In all these respects—socially, intellectually, religiously—Bismarck was the very incarnation of German character. Although an aristocrat by birth and bearing, and although, especially during the years of early manhood, passionately given over to the aristocratic habits of dueling, hunting, swaggering and carousing, he was essentially a man of the people. Nothing was so utterly foreign to him as any form of libertinism; even his eccentricities were of the hardy, homespun sort. He was absolutely free from social vanity; he detested court festivities; he set no store by orders or decorations; the only two among the innumerable ones conferred upon him which he is said to have highly valued were the Prussian order of the Iron Cross, bestowed for personal bravery on the battlefield, and the medal for “rescuing from danger” which he earned in 1842 for having saved his groom from drowning by plunging into the water after him.
All his instincts were bound up with the soil from which he had sprung. He passionately loved the North German plain, with its gloomy moorlands, its purple heather, its endless wheatfields, its kingly forests, its gentle lakes, and its superb sweep of sky and clouds. Writing to his friends when abroad—he traveled very little abroad—he was in the habit of describing foreign scenery by comparing it to familiar views and places on his own estates. During sleepless nights in the Chancellery at Berlin there would often rise before him a sudden vision of Varzin, his Pomeranian country-seat, “perfectly distinct in the minutest particulars, like a great picture with all its colors fresh—the green trees, the sunshine on the stems, the blue sky above. I saw every individual tree.” Never was he more happy than when alone with nature. “Saturday,” he writes to his wife from Frankfort, “I drove to Ruedesheim. There I took a boat, rowed out on the Rhine, and swam in the moonlight, with nothing but nose and eyes out of water, as far as the Maeuseturm near Bingen, where the bad bishop came to his end. It gives one a peculiar dreamy sensation to float thus on a quiet warm night in the water, gently carried down by the current, looking above on the heavens studded with moon and stars, and on each side the banks and wooded hilltops and the battlements of the old castles bathed in the moonlight, whilst nothing falls on one’s ear but the gentle splashing of one’s movements. I should like to swim like this every evening.” And what poet has more deeply felt than he that vague musical longing which seizes one when far away from human sounds, by the brook-side or the hill-slope? “I feel as if I were looking out on the mellowing foliage of a fine September day,” he writes again to his wife, “health and spirits good, but with a soft touch of melancholy, a little homesickness, a longing for deep woods and lakes, for a desert, for yourself and the children, and all this mixed up with a sunset and Beethoven.”