Rudolf Gottschall: The Coeurdame of the Romantic School

Rudolf Gottschall
“The Coeurdame of the Romantic School” [*]

Caroline. Briefe an ihre Geschwister, ihre Tochter Auguste, die Familie Gotter, F. L. W. Meyer, A. W. u nd Fr. Schlegel, J. Schelling u. a., 2 vols., ed. G. Waitz (Leipzig: Verlag von S. Hirzel, 1871).

|577| German literary history includes certain women who, without being writers themselves in the traditional sense, nonetheless play a not insignificant role in literature, their “correspondence,” often posthumously published, according them a place among the “exceptional personalities” of a given age and its sooner quietly influential forces. Thus did Rahel, after Varnhagen had published her letters, enter into the ranks of distinguished literary personages as a representative of the witty, effervescent salon culture in Berlin with its nervous pensiveness. And so also, after previously appearing only in isolated biographical notices and epistolary fragments, does Karoline Michaelis-Böhmer, who after the death of her first spouse was successively married to A. W. Schlegel and then Schelling, emerge from obscurity as the muse of the Romantic school and into the full light of day in this comprehensive correspondence recently published by Waitz, correspondence offering a glimpse into her changing life circumstances and most intimate thoughts and emotions.

The advantage that Karoline enjoys over Rahel and the other Berlin sibyls and nixies is doubtless that rather than merely proclaiming her revelations and oracles from her writing desk, she also led an exciting life and paid homage, with undaunted courage, to the cult of free love and devotion to the otherwise societally restricted needs of the heart and its vacillating affections and inclinations. When the Young Germans found themselves proclaiming new ideas and reforms with respect to our understanding of love, Rahel and Bettina were their prophetesses, and the novels of George Sand their Gospels. [1] They were, however, as yet unfamiliar with Karoline Schlegel, who at the time was sooner a subject of “rigorous scholarship” who haunted only the entries, notes, and citations in Koberstein’s literary history, the letters of the Romantics themselves, and literary excerpts used in secondary-school exams. Otherwise they surely would have chosen Karoline as a vignette for their writings on social reform and explicated their revolutionary ideas with reference to the exemplary life of this coeurdame of the Romantic school.

The connection between the Young Germans and the Romantics has become increasingly transparent not only in individual representatives, but also in the general tendency of their ideas. Who can fail to recognize in Heine the boastful audacity of Friedrich Schlegel and outlandish impertinence of Clemens Brentano? The institution of the Berlin salon, along with Rahel — who also had a connection with Karoline Schlegel and is mentioned several times in her letters — provided the connection. [2] The classic literary figure providing the fundamental orientation for these impulses was and remained Goethe, for whom Karoline cultivated admiration no less boundless and imperturbable than Rahel’s. These brilliant women of Jena-Berlin basically constituted merely the most extreme left-wing of those particular ingenious women of Weimar — from the Titania of Schiller and Jean Paul, namely, Frau von Kalb, to the long-unwed domestic mademoiselle of Goethe’s household, Fräulein Vulpius — women who did not take the catechism all that seriously.

Karoline Schlegel comes across in these collected letters undeniably as one of the most brilliant and intelligent women associated with the florescence of our literature. Karoline was comprehensively educated and stylistically confident in a way allowing her authorial quill to come to eloquent expression in many of the reviews published under A. W. Schlegel’s name or on his behalf; free-thinking and extreme, though often also genuinely inspired by his esprit [3] — which certainly also understood how to wield the weapon of lethal malice —; passionate in her affections and inclinations as well as in her disinclinations; |578| and at times almost poisonously spiteful — in a word, a “problematical personality” who provides not a few interesting perspectives for the psychologist. Hers was a quiet influence in literary developments, albeit not always salutary, insofar as, for example, she intentionally exacerbated the rift between Schiller and the Schlegels with her disparaging assessments of our great writer while simultaneously expressing the most ardent sympathy for various stillborn products of the Romantics themselves. In any event, her letters provide a wealth of captivating communication, important literary information, and witty passages. And though the editor claims to have left out insignificant material along with “what seemed to be mere gossip or written in the passion of the moment,” we would have preferred he had gone about this with an even more severe hand. This epistolary collection still contains an excessive quantity of indifferent or trivial material — though admittedly the letters of those persons otherwise associated with the classical period of our literature fare no differently in this respect. We often find ourselves condemned to playing the role of unwilling busybodies, as it were, a role not entirely to the taste of every reader. And how much “triviality” emerges in those quotidian relationships and circumstances that is not really meant for posterity!

Let us present Karoline’s biography according to the brief version the editor provides at the beginning of his collection. [4]

Dorothea Caroline Albertine Michaelis, daughter of the professor and Geheimer Justizrat Johann David Michaelis, was born 2 September 1763 in Göttingen. On 15 June 1784 she married Dr. med. and Clausthal mining physican Johann Franz Wilhelm Böhmer, son of the professor and Geheimer Justizrat Georg Ludwig Böhmer. She bore him two daughters, Auguste and Therese, and a son. Böhmer died on 4 February 1788, followed in death soon thereafter by the son born after his death. Caroline lived for a time as a widow in her parental home in Göttingen, then with one of her brothers, Fritz, in Marburg, where the latter was a professor at the university. The younger daughter, Therese, died there in December 1789. Caroline returned to Göttingen yet again in 1791 before moving to Mainz in the spring of 1792, where her childhood friend Therese Heyne was living with her husband, Georg Forster. Because she shared the sympathies of Forster and his friends for the spread of French freedom on the Rhine, and, albeit erroneously, was viewed as being intimately associated with her brother-in-law Georg Wilhelm Böhmer, General Adam Philippe de Custine’s secretary, she was captured in April 1793 while trying to leave the city, which was under siege by the German armies, and imprisoned first in Königstein, then under ameliorated conditions in Kronberg, before being freed through the mediation especially of her younger brother, Philipp — the later physician in Harburg, father of the deceased Kiel professor and grandfather of the current Tübingen professor. Under suspicion and persecuted from various quarters, she found refuge first in and near Leipzig, then in the house of her friends, the Gotters, in Gotha, before moving in the spring of 1795 to Braunschweig, where her mother had moved after her father’s death (22 August 1791). August Wilhelm Schlegel, who had become acquainted with Caroline while studying in Göttingen and had remained in contact with her, also moved to Braunschweig, and they married on 1 July 1796. Caroline followed him to Jena, where they lived for seven years with only brief interruptions, including trips to Dresden (spring 1797, summer 1798), Bamberg and Bocklet (summer 1800), and a stay in Braunschweig and Harburg (October 1800 till April 1801). Auguste died in Bocklet on 12 July 1800 — a turning point in Caroline’s life. Schlegel spent most of the following period in Berlin, where Caroline visited him in March 1802. An estrangement that had begun earlier and then was aggravated during the stay in Berlin ultimately led to their divorce on 17 May 1803; Caroline then traveled to Swabia with Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, where they were married by Schelling’s father in Murrhardt on 26 June 1803. After a brief stay in Munich, she accompanied her spouse to Würzburg, where he worked for a short while as a professor, and then to Munich, where Schelling had been appointed a member of the [Bavarian] Academy [of Sciences and Humanities]. Caroline took ill in Maulbronn during a trip to Swabia and died on 7 September 1809.

The early letters (1778–91) of the university professor’s young daughter are quite fresh and piquant; an element of cheekiness and joviality runs through them that recalls Heine, and even after settling in the Harz Mountains as the wife of Doctor Böhmer, she retains her youthfully refreshing sense of humor, composing some quite droll descriptions of her Harz surroundings. She writes, for example, to her sister Lotte Michaelis about the town of Goslar [1784 (letter 45)]:

The route to Goslar itself is beautiful and, at the midpoint, quite charming when, emerging from the dense forest, one has a view of the whole countryside extending even past Halberstadt. But in Goslar itself — as soon as from a far distance you glimpse the needlepoint shapes of the octagonal towers — nature itself dies away, the grass withers, and everything languishes and droops toward the ground. You travel between bare mountains and then through a gate — where from sheer fright love itself would have to breathe out its last sigh, else fall into fearsome despair. I know not how the knight Sir Lauer made it through this adventure unless during his fair childhood his mother dipped him in brine instead of in the river Styx, thus rendering him utterly incapable of feeling. Inaccessibly high walls surround the city, which one never sees in its entirety but only piece by piece. Monasteries without windows and churches without number, and everywhere 16-cornered watchtowers that look like chained guard dogs. In the center, where the fire raged, the new houses are quite nice, three stories, usually still with straw windows. As is well known, they occupy the same locations as before, so you find one here and then one there in a crooked labyrinthine arrangement. On both sides: high, coarsely hewn stepping stones that would surely cost the Bürgermeister and Rath their crooked legs were everything here not organized just like a residence. No pavers in the middle of the street, just deeply rutted earth full of wet mud. And thus does one continue on for at least a half hour before making it through, accompanied by a feeling of the most excruciating boredom suffocating all sense of joy and making the grave itself distasteful, but lacking the kind of melancholy consolation one might otherwise draw from, let us say, a nest of owls, and without even the consolation that the inhabitants might be good, or perhaps even interesting descendants of the knights of previous centuries; but no, it is an old-fashioned, small, toad-like imperial town full of pretensions to modernity.

That same year, she writes from Clausthal [1784 (letter 47)]:

For my own part, I have been throwing myself more and more each day into life here in Clausthal without, however, taking on the Clausthal form. Please do not begrudge an honest person the entertainment afforded by 20 to 30 foolish-looking faces, and instead have a mass read in the Catholic church in Short Street now that I have begun to look at the whole thing from a different side.

At the same time, there is no lack of sensitive and reflective observations. Sister Lotte, who had confessed to being rapturously infatuated with a certain someone, is creatively taken to school [12 October 1784 (letter 50)]:

Indeed, I almost envy you that innermost feeling of sadness that finds its sweetest reward precisely in its own laments, and your melancholy, enchanting melancholy, that shadow of the lost beloved that occupies us even more rapturously, more delicately than did even the beloved himself. And behold how effortlessly true love dissolves into the enthusiasm of virtue, how gently |579| it blends into the latter. Love can become the next step toward virtue. But neither can I conceal from you, my dear Lotte, that our ardent power of imagination often, indeed often mistakes its own object, chasing after the imaginary being it neither really sees nor distinguishes with full clarity, instead following its own dreams into the meadows of light and perfection and, faster than we might imagine, is awakened by the first object that nudges it. Although at this moment your own composure and your own disposition are just as they ought and indeed the only way they can be, will you be able to sustain the effort to make them permanent? It is incredible how subtly such a disposition eases off, how one tense emotion after the other gradually slackens, and how the vividly captivating, fresh imagery of our imagination becomes cloaked in soft haze. And will your most sacred resolution not also disappear along with that sense of enchantment? Everyone knows how little idealistic virtue costs us; such virtue is a lovely but useless smoke contrivance that blazes up toward heaven in spectacular flames.

As consolation Karoline assures Lotte that such stirrings of vanity will by no means be her undoing, since “this is the most involuntary of all original sins, and one we need as little be ashamed of as corns or a toothache.” The following remark is similarly quite on the mark [late 1786 (letter 72a)]:

[W]e would be miserable indeed — if our happiness did not in fact consist of small things whose sum is indeed vain but that individually are nonetheless capable of occupying us completely. For it is from that particular disposition in which the soul seemed ready to withdraw into itself and to be intent on fathoming its own depths and our very nature — that the smallest trifle can so easily call us back, a voice, a fleeting glance that draws our attention to a ribbon, to some small something — and, like a bolt of lightning, brings us back to the present, to the comfort and varied distractions of life, reviving our inclination and joy for it all once more. It is thus — but I know nothing more about it. Yesterday I played the dinner hostess, and the roast was more important to me than heaven and earth.

Even in these early letters, Karoline’s capacity for maternal love comes to warm expression, and indeed, the extraordinarily amiable Auguste is the apple of her mother’s eye. In a larger sense, these effusions run like a red thread through this entire collection, then taking on a more elegiac-sentimental coloring after Auguste’s death. Because there are no letters immediately after Böhmer’s death, one cannot really assess the depth of the impression this early loss of a spouse made on the the youthful widow. Her external fate in any case lost all its moorings, whereas her claims and demands on life — as such emerge, for example, from a missive with certain Faustean undertones addressed to Meyer, the mysterious figure standing as it were in the wings of her correspondence and heart, but who only much later fell into disfavor — emerging as they did from a profound and rich capacity for life, by no means welcomed such restrictions. “In defiance of gods and human beings, I am determined to be happy,” she writes in this letter [11 July 1791 (letter 103)]. In another passage of the same letter, she writes: “But sufficiency and contentedness alone cannot satisfy me — that would merely be a situation of restriction, limitation, if the sources were not merely switched from which the better person always seeks to draw sustenance in the most insatiable fashion.” And the following remark, also from that letter, is quite characteristic: “Those who demand that people turn away from their own peculiar, unique path desire not the favorable inclination of fate, but miracles from heaven.”

In 1792 we find Karoline in Mainz among the “clubbists of Mainz” familiar from Heinrich Koenig’s novel, [5] where she was hoping to “live anonymously and where in addition to a certain element of solitude” might “also enjoy pleasures of both the intellect and the senses” [6 December 1791 (letter 111)]. Whereas even earlier she had protested against the raging waves of detestable exaggeration she found swirling within the French Revolution — despite her own enthusiasm for the ideals of freedom — so also in Mainz did she now try to preserve the “noble, mature impartiality” [12 August 1792 (letter 114)] that she considers characteristic of the circle around Forster, though such sentiments do not prevent her from reporting with an unmistakably triumphant countenance the entry of French troops into Mainz [27 October 1792 (letter 118)]:

Custine is digging in and swears he will not relinquish the key to Germany unless peace itself forces his hand. Scarcely 4 months have passed since the concert des puissances assembled here and resolved on France’s defeat — where now every theater billet carries the words: “With the permission of Citizen Custine.”

She also issues a glowing and flattering attestation of the morals of the sans-culottes [27 October 1792 (letter 118)]:

We now have over 10,000 men in the town, and calm and order reign. All the nobles have fled — citizens are being treated with extreme consideration — such is politics, but if these people were des gueux et des miserables [Fr., “knaves/scoundrels and bums”] of the sort some would like to portray them as — if strict discipline were not enforced — if the proud spirit of their cause were not inspiring them and teaching them to be magnanimous, all the excesses and insults would indeed be unavoidable.

The family novels associated with this scene played into politics. To wit, Sömmerring asserts in unpublished letters to Heyne that Karoline was responsible for Forster and Therese’s separation; [6] unlike the editor [Waitz], we can find no refutation of this assertion in Karoline’s letter to Meyer on 17 December 1792 [letter 119]. For in this instance one must also read between the lines and bear in mind the saying “qui s’excuse, s’accuse.” [7] Karoline herself says in that letter that Forster “is the most wondrous man — I have never loved and admired anyone so much and yet simultaneously thought so little of the same person.” This low estimation was essentially based on that fact that Forster was weak enough not to be capable of disavowing Therese completely:

This man’s unfortunate receptivity and her ungenerous selfishness condemn him to eternal torment. I have seriously wondered whether one might open his eyes in the matter — it goes without saying that I must not and will not contribute, either directly or indirectly, to such — I have found that although one might well be able to extinguish his love, one could not extinguish his affection or devotion. Does not this alone already sentence him? She occupies him, entertains him — no creature can replace that for him — that is why she is unique — she teases his vanity because he sees that she also attracts the attention of others, and hence he never learns how disadvantageous are the judgments that even these others pass on her. Those who do not like her, she flees —— a new triumph! Thus does she keep him — goes around using his name and parading it with pride. Which is not proper — and yet, alas, he deserves it. My good Forster, do go and reproach the gods.

We believe that these effusions sooner confirm and substantiate than refute Sömmerring’s accusations.

One of Karoline’s brothers-in-law was Custine’s secretary. This circumstance along with her relationship with Forster landed her in prison in Königstein — admittedly a rather harsh punishment merely for “imprudent thinking.” This stay in Königstein, however, was according to Karoline’s own account torturous [15–16 June 1793 (letter 128)]:

|580| Only go there yourself, my dear Gotter, and behold the awful place I left yesterday — breathe in the harsh air that reigns there — feel the draft, a draft polluted by the most foul, malevolent fumes — behold the sad figures who hourly are driven out into the open air to shake the vermin from their bodies, vermin that you yourself then have trouble fending off — imagine being in a room with 7 other people, not a moment’s peace and quiet, where you have to clean your surroundings every hour to keep from perishing in the filth — and then with a heart full of the most profound indignation over the so highly extolled system of justice, indignation that increases daily with the laments of the unfortunate, plucked up at random and now languishing there without any investigation — can I help but laugh at the two of you? You seem to think my stay in Königstein was like a cool summer dream, and yet I experienced days there when the terrors and anxiety and torments of a single person would suffice to drive even the most cheerful disposition crazy. And yet the trouble of the present was nothing compared to the other consequences of my barbaric imprisonment.

Karoline managed to secure her release from prison through the mediation of Wilhelm von Humboldt, her youngest brother, and other friends. [8] August Wilhelm Schlegel then accompanied her to Leipzig, after which she attested that in that which he meant to her, he encompassed everything one might call masculine and innocently unprejudiced, noble and amiable. And during this same period ,Therese Huber gave her the following advice [25 February 1794 (letter 142)]:

I am unaware whether your heart be disengaged or not just now, or what may be occupying love’s place in it, but if you enter into relationships with men, beware lest they slight or take advantage of you. Give yourself out of love, but not out of surfeit, tension, despair. — If you can get on without them, so much the better, till you have found out your right walk in life.

She found this path in her love for A. W. Schlegel, who had redeemed her from such disagreeable circumstances, for at the time she was being assaulted from all quarters and indeed shunned in essentially all societal circles. Her political adventures were in any case joined by yet another misstep about which not only the letters, but also their editor maintain complete silence. [9] And such silence is indeed worthy of reproach, for we are interested not in an apotheosis of Karoline, but rather in a biography commensurate with the truth. People viewed this emancipated Mainz clubbist as a “a depraved, rejected creature” [20 February 1794 (letter 140)], and she did indeed feel rejected by society. For when she tried to return to Göttingen, she was “expelled” by a rescript of the prince-electoral Hannoverian university trustees [16 August 1794 (letter/document 146)], quite in the style of the later Hinckeldey measures. [10] That said, Karoline was doubtless in a position to accord considerable credit to the ducal Saxon Rath in Jena Herr August Wilhelm Schlegel for extending his hand to her in marriage on 1 July 1796 in Braunschweig, thereby securing for her a respectable middle-class existence again.

Karoline now moved from politics to literature, doing so, moreover, during an epoch certainly no less revolutionary, since the beginnings of the Romantic school, with its audacious program, did indeed have something of a vehemently challenging nature about it. Karoline participated in a stimulating, supportive fashion, occasionally through intrigues that engaged the breadth of her excitable sympathies and antipathies, and always supporting Schlegel the critic in his almost grueling journalistic workload. There can be no question that she exerted considerable influence on her spouse’s judgment; she herself acknowledges as much, and what she says about Jacobs doubtless applies equally to Schiller [12 December 1796 (letter 174)]:

Slowly and gradually (drop by drop, the way a rock is hollowed out), I have gotten Schlegel to the point of being far more favorably inclined toward Jacobs, whom he would now most cordially welcome.

With respect to Schiller, she admittedly nourished and cultivated generally unfavorable inclinations. Rudolf Haym has described the change in the Schlegels’ assessment of Schiller in considerable detail in his work Die romantische Schule, an account complemented in a most welcome fashion by Karoline’s assessments of Schiller’s poems and dramas in these letters. Let us provide a modest anthology of such judgments here also as a demonstration of the sometimes incredibly one-sided assessments to which even brilliant personalities fall prey. Friedrich Schlegel’s review of Die Horen in the journal Deutschland marks the decisive turning point in the relationship between the Schlegels and Schiller. [11] Karoline justified herself in a postscript to Schiller appended to the letter her spouse had written, where she writes [1 June 1797 (letter 182)]: “We respect and love you so sincerely that precisely this straightforward and steady disposition has guided us along a straight path despite the presence of so many apparent collisions.” Schiller responded to Schlegel [1 June 1797 (letter 182a)]:

Please assure Madame Schlegel that I took not even the slightest notice of the ludicrous rumor that she was the author of that particular recension, and that in the larger sense I consider her too sensible to get mixed up in such things.

In the meantime, Karoline’s love and admiration for Schiller gradually cooled. She wrote concerning Wallenstein on 24 April 1799 [letter 235]:

In Weimar we finally killed off Wallenstein — and are hoping he thereby acquires immortality. The beauty and power of the individual parts is what one notices most. If I might offer an assessment after seeing it only once, I would say the whole forfeited considerably in effect for having been so long. It should have been but a single play, then the scenes, concentrated on a single focal point, would have followed slowly, one after the other, leaving the spectator time for calm reflection. As it is, the final act falls flat — one hardly even notices the demise of the hero, whose greatness has been established and enhanced through the 11 preceding acts so that his fall might generate a powerful convulsion in the spectator. And all the evidence of intention, of calculation that one cannot fail to see! Simply put, it is a work of art alone, void of instinct. I cannot describe to you how, by comparison, the conclusions to the Shakespearean plays, even his political ones, fill and stir the heart. But please write and tell me what Van der Bek’s assessment was. The Piccolomini intimated so many more things, seemed to anticipate so many things that were simply resolved in an insignificant manner here.

On 7 May 1801 [letter 314], after praising A. W. Schlegel’s “Fortunat,” a rather anemic poem, she writes concerning Schiller’s Maria Stuart:

But you, my darling, had a rather inferior cause to defend in your argument with Tiek about Maria Stuart. It is truly not better than Wallenstein — in fact, the entire, even more inferior Wallenstein speaks from within it. The few |581| lyrical passages are pretty enough — oh, yes — but are poorly integrated into the whole. One’s interest in Maria herself is excessively weakened throughout; it appears as if such were supposed to be intended objectively, but there is absolutely nothing genuine about it, merely imitative, “patent” objectivity. I can well imagine how it might come across quite nicely in the theater. The scene in which Melvil uncovers his priestly head is one of the most exceptional in the play and is an excellent concluding appearance for Maria. The final scene ends exactly as in Wallenstein, namely, with an epigram — Prince Piccolomini! “Lord Lester is embark’d for England.” — The political elements in it cannot avoid the impression of the distinctness and clarity of a deduction, and I assure you that during my initial reading, when, after all, my curiosity was also quite engaged, I could not escape a certain measure of boredom. — And the way Mortimer comes out blustering about his Catholicity! There is absolutely no reason to provide a psychological explication of how he became Catholic; he need simply zealously state it: “I am Catholic.” Indeed, my friend, it is quite clear to me that in the final analysis, all the poetic trimmings in this piece do not yet constitute genuine poesy.

Madame Schlegel queried Gries about Schiller’s Mädchen von Orleans and then recounts further in the letter above [7–8 May 1801 (letter 314)]:

[I]t is to the contrary nothing but a sentimental Jeanne d’Arc. She is virtuous and in love, believes herself to be genuinely inspired (which would be nice), and then there is all manner of magic. But just imagine the horror, she is not burned at the stake, but dies from her wounds on the bed of honor. An old Queen Isabel, who is warring against her son Carl with the English (as Gries tells it), gets her in her power; she is bound firmly to a tree by six-fold chains, meanwhile the battle continues and someone or other who is standing on a hill relates to Isabel how things are going and that Carl is in danger. Jeanne falls into holy madness at the news, and the chains fall away from her in response to her prayer, she flees in order to save the king and in the process receives her mortal wound. There are stanzas in it, but Gries claims not to have heard any other irregularities. Nor anything of Genoveva, more of Shakespeare. He doubtless misheard it. As an aside, I must also say that what all of you found in the way of Tiekisms in Maria did not seem such to me at all. When Maria comes out into the open, there is a kind of cantata that would sooner have reminded me of Rammler’s Ino.

And in a missive from Jena on 22 June 1801 we read [letter 322]:

Wallenstein’s Camp was performed in Weimar. Jean Paul was there with his Jeanette Pauline, and halfway through the play ran out of his loge shouting, “Ach, what barbaric stuff!” She followed him.

The truly classic passage concerning Schiller, however, had already been composed on 21 October 1799 [letter 250]: [12]

Schiller’s Musencalendar is also here; the poem by Madam Imhoff is not much more than a pack of hexameters. But yesterday we almost fell off our chairs laughing at a poem by Schiller himself, the “Lied von der Glocke”; it is quite à la Voss, à la Tiek, à la devil, or at least enough so to end up with the devil.

That is to say: the “Song of the Bell,” this treasure of our literary history, this German national possession with which several generations have already grown up, was greeted in Jena’s brilliant circles with thundering derisive laughter! It seems that even the great find it impossible “to do enough for the best of their age,” and yet they do indeed live for all time even if they did not succeed in such.

The psychologically most interesting part of Karoline’s letters is the one in which we are able to eavesdrop on her growing affection for Schelling, affection that eventually acquired enough power to break up her marriage with A. W. Schlegel. It was the philosopher of Romanticism who followed the aesthetic doctrinarian as the one who possessed Karoline’s hand and heart. Schelling’s brusque personality was more kindred to hers than was A. W. Schlegel’s gently mediating personality, even though in these letters the latter’s personality does appear in an agreeable light, to wit, over against the eccentric, incessantly agitating and affectedly witty personality of his brother Friedrich, who, one might add, long cultivated an ardent affection for Karoline and even secretly added several of her personality features to the character of a woman in his novel Lucinde.

The first mention of Schelling is already both quite characteristic and prophetic. Karoline is considering his future life partner (29 October 1798 [letter 207]): [13]

But where will Schelling, the granite, find a granitesse? Must she not at least be of basalt? Nor is this question wholly unfounded. For I do believe that he has un tant soit peu [Fr., “ever so little”] capacity for love. If he wants Madam Le[vi], I will send her. He made an impression on her.

So, the solicitous Karoline [correct: Friedrich Schlegel] initially envisioned Varnhagen’s future spouse, who in a broader sense provides a transition from Romanticism in Jena and Berlin to the later tendencies of the Young Germans, as a match for the “upright granite” (thus the nickname for Schelling). In the meantime, Schelling, after first courting the charming daughter Auguste Böhmer, now turned his attention to the mother. Auguste, a sensitive young girl who died far too young, plays a remarkable role in this correspondence. It is especially her uncle Friedrich Schlegel who writes the most peculiar things to this so very young girl, many of which, however, were in fact addressed to her mother. He charges Auguste with relating to her mother that her (her mother’s) true disposition or nature is actually “political-erotic,” though the erotic predominates, and other such things. Schelling apparently found himself confronted with the same dilemma that Horace so elegantly portrays in his ode “O matre pulchra filia pulchrior.” [14] The daughter soon had every right to be jealous of her mother, and Karoline in her own turn justifiably credited the attention Schelling demonstrated toward her to her own account rather than to the account of a potential mother-in-law. The philosopher of nature went about dealing with the situation the same way as other mortals, trying to win Caroline in a way only very few such brilliant women are to be won. The supporting passage is found in a letter Karoline wrote to Auguste on 14 October 1799 [letter 248]:

What you recently said to Schelling was not at all nice. If you continue to balk so toward him, I might start believing you are jealous of your mama. It was, of course, not he who made the remark to you about the coy mamsell, it was I, and what is so incomprehensible about it anyway? Do you not occasionally have manners that are as tart as a sour apple? I must relate to you one example of Schelling’s amiability: He secretly had black feathers sent to me for my hat, which now looks quite good on me. Only imagine! I was completely astonished.

Karoline was inclined to write about Schelling in a manner whose ardency her correspondents apparently found offensive. |582| During the period when he and Karoline were still on good terms, Friedrich Schlegel responds to her with customary impertinence, dousing his sister-in-law’s somewhat hot-blooded effusions with cold water [7 April 1799 (letter 230)]:

Do write and tell me whatever you like about Schelling. Even if he himself is not so wildly interesting to me, your interest in him perhaps is. — By the way, I did indeed find the person Schelling to be noteworthy and good, albeit still extremely coarse. — In and of itself, his philosophy would be something quite ephemeral if he ends up being unable to make a mark on the new age. And it is still quite unclear to me whether he will be able to do just that.

The two letters Auguste writes to Schelling betray a decidedly childlike love relationship. She calls him her “dear mole,” and refers to herself as his “Uttelchen.” But Mama has a hand in this situation as well. She writes one letter together with her daughter, and we may let readers judge the other based on its initial sentences: [4/5 June 1800 (letter 261)]:

Well, yet again I am being put to work a bit, for Mother is glad to have me sit down and write you, since she herself would prefer to expend her energy telling you about her emotions at your departure rather than about practical matters. Thank you so much for the trick you gave me for amusing Mother; it works so splendidly. Whenever nothing seems to help regardless of how much I fool around trying to entertain her, I simply tell her “how very much he loves you,” and she immediately gets all kittenish. But the first time I told her, she also wanted to know how much you loved her, and all my wisdom was suddenly at a dead end; but I quickly got out of it by saying: more than anything; she was satisfied, and I hope you will be too.

This situation cannot be described more naively than occurs here. The mother reserves the “emotions” for herself and has the daughter discuss “business matters”!

These letters were written during June 1800; on 12 July 1800, Auguste died, the poor child for whom the intelligent and “erotic” mother represented such threatening competition. Grief over their shared loss united the hearts of Karoline and Schelling even more intimately; every other conflict was resolved, and the one yet inhering in Karoline’s marriage to A. W. Schlegel was likely not viewed as being all that formidable. Karoline and Schelling’s agreement to move to a first-name basis dates to October 1800; in response to the black feathers, Frau Schlegel sends her friend a “large,” genuine English topcoat to keep him warm [20 December 1800 (letter 277)]. The following lines are quite beautiful [December 1800 (letter 278)]:

Oh, you dear, faithful heart, it is purely, soundly made from your own pain, all of which I myself recognize and all of which I can exchange with you. But some of it I am holding back, since some must always remain mine alone. You will, after all, never be able to assimilate the mother’s grief completely. But be not aggrieved when you sense how that which prompts your lady friend to erupt in such words must of necessity also tear her apart — yes, just now tear her apart. All this must somehow, sometime turn to joy for me once more, do you not also believe that? — My soul is being reduced more and more to just this grief, and yet I am comforted and strong. Do keep this thought in mind if I am unable to keep from weeping at your breast. New life is welling up from these moments, indeed they themselves represent a sublime symbol of life; my grief is not mere dejection, nor despondency, nor despair, and only if I need not conceal any of this from my friend can I have complete trust in him. Allow me at least to touch upon it; I have no intention of making you linger over it. I myself do not linger over it. Though the clouds of my own misery may also shroud my head for a time, it will soon free itself again, and the pure blue of heaven above me, which encompasses my child just as it does me, will again shine its light on it. Omnipresence: that is what the deity is — and do you yourself not believe we must one day become omnipresent ourselves, all of us, one in the other, yet without for that reason being One? For we must not become One, that much you well know, since then precisely our striving to become One would itself cease.

Occasionally Karoline articulated her relationship with Schelling with exaggerated exuberance, as in the following lines [January 1801 (letter 280)]:

You related such splendid thoughts to me, such beautiful images, indeed, even tones, and then the most charming remarks, and even more than any one specific thing, what shines forth from it all is the fact that my friend genuinely is getting on his feet again. I can see I was right to live and be in you during these past days, and if you continue thus, you will soon make me completely healthy again. Should my heart falter, however, I now know I can lean on yours and seek comfort there; that is the proper relationship between the mortal mother and the divine son. Indeed, you are already lifting me up through these hopes you give me, through your perspectives, which I, too, might have, and through your ideas, which I can have only through you, and that we might meet in that sphere of serene luminosity that alone is the true element of my heart and soul.

Karoline now naturally develops a lively interest in the philosophy of nature, the origin of the earth, Buffon, and so on, becoming, on the other hand, increasingly indifferent to aesthetics. During the winter of 1800–1, she writes to Schelling [January 1801 (letter 282)]:

Do you see how I am increasing in wisdom? When at lunch I ask for further explanations from this or that person, the gentlemen laugh at me but then do indeed offer quite earnest information, and Schlegel never fails to remark: if only I had ever occupied myself that seriously with some matter involving his activities! And what, indeed, would such have been except precisely that which I would not need to learn, namely, poesy!

As indicated by these last lines, her relationship with her spouse was cooling, whereas her letters to Schelling increasingly acquire the character of love letters apart from the philosophical-aesthetic terms and excurses. Karoline was an attentive pupil, deftly comprehending even philosophical material and able to assess Schelling’s uniqueness and significance with rare profundity, as demonstrated by the following parallel between Fichte and Schelling [1 March 1801 (letter 294)]:

It has always seemed to me, despite all his incomparable conceptual power, tightly fitted deductive method, clarity, precision, immediate intuition of the I, and enthusiasm as a discoverer — that he is nonetheless limited; I merely thought the reason was that he lacked divine inspiration, and that if you have broken through of a certain circle out of which he himself was as yet unable to break, I would believe you did so not so much as a philosopher — if this appellation perhaps be incorrectly applied here, there is no need to scold me about it — but rather insofar as you have poesy, and he none. It is poesy that has guided you directly to the position of production just as it was the clarity of his perception that guided him to consciousness. He has light in its most radiant brightness, whereas you also have its warmth; the former can only illuminate, whereas the latter produces. — Well, have I not come up with a clever view of all this? Just like looking through a keyhole at a boundless landscape. — In my understanding, Spinosa must have had far more poesy than Fichte — if one’s thinking is not colored at least a bit by poesy, |583| is there not then something lifeless about it? The element of mystery is lacking — look, I can surmise quite well that anyone capable of comprehending geometry will also be able to learn the Wissenschaftslehre, but precisely the fact that it comes out even when divided is what constitutes its limitation.

Individual letters in this collection breathe the breath of poesy, the breath of passion, as is the case, for example, in the letter from Braunschweig on 6 March 1801 [letter 297]. By contrast, Karoline’s letters to her spouse, who was recovering in Berlin, daily become increasingly indifferent, or even irritable; annoying financial matters occupy most of the space in them, nor can Karoline, despite the considerable element of free-thinking attaching to her own passion, cannot refrain from expressing petty jealousies at her spouse’s social contact with Berlin actresses, specifically Madam Unzelmann. The unavoidable catastrophe finally came about. During the autumn of 1802, A. W. Schlegel and Karoline handed in a shared petition for divorce [letter/document 371] to Duke Karl August emphasizing their mutual concurrence and mutual respect, adducing as well that “ineluctable and unalterable circumstances and disposition” had “rendered an external separation necessary.”

The final sections of this epistolary collection contain the correspondence of the wife of Professor Schelling from Würzburg and Munich. They are by far less interesting insofar as they generally discuss domestic and university matters, occasionally a nearby landscape, or pick up on contemporary political developments. There is now hardly any mention of Schiller and Goethe or of developments in literature and poetry, and old friends are only occasionally remembered. Karoline is now securely at home amid stable life circumstances. We share her joy when she speaks about her apartment arrangements in Würzburg, about her four rooms, the bedroom and living room and the two large parlors, all in a row and “connected” by French doors with glass panes, not least when we recall the pathetic day-laborer barracks in which the Schlegels once lived in Jena. [15] But like the final chapters in a novel that after the considerable storm and stress of passionate conflicts finally portrays a new, stable condition of happiness, so also these last letters, despite the considerable calm and serenity they attest, are less uplifting for a third party, seeming instead somewhat cool and monotonous.

The present epistolary collection contains a wealth of bright, intelligent ideas and thinking, wholly comparable to that of Rahel as far as originality of expression and intellectual profundity are concerned. It would not be difficult to assemble from it an anthology of aphorisms that would impress readers through both significant content and elegant form, for example [12 March 1801 (letter 293); March 1801 (letter 295)]:

Oh, my friend, remind yourself incessantly how short life is, and how nothing exists as genuinely as does a work of art — criticism perishes, physical races are extinguished, systems change, but when the world itself one day incinerates like a scrap of paper, works of art will be the last living sparks to enter into the house of God — only then will there be complete darkness. . . .

[Y]ou wanted unclouded, youthful happiness, you youthful heart, as also befits such a magnificent person, had you but not been so much more magnificent than magnificent. When I woke up within myself, things happened such that for a long, long time I believed that happiness could never be at home in reality, nor be anything that truly corresponded to our innermost being. And because of this initial upbringing, I always remained a bit modest. Resignation gave me a certain depth, and my first love gave me an inexpressible serenity even though it itself hardly even belonged to reality in the strict sense. Now you must make do if necessary, but in bitterness, and I in rich humility.

That Karoline’s unique intellect, whose natural inclinations Friedrich Schlegel believed were limited to the fragmentary, was on the contrary quite capable of lengthier discourse as well, is doubtless demonstrated by, e.g., her analysis of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. [16] Of course, the revelations of prophetesses can hardly have any form other than the fragment; the inspirations of the Delphic oracle, after all, were similarly brief. Here Rahel and Caroline are quite comparable, the latter the beloved coeurdame of Romanticism who captivated the hearts of the two Schlegels for a time and Schelling’s forever.


[*] Rudolf Gottschall, “Die Coeurdame der romantischen Schule,” Blätter für literarische Unterhaltung (1871) 37 (7 September 1871), 577–83. Coeurdame, Fr., “queen of hearts.” — Footnotes and bracketed material in the text are those of the translator. — See also Rudolf Gottschall’s shorter assessment of Waitz’s edition. Back.

[1] The “young Germans” were broadly those who developed and advocated more liberal ideas with respect to politics, religion, and morality during the period of cultural repression associated especially with Prince von Metternich (1773–1859). Back.

[2] Rahel Levin is not mentioned as often in Caroline’s correspondence as Gottschall believed, he having misidentified references in Friedrich Schlegel’s letters as those of Caroline; see below. Back.

[3] Fr., here: “spirit, intellect.” Back.

[4] Here Gottschall cites Waitz’s capsule biographical summary; see Waitz’s introduction. Back.

[5] Heinrich Koenig, Die Clubisten in Mainz. Ein Roman (Leipzig 1847); in 3 vols. 1857 as part of his Gesammelte Schriften. See also the harshly satirical play The Mainz Clubbists in Königstein. Back.

[6] Published shortly thereafter as Georg Forster’s Briefwechsel mit S. Th. Sömmerring, ed. Hermann Hettner (Braunschweig 1877); see Sömmerring’s letters in volume 1. Back.

[7] Fr., “those who excuse themselves, accuse themselves.” Back.

[8] Not quite correct; in fact, Humboldt begged off in a rather self-serving fashion. See his letter to Wilhelm Schlegel on 27 May 1793 (letter 127a). Back.

[9] Presumably Caroline’s pregnancy. Back.

[10] Karl Ludwig Friedrich von Hinckeldey (1805–56), former general police director in Berlin who instituted severe reactionary measures against those involved in democratic groups. Back.

[11] See supplementary appendix 181g.1. Back.

[12] “Das Lied von der Glocke” (The song of the bell) concludes Schiller’s Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1800, 243–64; full translation in supplementary appendix 250.2. Back.

[13] The letter is from Friedrich to Caroline, not from Caroline to Friedrich. That is, this is Friedrich writing about Schelling. Back.

[14] “O fair mother, daughter fairer still”; for the complete text, see Gottschall’s earlier assessment of these letters, note 13. Back.

[15] Gottschall, writing in 1871, was unaware of the Schlegels’ real living circumstances and apartment in Jena. See his first assessment of Waitz’s edition of Caroline’s letters, note 3. Back.

[16] See Wilhelm and Caroline’s review; there also references to Caroline’s letters that provided part of the text. Back.

Translation © 2019 Doug Stott