The Story Of My Life From Childhood To Manhood by Georg Ebers
Chapter XVIII. The time of Effervescence, and My School Mates.
Although the events of my school-days at Kottbus long since blended together in my, memory, my life there is divided into two sharply defined portions. The latter commences with Professor Tzschirner's appointment and the reform in the school.
From the first day of the latter's government I can recall what was taught us in the class and how it influenced me, while I have entirely forgotten what occurred during the interim. This seems strange; for, while Langethal's, Middendorf's, and Barop's instruction, which I received when so much younger, remains vividly impressed on my memory, and it is the same with Tzschirner's lessons, the knowledge I acquired between my fifteenth and seventeenth year is effaced as completely as though I had passed a sponge over the slate of my memory. A chasm yawns between these periods of instruction, and I cannot ascribe this circumstance entirely to the amusements which withdrew my thoughts from study; for they continued under Tzschirner's rule, though with some restrictions. I wish I could believe that everything which befel me then had remained entirely without influence on my inner life.
A demon--I can find no other name--urged me to all sorts of follies, many of which I still remember with pleasure, and, thank Heaven, not a single one which a strict teacher--supposing that he had not forgotten how to put himself into the place of a youth--would seriously censure. The effervescing spirits which did not find vent in such pranks obtained expression in a different form.
I had begun to write, and every strong emotion was uttered in verses, which I showed to the companions from whom I could expect sympathy. My school-mates were very unlike. Among the young gentlemen who paid a high price to attend the school not a single one had been really industrious and accomplished anything. But neither did any one of the few lads whose fathers were peasants, or who belonged to the lower ranks, stand at the head of his class. They were very diligent, but success rarely corresponded with the amount of labour employed. The well-educated but by no means wealthy middle class supplied the school with its best material.
The evolution of the human soul is a strange thing. The period during which, in my overflowing mirth, I played all sorts of wild pranks, and at school worked earnestly for one teacher only, often found me toiling late at night for hours with burning head over a profound creation--I called it The Poem of the World--in which I tried to represent the origin of cosmic and human life.
Many other verses, from a sonnet to the beautiful ears of a pretty cousin to the commencement of the tragedy of Panthea and Abradatus, were written at that time; but I owe The Poem of the World special gratitude, for it kept me from many a folly, and often held me for weeks at my desk during the evening hours which many of my comrades spent in the tavern. Besides, it attracted the new head-master's attention to my poetical tastes, for a number of verses had been left by mistake in an exercise-book. He read them, and asked to see the rest. But I could not fulfil the wish, for they contained many things which could not fail to offend him; so I gave him only a few of the tamest passages, and can still see him smile in his peculiar way as he read them in my presence. He said something about "decided talent," and when preparations for the celebration of the birthday of King Frederick William IV were made he gave me the task of composing an original poem. I gladly accepted it. Writing was a great pleasure, and though my productions at school were far too irregular for me to call them good, I was certainly the best declaimer.
THE NEW HEAD OF THE SCHOOL.
Before passing on to other subjects, I must devote a few words to the remodelling of the school and its new head.
At the end of my first term in the first class we learned that we were to have a new teacher, and one who would rule with a rod of iron. Terrible stories of his Draconian severity were in circulation, and his first address gave us reason to fear the worst, for the tall man of forty in the professor's chair was very imposing in his appearance. His smoothly shaven upper lip and brown whiskers, his erect bearing and energetic manner, reminded one of an English parliamentary leader, but his words sounded almost menacing. He said that an entirely new house must be erected. We and the teachers must help him. To the obedient he would be a good friend; but to the refractory, no matter what might be their position, he would----What followed made many of us nudge one another, and the young men who attended the school merely for the sake of the examination left it in a body. Many a teacher even changed colour.
This reorganizer, Professor Tzschirner, had formerly been principal of the Magdalen Gymnasium at Breslau. In energy and authoritative manner he resembled Barop, but he was also an eminent scholar and a thorough man of the world. The authorities in Berlin made an excellent choice, and we members of the first class soon perceived that he not only meant kindly by us, but that we had obtained in him a teacher far superior to any we had possessed before. He required a great deal, but he was a good friend to every one who did his duty. His kindly intention and inspiring influence made themselves felt in our lives; for he invited to his house the members of the first class whom he desired to influence, and his charming, highly educated wife helped him entertain us, so that we preferred an evening there to almost any other amusements. Study began to charm us, and I can only repeat that he seemed to recall Langethal's method and awaken many things which the latter had given me, and which, as it were, had fallen asleep during the interval. He again aroused in my soul the love for the ancients, and his interpretations of Horace or Sophocles were of great service to me in after-years.
Nor did he by any means forget grammar, but in explaining the classics he always laid most stress upon the contents, and every lesson of his was a clever archaeological, aesthetic, and historical lecture. I listened to none more instructive at the university. Philological and linguistic details which were not suited for the senior pupils who were being fitted for other callings than those of the philologist were omitted. But he insisted upon grammatical correctness, and never lost sight of his maxim, "The school should teach its pupils to do thoroughly whatever they do at all."
He urged us especially to think for ourselves, and to express our ideas clearly and attractively, not only in writing but verbally.
It seemed as though a spring breeze had melted the snow from the land, such bourgeoning and blossoming appeared throughout the school.
Creative work was done by fits and starts. If the demon seized upon me, I raved about for a time as before, but I did my duty for the principal. I not only honoured but loved him, and censure from his lips would have been unbearable.
The poem which I was to read on the king's birthday has been preserved, and as I glanced over it recently I could not help smiling.
It was to describe the life of Henry the Fowler, and refer to the reigning king, Frederick William IV.
The praise of my hero had come from my heart, so the poem found favour, and in circles so wide that the most prominent man in the neighbourhood, Prince Puckler-Muskau, sent for my verses.
I was perfectly aware that they did not represent my best work, but what father does not find something to admire in his child? So I copied them neatly, and gave them to Billy, the dwarf, the prince's factotum. A short time after, while I was walking with some friends in Branitz Park, the prince summoned me, and greeted me with the exclamation, "You are a poet!"
These four words haunted me a long while; nay, at times they even echo in my memory now. I had heard a hundred anecdotes of this prince, which could not fail to charm a youth of my disposition. When a young officer of the Garde-du-Corps in Dresden, after having been intentionally omitted from the invitations to a court-ball, he hired all the public conveyances in the city, thus compelling most of the gentlemen and ladies who were invited either to wade through the snow or forego the dance.
When the war of 1813 began he entered the service of "the liberators," as the Russians were then called, and at the head of his regiment challenged the colonel of a French one to a duel, and seriously wounded him.
It was apparently natural to Prince Puckler to live according to his own pleasure, undisturbed by the opinions of his fellow-men, and this pleasure urged him to pursue a different course in almost every phase of life. I said "apparently," because, although he scorned the censure of the people, he never lost sight of it. From a child his intense vanity was almost a passion, and unfortunately this constant looking about him, the necessity of being seen, prevented him from properly developing an intellect capable of far higher things; yet there was nothing petty in his character.
His highest merit, however, was the energy with which he understood how to maintain his independence in the most difficult circumstances in which life placed him. To one department of activity, especially, that of gardening, he devoted his whole powers. His parks can vie with the finest pleasure-grounds of all countries.
At the time I first met him he was sixty-nine years old, but looked much younger, except when he sometimes appeared with his hair powdered until it was snow-white. His figure was tall and finely proportioned, and though a sarcastic smile sometimes hovered around his lips, the expression of his face was very kindly. His eyes, which I remember as blue, were somewhat peculiar. When he wished to please, they sparkled with a warm--I might almost say tender-light, which must have made many a young heart throb faster. Yet I think he loved himself too much to give his whole affection to any one.
A great man has always seemed to me the greatest of created things, and though Prince Puckler can scarcely be numbered among the great men of mankind, he was undoubtedly the greatest among those who surrounded him at Branitz. In me, the youth of nineteen, he awakened admiration, interest, and curiosity, and his "You are a poet" sometimes strengthened my courage, sometimes disheartened me. My boyish ambitions in those days had but one purpose, and that was the vocation of a poet.
I was still ignorant that the Muse kisses only those who have won her love by the greatest sufferings. Life as yet seemed a festal hall, and as the bird flies from bough to bough wherever a red berry tempts him, my heart was attracted by every pair of bright eyes which glanced kindly at me. When I entered upon my last term, my Leporello list was long enough, and contained pictures from many different classes. But my hour, too, seemed on the point of striking, for when I went home in my last Christmas vacation I thought myself really in love with the charming daughter of the pleasant widow of a landed proprietor. Nay, though only nineteen, I even considered whether I should not unite her destiny with mine, and formally ask her hand. My father had offered himself to my mother at the same age.
In Kottbus I was treated with the respect due to a man, but at home I was still "the boy," and the youngest of us three "little ones." Ludo, as a lieutenant, had a position in society, while I was yet a schoolboy. Amid these surroundings I realized how hasty and premature my intention had been.
Only four of us came to keep Christmas at home, for Martha now lived in Dresden as the wife of Lieutenant Baron Curt von Brandenstein, the nephew of our Aunt Sophie's husband. Her wedding ceremony in the cathedral was, of course, performed by the court-chaplain Strauss.
My grandmother had died, but my Aunt Sophie still lived in Dresden, and spent her summers in Blasewitz. Her hospitable house always afforded an atmosphere very stimulating to intellectual life, so I spent more time there than in my mother's more quiet residence at Pillnitz.
I had usually passed part of the long--or, as it was called, the "dog-day"--vacation in or near Dresden, but I also took pleasant pedestrian tours in Bohemia, and after my promotion to the senior class, through the Black Forest.
It was a delightful excursion! Yet I can never recall it without a tinge of sadness, for my two companions, a talented young artist named Rothermund, and a law student called Forster, both died young. We had met in a railway carriage between Frankfort and Heidelberg and determined to take the tour together, and never did the Black Forest, with its mountains and valleys, dark forests and green meadows, clear streams and pleasant villages, seem to me more beautiful. But still fairer days were in store after parting from my friends.
I went to Rippoldsau, where a beloved niece of my mother with her charming daughter Betsy expected me. Here in the excellent Gohring hotel I found a delightful party, which only lacked young gentlemen. My arrival added a pair of feet which never tired of dancing, and every evening our elders were obliged to entreat and command in order to put an end to our sport. The mornings were occupied in walks through the superb forests around Rippoldsau, and the afternoons in bowling, playing graces, and running races. I speedily lost my susceptible heart to a charming young lady named Leontine, who permitted me to be her Knight, and I fancied myself very unjustly treated when, soon after our separation, I received her betrothal cards.
The Easter and Christmas vacations I usually spent in Berlin with my mother, where I was allowed to attend entertainments given by our friends, at which I met many distinguished persons, among others Alexander von Humboldt.
Of political life in the capital at that time there is nothing agreeable to be said. I was always reminded of the state of affairs immediately after my arrival; for during the first years of my school life at Kottbus no one was permitted to enter the city without a paper proving identity, which was demanded by constables at the exits of railway stations or in the yards of post-houses. Once, when I had nothing to show except my report, I was admitted, it is true, but a policeman was sent with me to my mother's house to ascertain that the boy of seventeen was really the person he assumed to be, and not a criminal dangerous to the state.
The beautiful aspirations of the Reichstag in Paulskirche were baffled, the constitution of the empire had become a noble historical monument which only a chosen few still remembered. The king, who had had the opportunity to place himself at the head of united Germany, had preferred to suppress the freedom of his native land rather than to promote its unity. Yet we need not lament his refusal. Blood shed together in mutual enthusiasm is a better cement than the decree of any Parliament.
The ruling powers at that time saw in the constitution only a cage whose bars prevented them from dealing a decisive blow, but whatever they could reach through the openings they tore and injured as far as lay in their power. The words "reactionary" and "liberal" had become catch terms which severed families and divided friends.
At Komptendorf, and almost everywhere in the country, there was scarcely any one except Conservatives. Herr von Berndt had driven into the city to the election. Pastor Albin, the clergyman of his village, voted for the Liberal candidate. When the pastor asked the former, who was just getting into his carriage, to take him home, the usually courteous, obliging gentleman, who was driving, exclaimed, "If you don't vote with me you don't ride with me," and, touching the spirited bays, dashed off, leaving the pastor behind.
Dr. Boltze was a "Liberal," and had to endure many a rebuff because his views were known to the ministry. Our religious instruction might serve as a mirror of the opinions which were pleasing to the minister. It had made the man who imparted it superintendent when comparatively young. The term "mob marriage" for "civil marriage" originated with him, and it ought certainly to be inscribed in the Golden Book above.
He was a fiery zealot, who sought to induce us to share his wrath and scorn when he condemned Bauer, David Strauss, and Lessing.
When discussing the facts of ecclesiastical history, he understood how to rouse us to the utmost, for he was a talented man and a clever speaker, but no word of appeal to the heart, no exhortation to love and peace, ever crossed his lips.
The vacations were the only time which I spent with my mother. I ceased to think of her in everything I did, as was the case in Keilhau. But after I had been with her for a while, the charm of her personality again mastered my soul, her love rekindled mine, and I longed to open my whole heart to her and tell her everything which interested me. She was the only person to whom I read my Poem of the World, as far as it was completed. She listened with joyful astonishment, and praised several passages which she thought beautiful. Then she warned me not to devote too much time to such things at present, but kissed and petted me in a way too charming to describe. During the next few days her eyes rested on me with an expression I had always longed to see. I felt that she regarded me as a man, and she afterwards confessed how great her hopes were at that time, especially as Professor Tzschirner had encouraged her to cherish them.