The True Story of My Life
By Hans Christian Andersen
Public Domain Books
When, late in the evening, I arrived at the inn in Slagelse, I asked the hostess if there were anything remarkable in the city.
“Yes,” said she, “a new English fire-engine and Pastor Bastholm’s library,” and those probably were all the lions in the city. A few officers of the Lancers composed the fine-gentleman world. Everybody knew what was done in everybody’s house, whether a scholar was elevated or degraded in his class, and the like. A private theatre, to which, at general rehearsal, the scholars of the grammar school and the maid- servants of the town had free entrance, furnished rich material for conversation. The place was remote from woods, and still farther from the coast; but the great post-road went through the city, and the post- horn resounded from the rolling carriage.
I boarded with a respectable widow of the educated class, and had a little chamber looking out into the garden and field. My place in the school was in the lowest class, among little boys:–I knew indeed nothing at all.
I was actually like a wild bird which is confined in a cage; I had the greatest desire to learn, but for the moment I floundered about, as if I had been thrown into the sea; the one wave followed another; grammar, geography, mathematics–I felt myself overpowered by them, and feared that I should never be able to acquire all these. The rector, who took a peculiar delight in turning everything to ridicule, did not, of course, make an exception in my case. To me he stood then as a divinity; I believed unconditionally every word which he spoke. One day, when I had replied incorrectly to his question, and he said that I was stupid, I mentioned it to Collin, and told him my anxiety, lest I did not deserve all that people had done for me; but he consoled me. Occasionally, however, on some subjects of instruction, I began to receive a good certificate, and the teachers were heartily kind to me; yet, notwithstanding that I advanced, I still lost confidence in myself more and more. On one of the first examinations, however, I obtained the praise of the rector. He wrote the same in my character-book; and, happy in this, I went a few days afterwards to Copenhagen. Guldberg, who saw the progress I had made, received me kindly, and commended my zeal; and his brother in Odense furnished me the next summer with the means of visiting the place of my birth, where I had not been since I left it to seek adventures. I crossed the Belt, and went on foot to Odense. When I came near enough to see the lofty old church tower, my heart was more and more affected; I felt deeply the care of God for me, and I burst into tears. My mother rejoiced over me. The families of Iversen and Guldberg received me cordially; and in the little streets I saw the people open their windows to look after me, for everybody knew how remarkably well things had fared with me; nay, I fancied I actually stood upon the pinnacle of fortune, when one of the principal citizens, who had built a high tower to his house, led me up there, and I looked out thence over the city, and the surrounding country, and some old women in the hospital below, who had known me from childhood, pointed up to me.
As soon, however, as I returned to Slagelse, this halo of glory vanished, as well as every thought of it. I may freely confess that I was industrious, and I rose, as soon as it was possible, into a higher class; but in proportion as I rose did I feel the pressure upon me more strongly, and that my endeavors were not sufficiently productive. Many an evening, when sleep overcame me, did I wash my head with cold water, or run about the lonely little garden, till I was again wakeful, and could comprehend the book anew. The rector filled up a portion of his hours of teaching with jests, nicknames, and not the happiest of witticisms. I was as if paralyzed with anxiety when he entered the room, and from that cause my replies often expressed the opposite of that which I wished to say, and thereby my anxiety was all the more increased. What was to become of me?
In a moment of ill-humor I wrote a letter to the head master, who was one of those who was most cordially opposed to me. I said in this letter that I regarded myself as a person so little gifted by nature, that it was impossible for me to study, and that the people in Copenhagen threw away the money which they spent upon me: I besought him therefore to counsel me what I should do. The excellent man strengthened me with mild words, and wrote to me a most friendly and consolatory letter; he said that the rector meant kindly by me–that it was his custom and way of acting–that I was making all the progress that people could expect from me, and that I need not doubt of my abilities. He told me that he himself was a peasant youth of three and twenty, older than I myself was, when he began his studies; the misfortune for me was, that I ought to have been treated differently to the other scholars, but that this could hardly be done in a school; but that things were progressing, and that I stood well both with the teachers and my fellow students.
Every Sunday we had to attend the church and hear an old preacher; the other scholars learned their lessons in history and mathematics while he preached; I learned my task in religion, and thought that, by so doing, it was less sinful. The general rehearsals at the private theatre were points of light in my school life; they took place in a back building, where the lowing of the cows might be heard; the street- decoration was a picture of the marketplace of the city, by which means the representation had something familiar about it; it amused the inhabitants to see their own houses.
On Sunday afternoons it was my delight to go to the castle of Antvorskov, at that time only half ruinous, and once a monastery, where I pursued the excavating of the ruined cellars, as if it had been a Pompeii. I also often rambled to the crucifix of St. Anders, which stands upon one of the heights of Slagelse, and which is one of the wooden crosses erected in the time of Catholicism in Denmark. St. Anders was a priest in Slagelse, and travelled to the Holy Land; on the last day he remained so long praying on the holy grave, that the ship sailed away without him. Vexed at this circumstance, he walked along the shore, where a man met him riding on an ass, and took him up with him. Immediately he fell asleep, and when he awoke he heard the bells of Slagelse ringing. He lay upon the (Hvileh÷i) hill of rest, where the cross now stands. He was at home a year and a day before the ship returned, which had sailed away without him, and an angel had borne him home. The legend, and the place where he woke, were both favorites of mine. From this spot I could see the ocean and Funen. Here I could indulge my fancies; when at home, my sense of duty chained my thoughts only to my books.
The happiest time, however, was when, once on a Sunday, whilst the wood was green, I went to the city of Sor÷, two (Danish) miles from Slagelse, and which lies in the midst of woods, surrounded by lakes. Here is an academy for the nobility, founded by the poet Holberg. Everything lay in a conventual stillness. I visited here the poet Ingemann, who had just married, and who held a situation as teacher; he had already received me kindly in Copenhagen; but here his reception of me was still more kind. His life in this place seemed to me like a beautiful story; flowers and vines twined around his window; the rooms were adorned with the portraits of distinguished poets, and other pictures. We sailed upon the lake with an Aeolian harp made fast to the mast. Ingemann talked so cheerfully, and his excellent, amiable wife treated me as if she were an elder sister:–I loved these people. Our friendship has grown with years. I have been from that time almost every summer a welcome guest there, and I have experienced that there are people in whose society one is made better, as it were; that which is bitter passes away, and the whole world appears in sunlight.
Among the pupils in the academy of nobles, there were two who made verses; they knew that I did the same, and they attached themselves to me. The one was Petit, who afterwards, certainly with the best intention, but not faithfully, translated several of my books; the other, the poet Karl Bagger, one of the most gifted of men who has come forward in Danish literature, but who has been unjustly judged. His poems are full of freshness and originality; his story, “The Life of my Brother,” is a genial book, by the critique on which the Danish Monthly Review of Literature has proved that it does not understand how to give judgment. These two academicians were very different from me: life rushed rejoicingly through their veins; I was sensitive and childlike. In my character-book I always received, as regarded my conduct, “remarkably good.” On one occasion, however, I only obtained the testimony of “very good;” and so anxious and childlike was I, that I wrote a letter to Collin on that account, and assured him in grave earnestness, that I was perfectly innocent, although I had only obtained a character of “very good.”
The rector grew weary of his residence in Slagelse; he applied for the vacant post of rector in the grammar-school of Helsing÷r, and obtained it. He told me of it, and added kindly, that I might write to Collin and ask leave to accompany him thither; that I might live in his house, and could even now remove to his family; I should then in half a year become a student, which could not be the case if I remained behind, and that then he would himself give me some private lessons in Latin and Greek. On this same occasion he wrote also to Collin; and this letter, which I afterwards saw, contained the greatest praise of my industry, of the progress I had made, and of my good abilities, which last I imagined that he thoroughly mistook, and for the want of which, I myself had so often wept. I had no conception that he judged of me so favorably; it would have strengthened and relieved me had I known it; whereas, on the contrary, his perpetual blame depressed me. I, of course, immediately received Collin’s permission, and removed to the house of the rector. But that, alas! was an unfortunate house.
I accompanied him to Helsing÷r, one of the loveliest places in Denmark, close to the Sound, which is at this place not above a mile (Danish) broad, and which seems like a blue, swelling river between Denmark and Sweden. The ships of all nations sail past daily by hundreds; in winter the ice forms a firm bridge between the two countries, and when in spring this breaks up, it resembles a floating glacier. The scenery here made a lively impression upon me, but I dared only to cast stolen glances at it. When the school hours were over, the house door was commonly locked; I was obliged to remain in the heated school-room and learn my Latin, or else play with the children, or sit in my little room; I never went out to visit anybody. My life in this family furnishes the most evil dreams to my remembrance. I was almost overcome by it, and my prayer to God every evening was, that he would remove this cup from me and let me die. I possessed not an atom of confidence in myself. I never mentioned in my letters how hard it went with me, because the rector found his pleasure in making a jest of me, and turning my feelings to ridicule. I never complained of any one, with the exception of myself. I knew that they would say in Copenhagen, “He has not the desire to do any thing; a fanciful being can do no good with realities.”
My letters to Collin, written at this time, showed such a gloomy despairing state of mind, that they touched him deeply; but people imagined that was not to be helped; they fancied that it was my disposition, and not, as was the case, that it was the consequence of outward influences. My temper of mind was thoroughly buoyant, and susceptible of every ray of sunshine; but only on one single holiday in the year, when I could go to Copenhagen, was I able to enjoy it.
What a change it was to get for a few days out of the rector’s rooms into a house in Copenhagen, where all was elegance, cleanliness, and full of the comforts of refined life! This was at Admiral Wulff’s, whose wife felt for me the kindness of a mother, and whose children met me with cordiality; they dwelt in a portion of the Castle of Amalienburg, and my chamber looked out into the square. I remember the first evening there; Aladdin’s words passed through my mind, when he looked down from his splendid castle into the square, and said, “Here came I as a poor lad.” My soul was full of gratitude.
During my whole residence in Slagelse I had scarcely written more than four or five poems; two of which, “The Soul,” and “To my Mother,” will be found printed in my collected works. During my school-time at Helsing÷r I wrote only one single poem, “The Dying Child;” a poem which, of all my after works, became most popular and most widely circulated. I read it to some acquaintance in Copenhagen; some were struck by it, but most of them only remarked my Funen dialect, which drops the d in every word. I was commended by many; but from the greater number I received a lecture on modesty, and that I should not get too great ideas of myself–I who really at that time thought nothing of myself. [Footnote: How beautifully is all this part of the author’s experience reflected in that of Antonio, the Improvisatore, whose highly sensitive nature was too often wounded by the well-meant lectures of patrons and common-place minds.–M. H.]
At the house of Admiral Wulff I saw many men of the most distinguished talent, and among them all my mind paid the greatest homage to one– that was the poet Adam Oehlenschl ger. I heard his praise resound from every mouth around me; I looked up to him with the most pious faith: I was happy when one evening, in a large brilliantly-lighted drawing room–where I deeply felt that my apparel was the shabbiest there, and for that reason I concealed myself behind the long curtains– Oehlenschl ger came to me and offered me his hand. I could have fallen before him on my knees. I again saw Weyse, and heard him improvise upon the piano. Wulff himself read aloud his translations of Byron; and Oehlenschl ger’s young daughter Charlotte surprised me by her joyous, merry humor.
From such a house as this, I, after a few days, returned to the rector, and felt the difference deeply. He also came direct from Copenhagen, where he had heard it said that I had read in company one of my own poems. He looked at me with a penetrating glance, and commanded me to bring him the poem, when, if he found in it one spark of poetry, he would forgive me. I tremblingly brought to him “The Dying Child;” he read it, and pronounced it to be sentimentality and idle trash. He gave way freely to his anger. If he had believed that I wasted my time in writing verses, or that I was of a nature which required a severe treatment, then his intention would have been good; but he could not pretend this. But from this day forward my situation was more unfortunate than ever; I suffered so severely in my mind that I was very near sinking under it. That was the darkest, the most unhappy time in my life.
Just then one of the masters went to Copenhagen, and related to Collin exactly what I had to bear, and immediately he removed me from the school and from the rector’s house. When, in taking leave of him, I thanked him for the kindness which I had received from him, the passionate man cursed me, and ended by saying that I should never become a student, that my verses would grow mouldy on the floor of the bookseller’s shop, and that I myself should end my days in a mad-house. I trembled to my innermost being, and left him.
Several years afterwards, when my writings were read, when the Improvisatore first came out, I met him in Copenhagen; he offered me his hand in a conciliatory manner, and said that he had erred respecting me, and had treated me wrong; but it now was all the same to me. The heavy, dark days had also produced their blessing in my life. A young man, who afterwards became celebrated in Denmark for his zeal in the Northern languages and in history, became my teacher. I hired a little garret; it is described in the Fiddler; and in The Picture Book without Pictures, people may see that I often received there visits from the moon. I had a certain sum allowed for my support; but as instruction was to be paid for, I had to make savings in other ways. A few families through the week-days gave me a place at their tables. I was a sort of boarder, as many another poor student in Copenhagen is still: there was a variety in it; it gave an insight into the several kinds of family life, which was not without its influence on me. I studied industriously; in some particular branches I had considerably distinguished myself in Helsing÷r, especially in mathematics; these were, therefore, now much more left to myself: everything tended to assist me in my Greek and Latin studies; in one direction, however, and that the one in which it would least have been expected, did my excellent teacher find much to do; namely, in religion. He closely adhered to the literal meaning of the Bible; with this I was acquainted, because from my first entrance in the school I had clearly understood what was said and taught by it. I received gladly, both with feeling and understanding, the doctrine, that God is love: everything which opposed this–a burning hell, therefore, whose fire endured forever–I could not recognize. Released from the distressing existence of the school-bench, I now expressed myself like a free man; and my teacher, who was one of the noblest and most amiable of human beings, but who adhered firmly to the letter, was often quite distressed about me. We disputed, whilst pure flames kindled within our hearts. It was nevertheless good for me that I came to this unspoiled, highly-gifted young man, who was possessed of a nature as peculiar as my own.
That which, on the contrary, was an error in me, and which became very perceptible, was a pleasure which I had, not in jesting with, but in playing with my best feelings, and in regarding the understanding as the most important thing in the world. The rector had completely mistaken my undisguisedly candid and sensitive character; my excitable feelings were made ridiculous, and thrown back upon themselves; and now, when I could freely advance upon the way to my object, this change showed itself in me. From severe suffering I did not rush into libertinism, but into an erroneous endeavor to appear other than I was. I ridiculed feeling, and fancied that I had quite thrown it aside; and yet I could be made wretched for a whole day, if I met with a sour countenance where I expected a friendly one. Every poem which I had formerly written with tears, I now parodied, or gave to it a ludicrous refrain; one of which I called “The Lament of the Kitten,” another, “The Sick Poet.” The few poems which I wrote at that time were all of a humorous character: a complete change had passed over me; the stunted plant was reset, and now began to put forth new shoots.
Wulff’s eldest daughter, a very clever and lively girl, understood and encouraged the humor, which made itself evident in my few poems; she possessed my entire confidence; she protected me like a good sister, and had great influence over me, whilst she awoke in me a feeling for the comic.
At this time, also, a fresh current of life was sent through the Danish literature; for this the people had an interest, and politics played no part in it.
Heiberg, who had gained the acknowledged reputation of a poet by his excellent works, “Psyche” and “Walter the Potter,” had introduced the vaudeville upon the Danish stage; it was a Danish vaudeville, blood of our blood, and was therefore received with acclamation, and supplanted almost everything else. Thalia kept carnival on the Danish stage, and Heiberg was her secretary. I made his acquaintance first at Oersted’s. Refined, eloquent, and the hero of the day, he pleased me in a high degree; he was most kind to me, and I visited him; he considered one of my humorous poems worthy of a place in his most excellent weekly paper, “The Flying Post.” Shortly before I had, after a deal of trouble, got my poem of “The Dying Child” printed in a paper; none of the many publishers of journals, who otherwise accept of the most lamentable trash, had the courage to print a poem by a schoolboy. My best known poem they printed at that time, accompanied by an excuse for it. Heiberg saw it, and gave it in his paper an honorable place. Two humorous poems, signed H., were truly my d but with him.
I remember the first evening when the “Flying Post” appeared with my verses in it. I was with a family who wished me well, but who regarded my poetical talent as quite insignificant, and who found something to censure in every line. The master of the house entered with the “Flying Post” in his hand.
“This evening,” said he, “there are two excellent poems: they are by Heiberg; nobody else could write anything like them.” And now my poems were received with rapture. The daughter, who was in my secret, exclaimed, in her delight, that I was the author. They were all struck into silence, and were vexed. That wounded me deeply.
One of our least esteemed writers, but a man of rank, who was very hospitable, gave me one day a seat at his table. He told me that a new year’s gift would come out, and that he was applied to for a contribution. I said that a little poem of mine, at the wish of the publisher, would appear in the same new year’s gift.
“What, then, everybody and anybody are to contribute to this book!" said the man in vexation: “then he will need nothing from me; I certainly can hardly give him anything.”
My teacher dwelt at a considerable distance from me. I went to him twice each day, and on the way there my thoughts were occupied with my lessons. On my return, however, I breathed more freely, and then bright poetical ideas passed through my brain, but they were never committed to paper; only five or six humorous poems were written in the course of the year, and these disturbed me less when they were laid to rest on paper than if they had remained in my mind.
In September, 1828, I was a student; and when the examination was over, the thousand ideas and thoughts, by which I was pursued on the way to my teacher, flew like a swarm of bees out into the world, and, indeed, into my first work, “A Journey on Foot to Amack;” a peculiar, humorous book, but one which fully exhibited my own individual character at that time, my disposition to sport with everything, and to jest in tears over my own feelings–a fantastic, gaily-colored tapestry-work. No publisher had the courage to bring out that little book; I therefore ventured to do it myself, and, in a few days after its appearance, the impression was sold. Publisher Keitzel bought from me the second edition; after a while he had a third; and besides this, the work was reprinted in Sweden.
Everybody read my book; I heard nothing but praise; I was “a student," –I had attained the highest goal of my wishes. I was in a whirl of joy; and in this state I wrote my first dramatic work, “Love on the Nicholas Tower, or, What says the Pit?” It was unsuccessful, because it satirized that which no longer existed amongst us, namely, the shows of the middle ages; besides which, it rather ridiculed the enthusiasm for the vaudeville. The subject of it was, in short, as follows:–The watchman of the Nicholas Tower, who always spoke as a knight of the castle, wished to give his daughter to the watchman of the neighboring church-tower; but she loved a young tailor, who had made a journey to the grave of Eulenspiegel, and was just now returned, as the punch-bowl steamed, and was to be emptied in honor of the young lady’s consent being given. The lovers escape together to the tailor’s herberg, where dancing and merriment are going forward. The watchman, however, fetches back his daughter; but she had lost her senses, and she assured them that she never would recover them, unless she had her tailor. The old watchman determines that Fate should decide the affair; but, then, who was Fate? The idea then comes into his head that the public shall be his Pythia, and that the public shall decide whether she should have the tailor or the watchman. They determine, therefore, to send to one of the youngest of the poets, and beg him to write the history in the style of the vaudeville, a kind of writing which was the most successful at that time, and when the piece was brought upon the stage, and the public either whistled or hissed, it should be in no wise considered that the work of the young author had been unsuccessful, but that it should be the voice of Fate, which said, “She shall marry the watchman.” If, on the contrary, the piece was successful, it indicated that she should have the tailor; and this last, remarked the father, must be said in prose, in order that the public may understand it. Now every one of the characters thought himself on the stage, where in the epilogue the lovers besought the public for their applause, whilst the watchman begged them either to whistle, or at least to hiss.
My fellow students received the piece with acclamation; they were proud of me. I was the second of their body who in this year had brought out a piece on the Danish stage; the other was Arnesen, student at the same time with me, and author of a vaudeville called “The Intrigue in the People’s Theatre,” a piece which had a great run. We were the two young authors of the October examination, two of the sixteen poets which this year produced, and whom people in jest divided into the four great and the twelve small poets.
I was now a happy human being; I possessed the soul of a poet, and the heart of youth; all houses began to be open to me; I flew from circle to circle. Still, however, I devoted myself industriously to study, so that in September, 1829, I passed my Examen philologicum et philosophicum, and brought out the first collected edition of my poems, which met with great praise. Life lay bright with sunshine before me.