Hans Christian Andersen, Child Life
POET AND NOVELIST OF DENMARK.
My life is a lovely story, happy and full of incident. If,
when I was a boy, and went forth into the world poor and
friendless, a good fairy had met me and said, "Choose now thy
own course through life, and the object for which thou wilt strive,
and then, according to the development of thy mind, and as
reason requires, I will guide and defend thee to its attainment,"
my fate could not, even then, have been directed more happily,
more prudently, or better. The history of my life will say to the
world what it says to me,—There is a loving God, who directs
all things for the best.
In the year 1805 there lived at Odense, in a small mean room,
a young married couple, who were extremely attached to each
other; he was a shoemaker, scarcely twenty-two years old, a man
of a richly gifted and truly poetical mind. His wife, a few years
older than himself, was ignorant of life and of the world, but
possessed a heart full of love. The young man had himself made
his shoemaking bench, and the bedstead with which he began
housekeeping; this bedstead he had made out of the wooden
frame which had borne only a short time before the coffin of the
deceased Count Trampe, as he lay in state, and the remnants of
the black cloth on the wood-work kept the fact still in remembrance.
Instead of a noble corpse, surrounded by crape and waxlights,
here lay, on the 2d of April, 1805, a living and weeping child,—that
was myself, Hans Christian Andersen. During the first
day of my existence my father is said to have sat by the bed and
read aloud in Holberg, but I cried all the time. "Wilt thou go to
sleep, or listen quietly?" it is reported that my father asked in
joke; but I still cried on; and even in the church, when I was
taken to be baptized, I cried so loudly that the preacher, who was
a passionate man, said, "The young one screams like a cat!"
which words my mother never forgot. A poor emigrant, Gomar,
who stood as godfather, consoled her in the mean time by saying
that, the louder I cried as a child, all the more beautifully should I
sing when I grew older.
Our little room, which was almost filled with the shoemaker's
bench, the bed, and my crib, was the abode of my childhood; the
walls, however, were covered with pictures, and over the workbench
was a cupboard containing books and songs; the little
kitchen was full of shining plates and metal pans, and by means
of a ladder it was possible to go out on the roof, where, in the
gutters between it and the neighbor's house, there stood a great
chest filled with soil, my mother's sole garden, and where she
grew her vegetables. In my story of the "Snow Queen" that
garden still blooms.
I was the only child, and was extremely spoiled; but I continually
heard from my mother how very much happier I was than
she had been, and that I was brought up like a nobleman's child.
She, as a child, had been driven out by her parents to beg; and
once, when she was not able to do it, she had sat for a whole day
under a bridge and wept.
My father gratified me in all my wishes. I possessed his whole
heart; he lived for me. On Sundays he made me perspective-glasses,
theatres, and pictures which could be changed; he read to
me from Holberg's plays and the "Arabian Tales"; it was only
in such moments as these that I can remember to have seen him
really cheerful, for he never felt himself happy in his life and as
a handicraftsman. His parents had been country people in good
circumstances, but upon whom many misfortunes had fallen,—the
cattle had died; the farm-house had been burned down; and,
lastly, the husband had lost his reason. On this the wife had
removed with him to Odense, and there put her son, whose mind
was full of intelligence, apprentice to a shoemaker; it could not be
otherwise, although it was his ardent wish to attend the grammar
school, where he might learn Latin. A few well-to-do citizens had
at one time spoken of this, of clubbing together to raise a sufficient
sum to pay for his board and education, and thus giving him
a start in life; but it never went beyond words. My poor father
saw his dearest wish unfulfilled; and he never lost the remembrance
of it. I recollect that once, as a child, I saw tears in his
eyes, and it was when a youth from the grammar school came to
our house to be measured for a new pair of boots, and showed us
his books and told us what he learned.
"That was the path upon which I ought to have gone!" said
my father, kissed me passionately, and was silent the whole
He very seldom associated with his equals. He went out into
the woods on Sundays, when he took me with him; he did not
talk much when he was out, but would sit silently, sunk in deep
thought, whilst I ran about and strung strawberries on a bent, or
bound garlands. Only twice in the year, and that in the month
of May, when the woods were arrayed in their earliest green, did
my mother go with us; and then she wore a cotton gown, which
she put on only on these occasions and when she partook of the
Lord's Supper, and which, as long as I can remember, was her
holiday gown. She always took home with her from the wood a
great many fresh beech boughs, which were then planted behind
the polished stone. Later in the year sprigs of St. John's wort
were stuck into the chinks of the beams, and we considered their
growth as omens whether our lives would be long or short. Green
branches and pictures ornamented our little room, which my
mother always kept neat and clean; she took great pride in always
having the bed linen and the curtains very white.
One of my first recollections, although very slight in itself, had
for me a good deal of importance, from the power by which the
fancy of a child impressed it upon my soul; it was a family festival,
and can you guess where? In that very place in Odense,
in that house which I had always looked on with fear and trembling,
just as boys in Paris may have looked at the Bastile,—in the
Odense house of correction.
My parents were acquainted with the jailer, who invited them
to a family dinner, and I was to go with them. I was at that
time still so small that I was carried when we returned home.
The House of Correction was for me a great storehouse of
stories about robbers and thieves; often I had stood, but always at
a safe distance, and listened to the singing of the men within and
of the women spinning at their wheels.
I went with my parents to the jailer's; the heavy iron-bolted
gate was opened and again locked with the key from the rattling
bunch; we mounted a steep staircase,—we ate and drank, and
two of the prisoners waited at the table; they could not induce
me to taste of anything, the sweetest things I pushed away; my
mother told them I was sick, and I was laid on a bed, where I
heard the spinning-wheels humming near by and merry singing,
whether in my own fancy or in reality I cannot tell; but I know
that I was afraid, and was kept on the stretch all the time; and
yet I was in a pleasant humor, making up stories of how I had
entered a castle full of robbers. Late in the night my parents
went home, carrying me; the rain, for it was rough weather, dashing
against my face.
Odense was in my childhood quite another town from what it
is now, when it has shot ahead of Copenhagen, with its water
carried through the town, and I know not what else! Then it was
a hundred years behind the times; many customs and manners
prevailed which long since disappeared from the capital. When
the guilds removed their signs, they went in procession with flying
banners and with lemons dressed in ribbons stuck on their swords.
A harlequin with bells and a wooden sword ran at the head; one
of them, an old fellow, Hans Struh, made a great hit by his merry
chatter and his face, which was painted black, except the nose,
that kept its genuine red color. My mother was so pleased with
him that she tried to find out if he was in any way related to us;
but I remember very well that I, with all the pride of an aristocrat,
protested against any relationship with the "fool."
In my sixth year came the great comet of 1811; and my
mother told me that it would destroy the earth, or that other
horrible things threatened us. I listened to all these stories and
fully believed them. With my mother and some of the neighboring
women I stood in St. Canut's Churchyard and looked at
the frightful and mighty fire-ball with its large shining tail.
All talked about the signs of evil and the day of doom. My
father joined us, but he was not of the others' opinion at all, and
gave them a correct and sound explanation; then my mother
sighed, the women shook their heads, my father laughed and went
away. I caught the idea that my father was not of our faith, and
that threw me into a great fright. In the evening my mother and
my old grandmother talked together, and I do not know how she
explained it; but I sat in her lap, looked into her mild eyes, and
expected every moment that the comet would rush down, and the
day of judgment come.
The mother of my father came daily to our house, were it only
for a moment, in order to see her little grandson. I was her joy
and her delight. She was a quiet and most amiable old woman,
with mild blue eyes and a fine figure, which life had severely tried.
From having been the wife of a countryman in easy circumstances
she had now fallen into great poverty, and dwelt with her feeble-minded
husband in a little house, which was the last poor remains
of their property. I never saw her shed a tear; but it made all
the deeper impression upon me when she quietly sighed, and told
me about her own mother's mother,—how she had been a rich,
noble lady, in the city of Cassel, and that she had married a
"comedy-player,"—that was as she expressed it,—and run away
from parents and home, for all of which her posterity had now to
do penance. I never can recollect that I heard her mention the
family name of her grandmother; but her own maiden name was
Nommesen. She was employed to take care of the garden belonging
to a lunatic asylum; and every Sunday evening she brought us
some flowers, which they gave her permission to take home with
her. These flowers adorned my mother's cupboard; but still they
were mine, and to me it was allowed to put them in the glass of
water. How great was this pleasure! She brought them all to me;
she loved me with her whole soul. I knew it, and I understood it.
She burned, twice in the year, the green rubbish of the garden;
on such occasions she took me with her to the asylum, and I lay
upon the great heaps of green leaves and pea-straw; I had many
flowers to play with, and—which was a circumstance upon which
I set great importance—I had here better food to eat than I could
expect at home.
All such patients as were harmless were permitted to go freely
about the court; they often came to us in the garden, and with
curiosity and terror I listened to them and followed them about;
nay, I even ventured so far as to go with the attendants to those
who were raving mad. A long passage led to their cells. On one
occasion, when the attendants were out of the way, I lay down
upon the floor, and peeped through the crack of the door into one
of these cells. I saw within a lady almost naked, lying on her
straw bed; her hair hung down over her shoulders, and she sang
with a very beautiful voice. All at once she sprang up, and threw
herself against the door where I lay; the little valve through
which she received her food burst open; she stared down upon
me, and stretched out her long arm toward me. I screamed for
terror,—I felt the tips of her fingers touching my clothes,—I was
half dead when the attendant came; and even in later years that
sight and that feeling remained within my soul.
I was very much afraid of my weak-minded grandfather. Only
once had he ever spoken to me, and then he had made use of the
formal pronoun, "you." He employed himself in cutting out of
wood strange figures,—men with beasts' heads and beasts with
wings; these he packed in a basket and carried them out into the
country, where he was everywhere well received by the peasant-women,
because he gave to them and their children these strange
toys. One day, when he was returning to Odense, I heard the
boys in the street shouting after him; I hid myself behind a flight
of steps in terror, for I knew that I was of his flesh and blood.
I very seldom played with other boys; even at school I took
little interest in their games, but remained sitting within doors.
At home I had playthings enough, which my father made for me.
My greatest delight was in making clothes for dolls, or in stretching
out one of my mother's aprons between the wall and two sticks
before a currant-bush which I had planted in the yard, and thus
to gaze in between the sun-illumined leaves. I was a singularly
dreamy child, and so constantly went about with my eyes shut, as
at last to give the impression of having weak sight, although the
sense of sight was especially cultivated by me.
An old woman-teacher, who had an A B C school, taught me
the letters, to spell, and "to read right," as it was called. She
used to have her seat in a high-backed arm-chair near the clock,
from which at every full stroke some little automata came out.
She made use of a big rod, which she always carried with her.
The school consisted mostly of girls. It was the custom of the
school for all to spell loudly and in as high a key as possible. The
mistress dared not beat me, as my mother had made it a condition
of my going that I should not be touched. One day having got a
hit of the rod, I rose immediately, took my book, and without
further ceremony went home to my mother, asked that I might go
to another school, and that was granted me. My mother sent me
to Carsten's school for boys; there was also one girl there, a little
one somewhat older than I; we became very good friends; she
used to speak of the advantage it was to be to her in going into
service, and that she went to school especially to learn arithmetic,
for, as her mother told her, she could then become dairy-maid in
some great manor.
"That you can become in my castle when I am a nobleman!"
said I; and she laughed at me, and told me that I was only a poor
boy. One day I had drawn something which I called my castle,
and I told her that I was a changed child of high birth, and that
the angels of God came down and spoke to me. I wanted to
make her stare as I did with the old women in the hospital, but
she would not be caught. She looked queerly at me, and said to
one of the other boys standing near, "He is a fool, like his grandpapa,"
and I shivered at the words. I had said it to give me an
air of importance in their eyes; but I failed, and only made them
think that I was insane like my grandfather.
I never spoke to her again about these things, but we were no
longer the same playmates as before. I was the smallest in the
school, and my teacher, Mr. Carsten, always took me by the hand
while the other boys played, that I might not be run over; he
loved me much, gave me cakes and flowers, and tapped me on the
cheeks. One of the older boys did not know his lesson, and was
punished by being placed, book in hand, upon the school-table,
around which we were seated; but seeing me quite inconsolable at
this punishment, he pardoned the culprit.
The poor old teacher became, later in life, telegraph-director at
Thorseng, where he still lived until a few years since. It is said
that the old man, when showing the visitors around, told them
with a pleasant smile, "Well, well, you will perhaps not believe
that such a poor old man as I was the first teacher of one of our
most renowned poets!"
Sometimes, during the harvest, my mother went into the field to
glean. I accompanied her, and we went, like Ruth in the Bible,
to glean in the rich fields of Boaz. One day we went to a place
the bailiff of which was well known for being a man of a rude and
savage disposition. We saw him coming with a huge whip in his
hand, and my mother and all the others ran away. I had wooden
shoes on my bare feet, and in my haste I lost these, and then the
thorns pricked me so that I could not run, and thus I was left
behind and alone. The man came up and lifted his whip to strike
me, when I looked him in the face and involuntarily exclaimed,
"How dare you strike me, when God can see it?"
The strong, stern man looked at me, and at once became mild;
he patted me on my cheeks, asked me my name, and gave me
When I brought this to my mother and showed it her, she
said to the others, "He is a strange child, my Hans Christian;
everybody is kind to him. This bad fellow even has given him