Jean Paul Richter, Child Life


It was in the year 1763 that I came into the world, in the same month that the golden and gray wagtail, the robin-redbreast, the crane, and the red-hammer came also; and, in case anybody wished to strew flowers on the cradle of the new-born, the spoonwort and the aspen hung out their tender blossoms,—on the 20th of March, in the early morning. I was born in Wunsiedel, in the highlands of the Fitchtelbirge. Ah! I am glad to have been born in thee, little city of the mountains, whose tops look down upon us like the heads of eagles, and where we can glance over villages and mountain meadows, and drink health at all thy fountains!

To my great joy I can call up from my twelfth or, at farthest, my fourteenth month of age one pale little remembrance, like an early and frail snow-drop, from the fresh soil of my childhood. I recollect that a scholar loved me much, and carried me about in his arms, and took me to a great dark room and gave me milk to drink.

In 1765 my father was appointed minister to Joditz, where I was carried in a girl's cap and petticoat. The little Saale River, born like myself in the Fitchtelbirge, ran with me to Joditz, as it afterwards ran after me to Hof when I removed there. A small brook traverses the little town, that is crossed on a plank as I remember. The old castle and the pastor's house were the two principal buildings. There was a school-house right opposite the parsonage, into which I was admitted, when big enough to wear breeches and a green taffety cap. The schoolmaster was sickly and lean, but I loved him, and watched anxiously with him as he lay hid behind his birdcage placed in the open window to catch goldfinches, or when he spread a net in the snow and caught a yellow-hammer.

My life in Joditz was very pleasant, all the four seasons were full of happiness. I hardly know which to tell of first, for each is a heavenly introduction to the next; but I will begin with winter. In the cold morning my father came down stairs and learned his Sunday sermon by the window, and I and my brother carried the full cup of coffee to him,—and still more gladly carried it back empty, for we could pick out the unmelted sugar from the bottom. Out of doors, the sky covered all things with silence,—the brook with ice, the village roofs with snow; but in our room there was warm life,—under the stove was a pigeon-house, on the windows goldfinch-cages; on the floor was the bull-dog and a pretty little poodle close by. Farther off, at the other end of the house, was the stable, with cows and pigs and hens. The threshers we could hear in the court-yard beating out the grain.

In the long twilight our father walked back and forth, and we trotted after him, creeping under his nightgown, and holding on to his hands if we could reach them. At the sound of the vesper-bell we stood in a circle and chanted the old hymn,

"Dis finstre Nacht bricht stark herein."
"The gloomy night is gathering in."

The evening chime in our village was indeed the swan-song of the day, the muffle of the over-loud heart, calling from toil and noise to silence and dreams. Then the room was lit up, and the window-shutters bolted, and we children felt all safe behind them when the wind growled and grumbled outside, like the Knecht Ruprecht, or hobgoblin. Then we could undress and skip up and down in our long trailing nightgowns. My father sat at the long table studying or composing music. Our noise did not disturb the inward melody to which he listened as we sat on the table or played under it.

Once a week the old errand-woman came from Hof with fruit and meats and pastry-cakes. Sometimes the housemaid brought her distaff into the common room of an evening, and told us stories by the light of a pine-torch. At nine o'clock in the evening I was sent to the bed which I shared with my father. He sat up until eleven, and I lay wide awake, trembling for fear of ghosts, until he joined me. For I had heard my father tell of spiritual appearances, which he firmly believed he had himself seen, and my imagination filled the dark space with them.

When the spring came, and the snows melted, we who had been shut up in the parsonage court were set free to roam the fields and meadows. The sweet mornings sparkled with undried dews. I carried my father's coffee to him in his summer-house in the garden. In the evening we had currants and raspberries from the garden at our supper before dark. Then my father sat and smoked his pipe in the open air, and we played about him in our nightgowns, on the grass, as the swallows did in the air overhead.

The most beautiful of all summer birds, meanwhile, was a tender, blue butterfly, which, in this beautiful season, fluttered about me, and was my first love. This was a blue-eyed peasant-girl of my own age, with a slender form and an oval face somewhat marked with the small-pox, but with the thousand traits that, like the magic circles of the enchanter's wand, take the heart a prisoner. Augustina dwelt with her brother Romer, a delicate youth, who was known as a good accountant, and as a good singer in the choir. I played my little romance in a lively manner, from a distance, as I sat in the pastor's pew in the church, and she in the seat appropriated to women, apparently near enough to look at each other without being satisfied. And yet this was only the beginning; for when, at evening, she drove her cow home from the meadow pasture, I instantly knew the well-remembered sound of the cow-bell, and flew to the court wall to see her pass, and give her a nod as she went by; then ran again down to the gateway to speak to her, she the nun without, and I the monk within, to thrust my hand through the bars (more I durst not do, on account of the children without), in which there was some little dainty sugared almonds, or something still more costly, that I had brought for her from the city. Alas! I did not arrive in many summers three times to such happiness as this. But I was obliged to devour all the pleasures, and almost all the sorrows, within my own heart. My almonds, indeed, did not all fall upon stony ground, for there grew out of them a whole hanging-garden in my imagination, blooming and full of sweetness, and I used to walk in it for weeks together. The sound of this cow-bell remained with me for a long time, and even now the blood in my old heart stirs when this sound hovers in the air.

In the summer, I remember the frequent errands that I, with a little sack on my back, made to my grandparents in the city of Hof, to bring meat and coffee and things that could not be had in the village. The two hours' walk led through a wood where a brook babbled over the stones. At last the city with its two church-towers was seen, with the Saale shining along the level plain. I remember, on my return one summer afternoon, watching the sunny splendor of the mountain-side, traversed by flying shadows of clouds, and how a new and strange longing came over me, of mingled pain and pleasure,—a longing which knew not the name of its object,—the awakening and thirsting of my whole nature for the heavenly gifts of life.

After the first autumn threshing I used to follow the traces of the crows in the woods, and the birds going southward in long procession, with strange delight. I loved the screams of the wild geese flying over me in long flocks. In the autumn evenings the father went with me and Adam to a potato-field lying on the other side of the Saale. One boy carried a hoe upon his shoulder, the other a hand-basket; and while the father dug as many new potatoes as were necessary for supper, and I gathered them from the ground and threw them into the basket, Adam gathered the best nuts from the hazel-bushes. It was not long before Adam fell back into the potato-beds, and I in my turn climbed the nut-tree. Then we returned home, satisfied with our nuts and potatoes, and enlivened by running for an hour in the free, invigorating air; every one may imagine the delight of returning home by the light of the harvest festivals.

Wonderfully fresh and green are two other harvest flowers, preserved in the chambers of my memory, and both are indeed trees. One was a full-branched muscatel pear-tree in the pastor's court-yard, the fall of whose splendid hanging fruit the children sought through the whole autumn to hasten; but at last, upon one of the most important days of the season, the father himself reached the forbidden fruit by means of a ladder, and brought the sweet paradise down, as well for the palates of the whole family as for the cooking-stove.

The other, always green, and yet more splendidly blooming, was a smaller tree, taken on St. Andrew's evening from the old wood, and brought into the house, where it was planted in water and soil in a large pot, so that on Christmas night it might have its leaves green when it was hung over with gifts like fruits and flowers.

In my thirteenth year my father was appointed pastor of Swarzenbach, also on the Saale River, a large market town, and I had to leave Joditz, dear even to this day to my heart. Two little sisters lie in its graveyard. My father found there his fairest Sundays, and there I first saw the Saale shining with the morning glow of my life.