From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 4, pages 163-168


Jacob finds in his arms a wife, whom he does not love. In an effort to pacify him after a short time Laban agrees to give him his beloved on the condition he perform another seven years of service. Now one vexation leads to another. The wife, whom he does not love, is fruitful and his beloved produces no children. Like Sara, Rachel tries to become a mother through her maid and then begrudges the maid her advantage. The maid, in turn, gives another maid to her husband and the good patriarch becomes the most beset man in the world; four wives, children by three but none by his beloved.* Finally she too is blessed and Joseph comes into the world, a late-in life offspring of their passionate love. Jacob's fourteen years of service are over now but Laban cannot bear to part with his first and truest servant. New conditions are agreed upon and the flocks are divided. Laban keeps the white-colored stock, which make up the majority, while Jacob receives the dappled ones, which are the rejects. However Jacob knows how to keep the advantage in just the same way he had won the rights of the firstborn and received his father's blessing by means of disguise. Through art and sympathy he gains the best and greater part of the flock and becomes the true and worthy father of the people of Israel and the model for his descendants. If not the trick, Laban and his family recognize the result. There is conflict. Jacob flees with all of his family and possessions, escaping Laban's pursuit partly through luck and partly through cunning. Now Rachel gives him another son but she dies in childbirth. Benjamin, a son of grief, survives her however the old patriarch experiences even more sorrow with the apparent death of his son, Joseph.


Perhaps people will ask why I recite these well known and often repeated stories with so much detail. Let this serve as my answer. I knew of no other way to present how amid my distracted life and disparate education I had managed to gather into one point of quiet operation my thoughts and feelings. There was no other way to depict the peace, which surrounded me while events spun so wildly and crazily around me. While engaged in imagination each fairytale would bear witness to a truth, tranporting me here and there when the mixture of fable and fact, mythology and religion threated to confuse me.* I gladly fled to the eastern land, submerging myself in the first books of Moses and finding there amid the expanding shepherd race both mighty solitude and great companionship.

Before we allow these familial scenes to vanish back into the history of the Israeli people, let's close with a look at one more figure who may be admired especially by the young with excitement and imagination. This is Joseph, the child of passionate marital love. He quietly appears before us with clear and prophetic qualities which raise him up above his family.* Cast into unfortunate circumstances by his siblings, he remains steadfast and honest even in slavery. He faces the most dangerous adversities and saves himself through prophecy and elevates himself to a position of honor through service. He proves himself useful to a mighty kingdom and comes to the assistance of his family. He resembles his great grandfather, Abraham, in his peaceful and magnanimous nature and his grandfather, Isaac, in his patience and


devotion. It was the business sense inherited from his father which he used to his greatest advantage. We're no longer just talking about flocks of sheep one is attempting to gain from his father-in-law but a man's ability to negotiate with a king for an entire race of people and all their belongings. This simple tale is extremely charming but it seems too brief so one feels called upon to paint in the details.

Painting in the details for biblical passages where only outlines of various characters and events are given is not an unfamiliar activity for Germans. Klopstock gave people of the Old and New Testament refined and sympathetic qualities which highly pleased the boy and his contemporaries. He gained little or nothing from Bodmer's work on these subjects but Moser's "Daniel in the Lion's Den" had great impact on the youth's mind.* Here a smart businessman and member of a royal court achieves high honor through many sorrows and his piety, which people threatened to destroy, earlier and later became his shield and his weapon. It had long been my wish to work on the story of Joseph, however I couldn't come up with an appropriate verse form especially because I wasn't fluent with meter. Then I decided a prose treatment would be quite easy and I set down to my work with all my ability. I attempted to separate the characters and add details, then develop the simple old story into a new and independent work through insertion of incidents and episodes. I did not consider what youth never can consider, that you need content, and content can only be derived through the interpretation of past experience. Suffice it to say


I imagined all the events down to the smallest detail and then told my story as best I could.*

What delighted me about this work was the fact that it and my authorship in general promised to take up many volumes. A young man with many abilities but made feeble by overexertion and arrogance resided in my father's house as a ward.* He lived quietly amid the family, quite withdrawn, and if allowed to go his own way he seemed content and pleasant. He had written his academic notebooks with great care and he had a fluent, legible hand. He was happiest when he was busy writing and was please whenever someone gave his something to copy. However he preferred taking dictation because this made him feel like he was reliving his happy school days. Nothing could have pleased my father more since his own penmanship was poor and his German script was small and shaky. In tending to his own work and other people's businesses he usually set aside a few hours each day for dictation. I was no less comfortable in the interims finding whatever was going through my head being fixed to paper by a foreign hand and the products of invention and imitation easily developed from concept into composition.*

I had yet to undertake such a large work as a biblical prosaic-epic poem. It was a seemly peaceful time and nothing called my imagination back from Palastine and Egypt. The manuscript swelled up daily as I recited this or that line in the open air while at the same time it appeared on paper.


Only a few pages here and there had to be edited.

When the work was finished I stood in amazement as I realized that over the past few years there were several poems, which I did not think were rejects and which could be joined with "Joseph" to form a nice little quarto volume perhaps titled "Various Poems."* I was pleased with this idea because this gave me the opportunity to imitate other well-known authors. I had completed a fair number of so-called Anacreontic poems, which had easily flown from my hand due to the comfort of the meter and the lightness of the content. However I was not really happy with them because they did not have a rhyme scheme and more than anything I wanted to show my father something he would find acceptable. Spiritual odes seemed most suitable and I had attempted several in imitation of Elias Schlegel's "Last Judgment." One work for the feast day of Christ's descent into hell garnered accolades from my parents and friends.* I was also pleased by it for a few years. I diligently studied the so-called texts from Sunday church music, which were being printed at the time. They were quite weak and this led me to believe that, since mine had been written more to the proscribed form, when set to music they would serve well to the edification of congregations. For more than a year I had been writing these and many more down with my own hand because they were used in private tutoring sessions in transcription with a penmanship teacher. However now everything was


reedited and placed in good order, and it didn't take much persuasion to get a young man, who loved transcribing, to make fresh copies. I hurried off to the bookbinder with my manuscript and soon after turned over the clean volume to my father, who encouraged me with particular satisfaction that I should give him a new quarto every year. He seemed to be convinced that I had produced the whole thing just during my free time.*

There was another situation which increased my interest in this theological, or perhaps better put, biblical study. The senior member of the ministry, Johann Philipp Fresenius *, was a gentle man of handsome and pleasing aspect and he was respected by his congregation and indeed the entire city as an exemplary spiritual leader and preacher. However because he came out against the Moravians he did not stand in the best regard with the Pietists. He became famous and the crowd called him holy when he converted a mortally wounded, free-thinking general. When Fresenius died a man named Plitt became his successor. He was a large, handsome and worthy man, who came from a university chair (he was a professor in Marburg. *) He had a greater gift for teaching than for edifying and he announced there would be a course on religious education which would correspond to his sermons. On earlier occasions when I was obliged to go to church I had already noticed the methodical presentation and could give almost a full and complete recitation of his sermons. Several congregation members spoke for and against their new senior minister and many felt unable to place their trust in his didactic sermons. I decided to carefully transcribe them,


Go to pages 169-174


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