“Observations on The Sorrows of Werter . . . (1784)

“Observations on The Sorrows of Werter, To the Editor of the Universal Magazine,” signed “M. Hays,” in The Universal Magazine 76 (December 1784), 317-18. 



To the Editor of the Universal Magazine.


       I do not recollect having noticed in your valuable Miscellany any observations on a late popular publication, entitled, ‘The Sorrows of Werter.’ I have been so much affected by the perusal of it, and by an event to which it has in some measure been accessary, that I cannot help offering a few remarks on a composition evidently of the most dangerous and fatal tendency. The style is animated and affecting, and cannot fail deeply to interest every susceptible and feeling heart: but where the reader is unfortunately possessed of a warm and glowing imagination – ardent and energetic sentiments, without an equal share of judgment, and real rectitude of principle, and, if added to these dispositions, he should have experienced unfortunate vicissitudes of life, (as is but too probable) which may have tinctured his mind with gloomy and desponding ideas – fatal indeed may be the interest he takes in ‘The Sorrows of Werter,’ and the effects which his specious apologies for suicide may have on his imagination,. A very recent instance exemplifies what I mean to express. A few weeks ago our public papers gave an account of a young lady of reputable family who had rashly put a period to her own existence; and, in the apartment where this fatal catastrophe took place was found ‘The Sorrows of Werter’ opened in a page containing sophistical reasonings in favour of the unnatural and impious practice of self-destruction. Alas! how severe ought to be the remorse of that Author, who instead of employing the abilities and genius which his Creator has given him, in enlightening the understanding, and amending the hearts of his fellow creatures, prostitutes his pen for the purposes of Vice and the embellishment of [318] Error, and presents to them a sweet and subtle poison, whose pernicious tendency must at least debilitate, if not destroy, the weak and susceptible mind. While perusing ‘The Sorrows of Werter,’ its rapid and glowing style strikes the imagination, and irresistibly engages the attention; but when this tumult of the senses subsides, and we calmly reflect on the events by which we have suffered ourselves to be agitated, we blush to find we have been affected by the extravagant and fastidious distresses of a madman, made up of pride, caprice, and passion, full of erroneous sentiments and real vices slightly varnished over by superficial and fanciful perfections – indulging without restraint an impetuous and criminal attachment from which he makes no efforts to free himself; consuming the season for active life in enervating indolence; reasoning on fanciful and absurd grounds, arguments without foundation which a child might consult, justifying and allowing himself in flights of impetuous and violent passions, by which he is for ever on the brink of the most fatal and cruel outrages – yet this man so weak, so criminal, dignifies his excesses by the names of sentiment, delicacy, and tenderness, and sacrilegiously talks of entering with a pure heart into the presence of his Creator, while deliberately arraigning his dispensations, and contemning his power, by resolving to terminate his own existence, and rush uncalled for to his awful tribunal. – I cannot conclude these few imperfect observations more suitably than by inserting some stanzas from Dr. Warton’s admirable Ode on this subject.

     Affecting to defend the suicide, he thus elegantly expresses himself: 


Ah! from the Muse that bosom mild,

By treacherous magic was beguil’d

To strike the deathful blow;

She fill’d his soft ingenuous mind

‘With many a feeling too refin’d,

And rous’d to livelier pangs his wakeful sense of woe.


Then wish not o’er his earthly tomb

The baleful night shades lucid bloom,

To drop its deadly dew;

Nor oh forbid the twisted thorn

That rudely binds his turf forlorn,

With Spring’s green swelling buds to vegetate anew.


What tho’ refus’d each chanted rite,

Here viewless mourners shall delight

To touch the shadowy shell;

And Petrarch’s harp that wept the doom

Of Laura lost in early bloom

In melancholy tones shall ring his pensive knell.


When thus sublimely in the concluding part of the Poem, he contrasts this false but beautifully poetic reasoning. 


Forbear, fond bard, the partial praise,

Nor thus for guilt in specious lays

The wreath of glory twine;

In vain with hues of gorgeous glow

Gay Fancy gives her vest to flow,

Unless Truth’s matron hand the floating folds confine.


Just Heav’n man’s fortitude to prove,

Permits thro’ life at large to rove

The tribes of hell-born woe;

Yet the same Power that wisely sends

Life’s fiercest ills, indulgent lends

Religion’s golden shield to beak th’ embattled for.


Vain man, ’tis Heav’ns prerogative 

To take what first it deign’d to give

Thy tributary breath;

In awful expectation plac’d,

Await thy doom, nor impious haste

To pluck from God’s right hand his instruments of Death.


                                                                                 M. Hays.