A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
His seventh year (1756) brought a new public interest to the boy, the opening of the war which, he tells us, had for the next seven years great influence on his life. Frederick the Second, king of Prussia, had with 60,000 men fallen upon Saxony; and, instead of leaving the war to account for itself, had issued a manifesto showing why he invaded Saxony. This astute move divided men into two parties, and the Goethe family was divided like the rest. The grandfather, who had assisted at the coronation of Francis I. and received a golden chain from the Empress, took, with several of the family, the side of Austria.
His father, whose sympathies had been with the unlucky Charles VII., adopted the cause of Prussia. There followed endless feuds in a hitherto united family, for all other interests gave place to the passionate partisanship stirred up by the war; and, “so was I,” he says, “also Prussian, or, to speak more exactly, Fritzisch; that was what made us Prussians: it was the personality of the great king that worked on all minds. I rejoiced with my father over our victories, wrote with delight songs of triumph, and with even more delight songs of derision upon our opponents, however feeble the rhymes.
“As the eldest grandson and godson, I had, since childhood, dined with my grandparents on Sunday; and the hours spent with them were the happiest of my week. But now the food revolted me, for I had to listen to the most horrible calumnies upon my hero. Here another wind blew, here was another manner of speech than at home. My affection, indeed even my respect, for my grandparents was lessened. I could not disclose any of this to my parents; my instinct, as well as a warning from my mother, forbade me. So I was thrown back upon myself, and as in my sixth year, after the earthquake at Lisbon, I became somewhat skeptical of the goodness of God, so now, on account of Frederick the Second, I began to doubt the justice of public opinion. I was by nature reverently inclined, and it took a great shaking to make my faith waver on any matter worthy of reverence.”
How far, we are inclined to ask, should children be allowed to share in the party spirit and party strife on questions of Church and State which agitate their elders? Probably we are all agreed that young
children should be kept out of this sort of turmoil. We keep the little ones in the kingdom of heaven; and, certainly, the virulence and bitterness of party do not belong to the blessed state. For another reason, too, we should do well to reserve before the children our opinions on burning questions. We naturally wish them to embrace our own views; but, if too great an emotional pressure has been put upon them as children, their tendency when they are older is to react in the opposite direction. They are apt to become indifferent or hostile where once they had been jealous and bigoted. Perhaps this is why we hear now and then of the children of Unitarians becoming Roman Catholics, of the Radical son of a Tory father, and the like. We must, for all reasons, refrain ourselves before the children; and, indeed, it is not bad for us to have their moderating influence among us. But a boy must, sooner or later, take sides, and must take the side he has a mind to, be it right or wrong; to do so is part of his initiation.
We are surprised that ‘the Boy,’ in the glow of his poetic sensibility, did not embrace the cause of Maria Theresa, the good and gracious empress, who certainly had a claim on chivalric devotion. But here, again, we may read between the lines. It was not only that his father’s sympathies were with Frederick; it was that that astute monarch had stated his case, and a statement is, of its nature, convincing to the logical mind. This is a point we are apt to miss in dealing with questions of religion and the philosophy of life. We leave it to the dissentients to state the case, and the first statement almost inevitably carries conviction. Perhaps this is why atheistical teaching spreads so rapidly among intelligent
artisans. For the first time they have received the intellectual compliment of a logical statement. As, probably, most statements can be proved to the hilt, the mind of the neophyte is stirred with sudden joy. ‘I have thought,’ he says to himself, for perhaps the first time; and his reason enjoys the satisfaction of logical demonstration. No wonder that it is not easy to shake what are, in such a case, primal convictions; and especially is it difficult to supplant them by means of emotional appeals. Pride of intellect is legitimate. Where we err is, not enlisting it on the side of right thinking and right living. We seldom trouble ourselves to offer young people the intellectual grounds for any opinions we propose to them: everything is casual; and then we are discomforted when children of this world, wiser than we, make an appeal to the mind in behalf of views which are repugnant to us, and which we believe to be wrong.
Another point to be noted in this connection is the cocksureness of the young person. All young persons are cocksure, not at all because they are foolish and arrogant, but because they are unaware of the fact that equally reasonable and equally intelligent persons are capable of holding opposite views on any given question. In this, as in so many other ways, we feel the lack of what must be the rational basis of a sound education—that is, an ordered study of human nature.
Goethe’s remarks on the subject are profoundly instructive:—“Thinking now carefully over the matter, I find here the germ of the indifference, indeed even contempt, of the public which influenced a period of my own life, and was only late brought within bounds
through greater insight and cultivation. The consciousness of party injustice was uncomfortable enough even then—was, indeed, injurious, for it accustomed the Boy to a barrier between himself and those he loved and valued.
“The battles and events quickly following each other left the parties neither rest nor peace. We took a malicious pleasure in stirring up again every imagined evil, and magnifying every trick of the opposition; and so we went on tormenting each other till a few years later, when the French took possession of Frankfort and brought real discomfort into our houses.”
The elders of the house, fearing, perhaps, the mischief that a zealous young partisan might do in a divided town, kept the young people more at home, and devised schemes for their amusement and occupation. The grandmother’s puppet-show was once more in use and plays on a larger scale were produced. One boy friend after another was brought to see the show, and thus, says Goethe, he made many friends. But boys are restive, and the young actors were obliged to fall back on a younger public, with their attendants to keep them in order. We get a detailed account of this period in Wilhelm Meister—of the plays the young poet wrote, to the wonder of his companions, of how these plays never came to a point and disgusted the author, of the elaborate staging attempted, and much besides.
“I surrendered myself to my imagination; I rehearsed and prepared for ever, built a thousand castles in the air and saw not that I was at the same time undermining the foundation of these little edifices.” He it was who made the
necessary equipments for the boy actors, manufactured the swords, gilded and decorated the scabbards, furnished helmets with plumes of paper, made shields, even coats of mail. “We marched about the courtyards and gardens, and smote fearfully upon each other’s shields and heads. Many flaws of discord rose among us, but none that lasted.” The other boys were happy in this warlike display; not so ‘Wilhelm.’ “The aspect of so many armed figures naturally stimulated in my mind those ideas of chivalry which for some time, since I had commenced the reading of old romances, were filling my imagination.” He was particularly influenced by a translation of Jerusalem Delivered which he came across, and lived long in the atmosphere of the poem. Of Clorinda he says:—“The masculine womanhood, the peaceful completeness of her being had a great influence upon my mind, just beginning to unfold itself. . . . A hundred and a hundred times have I repeated to myself the history of the mournful duel between Tancred and Clorinda.”
“However strongly I inclined by nature to the party of the Christians, I could not help declaring for the Paynim heroine with all my heart, when she engaged to set on fire the great tower of the besiegers. And when Tancred in the darkness met the supposed knight, and the strife began between them under that veil of gloom, and the two battled fiercely, I could never pronounce the words—
‘But now the sure and fated hour is nigh,
Clorinda’s course is ended, she must die!’
 Carlyle’s translation of Wilhelm Meister.