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John Stuart Blackie
Chapter III. Student Life in Gottingen 1829


THE aggressive element in John Blackie's character was suspended for a time; its energy was concentrated on himself, and although we hear of no peevishness at home, and of no petulant refusal to comply with his father's wishes, everything tends to prove that he was at that stage in growth when the inward life absorbs all vigour from the outer life, feeding upon the very strength which it afterwards learns to direct. Between the two lives there was at present no healthy interchange. He brooded in silence over his perplexities, considering them as all-important; the interests of others seemed trifling, and the seeming sympathy which made his boyhood so attractive was in abeyance. What gleams of light informed his mind had not yet attained to instruct his heart, and although he was never harsh nor deliberately unsympathetic, he was no longer his father's eager companion, the centre and sunshine of the home. Much was conceded to him as student and future divine, but his moody habits excited occasional reproof and considerable anxiety.

He tells us, with tender penitence for these remote delinquencies, how unsociable lie was, how unwillingly he went with his father to fish the Don or Deveron, how he hung back sullenly, singing dully to himself and buried in endless cogitations, how in a room full of friends he sat wrapped up in his own thoughts, humming a tune in most ill-mannered fashion, despising the kindly family life, which seemed to minister nothing to his inward needs.

His course at Aberdeen University was at an end, but he hesitated to take the further steps which should lead to his ordination. His mind had worked itself into a great confusion. With an impulse towards liberty, its fetters clanked at every struggle. He no longer knew how much he believed of the stern doctrines which oppressed him. He was as religious as ever, and practised his devotions night and morning with a melancholy fervour; they had become a kind of fetish whereby he clung to the hope of salvation. But his mind was working on a plane which his devotions had ceased to affect, and he was conscious of the discrepancy. Of unflinching honesty, he recoiled from teaching others doctrines of which his mind had not a full assurance, whose once absolute outlines had grown nebulous.

The father was keenly alive to his son's perplexity, though not admitted to his confidence. His hanging back from the steps which would commit him finally to the Church told something of the inward conflict. He was still too young for the ministry, or at all events he was not gifted with the necessary assurance which is ordinarily the privilege of youth. Mr Blackie called at the manse of Old Machar, and talked the matter over with Dr Forbes. "Send him to Germany," said the practical Doctor; "his jacket wants widening."

His own sons were going to Gottingen, and the two fathers discussed the pros and cons of the plan to such issue that Mr Blackie decided to send John along with them. When he was told of this decision, much of the depression which had settled upon him lifted and rolled away. Indeed it was greatly due to the want of stimulating variety in his circumstances, and the unexpected prospect of a new world of men and minds to compete with came like a wind from an unknown shore laden with promise. He felt as if at last he were about to step into life, to use his own limbs, to see with his own eyes, to hear with his own ears. He had exhausted Aberdeen, and his mind drooped for drought; but the little cloud was in the sky, and already he raised expectant needs and hopes to absorb the coming showers. The natural play of his feelings returned, and before he left Aberdeen he was frolicsome, wilful, and happy, as his home had known him of old. He felt deeply grateful to the watchful kindness of his father, which had recognised the emergency and was so ready to provide for it.

Some trembling feminine voices were raised against the undertaking. "Was not Germany," said Aunt Manie, "the home of rationalism, and might not the sound Calvinism with which he had been inoculated suffer some dire change which might lead him dear knows where?" Black thoughts filled her mind, not to be allayed by any laughter—perhaps only paraphrases of her womanly wish to keep John at home and see to his shirts and stockings and occasional ailments.

He left home about the middle of April 1829, John and Francis Forbes going with him. They stayed ten days in Edinburgh, delayed by violent east winds, which prevented the sailing of the packet from Leith to Hamburg, in which their berths were taken. The sight of these berths provoked much dismay, and they spent a day in futile searching for a larger vessel. The leisure in Edinburgh was put to use in collecting letters of introduction from every available source. Mr Henry Glassford Bell, then the editor of the Edinburgh Literary Journal,' and acquainted with Mr Blackie, proved very helpful in this quest, and took John to call on many noteworthy citizens of Edinburgh, amongst others on his old Professor, Christopher North, whom they surprised in déshabille at his writing-table, stimulating the muse with snuff, which lay spread out on the table ready for use. A sheaf of useful documents represented the harvest of these busy days, and amongst them were two letters for Rome, which indicates that already the father's plans included Italy in the tour.

At length, on April 23, the packet sailed, but the east wind was still too violent to admit of its passage down the Firth, and it sought shelter at Burntisland amongst a little fleet of wind-bound vessels. The delay gave occasion for an excursion and some merrymaking amongst the party of five passengers who occupied the dismal cabin. One of the two strangers proved to be a Hamburg merchant, and John struck up an acquaintance with him at once, and began to practise upon him the few phrases of German which formed his small capital in that language. The good merchant humoured him, enlightened all three on some of the non-academic duties and endurances of student life, and gave them a letter of introduction to friends in Dresden.

On the 24th the wind slackened, and the packet ventured on its voyage, but hardly had they cleared St Abb's Head when a heavy gale swept down on them, and did not improve their opinion of the accommodation which the little packet supplied to its unhappy passengers. But the storm was weathered, although it kept them out at sea a couple of days beyond their time, as the captain would not venture on the perilous navigation at the mouth of the Elbe while the landmarks were obscured by tossing waves, and there was risk of their being driven on some shoal. Heligoland was passed at last, a pilot shipped, and they sailed up the Elbe at full speed, both wind and tide in their favour. It was a rough outset, and they were glad to step ashore at Hamburg.

Here John wrote a detailed account of all the incidents of the voyage to his father, who had impressed upon him the importance to the home circle of frequent letters, filled, not with lucubrations, but with mere objective descriptions of places, people, and experiences encountered. This injunction, piously obeyed, enables us to follow the young Aberdonian abroad with satisfactory accuracy, although his minute record must be condensed with some regard to the proportion which these vivid years bear to the rest of his life. Their very vividness, however, attests their powerful influence on the man whom —along with his heredity, patriotism, and faith in God - they emphatically compacted. The John Stuart Blackie whom we know would not have existed without them, and they are the key to much in his character and opinions which we should otherwise find inscrutable.

After spending a week iii Hamburg the three companions began their journey to Gottingen on Wednesday, May 6, about three o'clock in the afternoon. The only conveyance was the mail- coach, and the roads between Hamburg and Luneburg, a distance of thirty miles, were miserable. When the wheels of the lumbering waggon were not sunk in sand they were plunged in water —a succession of sandy wastes, interrupted by pools of water, representing alike scenery and highway. They were shaken and jolted and crowded for these thirty miles; but after Lime- burg the roads proved better, and they could begin to enjoy the novel circumstances. The distance of a hundred miles between Hamburg and Hanover was covered by ten o'clock on Thursday night, and they were glad to make a stage on soil which in a sense was native ground, the capital of his Britannic Majesty's Hanoverian kingdom.

But the journey had introduced them to a party of Gottingen students, who like themselves were making their way to the University. These were delightful fellows, overflowing with good- humour and camaraderie. They spoke no English, it is true, and the Scotchmen came quickly to the end of their courtesies in German; but a medium of intercourse was found in Latin, which John Blackie had made so far his own, and which the rational pronunciation in use at the Scottish Universities enabled him to wield intelligibly to his new acquaintances, whom he found nearly as fluent as himself in the language. Where Latin failed them, French filled the gap, and he was glad to hear their German songs and witticisms, and get used to the rollicking gutturals. Their company made the long journey endurable, and a prompt acquaintance was established with the band, to be renewed at Gottingen when they met a few days later.

The three Aberdonians stayed two nights at Hanover, but found it lacking both in beauty and interest. They continued the long journey to Gottingen on Saturday morning, arriving that night. They went to an inn for a few days, spending the following Monday and Tuesday in a search for lodgings. There was some difficulty in securing a set of rooms suitable for a party of three. The whole of Gottingen laid itself out to house students, but singly, or at most in pairs, so that they were not installed till Tuesday evening in a suite of rooms, which comprised two bedrooms and a large sitting- room. The scale of their expenses is a thing of the past, even in Gottingen. Breakfast, dinner, supper, beer, tobacco, and lodgings cost them about twelve shillings a-week each. Their dinner came from a purveyor to the students, and arrived at mid - day in hot dishes - soup, two kinds of meat, vegetables, sweets, and cheese, for something under sixpence a-head. A pleasant German damsel waited on them, and helped them to pick up the language of everyday life; and they found amongst the minor conveniences of their housekeeping the rare luxury of a pair of sugar-tongs, which gave them an air of princely distinction when their fellow-students came to drink coffee.

Letters from Aberdeen soon reached John Blackie, and brought discomfiture with them. His father, over anxious for his progress, de- manded that he should on no account take UI) house with his friends, as it would stand in the way of his rapid acquirement of German. Here they were, housed and happy, and the fiat came upon them like a thunderbolt. So John sat down to convince his father that they gained rather than lost by sharing each other's initial difficulties. They studied with a competent master from six to eight hours daily; they spoke German to each other, imposing a fine of two 1fennige for every relapse into English; they read only German newspapers, and they conversed for hours over their beer and tobacco with students of some years' standing, who could enlighten them upon all their privileges—and all this at the end of one week's residence in Gottingen. The same letter describes their combats with such bold Teutons as ventured to overcharge them. Like worthy Aberdonians, they quickly learned to express a resolute suspicion of every price imposed, and to find out the minimum cost of every necessary article. The letter ends with a pean in praise of beer and tobacco. Its plea obtained, and they were left in peace.

As soon as he could manage a fair mouthful of German, John matriculated as a student in the philosophical faculty, and without an hour's delay began to attend lectures. The course to which he devoted himself especially was Professor Heeren's "Political System of Europe," but by the rule of "hospitising" practised in the University, he found himself free to visit the classes under Hausmann, Blumenbach, Ottfried Muller, and Mitscherlich. By diligent use of the Professor's 'Handbook,' by regular attendance, and by unremitting study, he soon began to follow with ease, and to receive with astonishment, and with some indignation, the impressions which the ample culture of a German University was likely to make on the hungry mind of a Scottish student tantalised with the meagre diet at Marischal College. Professor Heeren's lectures covered the whole area of European history from the time of the Reformation to the end of the eighteenth century, and were not only grounded on his immense knowledge of the subject, but revealed a method of treatment which was entirely new to the Aberdonians. His. class was credited with having outgrown crass ignorance, with knowing already the histories with which he dealt, and therefore with being in need of no hammering at a sequence of facts—a part of their instruction which belonged to the school, and not to the university. He grouped their knowledge, interpreted its connecting influences, displayed the relations of one State to another, the living unity which interpenetrated the whole system, the inevitable development which the three centuries had witnessed,—suggesting and combining in the masterly manner which Continental historians had acclimatised long before it was adopted in England.

Heeren himself was a pleasant, genial man, advanced in years, but energetic and hospitable, who received his students on Sundays, and made the Scotchmen welcome with the rest. He conversed with them in English, which he spoke fluently. His well - stocked library, his simple home - life, his immense learning, his industry, his devotion to the work allotted to him, made a profound impression on John Blackie. Here is a man, he realised, who lectures not once or twice, but five times a - week; who lectures not for five but for ten months every year; who studies and restudies every part of his subject, not contented with the vast learning which he has already accumulated; and who, conversant with every new aspect of his work, handles the whole with such ease and strength as to rouse the minds of his students to the liveliest interest and exertions.

Acquaintance with other Professors, to whom he had brought letters of introduction, revealed a similar industry, accuracy, and learning, a like simplicity of life, and in the case of several a European fame. Such were the naturalist Blumenbach, the philologist Ottfried Mhuler, and the historian Saalfeld. The first received the young Scotchmen kindly, made them welcome to come to him when they cared to do so, and astonished them by his copious knowledge of English. He was eighty years old at this time, but lectured on the different departments of Natural History to large classes. His library included books in every European language, and they discovered that the most recent English treatises on science were not only there, but were already well conned, while his own treatises entitled him to be considered the first authority in Europe upon his subject.

We have the following portrait of Ottfried Muller in Professor Blackie's "Notes":—

I recollect calling upon him and finding him in his study, in the midst of quartos and folios in all languages. He was a tall, blond, blue-eyed, open, cheerful, intelligent, fine-looking fellow, and moved about with the litheness of a young tiger; but the elasticity of his bodily motions was in nowise connected with any mere skirmishing quality of mind. In mental calibre he was as massive as he was limber; he could drag after him a whole train of heavy artillery with no more labour than it costs a common man to move his finger. This was my first impression, and acquaintance with his work—of which I had no knowledge at that time—has made the original impression stronger. I do not know that any of the great German philologers had a more rich, graceful, and various sweep of living erudition. He wanted only a longer life to have contested with Wolf and Boeckh the highest honours of scholarship in the most scholarly country of Europe in the nineteenth century.

Professor Saalfeld, too, received them kindly, and poured out such a torrent of English that the Scotchrnen were bewildered. It was his manner in every language which he spoke, and they found his German overpowering. The weather at this time was bad. "Göttingen weather," said the Professor,—"eight months of winter and four of no summer. We are having our no summer now—a most excellent thing for a University; the worse weather, the more study. Keep house, and study, study." And indeed it has been hinted by Universities 'less renowned, that Göttingen owes its learning to its weather.

Two months of such experiences taught John Blackie what learning really was, and gave him once for all a right conception of the professorial office, its duties, devotion, and dignity.

With reference to our Scottish system of education, the scales fell from my eyes. I perceived that at Marischal College they had degraded the University pretty much into a school; that they drilled boys when they ought to have been stimulating young men; that our academical system was prominently puerile, and our standard of attainment lamentably low. I burned with indignation when I thought of these things, and from that moment became a University reformer.

Prompt to let those know his mind who needed it, he set down his indignation on a sheet of foolscap, and posted it to an Edinburgh editor. This was Mr Henry Glassford Bell, who published the letter in a summer number of the 'Edinburgh Literary Journal.' It was the first sound of the trumpet blown just as he ended his twentieth year. Throughout his life its blasts were reiterated wherever there were men to listen.

While he was roused to deep admiration of the teaching system and massive learning of the German University, the fervour which kept him true to his devotions was wounded by its indifference to religion. His companions and he went regularly to church, and were astonished to find that some fifty persons formed the ordinary congregation, that few of them were students, and that the sight of a Professor in one of the pews was still rarer than the sight of a student. Something like one-twelfth of the number of students went occasionally to church. For the rest, and for these ordinarily, Sunday was a day of pleasure or of study. Amongst those who habitually avoided church, free-thinking was prevalent, and it gave him keen pain to discover that some of his most admired Professors were outspoken rationalists. The Botany class went for its excursions oil led by the Professor, whose work was so interesting that but for this consideration he would have enrolled himself upon the list. In Gottingen itself the pulpit utterances were meagre, but he found that by making a Saturday afternoon excursion to a neighbouring town he could stay all night and hear a spirited discourse by an earnest preacher next day, walking back to Göttingen that evening.

He relates a few experiences at the convivial meetings of the Burschen Clubs, but neither he nor his companions seem to have frequented them. They visited the Professors who invited them, exchanged tea and coffee drinkings with congenial fellow students, took long walks on Saturdays when the weather permitted, and on other evenings after their day's study made the round of the town ramparts for rest and fresh air.

The rain, which persisted throughout these summer months, increased a tendency to cold in the head, to which John Blackie in his youth was somewhat prone, and details of which Aunt Manic extracted from him in postscripts to his letters home. His own buoyancy and eager enjoyment of work would have led him to ignore such paltry matters as the little ailments which dog our youth, but Aunt Manie attacked the subject categorically, and insisted upon a precise report. So we learn that he was far from well at times, but that he did the best that a poor male could do, separated from his own experienced womankind, to keep dry and to eat wholesome food.

His letters are full of pleasant humour, and bear witness to his affection for the home circle, and to a great deal of longing to know fully and particularly what things affected its every member down to Baby Gregory, whose pet name was "the Pope." He wrote bright notes to each of the children, taking trouble to print them for those who could not read writing, and going into every detail of their interests, encouraging his sisters in their venture into Latin and their study of history, and poking fun at James, whose mistakes in French were a family topic.

Mr Blackie was exacting about the length and punctuality of his letters, and John submits to him a humorous plea for consideration should these be delayed a day or two beyond the appointed fortnight, and deprecates the gathering cloud of "black thoughts," to which each member of the family was sure to contribute some imaginary disaster, as—

That I have studied myself to skin and bone over old musty German books; that I have drowned myself in the bathing-place here; that I have fallen over some steep precipice, or lost myself in some forest in the neighbourhood; that I have become disorderly, and, having made riots in the street, have been thrown into prison or expelled the University; that I have offended some of the students, and, as a punishment therefor, have got my nose or my cheek cut off in a duel; or, finally, that some inundation of the Leine has hurried me down extra-post to the mouth of the Elbe. I humbly petition that these and all such Black Thoughts may not be admitted till, at least, four weeks have elapsed between my letters.

The "two female pillars," as he calls them, were concerned about his social appearances, and desired that he should become acquainted with the wives and daughters of these o'er-learned Professors, that his manners might benefit as well as his mind from his visits to their homes. To relieve their anxiety he gives in a letter written on August 22 an account of an evening spent at Professor Blumenbach's, when the old naturalist was holding a formal reception, and when he, John Blackie, was introduced to a very charming young lady, with whom he held converse in the German tongue for an hour and a half, but upon what subjects he roguishly declines to state. But, he assures them, the circumstance was not without a fine effect upon his bearing and appearance.

The lack of robust health alarmed his father, who began to plan for his transference to the south of France, in the hope that a better climate might help him to throw off the persistent cold in the head, which acted as a drag on his advance. But John implored him not to exile him yet from Germany: he was willing to go to any other German University for the winter session, for, he admitted, the climate of Gottingen was clearly hurtful to his health, but he could not bear to forego his contact with the treasures of learning, which he had only just begun to appreciate. Several letters were exchanged on the point, and it was left in abeyance subject to his consulting the best doctor in Gottingen, and to the effects of a walking tour which he proposed to make in the Harz district. Dr Conradi supplied pills in large quantities and approved of the Harzreise; so about the middle of September, when the summer term had ended, the three friends set out on foot to undertake the first part of the expedition together. John, who had an extended tour in view, sent a box on to Leipsic, and, knapsack on back, started for the beautiful Hanoverian Switzerland. By this time he closely resembled the German student whom he so much admired; his classic features, long brown hair, and slight energetic frame, the learned gravity of his face in repose, its mobility when excited, the unshackled movements of his arms and hands, with which he talked as vigorouly as with his tongue, and his garb, more convenient than fashionable, all bore already the impress of his contact with Gottingen life. The costume of the three travellers included, besides the knapsack, a waggoner's smock, which was worn over the ordinary clothes to protect them from dust, and which, being washable, was a very useful garment. A flask for brandy was worn on a strap slung round the neck, and for all articles else, except the spare shirt and toothbrush which the knapsack held, they trusted to such towns as lay in their route.

They left Göttingen on the morning of Friday, September 18, and walked as far as Osterode, a town lying immediately under the western ridges of the Harz, and twenty-five miles from their starting-point. Here they spent the night, and climbed up to Clausthal on Saturday morning. They inspected the mines there, John conversing freely with the miners, and eliciting facts of some interest about their busy, contented life—amongst others, that one of their number was chosen chaplain, and that every morning before they descended to their work he read prayers and a sermon. They returned to Osterode for Saturday night, and on the following morning the little party was divided, the two brothers making straight for the Brocken, and intending to pass without further delay through the district, while John Blackie had made up his mind to take it more in detail, and to visit particularly every one of its celebrated mines.

The introduction to geology which he had received from Dr Forsyth had been confirmed by some open lectures given by the Mineralogical Professor at Göttingen. Already he had collected a little store of specimens, despatched a fortnight before to furnish the "Museum" in Marischal Street, and now he pursued the subject with all the interest which actual observation lent to it. He went to Goslar and inspected the Rammelsberg mines there, then spent a day or two in the beautiful Okerthal, from which he engaged a guide to the Brocken. This excursion yielded something of an adventure, for after walking through the Ilsenthal the guide struck, and left him to climb the Brocken alone. He was tired and solitary, meeting only two persons who were descending, and whose information as to the intricate path, with all its bifurcations, was accompanied by a warning that if lie took the wrong turning he would certainly be lost. Worn out with the five -and - twenty miles which he had tramped since morning, confused about the path, the afternoon fading into evening, he was about to give up in despair, when a smart pedestrian overtook him and piloted him safely to the Brockenhaus, where supper and a bed on the floor—for every room was full—restored his courage, but did not compensate for the mist, which hid the landscape, and which next morning made the rising sun a mere conjecture. He rested well, and started about one o'clock next day for Elbingerode, where he spent the night.

But we cannot follow him by every road and rest of his pilgrimage. He turned eastward by Blankenburg to Mannsfeld and Eisleben, satisfied his strong sentiment for Luther by this visit to his birthplace, then trudged along the straight and dusty roads to Halle, relieving his weary feet by an occasional lift in the diligence. He spent two days at Halle, and then took the stagecoach to Leipsic, which he reached on the 2d of October. Much visiting of mines had been accomplished in the interval. He had met an inspector of mines on his way, and with him had effected some most interesting excursions, which repaid him both for the failure on the Brocken and for some disappointment with the much -vaunted scenery of the Harz, which is fuller of surprise and beauty to a dweller on the North German plain than it is to a Scotchman used to loftier peaks and more impetuous torrents.

He reached Leipsic at the time of its great autumnal book-fair, and having an introduction to Messrs Barth k Co., effected there a commission with which his old teacher, Mr Peter Merson, had intrusted him. This was to purchase a number of Latin works, whose profundity made them scarce in the book-markets at home, and whose titles alone are enough to scare a modern student. The visit gave him an opportunity of seeing the motley gathering at the fair, and of staring for the first time at Greeks and Armenians, as well as at Jews from every corner of Europe. From Leipsic he went to Dresden, where he got his first glimpse of a great picture-gallery, and which he quitted for a tramp through Saxon Switzerland, avoiding Bohemia, and turning by Freiberg, Chemnitz, and Jena to the Thuringian Forest, which he traversed on his way to Eisenach. He spent a night in Weimar; but although he had caught the contagion of enthusiasm for Goethe which then fevered young Germany, he held back with natural Scottish modesty from intruding upon the "old man eloquent," contenting himself with gazing on the house in which he lived. Perhaps the fever was not at its height, for although the three friends studied German classics for hours daily, they had begun with Schiller, and his works had absorbed a considerable portion of the four months' session. But he knew enough of Goethe to feel his strong Hellenic nature and to yield himself to its influence, one of the factors in that converging force which moulded the future Professor out of the fervid Scottish student. It was not till later that he made an exhaustive study of Goethe's poetry and philosophy, although already the spell was upon him which led to that undertaking.

Thuringia yielded both mines for his instruction and memories of Luther for his inspiration. Luther sat higher in his heart than Goethe, and the Wartburg, where the one hero vanquished the devil, was a more sacred fane than Weimar, where the other received ovations from the world.

From Eisenach he journeyed straight to Gottingen, and rejoined his friends in their pleasant quarters. He was refreshed in mind and recruited in body, and the "stuffed head" had yielded to constant fresh air and walking, so that he looked forward to a winter of vigorous grappling with the different subjects at which he proposed to work. All difficulties with the language were over, and he was now in case to storm the citadel of German erudition.

But, alas! much consultation had been in progress at home, where anxious imaginations, engaged on the state of his health and the Gottingen weather, had exaggerated both to their utmost, and on the day of his return came the domestic ultimatum, which required immediate packing up and transference to Berlin. This was a blow, as John had meditated much upon his winter's work, and had dreamt of distinction in spite of every difficulty. But there was no alternative; and so, after many farewells and much natural regret, he started in the mail-coach which left Gottingen on the 30th of October, four days after his return from Saxony.


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