The passage from Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers mentioning Caroline’s father, Johann David Michaelis, is found in book 2 in the letter of 15 September. Translation here from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, trans. R. D. Boylan, J. W. von Goethe’s Works, vol. 6 (London 1903), 85–86:
It makes me wretched, Wilhelm, to think that there should be men incapable of appreciating the few things which possess a real value in life. You remember the walnut-trees at S, under which I used to sit with Charlotte, during my visits to the worthy old vicar. Those glorious trees, the very sight of which has so often filled my heart with joy, how they adorned and refreshed the parsonage yard, with their wide-extended branches! and how pleasing was our remembrance of the good old pastor, by whose hands they were planted so many years ago! The schoolmaster has frequently mentioned his name. He had it from his grandfather. He must have been a most excellent man; and, under the shade of those old trees, his memory was ever venerated by me. The schoolmaster informed us yesterday, with tears in his eyes, that those trees had been felled. Yes, cut to the ground! I could, in my wrath, have slain the monster who struck the first stroke And I must endure this! — I, who, if I had had two such trees in my own court, and one had died from old age, should have wept with real affliction. But there is some comfort left, — such a thing is sentiment, — the whole village murmurs at the misfortune; and I hope the vicar’s wife will soon find, by the cessation of the villagers’ presents, how much she has wounded the feelings of the neighbourhood. It was she who did it, — the wife of the present incumbent (our good old man is dead), — a tall, sickly creature, who is so far right to disregard the world, as the world totally disregards her. The silly being affects to be learned, pretends to examine the canonical books, lends her aid toward the new-fashioned reformation of Christendom, moral and critical, and shrugs up her shoulders at the mention of Lavater’s enthusiasm. Her health is destroyed, on account of which she is prevented from having any enjoyment here below. Only such a creature could have cut down my walnut-trees! I can never pardon it. Hear her reasons. The falling leaves made the court wet and dirty; the branches obstructed the light; boys threw stones at the nuts when they were ripe, and the noise affected her nerves, and disturbed her profound meditations, when she was weighing the difficulties of Kennicot, Semler, and Michaelis. Finding that all the parish, particularly the old people, were displeased, I asked “why they allowed it?” “Ah, sir!” they replied, “when the steward orders, what can we poor peasants do?” But one thing has happened well. The steward and the vicar (who, for once, thought to reap some advantage from the caprices of his wife) intended to divide the trees between them. The revenue-office, being informed of it, revived an old claim to the ground where the trees had stood, and sold them to the best bidder. There they still lie on the ground. If I were the sovereign, I should know how to deal with them all, — vicar, steward, and revenue-office. Sovereign, did I say? I should, in that case, care little about the trees that grew in the country.
See the annotations to this passage in the Hamburg Edition of Goethe’s works, Goethes Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe, ed. Erich Trunz, vol. 6: Romane und Novellen I, ed. Erich Trunz and Benno von Wiese , 10th ed. (Munich 1981), 587:
The canon are the books collected together in the Bible and officially acknowledged by the church (as opposed to the Apocrypha). Whereas during the Middle Ages all parts of the Bible were viewed as being equally divinely inspired and organized in a grand, systematic, and timeless fashion, during the eighteenth century scholars began to view these writings as products of different centuries that more or less reflected the culture of the ancient near east and possessed differing value for the present. Scholars had also begun to view them with critical philological tools with respect to textual errors, variants, repetitions, later additions, etc. That is, a critique of the canon itself and its individual texts emerged, along with a historical examination of the sort also practiced by Herder. The English theologian Benjamin Kennicot (1718–83) had been pioneering such Old Testament text criticism since 1753. Johann David Michaelis (1717–91), professor for Near Eastern languages in Göttingen, was studying the customs and morals of the ancient Near East and from there developed an undogmatic, historical-critical approach to the biblical texts. Johann Salomo Semler (1725–91), professor of theology in Halle, discerned in certain passages in the biblical canon what he called “local Jewish ideas” that variously reduced the value of certain biblical books. — Goethe’s view that this new historical approach might pose a danger to religiosity — including in its broadest sense — accounts for his reserve over against such developments whenever he sensed that the result might tear down without simultaneously building up something of equal value.
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