Letter 103

• 103. Caroline to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer in Paris: Marburg, 11 July 1791

Marburg, 11 July [17]91

|217| Should one day your path happen to pass through my own place of residence — should the pilgrim who finds it so strange that I take an interest in his life one day knock on my door, a door that although not even mine — for I have as little in the way of possessions as does he himself — I |218| would nonetheless still be able to open for him whom I am certainly also permitted to invite inside for a respite alongside me [1] — there would be much I should like to hear from him, and much also to relate to him in my own turn.

I ardently wish this because I would like to get to know you completely rather than simply replace one false impression with another. Can one ever truly come to a proper understanding of the other person if one is so separated, so distant? My dear Meyer, absence is the death of even the most intimate relationships — one ceases to understand each other — might one be able to get to know each other under such circumstances?

It is quite possible that the groundwork for doing so is being laid — particularly in our case, since we were, moreover, never really granted any uninterrupted, undisturbed chance to be around each other — here, too, I believe I can be quite certain of this — another reason to desire it all the more ardently. You would be quite useful to me because you know the world, yet in such a way that your experiences have not made you indifferent toward the concepts according to which one is to govern oneself in that world, and I could use the advice of such a man. —

I would be salutary for you — for you would find that the element of good predominates and that an element of gentle similitude characterizes those things that have changed — in the history of your life, not a single hour you might have spent thus may be overlooked. — You have, however, already cheated yourself out of it by ascribing my advice to some sort of alien inspiration — and really — why should such advice not be reconcilable with my character? As long as life is burdensome to you — why end it? Such would merely mean giving in to some willful yearning for upheaval and change.

Today no less than tomorrow, you will find people with whom you can share the pleasures of your existence. Pleasure in that sense is the same as benefit — who might presume to distinguish between the two? Hence I do not at all consider the seemingly indefinite nature of your circumstances just now to be the kind of great misfortune that can only be smothered amid flames.

But I |219| did believe that a time might come when the richness of the past might present too stark a contrast with prospects for the future — when a period of lengthy inactivity from work might have weakened your inclination to put forth real effort such that creating new worlds was no longer possible, and then your refuge was precisely that which under certain circumstances, for myself as well, I imagine as the final, blessed moment — as it were the final flicker of youthful energy.

If it was inappropriate to apply this notion to you — well, so be it; then my heart is lighter — for at certain times my thoughts of you have lain heavy on my soul. Your carefree attitude was accompanied by perhaps a bit too many backward glances for me to consider it as pure as my own serene acquiescence. Nor was the tone of your last letter such that it might put your friends at ease. —

But I am not reproaching you — You sense with an element of masculine resistance where the feminine spirit yields, and precisely in such yielding discovers new pleasures, often finding new activity instead of bitter offense. — Some seem destined to have nothing to hope for from chance and everything to fear — and I have long told you that in that regard I certainly extend my hand to you as a brother.

At the same time, however, must we not distinguish the consequences of our own nature, our own being, from chance? Those who demand that people turn away from their own peculiar, unique path desire not the favorable inclination of fate, but miracles from heaven. Your own principle — one that though not really inspired by any notion of justice nonetheless focuses on a wise sense of distribution — always seeks to do more for the less important than for the important. You honestly do not know how to arrange it any better — you are more easily able to put yourself in the place of the former, while the latter scares you away — indeed, often enough your concern for such a person makes you forget that something needs to be done for |220| him, and the independence you discover in him makes you forget that he needs something. —

But I do not mean to preach — or console — but merely to tell you how I see it. There are many other sides to it I would not be so bold as to call false — if they did not make things worse; and not a few occasions when it costs me, too, to assert this particular side of it. And yet one’s resolute will remains the victor — the will that has, after all, made the desire for joy and happiness part of its own interests. In defiance of gods and human beings, I am determined to be happy — hence I have no intention of leaving room for any bitterness that might torment me — what I want instead is merely to feel my own power within it. Should it succeed, then this childish heart will likely be seized with a sweet sensation of gratitude toward the very powers toward which it was defiant. But this is a story that recurs daily.

And I have ample opportunity to practice — for me, times of calm are generally times of the most intense restlessness, since instead of creating trouble, they instead elicit the fear of such in me. But I could not describe that for you in detail even if I imagined I could and indeed wanted to; only believe this much: among the thousands of different variations of human fate, one cannot so easily imagine one more uncomfortable or awkward — and yet I certainly do not ascribe any merit to myself for enduring it — the only true merit is to escape it entirely — and that must indeed happen within the next year.

Until then, however, I will continue, as I have until now, to view my most immediate circumstances as those that are in fact most alien, since I cannot really enter into them with love — and whatever I must nonetheless do in consideration of them is merely the object of my mockery — admittedly a fatiguing way to kill time. Since it is impossible for me to change those circumstances, I withdraw from them as often as I can — and in the meantime, my own modest activities, along with the cheerfulness of my child and my memories, get me by — it is my constantly maintained overview of the whole that prevents me from becoming exhausted — and every now and then I am indeed seized by enthusiasm for this or that project |221| for the future, and this in its own turn distracts me for the present moment with wonderful anticipation without leaving in its wake the kind of ill humor elicited by shattered expectations — it is with smiling understanding that I myself discover the deception before it can become entrenched.

That which is impossible remains merely an idea — while that which is possible becomes a resolution. Hence I have a constricted feeling in my breast and yet breathe more freely — Was I always this way? No; I traveled down many a path of vision and belief and unbelief before returning to this purer form of worship — I say “return” — since it always resided latent in the gentle disposition of my heart — my actions always followed this disposition even though my manner of thinking may have changed — and even if I was not always immediately strong enough to break the fetters of opposing influences, I always managed — once I was left to myself again — to find my way back to the path I will again unerringly take once I regain my freedom. —

Various forms of resignation were and continue to be necessary in order to derive enjoyment in this way — so I will not become weak. 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.

Among the places you will be passing through on your journey to Hamburg, you mention several that are so close to my enchanted castle here that you can hardly avoid it [2] — and yet you say nothing to me about seeing you? So am I to request it? For I really know not why you should want to avoid me. If this letter, with which I am once again tardy, manages to reach you in a timely fashion, then I will count on you showing up. [3] Do not think my tardiness rather wondrous — it is always a real effort of will for me to write when such is not wholly woven into the fabric of my daily life — I get impatient when I have to scribble down clear, long-held convictions that have been practiced hourly, or when I have to speak about a |222| heartfelt personal feeling.

But do not let that scare you away — this whole business, at least with respect to you, will become increasingly easier for me. — I am currently toying with various ideas that I would like to relate to you that I might hear your own views in return — I am seriously thinking of changing my place of residence — though the how and where are still rather vague. Restricted as I am, speculation of one sort of another will necessarily have to precede any real implementation; the only thing for certain is that it cannot be risky or adventurous. Although the willfulness of my own taste would more easily tend in such a direction — the consequences and my consideration of others, of my child, hold me back. —

My knowledge of the world suffices only to keep me from being astonished at anything and to accommodate myself to everything — but not to be prescient. — My knowledge of human beings still often deceives me — and unfortunately the more so the closer the object of my judgment is — I am alone — without connections that might protect me and help me move forward — my friends ask for my advice — it never occurs to them to offer the same to me — to the woman who has, as a matter of fact, been left to fend for herself.

You are quite right to the extent that I have always tended not to depend on sources of help that I do not find within myself. — I cannot risk going to a completely unknown place — I might be choosing perhaps between Gotha, Weimar, and Mainz [3a] — where I will then shape my existence — an existence I owe to my own efforts — in as proper and attractive a fashion as possible — the former for the sake of others — the latter for the sake of my own imagination. —

Mainz has two extremely attractive things going for it — the area itself — and the Forsters, [4] though it is in other respects less suitable because it offers too many occasions for expenditures and pretension — and because I — not because of any ambition, but simply because I feel it would be best thus for me — must go my own way. Can one do that — and love Therese ‐ |223| can one? and still be intent on keeping her? —

I am not condemning her by saying this — that which witnesses to her power does not necessarily witness against her — nor your own statement either, my dear Meyer! You may very well be right about some things, and she herself is not condemnable — but you are unjust in many things — and then who is? — You are unjust like — a man! I will not listen to you. Therese may well resemble that picture — but the picture is not her — why are you drawing according to the concave mirror shown to illustrious guests in the Göttingen library? [5]

Some of the accusations may well be founded — as if you yourself did not know that strong light is invariably accompanied by strong shadow! I myself would like to examine them one at a time — were it not such an extended undertaking. Do you always judge thus, or do you simply no longer know her? Perhaps she has changed — but enough, quite the contrary from being what you make of her, she seems instead to have exploited your company. Her addiction to unhappiness — in which you cannot fail to acknowledge the convulsive movements of a great soul — has transformed itself into love for domestic tranquility — if with these gentler inclinations she is merely trying to distract herself from the internal disquiet of her own heart — is she really to blame? but in the midst of this hour of recuperation, she is charming and benevolent.

In cases where she is perhaps not so much the latter, what hinders her is a certain degree of energy that prohibits her from being tolerant. In cases where she presses[?], [6] she is more than are others. No genuine union with her is possible except where delusion and all the deception of love are present as well — and what her personal constitution in that sense withholds from people at large, she returns in hitherto unknown measure to the individual who has the particular disposition to surrender to her. She is at least everything to a very few people — ought she instead be a little to a great many people? To me she is the most interesting spectacle, and I resist the notion that I would ever want to inhibit her free disposition |224| — that would be the only thing gained by the cure you are suggesting — a man of the sort you describe — albeit describe incorrectly — since any union between these two would necessarily either have terrible consequences or be annulled in three days.

How you will one day be astonished at his dullness! — Would it amuse you to see an extraordinary creature teased by such petty passions? Precisely that is what such a man would have the power to do — but no more than that. Therese is capable of such passions, just as even the most sublime person, simply by virtue of being human, cannot escape the fate of imperfection — a moderately good, solid woman will perhaps avoid foundering on the reef of vanity and conceit where she is unable to do so. Her boldness in this regard extinguishes whatever weakness may inhere in such a situation. —

With very few gifts, even the least commendable among you can capture the most excellent among us, by means of uncertainty, by means of motivation that, given their trivial nature, one hardly deems worth the effort to overcome, and whose sacrifice — given one’s consciousness of the strength that has been engaged — ultimately finds no equilibrium in the soul. The thinking man is conquered without effort — and the fool through charms for which we strive precisely because they are alien to us, and because they flatter a certain depravity of the imagination grounded in our boldness. All this inheres within the scope of our receptivity — and the latter in its own turn in the supple organization of our disposition — but alas, what do all of you really want? —

Admit it — you spoke thus out of dépit [7] — I could appreciate it in you — the feelings of anyone still capable of dépit have not been dulled and can still become a rich source of joy for that person. — She no longer writes — for that reason, she is in the wrong toward you. — By the way, she is doing well, and her labor and birth went fine — truly, each such time constitutes, in the old manner, a time of self-denial with which she should not be reproached. She has little girl whose name is Luise. —

Even though I do have second thoughts about living close to her, she will not lose me as one of her defenders — and even were I to discover that she would not be mine under the same circumstances, still, I must love her. Precisely because I am so enchanted with her, I start thinking about fleeing her. —

In Gotha, people are still prejudiced in my favor, and I can establish a reputation there of the sort that would serve my purposes. Weimar is close by with all sorts of industrious people who could use the work of my head and hands. Write me what you think of it. —

I wish you were in Paris [8] so you could tell me how things look there since the king’s failed attempt to flee, [9] which persons are now leading the people, which fancies itself inspired by freedom, and whether the enraged waves of hateful excess will soon abate. —

If I had space, I would write you about literary things — about Schiller, who “reviewed” Bürger of all human dignity, and about Bürger, who knows how to defend himself only with irony [10] — a weapon that generally misfires in the hands of most writers, since most writers are men, and à plus forte raison [11] in his — and also about Bürger the husband, the shadows of whose blessed deceased wives are now taking revenge in his present, living one [12] — about Schlegel, [13] who is eating and drinking well in Amsterdam and is working as a private tutor — but as you can see, I must close. [14] Stay well.


[1] Königlich Großbritannischer Genealogischer Kalender (1780), Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:


Concerning Meyer’s complicated and extensive itinerary, see Caroline’s letter to Meyer on 14 January 1791 (letter 100) with note 1. Back.

[2] Meyer left Paris on 30 July 1791 and arrived back in Hamburg on 11 September. The profile of Marburg is dominated by the landgrave’s castle, dating from the eleventh century, on the hill above the older part of town, here in a rendering from 1804; Caroline’s house was one in the row of houses in the far left in the picture (Friedrich Christian Reinermann, Blick auf Marburg, 1804, frontispiece to Aloys Henninger, Marburg und seine Umgebungen [Marburg 1856]):


Here a closer view of the “enchanted” castle in 1857 with the cylindrical “witches’ tower” (Philipp Hoffmeister, Ansicht des Marburger Schlosses mit ruinösem Westbau, vom Hainweg aus [1857]; Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg, Slg. 7/b 414 [Reproduktion]; Landesbibliothek und Murhardsche Bibliothek der Stadt Kassel [Original]):



[3] Meyer does not seem to have visited Caroline in Marburg on his way back to Hamburg. Back.

[3a] Caroline’s choices were situated as follows (Rudolf Koch and Fritz Kredel, Deutschland und angrenzende Gebiete [Leipzig 1937]):


Therese and Georg Forster were in Mainz, Luise and Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter and their children in Gotha. Later in this letter Caroline divulges that Weimar seemed to be a locale favorable to her own skills. Back.

[4] Since 2 October 1788, Georg and Therese Forster had been in Mainz, where Georg was now university librarian. Back.

[5] Apparently an allusion to one of the concave mirrors among the bequests to the Göttingen library and observatory by the family of Johann Heinrich Baron von Bülow of Hannover, a bequest that included nine thousand volumes for the library and various instruments associated with mathematics and physics; see Johann Stephan Pütter, Gelehrten-Geschichte, 1:242–43:

Apart from the instruments more strictly associated with astronomy, the observatory (as the place where such might be most conveniently used and, e.g., also shown to strangers) also has a collection of various physical and mathematical instruments deriving largely from Baron von Bülow, who provided the foundation for the university library, and which he likely collected on his journeys . . . Such also includes various simple and more complex microscopes of all sorts, field glasses, camerae obscurae, concave mirrors, etc., which similarly come from the Bülow inventory. Back.

[6] Both Waitz (1871), 1:75, and Schmidt (1913), 1:223, include this bracketed question mark concerning the reading of this verb. The Krakau manuscript seems to confirm their reading. Back.

[7] Fr., “spite, grudge, resentment, vexation.” Back.

[8] Caroline is obviously unaware that Meyer was indeed in Paris. Back.

[9] On 20–25 June 1791, Louis XVI of France, his wife, Marie-Antoinette, and their immediate family tried to flee Paris toward the northeast frontier and the royalist stronghold Montmédy but were recognized and arrested in Varennes. See supplementary appendix 103.1. It is uncertain where Caroline got this information, which seems to have been quickly disseminated. Back.

[10] Schiller’s one-sided and cruel literary “execution” of both the writer and the human being Gottfried August Bürger appeared in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1791) 13 (Saturday, 15 January 1791) 97–104; 14 (Monday, 17 January 1791) 105–10. Bürger responded in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung Intelligenzblatt (1791) 46 (Wednesday, 6 April 1791) 383–87, and with several polemical poems in the Göttinger Musenalmanach (1793). In a letter from Mainz on 5 February 1791 (Georg Forster’s sämmtliche Schriften, ed. his daughter [Therese Forster] and G. G. Gervinus, 9 vols. [Leipzig 1843], vol. 8, Briefwechsel [2], 144), Forster told Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi that Schiller’s review was something “after our own heart.” Friedrich Schlegel would later (13 November 1793) write to Wilhelm (who himself wrote an indignant letter to Bürger concerning Schiller on 11 June 1791 [Strodtmann, 4:122–26]) that he found the review “unspeakably true,” but then “tasteless, and laughable to the point of being pathetic” (Walzel, 139 [incorrectly dated]; KFSA 23:155).

Schiller’s review was critical largely—from the perspective of a more idealized conception of art — of the more personal and emotional character of Bürger’s poetry and of its disposition more as poetry for the people, or folk poetry; Schiller’s review has generally been viewed as his dismissal of the earlier poetry of his own youth.

Concerning Schiller’s objection to Bürger’s poetry and what Caroline is describing as his concomitant attack on Bürger the person, see esp. Ernst Behler, “Lyric Poetry in the Early Romantic Theory of the Schlegel Brothers,” in Romantic Poetry, vol. 7, Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages 17, ed. Angela Esterhammer (Amsterdam, Philadelphia 2002), 118–19:

Poetry is for Schiller the only realm capable of “reuniting the separated forces of the soul, of engaging head and heart, sagacity and wit, reason and imagination in a harmonious union, and reconstituting in us, so to speak, the entire human being . . . What the poet can offer for this task is his “individuality,” and here is where Schiller applied his own premises to Bürger. He reproaches him for considering himself a “folk singer” and making “popularity” his highest law. It is Schiller’s judgment “that the spirit presenting itself in these poems is not a mature, not an accomplished spirit; that his products may lack the finishing touch because this is lacking in himself. . . .

According to Schiller, “one of the first requirements of the poet is idealization,” ennobling, the extraction of the “excellence of the subject,” and the result is that “of an inner ideal of perfection that dwells in the poet’s soul” . . . In his review he is saying: “We miss this art of idealization in Bürger” . . . His poems are “images of this peculiar (and most unpoetic) condition of his soul,” even “sins against good taste,” and his mood of mind is “by no means that salutary, harmonious mood into which we want to be transposed by the poet.” Back.

[11] Fr., “so much the more.” Back.

[12] Schmidt (1913), 1:690, remarks that the “shameful circumstances of Bürger’s third marriage are only too well known from the most intimate documents.” Those documents are found primarily in Strodtmann, 4 (albeit abridged) and esp. Karl Reinhard, Gottfried August Bürger’s Ehestands-Geschichte. Geschichte der dritten Ehe Gottfried August Bürger’s. Eine Sammlung von Acten-Stücken (Berlin, Leipzig 1812), the latter an admittedly sordid and detailed account that also draws from Bürger’s letters.

Concerning Elise Bürger’s relationship with Philipp Michaelis and Caroline’s younger sisters, Lotte and Luise, see Caroline’s letter to Philipp Michaelis on 22 June 1791 (letter 102) with supplementary appendix 102.1. Concerning Gottfried August Bürger’s complaints about his wife’s failure as a wife and mother, see Caroline’s letter to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer on 6 December 1791 (letter 111). Back.

[13] Wilhelm Schlegel would work in Amsterdam from 1791 till the summer of 1795 as the tutor to the son of Henry Muilman; Caroline would not meet Friedrich Schlegel until 2 August 1793. Back.

[14] Caroline was at the bottom of the eighth full page of this letter. Back.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott