Letter 100

• 100. Caroline to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer in Naples: Marburg, 14 January–1 March, 1791

Marburg, 14 January [–1 March], 1791

|205| What draws me to you from this far distance, [1] and what prompts me to follow you on your path there and yet also allows you to seem present before me here — I do not really know what to call it — but if you were acquainted with it, you would certainly not imagine there is any feud between us. I suspected that my last letter had missed you, [2] and after you wrote T[atter] last spring I knew it for certain — and yet without excessive regret, since I never really thought my proposal seemed entirely acceptable for you. [3]

Now, however, I am glad the letter reached you after all, since your answer gave me great joy. — That is a simple word — as is its meaning as well, and yet it extends just as deep as that of any feeling I hold dear. For several months now your letter has been demanding a response — but because of circumstances, I just never had time, nor the requisite peace and calm, to write anything except what the present moment rendered unavoidably necessary — disagreeable demands engulfed everything — I could but reflect quietly.

That particular position is still occupied as before — that is to say, it is still as unoccupied as ever. [4] |206| That they are able to leave things just as they are demonstrates clearly enough how little they would be able to appreciate what you could offer. The obstinate limitations of the prince keep well apace of his stinginess. Not a single bit of reasoning has yet been able to drive away this person of whom even the dullest sensibility takes note. The gouverneur, [5] whom I have in the meantime gotten to know, is not what people told me he was — possessing as he does not a single idea that might elevate itself above the commonplace, nor the slightest trace of vitality.

The boy, who in and of himself is essentially null, has all the ease and convenience to straightaway put one to sleep — and fall asleep he will, God willing — not even the attraction of the family’s hereditary military din seems able to rouse him. Among all the other, similar institutions, this truly is the most insipid. You could have it by taking precisely the path you would like — for once the man with whom you would initially be in contact had recognized you from a genuinely honest perspective, which is his most impressive one, you would encounter little resistance, since there are simply too few definite ideas there in the first place.

But how will the prince ever comprehend what that might be good for? Truly, the good that such obstinate self-rulers thwart exceeds even the havoc wrought by ministers and other creatures. — Amid the enormous diversity of projects, good and bad generally remain in balance, and the smart man will doubtless also find his proper place.

If you could be here — I could not offer you much more than an amiable conversation with a single amiable being — it would make me happier — something to which you would not be indifferent — and you yourself might perhaps be able to think back with more gentle recollection on the joys and labors of your life. How much does one not have to do without that otherwise seems so easy to possess. Ever since my own happy youth made the transition to memory, fate itself has taught me how to do without — |207| it will never keep me from recognizing what is truly desirable or from turning away joy simply because I cannot hold on to it forever.

I do not understand your overall circumstances, but I do comprehend your mood very well. Call it what you will — every person must know for what price he is willing to give his life. You have departed from the comfortable path and will have difficulty returning to it. And yet you do still seem to be entertaining precisely that possibility — suggesting that an element of moderation is perhaps present that will keep you from falling amid the frenzy and not allow you to cast away all considerations or sunder all ties linking you to others in mutual respect.

1 March

My dear Meyer — I am ashamed at how remiss I have been in simply leaving this letter unfinished. Tatter has related to me a letter from Naples dated 1 February. How could I wait for a prompt? One thing is certain, never have I written so little to someone about whom I have thought so frequently — there really must be an unlucky star holding sway here. Very few of your friends could be harboring in their breast as fervent the wish to see you again and to know you are content.

If only our plan could have been workable! though I must confess I entertained it without any real confidence. The position has hitherto been so tightly circumscribed, so subordinated, that it was suitable only for beginners, and it was virtually inevitable that no one would really be capable of entering into your incomparably more useful design. [6]

But no more about that — if you want, however, and if your future is not a state secret, then please do relate something to me about it, for in my own reckonings it has come to appear, distant as it is, so cut off that at the end of the line I would put: “At this point he |208| hurled himself into the crater of Mt. Aetna — and behold, no mortal seer knows whether that line will be picked up again!”

But you must have settled on a primary plan — regardless of whether such a plan genuinely be fulfilled — or even be credible — I for my part would like a goal for my own imagination with regard to my friend — just as each of us must have such a goal for our powers of reason. And if that goal be Mt. Aetna — then so be it — better to perish in the flames than to wander about restlessly — for we are not given eternal youth that, with glorious strength, might ennoble both the dissipation of today and our indifference regarding the morrow. Advancing age is always horrible — but doubly so when no interests make the transition easier.

Shall I tell you about myself? My future is also obscure with regard to any anticipation of a change for the better — no prospects except — never to possess less than I do now of that with which chance manages to make a person happy — and yet also never less within myself of that through which such lack might be compensated. I have lived through such a difficult time, and had so much unexpected vexation and trouble that I could no long justify to myself the chains I so fruitlessly bore, and so was thinking about leaving Marburg. [6a]

But this decision on my part prompted a change on the part of others, and an agreement was reached the effects of which I thought it necessary to await as a final attempt and which has indeed created a more peaceful environment for me over the past few months. But it is always only an artificial existence, albeit one from which I can withdraw for several hours during the day. It is a sad spectacle to see such aptitude and gifts degenerate into dull apathy. Apart from that, I am usually alone in a charming room with a romantic view of a small valley. All communication that might provide a bit of joy and occupy my mind |209| I receive only through letters. [7]

Although that leaves gaps, I have grown accustomed to it. I have not withdrawn from society — people love me without my really soliciting such — they would worship me were I willing to entertain that love [7a] — but that would mean more lost time for me than genuine profit for either party — and I also know that in the long run I cannot abide the claims of those who in fact have no such claims on me. I have experienced no boredom since leaving Clausthal — or rather, my heart has experienced no emptiness, and, moreover, animates an extremely diverse set of activities.

My Therese died in December ’89 — an extraordinarily amiable little creature, the most precious of my children — I now have only one, and she is priceless to me because, after all, it is precisely in her that my only firm purpose resides. I spent a month in Mainz in the spring of ’90, while Forster was away. [8] Therese is happier — has changed — and yet is still the same — more intolerant than ever — one-sided — but inexpressibly charitable toward a few, enjoying her own creations with a temperate spirit. She never did much that was truly good. Although her health is admittedly equivocal, she is doing fairly well with her third pregnancy. [9] The children are angels — Clary sparkles with fiery life — Therese has something of her father.

Forster, as you yourself well know from your acquaintance with him, is the weakest of all human beings, and is even weaker than he might be because he is standing next to her, condemned to stand in the midst of those who can be nothing to him and to whom he, too, is nothing. You say he is misusing his talents? No, he is using them for just what they are good for, for they would never accomplish anything really great — he earns a comfortable livelihood and with it domestic well-being — and through diligence he gains peace, which she maintains because it is salutary for the whole and because circumstances are such that she is not |210| forced to interrupt it.

He is currently working on his travelogues, [10] in which there is too much good stuff for the public at large and too much scholarship and catering to emotional raisonnement for certain individual readers. If you have not received any news directly from them recently, you have me to thank for it

We spoke a great deal about you. Such beautiful evenings, climbing into a skiff late at night and simply letting ourselves drift down the Rhine. Therese wishes I could live there — but I do not yet see that as a possibility. [11] I will never return to Göttingen — I would have chosen Gotha had I left Marburg to pursue some project or other through which a woman might earn a livelihood.

Lotte is back in Göttingen, and I wish I could tell you something good about her, but the consequences of early depravity are now becoming visible in her in an extremely base fashion. A whole series of deceived hopes has exhausted her heart, which now no longer has the energy to keep up the rather rapturous self-deception with which she duped me for so long.

Now she is consciously surrendering herself to the wretched truth — gloats — is an incorrigible coquette, a disposition that in her exhibits absolutely nothing in the way of feminine attraction, and even less anything girlish — she is an indescribable burden to her family and hurts her younger sister’s feeling whenever she can. Marianne was her only company — two slaves chained to the same oar — and now they, too, have broken. Lies and indiscretions separate friends as well as lovers. In a word, her portrait would have to be done by the brush of Hermes or Rétif. [11a]

I feel sorry for her because the guilt is not hers alone. But I have withdrawn from her entirely after being childishly blind for longer than I can justify before my own intellect. One characteristic of that intellect — indeed, one that |211| has often enough been the reason people judged me falsely — is to unite astute keen-sightedness with the most innocent narrowness. As long as Lotte was with me, she had to be good; there was no opportunity for her to manifest that part of her personality — I kept her gently but firmly on track through my own behavior. She went with me to Mainz, where all barriers were shattered.

An aventure with Sömmerring demonstrated quite clearly that her intention of never marrying was a fairy tale. [12] Louise is a naive girl who also causes my mother much grief.

Our family is a wreck because of depravity, foolishness, weakness, and the vehement personalities of its individual members. Although the one worships fate while the other reproaches it, the real ground of all this misfortune does not at all reside somewhere beyond the clouds, as it were. —

My Auguste does not have any great gifts or talents and is rather frivolous, but she will become good — genuinely good — if I may say: like her mother, and will perhaps find within herself fewer hindrances to external happiness. — In the course of my own life, I can see cause and effect precisely intertwined, and I have no desire to rebel against necessity.

Although I do have intense periods in which the profound sadness and pain — that particular pain underlying everything — in the face of an existence full of contradiction does come to predominate — it gently dissolves amid every activity that ties me to the present, amid every, even the slightest moment of enjoyment that presents itself to me. — This is also what constitutes the contradiction — but we must be grateful to the gods for not being rigorously and logically consistent.

Might your friends in Germany not count on seeing you again over the course of this year? [13] — Please answer me soon — I hope this package still reaches you before you leave Rome [14] — Although you do not need the blessing you request, it is, after all, the only thing we can give you. By the way — I will not betray what Tatter is supposed to keep a secret. [15] |212| Please cordially accept my entire, wondrous interest in your life. Adieu.


[1] It is difficult to trace Meyer’s movements during this period, but his journey seems to have been a prodigious one indeed.. Elise Campe, Erinnerungen, 1:291–300, offers the following, sometimes disjointed sketch: After leaving England on 10 October 1789, Meyer arrived in Venice on 11 November, leaving then on 5 December for Rome. He was in Rome on 22 December 1789 and seems not to have left (at least for any lengthier journeys) until 30 May 1790, when he departed Rome for Zürich, arriving there on 29 June 1790. He was back in Italy on 6 September 1790, visiting, among others, Turin, Livorno, and Pisa, arriving in Florence on 22 September 1790. He departed Florence on 19 October 1790 and arrived back in Rome on 21 October.

He left Rome once more on 15 December 1790 for Naples, where he stayed until 5 March 1791. He was likely in Naples when Caroline wrote this letter, despite her having left the letter lying unfinished for essentially a month and a half; she mentions Naples later in the letter. He left Rome for good on 3 April 1791, arrived in France on 2 May 1791, and was in Paris on 16 May. He left Paris (and France) on 30 July 1791 for Strasbourg and Mannheim, finally arriving back in Hamburg on 11 September 1791.

According to Caroline’s statements in her letter to Meyer on 29 October 1791 (letter 106), Meyer apparently also visited Gotha on his way back to Hamburg and had already left when Caroline and Luise Michaelis visited the family of Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter there in either September or October 1791. He seems to have resided in Berlin from 1791 to 1796, after which, with the inheritance of his deceased brother now added to his own, he bought the estate in Bramstedt outside Hamburg, where he would remain the rest of his life (Thomas Kitchin, Composite of Europe divided into its empires, kingdoms, states, republics, &c. [1787]):



[2] Presumably that written on 24 October 1789 (letter 92). Back.

[3] To try to secure an appointment for Meyer as tutor to the Crown Prince of Kassel (letter 92). Back.

[4] Ferdinand Karl Wilhelm Heinrich Schenck zu Schweinsberg would remain the crown prince’s tutor. Back.

[5] Presumably Karl Ludwig von Dörnberg. Back.

[6] The letter from Meyer that Tatter related to Caroline, and which seems to have included some response to her suggestion about Meyer’s possible employment as tutor to the crown prince, is not extant and was likely burned, along Tatter’s other correspondence, on Tatter’s own orders after the latter’s death in St. Petersburg in 1805. Back.

[6a] Although Caroline’s allusion to “unexpected vexation” is unclear, it may derive from the personality of her brother Fritz Michaelis, with whom she had been living. See Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s remarks regarding his personality in an earlier letter to Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring on 12 July 1784 (Lichtenberg, Briefe 2:133):

I noticed that [Fritz] Michaelis seems to be making quite poor progress in the setting previously discussed [i.e., in Kassel; Fritz Michaelis had just succeeded Sömmerring as professor of medicine at the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel]. Things allegedly turn out the same for him everywhere he goes: he astonishes everyone at first, is well liked for two weeks, and then becomes unbearable. As he told Dieterich, he will write an entire medical library and then an extraordinary number of other things as well.

Georg Forster writes similarly to Sömmerring during that same year, on 17 June 1784 (Georg Forsters Werke. Sämtliche Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe, ed. Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR, vol. 14, Briefe 1784–Juni 1787 [Berlin 1978], 101):

Although you write me about Dr. Michaelis, you have not yet told me what you think of him. From what he confided in you, he seems to me to be quite the same as he always was, namely, a blowhard who likes to play up his influence among women.

See finally also the impressions of Wilhelm von Humboldt from the autumn of 1788. Back.

[7] (Königl. Großbrit. Genealogischer Kalender auf das 1786 Jahr; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):


The house where Caroline lived in Marburg, Reitgasse 14, faced a street leading directly to the market place in the front, and toward the back provided an elevated view of the Lahn River valley. Back.

[7a] Caroline seems to have had several quite serious romantic suitors in Marburg. Back.

[8] Georg and Therese Forster had been living in Mainz since October 1788 (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795])


See below concerning the trip Forster took at this time. Back.

[9] Therese Forster was pregnant with her third daughter at the time, Johann Ludowika Georgia Forster (A. M. Pachinger, Die Mutterschaft in der Malerei und Graphik [Munich, Leipzig 1906], p. 79, plate 45):



[10] Georg Forster, Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich im April, Mai und Junius 1790, 3 vols. (Berlin 1791–94), the fruit of an extended journey he took with the young Alexander von Humboldt. The title (“April, May, June 1790”) also provides the window during which Caroline visited Mainz (“while Forster was away”). Back.

[11] Caroline would, however, move to Mainz in the spring of 1792. Back.

[11a] Concerning this harsh allusion to Rétif de la Bretonne, Caroline’s undated letter to Lotte in 1786 (letter 72), note 3, with cross-references. Back.

[12] The anatomist Samuel Thomas Sömmerring, one of Caroline’s most resolute adversaries, appears later in connection with Caroline’s stay in Mainz and subsequent incarceration. Concerning the aventure involving Lotte, see Therese Forster to Samuel Thomas Sömmerring on 9 October 1790 (letter 98a) with supplementary appendix 98a.1. Back.

[13] Meyer would arrive back in Hamburg on 11 September 1791. Back.

[14] Caroline seems to be well-informed concerning Meyer’s itinerary, since he would be leaving Rome for good on 3 April 1791. Back.

[15] Uncertain allusion. Back.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott