From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 4, pages 169-174


a task I had performed previously with success because I sat in a place where I could hear comfortably but which hid my activity. I was very attentive and quick. As soon as he delivered the "Amen" I rushed from the church and spent a couple hours hastily dictating the ideas I had placed on paper so that the transcribed sermon could be handed over at the dinner table. My father was very proud of my success and a good friend of the house, who came for Sunday dinner, expressed his delight.* In fact this man was well disposed towards me because I had made his "Messiah" my own. Whenever I visited him in order to procure seal impressions for my armor collection I could recite large passages of it and this brought tears to his eyes.

The next Sunday I eagerly set off for my work. The mechanics of taking dictation so engrossed me that I wasn't even aware of what I was writing and preserving. The first quarter of a year my efforts progressed smoothly however I eventually came to the conclusion that I had found neither enlightenment concerning the bible nor clear insight into dogma. It seemed this small conceit, which had so pleased me, was now being purchased at too great an expense for me to continue the project with the same zeal. The once page-rich pulpit sermons grew ever slimmer and I would have discontinued the exercise if my father, an advocate for completed projects, had not induced me through kind words and promises. I held out until the last Sunday of Trinity even though at the end there was little more than text with propositions and categories jotted down on tiny pieces of paper.


My father had a real stubborn attitude when it came to completion of a project. Once begun, it should be completed even if during the interim it became apparent that the task was difficult, boring, unpleasant and useless. For him it seemed that finishing was the only goal and persistence the only virtue. If we started to read a book aloud on long winter evenings within the family circle, we had to read it to the end regardless of whether we were driven to despair and father was the first to start yawning. I remember one such winter when we had to work our way through Bower's "History of the Popes."* It was a dreadful situation providing little or nothing concerning ecclesiastic circumstances of interest to children or young people. Despite my general inattentiveness and repugnance much of what was read stayed with me and I was later able to pick up some the threads in history.

Amid all these strange activities and occupations, which followed one another so quickly that one could barely make any determination as to whether they were valid or useful, my father did not lose sight of his main goal.* He attempted to capture my attention and combine my gifts and turn them to matters of jurisprudence. To that end he gave me a small book by Hoppe, shaped like a catechism with institutional form and content.* I learned the questions and answers by heart and I was soon able to portray the catechists as well as those being catechized. It was like religious instruction where the main exercise was to learn how to quickly pick out a bible passage. A similar acquaintanceship was needed with the body of law


and I soon mastered the technique. My father wanted to proceed further and he presented the small volume by Struve. Here things did not progress as quickly. The book's format was not as favorable for the novice whereby he could help himself and my father's kind of instruction did little to gain my interest.

Not just through the wartime circumstances in which we found ourselves at the time but also in normal life experience gained through reading histories and other books, it became all too clear to us that there were many cases where the laws fell silent and the individual was left without assistance and had to extract himself from difficult situations. We had grown up and along with everything else we were supposed to learn to fence and ride horses so when necessary we could save our own skins and ride without schoolboy mishaps. Regarding the first point, these lessons were welcome. We had already practiced fencing with rapiers made of hazelwood branches with wicker baskets on them to protect our hands. Now we could make real steel clanging noises and this pleased us a great deal.

There were two fencing masters in the city; one, an older and serious German who approached the task at hand in a strict and capable fashion, and the other, a Frenchman who attempted to gain the advantage through advances and retreats and through light, fluid strokes accompanied by bantering cries. Opinion was divided on which approach was the best. The small class with which I attended lessons had the Frenchman and we soon became used to swaying forwards


and backwards, parrying and retreating, and breaking out with traditional cries. However many of our acquaintances had turned to the German fencing master and their conduct corresponded to his instruction. The differences in approach to such an important subject and each student's conviction that his master was better led to dissension among the young people and being of a certain age there seldom ceased to be opportunities for real fencing matches to be staged at the schools. Battles were fought with words as well as sword thrusts and in the end a contest between the two masters was held to settle the matter. I need not describe the results in great detail. The German stood like a stone wall gaining the advantage and knowing how to disarm his opponent time and again with strikes and blocking manoeuvers.* The Frenchman asserted that this was not right and continued with his swift movements to wind the German. The German also delivered some fierce blows, which if the contest had been in earnest, would have sent the Frenchman into the next world.

In the end nothing was truly decided or ameliorated, however several of us, me included, joined our countryman. I had learned a lot from the first master and it took quite some time for this new master to break me of the practices. The German was less pleased with us renegades than he was with his original students.

Things were even worse for me with riding lessons. As luck would have I was sent for lessons in the fall so I began in the cool and damp season. The pedantic approach to this beautiful artform was highly distasteful for me.


First and foremost they talked about keeping a tight saddle but no one could tell me how that was done so everything else went smoothly - they galloped about here and there without stirrups. It seemed the instructions were meant to trick and shame the scholar. If you forgot to properly attach the curb bit, dropped the riding crop or your hat, every omission or misfortune cost money and you were laughed at. This put me in an ill humor especially because I found the practice field completely unbearable. Large, foul rooms either damp or dusty, the cold, the smell of rot, I found all these things extremely unpleasant. And the stallmaster gave others all the best horses; perhaps the other students had given him breakfast or gifts or perhaps he was impressed by their ability. He always gave me the worst horse and I always had to wait. I felt neglected and it seemed to me I was enduring the most dismal hours in an activity which should have been the best time in the world. The memory of each hour and every situation remains vivid in my mind and even though I later became a passionate and bold rider for days and weeks at a time, I carefully avoided covered horse paths, spending as little time as possible within them. Often enough it is the case that when the elements of an unknown art are delivered to us it is done in a most painful and dreadful manner.* Acknowledgement of how annoying and harmful this is has led in later years to the educational maxim that everything presented to the young should be delivered in a light, cheerful and easy manner.


However this too has given rise to other evils and disadvantages.

With the approach of spring life became peaceful once again.* Whenever I attempted to recreate the earlier look of the city, its intellectual and worldly existence, its public and private buildings and especially whenever I gleened great satisfaction in imagining its predominantly ancient character or tried to envision people of this earlier age, it was through my readings of Lersner's Chronicle * and other works found in my father's library of books and manuscripts on Frankfurt life. These works seemed particularly good at drawing my attention to details of time and custom and important personalities. *

Amid the relics of the past known to me from my childhood days was the skull of a State criminal impaled on an iron spike on the bridge tower. It was the last of three or four, which had remained since 1616 despite the ravages of time and weather. Whenever one returned from Sachsenhausen to Frankfurt one had the tower before him and the skull filled his eyes. As a boy I eagerly heard the story of this rebel, Fettmilch, and his comrades. * They were discontent with the city government. They rose up, plotted takeover, plundered the Jewish quarter and committed heinous acts. They were eventually captured and sentenced to death by the Imperial authorities. Later on I took the time to learn the details and what it meant for the people. From an old woodcut engraved book of the same era I found out that along with these men being sentenced to death


Go to pages 175-180


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