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- My Life, Volume I - 4/107 -


Very delightful, too, were the picnics arranged between us and our friends at some of the beautiful spots around Dresden, for these excursions were always brightened by a certain artistic spirit and general good cheer. I remember one such outing we arranged to Loschwitz, where we made a kind of gypsy camp, in which Carl Maria von Weber played his part in the character of cook. At home we also had some music. My sister Rosalie played the piano, and Clara was beginning to sing. Of the various theatrical performances we organised in those early days, often after elaborate preparation, with the view of amusing ourselves on the birthdays of our elders, I can hardly remember one, save a parody on the romantic play of Sappho, by Grillparzer, in which I took part as one of the singers in the crowd that preceded Phaon's triumphal car. I endeavoured to revive these memories by means of a fine puppet show, which I found among the effects of my late stepfather, and for which he himself had painted some beautiful scenery. It was my intention to surprise my people by means of a brilliant performance on this little stage. After I had very clumsily made several puppets, and had provided them with a scanty wardrobe made from cuttings of material purloined from my sisters, I started to compose a chivalric drama, in which I proposed to rehearse my puppets. When I had drafted the first scene, my sisters happened to discover the MS. and literally laughed it to scorn, and, to my great annoyance, for a long time afterwards they chaffed me by repeating one particular sentence which I had put into the mouth of the heroine, and which was--Ich hore schon den Bitter trdbsen ('I hear his knightly footsteps falling'). I now returned with renewed ardour to the theatre, with which, even at this time, my family was in close touch. Den Freischutz in particular appealed very strongly to my imagination, mainly on account of its ghostly theme. The emotions of terror and the dread of ghosts formed quite an important factor in the development of my mind. From my earliest childhood certain mysterious and uncanny things exercised an enormous influence over me. If I were left alone in a room for long, I remember that, when gazing at lifeless objects such as pieces of furniture, and concentrating my attention upon them, I would suddenly shriek out with fright, because they seemed to me alive. Even during the latest years of my boyhood, not a night passed without my waking out of some ghostly dream and uttering the most frightful shrieks, which subsided only at the sound of some human voice. The most severe rebuke or even chastisement seemed to me at those times no more than a blessed release. None of my brothers or sisters would sleep anywhere near me. They put me to sleep as far as possible away from the others, without thinking that my cries for help would only be louder and longer; but in the end they got used even to this nightly disturbance.

In connection with this childish terror, what attracted me so strongly to the theatre--by which I mean also the stage, the rooms behind the scenes, and the dressing-rooms--was not so much the desire for entertainment and amusement such as that which impels the present-day theatre-goers, but the fascinating pleasure of finding myself in an entirely different atmosphere, in a world that was purely fantastic and often gruesomely attractive. Thus to me a scene, even a wing, representing a bush, or some costume or characteristic part of it, seemed to come from another world, to be in some way as attractive as an apparition, and I felt that contact with it might serve as a lever to lift me from the dull reality of daily routine to that delightful region of spirits. Everything connected with a theatrical performance had for me the charm of mystery, it both bewitched and fascinated me, and while I was trying, with the help of a few playmates, to imitate the performance of Der Freischutz, and to devote myself energetically to reproducing the needful costumes and masks in my grotesque style of painting, the more elegant contents of my sisters' wardrobes, in the beautifying of which I had often seen the family occupied, exercised a subtle charm over my imagination; nay, my heart would beat madly at the very touch of one of their dresses.

In spite of the fact that, as I already mentioned, our family was not given to outward manifestations of affection, yet the fact that I was brought up entirely among feminine surroundings must necessarily have influenced the development of the sensitive side of my nature. Perhaps it was precisely because my immediate circle was generally rough and impetuous, that the opposite characteristics of womanhood, especially such as were connected with the imaginary world of the theatre, created a feeling of such tender longing in me.

Luckily these fantastic humours, merging from the gruesome into the mawkish, were counteracted and balanced by more serious influences undergone at school at the hands of my teachers and schoolfellows. Even there, it was chiefly the weird that aroused my keenest interest. I can hardly judge whether I had what would be called a good head for study. I think that, in general, what I really liked I was soon able to grasp without much effort, whereas I hardly exerted myself at all in the study of subjects that were uncongenial. This characteristic was most marked in regard to arithmetic and, later on, mathematics. In neither of these subjects did I ever succeed in bringing my mind seriously to bear upon the tasks that were set me. In the matter of the Classics, too, I paid only just as much attention as was absolutely necessary to enable me to get a grasp of them; for I was stimulated by the desire to reproduce them to myself dramatically. In this way Greek particularly attracted me, because the stories from Greek mythology so seized upon my fancy that I tried to imagine their heroes as speaking to me in their native tongue, so as to satisfy my longing for complete familiarity with them. In these circumstances it will be readily understood that the grammar of the language seemed to me merely a tiresome obstacle, and by no means in itself an interesting branch of knowledge.

The fact that my study of languages was never very thorough, perhaps best explains the fact that I was afterwards so ready to cease troubling about them altogether. Not until much later did this study really begin to interest me again, and that was only when I learnt to understand its physiological and philosophical side, as it was revealed to our modern Germanists by the pioneer work of Jakob Grimm. Then, when it was too late to apply myself thoroughly to a study which at last I had learned to appreciate, I regretted that this newer conception of the study of languages had not yet found acceptance in our colleges when I was younger.

Nevertheless, by my successes in philological work I managed to attract the attention of a young teacher at the Kreuz Grammar School, a Master of Arts named Sillig, who proved very helpful to me. He often permitted me to visit him and show him my work, consisting of metric translations and a few original poems, and he always seemed very pleased with my efforts in recitation. What he thought of me may best be judged perhaps from the fact that he made me, as a boy of about twelve, recite not only 'Hector's Farewell' from the Iliad, but even Hamlet's celebrated monologue. On one occasion, when I was in the fourth form of the school, one of my schoolfellows, a boy named Starke, suddenly fell dead, and the tragic event aroused so much sympathy, that not only did the whole school attend the funeral, but the headmaster also ordered that a poem should be written in commemoration of the ceremony, and that this poem should be published. Of the various poems submitted, among which there was one by myself, prepared very hurriedly, none seemed to the master worthy of the honour which he had promised, and he therefore announced his intention of substituting one of his own speeches in the place of our rejected attempts. Much distressed by this decision, I quickly sought out Professor Sillig, with the view of urging him to intervene on behalf of my poem. We thereupon went through it together. Its well-constructed and well-rhymed verses, written in stanzas of eight lines, determined him to revise the whole of it carefully. Much of its imagery was bombastic, and far beyond the conception of a boy of my age. I recollect that in one part I had drawn extensively from the monologue in Addison's Cato, spoken by Cato just before his suicide. I had met with this passage in an English grammar, and it had made a deep impression upon me. The words: 'The stars shall fade away, the sun himself grow dim with age, and nature sink in years,' which, at all events, were a direct plagiarism, made Sillig laugh--a thing at which I was a little offended. However, I felt very grateful to him, for, thanks to the care and rapidity with which he cleared my poem of these extravagances, it was eventually accepted by the headmaster, printed, and widely circulated.

The effect of this success was extraordinary, both on my schoolfellows and on my own family. My mother devoutly folded her hands in thankfulness, and in my own mind my vocation seemed quite a settled thing. It was clear, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that I was destined to be a poet. Professor Sillig wished me to compose a grand epic, and suggested as a subject 'The Battle of Parnassus,' as described by Pausanias. His reasons for this choice were based upon the legend related by Pausanias, viz., that in the second century B.C. the Muses from Parnassus aided the combined Greek armies against the destructive invasion of the Gauls by provoking a panic among the latter. I actually began my heroic poem in hexameter verse, but could not get through the first canto.

Not being far enough advanced in the language to understand the Greek tragedies thoroughly in the original, my own attempts to construct a tragedy in the Greek form were greatly influenced by the fact that quite by accident I came across August Apel's clever imitation of this style in his striking poems 'Polyidos' and 'Aitolier.' For my theme I selected the death of Ulysses, from a fable of Hyginus, according to which the aged hero is killed by his son, the offspring of his union with Calypso. But I did not get very far with this work either, before I gave it up.

My mind became so bent upon this sort of thing, that duller studies naturally ceased to interest me. The mythology, legends, and, at last, the history of Greece alone attracted me.

I was fond of life, merry with my companions, and always ready for a joke or an adventure. Moreover, I was constantly forming friendships, almost passionate in their ardour, with one or the other of my comrades, and in choosing my associates I was mainly influenced by the extent to which my new acquaintance appealed to my eccentric imagination. At one time it would be poetising and versifying that decided my choice of a friend; at another, theatrical enterprises, while now and then it would be a longing for rambling and mischief.

Furthermore, when I reached my thirteenth year, a great change came over our family affairs. My sister Rosalie, who had become the chief support of our household, obtained an advantageous engagement at the theatre in Prague, whither mother and children removed in 1820, thus giving up the Dresden home altogether. I was left behind in Dresden, so that I might continue to attend the Kreuz Grammar School until I was ready to go up to the university. I was therefore sent to board and lodge with a family


My Life, Volume I - 4/107

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