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BRITISH AND FOREIGN
Article I. Was ich erlebte. Aus der Erinnerung niedergeschrieben. Von
HEINRICH STEFFENS. Breslau, 1840. (Events of my life. Written down from Memory. By HENRY
STEFFENS. Breslau, 1840.) Tuis is one of the numerous autobiographies which have issued from the German press within the last few years. We lately heard an Austrian, with the usual disposition of his countrymen to laugh at the enthusiasm, the intellectual movements and demonstrations of North Germans, call this the age of monuments (Denkmale) : he might have added,— and of autobiographies; for if the age shows a disposition to commemorate the merits, not only of the truly great, but of many of the “illustrious obscure," it must be confessed that the latter are not at all wanting to themselves in corresponding efforts. We confess, however, that we receive such works with an indulgence not unmixed with gratitude. We are inclined to agree with the greatest living poet of Gremany, that there is no such thing as an uninteresting autobiography if it be but tolerably true. Unquestionably this is one of the manifestations of the reigning desire to occupy the attention of the public with one's personalité; but it is the most unaffected, sincere and innocent. In novels, poems, travels, note-books, etc., the reader is, in the first place, cheated, for the work professes to treat of external things and not of the author's idiosyncracies; and, secondly, the
VOL. XIII.—No, xxvi.
writer escapes responsibility, he is Janus-headed, and can always turn to the reader his real or his poetical face as it suits his purpose. We prefer the man who honestly tells you that himself is his own theme.
But the fashion of writing autobiographies which prevails at this moment in Germany is not to be ascribed solely to the garrulous self-display of the age ; it has another and a more respectable source. The men are fast moving off the stage of life who have lived through the two greatest revolutions that Germany ever knew,—the revolt against established opinions and tastes which dates from the youth of Goethe, and the revolt against foreign domination and internal misgovernment, which may be regarded as a consequence of the former. The few remaining actors in these scenes have lived through times which can never return : they have seen the new birth of their country, and we cannot wonder if they are reluctant to leave the world without recording every link by which their individual existence was connected with the great life, which developed itself with so much energy and with such important results.
We must, however, admit that some of these memoirs consist of little else than the history of a mind; and that the external things with which the writer came in contact are regarded and recorded by him rather as influences than as forming the main subjects of his work. Few Englishmen have sufficient reliance on the sympathy and good-nature of the public to perform this moral autopsy on themselves for its amusement or its benefit: with us, autobiographies are usually written by men who have something new to communicate respecting remarkable events or eminent persons, or whose own adventurous career would furnish matter even for an interesting fiction. It is one proof of the difference which meets us at every turn, and which, for want of a concise expression in our own language, we are compelled to call the subjective character of the one nation, the objective of the other. We mean to express no preference of either over the other; we are content to admit that such books as the one before us, diffuse, egotistical and subjective as it is, have yet a great charm and may be made subservient to most important ends.
It is evident that we are profoundly in the dark as to the degree to which the character of the man may be determined by the systematic training of the child; or what are the class of impressions which may be calculated upon with certainty as leading to given results. Education has hitherto been little better than tentative; nor can it be denied, that if unremitting watchfulness seems to have been favourable to some, others, who have been left nearly to themselves to work out the great problems of life, have shown a passion for knowledge and a steadiness of virtue which it is perhaps impossible by any extrinsic means to inspire. To this latter class our author belonged. He entitles his first volume, “ Mein geistig-einsames Knabenleben,' and certainly few men have been less indebted to superintendence or sympathy for their mental growth and culture. If, as we maintain, the doubtful results of education are no reason for abating our zeal for its improvement, on the contrary, a reason (as all obstacles to good are) for redoubling our ardour and patience in the investigation of whatever can throw light on the obscurity, it follows that every accurate register of the events and impressions of a childhood is an important contribution to the data on which any effective system of education can be built.
The work before us is calculated to suggest a host of reflections on this subject; and this is one of the reasons which has induced us to lay some account of it before the English public in spite of its incompleteness. It is published, according to the German fashion, by instalments; and as four volumes have appeared, and we can neither calculate the time that will elapse, nor the length to which it will run before it is completed, we shall regard it as the history of an intellectual life from infancy to manhood. It is a work which would find very few readers in England, and will certainly never be translated. It is too long, and too large a portion of it consists of matter uninteresting, and indeed unintelligible, to those who are not already familiar with the literary and scientific history of Germany. It contains, however, so much that is new and amusing, such vivid and accurate, yet poetical descriptions of nature and of man under their most singular aspects, that we flatter ourselves we shall ren