A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
Thus, for the second time, circumstances compelled the young poet on the lines of his vocation. We hear, too, of his success as a story-teller, and the young of Frankfort wondered at his tale of The New Paris.
At this time ‘the Boy’ appears to have had lessons with other youths; but things did not go well with him.
The teacher was harsh and cruel, and the use his best pupil made of his persecutions was to set himself definitely to bear pain without wincing. He tells us, too, how, on one occasion, three of the most ill-conditioned of his comrades fell upon him. He bore their cruel slashing of his legs with rods until the clock struck the hour which should dismiss the boys; then he turned upon the three and came off victor. In the end this attempt at companionship at lessons fell through, and he was kept more at home. He appears to have been entirely friendly with his boy comrades, but took rather an en haut de bas attitude which was no doubt exasperating to his less gifted companions. Perhaps, had he worked steadily at the gymnasium of his native town, things would have gone otherwise with him. He would have leant something of the give and take of life, how far to bear and when not to bear, and, especially, how to bear with good-humour. He would have learned, too, that other boys have brains, would have laid a foundation of sound scholarship, and would not in the end have had to confess that he had not been grounded in anything.
All of this is true, at any rate, of an ordinarily clever boy; but we cannot predicate about a poet. It is true that we should not have had Milton had not the scholar been superadded to the poet. Byron and Shelley, on the other hand, are quoted as showing how little effect Eton and Harrow had upon poets that were to be; and perhaps it is a fact that, the more original the mind, the less it is capable of working in grooves, and the more tiresome are grammatical and even mathematical studies. But it must not be supposed that what may be all right for a genius is the best thing for persons of ordinary intellectual
powers. The fact is, the genius cannot accept of the intellectual discipline of the schools, not so much out of lawlessness, as because his constructive mind is for ever busy in evolving a mental discipline of its own. It is in this sense that a genius is a law unto himself. He is not lawless, but has singular powers of self-education. The parents of the young genius will probably do him an injury if they do not give him the chance of the school-training in habits of clear-thinking and right judgment, as well as in the invaluable power of sustaining relations with his fellows—a power often wanting in persons of casual education. They need not fear the undue fettering of the gifts they prize in their son. Your genius has an amazing and sufficiently irritating way of evading that which bothers him; and assuredly he will be thankful in after days for any such tincture of scholarship as his masters are able to get into him.
Goethe himself throws as much light as may be on the subject of the evolution of the man from the child.
“Who is able to speak worthily of the fullness of childhood? We cannot watch the little creatures play before us without delight and admiration, for indeed the promise of childhood is usually greater than the fulfillment, as if Nature, among other of her tricks, here also specially designs to make sport of us. . . .
“But growth is not merely development: the various organic systems which go to make a man, spring from each other, follow each other, change into each other, press upon each other, even swallow each other up, so that after a certain time there is scarcely a trace left of many activities, many indications of power. Even if, on the whole, the talent of a man appears to
have a certain bent, it would be hard for the greatest and most experienced philosopher to trace it with any degree of certainty; and yet it is quite possible to perceive the underlying indication of a tendency.”
Among the conditions which moulded ‘the Boy,’ was undoubtedly the restless temper of the burghers of Frankfort during the seven years of the war. Even when the town was not directly affected, every family, every citizen, as we have seen, took sides. Frankfort, divided as it was already by three religious parties, was peculiarly disturbed. At first Goethe’s father, notwithstanding his (Fritzisch) sympathies, continued with the few friends he had gathered about him, to have his life of quietness and culture. We get the names of a whole row of the beautifully-bound works of poets whose names are little known to-day, outside of Germany at any rate; these the father read constantly and knew well, and so did the boy, who could recite many passages for the pleasure of his elders.
But all of these recognised poetry as an art in which the form was of at least as much consequence as the substance; and upon this formal character of poetry the elder Goethe insisted with passionate intensity when an intimate friend, who was greatly influenced by Klopstock’s Messias, endeavoured to win his sympathy. But the lover of poetry which conformed to given rules could not away with Klopstock, who not only wrote in unrhymed hexameters, but was somewhat reckless about metre. The friend retired from the controversy and read his Klopstock on Sundays; but he had gained disciples—the mother and children borrowed the volume and got it by heart during the week days. We have an amusing scene when the
mystery of these secret readings transpired. The father of the family was being shaved, and the two children sat on stools somewhat out of sight and harangued each other in such strong language, Satan being one of the speakers, that the barber lost his presence of mind and upset the bowl of lather over his patron.