The True Story of My Life: A Sketch by Hans Christian Andersen
The True Story of My Life: A Sketch
ON the 5th of September, 1833, I crossed the Simplon on my way to Italy. On the very day, on which, fourteen years before, I had arrived poor and helpless in Copenhagen, did I set foot in this country of my longing and of my poetical happiness. It happened in this case, as it often does, by accident, without any arrangement on my part, as if I had preordained lucky days in the year; yet good fortune has so frequently been with me, that I perhaps only remind myself of its visits on my own self-elected days.
All was sunshine--all was spring! The vine hung in long trails from tree to tree; never since have I seen Italy so beautiful. I sailed on Lago Maggiore; ascended the cathedral of Milan; passed several days in Genoa, and made from thence a journey, rich in the beauties of nature, along the shore to Carrara. I had seen statues in Paris, but my eyes were closed to them; in Florence, before the Venus de Medici, it was for the first time as if scales fell from my eyes; a new world of art disclosed itself before me; that was the first fruit of my journey. Here it was that I first learned to understand the beauty of form--the spirit which reveals itself in form. The life of the people--nature-- all was new to me; and yet as strangely familiar as if I were come to a home where I had lived in my childhood. With a peculiar rapidity did I seize upon everything, and entered into its life, whilst a deep northern melancholy--it was not home-sickness, but a heavy, unhappy feeling--filled my breast. I received the news in Rome, of how little the poem of Agnete, which I had sent home, was thought of there; the next letter in Rome brought me the news that my mother was dead. I was now quite alone in the world.
It was at this time, and in Rome, that my first meeting with Hertz took place. In a letter which I had received from Collin, he had said that it would give him pleasure to hear that Hertz and I had become friends; but even without this wish it would have happened, for Hertz kindly offered me his hand, and expressed sympathy with my sorrow. He had, of all those with whom I was at that time acquainted, the most variously cultivated mind. We had often disputations together, even about the attacks which had been made upon me at home as a poet. He, who had himself given me a wound, said the following words, which deeply impressed themselves on my memory: "Your misfortune is, that you have been obliged to print everything; the public has been able to follow you step by step. I believe that even, a Goethe himself must have suffered the same fate, had he been in your situation." And then he praised my talent for seizing upon the characteristics of nature, and giving, by a few intuitive sketches, pictures of familiar life. My intercourse with him was very instructive to me, and I felt that I had one merciful judge more. I travelled in company with him to Naples, where we dwelt together in one house.
In Rome I also became first acquainted with Thorwaldsen. Many years before, when I had not long been in Copenhagen, and was walking through the streets as a poor boy, Thorwaldsen was there too: that was on his first return home. We met one another in the street. I knew that he was a distinguished man in art; I looked at him, I bowed; he went on, and then, suddenly turning round, came back to me, and said, "Where have I seen you before? I think we know one another." I replied, "No, we do not know one another at all." I now related this story to him in Rome; he smiled, pressed my hand, and said, "Yet we felt at that time that we should become good friends." I read Agnete to him; and that which delighted me in his judgment upon it was the assertion, "It is just," said he, "as if I were walking at home in the woods, and heard the Danish lakes;" and then he kissed me.
One day, when he saw how distressed I was, and I related to him about the pasquinade which I had received from home in Paris, he gnashed his teeth violently, and said, in momentary anger, "Yes, yes, I know the people; it would not have gone any better with me if I had remained there; I should then, perhaps, not even have obtained permission to set up a model. Thank God that I did not need them, for then they know how to torment and to annoy." He desired me to keep up a good heart, and then things could not fail of going well; and with that he told me of some dark passages in his own life, where he in like manner had been mortified and unjustly condemned.
After the Carnival, I left Rome for Naples; saw at Capri the blue Grotto, which was at that time first discovered; visited the temple at Paestum, and returned in the Easter week to Rome, from whence I went through Florence and Venice to Vienna and Munich; but I had at that time neither mind nor heart for Germany; and when I thought on Denmark, I felt fear and distress of mind about the bad reception which I expected to find there. Italy, with its scenery and its people's life, occupied my soul, and towards this land I felt a yearning. My earlier life, and what I had now seen, blended themselves together into an image--into poetry, which I was compelled to write down, although I was convinced that it would occasion me more trouble than joy, if my necessities at home should oblige me to print it. I had written already in Rome the first chapter. It was my novel of "The Improvisatore."
At one of my first visits to the theatre at Odense, as a little boy, where, as I have already mentioned, the representations were given in the German language, I saw the Donauweibchen, and the public applauded the actress of the principal part. Homage was paid to her, and she was honored; and I vividly remember thinking how happy she must be.
Many years afterwards, when, as a student, I visited Odense, I saw, in one of the chambers of the hospital where the poor widows lived and where one bed stood by another, a female portrait hanging over one bed in a gilt frame. It was Lessing's Emilia Galotti, and represented her as pulling the rose to pieces; but the picture was a portrait. It appeared singular in contrast with the poverty by which it was surrounded.
"Whom does it represent?" asked I.
"Oh!" said one of the old women, "it is the face of the German lady, the poor lady who once was an actress!" And then I saw a little delicate woman, whose face was covered with wrinkles, and in an old silk gown that once had been black. That was the once celebrated Singer, who, as the Donauweibchen, had been applauded by every one. This circumstance made an indelible impression upon me, and often occurred to my mind.
In Naples I heard Malibran for the first time. Her singing and acting surpassed anything which I had hitherto either heard or seen; and yet I thought the while of the miserably poor singer in the hospital of Odense: the two figures blended into the Annunciata of the novel. Italy was the back ground for that which had been experienced and that which was imagined. In August of 1834 I returned to Denmark. I wrote the first part of the book at Ingemann's, in Sor/, in a little chamber in the roof, among fragrant lime-trees. I finished it in Copenhagen.
At this time my best friends, even, had almost given me up as a poet; they said that they had erred with regard to my talents. It was with difficulty that I found a publisher for the book. I received a miserable sum of money for it, and the "Improvisatore" made its appearance; was read, sold out, and again published. The critics were silent; the newspapers said nothing; but I heard all around me of the interest which was felt for the work, and the delight that it occasioned. At length the poet Carl Bagger, who was at that time the editor of a newspaper, wrote the first critique upon it, and began ironically, with the customary tirade against me--"that it was all over with this author, who had already passed his heyday;"--in short, he went the whole length of the tobacco and tea criticism, in order suddenly to dash out, and to express his extremely warm enthusiasm for me; and my book. People now laughed at me, but I wept. This was my mood of mind. I wept freely, and felt gratitude to God and man.
"To the Conference Councillor Collin and to his noble wife, in whom I found parents, whose children were brethren and sisters to me, whose house was my home, do I here present the best of which I am possessed."--So ran the dedication. Many who formerly had been my enemy, now changed their opinion; and among these one became my friend, who, I hope, will remain so through the whole of my life. That was Hauch the poet, one of the noblest characters with whom I am acquainted. He had returned home from Italy after a residence of several years abroad, just at the time when Heiberg's vaudevilles were intoxicating the inhabitants of Copenhagen, and when my "Journey on Foot" was making me a little known. He commenced a controversy with Heiberg, and somewhat scoffed at me. Nobody called his attention to my better lyrical writings; I was described to him as a spoiled, petulant child of fortune. He now read my Improvisatore, and feeling that there was something good in me, his noble character evinced itself by his writing a cordial letter to me, in which he said, that he had done me an injustice, and offered me now the hand of reconciliation. From that time we became friends. He used his influence for me with the utmost zeal, and has watched my onward career with heartfelt friendship. But so little able have many people been to understand what is excellent in him, or the noble connection of heart between us two, that not long since, when he wrote a novel, and drew in it the caricature of a poet, whose vanity ended in insanity, the people in Denmark discovered that he had treated me with the greatest injustice, because he had described in it my weakness. People must not believe that this was the assertion of one single person, or a misapprehension of my character; no; and Hauch felt himself compelled to write a treatise upon me as a poet, that he might show what a different place he assigned to me.
But to return to the "Improvisatore." This book raised my sunken fortunes; collected my friends again around me, nay, even obtained for me new ones. For the first time I felt that I had obtained a due acknowledgment. The book was translated into German by Kruse, with a long title, _"Jugendleben und Tr ume eines italienischen Dichter's."_ I objected to the title; but he declared that it was necessary in order to attract attention to the book.
Bagger had, as already stated, been the first to pass judgment on the work; after an interval of some time a second critique made its appearance, more courteous, it is true, than I was accustomed to, but still passing lightly over the best things in the book and dwelling on its deficiencies, and on the number of incorrectly written Italian words. And, as Nicolai's well-known book, "Italy as it really is," came out just then, people universally said, "Now we shall be able to see what it is about which Andersen has written, for from Nicolai a true idea of Italy may be obtained for the first time."
It was from Germany that resounded the first decided acknowledgment
of the merits of my work, or rather perhaps its over estimation. I bow
myself in joyful gratitude, like a sick man toward the sunshine, when
my heart is grateful. I am not, as the Danish Monthly Review, in its critique
of the "Improvisatore," condescended to assert, an unthankful
man, who exhibits in his work a want of gratitude towards his benefactors.
I was indeed myself poor Antonio who sighed under the burden which I had
to bear,--_I,_ the poor lad who ate the bread of charity. From Sweden
also, later, resounded my praise, and the Swedish newspapers contained
articles in praise of this work, which within the last two years has been
equally warmly received in England, where Mary Howitt, the poetess, has
translated it into English; the same good fortune also is said to have
attended the book in Holland and
There exists in the public a power which is stronger than all the critics and cliques. I felt that I stood at home on firmer ground, and my spirit again had moments in which it raised its wings for flight. In this alternation of feeling between gaiety and ill humor, I wrote my next novel, "O. T.," which is regarded by many persons in Denmark as my best work;--an estimation which I cannot myself award to it. It contains characteristic features of town life. My first Tales appeared before "O. T;" but this is not the place in which to speak of them. I felt just at this time a strong mental impulse to write, and I believed that I had found my true element in novel-writing. In the following year, 1837, I published "Only a Fiddler," a book which on my part had been deeply pondered over, and the details of which sprang fresh to the paper. My design was to show that talent is not genius, and that if the sunshine of good fortune be withheld, this must go to the ground, though without losing its nobler, better nature. This book likewise had its partisans; but still the critics would not vouchsafe to me any encouragement; they forgot that with years the boy becomes a man, and that people may acquire knowledge in other than the ordinary ways. They could not separate themselves from their old preconceived opinions. Whilst "O. T." was going through the press it was submitted sheet by sheet to a professor of the university, who had himself offered to undertake this work, and by two other able men also; notwithstanding all this, the Reviews said, "We find the usual grammatical negligence, which we always find in Andersen, in this work also." That which contributed likewise to place this book in the shade was the circumstance of Heiberg having at that time published his Every-day Stories, which were written in excellent language, and with good taste and truth. Their own merits, and the recommendation of their being Heiberg's, who was the beaming star of literature, placed them in the highest rank.
I had however advanced so far, that there no longer existed any doubt as to my poetical ability, which people had wholly denied to me before my journey to Italy. Still not a single Danish critic had spoken of the characteristics which are peculiar to my novels. It was not until my works appeared in Swedish that this was done, and then several Swedish journals went profoundly into the subject and analyzed my works with good and honorable intentions. The case was the same in Germany; and from this country too my heart was strengthened to proceed. It was not until last year that in Denmark, a man of influence, Hauch the poet, spoke of the novels in his already mentioned treatise, and with a few touches brought their characteristics prominently forward.
"The principal thing," says he, "in Andersen's best and most elaborate works, in those which are distinguished for the richest fancy, the deepest feeling, the most lively poetic spirit, is, of talent, or at least of a noble nature, which will struggle its way out of narrow and depressing circumstances. This is the case with his three novels, and with this purpose in view, it is really an important state of existence which he describes,--an inner world, which no one understands better than he, who has himself, drained out of the bitter cup of suffering and renunciation, painful and deep feelings which are closely related to those of his own experience, and from which Memory, who, according to the old significant myth, is the mother of the Muses, met him hand in hand with them. That which he, in these his works, relates to the world, deserves assuredly to be listened to with attention; because, at the same time that it may be only the most secret inward life of the individual, yet it is also the common lot of men of talent and genius, at least when these are in needy circumstances, as is the case of those who are here placed before our eyes. In so far as in his 'Improvisatore,' in 'O. T.,' and in 'Only a Fiddler,' he represents not only himself, in his own separate individuality, but at the same time the momentous combat which so many have to pass through, and which he understands so well, because in it his own life has developed itself; therefore in no instance can he be said to present to the reader what belongs to the world of illusion, but only that which bears witness to truth, and which, as is the case with all such testimony, has a universal and enduring worth.
"And still more than this, Andersen is not only the defender of talent and genius, but, at the same time, of every human heart which is unkindly and unjustly treated. And whilst he himself has so painfully suffered in that deep combat in which the Laocoon-snakes seize upon the outstretched hand; whilst he himself has been compelled to drink from that wormwood-steeped bowl which the cold-blooded and arrogant world so constantly offers to those who are in depressed circumstances, he is fully capable of giving to his delineations in this respect a truth and an earnestness, nay, even a tragic and a pain-awakening pathos that rarely fails of producing its effect on the sympathizing human heart. Who can read that scene in his 'Only a Fiddler,' in which the 'high- bred hound,' as the poet expresses it, 'turned away with disgust from the broken victuals which the poor youth received as alms, without recognizing, at the same time, that this is no game in which vanity seeks for a triumph, but that it expresses much more--human nature wounded to its inmost depths, which here speaks out its sufferings.'"
Thus is it spoken in Denmark of my works, after an interval of nine or ten years; thus speaks the voice of a noble, venerated man. It is with me and the critics as it is with wine,--the more years pass before it is drunk the better is its flavor.
During the year in which "The Fiddler" came out, I visited for the first time the neighboring country of Sweden. I went by the G/ta canal to Stockholm. At that time nobody understood what is now called Scandinavian sympathies; there still existed a sort of mistrust inherited from the old wars between the two neighbor nations. Little was known of Swedish literature, and there were only very few Danes who could easily read and understand the Swedish language;--people scarcely knew Tegn r's Frithiof and Axel, excepting through translations. I had, however, read a few other Swedish authors, and the deceased, unfortunate Stagnelius pleased me more as a poet than Tegn r, who represented poetry in Sweden. I, who hitherto had only travelled into Germany and southern countries, where by this means, the departure from Copenhagen was also the departure from my mother tongue, felt, in this respect, almost at home in Sweden: the languages are so much akin, that of two persons each might read in the language of his own country, and yet the other understand him. It seemed to me, as a Dane, that Denmark expanded itself; kinship with the people exhibited itself, in many ways, more and more; and I felt, livingly, how near akin are Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians.
I met with cordial, kind people,--and with these I easily made acquaintance. I reckon this journey among the happiest I ever made. I had no knowledge of the character of Swedish scenery, and therefore I was in the highest degree astonished by the Trollh tta-voyage, and by the extremely picturesque situation of Stockholm. It sounds to the uninitiated half like a fairy-tale, when one says that the steam-boat goes up across the lakes over the mountains, from whence may be seen the outstretched pine and beechwoods below. Immense sluices heave up and lower the vessel again, whilst the travellers ramble through the woods. None of the cascades of Switzerland, none in Italy, not even that of Terni, have in them anything so imposing as that of Trollhtta. Such is the impression, at all events, which it made on me.
On this journey, and at this last-mentioned place, commenced a very interesting acquaintance, and one which has not been without its influence on me,--an acquaintance with the Swedish authoress, Fredrika Bremer. I had just been speaking with the captain of the steam-boat and some of the passengers about the Swedish authors living in Stockholm, and I mentioned my desire to see and converse with Miss Bremer.
"You will not meet with her," said the Captain, "as she is at this moment on a visit in Norway."
"She will be coming back while I am there," said I in joke; "I always am lucky in my journeys, and that which I most wish for is always accomplished.
"Hardly this time, however," said the captain.
A few hours after this he came up to me laughing, with the list of the newly arrived passengers in his hand. "Lucky fellow," said he aloud, "you take good fortune with you; Miss Bremer is here, and sails with us to Stockholm."
I received it as a joke; he showed me the list, but still I was uncertain. Among the new arrivals, I could see no one who resembled an authoress. Evening came on, and about midnight we were on the great Wener lake. At sunrise I wished to have a view of this extensive lake, the shores of which could scarcely be seen; and for this purpose I left the cabin. At the very moment that I did so, another passenger was also doing the same, a lady neither young nor old, wrapped in a shawl and cloak. I thought to myself, if Miss Bremer is on board, this must be she, and fell into discourse with her; she replied politely, but still distantly, nor would she directly answer my question, whether she was the authoress of the celebrated novels. She asked after my name; was acquainted with it, but confessed that she had read none of my works. She then inquired whether I had not some of them with me, and I lent her a copy of the "Improvisatore," which I had destined for Beskow. She vanished immediately with the volumes, and was not again visible all morning.
When I again saw her, her countenance was beaming, and she was full of cordiality; she pressed my hand, and said that she had read the greater part of the first volume, and that she now knew me.
The vessel flew with us across the mountains, through quiet inland lakes and forests, till it arrived at the Baltic Sea, where islands lie scattered, as in the Archipelago, and where the most remarkable transition takes place from naked cliffs to grassy islands, and to those on which stand trees and houses. Eddies and breakers make it here necessary to take on board a skilful pilot; and there are indeed some places where every passenger must sit quietly on his seat, whilst the eye of the pilot is riveted upon one point. On shipboard one feels the mighty power of nature, which at one moment seizes hold of the vessel and the next lets it go again.
Miss Bremer related many legends and many histories, which were connected with this or that island, or those farm-premises up aloft on the mainland.
In Stockholm, the acquaintance with her increased, and year after year the letters which have passed between us have strengthened it. She is a noble woman; the great truths of religion, and the poetry which lies in the quiet circumstances of life, have penetrated her being.
It was not until after my visit to Stockholm that her Swedish translation of my novel came out; my lyrical poems only, and my "Journey on Foot," were known to a few authors; these received me with the utmost kindness, and the lately deceased Dahlgr n, well known by his humorous poems, wrote a song in my honor--in short, I met with hospitality, and countenances beaming with Sunday gladness. Sweden and its inhabitants became dear to me. The city itself, by its situation and its whole picturesque appearance, seemed to me to emulate Naples. Of course, this last has the advantage of fine atmosphere, and the sunshine of the south; but the view of Stockholm is just as imposing; it has also some resemblance to Constantinople, as seen from Pera, only that the minarets are wanting. There prevails a great variety of coloring in the capital of Sweden; white painted buildings; frame-work houses, with the wood-work painted red; barracks of turf, with flowering plants; fir tree and birches look out from among the houses, and the churches with their balls and towers. The streets in S/dermalm ascend by flights of wooden steps up from the M lar lake, which is all active with smoking steam-vessels, and with boats rowed by women in gay-colored dresses.
I had brought with me a letter of introduction from Oersted, to the celebrated Berzelius, who gave me a good reception in the old city of Upsala. From this place I returned to Stockholm. City, country, and people, were all dear to me; it seemed to me, as I said before, that the boundaries of my native land had stretched themselves out, and I now first felt the kindredship of the three peoples, and in this feeling I wrote a Scandinavian song, a hymn of praise for all the three nations, for that which was peculiar and best in each one of them.
"One can see that the Swedes made a deal of him," was the first remark which I heard at home on this song.
Years pass on; the neighbors understand each other better; Oehlenschlger. Fredrika Bremer, and Tegnr, caused them mutually to read each other's authors, and the foolish remains of the old enmity, which had no other foundation than that they did not know each other, vanished. There now prevails a beautiful, cordial relationship between Sweden and Denmark. A Scandinavian club has been established in Stockholm; and with this my song came to honor; and it was then said, "it will outlive everything that Andersen has written:" which was as unjust as when they said that it was only the product of flattered vanity. This song is now sung in Sweden as well as in Denmark.
On my return home I began to study history industriously, and made myself still further acquainted with the literature of foreign countries. Yet still the volume which afforded me the greatest pleasure was that of nature; and in a summer residence among the country-seats of Funen, and more especially at Lykkesholm, with its highly romantic site in the midst of woods, and at the noble seat of Glorup, from whose possessor I met with the most friendly reception, did I acquire more true wisdom, assuredly, in my solitary rambles, than I ever could have gained from the schools.
The house of the Conference Councillor Collin in Copenhagen was at that time, as it has been since, a second father's house to me, and there I had parents, and brothers and sisters. The best circles of social life were open to me, and the student life interested me: here I mixed in the pleasures of youth. The student life of Copenhagen is, besides this, different from that of the German cities, and was at this time peculiar and full of life. For me this was most perceptible in the students' clubs, where students and professors were accustomed to meet each other: there was there no boundary drawn between the youthful and elder men of letters. In this club were to be found the journals and books of various countries; once a week an author would read his last work; a concert or some peculiar burlesque entertainment would take place. It was here that what may be called the first Danish people'scomedies took their origin,--comedies in which the events of the day were worked up always in an innocent, but witty and amusing manner. Sometimes dramatic representations were given in the presence of ladies for the furtherance of some noble purpose, as lately to assist Thorwaldsen's Museum, to raise funds for the execution of Bissen's statue in marble, and for similar ends. The professors and students were the actors. I also appeared several times as an actor, and convinced myself that my terror at appearing on the stage was greater than the talent which I perhaps possessed. Besides this, I wrote and arranged several pieces, and thus gave my assistance. Several scenes from this time, the scenes in the students' club, I have worked up in my romance of "O. T." The humor and love of life observable in various passages of this book, and in the little dramatic pieces written about this time, are owing to the influence of the family of Collin, where much good was done me in that respect, so that my morbid turn of mind was unable to gain the mastery of me. Collin's eldest married daughter, especially, exercised great influence over me, by her merry humor and wit. When the mind is yielding and elastic, like the expanse of ocean, it readily, like the ocean, mirrors its environments.
My writings, in my own country, were now classed among those which were always bought and read; therefore for each fresh work I received a higher payment. Yet, truly, when you consider what a circumscribed world the Danish reading world is, you will see that this payment could not be the most liberal. Yet I had to live. Collin, who is one of the men who do more than they promise, was my help, my consolation, my support.
At this time the late Count Conrad von Rantzau-Breitenburg,
a native of Holstein, was Prime Minister in Denmark. He was of a noble,
amiable nature, a highly educated man, and possessed of a truly chivalrous
disposition. He carefully observed the movements in German and Danish
literature. In his youth he had travelled much, and spent a long time
in Spain and Italy, He read my "Improvisatore" in the original;
his imagination was powerfully seized by it, and he spoke both at court
and in his own private circles of my book in the warmest manner. He did
not stop here; he sought me out, and became my benefactor and friend.
Already for many years there had existed, under Frederick VI., an institution which does the highest honor to the Danish government, namely, that beside the considerable sum expended yearly, for the travelling expenses of young literary men and artists, a small pension shall be awarded to such of them as enjoy no office emoluments. All our most important poets have had a share of this assistance,-- Oehlenschl ger, Ingemann, Heiberg, C. Winther, and others. Hertz had just then received such a pension, and his future life made thus the more secure. It was my hope and my wish that the same good fortune might be mine--and it was. Frederick VI. granted me two hundred rix dollars banco yearly. I was filled with gratitude and joy. I was nolonger forced to write in order to live; I had a sure support in the possible event of sickness. I was less dependent upon the people about me. A new chapter of my life began.
Andersen, Hans Christian. The True Story of My Life: A Sketch. Mary Howitt, translator. Boston: James Munroe, 1847.