The True Story of My Life
By Hans Christian Andersen
Public Domain Books
Until now I had only seen a small part of my native land, that is to say, a few points in Funen and Zealand, as well as Moen’s Klint, which last is truly one of our most beautiful places; the beechwoods there hang like a garland over the white chalk cliffs, from which a view is obtained far over the Baltic. I wished, therefore, in the summer of 1830, to devote my first literary proceeds to seeing Jutland, and making myself more thoroughly acquainted with my own Funen. I had no idea how much solidity of mind I should derive from this summer excursion, or what a change was about to take place in my inner life.
Jutland, which stretches between the German Ocean and the Baltic, until it ends at Skagen in a reef of quicksands, possesses a peculiar character. Towards the Baltic extend immense woods and hills; towards the North Sea, mountains and quicksands, scenery of a grand and solitary character; and between the two, infinite expanses of brown heath, with their wandering gipsies, their wailing birds, and their deep solitude, which the Danish poet, Steen Blicher, has described in his novels.
This was the first foreign scenery which I had ever seen, and the impression, therefore, which it made upon me was very strong. [Footnote: This impressive and wild scenery, with its characteristic figures, of gipsies etc., is most exquisitely introduced into the author’s novel of “O. T."; indeed it gives a coloring and tone to the whole work, which the reader never can forget. In my opinion Andersen never wrote anything finer in the way of description than many parts of this work, though as a story it is not equal to his others.–M. H.] In the cities, where my “Journey on Foot” and my comic poems were known, I met with a good reception. Funen revealed her rural life to me; and, not far from my birth-place of Odense, I passed several weeks at the country seat of the elder Iversen as a welcome guest. Poems sprung forth upon paper, but of the comic fewer and fewer. Sentiment, which I had so often derided, would now be avenged. I arrived, in the course of my journey, at the house of a rich family in a small city; and here suddenly a new world opened before me, an immense world, which yet could be contained in four lines, which I wrote at that time:–
A pair of dark eyes fixed my sight, They were my world, my home, my delight, The soul beamed in them, and childlike peace, And never on earth will their memory cease.
New plans of life occupied me. I would give up writing poetry,–to what could it lead? I would study theology, and become a preacher; I had only one thought, and that was she. But it was self-delusion: she loved another; she married him. It was not till several years later that I felt and acknowledged that it was best, both for her and for myself, that things had fallen out as they were. She had no idea, perhaps, how deep my feeling for her had been, or what an influence it produced in me. She had become the excellent wife of a good man, and a happy mother. God’s blessing rest upon her!
In my “Journey on Foot,” and in most of my writings, satire had been the prevailing characteristic. This displeased many people, who thought that this bent of mind could lead to no good purpose. The critics now blamed me precisely for that which a far deeper feeling had expelled from my breast. A new collection of Poetry, “Fancies and Sketches," which was published for the new year, showed satisfactorily what my heart suffered. A paraphrase of the history of my own heart appeared in a serious vaudeville, “Parting and Meeting,” with this difference only, that here the love was mutual: the piece was not presented on the stage till five years later.
Among my young friends in Copenhagen at that time was Orla Lehmann, who afterwards rose higher in popular favor, on account of his political efforts than any man in Denmark. Full of animation, eloquent and undaunted, his character of mind was one which interested me also. The German language was much studied at his father’s; they had received there Heine’s poems, and they were very attractive for young Orla. He lived in the country, in the neighborhood of the castle of Fredericksberg. I went there to see him, and he sang as I came one of Heine’s verses, “Thalatta, Thalatta, du eviges Meer.” We read Heine together; the afternoon and the evening passed, and I was obliged to remain there all night; but I had on this evening made the acquaintance of a poet, who, as it seemed to me, sang from the soul; he supplanted Hoffman, who, as might be seen by my “Journey on Foot,” had formerly had the greatest influence on me. In my youth there were only three authors who as it were infused themselves into my blood,–Walter Scott, Hoffman, and Heine.
I betrayed more and more in my writings an unhealthy turn of mind. I felt an inclination to seek for the melancholy in life, and to linger on the dark side of things. I became sensitive and thought rather of the blame than the praise which was lavished on me. My late school education, which was forced, and my impulse to become an author whilst I was yet a student, make it evident that my first work, the “Journey on Foot,” was not without grammatical errors. Had I only paid some one to correct the press, which was a work I was unaccustomed to, then no charge of this kind could have been brought against me. Now, on the contrary, people laughed at these errors, and dwelt upon them, passing over carelessly that in the book which had merit. I know people who only read my poems to find out errors; they noted down, for instance, how often I used the word beautiful, or some similar word. A gentleman, now a clergyman, at that time a writer of vaudevilles and a critic, was not ashamed, in a company where I was, to go through several of my poems in this style; so that a little girl of six years old, who heard with amazement that he discovered everything to be wrong, took the book, and pointing out the conjunction and, said, “There is yet a little word about which you have not scolded.” He felt what a reproof lay in the remark of the child; he looked ashamed and kissed the little one. All this wounded me; but I had, since my school-days, become somewhat timid, and that caused me to take it all quietly: I was morbidly sensitive, and I was good-natured to a fault. Everybody knew it, and some were on that account almost cruel to me. Everybody wished to teach me; almost everybody said that I was spoiled by praise, and therefore they would speak the truth to me. Thus I heard continually of my faults, the real and the ideal weaknesses. In the mean time, however, my feelings burst forth; and then I said that I would become a poet whom they should see honored. But this was regarded only as the crowning mark of the most unbearable vanity; and from house to house it was repeated. I was a good man, they said, but one of the vainest in existence; and in that very time I was often ready wholly to despair of my abilities, and had, as in the darkest days of my school- life, a feeling, as if my whole talents were a self-deception. I almost believed so; but it was more than I could bear, to hear the same thing said, sternly and jeeringly, by others; and if I then uttered a proud, an inconsiderate word, it was addressed to the scourge with which I was smitten; and when those who smite are those we love, then do the scourges become scorpions.
For this reason Collin thought that I should make a little journey,– for instance, to North Germany,–in order to divert my mind and furnish me with new ideas.
In the spring of 1831, I left Denmark for the first time. I saw L bek and Hamburg. Everything astonished me and occupied my mind. I saw mountains for the first time,–the Harzgebirge. The world expanded so astonishingly before me. My good humor returned to me, as to the bird of passage. Sorrow is the flock of sparrows which remains behind, and builds in the nests of the birds of passage. But I did not feel myself wholly restored.
In Dresden I made acquaintance with Tieck. Ingemann had given me a letter to him. I heard him one evening read aloud one of Shakspeare’s plays. On taking leave of him, he wished me a poet’s success, embraced and kissed me; which made the deepest impression upon me. The expression of his eyes I shall never forget. I left him with tears, and prayed most fervently to God for strength to enable me to pursue the way after which my whole soul strove–strength, which should enable me to express that which I felt in my soul; and that when I next saw Tieck, I might be known and valued by him. It was not until several years afterwards, when my later works were translated into German, and well received in his country, that we saw each other again; I felt the true hand-pressure of him who had given to me, in my second father- land, the kiss of consecration.
In Berlin, a letter of Oersted’s procured me the acquaintance of Chamisso. That grave man, with his long locks and honest eyes, opened the door to me himself, read the letter, and I know not how it was, but we understood each other immediately. I felt perfect confidence in him, and told him so, though it was in bad German. Chamisso understood Danish; I gave him my poems, and he was the first who translated any of them, and thus introduced me into Germany. It was thus he spoke of me at that time in the Morgenblatt: “Gifted with wit, fancy, humor, and a national na vet , Andersen has still in his power tones which awaken deeper echoes. He understands, in particular, how with perfect ease, by a few slight but graphic touches, to call into existence little pictures and landscapes, but which are often so peculiarly local as not to interest those who are unfamiliar with the home of the poet. Perhaps that which may be translated from him, or which is so already, may be the least calculated to give a proper idea of him.”
Chamisso became a friend for my whole life. The pleasure which he had in my later writings may be seen by the printed letters addressed to me in the collected edition of his works.
The little journey in Germany had great influence upon me, as my Copenhagen friends acknowledged. The impressions of the journey were immediately written down, and I gave them forth under the title of “Shadow Pictures.” Whether I were actually improved or not, there still prevailed at home the same petty pleasure in dragging out my faults, the same perpetual schooling of me; and I was weak enough to endure it from those who were officious meddlers. I seldom made a joke of it; but if I did so, it was called arrogance and vanity, and it was asserted that I never would listen to rational people. Such an instructor once asked me whether I wrote Dog with a little d;–he had found such an error of the press in my last work. I replied, jestingly, “Yes, because I here spoke of a little dog.”
But these are small troubles, people will say. Yes, but they are drops which wear hollows in the rock. I speak of it here; I feel a necessity to do so; here to protest against the accusation of vanity, which, since no other error can be discovered in my private life, is seized upon, and even now is thrown at me like an old medal.
From the end of the year 1828, to the beginning of 1839, I maintained myself alone by my writings. Denmark is a small country; but few books at that time went to Sweden and Norway; and on that account the profit could not be great. It was difficult for me to pull through,–doubly difficult, because my dress must in some measure accord with the circles into which I went. To produce, and always to be producing, was destructive, nay, impossible. I translated a few pieces for the theatre,–La Quarantaine, and La Reine de seize ans; and as, at that time, a young composer of the name of Hartmann, a grandson of him who composed the Danish folks-song of “King Christian stood by the tall, tall mast,” wished for text to an opera, I was of course ready to write it. Through the writings of Hoffman, my attention had been turned to the masked comedies of Gozzi: I read Il Corvo, and finding that it was an excellent subject, I wrote, in a few weeks, my opera-text of the Raven. It will sound strange to the ears of countrymen when I say that I, at that time, recommended Hartmann; that I gave my word for it, in my letter to the theatrical directors, for his being a man of talent, who would produce something good. He now takes the first rank among the living Danish composers.
I worked up also Walter Scott’s “Bride of Lammermoor” for another young composer, Bredal. Both operas appeared on the stage; but I was subjected to the most merciless criticism, as one who had stultified the labors of foreign poets. What people had discovered to be good in me before seemed now to be forgotten, and all talent was denied to me. The composer Weyse, my earliest benefactor, whom I have already mentioned, was, on the contrary, satisfied in the highest degree with my treatment of these subjects. He told me that he had wished for a long time to compose an opera from Walter Scott’s “Kenilworth.” He now requested me to commence the joint work, and write the text. I had no idea of the summary justice which would be dealt to me. I needed money to live, and, what still more determined me to it, I felt flattered to have to work with Weyse our most celebrated composer. It delighted me that he, who had first spoken in my favor at Siboni’s house, now, as artist, sought a noble connection with me. I had scarcely half finished the text, when I was already blamed for having made use of a well-known romance. I wished to give it up; but Weyse consoled me, and encouraged me to proceed. Afterwards, before he had finished the music, when I was about to travel abroad, I committed my fate, as regarded the text, entirely to his hands. He wrote whole verses of it, and the altered conclusion is wholly his own. It was a peculiarity of that singular man that he liked no book which ended sorrowfully. For that reason, Amy must marry Leicester, and Elizabeth say, “Proud England, I am thine.” I opposed this at the beginning; but afterwards I yielded, and the piece was really half-created by Weyse. It was brought on the stage, but was not printed, with the exception of the songs. To this followed anonymous attacks: the city post brought me letters in which the unknown writers scoffed at and derided me. That same year I published a new collection of poetry, “The Twelve Months of the Year;” and this book, though it was afterwards pronounced to contain the greater part of my best lyrical poems, was then condemned as bad.
At that time “The Monthly Review of Literature,” though it is now gone to its grave, was in its full bloom. At its first appearance, it numbered among its co-workers some of the most distinguished names. Its want, however, was men who were qualified to speak ably on aesthetic works. Unfortunately, everybody fancies himself able to give an opinion upon these; but people may write excellently on surgery or pedagogical science, and may have a name in those things, and yet be dolts in poetry: of this proofs may be seen. By degrees it became more and more difficult for the critical bench to find a judge for poetical works. The one, however, who, through his extraordinary zeal for writing and speaking, was ready at hand, was the historian and states-councillor Molbeck, who played, in our time, so great a part in the history of Danish criticism, that I must speak of him rather more fully. He is an industrious collector, writes extremely correct Danish, and his Danish dictionary, let him be reproached with whatever want he may, is a most highly useful work; but, as a judge of aesthetic works, he is one- sided, and even fanatically devoted to party spirit. He belongs, unfortunately, to the men of science, who are only one sixty-fourth of a poet, and who are the most incompetent judges of aesthetics. He has, for example, by his critiques on Ingemann’s romances, shown how far he is below the poetry which he censures. He has himself published a volume of poems, which belong to the common run of books, “A Ramble through Denmark,” written in the fade, flowery style of those times, and “A Journey through Germany, France, and Italy,” which seems to be made up out of books, not out of life. He sate in his study, or in the Royal Library, where he has a post, when suddenly he became director of the theatre and censor of the pieces sent in. He was sickly, one-sided in judgment, and irritable: people may imagine the result. He spoke of my first poems very favorably; but my star soon sank for another, who was in the ascendant, a young lyrical poet, Paludan M ller; and, as he no longer loved, he hated me. That is the short history; indeed, in the selfsame Monthly Review the very poems which had formerly been praised were now condemned by the same judge, when they appeared in a new increased edition. There is a Danish proverb, “When the carriage drags, everybody pushes behind;” and I proved the truth of it now.
It happened that a new star in Danish literature ascended at this time. Heinrich Hertz published his “Letters from the Dead” anonymously: it was a mode of driving all the unclean things out of the temple. The deceased Baggesen sent polemical letters from Paradise, which resembled in the highest degree the style of that author. They contained a sort of apotheosis of Heiberg, and in part attacks upon Oehlenschl ger and Hauch. The old story about my orthographical errors was again revived; my name and my school-days in Slagelse were brought into connection with St. Anders.
I was ridiculed, or if people will, I was chastised. Hertz’s book went through all Denmark; people spoke of nothing but him. It made it still more piquant that the author of the work could not be discovered. People were enraptured, and justly. Heiberg, in his “Flying Post," defended a few aesthetical insignificants, but not me. I felt the wound of the sharp knife deeply. My enemies now regarded me as entirely shut out from the world of spirits. I however in a short time published a little book, “Vignettes to the Danish Poets,” in which I characterized the dead and the living authors in a few lines each, but only spoke of that which was good in them. The book excited attention; it was regarded as one of the best of my works; it was imitated, but the critics did not meddle with it. It was evident, on this occasion, as had already been the case, that the critics never laid hands on those of my works which were the most successful.
My affairs were now in their worst condition; and precisely in that same year in which a stipend for travelling had been conferred upon Hertz, I also had presented a petition for the same purpose. The universal opinion was that I had reached the point of culmination, and if I was to succeed in travelling it must be at this present time. I felt, what since then has become an acknowledged fact, that travelling would be the best school for me. In the mean time I was told that to bring it under consideration I must endeavor to obtain from the most distinguished poets and men of science a kind of recommendation; because this very year there were so many distinguished young men who were soliciting a stipend, that it would be difficult among these to put in an available claim. I therefore obtained recommendations for myself; and I am, so far as I know, the only Danish poet who was obliged to produce recommendations to prove that he was a poet.
And here also it is remarkable, that the men who recommended me have each one made prominent some very different qualification which gave me a claim: for instance, Oehlenschl ger, my lyrical power, and the earnestness that was in me; Ingemann, my skill in depicting popular life; Heiberg declared that, since the days of Wessel, no Danish poet had possessed so much humor as myself; Oersted remarked, every one, they who were against me as well as those who were for me, agreed on one subject, and this was that I was a true poet. Thiele expressed himself warmly and enthusiastically about the power which he had seen in me, combating against the oppression and the misery of life. I received a stipend for travelling; Hertz a larger and I a smaller one: and that also was quite in the order of things.
“Now be happy,” said my friends, “make yourself aware of your unbounded good fortune! Enjoy the present moment, as it will probably be the only time in which you will get abroad. You shall hear what people say about you while you are travelling, and how we shall defend you; sometimes, however, we shall not be able to do that.”
It was painful to me to hear such things said; I felt a compulsion of soul to be away, that I might, if possible, breathe freely; but sorrow is firmly seated on the horse of the rider. More than one sorrow oppressed my heart, and although I opened the chambers of my heart to the world, one or two of them I keep locked, nevertheless. On setting out on my journey, my prayer to God was that I might die far away from Denmark, or return strengthened for activity, and in a condition to produce works which should win for me and my beloved ones joy and honor.
Precisely at the moment of setting out on my journey, the form of my beloved arose in my heart. Among the few whom I have already named, there are two who exercised a great influence upon my life and my poetry, and these I must more particularly mention. A beloved mother, an unusually liberal-minded and well educated lady, Madame L ss c, had introduced me into her agreeable circle of friends; she often felt the deepest sympathy with me in my troubles; she always turned my attention to the beautiful in nature and the poetical in the details of life, and as almost everyone regarded me as a poet, she elevated my mind; yes, and if there be tenderness and purity in anything which I have written, they are among those things for which I have especially to be thankful to her. Another character of great importance to me was Collin’s son Edward. Brought up under fortunate circumstances of life, he was possessed of that courage and determination which I wanted. I felt that he sincerely loved me, and I full of affection, threw myself upon him with my whole soul; he passed on calmly and practically through the business of life. I often mistook him at the very moment when he felt for me most deeply, and when he would gladly have infused into me a portion of his own character,–to me who was as a reed shaken by the wind. In the practical part of life, he, the younger, stood actively by my side, from the assistance which he gave in my Latin exercises, to the arranging the business of bringing out editions of my works. He has always remained the same; and were I to enumerate my friends, he would be placed by me as the first on the list. When the traveller leaves the mountains behind him, then for the first time he sees them in their true form: so is it also with friends.
I arrived at Paris by way of Cassel and the Rhine. I retained a vivid impression of all that I saw. The idea for a poem fixed itself firmer and firmer in my mind; and I hoped, as it became more clearly worked out, to propitiate by it my enemies. There is an old Danish folks-song of Agnete and the Merman, which bore an affinity to my own state of mind, and to the treatment of which I felt an inward impulse. The song tells that Agnete wandered solitarily along the shore, when a merman rose up from the waves and decoyed her by his speeches. She followed him to the bottom of the sea, remained there seven years, and bore him seven children. One day, as she sat by the cradle, she heard the church bells sounding down to her in the depths of the sea, and a longing seized her heart to go to church. By her prayers and tears she induced the merman to conduct her to the upper world again, promising soon to return. He prayed her not to forget his children, more especially the little one in the cradle; stopped up her ears and her mouth, and then led her upwards to the sea-shore. When, however, she entered the church, all the holy images, as soon as they saw her, a daughter of sin and from the depths of the sea, turned themselves round to the walls. She was affrighted, and would not return, although the little ones in her home below were weeping.
I treated this subject freely, in a lyrical and dramatic manner. I will venture to say that the whole grew out of my heart; all the recollections of our beechwoods and the open sea were blended in it.
In the midst of the excitement of Paris I lived in the spirit of the Danish folks-songs. The most heartfelt gratitude to God filled my soul, because I felt that all which I had, I had received through his mercy; yet at the same time I took a lively interest in all that surrounded me. I was present at one of the July festivals, in their first freshness; it was in the year 1833. I saw the unveiling of Napoleon’s pillar. I gazed on the world-experienced King Louis Philippe, who is evidently defended by Providence. I saw the Duke of Orleans, full of health and the enjoyment of life, dancing at the gay people’s ball, in the gay Maison de Ville. Accident led in Paris to my first meeting with Heine, the poet, who at that time occupied the throne in my poetical world. When I told him how happy this meeting and his kind words made me, he said that this could not very well be the case, else I should have sought him out. I replied, that I had not done so precisely because I estimated him so highly. I should have feared that he might have thought it ridiculous in me, an unknown Danish poet, to seek him out; “and,” added I, “your sarcastic smile would deeply have wounded me.” In reply, he said something friendly.
Several years afterwards, when we again met in Paris, he gave me a cordial reception, and I had a view into the brightly poetical portion of his soul.
Paul D port met me with equal kindness. Victor Hugo also received me.
During my journey to Paris, and the whole month that I spent there, I heard not a single word from home. Could my friends perhaps have nothing agreeable to tell me? At length, however, a letter arrived; a large letter, which cost a large sum in postage. My heart beat with joy and yearning impatience; it was, indeed, my first letter. I opened it, but I discovered not a single written word, nothing but a Copenhagen newspaper, containing a lampoon upon me, and that was sent to me all that distance with postage unpaid, probably by the anonymous writer himself. This abominable malice wounded me deeply. I have never discovered who the author was, perhaps he was one of those who afterwards called me friend, and pressed my hand. Some men have base thoughts: I also have mine.
It is a weakness of my country-people, that commonly, when abroad, during their residence in large cities, they almost live exclusively in company together; they must dine together, meet at the theatre, and see all the lions of the place in company. Letters are read by each other; news of home is received and talked over, and at last they hardly know whether they are in a foreign land or their own. I had given way to the same weakness in Paris; and in leaving it, therefore, determined for one month to board myself in some quiet place in Switzerland, and live only among the French, so as to be compelled to speak their language, which was necessary to me in the highest degree.
In the little city of Lodi, in a valley of the Jura mountains, where the snow fell in August, and the clouds floated below us, was I received by the amiable family of a wealthy watchmaker. They would not hear a word about payment. I lived among them and their friends as a relation, and when we parted the children wept. We had become friends, although I could not understand their patois; they shouted loudly into my ear, because they fancied I must be deaf, as I could not understand them. In the evenings, in that elevated region, there was a repose and a stillness in nature, and the sound of the evening bells ascended to us from the French frontier. At some distance from the city, stood a solitary house, painted white and clean; on descending through two cellars, the noise of a millwheel was heard, and the rushing waters of a river which flowed on here, hidden from the world. I often visited this place in my solitary rambles, and here I finished my poem of “Agnete and the Merman,” which I had begun in Paris.
I sent home this poem from Lodi; and never, with my earlier or my later works, were my hopes so high as they were now. But it was received coldly. People said I had done it in imitation of Oehlenschl ger, who at one time sent home masterpieces. Within the last few years, I fancy, this poem has been somewhat more read, and has met with its friends. It was, however, a step forwards, and it decided, as it were, unconsciously to me, my pure lyrical phasis. It has been also of late critically adjudged in Denmark, that, notwithstanding that on its first appearance it excited far less attention than some of my earlier and less successful works, still that in this the poetry is of a deeper, fuller, and more powerful character than anything which I had hitherto produced.
This poem closes one portion of my life.