instead of being joyful–reproached him for having been away. Despite all the letters he had written to her from Italy, she felt excluded from the experience that had produced such an effect on him. In response to her reproaches, Goethe wrote:

“If you could but listen to me, I would gladly tell you, that although your reproaches pain me at the moment, they leave no trace of anger in my heart against you.”

In response to another letter from her shortly afterward he wrote:

“And it must be by a miracle indeed if I should have forgotten the best, the deepest relation of all, that, namely, to thee…But I freely confess that the manner in which you have treated me hitherto is not to be endured…”

That year Goethe met a young woman, Christiane Vulpius, who became his mistress. For 13 years Charlotte had ben his Romantic ideal, a kindred spirit and a muse. But she could not forgive him. She rejected his offers of friendship, and ridiculed him in public. Christiane, by contrast, was loving and affectionate. She remained loyal to Goethe for 18 years–and bore him several children–before they finally got married in 1806. Charlotte, some 13 years after the rift with Goethe, confessed her continued love for him in a letter to her son on January 12:

“I did not know that our former friend Goethe was still so dear to me that a severe illness from which he has been suffering for nine days, would so deeply affect me…I have shed many tears over him in the last few days; I deeply regret now that when he wished to visit me on New Year’s Day, I, alas! because I lay ill with headache, excused myself, and now I shall perhaps never see him again.”


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