From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 3, pages 121-126


my Count; give me this opportunity to petition you. A warrior is honored when he is considered a friendly guest in an enemy's house. This man is not an enemy, just a confused individual. Overcome yourself and you will achieve eternal praise!

"That would occur miraculously," replied the Count with a smile.

Quite naturally, responded the interpreter. I did not send the wife and children to grovel at your feet. I know you find such scenes distasteful. However I will depict for you how the wife and children will look as they thank you and I will depict for you how for years to come after the day of the Battle of Bergen they will talk about your generosity, telling their children and their children's children and instilling an interest for you even in strangers. Treatment such as this cannot fail!

"You do not appeal to my weak side, Interpreter. I do not think about posthumous glory. That is for others, not me. I think of doing the right thing at the moment, of not avoiding my duty for the sake of my honor. These things I care about. We have spoken too much. Just go — to be thanked by the ingrates I pardon!"

The interpreter, overcome by this unexpected and fortunate outcome, could not hold back his tears and wanted to kiss the Count's hand. The Count rejected this and stated forcefully and earnestly: You know I cannot bear such gestures! And with this he left the antechamber to deal with urgent business and to hear the petitions of many people. Thus the matter was settled and we celebrated the next morning with the leftover confections


because catastrophe had passed over us and we had fortunately avoided its threat.

I will not speculate on whether the interpreter actually spoke in this manner or whether he only painted the scene in retrospect as people are wont to do after a successful negotiation. He never varied his story in the retelling. Suffice it to say he thought of this day as his most anxious but also as the most glorious of his life.

How often the Count rejected false ceremony and refused titles to which he could lay no claim, and how intelligent he was in his happy hours can be shown by relating this encounter.

A prominent man, who belongs to the class of abstruse and solitary citizens of Frankfurt *, believed he had cause to complain about his billeted lodger. He came in person and the interpreter offered his services. The man however indicated he did not need them. He came before the Count, made a respectful bow, and said "Excellency!" The Count bowed back and countered, "Your Excellency." Disconcerted by this display of respect and believing the form of address inappropriate, the man bowed even deeper and said, "Monseigneur!" — "Sir," the Count replied seriously, "Let's not go any further, otherwise we'll eventually reach the term Majesty." — The man was beside himself and didn't know what to say. The interpreter, standing at a discrete distance and acquainted with the matter, was mischievious enough not to come forward. However the Count with great merriment continued. "For example, dear sir, what is your name? * — Spangenberg, the man interjected. — "And I," the Count said, "am Thorane. Spangenberg, what do you want from Thorane?


"Let's sit down and see if we can take care of this matter."

Thus the matter was settled to the satisfaction of the man I called Spangenberg. The gloating interpreter not only told our family the story that same evening but also gave the details and demonstrated the gestures.

After such confusion, unrest and anxiety I soon regained the sense of security and light-heartedness with which youth lives day to day if it will only apply itself. My passion for the French theater grew with every performance. I never missed an evening even though when I came home afterwards I had to sit down with the family at mealtime, often making do with whatever leftovers remained, and listen to my father's constant reproaches: the theater was of no use and it would lead to nothing. In such circumstances I usually brought up all and every argument at hand for any defender of drama in similar situations. The vice in happiness and the virtue in misfortune were brought back into balance through poetic resolution. I gave beautiful examples of punishment for trespasses in dramas such as Miss Sara Sampson and the Merchant of London. *. However I was often caught short when "Les fourberies de Scapin" * and similar dramas were on the bill, and I was reproached because the deceit of bad servants and the foolishness of wanton youths found sympathy with the public. Neither party convinced the other * but


my father soon came to terms with the theater when he saw that I had picked up the French language with amazing speed.

It is in the nature of man to do things which he has seen others do, even if he does not have the ability. Within a short time I had made my way through the full circuit of the French theater. Many plays repeated two and three times, a range from the worthiest tragedy to the silliest skit passed before my eyes and my mind. When I was a child I dared to imitate Terence *. Now as a youth I was compelled by lively interest to imitate the French forms in accordance to my talents and my weaknesses. These were half mythological, half allegorical plays in the style of Piron *. They were somewhat like parodies and they were quite pleasing. I was particularly drawn to certain images: the golden wings of cheerful Mercury, the thunderbolt of masked Jupiter, the beloved Danae or whatever you would call a beautiful woman who had been visited by the gods provided she were not a shepherdess or a huntress. Elements similar to those in Ovid's Metamorphosis and Pomey's Pantheon Mythicum * hummed through my head and it wasn't long before I created a little play out of my fantasies. Let me just say that the scenes had geographic settings and there was no lack of princes, princesses and gods. I had imagined Mercury so vividly that I could swear I had seen him with my own eyes.

I presented my friend Derones with a fresh copy of the manuscript I had made myself.


He accepted it with great ceremony in a truly patronly manner, read through it, showed me a few spelling errors, found a few dialogs too long and then promised to take a closer look at it when he had some leisure time. When I asked whether the play might indeed be performed he assured me that it was not an impossibility. Many plays find favor on the stage and he would support me with all his heart, however we must keep the matter a secret. He had once surprised the directors with a play he had written and it would have been performed had it not been discovered so soon that he was also the author. I promised to remain silent for as long as possible but in my mind's eye I saw the title of the play posted in large lettering on the corners of every street and the town squares.

My friend was usually lighthearted but on this occasion he seemed delighted to play the master. He thoroughly read through the play and when he sat down with me in order the change a few small matters he ended up changing the entire course of the action to the point that not one stone remained on top of the other. He crossed things out, made replacements, took one character out and substituted another. In fact he proceeded in the craziest fashion in the world until my hair stood on end. I trusted him because he certainly must understand the situation — he had spoken so often about the three Aristotelian unities, about the conformity of the French theater, about plausibility, about the harmony of verse and everything upon which the action depends that I deemed he had not only received instruction but also good grounding. He rebuked the English and scorned the Germans. Indeed, he recited an entire


dramaturgical litany, which I had to listen to often during my lifetime. *

Like the boy in the fable *, I took my decomposed offspring back home and tried to reconstruct it, but the attempt was in vain. However I would not give up, so I went back to the original manscript, made a few changes and had our family clerk * make a fresh copy. I presented this to my father and thus gained a few moments peace during mealtime after a theatrical performance.

This unsuccessful attempt made me pensive and I wanted to learn the definitive sources behind the theories and the laws to which everyone referred but which had become suspect due to the artlessness of my arrogant teacher. The task was not difficult but it required effort. First I read Corneille's treatment of the three unities and saw how they worked, however it wasn't clear to me why they were necessary. What was most difficult and what drove me into much greater confusion came with reading treatises concerning the Cid and the introductions to this play in which Corneille and Racine had to defend themselves against the critics. At the very least I perceived that people really didn't know what they wanted. A play like the Cid, which elicited splendid effects, had been declared absolutely bad by order of an omnipotent Cardinal. Racine was an idol for the French living in my time and indeed, he was an idol for me (for I had become acquainted with him when Juror von Olenschlager * had us children perform the "Britannicus" in which I played the role of


Go to pages 127-132


Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks