During September 1799, Wilhelm Schlegel helped Goethe revise poems for the latter’s Neue Schriften, vol. 7 (Berlin 1800); see Goethe’s diaries for September 1799 (Weimarer Ausgabe 3:2:260–62), which attest what seems to be an initial consultation on 22 September, then continue:
22 September (“Rath Schlegel. Fleming. Verse structure”);
24 September (“Schlegel with regard to the elegies”);
25 September (“a.m. went for a walk. Rath Schlegel with respect to rhythmic doubts”);
26 September (“a.m. went for a walk. Rath Schlegel, continued the editing”);
27 September (“a.m. went for a walk. Went through the epigrams with Rath Schlegel);
28 September (“a.m. Humboldt’s letter. Then went for a walk. Herr Rath Schlegel, afternoon Herr Friedrich Schlegel”);
29 September (“a.m. RathSchlegel. Conclusion of rhythmic examination”).
See Körner-Wieneke 228n78, where Wilhelm Schlegel’s own later remarks are cited:
In his [Goethe’s] initial attempts to write in hexameters and pentameters — in Reineke Fuchs, Die römischen Elegien, and the Epigramme. Venedig — Goethe had proceeded rather unconcerned about either the rules of classical meter or the nature of German prosody.
When Voss presented more strict practical and theoretical demands in this regard, Goethe initially resisted, remarking once to me [i.e., Wilhelm] that rather than allow such strictures to be imposed on him he would rather renounce writing hexameters altogether. I responded that such a position would actually ill serve the reading public, and that by all rights he should in fact be accorded the privilege of continuing to write with the same lack of strictures as before.
Afterward, however, he himself felt that weak rhythms and clumsy scansion were extremely detrimental to both the lilt and the assonance of a poem. Hence he wished to go through his elegies with me with an eye on verse structure, and we spent several mornings [22, 24–29 September 1799] at this task.
With pencil in hand, he noted all my remarks and was unusually acquiescent, whereas I for my part advised him to allow certain metrical irregularities simply to stand rather than ruin the grace and lightness of the initial draft. A comparison of the first printing of the elegies and epigrams in Die Horen and the Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1796 with the later editions attest relatively few changes of any import, generally merely displacements.
See in this regard Josef Körner, Romantiker und Klassiker. Die Brüder Schlegel in ihren Beziehungen zu Schiller und Goethe (Berlin 1924), 104–6:
At that time , the [i.e., Goethe’s] diary — which is by no means complete in this regard [fn: Failing to note, e.g., that Tieck, Hardenberg, and Schlegel (as Goethe recounted to Schiller on 24 July 1799) dined with him on 21 July] — notes several discussions with Rath Schlegel, and at the end of September even daily meetings.
At that time, Goethe was reexamining his elegies and epigrams for an edition [here: vol. 7] of his Neue Schriften scheduled to be published by Unger [Berlin 1800]; to this end, he needed August Wilhelm’s help in order to do justice to the considerably more stringent metric requirements that had begun exerting their influence toward the end of the century. . . .
Once the printing began, Goethe sent the Römische Elegien over yet again for proofing; “there are,” he writes to Schlegel on 26 February 1800, “two copies; in one you will find the passages we marked, in the other the corrections I tried to implement. Perhaps you can find a way to coerce the hitherto recalcitrant passages. If such cannot be implemented everywhere, then let us make do and withhold something for the future.” Schlegel wholly concurs that “certain things should not be forced” (to Goethe on 28 February 1800), and, his other improvements notwithstanding, raised no objections to retaining the earlier readings.
He gradually received and polished the Epigramme. Venedig, Bakis, Metamorphose der Pflanzen, Episteln, Jahreszeiten, and Reineke Fuchs. In the apparatus of the Weimar Edition of Goethe’s works (1:424ff), one can survey all of Schlegel’s suggestions verse by verse (to the extent they are still extant), and there one finds what the note regarding the manuscript used for printing clearly supports, namely, “relatively few changes of any import, generally merely displacements.”
And in later reworkings, several of the verses corrected by Schlegel were altered yet again. But even these slight interventions on the part of the metric specialist were ill advised. A contemporary specialist in prosody, Andreas Heusler, has demonstrated the havoc wrought by the inappropriate application of the metric rules of antiquity to German-language poetry from Klopstock to Platen; in his opinion, “Schlegel’s critique of Goethe’s poems occasionally lapses into the original sin of the metrician, namely, that of skewering the syllable in its status absolutus instead of listening to or sensing out the rhythmic usability of the syllable on the basis of its current context” (Andreas Heusler, Deutscher und antiker Vers [Strassbourg 1917], 41).
Thus does Heusler come to the devastating conclusion that “Schlegel’s intervention, alongside a certain measure of improvement, otherwise did so much damage that today we would much prefer to have seen Goethe’s distichs in the earlier, more Goethean form before us” (ibid., 120).
Translation © 2013 Doug Stott