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John Stuart Blackie
Chapter IV. Student Life in Berlin 1829 - 1830

PROFESSOR SAALFELD gave him a letter of introduction to Professor Raumer at Berlin, and he carried with him other introductions both to Professors and to residents in the capital. His journey was uneventful. The coach passed along the southern side of the Harz during the night, so that he caught not so much as a glimpse of the Brocken, and an excellent Schnapps at Nordhausen formed the sole record of this midnight return to the scene of his recent adventures. But Eisleben and Mittenberg, as he passed through them, provoked glowing apostrophes to "undaunted Martin Luther," although it was eight o'clock on Monday evening when they stopped to change horses and to sup at the latter town. The wide plain which stretches towards Berlin was veiled by night, and he was glad when, at six o'clock on Tuesday morning, the coach passed through Potsdam, and an hour and a half later drove along the Leipziger Strasse and landed him in Berlin.

Two hundred miles were covered in the thirty-six hours. He stayed three days at an inn, spending most of the time in a hunt for lodgings. His father wished him to live if possible in the house of one of the Professors, and so to obtain all the advantages of intercourse with an educated German family; but Professor Raurner, whom he consulted on the subject, assured him that such a practice was unknown amongst the Professors. The intention had to be abandoned, and a search for rooms to be substituted.
It was not till Friday, November 4, that the search was successful ; but by the evening of that day he found himself installed in most comfortable rooms in a house in the Luisen Strasse, for which he paid no more than thirty shillings a month. During intervals snatched from house-hunting, he had managed to matriculate at the University and to take tickets for four courses of lectures. These were chosen partly for the sake of his prospective profession and partly in furtherance of his own inclinations.

His knowledge of German was now sufficient to leave him unhindered in his choice of subjects. That great service, amongst others, Gottingen and his pedestrian tour had done for him, aided by his own ardour. He was quick to make acquaintances, and so preserved his fluency, and he was prepared by severe study to raise the standard of his knowledge to that of the most learned and classical authorities.

At first he felt exiled in Berlin, away from his companions and plunged amongst strangers, in a larger city, where the University was only one of many interests, not the sole concern of every individual as it was in Gottingen. The students in Berlin were scattered, and were not bound together by the ties of common circumstances and mutual dependence as in the smaller city, where they were a compact body animated by one spirit. His share in this looser organisation gave him a sense of loneliness, which one circumstance and another served to dispel, until he rejoiced in the greater variety of interests and in the less trammelled freedom of his own activity. The kindness of his landlord was one of the first reconciling influences. This gentleman had been an officer in the army, and he now employed the leisure of his retirement in elaborating various military inventions. He and his wife were interested in their lodger, and showed him many friendly attentions beyond his stipulated requirements. When his books were unpacked and the business of the session was begun, he pulled himself together with that wholesome attention to what was presently in hand which characterised him, and useless regrets expired at the contact with new and vivid experiences.

The lectures which he attended were those of Professors Schleiermacher and Neander for Divinity and Church History, those of Professor Boeckh for Philology, and those of Professor Raumer for History.

Schleiermacher impressed him greatly, and he attended his sermons in the Trinity Church, as well as his academic lectures. He did not attain to personal acquaintance with him, but enjoyed his lectures on the Epistles to the Corinthians, and described their tendency in a letter home as orthodox doctrinally, and as quiet and winning in style. In the pulpit Schleiermacher was an effective preacher, and did much to awaken the religious sense amongst the educated classes. His finely cut features, his grace of delivery, and his clear, emphatic pronunciation, neutralised the effect of his deformity. In a discourse on "Great Alen," with which John Blackie favoured his aunt, he pleaded for her tolerant and unprejudiced estimate of the famous German divine.

He is anything but a sceptic, deist, or neologian. I have no doubt his orthodoxy might even go so far as not to offend the old wives in the Glasgow churches.

Aunt Manie had been agitated by certain blasts of the Calvinistic trumpet against German rationalism, and had conjured her nephew by the names of Andrew Thompson and "Dissenter Rose" to turn a deaf ear to Schleiermacher and Neander. To which he very pertinently replied :-

As to what Andrew Thompson and "Dissenter Rose" may say, I do beseech you mind not a word of it till you have learned from a trustworthy source that these gentlemen are thoroughly acquainted with the German language, and have patiently and attentively studied the works of the German divines.

Neander's lectures were concerned that session with the Papacy in medieval times, and he unravelled its complications with unsparing hand. But he lectured besides on the Gospel of St John, and for the first time John Blackie heard that Gospel expounded, not merely as a supplementary Life of our Lord, but as a deeply spiritual expression of His mission and message. He was much attracted and impressed, and sought Neander's acquaintance. A certain tender ardour in the matter and manner of his discourses suggested the apostle and evangelist himself. But his bodily presence was feeble, and he fluttered from his house to the University like a "pithiess straw"; yet no man was more venerated by the students. He received the members of his class on Saturday and Sunday evenings, and John Blackie went amongst the rest. At one of these meetings Neander came up to him, and asked him many questions about Scottish theology. He broached the subject of Sabbatarianism. "You have some Jewish notions in Scotland with regard to the observance of the Lord's Day." The remark staggered the young Scotchrnan, and he muttered some helpless reply. He tells us—

I was startled to be told for the first time that one of the most significant observances of Scottish religiousness was not Christian but Jewish. At that time, to my mind, Scottish theology and Christianity were convertible terms, and the severe notions of my countrymen forbidding not only work but also amusement on the Sunday, a point in which they go beyond both the letter and the spirit of the original command, were so rooted in my mind that I could on no account go to the theatre or the opera on a Sunday. But I never had any cause to regret my conscientiousness. "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin."

Nevertheless, Neander's question led to a long train of serious meditation, and in after-years to a deliberate study of the whole subject of Sabbatarianism, which resulted in a perfectly clear appreciation of the value and consecration of the day of rest.

For the present, while intellectually unsettled on this and other doctrinal questions,—and it was well, for so he attained larger and truer views of religion,-_his heart and practice were evangelical. He never failed to go to church on Sunday, abstained on that day from all forms of work and amusement, except a walk for the sake of his health or a sober visit to Professor Neander, studied his Bible and particularly his Greek Testament, and attended the communion of the Lord's Supper in a Lutheran church behind the University.

He was so far interested in Professor Raumer's lectures as to give a sketch of them in a letter home. They treated of English history, and particularly of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Two years earlier Mr Henry Glassford Bell had published his masterly defence of Queen Mary Stuart, and John Blackie regrets that it was not known in Germany, where Schiller had given vogue to the theory of Mary's guilt, and where historians like Raumer based their acquaintance with Scottish history on the writings of Hume, Robertson, and Buchanan.

Ottfried Muller had given him an introduction to Professor Boeckh, which was entirely successful. The great philologer, whose reputation as the collector of ancient Greek inscriptions was at that time at its height, proved a most kindly and entertaining host, flinging aside the learning, which he wore so lightly, on the occasions when he received his students, and keeping them in continual merriment with humorous stories and passages from Sterne or Smollett, which he read aloud with much spirit. His academic lectures were on Tacitus, but he went into every particular with such erudite minuteness that during the whole session the class accomplished only one book of the history. This was a little disappointing, as John Blackie had only a single session to spend at Berlin, but in later years he appreciated the lesson in close and effective study.

These classes at the Friedrich Wilhelm University by no means exhausted the studies undertaken for this winter. He made the acquaintance of a young theologian, a proficient in Greek, whom he engaged to read Homer with him four times a-week. They translated into German, so that from their work he reaped a double benefit. He soon made friends amongst the students, and with one of them he concluded terms of mutual edification. He undertook to teach his friend English in return for five hours' weekly help with the German classics. The contract repaid both, and on John's side led to a careful study of Goethe's 'Faust,' while we find him brushing up his own language for the benefit of his friend. To make his lessons better, he studied the pronunciation of English as given in Walker's Dictionary, and so began a habit which outlasted this necessity. Throughout life he took pains with his pronunciation, and while never forfeiting the unadorned simplicity of Scottish intonation, he accepted the best authority as his guide in accent and quantity about all words apt to ring uncertain changes on Scottish lips. He writes home describing the new aspect of his own language as a subject for such study, and it is evident that by this time German had become the easier form of expression.

In view of his travels in Italy, he had thoughts of adding to this well-filled time-table two hours weekly at Italian, and he did add lessons in fencing, although they were rather for the sake of his health than for further accomplishment.

His health continued to show the benefit of his autumn tour. Only the cold in his head returned with the winter's work. His anxious father insisted on his consulting a doctor, and he tells his experience with merry relish and constant assertion of his own wellbeing. A friend recommended Dr Behrens, who lived in the Dorothea Strasse.

That's most capital, and just behind the University. I can manage the business in five minutes' time, and then in the evening, when I write my letter, I shall have something to say of the doctor and his prescriptions. But it most unluckily happens that there is a classical book-shop there, where Greek, Latin, and German books can be procured at a moderate price. Into this shop I went, and found several books for which I had been looking weeks before. Now there happened to be only a single louis in my pocket. This I had destined for the physician, at least part of it. Here therefore was an auction in my head, the books and the physician bidding for the louis. The claims of the one were in my estimation much greater than those of the other: the consequence was, the doctor lost his prey.

Finally the visit was effected, and Dr Behrens and his lively patient were mutually diverted. He did his father's bidding, but assured the doctor that he was quite well. The cold in his head was, however, sufficiently in evidence to require a prescription, and Dr Behrens ordered a vapour bath and daily exercise. As his lodgings were a mile away from the University, he found it difficult to wedge in a farther walk, so he compromised the matter by taking fencing lessons twice a-week, as already stated, and these calling for considerable muscular play, dislodged the enemy for a time.

His letters intimate that a change, of which he was quite conscious, was coming over his views of secular life. This was the very change desired by Mr Blackie, who had seen his son gradually forfeiting certain powers of mind and temper by brooding and self-concentration. His horizon was contracted, not because he selected the most important in preference to the subordinate interests of life, but because he selected the former at the expense of the latter, and failed to see that all the energies with which we are endowed are good, and that our study must be how best to use all, not to employ some and disuse the rest. Mr Blackie and Dr Forbes believed that, thrown upon his own resources, his mind would regain its equilibrium, and that healthy enjoyment would take the place of which a moping self - sufficiency had deprived it. Perhaps, too, the wise father saw that something of this moping self- sufficiency was due to the unremitting vigilance of a too anxious family circle. All young natures shrink into themselves and become partially paralysed under the discipline of domestic nagging, and there is no doubt that the very pride and affection of which he was the centre at home took too constantly this form. He alludes to it playfully in one of his letters, and bids the "female pillars" take note that he is now a travelled fellow who knows the world and will wear his knowledge with some dignity when he returns, with mind and manners polished beyond their ken.

In one respect his practice indicated this change. He began to frequent the excellent Berlin theatre, scrupulously avoiding the Sunday performances, but attending on those week-days when the play was either Goethe's, Schiller's, or Kotzebue's, the last dramatist being then counted of classical rank. He found himself in this way agreeably introduced to some of the masterpieces. of German literature, and profited too by the pronunciation, which was most carefully studied by good German actors. It was easy to read at home the plays with whose action he was thus made acquainted.

His father, much astonished to hear that he had broken the serious resolves which barred the theatre as a snare of the devil, wrote to ask him what "new light" guided his doings. His answer treats rather of the complete change in his standpoint than of the particular instance; but as the expression of a most important mental transition, part of this letter deserves quotation:-

Powers for whose exercise there is no necessity cannot be developed. If we suppose that a person is naturally of a weak, pliant, and irresolute disposition, timid and retiring, and averse to the noise and bustle of busy life; if, added to all this, he be much given to study, the consequence will be that, though he grow in years, he will not grow in manly decision of character, but will labour under a weakness of active power very ill calculated for enabling him to perform a critical part in the world In my opinion this was my case. My being sent abroad made me sensible of my awkwardness in active life. At first I could not stand at all on my feet; afterwards I was only able to stagger along, swaying from side to side like a drunken man, very often striking my head against the corners of the streets, and even now, though I at times imagine I can march with the firmness of a soldier who has got out of the awkward squad, yet at other times I am not quite sure whether my head or my feet are uppermost. To a want of firmness when committed to my own charge, I added a profound ignorance of the world into which I was sent. What your repeated advice could not convince me of at home, a little experience abroad has taught me practically. You often told me it was ridiculous for a person to lock himself up in his study and never see mankind. But of all human souls mine was the worst formed to follow such an advice. Abstracted through a course of years from taking interest in the affairs that went on around, accustomed to a sort of internal meditation or rather dreaming, I felt no interest in the subjects with which it was most natural I should have been acquainted. Beyond the page of Cicero and the Greek New Testament I had very little knowledge. I always found it an endeavour to mingle in the passing interests, political, literary, or religious, of the day. But as soon as I came to the Continent and had intercourse with men, was obliged to speak with them as a man if I would not be neglected and overlooked in society, then I felt the nothingness and emptiness of my mind. But thanks to heaven, who gave a good spice of the Blackie ambition into my constitution, I was not long before I observed my nothingness in comparison with my fellow- travellers. My pride was nettled. For what purpose did the blessed God of heaven give me eyes and ears and hands? Was it only to see old books bound in vellum, to hear theological lectures, and turn over folio sheets of dull pedantry? Or are there perhaps other objects in the world about which it was intended man should occupy his senses? Is it not a most ridiculous thing that a young fellow should have read Cicero's Orations, but not know even the name of one of Pitt's best speeches; that the Bucolics of Virgil should be familiar to a Scotchman who did not know how corn grew in his own country; that I should be able to give an account of Ctesar's victories, but hardly know more of Buonaparte than his name? Such thoughts have often crossed me: I therefore read modern history, picked up information at all hands, stirred up my stagnant soul to take an interest in what was going on around me, by which means I was enabled to keep my head above water.

This letter, which is dated January 18, 1830, concludes with a still graver passage, in which the recoil of his mind from the Presbyterian ministry shows itself very plainly, although it is evident that his desire to please so indulgent a father prevents him from directly intimating his wish to give up the profession. He speaks of his delight in languages both ancient and modern, of his resolve to acquire French and Italian as thoroughly as he has acquired German, and hints at his admiration of the professorial chair. It is evident that he now wished to be set free from the pledges which bound him to take orders, and that he felt the difficulty of subscribing the Westminster Confession of Faith, now that his mind had widened under the influence of German theology. To become a minister of the Church of Scotland he would need to subscribe certain dogmatic articles, for which he found no warrant in his Testament— Calvinism, Anglicanism, and Romanism being all in the same boat as far as the imposition of an empirical creed is concerned. He felt the impossibility of this, and so began in a manner to negotiate with his father for a change of profession.

But deeply as he was concerned with a transition of such importance, he no longer brooded over his own phases without reference to other people, and this very letter shows how much he desired to know his father's mind upon all the topics of which it treats. An introduction to a worthy Berlin merchant gave him the opportunity for some social intercourse, independently of the grave University circle, and he writes gaily to his aunt of the hours which he spent with various pleasing young Fräulein who frequented Mrs Doering's salon. In these descriptions he bubbles over with freakish mirth, evidently wishing to pique curiosity at home; but the passages in which he confesses himself bewildered amongst so many beauties exaggerate something his own audacity, because, as a matter of fact, he had still much shyness to overcome in the presence of ladies.

But he was doing his best to find the tact and polish which Mrs Blackie insisted could only be acquired from feminine society; and as the Doerings made him welcome to visit them when he had leisure to do so, it is wonderful how often the busy student contrived to call on the fair Miss Minna, craftily undertaking to assist her in her English studies. To fit himself better for social success, he began to take lessons from a musical friend whom he had picked up during the Harzreise, and whose knowledge of band-music had led the King of Prussia to make him Inspector of Military Bands. The amount of musical attainment in which these lessons resulted was not great, and helped him only to pick out with great difficulty the notes of a melody or choral; but he discovered that he had inherited some measure of his father's voice, and we find him writing home for "The Battle of the Nile," and other songs in Mr Blackie's repertory. This is the first intimation which we have of his accomplishment of pleasant, dramatic singing, one of the many social gifts which made him afterwards the life of every festive gathering. No doubt the "Battle of the Nile" was much favoured by the Berlin students, burning with hot indignation at the recent memory of Napoleon's savage invasion, which had clouded the life of their patriot-queen, had reduced large tracts of Germany to sterility, and was the scattering of that baleful seed whose produce rose in ranks of armed men at Gravelotte and Sedan.

In furtherance of this social training, his father proposed that he should be presented to the King, which roused a burst of protest on John's part, reminding us of his agonised refusal to go to school in new clothes. He represented the solemnity as hedged about with difficulty, which indeed it was, as costing great sums for ceremonial garments, and as so overwhelming that he, a mere modest Aberdonian, would inevitably complicate his homage with some disastrous clumsiness, and so confound the name of Blackie for ever; and after a short correspondence on the matter it was allowed to drop. Mr Blackie was under the impression that the King of Prussia, like his Majesty of England, held general levees, at which any gentleman properly authenticated might make his bow, and he knew nothing of the triple tier of etiquette which fenced the Prussian Court from all but titled persons and those whom the King desired to honour.

A pleasant young Irishman, Mr Jackson, came late in January to study in Berlin, and was particularly commended to John Blackie's companionship. He was full of vivacity, and having, as he said, "no tendency so strong as that of cutting throats," he meant to go into the army. Together they spent their short intervals of leisure, and Mr Jackson introduced his friend to an old Scottish lady who had lived thirty years in Berlin, and at whose house he met other compatriots.

Altogether, his residence in Berlin was a bright, profitable, untroubled time, his health nowise injured by the three months of keen frost which characterised that winter, and which, coming after a heavy fall of snow, made the ways impassable for wheeled vehicles, so that sledges filled the streets.

In a letter written early in February, he describes an interesting conversation which he had enjoyed with Neander. Its subject was Dr Paulus of Heidelberg, and his interpretation of the Gospel story according to the "new light" of rationalism, which took all possible liberties with the text in order to rob it of its spiritual significance. Neander described to him how Paulus treated the "one thing needful" alluded to by our Lord in His gentle admonition to Martha. "Dear Martha," he interpreted, "you have indeed shown a laudable diligence in preparing a meal for me. I take it very kind, but you have neglected one dish, which is better than all the rest; this you must also make ready." And Neander added: "What this dish was, Paulus, who is fond of good eating, knows best himself."

He gives an account of the church attendance in Berlin, which compared favourably with what he had observed in Gottingen; but this was not surprising, for in Berlin the pulpits were filled by men of learning and persuasive power, like Schleierrnacher and Strauss, who preached in churches crowded to the door.

In February he began to take lessons in Italian, giving himself six weeks to attain as much knowledge of that language as would suffice for travelling needs. His plan was to wait in Berlin till John and Francis Forbes joined him, and after a few days spent in showing them the sights of the Prussian capital, to start together on a roundabout route for Italy, intending to reach Rome early in May, and there to spend three months, coming north to Switzerland and France for the autumn, and then returning to Berlin. The plan was partially carried out, as we shall see, but Rome proved too mighty a study and too potent a magnet to release him quite so soon.

Early in March he wrote to Mrs Blackie a letter full of gratitude for some words of loving commendation which she had sent him, and which had greatly cheered him. His enjoyment of the advantages which Mr Blackie's generosity provided for him made him very sensible of that generosity, and his desire to profit by them in all ways which were sure to please his father is evident in every letter. That his studiousness, earnestness, and intellectual advance had given pleasure at home this letter testifies, and it must have compensated for many an anxious moment.

In the same letter occurs an amusing passage about women. Perhaps the fair Minna had proved ungracious in a recent interview, for he declares in a burst of petulance that "girls are no better than painted dolls," and then proceeds to elaborate that portrait of his "ideal woman" which haunts the brain of young enthusiasts, with whom, if the marvel existed, they deem themselves quite fitted to mate. He adds the saving clause, however, that if he ever found her, it is a hundred to one against the chance that she would look on him with favour.

His stay in Berlin was wearing to a close. It had been of great service to him. When summing up the results of his student life in Göttingen and Berlin many years afterwards, he wrote:-

At the conclusion of the winter session in Berlin I found myself perfectly master of the German language, thoughtfully read in some of the best German classics, and learning to speculate slowly and thoughtfully under some of the best German influences. But there was a want of speciality about me. I was neither a theologian nor a philosopher, a philologer nor a poet—just a young man on his travels learning to live and to feel and to think, with theological tendencies and a possible theological destiny. I left Germany with a warm side towards the German people, which I have retained through life. Their simplicity, truthfulness, and unaffected naturalness; their thoughtfulness, honesty of research, accuracy of learning, and breadth of generalisation; their kindliness, frankness, and true-heartedness were just the sort of virtues that had a peculiar attraction for me. I was glad to learn from them. For many years I went about in the world oppressed with nothing so much as a feeling of my own ignorance and stupidity. This feeling made me constantly open and eager to learn; and this eagerness to learn led by slow degrees to the attainment of a certain amount of wisdom.

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