The True Story of My Life: A Sketch by Hans Christian Andersen
The True Story of My Life: A Sketch
FROM this day forward, it was as if a more constant
Herein lies a solid truth. The theatre has been the cave
out of which most of the evil storms have burst upon me. They are peculiar
people, these people of the theatre,--as different, in fact, from others,
as Bedouins from Germans; from the first pantomimist to the first lover,
everyone places himself systematically in one scale, and puts all the
world in the other. The Danish theatre is a good theatre, it may indeed
be placed on a level with the Burg theatre in Vienna; but the theatre
in Copenhagen plays too great a part in conversation, and possesses in
most circles too much importance. I am not sufficiently acquainted with
the stage and the actors in other great cities, and therefore cannot compare
them with our theatre; but ours has too little military discipline, and
this is absolutely necessary where many people have to form a whole, even
when that whole is an artistical one. The most distinguished dramatic
poets in Denmark--that is to say, in Copenhagen, for there only is a theatre--have
their troubles. Those actors and
This approbation, however, procured me no further advantage, for each of my succeeding dramatic works received only rejection, and occasioned me only mortification. Nevertheless, seized by the idea and the circumstances of the little French narrative, "Les paves," I determined to dramatise it; and as I had often heard that I did not possess the assiduity sufficient to work my mat riel well, I resolved to labor this drama--"The Mulatto"--from the beginning to the end, in the most diligent manner, and to compose it in alternately rhyming verse, as was then the fashion. It was a foreign subject of which I availed myself; but if verses are music, I at least endeavored to adapt my music to the text, and to let the poetry of another diffuse itself through my spiritual blood; so that people should not be heard to say, as they had done before, regarding the romance of Walter Scott, that the composition was cut down and fitted to the stage.
The piece was ready, and declared by able men, old friends,
and actors who were to appear in it, to be excellent; a rich dramatic
capacity lay in the materiel, and my lyrical composition clothed this
with so fresh a green, that people appeared satisfied. The piece was sent
in, and was rejected by Molbeck. It was sufficiently known that what he
cherished for the boards, withered there the first evening; but what he
cast away as weeds were flowers for the garden--a real consolation for
me. The assistant-manager, Privy Counsellor of State, Adler, a man of
For two months more was the theatre closed, and was opened under Christian VIII., with my drama--"The Mulatto;" which was received with the most triumphant acclamation; but I could not at once feel the joy of it, I felt only relieved from a state of excitement, and breathed more freely.
This piece continued through a series of representations
to receive the same approbation; many placed this work far above all my
former ones, and considered that with it began my proper poetical career.
It was soon translated into the Swedish, and acted with applause at the
royal theatre in Stockholm. Travelling players introduced it into the
smaller towns in the neighboring country; a Danish company gave it in
the original language, in the Swedish city Malm/, and a troop of students
from the university town of Lund, welcomed it with enthusiasm. I had been
for a week previous on a visit at some Swedish country houses, where I
was entertained with so much cordial kindness that the recollection of
it will never quit my bosom; and there, in a foreign country, I received
the first public testimony of honor, and which has left upon me the deepest
and most inextinguishable impression. I was
I felt myself actually overcome by this intelligence; my heart throbbed feverishly as I descried the thronging troop, with their blue caps, and arm-in-arm approaching the house. I experienced a feeling of humiliation; a most lively consciousness of my deficiencies, so that I seemed bowed to the very earth at the moment others were elevating me. As they all uncovered their heads while I stepped forth, I had need of all my thoughts to avoid bursting into tears. In the feeling that I was unworthy of all this, I glanced round to see whether a smile did not pass over the face of some one, but I could discern nothing of the kind; and such a discovery would, at that moment, have inflicted on me the deepest wound.
After an hurrah, a speech was delivered, of which I clearly recollect the following words:--"When your native land, and the natives of Europe offer you their homage, then may you never forget that the first public honors were conferred on you by the students of Lund."
When the heart is warm, the strength of the expression is not weighed. I felt it deeply, and replied, that from this moment I became aware that I must assert a name in order to render myself worthy of these tokens of honor. I pressed the hands of those nearest to me, and returned them thanks so deep, so heartfelt,--certainly never was an expression of thanks more sincere. When I returned to my chamber, I went aside, in order to weep out this excitement, this overwhelming sensation. "Think no more of it, be joyous with us," said some of my lively Swedish friends; but a deep earnestness had entered my soul. Often has the memory of this time come back to me; and no noble-minded man, who reads these pages will discover a vanity in the fact, that I have lingered so long over this moment of life, which scorched the roots of pride rather than nourished them.
My drama was now to be brought on the stage at Malm; the students wished to see it; but I hastened my departure, that I might not be in the theatre at the time. With gratitude and joy fly my thoughts towards the Swedish University city, but I myself have not been there again since. In the Swedish newspapers the honors paid me were mentioned, and it was added that the Swedes were not unaware that in my own country there was a clique which persecuted me; but that this should not hinder my neighbors from offering me the honors which they deemed my due.
It was when I had returned to Copenhagen that I first truly felt how cordially I had been received by the Swedes; amongst some of my old and tried friends I found the most genuine sympathy. I saw tears in their eyes, tears of joy for the honors paid me; and especially, said they, for the manner in which I had received them. There is but one manner for me; at once, in the midst of joy, I fly with thanks to God.
There were certain persons who smiled at the enthusiasm;
certain voices raised themselves already against "The Mulatto;"--"the
mat riel was merely borrowed;" the French narrative was scrupulously
studied. That exaggerated praise which I had received, now made me sensitive
to the blame; I could bear it less easily than before, and saw more clearly,
that it did not spring out of an interest in the matter, but was only
uttered in order to mortify me. For the rest, my mind was fresh and elastic;
I conceived precisely at this time the idea of "The Picture- Book
without Pictures," and worked it out. This little book appears, to
My new piece did not please Heiberg, nor indeed my dramatic
endeavors at all; his wife--for whom the chief part appeared to me especially
to be written--refused, and that not in the most friendly manner, to play
it. Deeply wounded, I went forth. I lamented this to some individuals.
Whether this was repeated, or whether a complaint against the favorite
of the public is a crime, enough: from this hour Heiberg became my opponent,--he
whose intellectual rank I so highly estimated,--he with whom I would so
willingly have allied myself,--and he who so often--I will venture to
say it--I had approached with the whole sincerity of my nature. I have
constantly declared his wife to be so distinguished an
The wrong may be on my side or not,--no matter: a party
was opposed to me. I felt myself wounded, excited by many coincident annoyances
there. I felt uncomfortable in my native country, yes, almost ill. I therefore
left my piece to its fate, and, suffering and disconcerted, I hastened
forth. In this mood I wrote a prologue to The Moorish Maiden; which betrayed
my irritated mind far too palpably. If I would represent this portion
of my life more clearly and reflectively it would require me to penetrate
into the mysteries of the theatre, to analyze our aesthetic cliques, and
to drag into conspicuous notice many individuals, who do not belong to
publicity. Many persons in my place would, like me, have fallen ill, or
would have resented it vehemently: perhaps the latter
At my departure, many of my young friends amongst the students prepared a banquet for me; and amongst the elder ones who were present to receive me were Collin, Oehlenschl ger and Oersted. This was somewhat of sunshine in the midst of my mortification; songs by Oehlenschl ger and Hillerup were sung; and I found cordiality and friendship, as I quitted my country in distress. This was in October of 1840.
For the second time I went to Italy and Rome, to Greece
In Holstein I continued some days with Count Rantzau-Breitenburg,
who had before invited me, and whose ancestral castle I now for the first
time visited. Here I became acquainted with the rich scenery of Holstein,
heath and moorland, and then hastened by Nuremberg to Munich, where I
again met with Cornelius and Schelling, and was kindly received by Kaulbach
and Schelling. I cast a passing glance on the artistic life in Munich,
but for the most part pursued my own solitary course,
In the winter season I crossed the Brenner, remained some
In Rome, as I have said, I did not see the book; I only
The Danish poet Holst was then in Rome; he had received
this year a travelling pension. Hoist had written an elegy on King Frederick
VI., which went from mouth to mouth, and awoke an enthusiasm, like that
of Becker's contemporaneous Rhine song in Germany. He lived in the same
house with me in Rome, and showed me much sympathy: with him I made the
journey to Naples, where, notwithstanding it was March, the sun would
In a few days I grew sensibly better; and I now proceeded by a French war steamer to Greece. Holst accompanied me on board. It was now as if a new life had risen for me; and in truth this was the case; and if this does not appear legibly in my later writings, yet it manifested itself in my views of life, and in my whole inner development. As I saw my European home lie far behind me, it seemed to me as if a stream of forgetfulness flowed of all bitter and rankling remembrances: I felt health in my blood, health in my thoughts, and freshly and courageously I again raised my head.
Like another Switzerland, with a loftier and clearer heaven
In Athens I was heartily welcomed by Professor Ross, a
From Athens I sailed to Smyrna, and with me it was no childish pleasure to be able to tread another quarter of the globe. I felt a devotion in it, like that which I felt as a child when I entered the old church at Odense. I thought on Christ, who bled on this earth; I thought on Homer, whose song eternally resounds hence over the earth. The shores of Asia preached to me their sermons, and were perhaps more impressive than any sermon in any church can be.
In Constantinople I passed eleven interesting days; and according to my good fortune in travel, the birthday of Mahomet itself fell exactly during my stay there. I saw the grand illumination, which completely transported me into the Thousand and One Nights.
Our Danish ambassador lived several miles from Constantinople, and I had therefore no opportunity of seeing him; but I found a cordial reception with the Austrian internuntius, Baron von St rmer. With him I had a German home and friends. I contemplated making my return by the Black Sea and up the Danube; but the country was disturbed; it was said there had been several thousand Christians murdered. My companions of the voyage, in the hotel where I resided, gave up this route of the Danube, for which I had the greatest desire, and collectively counselled me against it. But in this case I must return again by Greece and Italy--it was a severe conflict.
I do not belong to the courageous; I feel fear, especially
In August, 1841, I was again in Copenhagen. There I wrote
The book has been translated into several languages, and
The Danish critics have generally no open eye for nature:
even the highest and most cultivated monthly periodical of literature
in Denmark censured me once because, in a poem I had described a rainbow
by moonlight. That too was my fancy, which, said they, carried me too
far. When I said in the Bazaar, "if I were a painter, I would paint
this bridge; but, as I am no painter, but a poet, I must therefore speak,"
&c. Upon this the critic says, "He is so vain, that he tells
us himself that he is a poet." There is something so pitiful in such
criticism, that one cannot be wounded by it; but even when we are the
most peaceable of men, we feel a desire to flagellate such wet dogs, who
come into our rooms and lay themselves down in the best place in them.
There might be a whole Fool's Chronicle written of all the absurd and
shameless things which, from my first appearance before the public till
In the meantime the Bazaar was much read, and made what is called a hit. I received, connected with this book, much encouragement and many recognitions from individuals of the highest distinction in the realms of intellect in my native land.
The journey had strengthened me both in mind and body; I began to show indications of a firmer purpose, a more certain judgment. I was now in harmony with myself and with mankind around me.
Political life in Denmark had, at that time, arrived at
Close by Gisselfeld, but in a still finer situation, and
It may appear, perhaps, as if I desired to bring the names
Knowledge of life in these various circles has had great influence on me: among princes, among the nobility, and among the poorest of the people, I have met with specimens of noble humanity. We all of us resemble each other in that which is good and best.
Winter life in Denmark has likewise its attractions and
There is in the character of Oehlenschl ger, when he is
not seen in the circles of the great, where he is quiet and reserved,
something so open and child-like, that no one can help becoming attached
to him. As a poet, he holds in the North a position of as great importance
as Goethe did in Germany. He is in his best works so penetrated by the
spirit of the North, that through him it has, as it were, ascended upon
all nations. In foreign countries he is not so much appreciated. The works
by which he is best known are "Correggio" and "Aladdin;"
but assuredly his masterly poem of "The Northern Gods" occupied
a far higher rank: it is our "Iliad." It possesses power, freshness--nay,
any expression of mine is poor. It is possessed of grandeur; it is the
poet Oehlenschl ger in the bloom of his soul. Hakon, Jarl, and Palnatoke
will live in the poetry of Oehlenschl ger as long as mankind endures.
Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have fully appreciated him, and have shown
Thorwaldsen, whom, as I have already said, I had become acquainted with in Rome in the years 1833 and 1834, was expected in Denmark in the autumn of 1838, and great festive preparations were made in consequence. A flag was to wave upon one of the towers of Copenhagen as soon as the vessel which brought him should come in sight. It was a national festival. Boats decorated with flowers and flags filled the Rhede; painters, sculptors, all had their flags with emblems; the students' bore a Minerva, the poets' a Pegasus. It was misty weather, and the ship was first seen when it was already close by the city, and all poured out to meet him. The poets, who, I believe, according to the arrangement of Heiberg, had been invited, stood by their boat; Oehlenschl ger and Heiberg alone had not arrived. And now guns were fired from the ship, which came to anchor, and it was to be feared that Thorwaldsen might land before we had gone out to meet him. The wind bore the voice of singing over to us: the festive reception had already begun.
I wished to see him, and therefore cried out to the others, "Let us put off!"
"Without Oehlenschl ger and Heiberg?" asked some one.
"But they are not arrived, and it will be all over."
One of the poets declared that if these two men were not
with us, I
"We will throw it in the boat," said I, and
took it down from the
The people drew Thorwaldsen's carriage through the streets
In honor of Thorwaldsen a musical-poetic academy was established, and the poets, who were invited to do so by Heiberg, wrote and read each one a poem in praise of him who had returned home. I wrote of Jason who fetched the golden fleece--that is to say, Jason-Thorwaldsen, who went forth to win golden art. A great dinner and a ball closed the festival, in which, for the first time in Denmark, popular life and a subject of great interest in the realms of art were made public.
From this evening I saw Thorwaldsen almost daily in company or in his studio: I often passed several weeks together with him at Nys/, where he seemed to have firmly taken root, and where the greater number of his works, executed in Denmark, had their origin. He was of a healthful and simple disposition of mind, not without humor, and, therefore, he was extremely attached to Holberg the poet: he did not at all enter into the troubles and the disruptions of the world.
One morning at Nys/--at the time when he was working at his own statue --I entered his work-room and bade him good morning; he appeared as if he did not wish to notice me, and I stole softly away again. At breakfast he was very parsimonious in the use of words, and when somebody asked him to say something at all events, he replied in his dry way:--
"I have said more during this morning than in many whole days, but nobody heard me. There I stood, and fancied that Andersen was behind me, for he came, and said good morning--so I told him a long story about myself and Byron. I thought that he might give one word in reply, and turned myself round; and there had I been standing a whole hour and chattering aloud to the bare walls."
We all of us besought him to let us hear the whole story yet once more; but we had it now very short.
"Oh, that was in Rome," said he, "when I was about to make Byron's statue; he placed himself just opposite to me, and began immediately to assume quite another countenance to what was customary to him. 'Will not you sit still?' said I; 'but you must not make these faces.' 'It is my expression,' said Byron. 'Indeed?' said I, and then I made him as I wished, and everybody said, when it was finished, that I had hit the likeness. When Byron, however, saw it, he said, 'It does not resemble me at all; I look more unhappy.'"
"He was, above all things, so desirous of looking extremely unhappy," added Thorwaldsen, with a comic expression.
It afforded the great sculptor pleasure to listen to music after dinner with half-shut eyes, and it was his greatest delight when in the evening the game of lotto began, which the whole neighborhood of Nys/ was obliged to learn; they only played for glass pieces, and on this account I am able to relate a peculiar characteristic of this otherwise great man--that he played with the greatest interest on purpose to win. He would espouse with warmth and vehemence the part of those from whom he believed that he had received an injustice; he opposed himself to unfairness and raillery, even against the lady of the house, who for the rest had the most childlike sentiments towards him, and who had no other thought than how to make everything most agreeable to him. In his company I wrote several of my tales for children--for example, "Ole Luck Oin," ("Ole Shut Eye,") to which he listened with pleasure and interest. Often in the twilight, when the family circle sate in the open garden parlor, Thorwaldsen would come softly behind me, and, clapping me on the shoulder, would ask, "Shall we little ones hear any tales tonight?"
In his own peculiarly natural manner he bestowed the most bountiful praise on my fictions, for their truth; it delighted him to hear the same stories over and over again. Often, during his most glorious works, would he stand with laughing countenance, and listen to the stories of the Top and the Ball, and the Ugly Duckling. I possess a certain talent of improvising in my native tongue little poems and songs. This talent amused Thorwaldsen very much; and as he had modelled, at Nys/, Holberg's portrait in clay, I was commissioned to make a poem for his work, and he received, therefore, the following impromptu:--
"No more shall Holberg live," by Death was
One morning, when he had just modelled in clay his great bas-relief of the Procession to Golgotha, I entered his study.
"Tell me," said he, "does it seem to you
that I have dressed Pilate
"You must not say anything to him," said the Baroness, who was always with him: "it is right; it is excellent; go away with you!"
Thorwaldsen repeated his question.
"Well, then," said I, "as you ask me, I
must confess that it really
"It seems to me so too," said Thorwaldsen, seizing the clay with his hand, and destroying the figure.
"Now you are guilty of his having annihilated an
"Then we can make a new immortal work," said he, in a cheerful humor, and modelled Pilate as he now remains in the bas-relief in the Ladies' Church in Copenhagen.
His last birth-day was celebrated there in the country. I had written a merry little song, and it was hardly dry on the paper, when we sang it, in the early morning, before his door, accompanied by the music of jingling fire-irons, gongs, and bottles rubbed against a basket. Thorwaldsen himself, in his morning gown and slippers, opened his door, and danced round his chamber; swung round his Raphael's cap, and joined in the chorus. There was life and mirth in the strong old man.
On the last day of his life I sate by him at dinner; he was unusually good-humored; repeated several witticisms which he had just read in the Corsair, a well-known Copenhagen newspaper, and spoke of the journey which he should undertake to Italy in the summer. After this we parted; he went to the theatre, and I home.
On the following morning the waiter at the hotel where
I lived said,
"Thorwaldsen!" exclaimed I; "he is not
dead, I dined with him
"People say that he died last evening at the theatre,"
A farewell hymn, which I wrote, and to which Hartmann composed the music, was sung by Danish students over his coffin.
Andersen, Hans Christian. The True Story of My Life: A Sketch. Mary Howitt, translator. Boston: James Munroe, 1847.