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Life before Doris

Posted by Richard on UTC 2018-10-29 08:31.

Berne, die Heimat

Victor Albrecht Haller was born on 16 October 1708 in Berne, Switzerland.

We shouldn't really write 'Switzerland' here, because this was the time of what is known as the Old Swiss Confederacy, a time of violent and bloody rivalries, despotism and immense social and cultural upheavals such as the Reformation.

Those who are amused by Orson Welles' famous adlib remark about the peaceful democracy of Switzerland that produced the cuckoo clock compared with the violence of the Italian city states that produced the Renaissance should think again. Welles put it into the mouth of his character, the wartime racketeer Harry Lime, in film The Third Man (1949). It's a good joke but a very wrong one: the despotism of the Swiss city states of the time (and during the preceding four centuries) was quite comparable to anything that Italy ever experienced.

We moderns must remember that Berne, where Haller was born, was part of a Swiss Confederacy, not a Swiss nation – It would take another 150 years or so of conflict before that came into being. In Haller's time the citizen thought of the town or city, then the canton, then – as a very poor third – of the confederacy. Haller's later career was dominated by a deep emotional attachment to the powerful city-state of Berne, its people and its own Swiss dialect.


Haller's father, Nicolaus Emanuel Haller (1672-1721) seems to have been an educated and well-read man. He had studied Jurisprudence. Of his mother, Anna Maria Engel (1681-1708), we know almost nothing – even the date and circumstances of her early death are left unmentioned in the family chronicle. She seems to have died shortly after Albrecht was born. We do not know whether Albrecht's birth had any causal connections with the mother's death. The couple married in 1697 and produced five children: Johann Anton (*1699), Nicolaus Emanuel (*1702), Anna Maria (*1703), Gabriel (*1705, who died early) and our Victor Albrecht (*1708).

Following his first wife's death, Nicolaus Haller senior married again, on 17 August 1713, Salome Neuhaus (1664-1732) from Biel (Albrecht was four at the time). Nicolaus died on 4 May 1721, in Baden, when Albrecht was twelve.

We mention the place of death here because it tells us something more about the family. In 1713, the year of his second marriage, father Haller had obtained a post as an administrator in Baden, nearly 90 km away from Berne. It appears that he left his family behind in Berne for the eight years until his death in Baden on 4 May 1721 – at least we have no record of Albrecht living outside Berne during this period. Just for completeness, we record that Albrecht's stepmother, Salome, died on 29 March 1732, when Albrecht was twenty-three.

Why all these family dates, you ask?

A very special childhood

Even just considering the dates of his early life on the most superficial level, it is clear that Albrecht did not have an easy childhood. His mother died in his earliest years, his father remarried and moved out of the family house to Baden when Albrecht was four and died when he was twelve.

Losses that in themselves must have been hard on Albrecht, but, as if they weren't enough, he was also chronically ill for much of his childhood – some say it was scrofula, some rickets. For long periods he lived isolated from his playmates.

His father had intended him to have a career in the church, meaning that the education of the young boy was directed towards this end. In his isolation, Albrecht was confronted with Latin, Greek, Hebrew and all the other accoutrements of Biblical learning. Because of his ill-health he could not attend the local school but survived a series of home tutors.

He not only survived, he flourished. The boy Albrecht had an immense capacity for learning, an equally immense work-ethic, he read obsessively and had the ability to organize and remember the mountain of knowledge he processed in those early years.

He seems to have felt the need always to overshoot the mark, an aspect of a desire to please and a need for recognition that we notice throughout his later life. Normal children might have merely to read the Bible and memorise some passages: Albrecht studied it in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, creating along the way his own comparative lexicons of those languages, almost in the form of multilingual concordances of occurrences, variants and derivatives and then – even further along the way, knocking off a grammar of Chaldean.

We might imagine that every day his tutors thanked God for placing this wonderful pupil in their hands. Unfortunately, each of them in his own way seems to have been a religious and moral bigot, for each of them took Albrecht's astonishing abilities as some form of sinful lack of humility and so responded to his need for recognition with sometimes quite brutal humiliations. The groundwork for the tortured soul that will come more and more into evidence as Albrecht gets older was laid here by these Pietist/Calvinist tyrants.

Admittedly all these signs of exceptional talent brought the boy little recognition from the side of either his teachers or his father. His passion for reading was criticised. He was held back or rebuked in cases where he might have expected praise and reward, in the belief that his great ambition had to be broken by special discipline. He was allowed to take the entrance examination for the public school in Berne when he was eight and a half. He passed with an error-free treatment of the written theme that was set, but was refused entry to the school in an attempt to slap down his ambitious nature. He finally went to the school a year later.

Freilich alle diese Anzeichen außerordentlicher Begabung trugen dem Knaben von Seite seines Lehrers, wie von der seines Vaters, nur wenig Anerkennung ein. Man tadelte seine Sucht zu lesen, man hielt zurück oder verwies ihn, wo er Lob und Belohnung erwartete, man glaubte seinen großen Ehrgeiz durch besondere Maßregeln brechen zu müssen. Man ließ ihn achtundeinhalb Jahr alt das Examen in die öffentliche Schule von Berne machen, das er mit fehlerfreier Bearbeitung des gegebenen schriftlichen Themas bestand, aber man versagte ihm gleichwol, in der Absicht, seine allzu große Ehrbegierde zu unterdrücken, den Eintritt in die Anstalt, die er in Folge davon erst ein Jahr später bezog. [Hirzel, Frauenfeld, 1882 p. VII]

One more rejection, one more year of separation from other children.

Albrecht went to the Gymnasium in Berne in the spring of 1721, when he was twelve. The normal entrance age was around fourteen or fifteen. The entrance examination required the translation of a German text into Latin. Within the time allowed for this task the young Albrecht not only knocked off a Latin translation but threw in a Greek one for good measure.

Rising up to the surface

Shortly after Albrecht had entered the Gymnasium in Berne his father died. One year later, he left the school. We know nothing of the circumstances of that departure – perhaps there was simply nothing more that the school could teach him. In the seven years that followed, from 1722 until 1729, Albrecht zig-zagged along an eclectic and nomadic path, a complex path which for the casual reader can be a bit of a challenge.

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Albrecht Haller as a student, artist and exact date unknown. Image ©Burgerbibliothek Berne.

The freedom of travel and escape from the martinets of his childhood were a great release; the stations along this route were not all optimal, but Albrecht, the supreme collector of information, gained some utility out of all of them. To the obsessive self-examiner, the mind directed towards self-improvement, even failures, within limits, bring their lessons.

He had freed himself from the expectation of a theological career – although he kept the theological cast of his mind for the rest of his life – and finally began to follow his own, scientific lights.

On 27 August 1722, 13(!) years old, he left Berne for Biel (about 25 km away) to take an internship with his maternal uncle Dr Johann Rudolf Neuhaus (1652-1724). It rapidly became clear that this basic doctoring activity did not stretch Albrecht's talent. On 6 November 1723, after an unsatisfactory year in Biel, he returned to Berne and then left there shortly afterwards to study medicine in Tübingen.

For a while in Tübingen Haller fell into the lax ways of the student. After the restrictions of his childhood, the student life must have been initially attractive. But Haller's drive for knowledge, his sense of calling and his own permanent self-examination soon restored his centre. Just to humble ourselves, we note that he was barely 16 at the time.

As he wrote much later, he realised that his fellow students were largely timewasters and drunks, the academic staff were lacking partly in enthusiasm, partly in learning and his money was being wasted on frivolity.

On 6 April 1725, after his dissertation was completed, he left Tübingen to study at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He arrived in the middle of May and immatriculated at the university on 27 June. Leiden was a complete contrast to Tübingen: orderly, with excellent students and staff. But the 17 year-old Haller kept his wanderlust and left Leiden in the summer of 1726 for a tour of northern Germany. On 23 May 1727 he was awarded his medical doctorate. Once month thereafter, on 22 July 1727, he left Leiden for London, arriving on 26 July. He stayed in London for about a month, leaving on 28 August 1727 for Paris. He stayed in Paris until 21 February of the following year, 1728.

All these dates! you shout at the monitor. Well, I warned you that Haller's wanderings in search of an education would be a challenge, didn't I?

It was about this time, too, that Haller began to suffer from the physical ailments that would accompany him in a steady crescendo through the rest of his life. The problems began with extreme headaches that led him to give up drinking wine altogether, but as the years went by the symptoms diversified into many forms. By the end of his life he was taking up to 130 drops of opium a day just to give him some relief from the torture of his final years.

But, aside from the headaches, in 1728 he was entering the most pleasurable phase of his life, the years of Basel, the Alps and of Doris.

Basel, the intellectual vortex

After he left Paris, he visited Strasbourg for a few days then arrived in Basel on 14 March 1728. He was back in 'Switzerland'.

He attended the university there, taking lectures on anatomy, botany and mathematics, the latter by Johann (I) Bernoulli (1667–1748), one of the leading members of that great learned family. In Basel, Haller found himself moving in the circles of some of the great Swiss and European savants of his time.

They were all polymaths: doctors of medicine, mathematicians, botanists, theologians – cutting edge researchers, as we say nowadays, in all the developing fields of the time. They were all were obsessive scribblers and letter writers in multiple languages. They were all renaissance men in the breadth of their cultural interests, too. In his few idle moments, for example, Johann Bernoulli, medical doctor and mathematician, knocked off what was generally considered to be competent Latin poetry.

Haller flourished in this intellectual hothouse. He formed many friendships in Basel, most notably with Benedikt Stähelin, the professor of physics at the university, and through him with the botanist and poet Karl Friedrich Drollinger. Stähelin, thanks to his almost mother-tongue command of English, brought another thread into this intellectual tapestry, the contact with the vibrant literary world in Britain.

An analysis of the cultural vortex which now whirled around Haller is obviously beyond our scope. We can only say that, caught up in this whirl of intellectual activity, Haller also began writing poetry once again. He abandoned his early efforts, which he later burnt.

We do not wonder, given the level at which Haller was now operating, that his mature poetry took the form of the deepest philosophical reflections rendered into verse. Haller held literature that was merely pleasurable to be suspect; it had to have some moral centre to establish its worth.

Science, mathematics, literature and languages. But one further important thread must be added: the Alps. This thread arose from Haller's friendship with Johannes Gessner (1708-1790), one more friendship from the fruitful Basel years. Gessner was a close contemporary, yet another polymath, who would become a great naturalist.

It was with Gessner that Haller, then 19 years-old, undertook an extensive tour through the Swiss Alps in 1728. The tour began on 7 July 1728 and ended on 9 August. He returned to Berne for a few months, then returned to Basel on 22 November.

Listing all the stations of this tour is outside our scope and would baffle anyone who lacked detail knowledge of the geography of the Swiss Alps. The companionship with Gessner, a similarly orderly mind and passionate botanist, the unconstrained collection of empirical data and the overwhelming effects of the alpine landscape on Haller's sensitive, impressionable soul make this first major alpine tour one of the greatest highlights of his life. He had stood on solitary peaks with the abyss on all sides.

We must leave this complex theme at that, for this is not an essay on Haller's fascination with the Alps. We only note here that the Alps appealed to Haller's deepest emotional sensitivities in the grandeur of the landscape; to his thirst for knowledge as one of the greatest unexplored areas of Europe – scientifically almost the equivalent of a moon-landing at the time; in the simple life of the people who lived there they exemplified his deepest moral convictions.

There are those who say that Haller's 'discovery' of the Alps stimulated and paved the way for the 'discovery' of the Alps that took place in the generations who followed him.

Arcadia: Berne and Mariane Wyss

In 1729, after his seven year odyssey across Europe, Haller returned to his Ithaca, Berne, where he now settled as a practising medical doctor. He had early success and plenty of patients. He had intellectual fulfilment and an extended circle of learned friends. In these years he was also able to undertake several short alpine tours.

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'Der Dichter der Alpen', Albrecht Haller (c.27) by Johann Rudolf Huber, Berne, 1735. Image ©Private owner / Burgerbibliothek Berne.

To round all this happiness off, he met and fell in love with Mariane Wyss (1711–1736), the oldest daughter of Samuel Wyss, a Bernese pharmacist and businessman. They were married on 19 February 1731.

He was twenty-three – the childhood days of isolation and degradation had been left behind. Of this time Haller wrote in a letter more than forty years later 'Et ego in Arcadia, I also loved, and felt with lively intensity the sweetness of love'.

This is the man – complex, earnest, intellectual – who now wrote and published his love poem Doris (dated June 1730). As we might already suspect, given what we now know about Haller, it turned out to be not your average love poem.

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