Letter 113

• 113. Caroline to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer in Berlin: Mainz, 29 July 1792 [*]

Mainz, 29 July [17]92

|254| With ardent longing have I waited for some sign of life from you — and then all I receive is an impatient, cursory note from which I can extract nothing except what I in fact do not want to hear. Although I wanted to answer you immediately, I am doing so only today. But do not trust the appearance of forgetful oblivion — in fact, it is best not to trust any — really any appearance at all, my dear Meyer. I have thought about you extremely often, and worried not inconsiderably about you — but what does it matter that you are unaware of it and that it does not help you in any case? That said, my concern for you is still worth it to me in and of itself. If those |255| who have isolated themselves up to a certain point are indeed still able to help themselves, it is only through an enjoyable hour or two they manage to spend in conversation with friends — and that pleasure, of course, is always so imperfect amid absence. Which is probably why I remained silent even though I did want to write — though constantly to remain silent is also foolish.

I could tell you — that we have thought a great deal about you — perhaps you already know that Amalie was here; [1] and, indeed, those were quite enjoyable days, of which only the last had a cloud cast over it by the sudden death of Therese’s youngest child, a little boy, an event that cost us all a great many tears. [2] Amalie will speak for herself — she told me she intended to do so soon — I have been able to see this charming woman more often here than in Gotha and have greatly enjoyed her company. The convening of the German Empire of necessity also became a festive occasion for us as well [3] — despite the fact that it could not truly be such for our burgher sensibilities. I occasionally imagined that, given the flood of foreigners, you, too, might eventually come swimming by — I would have extended my hand to you and secretly guided you into my house — but I did not see anyone who resembled you. I remember quite well what you look like — as corpulent as you may well have become in the meantime, about which there is admittedly considerable talk. I am also becoming strong here, since I must refrain from becoming aggravated or squabbling, and between my 30th and 40th year I hope to attain the status of a Dutch beauty. In this admission, you can find one of the ingredients for my well-being — in my small, solitary rooms, with my good little girl, there is no lack of domestic tranquility. Nor of maternal joy, since she promises to become dear, amiable creature whose happiness I will certainly not be compromising through the way I raise her. One cannot |256| imagine a more guileless, ungrudging, cheerful soul. Everyone is fond of her — Therese often gives her preference over her own small daughter, whose sickly nature has made her ill-humored and lethargic [4]she calls Forster “daddy” — and he responds by acting right fatherly toward her in his own turn. She is being raised now under such better circumstances and surroundings than was previously in my power to provide for her [5] — from me she learns how to occupy oneself alone, and how much one can do without — and there she is in the womb of a family, where she acquires a sense of respect for others — respect for men. Given her fortunate natural disposition, she will thus have no lack of feminine virtues — and for her sake alone, I could never regret my decision to come here. My sense of duty as a mother has been my guide ever since my children no longer had a father — were this bond to break, I would take a completely different path — I would have to establish a great many other connections again for which I hitherto have simply not had the urge — and for which I might probably also quickly lose the capacity — may God grant that it never break. — How am I doing otherwise? — Every trace of the previous trouble has disappeared, even the memory — I am hardly aware now that such strange, warped people even exist of the sort I got to know primarily in my previous circumstances. [6] — Those whom I am now seeing are good, indeed are such to more than the usual degree, offering my mind more nourishment than — than it needs — or more than it can return to them — and making my situation easier through numerous helpful acts of friendship. They are enjoying their lives in this beautiful region — they work and take walks, and I share all this with them. Every evening I go over to drink tea with them, [7] to read the most interesting newspapers that have been published since the beginning of the world itself — to listen to all sorts of expatiations and even to chatter on a bit myself — to meet strangers etc. |257| I have no social contacts at all apart from the Forsters. — Perhaps I am wrong in that regard — but I do not really want any others. Forster has become my friend, just as you predicted — I recognize all his weaknesses but am unable to overcome my own of wanting to be kind to him — I do everything I can that might give him joy. Although it initially oppressed me having to divide myself thus between my affection for him and my feelings for Therese, now that I have clearly seen that everything must be precisely the way it is — nor can it be otherwise — I am able to reconcile it quite well and am no longer unjust toward anyone. I could never be so toward Therese in any case — even though I do still maintain she does not love me — and it seems to me that here it is she who is in the wrong — she may well be wrong in several other respects as well — but you, my good friend, are also wrong, and much is in fact quite different than you imagine. Although I am not zealous enough to want to convert you, to her I do owe the satisfaction of pointing out that I have not found things to be the way you led me to fear — nor am I writing this during the first four weeks. Let the world say what it will! Can that count as proof for Meyer, who has doubtless experienced instances enough when the world certainly was not on target? — Therese’s health is very good — Forster’s would be as well did he not have to work so much — and could work more. I have spoken with him several times about you — what I think — even about where I should absolve you — he is basically of the same opinion as I. At dinner Amalie, he, and I all drank again to our wanderer’s health. — So you see — you have certainly not been forgotten, and may knowing that soften your hard heart somewhat.

Voss wrote Forster that you have very good connektions [8] in Berlin through Itzig, who is associated with Bischofswerder. Why is it, then, that nothing comes through? — my proud |258| sir, you are probably not really trying — you are probably irritating people — and thereby grieving your friends, who wish for nothing more ardently than to see a yoke around your neck, since, truly, without such a yoke even less flourishes on our earth — unless one understands the art of lucky Selim, who could double the original value of every sum. [9] You have no worries? — Well, if you genuinely can have none — then so much the better! Are you perhaps too honest — too godless — for our times today — à propos, who composed the sermon in the Berliner Monatschrift? [10] It was quite good.

I have not yet come across your translation [11] — as extensive as my reading nonetheless has been. You know not why you are publishing a collection of your poems? [12] I suspect the public will be as disinclined to ask why as am I myself, since I can find a very nice reason indeed for you to do so.

The 2nd part of Forster’s Ansichten is better than the first [13] — it does not spend as much time on stilted cothurnus boots [14] — and is informative. And from time to time he does indeed write the most charming things.

I, too, could stand to do some translating for the sake of my daily bread — but I have not quite gotten around to it despite several initial attempts. You cannot imagine how patiently I endure all plans of this sort that come to nothing and how steadfastly I trust in divine providence. — Everything is coming to naught for me. — If it were not for Nebuchadnezzar, [15] I could be quite happy now. You will see that I will never be so. But is that my own fault? And yet my gentle soul is not angry with fate — focusing instead on sweetening even the harshest of its offerings. Without a doubt, I am lacking a great many things — and when I sense it deep in my heart, I generally end up reproaching myself for it. There is nothing I am less inclined to pardon in myself than not being happy — nor will the time ever come |259| when I would not thoroughly enjoy whatever pleasure might offer itself to me. To do so is natural for me — and that will always calm my unrest and silence my wishes — and though it may well be a far cry from genuine equanimity, nonetheless I can never be defeated in that sense. I have simply come to the firm conviction that all lack, all unrest comes from within ourselves — if you cannot have what you wish for, then create something else for yourself — and if you cannot do that, then in any case do not complain — stifle all your complaining not out of humility, but out of pride. I did not invent such morality merely for the sake of being severe; I simply could never come to terms with any other. I have never demanded anything of fate and have never yet become indebted to it except for what it could not fail to provide in any event. — But let me speak no more of this.

Our family house in Göttingen has been sold, [16] and I now no longer have a home there — nor do I particularly want to see it again. Lotte just wrote a letter full of blissful happiness [17] — may God grant that it last — I am not entirely despairing it will not. My mother has left with her youngest daughter to go to Hamburg and Lüneburg for a while [18]my youngest brother is away on a journey.

Poor Bürger writes me occasionally and has once again regained enough strength to finish a piece he had been working on for a long time — a translation of Pope’s Eloise. [19] He sent it to me through Wächter (Veit Weber) and was soliciting hard criticism, which he also received — to wit, in a couple of places Eloise becomes Bürger himself. [20] Veit Weber knew you — I only saw him for a short time. I was well aware of Boutterwek’s disgraceful actions [21] — there can be no more pathetic creature than he. I rescued Louise from him after discovering he was trying to engineer some game or other with her — his letters sounded like something from a bad novel by a student. [22] |260| He bitterly hates me and has assured everyone that I ruined a splendid match for my sister in turning her away from him. One need see him but once to know whether such is indeed true.

By now you have doubtless become completely reacquainted with German literature, have you not? There is a certain August Lafontaine who is writing stories of the sort we have not hitherto had — he is a field chaplain, they say, and is allegedly currently in our vicinity — may God protect him! — in case the French defend themselves, concerning which people are making high bets now. [23] Goethe wrote his Gross-Cophta in his sleep — in any event, his creative genius certainly was not keeping watch while he was doing so. [24]

You do know that good Herder is quite sick now and is taking the mineral springs? [25] You probably know everything, since you are acquainted with everyone.

My dear Meyer — let me entreat you to write me immediately. You must do so now that I have waited so long — if you yourself wait as long, the gap will become too great. — Write to me in care of Forster’s address, in which case the letter will be delivered without franking — or in care of a diplomatic address, such as in care of Legation Secretary Huber, or Legation Secretary Müller, for even our little Ludwig Müller, who arrived a couple of days after I myself did, has become such a creature. In the event you ever come through here yourself, I am also including my direct address — c/o Reidt on Welsche Nonnen Gasse. [26] If only I could have the pleasure of your making use of it! Please tell me whether I can count on that ever happening.

The Lauers from Gotha were also here [27] — the whole little company went to Coblenz with Forster [28] — Therese remained behind with the child, whom she was nursing. It died the day after Forster’s return.

Stay well. Tatter sends his regards, that much I know for sure. Let me wish you all good things — that much I know even more surely.

C. B.


[*] That Meyer was currently in Berlin emerges from Caroline’s own remarks in this letter. Elise Campe, Erinnerungen, 2:5, mentions that after Meyer’s return to Hamburg in September 1791, no documents reveal exactly when he moved to Berlin. Curt Zimmermann, “F. L. W. Meyer: Sein Leben und seine schriftstellerische Wirksamkeit; ein Beitrag zur Literaturgeschichte des XVIII. und XIX. Jahrhunderts,” PhD diss., Friedrichs-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, 1890, 5, follows Campe’s dating. Back.

[1] Heinrich August Ottokar Reichard and his wife, Amalie, had visited Therese Forster in Mainz at the time Back.

[2] The child, Johann Georg Karl Forster, was born on 21 April 1792. Georg Forster writes to Therese’s father, Christian Gottlob Heyne, on 24 April 1792 (Albert Leitzmann, “Ungedruckte Briefe Georg Forsters IV, 3,” Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Litteraturen 93 (1894) 58:

Mainz, 24 April 1792

My dearest father, nothing was further from my mind when I wrote you on Saturday [21 April] than that our good Therese was to be freed of her burden that very same day. She gave birth to a little boy that evening at 8:00. Around 3:00 I went for a walk with her to Thalheim, altogether over a half hour. On the way back she began to sense something, and at 7:00 good Dr. Weidmann had to be summoned. Fortunately he was able to come in time, for hardly fifteen minutes had passed before the child was there; there was not even time enough to fetch the stool, everything happened extremely fast before coming to a successful conclusion.

This time Therese was completely uncertain about the time, sometimes believing the delivery to be quite imminent indeed, though on the whole she was rather inclined to think it would not happen for another six weeks; which is why there were no baby clothes and things, no preparations, not even a cradle; in a word, we made a ridiculous scene of it when he arrived, though in the end we were able to take care of everything.

One considerable advantage is that the mother was as healthy and strong as could be. How much better and easier does everything take place then! Good Madam [Caroline] Böhmer is loyally assisting us. The baby boy is quite tiny, as are all of Therese’s children except the eldest (which, because Therese herself was quite strong and full of fluids then, could be better nourished); but he is strong and healthy and thus gives us every hope that we will be able to fatten him up a bit. . . .

The boy died barely a month later, on 23 or 24 July 1792. Back.

[3] Election of Emperor Franz II, from 1792–1806 the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and from 1804–35, as Franz I, the first emperor of Austria. On 5 July 1792, barely twenty-four years old, he succeeded his father, Leopold II, as emperor, being crowned on 14 July in the cathedral in Frankfurt. Concerning the course of events and ceremonies involved in electing the new emperor in Frankfurt, see supplementary appendix 113.2. Although these ceremonies were overshadowed by France’s declaration of war on Austria on 20 April 1792 and the beginning of the War of the First Coalition (1792–97), in July the prince elector of Mainz, Friedrich Karl Joseph von Erthal, nonetheless invited many of the attendees to Mainz to celebrate the event, the meeting then constituting the final imperial diet, in the Mainz Favorite, the summer residence of the Mainz archbishops, before the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Back.

[4] Presumably the Forsters’ youngest daughter, Clare, rather than the elder Therese; a third daughter, Johann Ludowika Georgia (Louise) Forster, had died on 17 November 1791. Back.

[5] Namely, in Marburg and Göttingen. Back.

[6] In Marburg; a key passage apparently describing those circumstance was apparently excised from in Caroline’s letter to her mother (Caroline to her mother on 30 July 1791 [letter 104]). Back.

[7] The Forsters lived just around the corner from Caroline at Neue Universitätsstrasse 5. Justus Erich Bollmann recounts how the regular circle at the Forsters’ “would gather at 7:00 around a tea machine after finishing our work, quite in the English fashion, and would remain together until after 9:00” (Friedrich Kapp, Justus Erich Bollmann. Ein Lebensbild aus zwei Welttheilen [Berlin 1880] 24; complete citation in Erich Schmidt’s introduction to Caroline’s period in Mainz, note 3. Back.

[8] Connektions written as such in original. Back.

[9] The reference is possibly to Johann Gottwerth Müller (“Müller von Itzehoe”),Selim der glückliche; oder, Der Substitut des Orimuzd, eine morgenländische Geschichte (Berlin/Stettin 1792). Back.

[10] Erich Schmidt (1913), 1:697, remarks that issues of the Berlinische Monatsschrift, ed. F. Gedike and J. E. Biester, from the past six months or so of 1791–92 contain nothing of this sort unless the reference is to the essay “Sind denn wirklich alle Menschen gleich?” in the Berlinische Monatsschrift (1791) vol. 2, no. 6 (December 1791) 541–66; in his afterword to the essay, the editor Johann Erich Biester remarks that he would “very much like to make the acquaintance” of the anonymous author of this contribution, a contribution “both well conceived and well written” (462).

Caroline’s reference, however, is to the anonymous article “Eine Predigt über Esel” (A sermon on asses) in the Berlinische Monatsschrift (1792), vol. 2, no. 6 (July 1792) 79–103. As the title suggests, this “sermon on asses” is a humorous piece, in this case a tongue-in-cheek assessment of the clergy and church based on sermons and traditional metaphors. For a synopsis and excerpts, see supplementary appendix 113.1. Back.

[11] An uncertain reference. Although Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer’s translation of Jacques Cazotte’s novella Le diable amoureux appeared much earlier (see Caroline’s letter to Luise Gotter in Gotha on 3 April 1784 [letter 40], with note 7), a new adaptation appeared in 1792, namely, Karl Christian Engel, Biondetta: Ein allegorisches Schauspiel mit Gesang in vier Aufzügen (Berlin 1792). Caroline may be thinking of this piece and incorrectly attributing it to Meyer. Back.

[12] Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer, Spiele des Witzes und der Phantasie (Berlin 1793). Back.

[13] Georg Forster, Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich im April, Mai und Junius 1790, 3 vols. (Berlin 1791–94); vol. 2 bears a 1791 publication date; these volumes derive from the journey Forster undertook with Alexander von Humboldt. Back.

[14] Thick-soled shoes worn by ancient tragedians for elevation; metaphorically a reference to a stilted style. Back.

[15] Erich Schmidt (1913), 1:697, could not clarify the allusion to “Nebuchadnezzar”; it seems to be a private allusion, possibly to Georg Tatter, whose possible visit in Mainz Caroline was anticipating (so Sigrid Damm, Caroline Schlegel-Schelling: Die Kunst zu leben, insel taschenbuch 3160, ed. Sigrid Damm [Frankfurt 2005] 445). Back.

[16] The Michaelis house at Prinzenstrasse 21 was sold to the newly appointed professor of medicine in Göttingen, Otto Justus Arnemann; the sale would quickly become entangled in problems. Back.

[17] Lotte Michaelis had married Heinrich Dieterich on 3 June 1792. Back.

[18] Luise Wiedemann, née Michaelis, recounts this journey to Hamburg with her mother in her Erinnerungen, pp. 30f. Back.

[19] Gottfried August Bürger, “Heloise an Abelard. Frei nach Pope’n,” Göttinger Musenalmanach (1793) 3–32, a free adaptation of Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard,” a popular version of the tale published in The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope (London 1717), 389–408, and one of two poems by Pope dealing with the passion of love. As a young girl, Caroline translated the original of this lengthy poem into prose (manuscript not extant). Back.

[20] Georg Forster writes to Gottfried August Bürger himself from Mainz the same day Caroline writes to Meyer here, namely, 29 July 1792 (Strodtmann 4:207–8):

Veit Weber’s — or Wächter’s — appearance here, my good friend, was all the more welcome to us insofar as he brought along with him a demonstration of your own thoughtful remembrance. Let us warmly thank you, my wife and I, for your cordial lines and respond by assuring you of our own continuing admiration and warm devotion.

My wife and Madam Böhmer read your “Heloise an Abelard” together; I myself have unfortunately heard only part of it. But what a pleasure, since it certainly seems to me that many passages are wonderfully comprehended and wonderfully rendered. As Caroline will relate to you, here and there I — indeed, all of us — found that the difficult task of more faithfully rendering an original whose primary merit consists of harmony, position, and choice of expression might perhaps be more fully addressed through repeated polishing, and one hopes you will not regret the care and trouble you expend on so dear a child of this genre. Any and all attempts to translate such poesy invariably end up being an awkward undertaking. If we try to translate faithfully, the angel of language with its flaming sword prevents us from entering paradise. But if instead we allow ourselves certain digressions from the original, ultimately it really would be better just to write something new of one’s own. Moreover, our own language presents us with even more difficulties when translating from English. It seems to me you have overcome many of these difficulties and have done so quite nicely, hence my overall assessment of the poem in concreto is that you have genuinely provided a wonderful demonstration of how far our language can go with such translations. After implementing the alterations we would like to see, your work will always be capable of vying for the highest honors among poetic translations.

Wilhelm Schlegel, in his Berlin lectures 1802–1803 (Vorlesungen über schöne Literatur und Kunst 2:286), condemns Pope’s original in connection with a broader discussion of the elegy:

Hardly any poem of this genre has attained the considerable celebrity enjoyed by Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, and yet once one has removed the features excerpted from Héloïse’s letters, features attesting a truly ardent disposition, the poem is left with nothing but its inferior overall framework, which concludes in so barren a fashion and can hardly even be called such, and the unending parade of aphorisms and epigrammatic points. Nor does the verse structure exhibit even a trace of elegiac pliability; instead one encounters merely the usual hasty march of uniform couplets; Pope seems to have wanted to incorporate the former only in the initial lines, after which he abandoned them. And yet this frosty poem has in the meantime been admired as the ultimate model of sentimentality. Back.

[21] I.e., his actions in connection with Bürger’s wife’s extramarital relationship with Friedrich August Burkhard von Hardenberg (see Caroline’s letter to Luise Gotter on 20 April 1792 [letter 112] with note 18 and 19). Back.

[22] Cf. Luise Michaelis’s own extensive account in her Erinnerungen, pp. 25–28. Back.

[23] As far as Caroline’s assessment here of the prolific writer August Lafontaine is concerned (cf. also Caroline’s letter to Meyer on 12 August 1792 [letter 114]), whom the periodical Athenaeum will later condemn with Caroline’s not inconsiderable participation (“Moderomane. Lafontaine,” Athenaeum [1798] 149–67, [translated here in full]; reprinted inWilhelm Schlegel’s Sämmtliche Werke 12:11–27; cf. also Athenaeum [1799] 317), one should bear in mind that Johann Gottfried Herder, piqued with the character of Philine in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 4 vols. (Berlin 1795–96), cried out one evening: “How different things are in Lafontaine’s novels!” and that, on that same evening, Christoph Martin Wieland also delivered a considerable panegyric to Lafontaine. Karl August Böttiger, Litterarische Zustände und Zeitgenossen in Schilderungen aus Karl August Böttiger’s handschriftlichem Nachlasse, ed. K. W. Böttiger, 2 vols. (Leipzig 1838) 1:192, recalls that same evening of 31 October 1796 at Herder’s house:

Wieland read aloud from Wilhelm Meister, part four, where Sarno explains the apprenticeship certificate to Wilhelm. Herder complained about how Goethe so often engages in mere sophistry, how in Lothario, to whom he everywhere does homage, he softpedals the arbitariness of the great, and how in scenes such as the story of Philine, which Count Friedrich tells, he is in fact merely preaching his own lax morality. And it was from his former lover Frau v[on] St[ein] that Goethe borrowed the scene where Philine, pregnant, looks at herself in the mirror and exclaims, “Phooey! how vile one looks in this condition!” Herder remarked, “I have no desire to live amid such people. There is absolutely nothing here that might elicit our empathy. How different things are in Lafontaine’s novels!” After Herr von Knebel had read aloud from [Lafontaine’s novel] Klara du Plessis [und Klairant. Eine Familiengeschichte Französischer Emigrirten (Berlin 1795)], Herder insisted he could still hear its melodious tones two days later, and the very night the reading of the novel came to an end, Herder’s wife almost became feverish.

Wieland had just finished reading part three of Flamming [Lafontaine’s novel Das Leben des Quinctius Heymeran von Flaming (Berlin 1795–96)] and then delivered a considerable panegyric to him [Lafontaine].

Even Wilhelm Schlegel, in his Berlin Vorlesungen über schöne Literatur und Kunst 2:20, allows at least that Lafontaine’s initial appearance did seem to promise more (“The one [Lafontaine] does have a certain measure of talent in portraying the vehemence of characterless emotions, a feature that seemed to promise more at his initial appearance”; see esp. the notes to Friedrich Schlegel’s letter to Caroline and Wilhelm on 22 December 1798 [letter 213]). Back.

[24] Concerning Caroline’s and Georg Forster’s assessments of Goethe’s play, see Caroline’s letter to Luise Gotter on 20 April 1792 (letter 112), esp. note 10. Back.

[25] Concerning Johann Gottfried Herder’s illnesses at the time, cf. Rudolf Haym, Herder nach seinem Leben und seinen Werken, 2 vols. (Berlin 1880–85) 2:440:

Finally, during June and July of the following summer, 1791, the busy Herder was able to seek respite and healing in Karlsbad, as he had done in earlier years. But this time the healing powers of the mineral springs failed to help. Indeed, the cure itself even seemed more to aggravate than relieve his illness, and when early that autumn he returned anew to his official duties, he succumbed, and the ensuing winter turned into an extremely difficult period for him. He fell ill again in December, the earlier liver and hemorrhoidal maladies being joined in January 1792 by a case of gout that caused a painful cramp in his right hip and leg, essentially crippling and stooping him. It was not until that spring that his condition had sufficiently improved for him to contemplate a thorough course of treatment. On the advice of Hofrath Stark, he was to take the steam baths at Aachen. Not only was the journey there difficult, his stay in Aachen was also in part both agonizing and expensive. The baths themselves, however, had the desired beneficial effect, and his friends were delighted to discern his humor returning in the letters that the “palsied man at the Pool of Bethesda” wrote to them toward the end of his stay. When he and his wife, who had been both his companion and nurse during the stay, arrived back in Weimar at the end of August 1792 after an absence of twelve weeks, he could entertain the hope that his health had improved “for good.” Although he was not yet entirely healthy, he was nonetheless on the mend. Back.

[26] Contemporary Welschnonnengasse in Mainz; concerning the location of Caroline’s residence (and the Forsters’ nearby residence), see Caroline’s letter to Luise Gotter on 20 April 1792 (letter 112), note 6. Back.

[27] Unidentified, though cf. Caroline’s letter to Lotte Michaelis in 1784, with note 5. Back.

[28] After the coronation of the emperor in Frankfurt Caroline mentions earlier, the king of Prussia went to Koblenz, the Prussian military headquarters. Georg Forster went as well, accompanied by H. A. O. Reichard and the Lauers from Gotha. Back.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott