The World's Greatest Books, Vol IX.
Edited by Arthur Mee and J.A. Hammerton
Part 5 out of 6
to another, one Mackam, a priest of high account. He would needs give me
some physic, and I was to have been let blood. I thought them miserable
comforters, and saw they were all as nothing to me, for they could not
reach my condition. And this struck me, "that to be bred at Oxford or
Cambridge was not enough to make a man fit to be a minister of Christ."
So neither these, nor any of the dissenting people, could I join with,
but was a stranger to all, relying wholly upon the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was now opened in me "that God, who made the world, did not dwell in
temples made with hands," but in people's hearts, and His people were
His temple. During all this time I was never joined in profession of
religion with any, being afraid both of professor and profane. For which
reason I kept myself much a stranger, seeking heavenly wisdom and
getting knowledge from the Lord.
When all my hopes in them were gone, then--oh, then--I heard a voice
which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy
condition." And when I heard it my heart did leap for joy, and the Lord
stayed my desires upon himself.
_II.--Preaching and Persecution_
Then came people from far and near to see me, and I was made to speak
and open things to them. And there was one Brown, who had great
prophecies and sights upon his death-bed of me. He spoke only of what I
should be made instrumental by the Lord to bring forth. And I had great
openings and prophecies, and spoke of the things of God.
And many who heard me spread the fame thereof, and the Lord's power got
ground, and many were turned from the darkness to the light within the
compass of these three years--1646, 1647, and 1648. Moreover, when the
Lord sent me forth, he forbade me to "put off my hat" to any, high or
low. And I was required to "thee" and "thou" all, men and women, without
any respect to rich or poor, great or small. But, oh, the rage that then
was in the priests, magistrates, professors, and people of all sorts;
but especially in priests and professors! Oh, the scorn, the heat and
fury that arose! Oh, the blows, punchings, beatings, and imprisonments
that we underwent!
About this time I was sorely exercised in speaking and writing to judges
and justices to do justly; in warning such as kept public-houses for
entertainment that they should not let people have more drink than would
do them good. In fairs also and in markets I was made to declare against
their deceitful merchandise, cheating, and cozening; warning all to deal
justly, to speak the truth, to let their yea be yea, and their nay be
nay. Likewise I was made to warn masters and mistresses, fathers and
mothers in private families, to take care that their children and
servants might be trained up in the fear of the Lord; and that they
themselves should be therein examples and patterns of sobriety and
But the earthly spirit of the priests wounded my life, and when I heard
the bell toll to call people together to the steeple-house it struck at
my life; for it was just like a market-bell to gather people together,
that the priest might set forth his wares to sale.
_III.--In Perils Oft_
Now as I went towards Nottingham on a first-day, when I came on the top
of a hill in sight of the town, I espied the great steeple-house, and
the Lord said unto me, "Thou must go cry against yonder great idol, and
against the worshippers therein." When I came there all the people
looked like fallow ground, the priest (like a great lump of earth) stood
in his pulpit above. Now the Lord's power was so mighty upon me that I
could not hold, but was made to cry out.
As I spoke, the officers came and took me away, and put me into a nasty,
stinking prison, the smell whereof got so into my nose and throat that
it very much annoyed me. But that day the Lord's power sounded so in
their ears that they were amazed at the voice. At night they took me
before the mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs of the town. They examined me
at large, and I told them how the Lord had moved me to come. After some
discourse between them and me, they sent me back to prison again; but
some time after the head sheriff sent for me to his house. I lodged at
the sheriff's, and great meetings we had in his house. The Lord's power
was with this friendly sheriff, and wrought a mighty change in him; and
accordingly he went into the market, and into several streets, and
preached repentance to the people. Hereupon the magistrates grew very
angry, and sent for me from the sheriff's house, and committed me to the
common prison. Now, after I was released from Nottingham gaol, where I
had been kept prisoner for some time, I travelled as before in the work
of the Lord.
And while I was at Mansfield-Woodhouse, I was moved to go to the
steeple-house there, and declare the truth to the priest and people; but
the people fell upon me in great rage, struck me down, and almost
stifled and smothered me; and I was cruelly beaten and bruised by them
with their hands, Bibles, and sticks. Then they haled me out, though I
was hardly able to stand, and put me into the stocks, where I sat some
hours. After some time they had me before the magistrate, who, seeing
how evilly I had been used, after much threatening, set me at liberty.
But the rude people stoned me out of the town for preaching the word.
_IV.--A Willing Sufferer_
While I was in the house of correction at Derby as a blasphemer, my
relations came to see me, and being troubled for my imprisonment they
went to the justices that cast me into prison, and desired to have me
home with them, offering to be bound in one hundred pounds, and others
of Derby with them in fifty pounds each, that I should come no more
thither to declare against the priests. So I was had up before the
justices, and because I would not consent that they or any should be
bound for me--for I was innocent from any ill-behaviour, and had spoken
the word of life and truth unto them--Justice Bennett rose up in a rage;
and as I was kneeling down to pray to the Lord to forgive him, he ran
upon me, and struck me with both his hands. Whereupon I was had again to
the prison, and there kept until six months were expired.
Now the time of my commitment being nearly ended, the keeper of the
house of correction was commanded to bring me before the commissioners
and soldiers in the market-place, and there they offered me preferment,
as they called it, asking me if I would take up arms for the
commonwealth against Charles Stuart; but I told them I lived in the
virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars,
and was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and
I then passed through the country, clearing myself amongst the people;
and some received me lovingly, and some slighted me. And some when I
desired lodging and meat, and would pay for it, would not lodge me
except I would go to the constable, which was the custom, they said, of
all lodgers at inns, if strangers. I told them I should not go, for that
custom was for suspicious persons, but I was an innocent man.
And I passed in the Lord's power into Yorkshire, and came to Tickhill,
where I was moved to go to the steeple-house. But when I began to speak
they fell upon me, and the clerk took up his Bible and struck me in the
face with it, so that it gushed out with blood, and I bled exceedingly
in the steeple-house. Then the people got me out and beat me
exceedingly, stoning me as they drew me along, so that I was besmeared
all over with blood and dirt. Yet when I got upon my legs again I
declared to them the word of life. Some moderate justices, hearing of
it, came to hear and examine the business, and he that shed my blood was
afraid of having his hand cut off for striking me in the church (as they
called it), but I forgave him, and would not appear against him.
Then I went to Swarthmore to Judge Fell's, and from there to Ulverstone,
where the people heard me gladly, until Justice Sawrey--the first
stirrer-up of cruel persecution in the North--incensed them against me,
to hale, beat, and bruise me, and the rude multitude, some with staves
and others with holly-bushes, beat me on the head, arms, and shoulders
till they deprived me of sense. And my body and arms were yellow, black,
and blue with the blows I received that day, and I was not able to bear
the shaking of a horse without much pain. And Judge Fell, coming home,
asked me to give him a relation of my persecution, but I made light of
it--as he told his wife--as a man that had not been concerned, for,
indeed, the Lord's power healed me again.
_V.--Encounters with Cromwell_
When I came to Leicester I was carried up a prisoner by Captain Drury,
one of the Protector's life-guards, who brought me to London and lodged
me at the Mermaid, over against the Mews at Charing Cross. And I was
moved of the Lord to write a paper to Oliver Cromwell, wherein I
declared against all violence, and that I was sent of God to bring the
people from the causes of war and fighting to a peaceable gospel. After
some time Captain Drury brought me before the Protector himself at
Whitehall, and I spoke much to him of truth and religion, wherein he
carried himself very moderately; and as I spoke he several times said it
was very good and it was truth, and he wished me no more ill than he did
his own soul.
When I went into Cornwall I was seized and brought to Launceston to be
tried, and being settled in prison upon such a commitment that we were
not likely to be soon released, we were put down into Doomsdale, a
nasty, stinking place where they put murderers after they were
condemned; and we were fain to stand all night, for we could not sit
down, the place was so filthy. We sent a copy of our sufferings to the
Protector, who sent down General Desborough to offer us liberty if we
would go home and preach no more; but we could not promise him. At last
he freely set us at liberty, and in Cornwall, Devonshire, Dorsetshire,
and Somersetshire, the truth began to spread mightily.
After a little while Edward Pyot and I were moved to speak to Oliver
Cromwell again concerning the sufferings of Friends, and we laid them
before him, and directed him to the light of Christ. Afterwards we
passed on through the counties to Wales, and by Manchester to Scotland;
but the Scots, being a dark, carnal people, gave little heed, and hardly
took notice of what was said.
And when I had returned to London I was moved to write again to Oliver
Cromwell. There was a rumour about this time of making Cromwell king,
whereupon I warned him against it, and he seemed to take well what I
said to him, and thanked me. Taking boat to Kingston, and thence to
Hampton Court, to speak with him about the sufferings of Friends, I met
him riding into Hampton Court Park before I came to him. As he rode at
the head of his life-guards, I felt a waft of death go forth against
him, and he looked like a dead man. After I had warned him, as I was
moved, he bid me come to his house. But when I came he was sick, so I
passed away, and never saw him more.
After, I was imprisoned in Lancaster, but when I had been in gaol twenty
weeks was released on King Charles being satisfied of my innocency. Then
I was tried at Leicester and found guilty, but was set at liberty
suddenly. And at Lancaster I was tried because when they tendered me the
oaths of allegiance and supremacy I would not take any oath at all, and
there I was a prisoner in the castle for Christ's sake, but was never
called to hear sentence given, but was removed by an order from the king
and council. And afterwards I lay a year in Scarborough gaol, but was
discharged by order of the king as a man of peaceable life.
And on the 2nd of the second month of the year 1674 I was brought to
trial at Worcester, and during my imprisonment there I wrote several
books for the press, and this imprisonment so much weakened me that I
was long before I recovered my natural strength again, and in later
years my body was never able to bear the closeness of cities long.
* * * * *
Benjamin Franklin, a great and typical American, and one of
the most influential founders of the young republic, was born
at Boston, Mass., on January 17, 1706. The story of his first
fifty years is related in the vigorous and inspiring
"Autobiography," published in 1817. But the book does not
carry the story further than the year 1758, which was just the
time when he took a foremost place in world-politics, as
official representative of the New World in the Old World. He
came in that year to England, where he remained five years as
agent of the colony of Pennsylvania. Again in London, as agent
for several colonies, from 1764 to 1775, Franklin fought for
their right not to be taxed by the home country without having
a voice in matters which concerned themselves; and from 1776
to 1785 he represented his country in Paris, obtaining the
assistance of the French government in the War of
Independence. On his return to America in 1785 Franklin was
chosen President of the State of Pennsylvania. He died on
April 17, 1790. Franklin's correspondence, during these
important years in Europe, as well as the letters of the last
five years of his life, have been ably edited by John Bigelow,
and form, in some sort, a continuation of the "Autobiography,"
published in 1874. The "Autobiography" is published in a
number of inexpensive forms.
Our family had lived in the village of Ecton, Northamptonshire, for 300
years, the eldest son being always bred to the smith's business. I was
the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back. My
father married young, and carried his wife and three children to New
England, about 1682, in order that they might there enjoy their
Non-conformist religion with freedom. He married a second time, and had
in all seventeen children.
I had but little schooling, being taken home at ten years to help my
father's business of tallow-chandler. I disliked the trade, and desired
to go to sea; living near the water in our home at Boston, I learned to
swim well, and to manage boats. From a child I was fond of reading, and
laid out all my little money on books, such as Bunyan's works, which I
sold to get Burton's "Historical Collections"; and in my father's little
library there were Plutarch's "Lives," De Foe's "Essays on Projects,"
and Mather's "Essays to do Good." This bookish inclination determined my
father to bind me apprentice to my brother James, a printer in Boston,
and in a little time I became very proficient. I had access to more
books, and often sat up most of the night reading. I had also a fancy to
poetry, and made some little pieces; my brother printed them, and sent
me about the town to sell them.
I now took in hand the improvement of my writing by various exercises in
prose and verse, being extremely ambitious to become a good English
writer. My time for these exercises was at night and on Sundays. At
about 16 years of age, meeting with a book on the subject, I took to a
vegetable diet, and thus not only saved an additional fund to buy books,
but also gained greater clearness of head. I now studied arithmetic,
navigation, geometry, and read Locke "On the Human Understanding," the
"Art of Thinking," by Messrs. du Port Royal, and Xenophon's "Memorable
Things of Socrates." From this last I learned to drop my abrupt
contradiction and positive argumentation, and to put on the humble
inquirer and doubter.
My brother had begun to print a newspaper, "The New England Courant,"
the second that appeared in America. Some of his friends thought it not
likely to succeed, one newspaper being enough for America; yet at this
time there are not less than five-and-twenty. To this paper I began to
contribute anonymously, disguising my hand, and putting my MSS. at night
under the door of the printing-house. These were highly approved, until
I claimed their authorship.
But I soon took upon me to assert my freedom, and determined to go to
New York. A friend of mine agreed with the captain of a sloop for my
passage; I was taken on board privately, and in three days found myself
in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but seventeen, and with
very little money in my pocket. The printer there could not give me
employment, but told me of a vacancy in Philadelphia, 100 miles further.
Thither, therefore, I proceeded, partly by land, and partly by sea, and
landed with one Dutch dollar in my pocket.
There were two printers in the town, both of them poorly qualified.
Bradford was very illiterate, and Keimer, though something of a scholar,
was a mere compositor, knowing nothing of press-work. Keimer gave me
employment. He had been one of the French prophets, and could act their
enthusiastic agitations. He did not profess any particular religion, but
something of all on occasion, and had a good deal of the knave in his
composition. I began to have acquaintance among the young people that
were lovers of reading; and gaining money by industry and frugality, I
lived very agreeably, forgetting Boston as much as I could.
At length my brother-in-law, master of a sloop, heard of me, and wrote
exhorting me to return, to which I answered in a letter which came under
the eyes of Sir William Keith, governor of the province. He was
surprised when he was told my age, and said that I ought to be
encouraged; if I would set up in Philadelphia he would procure me the
Sir William promised to set me up himself. I did not know his reputation
for promises which he never meant to keep, and at his suggestion I
sailed for England to choose the types. Understanding that his letters
recommendatory to a number of friends and his letter of credit to
furnish me with the necessary money, which he had failed to give me
before the ship sailed, were with the rest of his despatches, I asked
the captain for them, and when we came into the Channel he let me
examine the bag. I found none upon which my name was put as under my
care. I began to doubt his sincerity, and a fellow passenger, on my
opening the affair to him, let me into the governor's character, and
told me that no one had the smallest dependence on him.
I immediately got work at Palmer's, a famous printing-house in
Bartholomew Close, London. I was employed in composing for the second
edition of Wollaston's "Religion of Nature," and some of his reasonings
not appearing to me well-founded, I wrote a little metaphysical piece
entitled "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain."
This brought me the acquaintance of Dr. Mandeville, author of the "Fable
of the Bees," a most facetious, entertaining companion. I presently left
Palmer's to work at Watts, near Lincoln's Inn Fields, and here I
continued for the rest of my eighteen months in London. But I had grown
tired of that city, and when a Mr. Denham, who was returning to
Philadelphia to open a store, offered to take me as his clerk, I gladly
We landed in Philadelphia on October 11, 1726, where I found sundry
alterations. Keith was no longer governor; and Miss Read, to whom I had
paid some courtship, had been persuaded in my absence to marry one
Rogers, a potter. With him, however, she was never happy, and soon
parted from him; he was a worthless fellow. Mr. Denham took a store, but
died next February, and I returned to Keimer's printing-house.
_II.--Making His Way_
I had now just passed my twenty-first year; and it may be well to let
you know the then state of my mind with regard to my principles and
morals. My parents had brought me through my childhood piously in the
dissenting way, but now I had become a thorough Deist. My arguments had
perverted some others, but as each of these persons had afterwards
wronged me greatly without the least compunction, and as my own conduct
towards others had given me great trouble, I began to suspect that this
doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful. I now,
therefore, grew convinced that truth, sincerity, and integrity between
man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I
formed written resolutions to practice them ever while I lived.
I now set up in partnership with Meredith, one of Keimer's workmen, the
money being found by Meredith's father. In the autumn of the preceding
year, I had formed most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of
mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; it met on Friday evenings
for essays and debates. Every one of its members exerted himself in
recommending business to our new firm.
Soon Keimer started a newspaper, "The Universal Instructor in all Arts
and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette," but after carrying it on for
some months with only ninety subscribers he sold it to me for a trifle,
and it proved in a few years extremely profitable. With the help of two
good friends I bought out Meredith in 1729, and continued the business
I had turned my thoughts to marriage, but soon found that, the business
of a printer being thought a poor one, I was not to expect money with a
wife. Friendly relations had continued between me and Mrs. Read's
family; I pitied poor Miss Read's unfortunate situation, and our mutual
affection revived. Though there was a report of her husband's death, and
another report that he had a preceding wife in England, neither of these
were certain, and he had left many debts, which his successor might be
called on to pay.
But we ventured over these difficulties, and I took her to wife
September 1, 1730. None of the inconveniences happened that we had
apprehended; she proved a good and faithful helpmate, assisted me much
by attending the shop; we throve together, and have ever mutually
endeavoured to make each other happy.
I now set on foot my first project of a public nature, that for a
subscription library. By the help of our club, the Junto, I procured
fifty subscribers of forty shillings each to begin with, and ten
shillings a year for fifty years. We afterwards obtained a charter, and
this was the mother of all the North American subscription libraries now
so numerous, which have made the common tradesmen and farmers as
intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries.
_III.--The Scheme of Virtues_
It was about 1733 that I conceived the bold and arduous project of
arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any
fault at any time; I would conquer all that natural inclination, custom,
or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was
right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and
avoid the other. But I soon found that I had undertaken a task of great
difficulty, and I therefore contrived the following method. I included
under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurred to me as
necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which
expressed the extent which I gave to its meaning.
The names of virtues were: Temperance, silence, order, resolution,
frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness,
tranquillity, chastity, and humility. My list contained at first only
twelve virtues, but a friend having informed me that I was generally
thought proud, I determined endeavouring to cure myself of this vice or
folly among the rest; and, though I cannot boast of much success in
acquiring the reality of this virtue, I had a good deal of success with
regard to the appearance of it. My intention being to acquire the
habitude of all these virtues, I determined to give a week's strict
attention to each of them successively, thus going through a complete
course in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year. I had a little
book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues; the page was
ruled into days of the week, and I marked in it, by a little black spot,
every fault I found by examination to have been committed respecting
that virtue upon that day.
I was surprised to find myself much fuller of faults than I had
imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish. After a
while I went through one course only in a year, and afterwards only one
in several years, till at length I omitted them entirely; but I always
carried my little book with me. My scheme of order gave me most trouble.
It was as follows.
5--8 a.m. What good shall I do this day? Rise, wash, and
address Powerful Goodness. Contrive day's business, and take
the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and
8 a.m.--12 noon. Work.
12--1 p.m.--Read, or overlook my accounts, and dine.
2--6 p.m. Work.
6--10 p.m. Put things in their places. Supper. Music or
diversion, or conversation. Examination of the day. What good
have I done this day?
10 p.m.--5 a.m. Sleep.
In truth, I found myself incorrigible with regard to order, yet I was,
by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I should have been if
I had not attempted it. It may be well that my posterity should be
informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their
ancestor owed the constant felicity of his life.
I purposed publishing my scheme, writing a little comment on each
virtue, and I should have called my book "The Art of Virtue,"
distinguishing it from the mere exhortation to be good. But my intention
was never fulfilled, for it was connected in my mind with a great and
extensive project, which I have never had time to attend to. I had set
forth on paper the substance of an intended creed, containing, as I
thought, the essentials of every known religion, and I conceived the
project of raising a united party for virtue, by forming the virtuous
and good men of all nations into a regular body, to be governed by
suitable good and wise rules. I thought that the sect should be begun
and spread at first among young and single men only, that each person to
be initiated should declare his assent to my creed, and should have
exercised himself with the thirteen weeks' practice of the virtues, that
the existence of the society should be kept a secret until it was become
considerable, that the members should engage to assist one another's
interests, business, and advancement in life, and that we should be
called "The Society of the Free and Easy," as being free from the
dominion of vice and of debt. I am still of opinion that it was a
In 1732 I first published my Almanack, commonly called "Poor Richard's
Almanack," and continued it for about twenty-five years. It had a great
circulation, and I considered it a proper vehicle for conveying
instruction among the common people. Thus, I assembled the proverbs
containing the wisdom of many ages and nations into a discourse prefixed
to the Almanack of 1757, as the harangue of a wise old man to the people
attending an auction. I considered my newspaper also as a means of
instruction, and published in it extracts from moral writers and little
pieces of my own, in the form sometimes of a Socratic dialogue, tending
to prove the advantages of virtue.
I had begun in 1733 to study languages. I made myself master of French
so as to be able to read books with ease, and then Italian, and later
Spanish. Having an acquaintance with these, I found, on looking over a
Latin Testament, that I understood much of that language, which
encouraged me to study it with success.
Our secret club, the Junto, had turned out to be so useful that I now
set every member of it to form each of them a subordinate club, with the
same rules, but without informing the new clubs of their connection with
the Junto. The advantages proposed were, the improvement of so many
young citizens; our better acquaintance with the general sentiments of
the inhabitants on any occasion, as the Junto member was to report to
the Junto what passed in his separate club; the promotion of our
particular interests in business by more extensive recommendation; and
the increase of our influence in public affairs. Five or six clubs were
completed, and answered our views of influencing public opinion on
My first promotion was my being chosen, in 1736, clerk of the General
Assembly. In the following year I received the commission of postmaster
at Philadelphia, and found it of great advantage. I now began to turn my
thoughts a little to public affairs, beginning, however, with small
matters, and preparing the way for my reforms through the Junto and
subordinate clubs. Thus I reformed the city watch, and established a
company for the extinguishing of fires. In 1739 the Rev. Mr. Whitefield
arrived among us and preached to enormous audiences throughout the
colonies. I knew him intimately, being employed in printing his sermons
and journals; he used sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never had
the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Our
friendship lasted till his death.
My business was now continually augmenting, and my circumstances daily
growing easier. Spain having been several years at war against Great
Britain, and being at length joined by France, our situation became one
of great danger; our colony was defenceless, and our Assembly was
composed principally of Quakers. I therefore formed an association of
citizens, numbering ten thousand, into a militia; these all furnished
themselves with arms and met every week for drill, while the women
provided silk colours painted with devices and mottoes which I supplied.
With the proceeds of a lottery we built a battery below the town, and
borrowed eighteen cannon of the governor of New York.
Peace being concluded, and the association business therefore at an end,
I turned my thoughts to the establishment of an academy. I published a
pamphlet; set on foot a subscription, not as an act of mine, but of some
"public-spirited gentleman," and the schools were opened in 1749. They
were soon moved to our largest hall; the trustees were incorporated by a
charter from the governor, and thus was established the University of
Pennsylvania. The building of a hospital for the sick, and the paving,
lighting, and sweeping of the streets of the city, were among the
reforms in which I had a hand at this time. In 1753 I was appointed,
jointly with another, postmaster-general of America, and the following
year I drew up a plan for the union of all the colonies under one
government for defence and other important general purposes. Its fate
was singular; the assemblies did not adopt it, as they thought there was
too much prerogative in it, and in England it was judged to be too
democratic. The Board of Trade therefore did not approve of it, but
substituted another scheme for the same end. I believe that my plan was
really the true medium, and that it would have been happy for both sides
of the water if it had been adopted.
When war was in a manner commenced with France, the British Government,
not choosing to trust the union of the colonies with their defence, lest
they should feel their own strength, sent over General Braddock in 1755
with two regiments of regular English troops for that purpose. He landed
at Alexandria and marched to Frederictown in Maryland, where he halted
for carriages. I was sent to him by the Assembly, stayed with him for
several days, and had full opportunity of removing all his prejudices
against the colonies by informing him of what the essemblies had done
and would still do to facilitate his operations.
This general was a brave man, and might have made a figure as a good
officer in some European war. But he had too much self-confidence, too
high an opinion of regular troops, and too mean a one of both Americans
and Indians. Our Indian interpreter joined him with 100 guides and
scouts, who might have been of great use to him; but he slighted and
neglected them and they left him. He said to one of the Indians, "These
savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia,
but upon the king's regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is
impossible that they should make any impression." In the first
engagement his force was routed in panic, and two-thirds of them were
killed, by no more than 400 Indians and French together. This gave us
the first suspicion that our exalted ideas of the prowess of British
regulars had not been well founded. Besides, from the day of their
landing, they had plundered, insulted, and abused our inhabitants. We
wanted no such defenders.
After this the governor prevailed with me to take charge of our
north-west frontier, which was infested by the enemy, and I undertook
this military business, although I did not conceive myself well suited
My account of my electrical experiments was read before the Royal
Society of London, and afterwards printed in a pamphlet. The Count de
Buffon, a philosopher of great reputation, had the book translated into
French, and then it appeared in the Italian, German, and Latin
languages. What gave it the more sudden celebrity was the success of its
proposed experiment for drawing lightning from the clouds. I was elected
a Fellow of the Royal Society, and they presented me with the gold medal
of Sir Godfrey Copley, for 1753.
The Assembly had long had much trouble with the "proprietary," or great
hereditary landowners. Finally, finding that they persisted obstinately
in manacling their deputies with instructions inconsistent, not only
with the privileges of the people, but with the service of the crown,
the Assembly resolved to petition the king against them, and appointed
me agent in England to present and support the petition. I sailed from
New York with my son in the end of June; we dropped anchor in Falmouth
harbour, and reached London on July 27, 1757.
* * * * *
The Life of Charlotte Bronte
Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson, afterwards Mrs. Gaskell, was
born at Chelsea on September 29, 1810. At the age of
twenty-two she married William Gaskell, a minister of the
Unitarian Church in Manchester. She became famous in 1848 on
the publication of "Mary Barton," a novel treating of factory
life. Her "Life of Charlotte Bronte," published in 1857,
caused much controversy, which became bitter, and occasioned
the fixed resolve on the part of its author that her own
memoirs should never be published. This gloomily-haunting,
vivid human "Life of Charlotte Bronte" was written at the
request of the novelist's father, who placed all the materials
in his possession at the disposal of the biographer. Mrs.
Gaskell took great pains to make her work complete, and,
though published only two years after Charlotte Bronte's
death, it still holds the field unchallenged. Mrs. Gaskell
died on November 12, 1865.
_I.--The Children Who Never Played_
Into the midst of the lawless yet not unkindly population of Haworth, in
the West Riding, the Rev. Patrick Bronte brought his wife and six little
children in February, 1820, seven heavily-laden carts lumbering slowly
up the long stone street bearing the "new parson's" household goods.
A native of County Down, Mr. Bronte had entered St. John's College,
Cambridge, in 1802, obtained his B.A. degree, and after serving as a
curate in Essex, had been appointed curate at Hartshead, in Yorkshire.
There he was soon captivated by Maria Branwell, a little gentle
creature, the third daughter of Mr. Thomas Branwell, merchant, of
Penzance. In 1816 he received the living of Thornton, in Bradford
Parish, and there, on April 21, Charlotte Bronte was born. She was the
third daughter, Maria and Elizabeth being her elder sisters, and fast on
her heels followed Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane and Anne.
"They kept themselves to themselves very close," in the account given by
those who remember the family coming to Haworth. From the first, the
walks of the children were directed rather towards the heathery moors
sloping upwards behind the parsonage than towards the long descending
village street. Hand in hand they used to make their way to the glorious
moors, which in after days they loved so passionately.
They were grave and silent beyond their years. "You would never have
known there was a child in the house, they were such still, noiseless,
good little creatures," said one of my informants. "Maria would often
shut herself up" (Maria of seven!) "in the children's study with a
newspaper or a periodical, and be able to tell anyone everything when
she came out, debates in parliament, and I know not what all."
Mr. Bronte wished to make the children hardy, and indifferent to the
pleasures of eating and dress. His strong passionate nature was in
general compressed down with resolute stoicism. Mrs. Bronte, whose sweet
spirit thought invariably on the bright side, would say: "Ought I not to
be thankful that he never gave me an angry word?"
In September, 1821, Mrs. Bronte died, and the lives of those quiet
children must have become quieter and lonelier still. Their father did
not require companionship, and the daughters grew out of childhood into
girlhood bereft in a singular manner of such society as would have been
natural to their age, sex and station. The children did not want
society. To small infantine gaieties they were unaccustomed. They were
all in all to each other. They had no children's books, but their eager
minds "browsed undisturbed among the wholesome pasturage of English
literature," as Charles Lamb expressed it.
Their father says of their childhood that "since they could read and
write they used to invent and act little plays of their own, in which
the Duke of Wellington, Charlotte's hero, was sure to come off
conqueror. When the argument got warm I had sometimes to come in as
arbitrator." Long before Maria Bronte died, at the age of eleven, her
father used to say he could converse with her on any topic with as much
freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person.
In 1824, the four elder girls were admitted as pupils to Cowan Bridge
School for the daughters of clergymen, where they were half starved amid
the most insanitary surroundings. Helen Burns in "Jane Eyre" is as exact
a transcript of Maria Bronte as Charlotte's wonderful power of
representing character could give. In 1825 both Maria and Elizabeth died
of consumption, and Charlotte was suddenly called from school into the
responsibilities of the eldest sister in a motherless family.
At the end of the year, Charlotte and Emily returned home, where
Branwell was being taught by his father, and their aunt, Miss Branwell,
who acted as housekeeper, taught them what she could. An immense amount
of manuscript dating from this period is in existence--tales, dramas,
poems, romances, written principally by Charlotte, in a hand it is
almost impossible to decipher without the aid of a magnifying glass.
They make in the whole twenty-two volumes, each volume containing from
sixty to a hundred pages, and all written in about fifteen months. The
quality strikes me as of singular merit for a girl of thirteen or
_II.--Girlhood of Charlotte Bronte_
In 1831, Charlotte Bronte was a quiet, thoughtful girl, nearly fifteen
years of age, very small in figure--stunted was the word she applied to
herself--fragile, with soft, thick, brown hair, and peculiar eyes. They
were large and well shaped, their colour a reddish brown, and if the
iris was closely examined, it appeared to be composed of a great variety
of tints. The usual expression was of quiet, listening intelligence, but
now and then, on some just occasion for vivid interest or wholesome
indignation, a light would shine out as if some spiritual lamp had been
kindled which glowed behind those expressive orbs. I never saw the like
in any other human creature. The rest of her features were plain, large,
and ill-set; but you were hardly aware of the fact, for the eyes and
power of the countenance overbalanced every physical defect. The crooked
mouth and the large nose were forgotten, and the whole face arrested the
attention, and presently attracted all those whom she would herself have
cared to attract. Her hands and feet were the smallest I ever saw; when
one of her hands was placed in mine it was like the soft touch of a bird
in the middle of my palm.
In January, 1831, Charlotte was sent to school again, this time as a
pupil of Miss Wooler, who lived at Roe Head, between Leeds and
Huddersfield, the surroundings being those described in "Shirley." The
kind motherly nature of Miss Wooler, and the small number of the girls,
made the establishment more like a private family than a school. Here
Charlotte formed friendships with Miss Wooler and girls attending the
school--particularly Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor--which lasted through
Writing of Charlotte at this time "Mary" says the other girls "thought
her very ignorant, for she had never learned grammar at all, and very
little geography, but she would confound us by knowing things that were
out of our range altogether. She said she had never played, and could
not play. She used to draw much better and more quickly than we had seen
before, and knew much about celebrated pictures and painters. She made
poetry and drawing very interesting to me, and then I got the habit I
have yet of referring mentally to her opinion all matters of that kind,
resolving to describe such and such things to her, until I start at the
recollection that I never shall."
This tribute to her influence was written eleven years after Mary had
seen Charlotte, nearly all those years having been passed by Mary at the
"Her idea of self improvement," continues Mary, "was to cultivate her
tastes. She always said there was enough of useful knowledge forced on
us by necessity, and that the thing most needed was to soften and refine
our minds, and she picked up every scrap of information concerning
painting, sculpture and music, as if it were gold."
In spite of her unsociable habits, she was a favourite with her
schoolfellows, and an invaluable story-teller, frightening them almost
out of their lives as they lay in bed.
_III.--Her Life as a Governess_
After a year and a half's residence at Roe Head, beloved and respected
by all, laughed at occasionally by a few, but always to her face,
Charlotte returned home to educate her sisters, to practise household
work under the supervision of her somewhat exacting aunt, and to write
long letters to her girl friends, Mary and Ellen--Mary, the Rose Yorke,
and Ellen, the Caroline Helstone of "Shirley." Three years later she
returned to Roe Head as a teacher, in order that her brother Branwell
might be placed at the Royal Academy and her sister Emily at Roe Head.
Emily Bronte, however, only remained three months at school, her place
being taken there by her younger sister, Anne.
"My sister Emily loved the moors," wrote Charlotte, explaining the
change. "Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the
heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in the livid hillside her mind
could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many a dear delight;
and not the least and best loved was liberty. Without it she perished.
Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. In this struggle
her health was quickly broken. I felt in my heart that she would die if
she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall."
Charlotte's own life at Miss Wooler's was a very happy one until her
health failed, and she became dispirited, and a prey to religious
despondency. During the summer holidays of 1836, all the members of the
family were occupied with thoughts of literature. Charlotte wrote to
Southey, and Branwell to Wordsworth, of their ambitions, and Southey
replied that "literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and
ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties the less
leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and recreation."
To this Charlotte meekly replied: "I trust I shall never more feel
ambitious to see my name in print."
On the school being removed to Dewsbury Moor, Charlotte, whose health
and spirits had been affected by the change, and Anne returned home. "I
stayed at Dewsbury Moor," she said in a letter to Ellen Nussey, "as long
as I was able; but at length I neither could nor dare stay any longer.
My life and spirits had utterly failed me; so home I went, and the
change at once roused and soothed me."
At this time Charlotte received an offer of marriage from a clergyman
having a resemblance to St. John Rivers in "Jane Eyre"--a brother of her
friend Ellen; but she refused him as she explains:
"I had a kindly leaning towards him as an amiable and well-disposed man.
Yet I had not and could not have that intense attachment which would
make me willing to die for him; and if ever I marry it must be in that
light of adoration that I will regard my husband."
Teaching now seemed to the three sisters to be the only way of earning
an independent livelihood, though they were not naturally fond of
children. The hieroglyphics of childhood were an unknown language to
them, for they had never been much with those younger than themselves;
and they were not as yet qualified to take charge of advanced pupils.
They knew but little French, and were not proficient in music. Still,
Charlotte and Anne both took posts as governesses, and eventually formed
a plan of starting a school on their own account, their housekeeping
Aunt Branwell providing the necessary capital. To fit them for this work
Charlotte and Emily entered, in February, 1842, the Heger Pensionnat,
Brussels, and meantime Anne came home to Haworth from her governess
life. The brother, Branwell, had now given up his idea of art, and was a
clerk on the Leeds and Manchester Railway.
In Brussels, Emily was homesick as ever, the suffering and conflict
being heightened, in the words of Charlotte, "by the strong recoil of
her upright, heretic, and English spirit from the gentle Jesuitry of the
foreign and Romish system. She was never happy till she carried her
hard-won knowledge back to the remote English village, the old parsonage
house, and desolate Yorkshire hills." "We are completely isolated in the
midst of numbers. Yet I think I am never unhappy; my present life is so
delightful, so congenial to my own nature, compared with that of a
governess," was Charlotte's further description.
The sisters were so successful with their study of French that Madame
Heger proposed that both should stay another half year, Charlotte to
teach English, and Emily music; but from Brussels the girls were brought
hastily home by the illness and death of their aunt, who left to each of
them independently a share of her savings--enough to enable them to make
whatever alterations were needed to turn the parsonage into a school.
Emily now stayed at home, and Charlotte (January, 1843) returned to
Brussels to teach English to Belgian pupils, under a constant sense of
solitude and depression, while she learned German. A year later she
returned to Haworth, on receiving news of the distressing conduct of her
brother Branwell and the rapid failure of her father's sight. On leaving
Brussels, she took with her a diploma certifying that she was perfectly
capable of teaching the French language, and her pupils showed for her,
at parting, an affection which she observed with grateful surprise.
_IV.--The Sisters' Book of Poems_
The attempt to secure pupils at Haworth failed. At this time the conduct
of the now dissipated brother Branwell--conduct bordering on
insanity--caused the family the most terrible anxiety; their father was
nearly blind with cataract, and Charlotte herself lived under the dread
of blindness. It was now that she paid a visit to her friends the
Nusseys, at Hathersage, in Derbyshire, the scene of the later chapters
of "Jane Eyre." On her return she found her brother dismissed from his
employment, a slave to opium, and to drink whenever he could get it, and
for some time before he died he had attacks of delirium tremens of the
most frightful character.
In the course of this sad autumn of 1845 a new interest came into the
lives of the sisters through the publication, at their own expense, of
"Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell," as explained in the
biographical notice of her sisters, which Charlotte prefaced to the
edition of "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey," that was published in
"One day in the autumn of 1845 I accidentally lighted on a manuscript
volume of verses in my sister Emily's handwriting. Of course I was not
surprised, knowing that she could and did write verses. I looked it
over, and then something more than surprise seized me--a deep conviction
that these were not common effusions, not at all like the poetry a woman
generally writes. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and
genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music, wild, melancholy, and
elevating. I took hours to reconcile my sister to the discovery I had
made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication.
Meantime, my younger sister quietly produced some of her own
compositions, intimating that since Emily's had given me pleasure I
might like to look at hers. I thought that these verses too had a sweet
sincere pathos of their own. We had very early cherished the dream of
one day being authors. We agreed to arrange a small selection of our
poems, and if possible get them printed."
The "Poems" obtained no sale until the authors became otherwise known.
During the summer of 1846 the three sisters made attempts to find a
publisher for a volume that was to consist of three prose tales,
"Wuthering Heights," by Emily, "Agnes Grey" by Anne, and "The Professor"
by Charlotte. Eventually the two former were accepted for a three-volume
issue, though eighteen months passed and much happened before the book
was actually circulated. Meantime, "The Professor" was plodding its way
round London through many rejections. Under these circumstances, her
brother's brain mazed and his gifts and life lost, her father's sight
hanging on a thread, her sisters in delicate health and dependent on her
care, did the brave genius begin, with steady courage, the writing of
"Jane Eyre." While refusing to publish "The Professor," Messrs. Smith,
Elder & Co. expressed their willingness to consider favourably a new
work in three volumes which "Currer Bell" informed them he was writing;
and by October 16, 1847, the tale--"Jane Eyre"--was accepted, printed,
_V.--The Coming of Success_
The gentleman connected with the firm who first read the manuscript was
so powerfully struck by the character of the tale that he reported his
impressions in very strong terms to Mr. Smith, who appears to have been
much amused by the admiration excited. "You seem to have been so
enchanted that I do not know how to believe you," he laughingly said.
But when a second reader, in the person of a clear-headed Scotsman, not
given to enthusiasm, had taken the manuscript home in the evening, and
became so deeply interested in it as to sit up half the night to finish
it, Mr. Smith's curiosity was sufficiently excited to prompt him to read
it himself; and great as were the praises which had been bestowed upon
it he found that they did not exceed the truth. The power and
fascination of the tale itself made its merits known to the public
without the kindly fingerposts of professional criticism, and early in
December the rush for copies began.
When the demand for the work had assured success, her sisters urged
Charlotte to tell their father of its publication. She accordingly went
into his study one afternoon, carrying with her a copy of the book and
two or three reviews, taking care to include a notice adverse to it, and
the following conversation took place.
"Papa, I've been writing a book."
"Have you, my dear?"
"Yes; and I want you to read it."
"I am afraid it will try my eyes too much."
"But it is not in manuscript; it is printed."
"My dear, you've never thought of the expense it will be! It will be
almost sure to be a loss; for how can you get a book sold? No one knows
you or your name."
"But, papa, I don't think it will be a loss. No more will you if you
will just let me read you a review or two, and tell you more about it."
So she sat down and read some of the reviews to her father, and then,
giving him the copy of "Jane Eyre" that she intended for him, she left
him to read it. When he came in to tea he said: "Girls, do you know
Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely?"
Soon the whole reading world of England was in a ferment to discover the
unknown author. Even the publishers were ignorant whether "Currer Bell"
was a real or an assumed name till a flood of public opinion had lifted
the book from obscurity and had laid it high on the everlasting hills of
The authorship was kept a close secret in the Bronte family, and not
even the friend who was all but a sister--Ellen Nussey--knew more about
it than the rest of the world. It was indeed through an attempt at sharp
practice by another firm that Messrs. Smith & Elder became aware of the
identity of the author with Miss Bronte. In the June of 1848, "The
Tenant of Wildfell Hall," a second novel by Anne Bronte--"Acton
Bell"--was submitted for publication to the firm which had previously
published "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey," and this firm announced
the new book in America as by the author of "Jane Eyre," although
Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co. had entered into an agreement with an
American house for the publication of "Currer Bell's" next tale. On
hearing of this, the sisters, Charlotte and Anne, set off instantly for
London to prove personally that they were two and not one; and women,
On reaching Mr. Smith's office, Charlotte put his own letter into his
hand as an introduction.
"Where did you get this?" said he, as if he could not believe that the
two young ladies dressed in black, of slight figures and diminutive
stature, looking pleased yet agitated, could be the embodied Currer and
Acton Bell for whom curiosity had been hunting so eagerly in vain.
An explanation ensued, and the publisher at once began to form plans for
the amusement of the visitors during their three days' stay in London.
In September, 1848, her brother Branwell died. After the Sunday
succeeding Branwell's death, Emily Bronte never went out of doors, and
in less than three months she, too, was dead. To the last she adhered
tenaciously to her habits of independence. She would suffer no one to
assist her. On the day of her death she arose, dressed herself, and
tried to take up her sewing.
Anne Bronte, too, drooped and sickened from this time in a similar
consumption, and on May 28, 1849, died peacefully at Scarborough,
pathetically appealing to Charlotte with her ebbing breath: "Take
courage, Charlotte; take courage."
_VI.--Charlotte Bronte's Closing Years_
"Shirley" had been begun soon after the publication of "Jane Eyre."
Shirley herself is Charlotte's representation of Emily as she would have
been if placed in health and prosperity. It was published five months
after Anne's death. The reviews, Charlotte admitted, were "superb."
Visits to London made Miss Bronte acquainted with many of the literary
celebrities of the day, including Thackeray and Miss Martineau. In
Yorkshire her success caused great excitement. She tells herself how
"Martha came in yesterday puffing and blowing, and much excited.
'Please, ma'am, you've been and written two books--the grandest books
that ever was seen. They are going to have a meeting at the Mechanics'
Institute to settle about ordering them.' When they got the volumes at
the Mechanics' Institute, all the members wanted them. They cast lots,
and whoever got a volume was allowed to keep it two days, and was to be
fined a shilling per diem for longer detention."
In the spring of 1850, Charlotte Bronte paid another visit to London,
and later to Scotland, where she found Edinburgh "compared to London
like a vivid page of history compared to a dull treatise on political
economy; as a lyric, brief, bright, clean, and vital as a flash of
lightning, compared to a great rumbling, rambling, heavy epic."
She was in London again in 1851, and was dismayed by the attempts to
lionise her. "Villette," written in a constant fight against ill-health,
was published in 1853, and was received with one burst of acclamation.
This brought to a close the publication of Charlotte's life-time.
The personal interest of the two last years of Charlotte Bronte's life
centres on her relations with her father's curate, the Rev. A.B.
Nicholls. In 1853, he asked her hand in marriage. He was the fourth man
who had ventured on the same proposal. Her father disapproved, and Mr.
Nicholls resigned his curacy. Next year, however, her father relented.
Mr. Nicholls again took up the curacy, and the marriage was celebrated
on June 29, 1854. Henceforward the doors of home are closed upon her
On March 31, 1855, she died before she had attained to motherhood, her
last recorded words to her husband being: "We have been so happy." Her
life appeals to that large and solemn public who know how to admire
generously extraordinary genius, and how to reverence all noble virtue.
* * * * *
Gibbon's autobiography was published in 1796, two years after
his death, by his friend, Lord Sheffield, under the title
"Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esq., with Memoirs of
His Life and Writings, Composed by Himself." "After completing
his history," says Mr. Birrell, "Gibbon had but one thing left
him to do in order to discharge his duty to the universe. He
had written a magnificent history of the Roman Empire; it
remained to write the history of the historian. It is a most
studied performance, and may be boldly pronounced perfect. It
is our best, and best known, autobiography." That the writing
was studied is shown by the fact that six different sketches
were left in Gibbon's handwriting, and from all these the
published memoirs were selected and put together. The memoir
was briefly completed by Lord Sheffield. Bagehot described the
book as "the most imposing of domestic narratives." Truly, it
was impossible for Gibbon to doff his dignity, but through the
cadenced formality of his style the reader can detect a happy
candour, careful sincerity, complacent temper, and a loyalty
to friendship that recommend the man as truly as the writer.
(See also HISTORY.)
_I.--Birth and Education_
I was born at Putney, in the county of Surrey, April 27, in the year
1737, the first child of the marriage of Edward Gibbon, Esq., and Jane
From my birth I have enjoyed the right of primogeniture; but I was
succeeded by five brothers and one sister, all of whom were snatched
away in their infancy. So feeble was my constitution, so precarious my
life, that in the baptism of each of my brothers my father's prudence
successively repeated my Christian name of Edward, that, in the case of
the departure of the eldest son, this patronymic appellation might be
still perpetuated in the family.
To preserve and to rear so frail a being the most tender assiduity was
scarcely sufficient, and my mother's attention was somewhat diverted by
an exclusive passion for her husband and by the dissipation of the
world; but the maternal office was supplied by my aunt, Mrs. Catherine
Porten, at whose name I feel a tear of gratitude trickling down my
After this instruction at home, I was delivered at the age of seven into
the hands of Mr. John Kirkby, who exercised for about eighteen months
the office of my domestic tutor, enlarged my knowledge of arithmetic,
and left me a clear impression of the English and Latin rudiments. In my
ninth year, in a lucid interval of comparative health, I was sent to a
school of about seventy boys at Kingston-upon-Thames, and there, by the
common methods of discipline, at the expense of many tears and some
blood, purchased a knowledge of the Latin syntax. After a nominal
residence at Kingston of nearly two years, I was finally recalled by my
mother's death. My poor father was inconsolable, and he renounced the
tumult of London, and buried himself in the rustic solitude of Buriton;
but as far back as I can remember, the house of my maternal grandfather,
near Putney Bridge, appears in the light of my proper and native home,
and that excellent woman, Mrs. Catherine Porten, was the true mother of
my mind, as well as of my health.
At this time my father was too easily content with such teachers as the
different places of my residence could supply, and it might now be
apprehended that I should continue for life an illiterate cripple; but
as I approached my sixteenth year, nature displayed in my favour her
mysterious energies: my constitution was fortified and fixed, and my
disorders most wonderfully vanished.
Without preparation or delay, my father carried me to Oxford, and I was
matriculated in the university as a gentleman commoner of Magdalen
College before I had accomplished the fifteenth year of my age. As often
as I was tolerably exempt from danger and pain, reading, free desultory
reading, had been the employment and comfort of my solitary hours, and I
was allowed, without control or advice, to gratify the wanderings of an
unripe taste. My indiscriminate appetite subsided by degrees into the
historic line; and I arrived at Oxford with a stock of erudition that
might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a
schoolboy would have been ashamed.
The happiness of boyish years I have never known, and that time I have
never regretted. To the university of Oxford I acknowledge no
obligation. I spent fourteen months at Magdalen College, and they proved
the fourteen months the most idle and profitless of my whole life. The
sum of my improvement there is confined to three or four Latin plays. It
might at least be expected that an ecclesiastical school should
inculcate the orthodox principles of religion. But our venerable mother
had contrived to unite the opposite extremes of bigotry and
indifference. The blind activity of idleness urged me to advance without
armour into the dangerous mazes of controversy, and at the age of
sixteen I bewildered myself in the errors of the church of Rome.
Translations of two famous works of Bossuet achieved my conversion, and
surely I fell by a noble hand.
No sooner had I settled my new religion than I resolved to profess
myself a Catholic, and on June 8, 1753, I solemnly abjured the errors of
heresy. An elaborate controversial epistle, addressed to my father,
announced and justified the step which I had taken. My father was
neither a bigot nor a philosopher, but his affection deplored the loss
of an only son, and his good sense was astonished at my departure from
the religion of my country. In the first sally of passion, he divulged a
secret which prudence might have suppressed, and the gates of Magdalen
College were for ever shut against my return.
_II.--A Happy Exile_
It was necessary for my father to form a new plan of education, and
effect the cure of my spiritual malady. After much debate it was
determined to fix me for some years at Lausanne, in Switzerland, under
the roof and tuition of M. Pavilliard, a Calvinist minister. Suddenly
cast on a foreign land, I found myself deprived of the use of speech and
hearing, incapable of asking or answering a question in the common
intercourse of life. Such was my first introduction to Lausanne, a place
where I spent nearly five years with pleasure and profit.
This seclusion from English society was attended with the most solid
benefits. Before I was recalled home, French, in which I spontaneously
thought, was more familiar than English to my ear, my tongue, and my
pen. My awkward timidity was polished and emboldened; M. Pavilliard
gently led me from a blind and undistinguishing love of reading into the
path of instruction. He was not unmindful that his first task was to
reclaim me from the errors of popery, and I am willing to allow him a
handsome share of the honour of my conversion, though it was principally
effected by my private reflections.
It was now that I regretted the early years which had been wasted in
sickness or idleness or mere idle reading, and I determined to supply
this defect. My various reading I now digested, according to the precept
and model of Mr. Locke, into a large commonplace book--a practice,
however, which I do not strenuously recommend. I much question whether
the benefits of this laborious method are adequate to the waste of time,
and I must agree with Dr. Johnson that what is twice read is commonly
better remembered than what is transcribed.
I hesitate from the apprehension of ridicule when I approach the
delicate subject of my early love. I need not blush at recollecting the
object of my choice, and, though my love was disappointed of success, I
am rather proud that I was once capable of feeling such a pure and
exalted sentiment. The personal attractions of Mademoiselle Curchod were
embellished by the virtues and talents of the mind. Her father lived
content with a small salary and laborious duty in the obscure lot of
minister of Crassy. In the solitude of a sequestered village he bestowed
a liberal, and even learned, education on his only daughter. In her
short visit to Lausanne, the wit, the beauty, the erudition of
Mademoiselle Curchod were the theme of universal applause. The report of
such a prodigy awakened my curiosity; I saw and loved. At Crassy and
Lausanne I indulged my dream of felicity, but on my return to England I
discovered that my father would not hear of this alliance. After a
painful struggle I yielded. I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son; my
wound was insensibly healed by time, absence, and the habits of a new
_III.--To England and Authorship_
In the spring of the year 1758 my father signified his permission that I
should immediately return home. The whole term of my absence from
England was four years ten months and fifteen days. The only person in
England whom I was impatient to see was my Aunt Porten, the affectionate
guardian of my tender years. It was not without some awe and
apprehension that I approached my father; but he received me as a man
and a friend. All constraint was banished at our first interview, and
afterwards we continued on the same terms of easy and equal politeness.
Of the next two years, I passed about nine months in London, and the
rest in the country. My progress in the English world was in general
left to my own efforts, and those efforts were languid and slow. But my
love of knowledge was inflamed and gratified by the command of books,
and from the slender beginning in my father's study I have gradually
formed a numerous and select library, the foundation of my works, and
the best comfort of my life both at home and abroad. In this place I may
allow myself to observe that I have never bought a book from a motive of
ostentation, and that every volume before it was deposited on the shelf
was either read or sufficiently examined.
The design of my first work, the "Essay on the Study of Literature," was
suggested by a refinement of vanity--the desire of justifying and
praising the object of a favourite pursuit. I was ambitious of proving
that all the faculties of the mind may be exercised and displayed by the
study of ancient literature.
My father fondly believed that the proof of some literary talents might
introduce me to public notice. The work was printed and published under
the title "Essai sur l'Etude de la Litterature." It is not surprising
that a work of which the style and sentiments were so totally foreign
should have been more successful abroad than at home. I was delighted by
the warm commendations and flattering predictions of the journals of
France and Holland. In England it was received with cold indifference,
little read, and speedily forgotten. A small impression was slowly
_IV.--Soldiering and Travel_
An active scene now follows which bears no affinity to any other period
of my studious and social life. On June 12, 1759, my father and I
received our commissions as major and captain in the Hampshire regiment
of militia, and during two and a half years were condemned to a
wandering life of military servitude. My principal obligation to the
militia was the making me an Englishman and a soldier. In this peaceful
service I imbibed the rudiments of the language and science of tactics,
which opened a new field of study and observation. The discipline and
evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the phalanx
and the legion; and the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers--the reader
may smile--has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire.
I was detained above four years by my rash engagement in the militia. I
eagerly grasped the first moments of freedom; and such was my diligence
that on my father consenting to a term of foreign travel, I reached
Paris only thirty-six hours after the disbanding of the militia. Between
my stay of three months and a half in Paris and a visit to Italy, I
interposed some months of tranquil simplicity at Lausanne. My old
friends of both sexes hailed my voluntary return--the most genuine proof
of my attachment. The public libraries of Lausanne and Geneva liberally
supplied me with books, from which I armed myself for my Italian
journey. On this tour I was agreeably employed for more than a year.
Turin, Milan, Genoa, Parma, Modena, and Florence were visited, and here
I first acknowledged, at the feet of the Venus of Medici, that the
chisel may dispute the preeminence with the pencil, a truth in the fine
arts which cannot on this side of the Alps be felt or understood.
After leaving Florence, I passed through Pisa, Leghorn, and Sienna to
Rome. My temper is not very susceptible to enthusiasm; and the
enthusiasm which I do not feel, I have ever scorned to affect. But, at
the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the
strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered
the Eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod, with a lofty step,
the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot, where Romulus stood, or
Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye; and several
days of intoxication were lost, or enjoyed, before I could descend to a
cool and minute observation.
It was in Rome, on October 15, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of
the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the
Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the
city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to
the decay of the city rather than the empire; and though my reading and
reflections began to point towards that object, some years elapsed, and
several avocations intervened, before I was seriously engaged in the
execution of that laborious work.
_V.--History and Politics_
The five years and a half between my return from my travels and my
father's death are the portion of my life which I passed with the least
enjoyment, and which I remember with the least satisfaction. In the
fifteen years between my "Essay on the Study of Literature" and the
first volume of the "Decline and Fall," a criticism of Warburton on
Virgil and some articles in "Memoires Litteraires de la Grande Bretagne"
were my sole publications. In November, 1770, my father sank into the
grave in the sixty-fourth year of his age. As soon as I had paid the
last solemn duties to my father, and obtained from time and reason a
tolerable composure of mind, I began to form the plan of an independent
life most adapted to my circumstances and inclination. I had now
attained the first of earthly blessings--independence. I was absolute
master of my hours and actions; and no sooner was I settled in my house
and library than I undertook the composition of the first volume of my
history. Many experiments were made before I could hit the middle tone
between a dull chronicle and a rhetorical declamation; three times did I
compose the first chapter, and twice the second and third, before I was
tolerably satisfied with their effect. In the remainder of the way I
advanced with a more equal and easy pace.
By the friendship of Mr. (now Lord) Eliot, who had married my first
cousin, I was returned member of parliament for the borough of Liskeard.
I took my seat at the beginning of the memorable contest between Great
Britain and America, and supported, with many a sincere and silent vote,
the rights, though not, perhaps, the interest, of the Mother Country.
After a fleeting, illusive hope, prudence condemned me to acquiesce in
the humble station of a mute. But I listened to the attack and defence
of eloquence and reason; I had a near prospect of the characters, views,
and passions of the first men of the age. The eight sessions that I sat
in parliament were a school of civil prudence, the first and most
essential virtue of an historian.
The first volume of my history, which had been somewhat delayed by the
novelty and tumult of a first session, was now ready for the press.
During the awful interval of awaited publication, I was neither elated
by the ambition of fame nor depressed by the apprehension of contempt.
My diligence and accuracy were attested by my own conscience. I likewise
flattered myself that an age of light and liberty would receive without
scandal an inquiry into the human causes of progress of Christianity.
I am at a loss how to describe the success of the work without betraying
the vanity of the writer. The first impression was exhausted in a few
days; a second and third edition were scarcely adequate to the demand.
My book was on every table; nor was the general voice disturbed by the
barking of any profane critic. Let me frankly own that I was startled at
the first discharge of ecclesiastical ordnance; but I soon discovered
that this empty noise was mischievous only in intention, and every
feeling of indignation has long since subsided.
Nearly two years elapsed between the publication of my first and the
commencement of my second volume. The second and third volumes of the
"Decline and Fall" insensibly rose in sale and reputation to a level
with the first volume. So flexible is the title of my history that the
final era might be fixed at my own choice, and I long hesitated whether
I should be content with the three volumes, the "Fall of the Western
Empire." The tumult of London and attendance at parliament were now
grown irksome, and when I had finished the fourth volume, excepting the
last chapter, I sought a retreat on the banks of the Leman Lake.
_VI.--A Quiet Consummation_
My transmigration from London to Lausanne could not be effected without
interrupting the course of my historical labours, and a full twelvemonth
was lost before I could resume the thread of regular and daily industry.
In the fifth and sixth volumes the revolutions of the empire and the
world are most rapid, various, and instructive. It was not till after
many designs and many trials that I preferred the method of grouping my
picture by nations; and the seeming neglect of chronological order is
surely compensated by the superior merits of interest and perspicacity.
I was now straining for the goal, and in the last winter many evenings
were borrowed from the social pleasures of Lausanne.
I have presumed to mark the moment of conception; I shall now
commemorate the hour of my final deliverance. It was on the night of
June 27, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the
last lines of the last page in a summer-house in my garden. After laying
down my pen, I took several turns in a covered walk of acacias, which
commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air
was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was
reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not
dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and
perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and
a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken
an everlasting leave of an agreeable companion, and that whatsoever
might be the future fate of my history, the life of the historian must
be short and precarious.
The day of publication of my three last volumes coincided with the
fifty-first anniversary of my own birthday. The conclusion of my work
was generally read and variously judged. Upon the whole, the history of
"The Decline and Fall" seems to have struck root both at home and
When I contemplate the common lot of mortality, I must acknowledge that
I have drawn a high prize in the lottery of life. I am endowed with a
cheerful temper. The love of study, a passion which derives fresh vigour
from enjoyment, supplies each day, each hour, with a perpetual source of
independent and rational pleasure; and I am not sensible of any decay of
the mental faculties. I am disgusted with the affectation of men of
letters who complain that they have renounced a substance for a shadow.
My own experience, at least, has taught me a very different lesson.
Twenty happy years have been animated by the labour of my history; and
its success has given me a name, a rank, a character in the world to
which I should not otherwise have been entitled.
The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect
of futurity is dark and doubtful I shall soon enter into the period
which was selected by the judgment and experience of the sage Fontenelle
as the most agreeable of his long life. I am far more inclined to
embrace than to dispute this comfortable doctrine. I will not suppose
any premature decay of the mind or body; but I must reluctantly observe
that two causes, the abbreviation of time and the failure of hope, will
always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life.
* * * * *
Letters to Zelter
The correspondence of Goethe with his friends, especially his
voluminous letters to his friend Zelter, will always be
resorted to by readers who wish for intimate knowledge of the
innermost processes of the great poet's mind. Zelter was
himself an extraordinary man. By trade he was a stonemason,
but he became a skilled musical amateur, and a most versatile
and entertaining critic. To him fell the remarkable
distinction of becoming the tutor of that musical genius,
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, while he also acquired the glory
of being "the restorer of Bach to the Germans." Like
Eckermann, the other beloved friend of Goethe, he possessed
the power of eliciting the great poet-philosopher's dicta on
all imaginable topics. Zelter wrote to Goethe on anything and
everything, trivial and otherwise, but his letters never
failed to educe strains of the most illuminating comment. The
"Letters to Zelter" were published in Berlin in 1833, and the
following epitome is prepared from the German text.
_I.--Art Greater than the Beauty of Art_
Lauchstadt, _September_ 1, 1805. As we are convinced that he who studies
the intellectual world, and perceives the beauty of the true intellect,
can also realise the Father of them, who is supreme above all sense, let
us therefore seek as best we may to achieve insight into the beauty of
the mind and of the world, and to express it for ourselves.
Suppose, then, two blocks of stone, side by side, one rough and
unshaped, the other artistically shaped into a statue. To you the stone
worked into a beautiful figure appears lovely not because it is stone,
but because of the form which art has given it. But the material had not
such a form, for this was in the mind of the artist before it reached
the stone. Of course, art is greater than that which it produces. Art is
greater than the beauty of art. The motive power must be greater than
the result. For as the form gains extension by advancing into the
material, yet by that very process it becomes weaker than that which
remains whole. For that which endures removal from itself steps aside
from itself--strength from strength, warmth from warmth, force from
force, so also beauty from beauty.
Should anyone disparage the arts because they imitate nature, let him
note that nature also imitates much besides; and, further, that the arts
do not precisely imitate what we see but go back to that rational
element of which nature consists, and according to which she acts.
_Carlsbad, June 22_, 1808. It is an extraordinary fact that man in
himself, so far as he avails himself of his sound mind, is the greatest
and most precise physical apparatus that can be. And it is in fact the
greatest evil of the newer physics that experiments are, as it were,
separated from man himself, so that nature is recognised only in what is
ascertained by artificial instruments. It is exactly so with
calculation. Much is true which cannot be computed, just as much can
never be experimentally demonstrated.
Man, however, stands so high that that which otherwise admits of no
representation is represented in him. What, then, is a string and all
its mechanical division compared with the ear of the musician? Indeed,
it may be said what are the elementary phenomena of nature compared with
man, who must first master and modify them all in order to assimilate
them to himself?
_II.--Music and Musicians_
_Weimar, November_ 16, 1816. I send you a few words with reference to
your proposal to write a cantata for the Reformation Jubilee. It might
best be contrived after the method of Handel's "Messiah," into which you
have so deeply penetrated.
As the main idea of Lutheranism rests on a very excellent foundation, it
affords a fine opportunity both for poetical and also for musical
treatment. Now, this basis rests on the decided contrast between the law
and the Gospel, and secondly on the accommodation of these two extremes.
And now, if in order to attain a higher standpoint we substitute for
those two words the terms "necessity" and "freedom," with their
synonyms, their remoteness and proximity, you see clearly that
everything interesting to mankind is contained in this circle.
And thus Luther perceives in the Old and New Testaments the symbol of
the great and ever-recurring world-order. On the one hand, the law,
striving after love; on the other, love, striving back towards the law,
and fulfilling it, though not of its own power and strength, but through
faith; and that, too, by exclusive faith in the all-powerful Messiah
proclaimed to all.
Thus, briefly, are we convinced that Lutheranism can never be united
with the Papacy, but that it does not contradict pure reason, so soon as
reason decides to regard the Bible as the mirror of the world; which
certainly should not be difficult. To express these ideas in a poem
adapted to music, I should begin with the thunder on Mount Sinai, with
the _Thou shalt_! and conclude with the resurrection of Christ, and the
This may be the place to add a few words about Catholicism. Soon after
its origin and promulgation, the Christian religion, through rational
and irrational heresies, lost its original purity. But as it was called
on to check barbarous nations, harsh methods were needed for the
service, not doctrine. The one Mediator between God and man was not
enough, as we all know. Thus arose a species of pagan Judaism, sustained
even to this day. This had to be revolutionised entirely in the minds of
men, therefore Lutheranism depends solely on the Bible. Luther's
behaviour is no secret, and now that we are going to commemorate him, we
cannot do so in the right sense unless we acknowledge his merit, and
represent what he accomplished for his own age and for posterity. This
celebration should be so arranged that every fair-minded Catholic should
be able to participate in it. The Weimar friends of art have already
prepared their designs for the monument. We make no secret of the
matter, and at all events hope to contribute our share.
_Jena, February_ 16, 1818. You know Jena too little for it to mean
anything to you when I say that on the right bank of the Saale, near the
Camsdorf bridge, above the ice-laden water rushing through the arches, I
have occupied a tower which has attracted me and my friends for years.
Here I pass the happiest hours of the day, looking out on the river,
bridge, gravel walks, meadows, gardens, and hills, famous in war, rising
beyond. At sunset I return to town.
In observing atmospheric changes I endeavour to interweave cloud-forms
and sky-tints with words and images. But as all this, except for the
noise of wind and water, runs off without a sound, I really need some
inner harmony to keep my ear in tune; and this is only possible by my
confidence in you and in what you do and value. Therefore, I send you
only a few fervent prayers as branches from my paradise. If you can but
distil them in your hot element, then the beverage can be swallowed
comfortably, and the heathen will be made whole. Apocalypse, last
chapter, and the second verse.
_Vienna, July_ 27. Pyrotechnical displays seem to me the only pleasure
in which the Austrians are willing to dispense with their music, which
here persecutes us in every direction. In Carlsbad a musician declared
to me that music as a profession was a sour crust. I replied that the
musicians were better off than the visitors. "How so?" asked he. Said I,
"Surely they can eat without music."
The good man went away ashamed, and I felt sorry for him, though my
remark was quite in place, for it is really cruel in this manner to
torture patients and convalescents. I can, indeed, endure much, but
when, after coming from the opera, I sit down to supper, and am annoyed
instantly by the strains of a harp or a singer, jarring with what I have
been hearing, it is too much; and, wretch that I am, I am forgetting
that this scribble is also too much. So farewell. God bless you!
_Vienna, July_ 29, 1819. Beethoven, whom I should have liked to see once
more in this life, lives somewhere in this country, but nobody can tell
me where. I wanted to write to him, but I am told he is almost
unapproachable, as he is almost without hearing. Perhaps it is better
that we should remain as we are, for it might make me cross to find him
Much is thought of music here, and this in contrast to Italy, which
reckons itself the "only saving Church." But the people here are really
deeply cultured in music. It is true that they are pleased with
everything, but only the best music survives. They listen gladly to a
mediocre opera which is well cast; but a first-class work, even if not
given in the best style, remains permanently with them.
Beethoven is extolled to the heavens, because he toils strenuously and
is still alive. But it is Haydn who presents to them their national
humour, like a pure fountain unmingled with any other stream, and it is
he who lives among them, because he belongs to them. They seem each day
to forget him, and each day he rises to life again among them.
_III.--"Poetry and Truth"_
_Weimar, March_ 29, 1827. The completion of a work of art in itself is
the eternal, indispensable requisite. Aristotle, who had perfection
before him, must have thought of the effect. What a pity! Were I yet, in
these peaceful times, possessed of my youthful energies, I would
surrender myself entirely to the study of Greek, in spite of all the
difficulties of which I am conscious. Nature and Aristotle would be my
aim. We can form no idea of all that this man perceived, saw, noticed,
observed; but certainly in his explanations he was over-hasty.
But is it not just the same with us to-day? Experience does not fail us,
but we lack serenity of mind, whereby alone experience becomes clear,
true, lasting, and useful. Look at the theory of light and colour as
interpreted before my very eyes by Professor Fries of Jena. It is a
series of superficial conclusions, such as expositors and theorists have
been guilty of for more than a century. I care to say nothing more in
public about this; but write it I will. Some truthful mind will one day
_Weimar, April_ 18, 1827. Madame Catalini has scented out a few of our
extra groschen, and I begrudge her them. Too much is too much! She makes
no preparation for leaving us, for she has still to ring the changes on
a couple of old-new transmogrified airs, which she might just as well
grind out gratis. After all, what are two thousand of our thalers, when
we get "God save the King" into the bargain?
It is truly a pity. What a voice! A golden dish with common mushrooms in
it! And we--one almost swears at oneself--to admire what is execrable!
It is incredible! An unreasoning beast would mourn at it. It is an
actually impossible state of things. An Italian turkey-hen comes to
Germany, where are academies and high schools, and old students and
young professors sit listening while she sings in English the airs of
the German Handel. What a disgrace if that is to be reckoned an honour!
In the heart of Germany, too!
_Weimar, December_ 25, 1829. Lately by accident I fell in with "The
Vicar of Wakefield" and felt constrained to read it again from beginning
to end, impelled not a little by the lively consciousness of all that I
have owed to the author for the last seventy years. It would not be
possible to estimate the influence of Goldsmith and Sterne, exercised on
me just at the chief point of my development. This high, benevolent
irony, this gentleness to all opposition, this equanimity under every
change, and whatever else all the kindred virtues may be called--such
things were a most admirable training for me, and surely these are the
sentiments which, in the end, lead us back from all the mistaken paths
of life. By the way, it is strange that Yorick should incline rather to
that which has no form, while Goldsmith is all form, as I myself aspired
to be when the worthy Germans had convinced themselves that the
peculiarity of true humour is to have no form.
_Weimar, February_ 15, 1830. As to the title, "Poetry and Truth," of my
autobiography, it is certainly somewhat paradoxical. I adopted it
because the public always cherishes doubt as to the truth of such
biographical attempts. My sincere effort was to express the genuine
truth which had prevailed throughout my life. Does not the most ordinary
chronicle necessarily embody something of the spirit of the time in
which it was written? Will not the fourteenth century hand down the
tradition of a comet more ominously than the nineteenth? Nay, in the
same town you will hear one version of an incident in the morning, and
another in the evening.
All that belongs to the narrator and the narrative I included under the
word _Dichtung_ (poetry), so that I could for my own purpose avail
myself of the truth of which I was conscious. In every history, even if
it be diplomatically written, we always see the nation, the party of the
writer, peering through. How different is the accent in which the French
describe English history from that of the English themselves!
Remember that with every breath we draw, an ethereal stream of Lethe
runs through our whole being, so that we have but a partial recollection
of our joys, and scarcely any of our sorrows. I have always known how to
value, and use, this gift of God.
_IV.--The Birth of "Iphigenia"_
_Weimar, March_ 31, 1831. I have received a delightful letter from
Mendelssohn, dated Rome, March 5, which gives the most transparent
picture of that rare young man. About him we need cherish no further
care. The fine swimming-jacket of his genius will carry him safely
through the waves and surf of the dreaded barbarism.
Now, you well remember that I have always passionately adopted the cause
of the minor third, and was angry that you theoretical cheap-jacks would
not allow it to be a _donum naturae_. Certainly a wire or piece of
cat-gut is not so precious that nature should exclusively confide to it
her harmonies. Man is worth more, and nature has given him the minor
third, to enable him to express with cordial delight to himself that
which he cannot name, and that for which he longs.
_Weimar, November_ 23, 1831. To begin with, let me tell you that I have
retreated into my cloister cell, where the sun, which is just now
rising, shines horizontally into my room, and does not leave me till he
sets, so that he is often uncomfortably importunate--so much so that for
a time I really have to shut him out.
Further, I have to mention that a new edition of the "Iphigenia in
Aulis" of Euripides has once more turned my attention to that
incomparable Greek poet. Of course, his great and unique talent excited
my admiration as of old, but what has now mainly attracted me is the
element, as boundless as it is potent, in which he moves.
Among the Greek localities and their mass of primeval, mythological
legends, he sails and swims, like a cannon-ball on a quick-silver sea,
and cannot sink, even if he wished. Everything is ready to his
hand--subject matter, contents, circumstances, relations. He has only to
set to work in order to bring forward his subjects and characters in the
simplest way, or to render the most complicated limitations even more
complex, and then finally and symmetrically, to our complete
satisfaction, either to unravel or cut the knot.
I shall not quit him all this winter. We have translations enough which
will warrant our presumption in looking into the original. When the sun
shines into my warm room, and I am aided by the stores of knowledge
acquired in days long gone by, I shall, at any rate, fare better than I
should, at this moment, among the newly discovered ruins of Messene and
* * * * *
Poetry and Truth from My Own Life
As "Werther" and "Wilhelm Meister" belong to the earlier and
to the middle periods of Goethe's literary activity, so the
following selections fall naturally into the last division of
his life. The death of Schiller in 1805 had given a blow to
his affections which even his warm relationship with other
friends could not replace, and hereafter he begins to
concentrate more and more upon himself to the completion of
those works which he had had in mind and preparation through
so many years, the greatest of which was to be the "Faust." In
"Poetry and Truth from My Own Life," which appeared in
1811-14, he was actuated by the desire of supplying some kind
of a key to the collected edition of his works that had been
published in 1808; and whatever faults, or errors, it may
contain as a history, as a piece of writing it is finely
characteristic of the ease and simplicity of his later style.
_I.--Birth and Childhood_
On August 28, 1749, at midday, I came into the world at
Frankfort-on-Maine. Our house was situated in a street called the
Stag-Ditch. Formerly the street had been a ditch, in which stags were
kept. On the second floor of the dwelling was a room called the
garden-room, because there they had endeavoured to supply the want of a
garden by means of a few plants placed before a window. As I grew older,
it was there that I made my somewhat sentimental retreat, for from
thence might be viewed a beautiful and fertile plain.
When I became acquainted with my native city, I loved more than anything
else to promenade on the great bridge over the Maine. Its length, its
firmness, and fine aspect rendered it a notable structure. And one liked
to lose oneself in the old trading town, particularly on market days,
among the crowd collected about the church of St. Bartholomew. The
Roemerberg was a most delightful place for walking.
My father had prospered in his own career tolerably according to his
wishes; I was to follow the same course, only more easily and much
further. He had passed his youth in the Coburg Gymnasium, which stood as
one of the first among German educational institutions. He had there
laid a good foundation, and had subsequently taken his degree at
Giessen. He prized my natural endowments the more because he was himself
wanting in them, for he had acquired everything simply by means of
diligence and pertinacity.
During my childhood the Frankforters passed a series of prosperous
years, but scarcely, on August 28, 1756, had I completed my seventh
year, when that world-renowned war broke out, which was also to exert
great influence upon the next seven years of my life. Frederick II. of
Prussia had fallen upon Saxony with 60,000 men. The world immediately
split into two parties, and our family was an image of the great whole.
My grandfather took the Austrian side, with some of his daughters and
sons-in-law; my father leaned towards Prussia, with the other and
smaller half of the family; and I also was a Prussian in my views, for
the personal character of the great king worked on our hearts.
As the eldest grandson and godchild, I dined every Sunday with my
grandparents, and the event was always the most delightful experience of
the week. But now I relished no morsel that I tasted, because I was
compelled to listen to the most horrible slanders of my hero. That
parties existed had never entered into my conceptions. I trace here the
germ of that disregard and even disdain of the public which clung to me
for a whole period of my life, and only in later days was brought within
bounds by insight and cultivation. We continued to tease each other till
the occupation of Frankfort by the French, some years afterwards,
brought real inconvenience to our homes.
The New Year's Day of 1759 approached, as desirable and pleasant to us
children as any preceding one, but full of import and foreboding to
older persons. To the passage of French troops the people had certainly
become accustomed; but they marched through the city in greater masses
on this day, and on January 2 the troops remained and bivouacked in the
streets till lodgings were provided for them by regular billeting.
Siding as my father did with the Prussians, he was now to find himself
besieged in his own chambers by the French. This was, according to his
way of thinking, the greatest misfortune that could happen to him. Yet,
could he have taken the matter more easily, he might have saved himself
and us many sad hours, for he spoke French well, and it was the Count
Thorane, the king's lieutenant, who was quartered on us. That officer
behaved himself in a most exemplary manner, and if it had been possible
to cheer my father, this altered state of things would have caused
During this French occupation I made great progress with the French
language. But the chief profit was that which I derived from the
theatre, for which my grandfather had given me a free ticket. I saw many
French comedies acted, and became friendly with some of the young people
connected with the stage. From the first day of the military occupation
there was no lack of diversion; plays and balls, parades and marches
constantly attracted our attention.
_II.--A Romantic Episode_
After the French occupation we children could not fail to feel as if the
house were deserted. But new lodgers came in, Chancery-Director Moritz
and his family being received in this capacity. They were quiet and
gentle, and peace and stillness reigned. About this time a long-debated
project for giving us lessons in music was carried into effect. It was
settled that we should learn the harpsichord. And as we also received
lessons from a drawing-master, the way to two arts was thus early enough
opened to me.
English was also added to my studies; and as on my own account I soon
felt that I ought to know Hebrew, my father allowed the rector of our
gymnasium to give me private lessons. I studied the Old Testament no
longer in Luther's translation, but in the literal version of Schmid. I
also paid great attention to sermons at church, and wrote out many that
I heard, doing this in a style that greatly gratified my father.
At this time my first romantic experience occurred. I fell under the
enchantment of Gretchen, a beautiful girl who waited on me and some
comrades at a restaurant. The form of that girl followed me from that
moment on every path. At church, during the long Protestant service, I
gazed my fill at her. I wrote her love-letters, which she did not
resent. The first propensities to love in an uncorrupted youth take
altogether a spiritual direction. Nature seems to desire that one sex
may by the senses perceive goodness and beauty in the other. And thus to
me, by the sight of this girl, a new world of the beautiful and
excellent had arisen. But my friendship for this maiden being discovered
by my father, a family disturbance ensued which plunged me into illness.
I had been ordered to have nothing to do with anyone but the family.
My sorrow was deepened as I slowly recovered by the addition of a
certain secret chagrin, for I plainly perceived that I was watched. It
was not long before my family gave me a special overseer. Fortunately,
it was a man whom I loved and valued. He had held the place of tutor in
the family of one of our friends, and his former pupil had gone to the
university. This friend, in skillful conversations, began to make me
acquainted with the secrets of philosophy. He had studied at Jena under
Daries, and had acutely seized the relations of that doctrine, which he
now sought to impart to me.
After a time I took to wandering about the mountain range, and thus
visited Homburg, Kronenburg, Wiesbaden, Schwalbach, and reached the
Rhine. But the time was approaching when I was to go to the university.
My mind was quite as much excited about my life as about my learning. I
grew more and more conscious of an aversion from my native city. I never
again went into Gretchen's quarter of it, and even my old walls and
towers had become disagreeable.
I had always had my eye upon Goettingen, but my father obstinately
insisted on Leipzig. I arrived in that handsome city just at the time of
the fair, from which I derived particular pleasure, being specially
attracted by the inhabitants of eastern countries in their strange
dresses. I commenced to study under Boehme, professor of history and
public law, and Gellert, professor of literature. The reverence with
which Gellert was regarded by all young people was extraordinary.
Much has been written about the condition of German literature at that
time. I need only state how it stood towards me. The literary epoch in
which I was born was developed out of the preceding one by opposition.
Foreign influences had previously predominated, but in this epoch the
German sense of freedom and joy began to stir itself. Goettsched,
Lessing, Haller, and, above all, Wieland, had produced works of genius.
The venerable Bengel had procured a decided reception for his labours on
the Revelation of St. John, from the fact that he was known as an
intelligent, upright, God-fearing, blameless man. Deep minds are
compelled to live in the past as well as the future.
Plunging into literature on my own account, I at this period wrote the
oldest of my extant dramatic labours, "The Lover's Caprice," following
it with "The Accomplices." I had seen already many families ruined by
bankruptcies, divorces, vice, murders, burglaries, and poisonings, and,
young as I was, I had often, in such cases, lent a hand for help and
preservation. Accordingly, these pieces were written from an elevated
point of view, without my having been aware of it. But they could find
no favour on the German stage.
My health had become somewhat impaired, though I did not think I should
soon become apprehensive about my life. I had brought with me from home
a certain touch of hypochondria, and a chronic pain in my breast,
induced by a fall from horseback, perceptibly increased, and made me
dejected. By an unfortunate diet I destroyed my powers of digestion, so
that I experienced great uneasiness, yet without being able to embrace a
resolution for a more rational mode of life. Besides the epoch of the
cold-water bath, the hard bed slightly covered, and other follies
unconditionally recommended, had begun, in consequence of some
misunderstood suggestions of Rousseau, under the idea of bringing us
nearer to nature and delivering us from the corruption of morals.
One night I awoke with a violent hemorrhage, and for several days I
wavered between life and death. Recovery was slow, but nature helped me,
and I appeared to have become another man, for I had gained a greater
cheerfulness of mind than I had known for a long time, and I was
rejoiced to feel my inner self at liberty. But what particularly set me
up at this time was to see how many eminent men had undeservedly given
me their affection, among them being Dr. Hermann Groening, Horn, and,
above all, Langer, afterwards librarian at Wolfenbuettel, whose
conversation so far blinded me to the miserable state I was in that I
actually forgot it.
The confidence of new friends develops itself by degrees. The religious
sentiments, the affairs of the heart which relate to the imperishable,
are the things which both establish the foundation and adorn the summit
of friendship. The Christian religion was wavering between its own
historically positive base and a pure deism, which, grounded on
morality, was in its turn to lay the foundation of ethics. Langer was of
the class who, though learned, yet give the Bible a peculiar preeminence
over other writings. He belongs to those who cannot conceive an
immediate connection with the great God of the universe; a mediation,
therefore, was necessary for him, an analogy to which he thought he
could find everywhere, in earthly and heavenly things. Grounded as I was
in the Bible, all that I wanted was merely the faith to explain as
divine that which I had hitherto esteemed in human fashion. To a
sufferer, delicate and weak, the Gospel was therefore welcome.
I left Leipzig in September, 1768, for my native city and my home, where
my delicate appearance elicited loving sympathy. Again sickness ensued,
and my life was once more in peril, chiefly through a disturbed, I might
even say, for certain moments, destroyed digestion. But a skillful
physician helped me to convalescence. In the spring I felt so much
stronger that I longed to wander forth again from the chambers and spots
where I had suffered so much. I journeyed to beautiful Alsace and took
up lodgings on the summer-side of the fish-market in Strasburg, where I
designed to continue my studies in law. Most of my fellow-boarders were
medical students, and at table I heard nothing but medical
I was thus easily borne along the stream, and at the beginning of the
second half-year I attended lectures on chemistry and anatomy. Yet this
dissipation and dismemberment of my studies were not enough, for a
remarkable political event secured for us a succession of holidays.
Marie Antoinette was to pass through Strasburg on her way to Paris, and
the solemnities were abundantly prepared. In the grand saloon erected on
an island in the Rhine I saw a specimen of the tapestries worked after
Raffaele's cartoons, and this sight was for me a very decided influence,
for I became acquainted with the true and the perfect on a large scale.
The most important event at this period, and one that was to have the
weightiest consequences for me, was my meeting with Herder. He
accompanied on his travels the Prince of Holstein-Eutin, who was in a
melancholy state of mind, and had come with him to Strasburg. Herder was
singular, both in his personal appearance and also in his demeanour. He
had somewhat of softness in his manner, which was very suitable and
becoming, without being exactly easy. I was of a very confiding
disposition, and with Herder especially I had no secrets; but from one
of his habits--a spirit of contradiction--I had much to endure.
Herder could be charmingly prepossessing and brilliant, but he could
just as easily turn an ill-humoured side forward. He resolved to stay in
Strasburg because of a complaint in one of his eyes of the most
irritating nature, which required a tedious and uncertain operation, the
tear-bag being closed below. Therefore he separated from the prince and
removed into lodgings of his own for the purpose of the operation. He
confided to me that he intended to compete for a prize offered at Berlin
for the best treatise on the origin of language. His work, written in a
very neat hand, was nearly completed. During the troublesome and painful
cure he lost none of his vivacity, but he became less and less amiable.
He could not write a note to ask for anything without scoffing rudely
and bitterly, generally in sardonic verse.
Herder contributed much to my culture, yet he destroyed my enjoyment of
much that I had loved before, and especially blamed me in the strongest
manner for the pleasure I took in Ovid's "Metamorphoses." I most
carefully concealed from him my interest in certain subjects which had
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