The Werther Effect
Roaming around the musty stacks
at the George Bruce Branch of the
New York Public Library – a 12 year-old
and artless me, eager though indiscriminate
traveler – my only real move being
from Children’s Section to Adult –
I somehow landed on The Sorrows
of Young Werther.
Before I even knew what Sturm und Drang was,
Goethe tossed me this way, and then that:
young Werther hopelessly in love with Charlotte,
who is affianced to Albert, whose pistols Werther
borrows (so right in an epistolary novel!),
as he sets off upon a journey, shoots himself,
and then is buried under a linden tree. Poor Charlotte’s
grief, of course, immense; perhaps she too will soon
find solace under that selfsame tree.
Not knowing fully what this all might mean,
(having just moved to the Adult Section),
I did know it was bad – a puddle
of impossible desires. And so I put my head down
(not quite in Walheim, but at 125th in Harlem,
at the George Bruce Branch), and quietly wept.
I always wondered what had caused my yielding,
so complete, to the pathos of poor Werther:
Was it the tatters of another day spent reeling
in that 6th grade maelstrom? Was it the afternoon’s
receding light in that already dim library? Or was it
just the sudden gush of a pre-adolescent geyser?
It was only decades later that I came across
the curious phenomenon of Werther Fever:
1774, the novel published. . . countless young men
dressed in yellow trousers, blue waistcoats, and long black
boots – all over Europe, Werther mushroomed. . .
drawings, cups, plates, even a perfume – celebrating
Too often were their bodies found, the tearful
book beside them.
Banned in Leipzig, banned in Italy,
banned in Denmark; the clothes, the book – contagious.
Reportedly two thousand young men taken by his sorrows:
the Werther Effect.
Then traveling further, I alighted on a Wilhelm
Amberg painting, from 1870. Five young girls
sitting in a tawny forest. One, in a long dark dress,
reads to the others, and on the rock behind her
rests a handkerchief. A second girl weeps
quietly on a companion’s shoulder. Another,
rapt and sorrowful . . .
Listening, they wear
a look of wondering sadness,
a look the newly blossomed wear.
. . . . . . . . . .
A golden light seeps through the trees;
late afternoon – a turning time. The painting
titled “Reading from Goethe’s Werther.”
The scene a frame in which to set my own tears
shed for Werther’s troubles – now mirrored here,
quintuply-mirrored, in my melancholy doubles.
No longer I, just one disquieted young reader,
but rediscovered finally unto myself – collected –
part of a universal chorus now of grievers!
Helen Bournas-Ney was born on the island of Ikaria, Greece, and grew up in NYC. She served as the Assistant Director of the GED Center at NYU and as the Director of the Learning Center at SUNY Farmingdale, and also taught a number of writing courses. She received the Anaïs Nin Award for her work on Rimbaud and George Seferis. Her work has appeared in Plume, the Cumberland Poetry Review, the New Hampshire College Journal, and the 2019 anthology Plume Poetry 7.
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