“The Story of Heinrich Jung-Stilling's Childhood, Boyhood and Wanderings,” II (1886), 116-124.




[Harvard Monthly 2.3 (May, 1886): 116-124]




Readers of Goethe’s Autobiography doubtless remember the few pages which are there given to the description of a new-comer at the public table where Goethe dined, whom he calls Heinrich Jung, “the same who first became known later on, under the name of Stilling.” This Stilling was then thirty years of age. At that late day he came to Strassburg to study medicine. His features, says Goethe, had a pervading delicacy in spite of a certain coarseness. He dressed rather oddly, perhaps shabbily. This brought upon him the ridicule of one or two of the less worthy members of that table-company. Goethe came to his assistance; and thus began a friendship profitable to each of them. Stilling, says Goethe, possessed a voice that was gentle, yet strong and sonorous, rather than soft and weak. With this, he liked nothing better in the world than to tell a story, and above all things, the story of his own life. He had told this story so many times before he met Goethe, that it must already have possessed a high degree of literary completeness without it ever having occurred to him to write it down. It was at Goethe’s urgent request, if a remark to that effect in the Wahrheit und Dichtung be among the facts rather than the fancies of that book, that it finally was written.


Now, it surprises me not a little, that in the many lists of books that have been recently drawn up for the reading of the poor—poor in taste and intelligence—the Story of Stilling’s Childhood is not found. But this exquisite little book lacks what the philanthropists of literature demand, a moralizing tone, or, at least, a direct moral tendency. Both these philanthropic virtues, and literary abominations, are altogether wanting in this little book of ours. It is for this reason, if for no other, that I would place it higher as literature than any other autobiographical writing that we have. It holds a higher place than the Confessions of Rousseau, because it has no rhapsodies of remorseful sermonizing over past weakness and meanness. Indeed, Stilling, in spite of his numerous adventures, is [117] too simple, too much the same at all times, to have anything to confess. He acknowledges frankly, without a trace of remorse, that his father’s unnatural strictness forced him to lie; and that is the nearest approach to a confession that he makes. We cannot compare it with such autobiographical writings as the journals of Maurice de Guérin, or Amiel, or with Senancour’s Obermann. These are all analytic and introspective, while Stilling’s story is quite plastic. But in so far as they are to be compared, in the expression they give to an intimate sense of beauty in nature, Stilling’s Childhood is equal to Obermann, and surpasses the journals of de Guérin and Amiel. It holds a higher place than Franklin’s Autobiography, with which one would naturally compare it, because it is fortunately without that insufferably coarse tone of satisfaction with his practical self which is so natural to the Franklin of the Autobiography. We must place Stilling’s story even above the unique and delightful autobiography of Herbert of Cherbury, that last Englishman of “Merry England.” Stilling does not write for the profit of his descendants. He does not fill half his work with matter that is quaint, and charmingly fraught with airs of times gone by, yet incapable of perfect artistic treatment, as Herbert does.


My readers need have no fear that they are to be introduced to a book that is, to use Swinburnian phraseology, morally indifferent. The writer of our book was a God-loving, though not a God-fearing, Christian man. He led such a life that, as I have already said, he had no confessions to make. Indeed, there is not a little in the timbre of Jung-Stilling which reminds us of such a man as St. Francis of Assisi. It would have taken little to make a saint of him, so far as Cardinal Newman will allow saintliness in a Protestant. The chief characteristic which Goethe saw in him was a feeling of intimate dependence upon the direct interposition and aid of the Deity in his behalf, as one of the needy creatures of His making. He came to Strassburg almost penniless; and he records more than one instance of his being in such straits that he did not know how he would be provided for during the next day. His motto—one unknown to heraldry—was: The Lord will provide. It was in Hebrew, and did not sound so commonplace, perhaps, as it does in the vernacular. He took it [118] quite literally, however, and never had occasion to despair of the Lord’s providence.


Heinrich Jung-Stilling’s Autobiography, unlike most autobiographies, is not what the Germans call a Tendenzbuch—a book that is not its own end. If any book ever was its own end, Stilling’s Autobiography is. He tells his story simply for the love of the telling. Hence we find in him that first and foremost condition which art demands of the artist, a perfect sympathy with his subject and material.


First let us consider his subject. It is his own childhood, to begin with, and then his boyhood, and wanderings. It was an after-thought to extend the subject to his whole life. It is only over the first part, the part treating of his childhood, that he has complete mastery. Prominent figures in that are his maternal grandfather, his mother, his father, his paternal grandmother and grandfather. Prominent also are the natural surroundings, under which we must include the ruined castle in the close neighborhood, and the condition, spiritual and temporal, of his relatives.


Stilling sees his subject perfectly, but the material in which his vision is to become incarnate is German prose, obdurate and rebellious material. Mr. Arnold altogether denies to the German people the feeling for, and to the German language the ability to express what he so happily calls “magic.” Here is not the place to discuss in detail whether Mr. Arnold be correct in his judgment or not. The ten pages in which he treats of this subject are unsurpassed for critical insight and discernment. He arms himself with double and treble mail against attack. Yet, I wonder whether in dealing with this subject of “magic” he has made precise enough distinctions. And if the Omar—the maker of distinctions—of criticism make not precise distinctions, who will? At any rate, Mr. Arnold is all but right. German does lamentably lack this “magical” timbre, the loveliest known to us, even if it be not wholly without it. It is impossible to conceive of a German Keats. It is not a little surprising, therefore, that in spite of elephantine constructions, in spite of unluscious, jagged vocables, and all the failings German prose is heir to, we find that this little book of Stilling’s has style. Stilling’s prose in the story of his childhood has a lightness, a swiftness, above all, a limpidness, a transparency [119] that Goethe himself never surpasses and not always equals. Stilling’s style, furthermore, has at times a direct simplicity which reminds us of nothing in the world as it does of the prose in the Vita Nuova.


Mr. Arnold’s judgments I am least inclined to disregard. I say, therefore, timidly (although I feel it quite strongly) that in places, especially in the story of his childhood, Stilling possesses that incommunicable something, that mystic mingling of moonlight and music and all that they mean and bring with them, which we call “magic.” It is often the “magic” of the Teutonic Dürer—for I think Dürer is more than weird—rather than the “magic” of the Anglo-Celtic Keats, but “magic” it is. We find it especially in all he tells us about his mother; in the way in which he speaks of the romances he read in his early childhood; and, though not to so great a degree, in the Ophelian episode of Anna Schmoll’s madness. The few folk-songs scattered through the three books have not a little of this “magic,” and are as good as anything in Brentano’s Knabenwunderhorn—the Percy’s Reliques of German literature. Stilling reaches the lowest level of style in his own verses, of which there are none in the perfect first part. These verses are shockingly bad. They should be inserted in a gray-covered popular hymn-book. What worse can I say of them!


I have said enough about the Autobiography, more than enough, perhaps. The critic’s function is to rouse interest in an object, to show its whereabouts, if the phrase be allowable, and above all, to light it up properly for the gaze of the spectator. I can hardly hope that I have done any of these things for Jung-Stilling’s Autobiography, yet I am loath to change my function from critic to narrator, as it is quite impossible to give even a bald outline of the book in a few pages. But I feel that the reader who has followed me thus far, demands some definite facts about Stilling, and, what in this case is quite identical, Stilling’s book. Well, he shall have them, if only to strengthen him on his journey to the book itself.


Heinrich Jung-Stilling was born in a Westphalian mountain village in the year 1740. His grandfather Stilling was a peasant, a charcoal-burner. He was a sensible, sensitive, earnestly religious man. Still more, he was a cultivated man; if culture signifies a certain manner of being and acting [120] as well as of appearing. While this grandfather was alive, he was all in all to Stilling. He is the central figure in the story of Stilling’s childhood, which story closes with old Stilling’s death. His father was a weak-footed, weak-headed tailor. Of his mother we have a most exquisite picture. She was the daughter of a parson who had lost his charge because he would spend all his energy upon alchemy and the search of the philosopher’s stone. This mother Stilling never knew. She died when he was little more than a year old. She died of consumption, and all that we know of her has that “Blue Flower” coloring which Heine always connects with consumptives. The following passage is characteristic. It is Sunday afternoon. Stilling’s father and mother are taking a walk to the ruined castle of Geisenberg. “As soon as they entered the forest,” says Stilling, “they entwined their arms and walked step by step up the mountain, under the shadow of the trees, and amid the manifold chirping of birds.” “Shall we know each other in Heaven?” Dortchen asks. She speaks of Heaven with such longing that it rouses Wilhelm to ask her whether she is not happy with his sisters at home. “No,” she goes on to say, “I will tell you how I feel. When I see how all things unfold in the spring, the leaves on the trees, the flowers, and the plants, I feel as if I had nothing in common with all that. I feel then as if I were in a world I did not belong to. But as soon as I find a yellow leaf, a faded flower, or a dry weed, then my tears are freed, and I feel so happy, so happy that I cannot tell you of it. Yet it never gives me joy.” This is more than morbidness. The consumptive tendency tosses up the strata of emotion, but what we find there is a feeling keener, deeper, more intense, for nature than the feeling which comes for the brightness and glow of nature in the heightened condition of the animal, in the spring.


After his mother’s death, his aunts and grandmother took immediate care of him. Of these aunts there is little to say. But the grandmother—she was not unique; she was what every loving, cherishing grandmother is, younger and nearer to her grandchild than his own mother. The death of Dortchen quite stunned her husband. He grew weaker than ever. His religious sense was turned into fervid pietism. Wilhelm took the greatest care, therefore, that his son should be kept apart from the wicked world. [121] Before his twelfth year when, at the advice of the pastor in charge, Herr Stollbein, he began to attend the Latin school, Heinrich had not made the acquaintance of a single child. His chief companion meanwhile was his grandfather. The latter used to take him with him when he went out to burn charcoal. He used to walk with him to the castle and point out the places his mother used to love. Thus there grew up in his mind an image of his mother as of a light, pale creature with blue eyes and brown hair, who, though he knew she was in Heaven, had her abode in the ruins of Geisenberg. Later, as he was already growing into manhood, he came to the castle one day after he had been away from his native village for some little time. As he climbed up the hill, he saw sitting near the ruins, a pale girl with blue eyes, and brown hair. He was frightened and gasped: “What is your name?” “Dortchen,” she answered, and he fainted away.


In these walks with his grandfather, he also learned to identify every place with some scene from the stories and romances, all of them distant offspring of Boiardo, which he used to read, we can hardly fancy with what pleasure. These stories did not a little to fashion him. These and the Bible and the catechism occupied all the time that he did not spend with his grandfather. He must have learned to read at a very early age. He was only eight years of age when a neighbor came in the house one day and found him busy at his books. “Can you read already?” asked the neighbor. “Henry looked at him, was surprised and said: ‘That is a foolish question; surely I am not a beast!’ Then he read aloud, with ease, appropriate intonations and pauses. Stähler was amazed and said: ‘The Devil take me, such a thing I have not seen in all my life.’ Hearing this oath, Heinrich started up, trembling and awestruck. He looked around timidly, and as he perceived at last that the devil did not appear, he cried out: ‘God, how gracious art thou!’ He then stepped up to Stähler, and said: ‘Man, have you seen Satan?’ ‘No,’ answered Stähler. ‘Then do not call him again,’ replied Heinrich, as he went into another room.”


Readers of that beautiful story, The Little Schoomaster Mark will recall this incident. It is one of the few things which Mr. Shorthouse so [122] generously acknowledges that he took from Stilling’s Autobiography. They will also remember the unique simplicity with which the little Schoolmaster urged on his pupils to their studies by promising to tell them stories as soon as they were done with their work. This was literally Stilling’s manner of procedure in keeping school. Immediately after his confirmation he began to teach in the village-school. But as he was far more fond of telling stories than teaching, his teaching was not successful, and he did not keep any place long, although he made attempts to teach in all the neighboring villages.


His father was married again, meanwhile, to a woman who was not a proverbial stepmother, yet not a mother to Heinrich. At home he was obliged to work very hard. Even while teaching he had to help his father in his tailoring and farming, neither of which he could bear, although he frequently tried to convince himself, as he saw all his attempts at teaching miscarry, that God had intended him for a tailor. We find him always eager to do his duty if he only knew what his duty was. That he was never quite certain of, although he was ever listening for the voice of the Lord to indicate to him his path of real usefulness. He saw nothing higher than teaching as yet. As he started out from his father’s house on Mondays at daybreak, he used to enjoy, while walking to the school in which he happened to teach, happy, indescribably happy, hours in watching from some favorable point of lookout, the sun rise, cool and sweet, and grow into splendor and strength before his eyes. Of one such place and occasion Stilling says, in words that every reader of Wordsworth will recognize, although Wordsworth could not have been seven years old when they were written: “Here was the place where Heinrich could remain for a whole hour without being quite conscious of himself. His whole spirit was prayer, inward peace, and love towards the Almighty who had made it all.”


At the age of twenty he took a school at the village of Preisingen, where he boarded with a woman named Schmoll who had two daughters, Mary, of Heinrich’s own age, and Anna, two years younger. They were both, as Heinrich says, good, lovely girls. But as he could as yet have no thought of marriage, he acted accordingly. But Heinrich was not a bad looking fellow. He was talented, clever, and fascinating, and both the girls became [123] enamored of him. Anna, for whom he had, and showed, less inclination, fell into a deep melancholy. She went to visit her aunt in a neighboring village to find relaxation and enjoyment. But she did not return at the time agreed upon, and Heinrich who, as well as the others, was quite unaware of the cause of her melancholy, was sent for her. As he entered her aunt’s door Anna, with her hair disheveled and her dress disarranged, hopped up to him, fluttered about him, and said: “Thou art my dear boy! Thou lovest me not. But wait! Thou shalt have no nosegay of flowers! Such a nosegay—of flowers that grow on cliff and crag—such a nosegay of wild clove, that is for thee!” She continues: “There once was an old woman. Thou has surely seen an old woman going a-begging. This old woman, then, was begging; and when she received anything she would say: ‘God reward you!’ Not so? So say the beggar-folk when you give them anything.—The beggar woman came to a door—to a door.—There stood a friendly rogue of a fellow warming himself—that was such a fellow as—” She winked at Stilling. “The young fellow spoke kindly to the old woman as she stood there trembling at the door:—‘Come in, good mother, and warm yourself.’ She came in. But she came too near the fire and her old rags began to burn, and she took no note of it. The young fellow stood looking on.—He should have quenched it, should he not, schoolmaster? He should have quenched it! Answer me, and I will say: ‘God reward you!’” As he was taking her home she insisted upon leaning on his arm. As they came to a heath she left him, and walked about picking wild flowers—none that were fresh, however; only such as were half or wholly faded, and dry. Meanwhile she sang of the shepherd Faramund who bit his maiden Lore, after a strange dog had bitten him, and died together with her. Then she went up to Heinrich, called him Faramund and herself Lore, and asked him: “Wert thou ever in hell?” She thereupon seized his right hand, laid it under her left breast, and said: “There, how it beats!—There is hell—thou belongest there, Faramund.”—She gnashed her teeth, and stared wildly about her. “Yes!” she continued, “thou art an inmate there!—But—like a bad angel!—No, not so, not so!”—There is a touch of Ophelia in this. One only hopes that Stilling did not have Ophelia in [124] mind as he narrated this episode. If an Ophelia at all, it is the Ophelia of such an artist as the one who drew Knight, Death, and Devil, rather than the Ophelia of such an artist as Shakspere.


Stilling left Preisingen soon after this event, and wandered about until at the age of twenty-four he took service with a merchant named Spanier, as tutor and secretary. He continued in this service for six years, and during the entire time Spanier was wonderfully kind and helpful to him. It was due to a suggestion of this Spanier that Stilling at last discovered that the Lord had all the time been intending him to study and practice medicine. A Catholic priest left him a manuscript on ophthalmology. Through the study of this and other works, and from the practice which Spanier brought in his way, he acquired a reputation as an oculist. This brought him in contact with another merchant, Friedenberg, who became a dear friend of his. Friedenberg’s daughter became Stilling’s wife later on. The betrothal of Stilling to this daughter, Christina, an invalid, a few hours after he first saw her, while she was lying ill in bed, is perhaps the most startling thing in the book, which does not lack in miracles. Stilling was now thirty and he decided to take a regular course in medicine at a university. This was displeasing to Spanier and severed their friendship. A friend of his, a physician, was going to Strassburg to pursue some specialty, and he decided to go with him. Saying farewell to his betrothed he left for Strassburg, and a fortunate coincidence brought him in connection with Goethe. At this point I leave him to the reader. I began the article by giving Goethe’s account of his meeting with Stilling. Le me end by giving what Stilling says about his meeting with Goethe. He and his friend were already seated at the table when they saw, says he, “one enter the rooms spiritedly—one with large, light eyes, splendid forehead, and a beautiful figure.” This must be a remarkable man they thought, although he might be a loose liver, and give them a great deal of sorrow. “But they concluded in this case it will be wise to keep silent for a week and a day.” He relates several instances of Goethe’s kindness and tenderness. “The pity of it,” says he on one occasion, “that so few know this excellent man for his heart!” Yes, the pity of it!