Two Peasant Boys
“Jörn shall study,” said his father; “that is understood. He shall be a land-agent. Let us drink to Jörn Uhl, the land-agent.” And they drank. So the notion got about the village that Jörn was destined for high things. He went to school to Lehrer Peters to be prepared for the gymnasium. It must have been good to see him on the sofa with the old teacher, the little lad with fair hair standing on end, and deep-set, eager eyes devouring the book he held; an English book it was, for Lehrer Peters was a man of notions. He himself knew a little English, and held that English was the key to all wisdom, and indeed to the meaning of the world. A little Latin also was got in, but that was by the way.
Here follows a pretty episode. A charming child, Lisbeth Junker, the schoolmaster’s niece, woos Jörn to go out fishing with her in the master’s absence; and while they sit dangling their lines Jörn overhears a conversation between the schoolmaster and the magistrate, and gathers from it that his father’s affairs are in a bad way. This is how another of life’s lessons came to Jörn, and very admirably does the old schoolmaster bring it home to the boy, who owns frankly that he has overheard the talk. He tells him
a tale of the successful career of an ancestors of Jörn’s, and ends with a wise word of ‘that great thinker, Goethe’—that what you inherit from your fathers you must labour in order to possess. This seed of thought sank deep. Thenceforth the little boy felt that he was responsible when there was no other to take responsibility. The child’s eye kept the farm-labourers at work; and two horse-dealers, who came to traffic with his brothers, were abashed by his gaze.
But how is a person to prepare for the gymnasium with so many affairs on hand?
The time came when he must go to the neighbouring town to try his chances. Thiess Thiessen took him and his books in the waggon. The boy went in at the great gates; and Thiess, meanwhile, made acquaintance with an old shoemaker, who cheered him by saying that of five who go in, only one comes out successful. “But,” says Thiess, “Jörn is clever, sits the whole day over his book and sees and hears nothing; he must succeed.” But, alas! Lehrer Peter’s English teaching somehow did not qualify him for a pass in Latin, and Jörn and Thiess went home crestfallen. This was the end of the boy’s definite schooling.
His religious teaching fared no better; the preparation for confirmation should have been much to him, but Jörn was told of justification by faith, that he should do no murder, and the like. The confirmation classes, though conducted by a diligent and kindly man, were a source of torment to him because he did not understand the teaching. By the way, his confirmation is a very definite era in the life of a German boy (or girl). So soon as he is fourteen he leaves school (if he be a child of the people), and, before he takes up any employment, is under the instruction of
his pastor for six weeks, and works three hours a day in the church, besides writing and learning at home. Before his confirmation, he may not even run an errand for a neighbor for the usual penny. The practical and purposeful Jörn knew all about the concerns of the Uhl and of the whole village, but knew nothing of either the sin or the mercy about which he was taught. The list of sins began too far down, with theft, robbery, and murder, and the mercy came all too soon to satisfy his young sense of justice,—as soon as a man should throw his sins upon the Lord. God appeared to him an unpractical judge, who kept his books in fine order in his office and allowed himself to be deceived by the people without.
Meantime Jörn took his place steadily, of his own accord, as a farm labourer. He would do what he could to right matters in the neglected homestead. His step became heavy through following the plough in the heavy furrows; he had little to say, because he was more used to cattle than men; it seemed that his intellectual life had gone out, and he was in a fair way to become as one of the farm-hands. This is what the schooling of life had brought to Jörn Uhl.
Young Teufelsdröckh also goes to school and learns to handle his ‘earliest tools’—his class-books. He cannot remember ever to have learned to read, which is true of many young scholars. He speaks of his education got in schools as ‘insignificant.’ He learned what others learned, seeing no use for it. His schoolmaster did little for him, and knew it, but thought him a genius, and said that he must be sent to the gymnasium and afterwards to a university.
Meanwhile he read, eagerly as Cervantes, any scrap
of page or printed paper he came across, including ‘stall literature’ bought out of his copper pocket-money and sewed into volumes by his own hands.
He got something out of this random reading, bits of history and bits of fable, real, both of them, out of which his mind got its necessary food. Now, here is a point worth attention. How seldom do we hear of a famous man who got that food for his mind which enabled him out of his school studies! And how often, on the other hand, do we read of those whose course of life has been determined by the random readings of boyhood! We go on blindly and stubbornly with our school curriculum, as if this were a fact of no significance, because, say we, the boy will have chances after his school-days to get such pabulum as he needs; but life is not long enough to afford the waste of some dozen years, its freshest and most intelligent period. And, what is more, the boy who has not formed the habit of getting nourishment out of his books in school-days does not, afterwards, see the good of reading. He has not acquired, in an intellectual sense, the art of reading, so he cannot be said to have lost it; and he goes through life an imperfect person, with the best and most delightful of his powers latent or maimed. Why in the world should we not give children, while they are at school, the sort of books they can live upon; books alive with thought and feeling, and delight in knowledge, instead of the miserable cram-books on which they are starved?
In spite of his school, Gneschen developed some power of thought:—“It struck me much” (he was in his twelfth year), “as I sat by the Kuhbach, one silent noontide, and watched it flowing, gurgling, to think how this same streamlet had flowed and gurgled,
through all the changes of weather and of fortune, from beyond the earliest date of history”—a type of the thoughts, original so far as they are concerned, which strike all children of average intelligence.
Things went no better with Diogenes at the gymnasium; he was home-sick, the boys were rough and rude, he hated fighting and thought it disgraceful to be beaten, but also disgraceful to fight; so he wept a good deal, which did not help him with his school-fellows. Then, as for the teaching he got; Greek and Latin, he says, were mechanically taught, while, “what they called history, cosmography, philosophy and so forth, no better than not at all.” Still, he learned something by watching the craftsmen who came in his way, and from some odds and ends of reading he lighted upon at his lodgings.
He complains that his teachers were hidebound pedants with no knowledge of boys’ nature or of anything but their lexicons. “Innumerable dead vocables (no dead language, for they themselves knew no language) they crammed into us, and called it ‘fostering the growth of mind’;” and he asks how can a mechanical gerund-grinder foster the growth of mind, which grows, not like a vegetable, by having ‘etymological composts’ laid upon it, but like a spirit, by contact of spirit, ‘thought kindling itself at the fire of living thought.’
His years at the gymnasium brought him one idea, fertile for good and evil—“I was like no other.” Here we have one of those words of profound educational insight with which Sartor Resartus abounds. There comes an epoch in every young life when the person discovers himself to be an individual. He perceives that he is like no other. It is this notion working in
them which makes the captious girl and headstrong youth ‘neither to have nor to hold’; and ‘education’ leaves young people absolutely unprepared for an era so important in their lives. The arrogant young man is apt to suppose he is individual in all that he is, and, by consequence, that in everything he is superior. No wonder he is unmanageable and infallible! But give him a ground-plan of human nature, let him know what he has in common with all men, and he is able to understand and to make use of his individual quota for the general good.
In due time Teufelsdröckh goes to the university. Being fairly perfect in ‘dead vocables,’ he believes he is set down “by the living Fountain there to superadd Ideas and capabilities.” But, alas! it was true for him as for others that ‘the pear-tree he had climbed at twelve he was still climbing at twenty.’ Also, grinding poverty oppressed and distracted him, for he had lost his father.
He discovers that his university is the worst in the world for his needs. Among other defects, where all was defective, he tells us that “we boasted ourselves a Rational University; in the highest degree hostile to Mysticism; thus was the young vacant mind furnished with much talk about Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like; so that all were quickly enough blown out into a state of windy argumentativeness; which by the better sort had soon to end in sick impotent Scepticism; the worser sort explode in finished self-conceit, and to all spiritual intents become dead.”
This invective discovers a mistake in our educational methods. From the time a child is able to parse an English sentence till he can read Thucydides, his instruction
is entirely critical and analytic. Does he read “The Tempest,” the entrancing whole is not allowed to sink into, and become a part of him, because he is vexed about the ‘vexed Bermoothes’ and the like. His attention is occupied with linguistic criticism, not especially useful, and, from one point of view, harmful to him because it is distracting. It is as though one listened to “Lycidas,” beautifully read, subject to the impertinence of continual interruptions in the way of question and explanation. We miss the general principle that critical studies are out of place until the mind is so ‘thoroughly furnished’ with ideas that, of its own accord, it compares and examines critically. “The hungry young,” says Teufelsdröckh, “looked up to their spiritual Nurses; and, for food, were bidden to eat the east-wind”—“vain jargon of controversial Metaphysic, Etymology, and mechanical Manipulation falsely named science.” Worse happened to him. Besides his wants and distresses—want of money, sympathy, hope—this manner of education resulted in ‘fever paroxysms of doubt,’ and he tells of cries for light in the silent watches of the night, of distresses of mind and heart, which it took long years to soothe, under “the nightmare, Unbelief.”
This malady of unbelief, again, is common to serious minds, educated to examine all things before they know the things they criticize by the slow, sure process of assimilating ideas. If we would but receive it, we are not capable of examining that which we do not know; and knowledge is the result of a slow, involuntary process, impossible to a mind in the critical attitude. Let us who teach spend time in the endeavour to lay proper and abundant nutriment before the young, rather than in leading them to
criticise and examine every morsel of knowledge that comes their way. Who could live if every mouthful of bodily food were held up on a fork for critical examination before it be eaten?
Meantime, Teufelsdröckh got what served him, not out of the class-rooms but out of the chaos of the University library. “The foundation of a literary life was hereby laid: I learned, on my own strength, to read fluently in almost all cultivated languages, on almost all subjects and sciences; further, as man is ever the prime object to man, already it was my favourite employment to read character in speculation, and from the writing to construe the Writer.”
To Jörn, who had the makings of a man of science as had the other of a philosopher, all intellectual avenues save one were closed. In that chest, itself a page of history, he found an old book on astronomy (Littrow’s). He had always liked solid knowledge, and, later in life, he explained that he had in childhood been so overfed by Wieten and Fiete Krey upon romantic legends that he had no more appetite for poetry or fiction. Littrow was his solitary outlet; in course of time, he was able to indulge himself in the luxury of a telescope, the one luxury of his life; he contrived a revolving roof to an old arbour; made observations and recorded them on his own charts; and found in the heavens solace and relief from the manifold distresses of life. So, in spite of hindrances, we may consider that the two arrived at education. The one had reached the infinite solace and content of books; the other found for himself a single intellectual pursuit upon which the whole force of his mind could spend itself. But it is a pitiful thing when his education leaves a youth
without the power or habit of reading, and also without an absorbing intellectual interest. Some men, as these two, get such gains in spite of their schooling; but how good it would be if we could devise an education which should be not only serviceable in making a living, but should enable young people to realise, use, and enjoy fulness of life! “The life is more than meat.”
We read next, how Teufelsdröckh tried at various points to open that oyster of the world, and how Jörn Uhl was compelled to drive doggedly at a single point, and how each of them imagined, “it was with Work alone, and not also with Folly and Sin, in myself and others, that I had been appointed to struggle,” and how folly and sin overcame them both.
Jörn Uhl forgot, just for once, his childish vow never to enter a Wirtshaus. He drank and was ashamed; and, in his shame, was thrown into a worse temptation—he learned the meaning of lust. But the woman was older than he, and had come out of the same fire herself, and taught him—Chastity. This lesson he learned so well that, later, he would not tough the hand of the woman he was about to marry until he had arranged for their nuptials.
We cannot follow Teufelsdröckh through his love-sickness and sorrows; but we know how it went with him, on the whole. To both young men life was a dour, hand-to-hand conflict, both set their teeth and fought it out, and both carried to the end the hardening or the softening, the sweetening of the souring of the lessons that had arrived to them during their education. For the most part, these two learned in the hard school of experience. For the one, Nature herself was a hard mistress, through passionately
beloved; but each accomplished his ‘pilgrim’s progress’ by the aid of things and of the ways of men; it is distressing to note how little help either got from direct teaching.
The problem before us all is, how far direct teaching and training may help in the evolution of character; and perhaps few things should be of more use to us than the study of such veracious records as we have in Sartor Resartus and Jörn Uhl. It were profitable to consider what might have been done here, and here, and here, for the guidance, help, and inspiration of either lonely and courageous young pilgrim. I venture to call these two veracious records, though Jörn Uhl is a novel and Sartor Resartus offers us much the same thing, that is, facts seen through a veil of romance; because we perceive that both are essentially true, and are profitable for our instruction in righteousness.
We have been told so much of the sournesses and sorenesses of Thomas Carlyle that we are in danger of forgetting how much we owe to the philosopher who, more than any other, has put hope and purpose into the adverse conditions of modern life; and, what is more to our present purpose, we overlook the lesson that the gloom and bitterness we condemn were the inevitable results of the upbringing sketched for us in the assumed experiences of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh; and that the strong virtues we admire came also out of that upbringing. So too of Jörn Uhl. Things went well with him in the end; but it took all the skill of the wise wife whom he loved to tide him over periods of dour gloom not unlike those which fell upon Carlyle.
This is (roughly) how the brave record ends:—“Your life, Jörn Uhl, has not been an insignificant
one. Your boyhood was tranquil, your youth, lonely; and you wrestled bravely and single-handed with the riddles of life; even if you could guess only at a few of them, your labour was not in vain. You went to the front for the land that lies about this well; you have been hardened by fire and frost and have made progress in the most important study—that of distinguishing things according to their value. You have learnt to know the passionate love of woman, and in that you gained the second great experience that life can give. You have buried Lena Tarn as well as your father and brothers, and in those hours of human grief you have peered into the eyes of knowledge and have become humble. You have fought with adverse fate and not given way; you plodded on, though it was long before help came. You worked your way into knowledge with clenched teeth and a lofty courage at an age with most men expect to repose. And, now that building and measuring and the like have been your work and joy for some years, you have not got into a groove: you take thought for all the land on each side of your measuring chain, and even consider the books which a friend of yours called Heim Heidreter writes.
“What shall a man write about, Jörn, if a life of so much meaning is not worth recording?”