Thursday, February 5, 2009


"We never would have gone to Sesenheim at all, if it had not been for Rhodora."

Who could resist a story that opens like one by Ford Madox Ford, recalling the visit of proper English and American gentlefolks at "Nauheim" in The Good Soldier? This opening, however, is from "Sesenheim," by an American named Bliss Perry, which appeared in the May 1889 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. I came across it the other day while looking up something on Goethe. Perry (1860-1954) was an American scholar who edited, among others, the works of Edmund Burke, Sir Walter Scott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also wrote a study of the works of Thomas Carlyle. He taught at Harvard and was also Harvard lecturer at the University of Paris, in 1909-1910.

"Sesenheim" as it appears in The Atlantic Monthly, is told by a first-person narrator who calls himself "the Scribe." He has been accompanying his friend John who "was inspecting the chemical laboratories of Germany universities." Rhodora, John's wife, is an American woman familiar from much fiction, with decided opinions. According to the Scribe she is a "delicate, sensitive, highly organized American woman." (Indeed, the name Rhodora sounds like "Leonora" in The Good Soldier, which, however, was not published until 1915.)
While the three of them are sightseeing in Strassburg, Rhodora notices the name of the owner on a bricabrac shop: "Brion": "'Brion,' she repeated. 'Brion? It must be a French name. ... Why, of course!' exclaimed Rhodora. 'Friederike Brion, Goethe's Friederike! John, Sesenheim must be near by, and I've always wanted to go here. It's so hot and dirty here; let's go to spend the Sunday at Sesenheim.'" And that, says the Scribe, is the reason the three happened to make a pilgrimage to the quiet Alsatian village, "whose sole claim to notice is that it was once the scene of a love episode more idyllic and more tenderly told than perhaps any other that ever won its gentle way into the world's literature."

The Scribe is dispatched -- it is Saturday afternoon -- "in search of a cheap edition of Dichtung und Wahrheit," which Rhodora claims to have read in her school days. Moreover, he also finds a tiny book on Friederike by "Pastor Lucius of Sesenheim." On the train the Scribe, with Dichtung und Wahrheit in one hand and the pastor's book in the other, is "deputed to read the important passages from the pastor's loving chronicle."

There follows a long passage rendering the events of the "Sesenheim idyll" (as recounted in books 9-11 of Goethe's autobiography): the ride of the brilliant, lovable 21-year-old student to Sesenheim in the autumn of 1770; the slender, light-haired daughter of the village pastor; the bright, tender, and infinitely winning letters; the verses with all the lyric passion of the "young Goethe"; the restiveness of genius; the departure without explanation; the final letter to her and her gentle answer, which "tore his heart." And then, years later, while journeying southward with the Duke of Weimar, Goethe stops at the parsonage, "to find all its inmates unchanged toward him, and Friederike calm and affectionate as of old, so that the next morning, at sunrise, he rode away from Sesenheim 'in peace,' as he wrote Frau von Stein." In sum, Goethe rose "steadily upon his splendid and solitary path, and Friedericke Brion, spinster, growing old and dying in 1813 at her brother's house in the tiny village of Meissenheim, having lived a life of such unselfish ministration and such sweetness that an old woman who has survived into our own day tells us that when as a child she heard about angels, she 'always thought of Aunty Brion in a white dress' and that 'the sick, and children, and old people' loved her." Sounds like the shade of Otillie in Elective Affinities.

Of interest in Bliss Perry's story are descriptions of a century ago -- 1899 -- which are much closer to the Sesenheim of Goethe's day than our own, which are so much obscured by features of modern life. 

For instance, this is the scene the Scribe sees from the window of the train: "To the left were the Vosges, in a retreating blue distance, while as we rolled northward, all along on the right, beyond the Rhine, were the wooded summits of of the Black Forest, misty yet and shadow-barred in the morning sunlight. It was Trinity Sunday, and the peasant in holiday costume thronged the station platform, intent upon excursions to neighboring villages." And then, indicating a misunderstanding of the German, the Scribe writes: "After an hour, we passed Drusenheim. It was the place where Goethe changed horses, and the next village was Sesenheim." True, Goethe did change horses at the inn in Drusenheim, but, more important, he was able to exchange clothes with the son of the innkeeper, in order to rid himself of his earlier "Verkleidung."

I made a trip to Sesenheim back in 1999. It is a well-preserved town in the best European welfare state fashion, but still retaining many of the sights described the Scribe. There were the reddish-gray roof tiles and the eight-sided tower of Pastor Brion's church, although I did not see the girl "busily at work draping a white cloth about a temporary roadside shrine of the Virgin, in honor of the feast day."
Like the travelers from 1899 I also went to an inn near the church. The present incarnation of the Gasthaus zum Anker they visited is "Au Boeuf," where I enjoyed one of the best meals of my own trip through the Vosges region.

They too had an Alsatian country dinner, during which Rhodora and John got in a heated argument about Goethe's abandonment of Friedericke. John didn't believe "any man of genius [had] the right to break the heart of a girl like Friederike."

After lunch they went to the church at which a funeral service was being conducted, for an old woman, "born in the very year that Friederike Brion died." In the aisle was a tombstone, with the inscription half effaced, bearing the date of 1557, "over which the young Goethe's feet one stepped so lightly; and there was the pastor's pew, in which, by the side of Friederike, he found her father's sermon 'none too long.'" The seats were filled with peasant women, "in dark, immobile rows." Their dress consisted of a black alpaca gown edged with velvet ribbon and a brocaded silk cloth, and they wore on their heads, "a queer little quilted black cap, with wide stiff bows of ribbon that stood out from the head like the wings of a butterfly."
I didn't see anything like that in 1999, but perhaps they resembled the headdress in this charming illustration from a book on Alsace-Lorraine from 1918.

Emerging from the church they encountered a dozen boys ranged along the wall of the churchyard. "Just as if it were a New England country meeting house!" exclaimed John. They proceeded to visit "the historic barn," and John reached his long arm over the fence and plucked a blossom "from the famous jasmine bush." They encountered the new "rosy-cheeked" pastor who explained why the old parsonage had been torn down. Here is Goethe's description of the parsonage, which suggests the fairytale state in which the Sesenheim idyll hovered: "Haus und Scheune und Stall befanden sich in dem Zustande des Verfalls gerade auf dem Punkte, wo man unschlüssig, zwischen Erhalten und Neuaufrichten zweifelhaft, das eine unterläßt, ohne zu dem andern gelangen zu können."

The parson tells them he had to read Dichtung und Wahrheit in order to answer all the questions of visitors, then invites them to his library to see one of Friederike's letters, the sight of which -- "a yellowed old letter" framed and hung -- makes them conscious that antiquarianism and curiosity had breathed a spirit of prose upon their hitherto unspoiled Sesenheim idyll.
Nowadays there is a charming museum at "Au Boeuf," where one can wander free of charge and inspect Sesenheim memorabilia and even some authentic documents.

Toward the end of the afternoon they find the hillock "where Friederike passed many an hour in that favorite arbor of which Goethe himself had much to say." Some Goethe lovers had bought the hillock and erected a new arbor with the inscription "Friederiken Ruh. 1770-1880." Arriving at this "reinlicher Platz mit Bänken, von deren jeder man eine hübsche Aussicht in die Gegend gewann," Goethe wrote that it did not occur to him that he had come to disturb its peace: "denn eine aufkeimende Leidenschaft hat das Schöne, daß, wie sie sich ihres Ursprungs unbewußt ist, sie auch keinen Gedanken eines Endes haben kann, und wie sie sich froh und heiter fühlt, nicht ahnden kann, daß sie wohl auch Unheil stifen dürfte."

It was perhaps with something of this disturbance in mind that the Scribe and his companions retired to an adjacent meadow, where they lay under a great ash and watched the clouds drift across the heaven and "pile themselves into a huge glistening mass above the Black Forest." Their talk drifted constantly back to Goethe. At sundown they turned their steps toward the train station, and Rhodora could be seen bending in the dusk above one of the bushes near the arbor, then returning with some white primroses in her hand. The primroses of course remind us of the Primrose family in The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith, on which Goethe consciously modeled his narration of the Sesenheim idyll. Rhodora gives each of the men one and sticks a third through the buttonhole of her jacket. John takes the final one and fastens it to the lattice of Friederike's arbor. "'Why, of course, John!' said Rhodora, softly. 'The poor girl!'"

The photos of contemporary Sesenheim are by the German photographer Ivo Schweikhart, who includes many more of interest on his website, along with quotations from Dichtung und Wahrheit.

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