We're arriving at the last three posts in the series about Wilhelm Meister's songs, all being well, the series will be finished before this season ends. You will find here everything we talked about this novel so far.
Mignon (detail) - E. Bell-Irving
In our previous post of the series, I talked about Mignon's death and funeral (Chapters 3 to 8 in the VIII book). During the ceremony, and thus we ended it, the Marquis, a gentleman who happens to be in the castle on business trip, notices a tattoo on Mignon's arm and identifies her as his missing niece. We get now into Chapter 9, the penultimate one in the novel, where the abbot reads to the group the story that the Marquis told him. I've already metioned that Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship is full of soap opera plot twists, haven't I? Well, just keep reading...

The Marquis is the second of three brothers; the first-born was brought up as the father's heir and the other two, as usual, were destined to military and ecclesiastical life. When the father dies, the third son, Augustin, has already been in a monastery for some years; he's very unhappy with mood swings from euphoria to deep depression. He wants to leave the monastery and every time he goes home he begs his brothers to help him out. The brothers realize that Augustin is in love with Sperata, the daughter of the only friend of his father, and they pull some strings so as the boy can renounce his vows. They ask for help to the family's confessor who has no choice but to tell them a secret: Sperata is their sister, same mother and same father. Sperata was conceived when his father was supposed to be too old, according to the customs, to desire a woman. To avoid being the scorn of their neighbors, the couple hides the pregnancy and when a girl is born they give her to their friend so he can behave as his father (I won't say a word about this resolution).

The two brothers explain to Augustin that Sperata is their sister but he doesn't want to accept it. Sperata is his wife, not his sister. In fact, Sperata is expecting. He is happy with her after suffering for so long and he won't renounce to her. His brothers aren't able to find another solution but to separate them and lock him up in the monastery, where he will spend the following years, finally resigned to his destiny. He suffers again from his old fears, death terrifies him and sees a child trying to kill him with a knife. He works hard and only finds some peace when sits to play the harp and sings (at this point, we all readers and listeners to the abbot know that Augustin is our harpist...)

The brothers and the confessor agree not to tell Sperata about the secret. They left her in charge of a priest who gradually convinces her that she committed a terrible sin by having a relationship with a monk; it's a sacrilege, almost an incest. The priest also convinces her that a family should take care of her child; the best thing she can do is to retreat from the world. Sperata has mixed feelings about the girl; on one hand, she loves her but on the other, she fears about her fate because the little girl is the result of a serious sin. She accepts and goes to a convent, provided she will be allowed to spend some periods of time at home, always watched over by a companion.

The Marquis and his elder brother are very fond of the child, a girl, and make allowances for her when she runs back and forth, dressed like a boy because she feels more free to run, play or caper about. One day, the little girl doesn't go back home. They search for her but they can only find her hat floating in the lake; She might have slipped on the rocks, fell into the water and got drowned. Sperata feels relieved, God shall take care of her, but also in despair, she has lost her child. A county legend tells that the lake never keeps a body: if it doesn't return it immediately, it returns its bones. Sperata wants to recover her child's bones and waits for years, she keeps every small bone she finds because whenever she gets all of them, she will make a pilgrimage to Rome. The poor woman eventually goes mad; she becomes so religious and so far from real life that people considers her almost a saint. When she finally dies, they keep her in a chapel for some days and realize that the body doesn't decay. The fame of her holiness grows and reaches the monastery where Augustin lives.

Augustin despairs when he learns the news about his woman and his child. He flees the monastery and arrives at the chapel where Sperata lies. He treats her as she was asleep; he says her goodbye and asks her companion to tell her, when she awakes, that he will be back at the right moment. Then he goes away and his family loses his trail.

We know that Augustin, our harpist, wanders until Wilhelm finds him and gives him shelter; Now we understand his deep suffering and his remorse! We also know what happened to the child, because Wilhelm and Natalie managed to make her explain before dying: That day of the disappearance, the girl walked too far from home and got lost; People from a rope-dancing company found her and promised to take her back home the following day but instead, they kidnapped her and she lived with them until Wilhelm, horrified by the abuses she was enduring, paid a ransom for her. We do not know her real name, the Marquis never mentions it, so for us, she’ll always be, Mignon.

There isn't any song in this chapter but I should stop my account now. Shall we listen to one of Mignon's songs before I get into the last chapter? Let’s take her last song, for instance, So laßt mich scheinen; we listened to Wolf's version and today, we're listening to Schumann's song, sang by a wonderful singer that left us too young, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Her accompanist is Julius Drake, in a live recording at the Wigmore Hall.
So lasst mich scheinen

So laßt mich scheinen, bis ich werde;
Zieht mir das weiße Kleid nicht aus!
Ich eile von der schönen Erde
Hinab in jenes feste Haus.

Dort ruh ich eine kleine Stille,
Dann öffnet sich der frische Blick,
Ich lasse dann die reine Hülle,
Den Gürtel und den Kranz zurück.

Und jene himmlischen Gestalten,
Sie fragen nicht nach Mann und Weib,
Und keine Kleider, keine Falten
Umgeben den verklärten Leib.

Zwar lebt ich ohne Sorg und Mühe,
Doch fühlt ich tiefen Schmerz genung.
Vor Kummer altert ich zu frühe –
Macht mich auf ewig wieder jung!

Such let me seem till such I be;
Take not my snow-white dress away!
Soon from this dusk of earth I flee
 Up to the glittering lands of day.
There first a little space I rest,
Then wake so glad, to scene so kind;
In earthly robes no longer drest,
This band, this girdle left behind.
And those calm shining sons of morn
They ask not who is maid or boy;
No robes, no garments there are worn,
Our body pure from sin’s alloy.

Through little life not much I toil’d,
Yet anguish long this heart has wrung,
Untimely woe my blossom spoil’d;
Make me again forever young!

(translation by Thomas Carlyle)

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