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Goethe in Marienbad

Christopher Bamford

By the summer, his feelings overwhelmed him. “In an impassioned state,” as he puts it, he conceived the idea of marriage and consulted a doctor to discover whether the institution would be detrimental to his health. The doctor, with a smile, said it would not. Goethe then took the Grand Duke Karl August into his confidence and told him of his plans. At first, the Grand Duke teased his old friend, but then, seeing he was deadly serious, was moved by the sight of this white-haired old man—the greatest man in Europe—begging him to be an intermediary. Accordingly, he paid a formal call to Frau von Levetzov and presented her with Goethe’s offer of marriage, even going so far as to assure her that Ulrike would always be taken care of financially. Gently, but firmly, she turned him down.

Somehow, even though the matter had been handled with the utmost delicacy, everyone knew of it. Letters flew in all directions. Goethe even wrote to his daughter-in-law, darkly alluding to his passion, and hinting at the possibility of the addition of a “third” or “fourth” person to their household.

On the same day, amazingly—for the tragedy had yet to run its course—Goethe heard the beautiful Polish pianist Symanowska play. He fell in love with her, too—so unstable was his “impassioned state”—and wrote in her album the verses on “reconciliation” that would conclude the “Trilogy of Passion”:

Passion brings suffering. Who, anxious heart,
Can soothe you, who have lost so much?
Where are the hours, so swiftly flown by?
In vain was the greatest beauty chosen for you.
The spirit is clouded, the undertaking confused;
How the glorious world disappears from the senses.

Then the music soars on angels’ wings,
Tone upon tone, a million notes intertwining,
Penetrating the core our innermost being
And filling it with eternal beauty:
The eyes moisten, and you feel with higher longing
The divine value of tones and of tears.
 
Thus, the heart is made light and quickly sees
It still lives and beats and would still beat more
In purest gratitude for this given gift,
That it would return in willing offering of self.
Then you feel—o that it would last forever—
The double joy of Music and Love.

Reconciliation was not yet however Goethe’s present state. He would still propose marriage to Ulrike again himself. Again, gently, he was rejected. Hastily, the Levetzovs left Marienbad for Karlsbad. This was August 17. Three days later, Goethe noted in his diary: “A quiet night. Conciliatory dreams.” Then, on the 23rd, he too left Marienbad, supposedly to visit his friend Grüner in Eger, stopping on the way to gather more mineralogical samples. He is after “undulatory slate rich in flint” and “pyrotypical stones of several kinds.” From Eger, he sent Ulrike a poem saying that she dwelled so much in his heart that he cannot understand how she is elsewhere. Meanwhile, he talked with his friend Grüner about the mineralogy and geology of Bohemia and visited the pharmacy to view its “weather glass.” All seemed fine, but in his diary he also noted “work on the poem”—the poem of his agony. Finally, he arrived in Karlsbad, taking rooms at the same Inn where the Levetzovs were staying—his immediately above theirs.

On the surface, things still went smoothly. August 28 was Goethe’s seventy-fourth birthday. He told no one of it. It would be a secret—he would organize an excursion for that day. But when he came down to breakfast, he found in his place a cup on which a garland of ivy was painted. “Why the pretty cup?” he asked. “To remind you of our friendship,” he was told. “Ivy is the symbol of friendship.” Later, at the picnic, he was given a glass on which the names of Frau von Levetzov and her three daughters were engraved. “Despite it all, “she said, “We don’t want to be forgotten. Remember us always and also this occasion.”

The days following unfolded like those at Marienbad, social events punctuated by mineralogical expeditions. Ulrike read to him from Sir Walter Scott. In his dairy he noted: “On the whole she reads well and without affectation, but she ought to read with more energy and vivacity.”

On the morning of September 15, after a “tumultuous farewell,” Goethe left, and as the carriage rolled along he began to compose to its rhythm and with perfect objectivity the main section of the “Trilogy of Passion,” “The Marienbad Elegy.” Goethe knew well, as he had written in his play Torquato Tasso and echoed in the first poem of the Trilogy, “To Werther”: when a person is speechless in his pain, a god will help him speak his suffering.

By October, the god had spoken. On October 23, Goethe asked his amanuensis, Eckermann, to stay a little later than usual. As the gloom of dusk grew deeper, Goethe asked him to bring in and light two exquisite wax tapers. Eckermann would read something. Goethe brought in “The Trilogy of Passion.” It was calligraphed in perfect Roman characters on the finest vellum paper and fastened with a silken cord into a red morocco case. When Eckermann had finished reading, Goethe said, using Frankfurt slang, “Gelt?”—that is, “Well, ain’t it so? Haven’t I shown you something pretty good!”

17 April 2012


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love, Sufism, wisdom, divine, poetry, Islam, alchemy, green hermeticism, divine feminine, Rumi, Goethe, Divan, Hafiz,
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