Formation of Character Volume 5 Pt 4. Chapter 1. I




          JORN UHL[1] and Wilhelm Meister are books that parents should read. To mention a book of yesterday in the same breath as a world’s classic is bold, perhaps foolhardy, but in the two we get the two sides of the shield. Wilhelm Meister becomes, passively; circumstances play upon him, and he yields himself to this formative play. Jörn Uhl also is the creature of his circumstances, but only in so far as they give impulse to his personality. Meister is, as we know, a highly emotional being in whom rank sentiment chokes out personality. The peasant boy, reared in a rougher school, becomes a person, or rather, is a person from the first. We get in these two the hint of a line of demarcation which divides the world into the people who, for one cause or another, are at the mercy of circumstances, and those others able to order their lives.
          Jörn Uhl was the son of a peasant-proprietor whose farm (in Schleswig-Holstein) had been in the family some three hundred years. Klaus Uhl is a man worth considering as a father. He is notable for a hearty, jovial laugh, tells a good story, discusses
politics, drinks, plays cards, is a popular person among the fast spirits of the country-side, doubly popular because he is a sort of headman among them and can always claim the flattery of a ready laugh at his jokes.
          His wife, a woman of another mould, dies in giving birth to a little daughter—Elsbe, her fifth child,—chiefly because her husband would not be persuaded to send for the doctor. At last he comes to weep over her as ‘Mutter, Mutter’; he has forgotten her in the relation of wife. She, a daughter of a peasant of the heath, brought the qualities of her own people into her husband’s family. The three eldest sons took after their father, while the two younger children, Jörn and the little Elsbe, were Thiessens, of their mother’s blood. Jörn was four years old when his mother died. The mother had the gift to attach to her, at any rate, one faithful friend, in Wieten, a serving-woman whom she charged with the care of her children.
          This is how the story opens; and the scenes and circumstances of peasant life are bitten in as with an engraver’s tool. Without any word to that effect, the reader feels that here is the little, bright-haired, straight-feathered, handsome Jörn set down to a problem. Here are the factors of his life. What answer will come out?
          This is why I venture to call this story of Jörn Uhl a companion piece to Wilhelm Meister. In both cases, we have a boy set down with the problem of life before him. Will he cry ‘check’ to circumstances, or will they checkmate him? This is the anxious question that presents itself now and then to every mother when she goes up for the last good-night;
to every father when the curious children gather round to see what he would show: and the children exhibit themselves in far more distinct and diverse colours than would so many neutral-tinted men and women.
          The little Jörn’s first essays at life afford delightful reading. Everything is so big—the house, the barn, the home-fields go on without end. Great big people come out of doors and go about their various work in a grave, puzzling way. There is no one just like Jörn but Spitz, and they two make experiments together. One day they both go into a ditch after a rat, and together are they fetched home, put into the wash-tub, whipped, and put to bed, where together they cry and comfort one another. Another day they think to make a friend of another young thing which they recognise as one of their kind—a little foal not long arrived. They know that the horse belongs to the grave, grown-up world, but the foal is another thing, and the two venture near to make acquaintance, Spitz, of course, making the opening remarks; but the mare kicks up her heels and they fly. Another day they peer down a cellar, a dark world which for them has no bottom; but beetroots and turnips come flying up at them, and, tumbling in, they find themselves on the head of a labourer. All the while the child was another Robinson Crusoe, and the world was his island. There was no one to tell him the meanings of things; Wieten was too busy, and no one else cared.
          The little soul had to build its own habitation, fashion its own tools, find its own meat: ‘so best,’ says the author, and perhaps he is right. Little children must needs ruminate. We tease and distract
them by our pestilent explanations, our continual calls upon attention already fully occupied, because we find it difficult to realise that even young children have need of a separate life. It is one thing to give a little child two or three lessons in attention in the day by inducing him to look a little longer at something he has already begun to regard with interest, but quite another to make him name a statue of Achilles or the portraits of the kings of England. Of course he can do these things; children are not stupid, but preoccupied, and the occupation they find for themselves is good for them. A clamorous forcing of his attention in many directions is apt to leave a child incapable of answering the demands which are rightly made upon him at a later date.
          But little Jörn ran no risks of this sort. He and Spitz had it to themselves, running in many times a day to see that other soft young thing, the baby. And one day a strange thing happened; they found the baby standing at the door. It was very odd; but they took the little Elsbe into their company, and make their researches thenceforth in a party of three. By and by, Spitz fell to the second place, and became only a plaything where he had been companion and leader, and the children learned from each other. A little sister teaches a boy tenderness and valour, and learns from him confidence and love and that pride in him which makes a boy a hero.
          Later, we get a group of three children sitting round Weiten’s work-table of an evening. Fiete Krey, whose father and mother work about the place, has much to say. The Kreys, almost a clan is the
village, are an ingenious folk given to pretty trade and not bearing a very good name for honesty. Fiete has the family traits; he romances, tells of hidden pots of gold and of strange underground folk who guard the treasures. Wieten too tells of a rich merchant who threw all his money into a well, and of a little gray man in a three-cornered hat who sate at the bottom minding it. She tells, too, of one Theodor Storm, a student, who meant to write a book of the folk-tales.
          All these things go to Jörn’s education.
          Here is a matter which sometimes causes uneasiness to parents: they are appalled when they think of the casual circumstances and chance people that may have a lasting effect upon their children’s characters. But their part is, perhaps, to exercise ordinary prudence and not over-much direction. They have no means of knowing what will reach a child; whether the evil which blows his way may not incline him to good, or whether the too-insistent good may not predispose him to evil. Perhaps the forces of life as they come should be allowed to play upon the child, who is not, be it remembered, a product of educational care, but a person whose spiritual nurture is accomplished by that wind which bloweth whither it listeth.
          Meanwhile, the father was not unaware of his fourth son, who had come to be known as a promising boy; but his concern was shown only by boastful talk in the ale-house. He should be a scholar—Klaus himself remembered tags of Latin learned at school,—should be a land-agent, should somehow bring grist to his father’s pride.
          One day Jörn went to school—such a pleasant
school house under the lindens, where the bees came buzzing through the open windows. Lehrer Peters, the old schoolmaster, was a kindly human soul, who scanned the red heads of the Kreys and the fair heads of the Uhls with the sense that the children came to school with the makings of all they would become. The young scholars made sentences that day. “We have heard about King David,” said Peters. “Who is our king?” And a small child replied: “Our king is called Klaus Uhl,” for, was not Klaus the head man of the village? Then an unexpected thing happened; Jörn, the little new boy, stood up flushed and wrathful, and said: “My father is no king”; little Elsbe sobbing, “But my father is a king.” When the other children had gone, the schoolmaster asked Jörn: “Why did you say your father was not a king?” “He often can’t stand.” “What? he can’t stand!” “No, because he is often drunk.”
          This is what the child had learned for himself,—that a king must at least be able to control his own life, and that self-rule is a sort of kingship. Already had evil, passing through the alembic of a child’s mind, brought forth some knowledge of good. But at what a cost! ‘Experience teaches,’ we say. We say too, ‘Experience makes fools wise,’ but that is an error. The fools are the people who get nothing from experience but the confirmed habit of things as they are. If they have done amiss and suffer for it, why, they go on doing amiss, and suffer for it, why, they go on doing amiss and suffer again. If they see others do amiss, they practise the ill-doing they see, taking no heed to penalties. Fools of this sort, who do not learn from experience, were Jörn’s elder brothers.
          It is because the little boy was no fool that he was able to draw that tragic deduction from his experience of life—“My father is no king.” Experience truly reaches the wise-hearted, whether child or man, but at so heavy a cost that the lessons are apt to leave the learner bankrupt for the remainder of his days. Reverence and the sense of filial dependence were gone out of Jörn’s life; so to was the love of his mother, with all its tender teachings; and the little Crusoe was isolated from all the natural good that the filial relation includes. How soon may it dawn upon a child that his father is no king, his mother no queen!
          We elders are never safe. A child’s eyes are ubiquitous. They see everywhere and all the time, but it is only at some small crisis in his life that the child’s knowledge takes shape even in thought. Poor little Jörn! He had probably seen his father in a besotted state a thousand times without any inward comment; but this thought of a kind reduced his vague ideas to clear knowledge—overwhelming, shameful knowledge.
          It was the fact that they were aware of the child as a judge that caused the parents of an earlier generation to sit in state, august, unapproachable; but this was a futile endeavour to blind the child-judge who sees, however gradually, through all seeming, and arrives at the simplicity of being, worthy or unworthy. He knows what his parents are for better for worse, thought it may be years before he realises that he knows.
          It is instructive to compare the beginnings of Jörn Uhl with those of another peasant boy of a rather lower class. How did Diogenes Teufelsdröckh begin
the world in the village of Entepfühl; or rather, to look through a transparent veil, how did Thomas Carlyle begin in the village of Ecclefechan? First, as to his father: “Andreas Futteral” was “in very deed a man of order, courage, downrightness, that understood Büsching’s Geography, had been in the victory of Rossbach and left for dead in the Camisarde of Hochkirch.” For Andreas had been grenadier-sergeant and even regimental schoolmaster under Frederick the Great. He was a diligent man who cultivated a little orchard and lived on its produce ‘not without dignity.’ On evenings, he smoked and read (had he not been a schoolmaster?), and talked to neighbours about the wars and told how Frederick had once said to him,—‘Peace, hound!’ as a king should.
          To begin with, Diogenes, or Gneschen, as they called him, had a better chance of learning reverence in the contemplation of an upright man, and obedience from an old soldier, than fell to a son of that facile good-fellow, Klaus Uhl. Then, Gneschen had a mother, a notable housewife and kind and loving mother who provided for the young child “a soft swathing of Love and infinite Hope wherein he waxes and slumbers, danced round by sweetest dreams.” To such a pair, living in a roomy painted cottage surrounded by fruit-trees, with flowers looking in at the windows, came “one meek, yellow evening,” a Stranger of reverend aspect. He met the pair with grave salutation, and deposited before them “what seemed some basket overhung with green Persian silk, saying only, ‘Good Christian people, here lies for you an invaluable Loan; take all heed thereof, in all carefulness
employ it: with high recompense, or else with heavy penalty, will it one day be required back.”
          Here we get the true note of parenthood, the sense of a loan, a trust, containing great possibilities and involving great responsibilities. The mysterious Stranger may indicate the advent of the august Angel of Life; the roll of notes he left behind for the nurture of the child may mean such things as the love, integrity, dignity, simplicity of the pair to whom the infant arrived; for such things as these are possessions well expended on the nurture of a child. Anyhow, these were not casual parents like the one left to the little Jörn.
          Meanwhile the incipient Diogenes, like others, all ignorant of his Why, his How or whereabout, was opening his eyes to the kind light; sprawling out his ten fingers and toes; listening, tasting, feeling; in a word, by all his five senses, still more by his Sixth Sense of Hunger, and a whole infinitude of inward, spiritual, half-awakened senses, endeavouring daily to acquire for himself some knowledge of this strange universe where he had arrived, be his task therein what it might. Infinite was his progress; thus in some fifteen months he could perform the miracle of—Speech!
          . . . . I have heard him noted as a still infant, that kept his mind much to himself; above all,  that he seldom or never cried. He already felt that time was precious; that he had other work cut out for him than whimpering.” Thus the young Gneschen grew in the paternal cottage, with a father in whom he had “as yet a prophet, priest, and king and an obedience that made him free.”
          As for his education, he listened to the talk of the old men under the shadow of the linden in the middle of the village. He played, and his plays were his lessons; for, says our author, “in all the sports of Children, were it only in their wanton breakages or defacements, you shall discern a creative instinct: the Mankin feels that he is born Man, that his vocation is to work. The choicest present you can make him is a Tool; be it knife or pen-gun, for construction or for destruction; either way it is for work, for change. In gregarious sports of skill or strength, the Boy trains himself to co-operation, for war of peace, as governor or governed: the little Maid again, provident of her domestic destiny, takes with preference to dolls.”
          Here is a thing to ponder, a work of wisdom which should clear our nurseries of mechanical toys, and of all toys which have no use but that of being looked at. In this regard the two little boys, Jörn and Gneschen, had fairly equal opportunities. Both grew up in open places where they had the good of heaven and earth. We read how little Gneschen took out his porringer of bread and milk and ate it on the coping of the wall, from which he could see the sunset behind the western mountains. He made friends with cattle and poultry and much besides. While his sports made the boy active and sharpened his wits, “his imagination was stirred up and an historical tendency given him” by the reminiscences of his father Andreas, who had tales of battle and adventure to tell, wonderful to the child. “Eagerly I hung upon his tales, when listening neighbours enlivened the hearth; from these perils and these travels, wild and far almost to Hades itself, a dim world of adventure expanded
itself within me. Incalculable also was the knowledge I acquired in standing by the old men under the linden-tree: the whole of Immensity was yet new to me; and had not these reverend seniors, talkative enough, been employed in partial surveys thereof for nigh fourscore years? With amazement I began to discover that Entepfühl stood in the middle of a country, of a world; that there was such a thing as History, as Biography; to which I also, one day, by hand and tongue might contribute.”
          It would appear that nature opens to all children, one way or other, a perception of time past. History, and of space remote, Geography, as if these ideas were quite necessary nutriment for the mind of a child; and what is to be said for a school education that either eliminates this necessary food altogether or serves it up in dry-as-dust morsels upon which the imagination cannot work?
          These two, History and Geography, were let in upon Jörn too, though by other ways. There were the inscriptions upon the house-front telling of all the Uhls for the past three hundred years; and there was an old oak chest which gradually discovered its significance to the little boy. As for Geography, that was associated with the wide heath where his uncle Thiess Thiessen lived, an odd, solitary peasant of the heath who slept much among his piles of turf, but who had also an intellectual outlet. His cherished possession was an old atlas, and his whitewashed walls were covered with his own rough scrawls of journeys from China to Peru, from Hamburg, the outlet of Schleswig-Holstein, to all places everywhere. Here was Geography, as a child should get at it! Of all our sins of omission and commission, none perhaps
are worse than the way we defraud children of those living ideas which are their right.
          Here is a delightful description of how, and how slowly, a fundamental geographical idea reached the young Gneschen. (By the way, it should be enough to give chapter and verse, and not to quote at length; but Sartor Resartus is not a new book, and, do people read any but new books?) “In a like sense worked the Post-wagon, which, slow rolling under its mountains of men and luggage, wended through our Village: northwards, truly, in the dead of night; yet southwards visibly at eventide. Not till my eighth year did I reflect that this Post-wagon could be other than some terrestrial Moon, rising and setting by mere Law of Nature, like the heavenly one; that it came on made highways, from far cities towards far cities; weaving them like a monstrous shuttle into closer and closer union. It was then that . . . . I made this not quite insignificant reflection (so true also in spiritual things): Any road, this simple Entepfühl road, will lead you to the end of the World!” Even so said an Irish peasant the other day, when asked where a certain road led to.
          Then, too, had he not the swallows which came year after year all the way from Africa and built in the ‘cottage lobby,’ and from these he learned, too, the sweet ways of the feathered nations. “Thus encircled by the mystery of existence; under the deep heavenly firmament; waited on by the four golden Seasons, with their vicissitudes of contribution,—for even grim winter brought its skating matches and shooting matches, its snow-storms and Christmas carols,—did the Child sit and learn. These things were the Alphabet, whereby in after-time he was to
syllable and partly read the grand volume of the World; what matters it whether such Alphabet be in large gilt letters or in small ungilt ones, so you have an eye to read it: for Gneschen, eager to learn, the very act of looking thereon was a blessedness that gilded all: his existence was a bright, soft element of Joy; out of which, as in Prospero’s Island, wonder after wonder bodied itself forth, to teach by charming.”
          Jörn, too, grew up in a world of wide spaces, and for him also was the ministration of the seasons. But neither of the little boys had a quite happy childhood. Indeed, childhood is quite happy only from the point of view of the elders. The pains of the little children are as acute as their pleasures, and, what is more, they are eternal. Experience has not begotten hope, and every grief and disappointment is final. Besides there probably grows about all children, as about Gneschen,” a dark ring of Care as yet no thicker than a thread and often quite over-shone,” yet always reappearing and always waxing broader. “It was the Ring of Necessity whereby we are all begirt. Happy he for whom the Ring of Necessity is brightened into a Ring of Duty.”
          In this, Gneschen had an advantage over Jörn. Tender care and wise teaching made the needs-must of his life merge into the ‘I can, I ought, I will’ of duty. It was not that Jörn did not learn duty; he did, in that hard school of experience wherein he learned the meaning of kingship; but duty remained to him necessity, without the sense of joyful election on his own part.
          Thus, one day Weiten sends the three children in the wagon on a picnic over the heath to the little
uncle, Thiess Thiesen; and on the way back they talk. Thiess says: “The best in the world is to be on the heath and sleep and eat schwarzbrot and pig’s head; and little Elsbe cries: “Love is the best in the world.” “No,” says Jörn, “work is the best.” How had he learned it? Day by day, with solemn, childish eyes, he had watched the fruits of idleness and neglect about the homestead; neglected cattle, neglected crops, neglected out-buildings taught their lesson to the wise-hearted child, and this was the creed he got out of it—work is the best thing in the world. He never forgot it; hardly for a day did he relax the plodding, patient toil that the neglect of others had laid upon him.
          Another thing he learned: “Elsbe and I will never go into an alehouse.” “But when there is a ball?” said Elsbe. “I, never in my whole life,” said he. The little Jörn was left to develop himself without much fostering or much hindrance, whereas Gneschen says: “I was forbid much; wishes, in any measure bold, I had to renounce. Everywhere a strait bond of Obedience inflexibly held me down.—In which habituation to Obedience, truly, it was beyond measure safer to err by excess than by defect. Obedience is our universal duty and destiny: wherein whoso will not bend must break: too early and too thoroughly we cannot be trained to know that would, in this world of ours, is as mere zero to should, and for the most part as the smallest of fractions even to shall. Hereby was laid for me the basis of worldly Discretion, nay, of Morality itself. Let me not quarrel with my upbringing!”
          But the protest is well founded. Passivity is not the sole quality to be cultivated in children. It is by
their self-ordered activities they develop, and they require more scope for these than an orderly house affords. An attic, a garden, a yard, a field, wherein to do as they will, is necessary to the free growth of children. If we could rid ourselves of the notion that children are somewhat imbecile, incapable of understanding principles and ordering themselves wisely, a child in a family might grow up with as little sense of collision as most of us are aware of in regard to the laws of the State to which we belong. We obey without knowing it; but when our obedience is challenged, we give it loyally.
          For one other thing Diogenes blesses his parents in words so stimulating that they must be quoted:—
          My kind mother. . . . did me one altogether invaluable service: she taught me, less indeed by word than by act and daily reverent look and habitude, her own simple version of the Christian Faith. Andreas too attended Church; yet more like a parade-duty, for which he in the other world expected pay with arrears,—as, I trust, he has received; but my mother, with a true woman’s heart, and fine though uncultivated sense, was in the strictest acceptation Religious. How indestructibly the Good grows, and propagates itself, even among the weeds entanglements of Evil! The highest whom I knew on Earth I here saw bowed down, with awe unspeakable, before a Higher in Heaven: such things, especially in infancy, reach inwards to the very core of your being; mysteriously does a Holy of Holies build itself into visibility in the mysterious depths; and Reverence, the divinest in man, springs forth undying from its mean envelopment of Fear. Wouldst thou rather be a peasant’s son that knew, were it never so rudely, there was a
God in Heaven and in Man; or a duke’s son that only knew there were two-and-thirty quarters on the family coach?”
          This intimate sense of the presence of God was not for little Jörn.


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[1] Jörn Uhl, by Gustav Frenssen.