From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 5, pages 193-198


I lacked the means to grab and hold onto the opportunity.

In a totally unexpected way I did develop certain acquaintances which brought me quite close to great peril and at least for a certain time lead to embarassment and hardship. The friendship with the boy I earlier called Pylades had continued on into my adolescence. We seldom saw each other because our parents were not on the best of terms, but when we encountered each other the old and amicable joy always resurfaced. On one occasion we met in the alleys which have a pleasant path for strolling between the inner and outer walls of the St. Gallen's Gate. We had scarcely greeted each other when he said to me, "Your verses still please me as much as they every did. I read the ones you sent to me most recently to a few of my companions and they can't believe that you wrote them." Don't worry about it, I replied. We will make them and enjoy them. Let the others think and say what they want.

"Here comes one of the disbelievers!" said my friend. — Let's not speak about it, was my response. — "Not talk about it," my friend said. "I can't allow him to go on like this."

After a brief and indifferent conversation my all too well-intended young companion just couldn't let the matter rest. With a bit of irritability he said to the other fellow, "Here is the friend, who makes the beautiful verses but you didn't believe it was him." — The young man did not take offense to this, merely replying: "We are actually showing him respect when we say that it takes more erudition to create such verses


"than a youth his age usually possesses." — I responded with a neutral comment but my friend continued, "It wouldn't take much effort to convince you. Give him a theme and he'll make you a poem on the spot." — I agreed, we came together and the third young man asked if I could write a clever little love letter in verse that a modest young lady would write to a young man revealing her affection for him. — Nothing was easier, I replied, if we only had something to write on. He produced his pocket calendar with blank pages bound together. I sat down on a bench so I could write. They went about with this or that topic, never taking their eyes off of me. I thought about the situation and imagined how nice it would be if a beautiful child really liked me and wanted to expose those feelings to me in prose or verse. Without hesitation I began my declaration, carrying out the commission in a short time with all possible naivété in an alternating combination of doggerel and madrigal meter. I read the little poem to the pair. The doubter was struck with wonder and my friend was delighted. I could not deny the young man his desire to keep the poem since it had been written in his calendar and I gladly placed the document created by my talent into his hands. He departed with many assurances of astonishment and regard and expressed the desire to meet us again. We made a date to explore the countryside together.

The date arrived and there were more young men from every walk in life in attendance. There were people of the middles classes, and one must admit,


of the lower classes, but they did not lack in intelligence, having gone through school and amassing a certain degree of cognitive ability and education. In a large, rich city there are many branches of industry. They achieved success through performing writing tasks for lawyers, thus the children of the lower classes received a broader education through private instruction than they would have received through the day schools. Grown children, who wished to be confirmed, also attended religious instruction and this again brought them into contact with brokers and merchants and provided a frugal means of accomplishing something good on their evenings, especially on Sundays and holidays.

While highly praising my love letter they admitted to me that they had made good use of it. They had copied it in a disguised hand, added a few pertinent allusions, and sent it to a particularly conceited young man, who in turn became convinced that a certain young lady, whom he had courted from afar, professed her love for him and wished to know him better. They confided in me that the young man wished nothing more than to answer her letter in verse, however neither he nor they possessed the talent. Therefore they asked me to compose the desired reply.

Mystifications are and remain the entertainment of idle, more or less intellectual men. * Negligent mischief and self-amused joy in the hardship of others are the pleasures of those who are neither occupied with their own affairs nor working to perform good deeds for others. No age is ever free of such titillation. In the years of our boyhood we had often gone out together. Many games relied upon mystifications and traps. The current antic didn't seem to go any farther to me.


I was willing. They gave me a few particulars to put in the letter and we brought the finished product to his house.

A short time later I was urgently invited by my friend to attend an evening celebration with his other companions. The fellow, who wanted the love letter, was providing the fare and expressly wished to thank the friend, who had so excellently acted as poetic secretary.

We arrived sufficiently late. The meal was most frugal and the wine was drinkable. The entertainment revolved almost exclusively in teasing those present, admittedly not the most intelligent of men, but even after repeated readings of the letter they still did not believe that he had written it himself.

My customary good nature did not allow me to find great joy in such evil deception and the repetition of the theme soon rankled me. I certainly would have spent a miserable evening if an unexpected apparition had not appeared to revive me. At our arrival the table had already been neatly and orderly set with an adequate supply of wine. We sat and remained alone without needing further service. When the wine was finished someone called the serving maid. A young woman entered and when one saw her in this environment one was struck by her incredible beauty.* — "What do you want?" she said after extending a courteous good evening. "The serving maid is sick and gone to her bed. May I serve you?" — We've run out of wine, one of them said. It would be very nice of you to bring us a couple more bottles. — Do it, Gretchen, another said. It's just a cat's jump away. — "Why not!"


she replied as she took a couple empty bottles from the table and hurried forth. Her form from the back was almost more attractive. The small cap sat so prettily on her little head joined to a slim neck and attractive nape and shoulders. Everything about her seemed exquisite and one could follow the entire form much more easily once one's attention was no longer drawn and captured by the still, deep eyes and beautiful mouth. I suggested to my companions that they had sent the child out into the night unescorted.They just smiled at me and I was soon comforted as she returned. The barkeep just lived up the street. "Have a seat with us," one of the company said. She did this but unfortunately she didn't sit near me. She drank a glass to our health then soon left, saying she couldn't stay with us and we shouldn't be so loud. Mother was just going to bed. It wasn't her mother but the innkeeper's mother.

The figure of this maiden thoroughly pervaded me from the first moment I saw her. It was the first, lasting vision of female being to make an impression upon me. Since I couldn't or wouldn't devise a plan to see her at home, I sought her in church and soon spotted where she sat. In this way I could gaze at her during long, Protestant church services. * I did not expect to talk to her or even escort her upon exiting the church. It was enough just to have her notice me and perhaps nod in response to my greeting. Happily I did not have to wait long for the opportunity to approach her. One of my companions had convinced the love-struck man, for whom I was poetic secretary, that the letter written under his name


had really been delivered to the young lady. Now his expectations were strained to the limit in his belief that a reply must follow. I was also supposed to write the reply and the company of scoundrels had urgently pressed me through Pylades to apply all my wit and artistry so the letter would be truly decorous and perfect.

Hoping to see my beauty again, I went directly to my work and thought about everything I would most want to hear if it were Gretchen writing to me. I'm convinced I wrote the letter while thoroughly installed in her frame within her world of existence and in her manner in accordance with her sensibilities. I could not contain the desire in me to create the letter as close to real as possible. But then I lost the spell when I considered that I would never receive such a letter from her. I mystified myself by my intention to create the best for another and it elicited in me much joy and then much disquiet. I had been advised to come with the letter when I was finished. I had promised to do so and I arrived at the appointed hour. Only one of the young companions was at home. Gretchen sat at the window and spun. * Her mother went back and forth. The young man wanted me to read the letter to him. I did this, not without a certain amount of sympathy because whenever I glanced over the page I saw the beautiful child. I believe I noted some uneasiness in her bearing and a light flush to her cheeks. I placed emphasis on the passages I would have most liked to hear from her. The cousin, who interrupted me often with his words of praise, wanted me to make a few changes. Those regarded passages more appropriate to Gretchen's situation than that of a young woman who came from a good home, was wealthy, well known and respected in the city.


Go to pages 199-204


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