From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 1, pages 31-36


This seat of government, trade and port city faced a dreadful disaster without prior warning. The earth shook and shifted, the sea raged and slammed ships together, houses collapsed, churches and towers fell over, a portion of the royal palace was swept into the sea, flames spewed from cracks in the earth, smoke and fire issued forth from the ruins. Sixty thousand people, one moment living peaceful and contented lives, the next minute dying. The most fortunate among them were those who no longer experienced any sense of the disaster. The flames continued the devastation and with them a host of criminals, some in hiding and others released from prison due to the event. The unfortunate survivors ran the risk of robbery, murder and every sort of maltreatment. Thus nature asserted her limitedless despotism from all sides. *

Indications of this disaster spread throughout a vast region more quickly than the actual reports. Many areas experienced weaker tremors and many streams with healing properties ceased to flow. Even greater impact was felt once the reports arrived, at first carrying general information and later containing the horrifying details. And thus the god-fearing issued their reflections, the philosophers issued their consoling principles, and the clergy issued their sermons on punishment. So many misfortunes captured the attention of the world for such a long period of time and people, whose minds were agitated by this foreign disaster, became fearful for themselves and their families as more comprehensive reports arrived concerning the explosions over an entire region.


It's possible that the demon of terror had never before spread such horror over the earth so forcibly or quickly in the annuls of history.

The boy, who would have heard all these reports, was certainly perplexed. God, the creator and maintainer of the earth who was portrayed in the first article of faith as wise and merciful, had permitted the righteous to succumb to the same death as the unrighteous. He didn't seem to be fatherly at all. In vain the boy's mind struggled against this notion but it became ever more impossible as the wisemen and the scholars of scripture themselves could not come together to form a reasonable interpretation based on such events.

The following summer an opportunity arose in which to examine firsthand the wrathful god of the Old Testament. A hail storm unexpectantly developed, which amid thunder and lightning smashed the new pane glass windows on the westward-facing rear of the house. It damaged the new furniture and ruined several valuable books and other costly things. What became even more frightening for the children were the actions of the household servants, who issued them into a dark passage then fell to their knees and let out dreadful wails and cries in belief that they could reconcile themselves with the enraged deity. In the meantime my father, all alone, opened the windows and unhinged the casements so he could save some of the window panes while at the same time providing more openings for the rain and hail to enter. In the end the hallways and staircase were flooded with running water.


Such incidents, as disruptive as they were, barely broke the routine of the course of instruction father had elected to give us children himself. In his youth he attended the Coburg Gymnasium, consider to be among the best German educational institutions. He had a good foundation in languages and all other subjects deemed appropriate for a scholarly education. From there he went to Leipzig to study jurisprudence and finally to Giessen. With persistence and hard work he completed his dissertation, titled Electa de aditione hereditatis, which still receives praise from law professors.

It is the heartfelt wish of all fathers that whatever they see lacking in their own lives should be realized in their sons. * It is somewhat like living a second life in which the experiences of the first life can now be used to steer a proper course. Trusting his own knowledge base, in certainty of true perseverence and in mistrust of the teachers of the day, father assumed the task of instructing his own children. He employed individual instructors only when it seemed necessary. * A pedagogical dilettantism had already begun to show itself. The pedantery and somberness of teachers employed by the public school system may well have been the cause. One sought something better but forgot how lacking all instruction must be if not given by trained teachers.

My father's own life path had gone mostly as he had wanted. I was supposed to follow the same path, only more comfortably and more far-reaching. He valued my natural-born talents all the more because he lacked them. Everything he had accomplished had been acquired through incredible diligence, discipline,


and constant repetition. He often assured me both early on and later, in all seriousness and in gest, that if he had had my talents he would not have administered them as frivolously.

Due to my abilities to grasp things quickly, assimulate and retain them, I soon outgrew the instructional regimen my father and other instructors could provide even though I was not well-grounded in anything. I disliked grammar because the laws seemed so arbitrary; to me the rules were ridiculous because they were suspended by so many exceptions, which I was supposed to learn. * If it hadn't been for the rhyming verse of the Latin primer things would have been truly bad for me. These verses happily sang through my head. We had a geography with the most absurd rhyming verses to help us retain information, such as:

      Upper Yssel, muddy fen
      makes the land detestable to men.

I easily learned forms of speech and idioms. I also quickly developed an understanding of what an object is. In rhetoric, composition, and similar subjects I had no equal although I was often corrected for grammatical errors. Certain essays particularly pleased my father and he rewarded me with sums of money quite significant for a boy.

My father taught my sister Italian in the same room in which I had to memorize Cellarius. Once I finished my assignment I would remain quiet with the book in front of me and listen.


Italian struck me as a delightful variation of Latin. I possessed other talents related to the ability to memorize and assimulate, which ranked me with other children destined early on to a particular profession. Therefore my father could hardly wait until I would go to the academy. I stated that I would go to Leipzig, for which he had great love, to study law. From there I would go to another university for graduate work. He didn't care which university I chose but to my sorrow he had a dislike for Göttingen; I don't know why. I already had great hopes of attending there. *

Furthermore he told me I should travel to Wetzlar and Regensburg and then from there to Vienna and on to Italy; then at the same time he would state that one must see Paris first because after seeing Italy one would leave having attained the pinnacle of enjoyment.

I loved to hear these stories of my future youth adventures repeated, especially since they led to tales about Italy and eventually a description of Naples. Each time my father told these tales he seemed to lose his normal seriousness and dry reserve and to reanimate, thus eliciting the heartfelt wish in us children to also partake of this paradise. *

More and more I participated in private instruction with neighborhood children. These communal tutorial sessions did little for me. The teachers proceeded at their artless and humdrum pace. Many times the bad behavior of my classmates led to chaos, annoyance and disruption of these torturous hours of instruction. Literary anthologies, which would have made the sessions more bright and meaningful, had not yet been introduced to us. The juvenile works of


rigid Cornelius Nepos, the all too easy and trivialized version of the New Testament rife with sermons and religious instruction, Cellarius and Pasor * held no interest for us. On the other hand we were avid for the rhymes and verses we encountered while reading the German poets of the day. I was impressed early on with how happy I was to pass from the rhetorical to the poetic treatment of a subject.

We children met on Sundays so we could produce some of our own verses. And here I encountered something marvelous but something which disturbed me. It seemed to me that my poetry was always better than the others. However my cohorts, who produced extremely lame stuff, also considered that they had produced better verse. What was even more ponderous for me was the fact that a good piece of work, which had been produced by a totally incapable fellow of whom I was fond, had actually been written by his schoolmaster yet not only did he think it was the best but he also was fully convinced that it was his own work. As a close friend he had always maintained this assertion. Seeing such error and confusion before me made my heart feel heavy one day because I wondered if I was in the same situation. Perhaps the other poems were indeed better than mine and maybe I looked just as foolish to the other boys as they had seemed to me. This consideration disturbed me for a very long time. Was it impossible for me to find an external marker of the truth? * I stopped writing verses until I felt easier and more self-confident and at last came up with an experiment, whereby our teachers and parents who had noticed our game,


Go to pages 37-42


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