A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
Young Goethe’s father, who delighted in teaching, instructed his children himself; and there are still exercises of the boy preserved in the Frankfort library, in German, Latin, Greek, and French, written between his seventh and ninth years. These exercises show that the manner of instruction was immediate and interesting; the father dictating what had struck himself—some news of the day or some story of ‘old Fritz’; or the boy chose his own subject. He never seems to have gone to school, except on one occasion,
when the family house was being rebuilt and the children were sent out of the way. Their school experience appears to have offended the two fastidious children: they were not accustomed to the turbulent life of a school, and possibly, in this first experience of a public of his own age and status, was sown the seed of that indifference to the public welfare which continued with Goethe through life. But it is easy to err in emphasising this seeming defect in the poet’s character; is it not conceivable that his philosophic mind put in the balances the sorts of service it was possible for him to render, and that he recognized the impossibility of bestowing upon mankind any gifts comparable with those he has left us?
Possibly it was while he was at school that he learned to hate grammar—and, curiously enough, on the very grounds which made this subject repellent to Herbert Spencer; he could not put up with arbitrary rules. Both thinkers might have been the better for some grammatical grind; both, indeed took their education into their own hands, as is rather the way of persons of genius.”
If the analysis of language teased him, the analysis of human nature occupied young Goethe at a very early age. He tells us a curious anecdote in which he appears in the attitude proper to a child, that of curious interest and suspended judgment. He and some young friends joined in a verse competition:—“And here occurred something strange, which long troubled me. I could not help regarding my own poems, be they what they might, as the best. But I soon perceived that my competitors, who produced very poor things, were in the same case, and thought no less of themselves; nay, what struck me as still
more curious, a good, though for-work-incapable, lad, who got the tutor to make his rhymes, not only held these to the best, but was fully convinced he had himself made them, as he in perfect honesty declared to me.”
Already, in his eighth or ninth year, has he observed, and that without censure or comment, one of the most baffling complexities of human nature—that the attempt to appear other than we are is rather an intellectual than a moral vice, and that the hypocrite is commonly a person who, through bad intellectual habits, is able to deceive himself. This reminiscence of Goethe’s childhood reminds us that the clear-sighted child, not blinded by habits of conventional usage, is with us, taking curious and amazed, if unconscious, note of all our small hypocrisies of opinion and action.
It is good to know that the sort of books all children love were dearer to this poet-child. Telemachus, he tells us, had ‘a sweet and beneficent influence upon him’; and that Anson’s Voyage round the World combined for him ‘the dignity of truth with the rich fancy of fiction,’ and that he delighted in Robinson Crusoe, in folk-tales and fairy-tales.
It was a fitting thing that Goethe’s home was in an ancient city, rich in traditions and associations, in all of which he took passionate delight. What was it not to him to stand in the hall in which emperors had been crowned, on the spot where once was a castle occupied by Charlemagne himself! How good, too, to think as he looked up at the vault of the Rathaus, how, for ages past, the fathers of the city had deliberated there! Then there were the picturesque houses of the Römer-Platz, and, not least significant,
the stately old dwelling with projecting gables occupied by the Goethes themselves. These things he tells us of at length in his Dichtung und Wahrheit, wherein he gathers up at great length the impressions of his early childhood; and, certainly, Frankfort, with its long historic perspective and stirring modern life, proved itself ‘meet nurse for a poetic child.’
A child’s first impressions of his native place are such a precious and rare possession that it will repay us to follow this boy in the pursuit of such ideas as his Vaterstadt had to offer him.
“It was just about this time that I first awoke to my Vaterstadt, as I wandered up and down, more and more freely and uncontrolled, now alone, now with my playfellows. In order to some extent to explain the impression which these solemn and revered surroundings made upon me, I must begin with the impression I received of my birthplace as it gradually disclosed itself to me in its many parts. Above all I liked to walk on the Mainz bridge. Its length, its strength, its handsome appearance made it a noticeable structure; it was also a very notable memorial of that foresight in years gone by which the world owes to its burghers.
“The beautiful river drew my gaze with it up and down steam, and when the golden cock on the cross on the bridge glittered in the sunshine, I had a delightful sensation. We then usually went through Sachsenhausen, and, for a kreuzer, enjoyed the ferry across. Then, again, on this side, we stole along to the wine market, gazed at the cranes at work unloading goods, but were especially entertained by the arrival of the market boats, whence we saw many strange figures descend. Then we went into the
city, and, every time, paid our respects to the Saalhof, which was, at any rate, on the very spot where the castle of Charles and his successors is said to have stood. We lost ourselves in the old trading quarter, and only too, gladly found ourselves in the throng that gathered round the church of St Bartholomew on market days.
“. . . I remember, too, the horror with which I fled past the closely packed, narrow, and hideous meat-stalls. The Römerberg was a quite delightful place to walk in. But what most drew the attention of the Boy were the many little towns within the town, the fortresses within the fortress; for example, the walled cloisters remaining from earlier times, and other more or less castle-like buildings transformed into dwellings and warehouses.”
Frankfort had at that time no modern architecture of importance, but everywhere was evidence of ‘old, unhappy, far-off times, and battles long ago.’ Forts, towers, fortifications, moats, enclosed the new town and all spoke of the necessity for providing for the common safety in troublous times. “A certain inclination towards the antique took fast hold of the boy, which was especially nourished and favoured by old chronicles and woodcuts, as, for example, those of Grave relating to the siege of Frankfort: to this another taste was added, that of observing the common circumstances of life in all their natural complexity, without any regard to interest or beauty. One of our favourite walks, which we tried to take several times in the year, was the round of the city walls, Gardens, courts, back buildings stretch to the Livinger; and we saw many thousand people in their domestic; narrow, shut-off, hidden conditions of life. From the
ornamental show gardens of the rich to the orchards of the burgher who grows for his own needs, from thence to the factories, bleaching grounds, and similar workshops, to the churchyard itself (for a little world lay within the town boundary) we wandered on past a most varied, most wonderful, ever-changing spectacle, of which our childish curiosity was never weary.
“Within the Römer, . . . everything that concerned the election and coronation of the emperors had the greatest charm for us. We knew how to get round the keepers in order to get permission to go up the gaily painted imperial staircase, otherwise shut off by an iron gate. The Hall of Election, hung with purple, decorated with gold fringes, inspired us with awe. The door-hangings—on which little children or genii dressed in imperial colours and bearing the royal insignia play a wonderful part—we examined with great attention, and longed to see a coronation with our own eyes.
“It was only with great difficulty they got us out of the imperial hall once we had succeeded in slipping in, and we considered those our truest friends who could tell us of the deeds of the emperors whose half-length figures were painted at some height all round. Of Charlemagne we heard many a tale, but the historic interest began for us with Rudolph of Hapsburg, who by his courage put an end to so much strife. Charles the Fourth also drew our attention to himself. . . . Maximilian we heard praised as the friend of man and of the burghers, and that it was prophesied that he would be the last emperor of his house; which was, alas! indeed the case, for after his death the choice lay only between the King of Spain,
Charles the Fifth, and the King of France, Francis the First.”
All this intimacy with his native town ‘the Boy’ would seem to have got before his seventh year, or possibly a little later, during the period in which the family house was being rebuilt, and the children were with friends—a time when they seem to have been left more to their own devices than was customary.
This knowledge of the Vaterstadt appears to have been picked up by the way—from children like themselves, for example, who had heard it from curators, workpeople, and the like. Where there is avidity for any sort of knowledge, it comes from chance sources. It is lamentable that this kind of lore is not much sought after by English children; and, seeing that every English country, and almost every town, is wonderfully rich in associations, historical and personal, there must be some reason why we are wanting in the local patriotism with which most Continental nations succeed in imbuing their children. I have heard a father in a valley of the Harz telling his little boy of five that here was the scene of Tilly’s famous march; and, of course, the child saw the valley filled with armed men with waving plumes on pawing horses: he would never forget it. Again, a small street-urchin in Bruges will tell you where such and such a picture by Memling is to be found: or at the Hague you meet a working man taking his children round the picture-galleries, and explaining, you do not know how or what, but certainly the children are interested. Now, this sort of interest is as though it did not exist for, let us say, eighty per cent of British-born children. There appear to be two or three reasons for our defective education in this respect. In the first place,
we have been brought up to believe in what is ‘useful’ in education: it may help us to gain a living if we can read and write and cast accounts; may help us in society if we can play and sing and chatter French; or in a career, if we can scrape up enough classical and mathematical knowledge to win a scholarship. But where’s the good of knowing what happened in the past, even at the next street-corner! What’s the good of having an imagination furnished with pictures that open out in long perspective, and enrich and ennoble life?
It is the old story; utilitarian education is profoundly immoral, in that it defrauds a child of the associations which should give him intellectual atmosphere.
Another notion that stands between us and any vital appreciation of the past is, that—‘we are the people!’ We are cocksure that we know all that is to be known, that we do all that is worth while; and we are able to regard the traditions and mementoes of the past with a sort of superior smirk, a notion that, if the book-writers have not made it all up, this story of the past is no such great thing after all: that ‘a fellow I know’ could do as much any day! There are few things more unpleasant than to see the superior air, and hear the cheap sneers, with which well-dressed people, not to say ’Arry and ’Arriet, disport themselves in the presence of any monument of antiquity they may make holiday to go and see. We have lost the habit of reverence.
A third, and perhaps more amiable trait, tells against our due delight in the past. It is strongly borne in upon us that bragging is odious. We do not choose to make much of our private possessions,
and unconsciously apply the same principle to whatever might tend to magnify the past we own as a people. It is well we should know that this sort of knowledge of, and intimacy with, the associations of the past is every child’s right, whatever be his class. Once we perceive the defectiveness of the education we give children in this respect, we shall no doubt find ways to remedy it.