A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
The year 1759 was eventful for all the families in Frankfort, for then began the French occupation which lasted for a couple of years. Herr Goethe was especially afflicted. His new, or rather his restored, house was not yet completed, and, behold billeted upon him were Count Thorane, the King’s Lieutenant, with his staff. He could not reconcile himself to this invasion. The very first night, on the occasion of the distribution of the rooms, the Lieutenant made overtures of good-will. There was chance mention of the decoration of one of the reception-rooms, and Thorane, who was interested in matters of art, insisted upon seeing the pictures immediately, admired them, inquired who were the artists, and did his best to keep the careful hand of a master upon the treasures of the house. Notwithstanding this community of tastes, the elder Goethe could not accommodate himself to the new situation. He became more and more morose, and difficulties were barely smoothed over by the efforts of the house mistress, who set herself to learn French from a common friend, who represented to the Count the difficulties of the situation.
But the children had fine times. The Lieutenant had a sort of civil jurisdiction over the troops, and
there was a constant coming and going of officers and men; and as the children were always peering about on the common stairway, they got to know a great deal about military matters and many military persons. The young Goethe made himself a persona grata with the Count in a remarkable way. He, at this time a child of ten, knew the haunts and homes of the artists of the city,—those artists to whose work his father had introduced the Lieutenant. Nay, more, the boy had been in the habit of attending auctions, and had always been able to describe, rightly or wrongly, the subjects of the pictures for sale. He had written an essay containing suggestions for twelve pictures illustrating the history of Joseph, and some of these had been painted. In a word, the young Goethe, child as he was, appears to have been regarded as a connoisseur; and Thorane not only took him about with him, but took his advice regarding decorative pictures for the château of his eldest brother, for which he was arranging.
A sort of little studio was set up in the house, where one and another artist worked for the great man, and these seemed to have liked to have the boy with them. This anecdote is interesting as offering a hint of the marvellous versatility of the poet, who would have been great as a scientist, and conceivably as an artist, had not poetry laid compelling hands upon him.
It would seem as if rather familiar intercourse with such a man as Count Thorane must in itself have been an important factor in the education of Goethe. He appears to have been the type of French officer with whom history has made us familiar, a man of dignified and reserved manners, who maintained good-
humoured relations with the persons under him partly by means of his shrewd and caustic wit. One circumstance appears specially to have impressed the boy. For a day, perhaps days, at a time this accessible chief was invisible. It appears he was subject to fits of hypochondriacal depression, and while they lasted he would see no one but his valet—an impressive piece of self-control.
“But now it seems necessary to set forth more circumstantially and to explain how, in the midst of such events, I got hold of French, more or less easily, though I had not learned it. My inborn gifts came to my aid, so that I easily grasped the sound and ring of a language; the movements, accent, tone, and other external peculiarities. Many words were familiar from my knowledge of Latin, Italian helped still more, and in a short time I heard so much from servants and soldiers, sentries and visitors, that though I could not start a conversation, I could at least understand questions and answers.” But he tells us that all this was nothing compared with the help which the theatre brought him. His grandfather had given him a free pass, and every day found him there, against the will of his father, but with the connivance of his mother. At first his entertainment consisted only in catching the accent and watching the gestures of the players. Then he found a volume of Racine at home, and hit upon the plan of learning long speeches by heart and delivering these, so far as he could, as he had heard them, though without understanding their drift.
And now he made a friend—a nice boy connected with the theatre. The two became inseparable companions, for in the dearth of boy companionship
the stranger managed to understand young Goethe’s French, and by aid of familiar intercourse with him ‘the Boy’ made progress that surprised his friend. The two haunted the theatre, and presently found their way into what served as a green-room, where Goethe saw (hardly comprehending much) what he described as taking place in the scratch company whose doings he chronicles in Wilhelm Meister. He and his friend discussed many things, and “in four weeks (I) learned more than could have been imagined; so that no one knew how I suddenly, as if by inspiration, had acquired a foreign language.”
Possibly, when the entenle cordiale has become acclimatised, let us say, children belonging to the two countries may come to visit each other’s families, and more French may yet be learned in a month from the companionship of a nice French boy than the best master in the world would succeed in teaching in a year. The desire to communicate with each other would doubtless bring about the power.
The French boy, whom he chooses to name Derones, introduced young Goethe to his sister, a grave maiden, who did not forget that she was much older than he; otherwise, no doubt, we should have had the first of a long series of love interludes. But he complains that young maidens treat boys younger than themselves as if they were their aunts, and his offerings of fruit and flowers made little impression.
By and by the two young friends must needs fight a duel; provocation was there none, but that did not matter. Derones called young Goethe out, and they went to a lonely place and wielded their mock swords, and the honour of the Frenchman was satisfied
when he stuck his dagger into a ribbon on the enemy’s equipment; and they went to a coffee-house and received each other into a closer friendship than ever.
These days of the occupation of Frankfort offered continual festival to the children and young people. Theatre and ball, parade and march drew the children hither and thither, and the life of a soldier seemed to them very delightful. The fact that the King’s Lieutenant dwelt in their house made the Goethe children familiar, by sight at any rate, with all the persons of distinction in the French army.
But the war had other things in store. “A camp of the French, a flight, a defence of the town, intended only to cover a retreat in order to hold the bridge, a bombardment, plundering—all this excited the imagination and brought sorrow to both parties.” Easter week of 1759 saw the event. A great stillness preceded the storm. The children were forbidden to go out of the house; and after some hours, waggon-loads of the wounded on both sides were brought into the town, proclaiming that the action was over. By and by the victorious Count Thorane returned on horseback; the children sprang towards him, kissed his hands and showed their joy, which appeared to please him, and he ordered that a collation of sweet-meats should be made for them to celebrate the event. But the father behaved quite otherwise. He met the victorious General with insult and violence: the consternation in the household was great, for it appeared certain that its head would be committed to prison; but the intervention of a friend saved the bitter and somewhat eccentric man, and things went on as before.