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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Mignon’s Love and Longing

By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

From ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’: Translation of Thomas Carlyle

NOTHING is more touching than the first disclosure of a love which has been nursed in silence; of a faith grown strong in secret, and which at last comes forth in the hour of need and reveals itself to him who formerly has reckoned it of small account. The bud which had been closed so long and firmly was now ripe to burst its swathings, and Wilhelm’s heart could never have been readier to welcome the impressions of affection.

She stood before him, and noticed his disquietude. “Master!” she cried, “if thou art unhappy, what will become of Mignon?” “Dear little creature,” said he, taking her hands, “thou too art part of my anxieties. I must go hence.” She looked at his eyes, glistening with restrained tears, and knelt down with vehemence before him. He kept her hands; she laid her head upon his knees, and remained quite still. He played with her hair, patted her, and spoke kindly to her. She continued motionless for a considerable time. At last he felt a sort of palpitating movement in her, which began very softly, and then by degrees, with increasing violence, diffused itself over all her frame. “What ails thee, Mignon?” cried he; “what ails thee?” She raised her little head, looked at him, and all at once laid her hand upon her heart, with the countenance of one repressing the utterance of pain. He raised her up, and she fell upon his breast; he pressed her towards him, and kissed her. She replied not by any pressure of the hand, by any motion whatever. She held firmly against her heart; and all at once gave a cry, which was accompanied by spasmodic movements of the body. She started up, and immediately fell down before him, as if broken in every joint. It was an excruciating moment! “My child!” cried he, raising her up and clasping her fast,—“my child, what ails thee?” The palpitations continued, spreading from the heart over all the lax and powerless limbs; she was merely hanging in his arms. All at once she again became quite stiff, like one enduring the sharpest corporeal agony; and soon with a new vehemence all her frame once more became alive, and she threw herself about his neck, like a bent spring that is closing; while in her soul, as it were, a strong rent took place, and at the same moment a stream of tears flowed from her shut eyes into his bosom. He held her fast. She wept, and no tongue can express the force of these tears. Her long hair had loosened, and was hanging down before her; it seemed as if her whole being was melting incessantly into a brook of tears. Her rigid limbs were again become relaxed; her inmost soul was pouring itself forth; in the wild confusion of the moment, Wilhelm was afraid she would dissolve in his arms, and leave nothing there for him to grasp. He held her faster and faster. “My child!” cried he, “my child! thou art indeed mine, if that word can comfort thee. Thou art mine! I will keep thee, I will never forsake thee!” Her tears continued flowing. At last she raised herself; a faint gladness shone upon her face. “My father!” cried she, “thou wilt not forsake me? Wilt be my father? I am thy child!”

Softly, at this moment, the harp began to sound before the door; the old man brought his most affecting songs as an evening offering to our friend, who, holding his child ever faster in his arms, enjoyed the most pure and undescribable felicity.

  • “KNOW’ST thou the land where citron-apples bloom,
  • And oranges like gold in leafy gloom,
  • A gentle wind from deep-blue heaven blows,
  • The myrtle thick, and high the laurel grows?
  • Know’st thou it then?
  • ’Tis there! ’Tis there,
  • O my true loved one, thou with me must go!
  • “Know’st thou the house, its porch with pillars tall?
  • The rooms do glitter, glitters bright the hall,
  • And marble statues stand, and look each one:
  • What’s this, poor child, to thee they’ve done?
  • Know’st thou it then?
  • ’Tis there! ’Tis there,
  • O my protector, thou with me must go!
  • “Know’st thou the hill, the bridge that hangs on cloud?
  • The mules in mist grope o’er the torrent loud,
  • In caves lie coiled the dragon’s ancient brood,
  • The crag leaps down, and over it the flood:
  • Know’st thou it then?
  • ’Tis there! ’Tis there
  • Our way runs: O my father, wilt thou go?”
  • Next morning, on looking for Mignon about the house, Wilhelm did not find her, but was informed that she had gone out early with Melina, who had risen betimes to receive the wardrobe and other apparatus of his theatre.

    After the space of some hours, Wilhelm heard the sound of music before his door. At first he thought it was the harper come again to visit him; but he soon distinguished the tones of a cithern, and the voice which began to sing was Mignon’s. Wilhelm opened the door; the child came in, and sang him the song we have just given above.

    The music and general expression of it pleased our friend extremely, though he could not understand all the words. He made her once more repeat the stanzas, and explain them; he wrote them down, and translated them into his native language. But the originality of its turns he could imitate only from afar: its childlike innocence of expression vanished from it in the process of reducing its broken phraseology to uniformity, and combining its disjointed parts. The charm of the tune, moreover, was entirely incomparable.

    She began every verse in a stately and solemn manner, as if she wished to draw attention towards something wonderful, as if she had something weighty to communicate. In the third line, her tones became deeper and gloomier; the “Know’st thou it then?” was uttered with a show of mystery and eager circumspectness; in the “’Tis there! ’Tis there!” lay a boundless longing; and her “With me must go!” she modified at each repetition, so that now it appeared to entreat and implore, now to impel and persuade.

    On finishing her song for the second time, she stood silent for a moment, looked keenly at Wilhelm, and asked him, “Know’st thou the land?” “It must mean Italy,” said Wilhelm: “where didst thou get the little song?” “Italy!” said Mignon, with an earnest air. “If thou go to Italy, take me along with thee; for I am too cold here.” “Hast thou been there already, little dear?” said Wilhelm. But the child was silent, and nothing more could be got out of her.