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Wartburg the City of Violets by Elise Polko

Wartburg, with its pleasant memories of delightful excursions during the previous summer, was covered with snow, as if buried in slumber, when I dashed past it on the 25th of March. A gray mantle of mist obscured the sky, and by all the roadsides stood bushes loaded with green buds shivering in the frosty air. The exquisite landscape, which I had last seen glowing with such brilliant hues, now appeared robed in one monotonous tint of gray, and the ancient towers and pointed roofs of Weimar loomed with a melancholy aspect through the dense fog. Only the welcome of my faithful friends, Gerhard Rohlfs and his pretty, fair-haired wife, was blithe and gay. The brave desert wanderer and bird of passage has now built himself a little wigwam or nest near the railway-station: the grand duke of Weimar gave him for the purpose a charming piece of ground with a delightful view. On the 25th of March a light veil of snow still rested on the ground, but two days later we were listening to the notes of the lark and gathering violets to take to Schiller's house and adorn the table of the beloved singer. Everything was illumined by the brilliant sunlight—the narrow bedstead on which he died, and all the numerous withered laurel-wreaths and bouquets of flowers that filled it—while outside, in Schiller's little garden, in the bed where his bust is placed, violets nodded at us between the leaves of the luxuriant ivy.

And we carried in our hands bouquets of violets when we stood before Goethe's house to pay our respects to the lady who in these bustling days remains a revered memento of the times of Carl Augustus and his poet-friend—Ottilie von Goethe. The beloved daughter-in-law of the great master of song lives in the poet's house in the utmost seclusion: few strangers know that she receives visitors. Only on rare occasions is the classic little salon opened in the evening to a select few—only now and then, when the health of the aged lady permits it, a circle of faithful friends gather round her listening eagerly to her vivid descriptions of long-past days. The grand duke himself often knocks at this door, and the grand duchess and princesses take pleasure in coming hither. With deep emotion we crossed the threshold over which Goethe's coffin was borne, and with light step ascended the broad, easy staircase of the house that we had so often heard described. Half-effaced frescoes, which had gleamed over the head of the king of poesy, looked down upon us, and our eyes wandered over the bronze figures past which Goethe had walked day after day.

On reaching the second story, Ottilie von Goethe came forward to greet us, looking like an apparition from another world. Her figure was small and fragile, but there was an aristocratic repose in all her movements. A white lace cap trimmed with dark-red velvet bows rested on her hair, which was arranged over her temples in thick gray curls, framing her face, from which a pair of brown eyes greeted us with a bright, cordial glance. A white knit shawl covered her shoulders and a black silk dress fell around her in ample folds. At her side stood her younger sister, a canoness, who was paying her a few days' visit—an amiable lady with a very cheerful temperament. Ottilie von Goethe shared the violets with her. An easy conversation commenced. Frau von Goethe was very much interested in Herr Rohlfs' travels and Edward Vogel's fate, and said that one of her grandsons also cherished the same ardent, restless longing to see foreign countries and people. Then she spoke of her own journeys to Italy, "a long, long time ago," and of the charms of Venice and Verona. Underlying the words was a slight tone of regret that she was now not only bound to the spot, but also to the house, for invalids cannot venture out of doors to enjoy the spring until the first of May, and September drives them back into their quiet cell. "How often one longs for a distant horizon!" she sighed. My eyes wandered over the wilderness of ancient roofs upon which the windows of Goethe's house looked out, and discovered a small spot where the blue mountain-peaks appeared.

"Why, there is a distant horizon!" I involuntarily exclaimed.

"Ah, but even that is so near!" replied Frau von Goethe, smiling.

The room where we were, as well as the adjoining apartment into which we were allowed to peep, was full of relics of all kinds. Each article probably had its special history, from the paintings and drawings on the walls and the old-fashioned chests, chairs and tables, to the cups, vases, glasses, coverlets, and cushions arranged in the neatest order, some standing or lying around the apartment, others visible through the glass doors of a cupboard. But the most interesting object to me was the portrait of Goethe painted by Stieler. It has been made familiar to all by copies, and represents the poet, though at an advanced age, in the full possession of his physical strength. He holds in his hand a letter, from which he is in the act of looking up: the face is turned slightly aside. It seems as if the glance was one of greeting to some friend who is just entering. The colors are still wonderfully fresh and the expression bewitching. The large eyes beam with the fire of genius, Olympian majesty is enthroned upon the brow, and the curve of the lips possesses unequaled grace and beauty. A more aristocratic, noble mouth cannot be imagined. Who could have resisted the eloquence of those lips?

"This picture is not in the least idealized: it is a perfect likeness of my father-in-law," observed Frau von Goethe, and added that this portrait by Stieler was one of the best which had ever been painted. Not far from the superb portrait of the father appears the melancholy face of the son, August von Goethe, but I sought in vain for a picture of the bud so early broken, Goethe's granddaughter, the lovely Alma, who died in Vienna.

Fran von Goethe noticed with evident pleasure our eager interest in her surroundings, and showed us many a relic. As she spoke of the radiance of those long-past days which still gilded her quiet life, she seemed to me like the venerable figure in the tale of the "Seven Ravens," who relates marvelous stories to a listening group. Gradually a throng of shapes from the dim past entered the small room and gathered round the speaker, who suddenly became transfigured by the light of youth. She was again the poet's cheerful nurse, the fair flower of the household, the happy mother, the intellectual woman, the centre of a brilliant circle. I gazed as if at a buried world, which suddenly became once more alive: its inhabitants, clad in antique garments, walked past us, stared in astonishment, and seemed to say, We too were happy and beloved, feted and praised, the blue sky arched over us also, and we plucked violets and rejoiced in their fragrance till the deep, heavy sleep came.

Wait—only wait:

Soon thou too will rest.

It was a cold, feeble hand I respectfully kissed at parting, and I remained under its spell, lingering in the strange world conjured up by Ottilie von Goethe, till we stood before Goethe's pretty summer-house and the blue violets peeped at us from the turf. The windows stood wide open, the mild breeze swept gently in, and the sun also looked to see if everything was in order in "der alte Herr's" rooms. Far away between the trees gleamed the white pillars of the house, and the ground at our feet was covered with a blue carpet. It is said that nowhere in North Germany are there so many violets as in the vicinity of Weimar. And why? Because, as the people poetically say, "der alte Herr," whenever he went to walk, always filled his pockets with violet-seeds, and scattered them everywhere with lavish hands.