The Northern Way

Grimm Centenary: Sigfred-Arminivs and Other Papers


I have read, or was told, that on the 4th January last, the centenary of Jacob Grimm's birthday, orders were given for the teachers in every school throughout Germany to tell their scholars somewhat of him. May I, though a little behindhand, add my mite to the pile, by telling of a brief interview I had with Jacob Grimm in Midsummer, 1859, on my first visit to Germany. I tell what I have to tell from memory, looking back twenty-six years, for I have never been in the habit of taking notes or keeping a diary.

Starting from Copenhagen I landed at Stettin, stayed there but a few hours, and left the same day for Berlin. I knew no one in Berlin, nor had I any introductions; and, though I could read German, I had never spoken two words. 'Sie sind ein Wiener,' somebody said to me, wondering who I could be, and not knowing what I was saying My first day at Berlin I spent in the Museums; and on the second I went to Potsdam. The third and last I gave to Museums again; when at noon the thought of calling on Jacob Grimm came into my head, a bold resolve, as this was my third day of German speaking.

So, at 12-1 o'clock, I found my way to Link-strasse (to what number I have now forgotten); it was a big row of tall houses, let in flats, and facing open fields at that time. I went upstairs to the first floor on the left hand, if I remember right, and there on a brass plate was engraved---- Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm.

I rang the bell, and a manservant came to the door; I told him my errand; and having no printed card (things I have never used in my life) I wrote my name on a piece of paper and gave it him. He did not seem to understand me very well, as was no wonder, and I doubt if my dirty clothes and boots --- for I had been wandering about sight-seeing since the early morning --- reassured him. However, he went in, and coming back after a little while took me in and, opening a door on the left hand, set me face to face with Jacob Grimm in his own study. A plain bright room, in the middle a strong table, Grimm's chair close to it with its back to the window, books in shelves all around and half-open folios lying about, one on the floor leaning against the leg of the table, just as one sees them in the pictures of old Italian scholar's rooms. Of other furniture, the chief was a low bench-like couch or sofa without back or head-rest, on the left on entering the room. Grimm was standing when we first met, and he did not sit down at all while I stayed, but he asked me to sit down on the couch, and stood and talked to me. He spoke in a friendly way, enquiring foremost about people, first of my countrymen. I remember his asking after Mr. Jon Sigurdsson, wanting to know whether he was married, whether he had any children. Then he asked after others, then after several Danes, and lastly, hearing that I had been in Norway, after some Norsemen. I noticed his ready memory for names. Finally he turned to me and said --- 'Sie haben schöne dinge gethan,' which I did not at the moment quite understand, but afterward gathered that he meant my Timatal (an Essay on the Chronology of the Icelandic Sagas). He went on to ask me what I was now doing. I told him I had been editing Sagas, and spoke of the Biskopa Sögur (Lives of the old Bishops of Iceland), which I had finished. But here I had nearly come to grief, for I took out of my pocket a little MS. 'This,' I said, 'I have now in hand, and am going to have it printed at Leipzig' (where it afterwards duly appeared as Forn-Sögur, a transcript of old texts), and gave it him. He took it, and holding it up, stooped his head to it, till it was near his eyes; he did not bend his body, nor contract his chest; and so standing half sideways to me, half facing the door, he turned over the leaves, reading a few lines. I can still see him as he stood there; for of course I watched him closely as he read. I could soon see that there was something in it that displeased him. My manuscript was written in the Raskian spelling (then used by Icelanders, as if there had never been a Grimm), not even distinguishing between 'œ' and 'æ', a point on which Grimm insisted. He gave me back my MS. --- 'I will read it when it is printed, it will be easier then.' After a pause he said, 'I see that there are some differences between you Icelanders and the Norwegians (Munch the historian and Unger had been the first to adopt Grimm's spelling). I answered that I did not know, that it was a trifling matter; but after a while, having talked on other things, he returned to it again, though when I gave the same answer he kindly and good-naturedly let the subject drop. It would have been ill for me to bandy grammar with Jacob Grimm: besides, I could only speak German word by word. Looking pleased again, he now turned to his book-shelves (were I back in the room I could point out the exact spot) and deftly picked out a small pamphlet to show me. I noticed the quickness of his hand and eye; he picked out the thin little book as neatly as a printer picks up a type. He crossed the room, and, from different shelves took out one or two more in the same accurate way: it seemed to amuse him. I think I noticed too that he seemed to open every book as if at random (1), and yet to light upon the right place.

Then he asked me if I would take a glass of wine. 'I am thirsty,' said I, 'and would like to have some water with it.' Upon which he rang the bell, and the servant came in. And after a while a young lady (Jacob's niece, I should think) with a tray, and on it claret and water. I asked Jacob Grimm to help me, and as he poured out the water and the wine into a tumbler, I noticed his hand shook a little; but, as in Iceland, it is always the hostess that helps one, and I knew that he was a bachelor living with his brother, I fancied that it was because he was not used to do such a thing, and therefore did it ackwardly, for I could, young as I was, see that there was something childlike in his nature.

My own feeling all the while towards him was a strange mixture of shyness and curiosity. After saying a few kind things to me, when I rose to go, after staying about twenty minutes in all, he went with me to the door and bid me good-bye, sending his greetings to Maurer in Munich whom I was about to visit, ---and I am sure sat down again to his Lexicon directly, and was deep in work in a moment. The interruption, instead of disturbing, seemed rather to please him and rest him.

Of Grimm's appearance I have a lively recollection. His head was large and carried a little bent forward, as is often seen in men of thought. His hair was thick and straight, but turned to a silvery hue; no trace of baldness; lips, cheeks and chin close-shaven. His face was somewhat of the Roman type, serious but kindly, not smiling or laughing as he spoke, and not varying much in expression. He did not wear spectacles, though he was a little short-sighted, as I noticed when he read my papers. He stood upright, and moved briskly and easily, and altogether showed none of the wasting of age. His voice was clear, pitched a little high I noticed, which (as I learnt afterwards) came from a slight deafness; I thought he spoke so that I might understand him better; his articulation was so clear and distinct that I was easily able to make out every word he said. There was no condescension in his voice or ways; he did not speak a word about himself, or give a hint as to his own work, or touch on any literary subject whatsoever, beyond those I have noted above. He said nothing of the ordinary commonplace about Iceland (geysers, Hecla, etc.), indeed he never mentioned it at all.

Everything about the man was healthy. Though he had risen from his work as I came in, his hair and dress were tidy and smooth, and there was no weariness in his look, voice, or bearing. He did not, I think, wear a dressing-gown, but a plain frock-coat. There was no smell of tobacco about the room, nor any pipe or cigars to be seen (dear as they are to the typical German professor). As in his Grammar and Mythology, so in all his belongings I noticed that the sense of order was strongly manifested. Every book on his shelves seemed to be in its right place. All his surroundings seemed scrupulously clean and neat. His room was not over-hot or close, but sweet and fresh.

Of the engraved portraits I have seen of Jacob Grimm, the best one is that in the frontispiece of the Dictionary, though even that does not quite give the man as I saw him. I have a faded photograph, given to me in 1862, which is better: the best, however, is one of the same year belonging to Dr. E. B. Tylor, of Oxford. But in this the man shows signs of a shaken frame, which he certainly did not when I saw him in 1859. One can see in it the effect of the death of Wilhelm and that terrible incubus of the Wörterbuch, now weighing upon him alone. When I was in Berlin, Wilhelm was still alive, but I did not see him; perhaps he was not at home, or else Jacob would probably have taken me in to see him. Thus I missed the pleasure of seeing the two brothers together; and I never had another chance, for Wilhelm died December 16, the same year: Jacob died September 20, 1863, coming 79.

Thus on my first visit to Germany, and only visit to Berlin, I had the singular good fortune, as I count it, to be face to face with Jacob Grimm for a few moments.                                                                G. V.

1. In a similar way I remember Munch's power of opening a big book at almost the right page and, that hit on, of pouncing at once upon the right line and word. [Back]

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page