From: Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life (1839). Translated by Margaret Fuller
Author: Eckermann; translated by Margaret Fuller
Published: Hilliard Gray and Co. 1839 Boston




  I WAS born at Winsen on the Lühe, a little town between Lüneburg, and Hamburg, on the borders of the marsh and heath lands, in the year ninety. My parents lived in a hut, for such I may well call a small house that only had one room, with a fireplace in it, and no stairs. A ladder rose from the very door to the hayloft. I was the youngest child of a second marriage, and grew up alone under the care of parents already quite advanced in life when I was born. My elder brothers had gone to sea, and one of them was dead; my sisters were at service.

  The principal means of support, possessed by our little family, was a cow. We had besides a piece of land, which supplied us with vegetables. Corn and meal we were obliged to buy. My mother was expert at spinning wool; she also gave much satisfaction by the caps she made for the women of the village, and in both ways earned some money.

  My father drove a small traffic, which varied according to the seasons, and obliged him to be much from home, travelling on foot about the country. In summer, he was seen with a light wooden box on his back, going from hamlet to hamlet, and from door to door, with ribbons, thread, and silk. For these he received in one part of the country woollen stockings, and a cloth of their manufacture, which he again disposed of on the other side of the Elbe. In the winter, he trafficked in the moors for rough quills and unbleached linen, which he sent to Hamburg. But, at all times, his gains were very small, and we lived in poverty.

  My employments in childhood varied according to the season. As spring opened, and the waters of the Elbe receded, after their customary overflow, I was sent daily to collect the sedges which had been thrown up by the waters, to make litter for our cow. But when the green had at last stolen over the broad meadows, I, with other boys, passed long days in watching the cows. In summer, I had much to do in our field, and all the year through was employed to bring dry wood from thickets scarce an hour’s walk from the house. At harvest time, I passed weeks as a gleaner, and when the autumn winds had shaken the trees, I gathered acorns, which I sold to those who kept geese. When I was old enough, I went with my father from hamlet to hamlet, and helped carry his bundle. This time affords some of the fairest remembrances of my youth.

  Under such influences, and busied in such employments, attending, too, at certain periods, a school where I barely learned to read and write, I reached my fourteenth year. Every one will confess that from this situation to an intimate connection with Goethe was a great step, and one it seemed scarcely probable I should ever take. I knew not that there were in the world such things as Poetry, or the Fine Arts; and, fortunately, there was no room in my life for a blind longing and striving after them.

  It has been said that animals are instructed by their very organization; and so may it be said of man, that he often, by some accidental action, is taught the higher powers which slumber within him. So some thing now happened to me which, though insignificant in itself, gave a new turn to my life, and is therefore stamped indelibly on my memory.

  I sat one evening with both my parents at a table on which a lamp was burning. My father, who had just returned from Hamburg, was talking about his business there. He loved smoking, and had brought back with him a packet of tobacco, which lay before him on the table, and had upon its wrapper the picture of a horse. This picture struck me as very good, and, as I had by me pen, ink, and a piece of paper, I was seized with an irresistible inclination to copy it. My father continued talking about Hamburg, and I, being quite unobserved, became wholly engaged in drawing the horse. When finished, it seemed to me a perfect likeness of the original, and I experienced a delight before unknown. I showed my parents what I had done, and they could not avoid praising me and expressing admiration. I passed the night in happy excitement, and almost sleepless; I thought constantly of the horse I had drawn, and longed for morning that I might look at it again.

  From this time the once excited propensity was never forgotten. But as I found no help of any sort in our place, I deemed myself most happy when our neighbor, who was a potter, lent me some outlines, which he had as models for painting his plates and dishes.

  These sketches I copied very carefully with pen and ink, and the book, in which these drawings were, was passed from hand to hand, till at last it came under the eye of Meyer, Administrator of the place. He sent for me, and bestowed on me both presents and cordial praises. He asked me if I was seriously desirous to become a painter, for if so he would send me to a proper master at Hamburg. I said I was desirous, and would talk of it with my parents. But they, peasants by birth and education, and having lived in a place where scarce any occupations were followed except agriculture, and the rearing of cattle, thought of a painter only as one who paints doors and houses. They, therefore, advised me earnestly against it, saying it was not only a very dirty, but very dangerous trade, and that those who worked at it, especially in Hamburg, where the houses are seven stories high, were constantly in danger of breaking their legs or necks. As my own ideas of a painter were not more elevated at that time, I readily acquiesced, and put quite out of my head the offer of the good Administrator.

  Meanwhile those persons of the upper classes, whose notice I had once attracted, did not forget me, but strove to aid me in various ways. I was permitted to take lessons with the few children of that rank; and thus learned French, a little Latin, and music: they also provided me with better clothing, and the worthy Superintendent, Parisius, did not disdain to give me a seat at his own table.

  I loved school very much, and all went on happily till my sixteenth year, when, after my confirmation it became a serious question what should be done with me. Could I have obeyed my wishes, I should have gone to pursue my studies at a Gymnasium; but this was out of the question, as I was not only destitute of means, but felt myself imperiously called upon, as soon as possible, to get into some situation where I could not only take care of myself, but help my parents, who were so poor, and now advanced in years.

  At this time a Counsellor of the place offered to take me to do copying and other little services for him, and I joyously consented. I had, during the year and a half of my school instruction, taken great pains, not only to form a good hand, but to improve in composition, so that I considered myself qualified for such a situation. This office, in which I also learned to transact some details of a lawyer’s business, I kept till 1810, when old arrangements were broken up, and Winsen on the Lühe taken into the department of Lower Elbe, and incorporated with the French empire.

  I then received an appointment at Lüneburg, and the following year one at Ulzen. At the close of the year 1812, I was made secretary of the Mayoralty at Bevensen, where I remained till, in the spring of 1813, the approach of the Cossacs gave us hopes of being freed from the French yoke.

  I now returned home, with the intention of joining one of those companies which already were secretly fanning to fight in our country’s cause. Accordingly, the last days of summer found me a volunteer in the Kielmannsegge Hussar Corps. In the regiment of Captain Knop I made the campaign of the winter of 1813-14, through Mecklenburg, Holstein, and before Hamburg, against Marshal Davoust. Afterwards we crossed the Rhine against General Maison, and passed the summer in the fertile provinces of Flanders and Brabant

  Here, at sight of the great pictures of the Netherlands, a new world opened to me; I passed whole days in churches and museums. These were the first pictures I ever saw. I understood now what was meant by being a painter. I saw the honored, happy progress of the scholar, and I could have wept that I was not permitted to pursue that path. I took my resolution at once; I became acquainted with a young artist of Tournay; I obtained black crayons and a sheet of drawing-paper of the largest size, and sat down to copy a picture. My enthusiasm supplied the deficiencies in practice and instruction. I succeeded in the outlines of the figures, and had begun to shade the whole from the left side, when marching orders broke up my happy employment. I hastened to mark the gradations of light and shade in the still unfinished parts with single characters, hoping that I might yet go on in some tranquil hour, I then rolled up my picture, and put it in a quiver, which I carried hanging at my back with my gun, all the way from Tournay to Hameln.

  Here in the autumn of 1814, the Hussar corps was disbanded. I went home; my father was dead; my eldest sister had married, and my mother lived with her, in the house where I had been brought up. I began now to pursue my plans for drawing. I completed first the picture I had brought from Brabant; and then, as I had no proper models, I copied some little engravings of Ramberg’s, with crayons, enlarging them in my copy. But now I felt the want of proper preparation. I had no idea of the anatomy either of men or animals; I knew as little how to treat properly foliage or ground; and it cost me unspeakable toil to make any thing look decently well by my own mode of proceeding.

  Thus I soon saw that, if I wished to become an artist, I must set to work in a different way, and that more of this groping about in the dark would only be lost labor. Now I longed to find a suitable master and begin from the very beginning.

  The master whom I had in my eye was Ramberg, of Hanover, and it did not seem impossible for me to study with him, as a beloved friend of my earlier days lived at Hanover, who had repeatedly invited me to come to him there, and on whose assistance I could depend. So I knotted up my bundle, and took, in the winter of 1815, my walk of almost forty leagues, quite alone, over the heath and through the deep snow. I arrived at Hanover at the end of a few days, without accident.

  I went immediately to Ramberg, and told him my wishes. After looking at what I had done, he seemed not to doubt my talent, yet he remarked that I must have bread first; that to get acquainted with the technical part of art would demand much time, and that any hope of making my labors profitable in the way of a subsistence lay at a great distance. Meanwhile, he showed himself willing to help me in his way as much as he could; he looked up immediately, for my first studies, drawings of parts of the human body, and gave them to me to copy.

  So I lived with my friend, and drew under Ramberg. I made good progress, and found the objects of my pursuit grow daily more and more interesting. I drew every part of the human frame, and was never weary of trying to conquer the difficulties I found in the hands and feet. So passed some happy months. In May my health began to give way; in June my hands trembled so much I could no longer hold a pencil.

  I consulted a physician, and he thought me in a dangerous situation. He said I was in great danger of a fever, recommended warm baths, and similar remedies. I soon grew better, but found I must not think of resuming my late occupations. My friend had treated me constantly in the most affectionate manner; he gave no imitation, and had no thought, indeed, that I either had been, or might be, a burden to him. But I could not forget it, and such thoughts had contributed to my illness. I saw that I must take some decided course to earn a livelihood, and an appointment under the Board of Commissioners for clothing the Hanoverian army being at this time open to me, I accepted it, and gave up my devotion to Art.

  My recovery was soon completed, and with a better state of body came a cheerfulness and serenity of mind to which I had long been a stranger. I found myself able in some measure, to requite the kindness my friends had shown me. The novelty of the services I was now called on to perform, obliged me to fix my thoughts upon them. My superiors I found men of the noblest views, and with my colleagues, some of whom had made the campaign in the same corps with me, I was soon on a footing of cordial intimacy.

  Being now fairly settled, I took great pleasure in seeing whatever of good this place contained, and when I had leisure hours, in visiting its beautiful environs. One of Ramberg’s scholars, a promising young artist, was my intimate friend and constant companion. And, since I was forced to give up the practice of Art, it was a great solace that I could daily converse about it. He showed me all his designs, and I took the greatest interest in talking them over with him. He introduced me to many instructive works; I read Winckelmann and Mengs, but, for want of acquaintance with the objects which they discuss, I could only appreciate generalities in their works, and was not benefited as I might have been if such objects could have been brought under my eye.

  My friend who had been brought up in the city, was in advance of me in every kind of mental culture, and had, what I entirely wanted, considerable acquaintance with elegant literature. At that time, Theodore Körner was the venerated hero of the day. My friend brought me the “Lyre and Sword,” which made a deep impression on me, and excited my admiration. Much has been said of the artistical effect of poems, and many attach to it the highest value; but, after all, the choice of the materials is of the first importance. Unconsciously, I experienced this in reading the “Lyre and Sword.” For, that I had shared with Körner his abhorrence of those who had been our oppressors for so many years; that I too had fought for our freedom, had been familiar with those difficult marches, nightly bivouacs, outpost service, and battles, and amid them all had been filled with thoughts and feelings similar to his, —this it was which gave to these poems so deep and powerful an echo in my heart. But, as nothing impressed me much without exciting the desire to produce in the same kind, I now bethought me that I too had in earlier years written little poems without having attached any importance to the circumstance; for a certain ripeness is required for appreciation of poetical talent. This talent now appearing in Körner as something enviable and noble, I felt a great desire to try what I could do in the same department.

  The return of our army from France afforded me a suitable subject, and, as my remembrances of all the soldier must undergo in the field were still fresh, I thought I might, by a forcibly-expressed comparison between his situation and that of the citizen who has remained in his comfortable home, produce feelings which would prepare for the returning troops a cordial reception.

  I had several hundred copies of this poem printed at my own expense, and distributed through the town. The effect produced was favorable beyond my expectations. New and pleasant acquaintances pressed about me to declare their sympathy with the views and feelings I had uttered, and their opinion that I had given proof of a talent which deserved further cultivation. The poem was copied into periodicals, and reprinted in many other places; I even had the pleasure of seeing it set to music by a favorite composer, though ill adapted for singing on account of its length and rhetorical style.

  No week passed now in which I did not find some new occasion for a poem. I was now in my four-and-twentieth year; within me, a world of feelings, impulses, and good-will, was in full action; but I was entirely deficient in information and culture. The study of our great poets was recommended to me, especially of Schiller and Klopstock. I did read and admire, without receiving much assistance from, their works; the reason of which truly was, though I did not at that time understand it, that their path did not coincide with the natural tendency of my mind.

  At this time, I first heard the name of Goethe, and got sight of a volume of his poems. In reading his poems again and again, I enjoyed a happiness which no words can express. I seemed, for the first time in my life, to be truly awake, and conscious of my existence; my own inmost soul, till then unknown even to myself seemed to be reflected from these poems. Nowhere did I meet any merely learned or foreign matter to which my simple individual thoughts and feelings gave no response; nowhere, name of outlandish and obsolete divinities, which to me said nothing; but here I found the human heart, with its desires, its joys and sorrows. I found a German nature, clear as the day on which I am writing these words,—pure reality in the light of a mild glorification.

  I lived whole weeks and months absorbed in these poems. Then I obtained “Wilhelm Meister,” and “Goethe’s Life;” then his dramas. “Faust,” from whose abysses of human nature and perdition, I at first, shuddering, drew back, but whose profound enigmatical character again attracted me, I read always in holidays. My admiration and love for Goethe increased Daimler, till I could think and speak of nothing else.

  A great writer may benefit us in two ways: by revealing to us the mysteries of our own souls, or by making obvious to us the wonders of the external world. Goethe did both for me. I was led to closer observation in both ways; and the idea of unity, the harmony and completeness of each individual object within itself, and the meaning of the manifold apparitions of nature and art, opened upon me daily more and more.

  After long study of this poet, and various attempts to reproduce in poetry what I had gained, I turned to some of the best writers of other times and countries, and read not only Shakespeare, but Sophocles and Homer, in excellent translations.

  I soon perceived that in these sublime works I could only appreciate what is universal in humanity. For the understanding of particulars, a sort of knowledge is required, which is given by an apprenticeship in schools and universities. Indeed, I saw on every side indications that I was wasting much time and toil, for since without the discipline of a classical education, no poet will write in his native language with elegance and expression, or perform any thing of superior excellence. I saw, too, in the biographies of the distinguished men, of which I read many at this time, how they all had recourse to schools and colleges, and determined that neither my manly age, nor the many obstacles which surrounded me, should prevent my doing the same. I engaged one of the tutors in the Hanover Gymnasium to give me private lessons in Latin and Greek, on which languages I spent all the time left me by the hours (at least six a day) claimed from me by my office.

  Thus passed a year. I made good progress, yet was dissatisfied, and began to think that I went on too slowly, and should pass four or five hours daily in the Gymnasium, if I would be penetrated by the atmosphere of learning. The advice of intelligent friends favored this plan, and my superiors did not oppose it, as the hours for the Gymnasium were those in which I was usually disengaged. I applied for admission. The worthy director conducted my examination with the utmost kindness; but I did not appear as well as i deserved, not being accustomed to the routine of school questions. But, on the assurance of my teacher, that I was in fact tolerably well prepared, and in consideration of my unusual efforts, I was admitted. I need scarcely say, that a man of twenty-five, and one already employed in the king’s service, made but an odd figure among mere boys, and that my situation was, at first, strange and unpleasant; but my great thirst for knowledge enabled me to overlook all such considerations. And on the whole, I had no cause for complaint. The tutors esteemed me, the elder and better scholars treated me in the most friendly manner, and even the most licentious abstained from playing their tricks on me.

  I was very happy in the attainment of my object, and proceeded with vigor in my new path. I rose at five in the morning to prepare my lessons. At eight I went to the school, and staid till ten. Thence I hastened to my office, where I was engaged till one in my business. I then flew home, dined hastily, and then again to school. From thence I returned at four to my office, where I was occupied till seven. The remainder of the evening I gave to preparation or private instruction.

  Thus lived I some months; but my strength was unequal to such exertions, and I soon experience the truth of the saying, “No man can serve two masters.” Want of free air, and of time and peace of mind for exercise, food, and sleep, gradually undermined my health, till, at last, I found myself so paralyzed, both in body and mind, that I must give up either the school or my office. As my subsistence depended on the latter, I had no choice, and left the school in the spring of 1817. As I saw it was my destiny to try many things, I did not repent of the effort I had made. Indeed, I had learned much, and continued my private lessons, still having the University in view.

  Having now more leisure, I extremely enjoyed the spring and summer. I was much in the open country, and nature this year said more than ever to my heart. From this intercourse many poems took rise, in writing which, Goethe’s high example was ever floating before my thoughts.

  This winter I began seriously to plan entering the University within a year. I was so well advanced in Latin, that I had written metrical translations of parts of Horace’s Odes, Virgil’s Eclogues, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and could rea, with considerable fluency, Cicero’s Orations and Cesar’s Commentaries. Although much was to be done, yet I had hopes of being so far fitted that I might enter the University within a year, and there make good all my deficiencies.

  My patrons in the city promised me their aid, on condition I would direct my studies towards some profession which might gain me a livelihood. But, as I felt for this no vocation, and as I was firmly convinced that man must in such matters steadily consult the wants of his nature, I could not do as they desired, and, as they would not help me on other terms, was obliged to betake myself to my own resources.

  Müllner’s drama of the Schuld, and the Aknfrau of Grillparzer, were the talk of that day. These plays displeased my natural taste as works of art; still less could I relish their idea of destiny, which seemed to me likely to produce a pernicious effect on public morals. I resolved to take the other side, and show that character makes its own destiny. After thinking over my proposed piece a good year, and fashioning many parts in my mind, I wrote it out finally during the winter of 1890, in the morning house of a few weeks. I was very happy in doing this, for the whole flowed out easily and naturally. But, in my opposition to the above-named poets, I had my eye too steadily fixed on real life, and did not sufficiently keep in view that I was writing for theatre. Thus it had too little action, and too much the tranquil air of a mere drawing of character. Subordinate persons had too much room, and the whole piece too much breadth.

  I showed it to some of my intimates, but was not received as I wished; they said I had read too little to be fitted for such an enterprise, and that many scenes belonged properly to the province of comedy. At first I felt aggrieved, but was, after a while, convinced that my friends were in the right, and that my piece, though not without merit, was unfit for representation. I determined to keep it by me, and remodel it when I should be more ripe for such an undertaking. My anxiety to go to the University being now greater than ever, I resolved to publish my poems, and try if I could not, by this means, gain a sufficient sum to defray my expenses. This was done by subscription, as I had not that established reputation which would enable me to secure a publisher; and, through the kindness of my friends, it had the desired effect.

  My superiors, finding that my wishes were decided, gave me my dismission, and, through the kindness of the then Colonel Von Berger, even allowed me a hundred and fifty dollars yearly for two years, to aid me in the prosecution of my studies.

  From my poems I received a hundred and fifty dollars, after payment of all costs, and went to Göttingen in May, 1821, leaving behind a maiden whom I dearly loved.

  I had failed in my first efforts to reach the University because I refused to give myself to the study of any one profession. But now, grown wiser, and feeling myself unequal to contend with the infinite obstacles of another course, I yielded to the powerful world, and chose jurisprudence.

  My patrons, who thought only of my worldly prosperity, and had no idea of my intellectual wants and cravings, thought me now quite reasonable, and were liberal of kindness and assistance. They observed to me, in confirmation of my good intentions, that this study would have the greatest tendency to cultivate my mind; that I should thus gain insight into civil and social relations, such as I could attain in no other way; that this study would not engross me, or hinder my pursuing the so called higher studies; and they told me of various celebrated persons, who had studies law, and also attained great excellence in other department. But neither my counselors nor myself sufficiently considered that such men came to the University much better prepared than I, and had, besides, much more time to pass there than the imperious necessity of my circumstances would permit to me. By deceiving others, I succeeded in deceiving myself also, and really hoped that I might study law, and, at the same time accomplish my own objects.

  Under this illusion, I began to seek what I had no wish to possess, and found the study so easy and pleasant, that, if my head had not been already full of other plans and wishes, I could willingly have given myself up to it. But I was like a maiden, who finds abundant reasons for rejecting an advantageous marriage, because she secretly cherishes a preconceived attachment.

  At the professional lectures, I was often absorbed in inventing scenes and acts for a new drama. I sincerely tried to fix my attention on what was before me, but with small success. I really thought of nothing but poetry and art, and the higher human culture to attain which I had for years longed to be at the University.

  Heeren was the person who did most for me during this first year at the University. His clear enunciation of his opinions in ethnography and history made his lectures delightful to me. I never left on without being penetrated with the high test admiration for this illustrious man.

  Next year I proceeded in a really reasonable manner, by setting aside entirely the study of jurisprudence, one too important to be made subordinate to others, and which I could not bring myself to regard as my principal object. I devoted much of my time to philology, and was now as largely indebted to Dissen, as I had been the year before to Heeren. I not only received from his lectures the sort of food my mind most needed and desired,—not only received from him the clearest and most important instructions as to my future works,—but I had the happiness of becoming acquainted with this excellent man, and of receiving from him, in private, guidance and encouragement.

  My daily intercourse with the best minds among the students, our conversations on the noblest subjects during our walks and late at night, were to me invaluable, and exercised a most favorable influence on the development of my faculties.

  The end of my pecuniary means drew near. But I felt, that, during the past months, I had accumulated daily new treasures of knowledge; and to heap more together, without learning by practice how to apply it, would not have suited me. My earnest desire now was, by some literary undertaking, at once to make myself free, and sharpen my appetite for further study.

  I left the University in the autumn of 1822, and took lodgings in the country near Hanover. My mind was now engaged in the thoughts which my labors had suggested to me upon the theory of Poetry. I wrote a treatise which I hoped might aid youthful talent, not only production, but in criticizing the works of others, and gave it the title of Beyträge zur Poesie.1

  In May, 1823, I completed this work. As I needed not only a good publisher, but one who would pay me well, I took the resolution to send my work to Goethe, and ask him to say some words to Cotta in its favor.

  Goethe was still formerly, the poet whom I daily looked to as my polar star, whose utterance harmonized with my thought, and led me constantly to a higher and higher point of view; whose admirable skill in treatment of such various subjects I was ever striving to understand and imitate; and towards whom my love and veneration rose to an almost impassioned height.

  Soon after my arrival in Göttingen I had sent him a copy of my poems, accompanied by a slight sketch of the progress of my life and culture. I had the great joy, not only to receive in answer some lines written by his own hand, but to hear from travelers that he had a good opinion of me, and proposed noticing my work in one of the volumes of Kunst und Alterthum.2

  This gave me courage to show him my manuscript now. I had indeed, no other desire at present, than to be honored by his personal acquaintance; to attain which object, about the end of May, I had set forth on foot for Weimar.

  During this journey, which the heat of the weather made one of much fatigue, I was sustained by a feeling that kindly powers were guiding me, and that the step I was now taking would be one of great importance to my success in life.

1 Contributions to Poetry.
2 Art and Antiquity.

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