Letter 111

• 111. Caroline to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer in Hamburg: Göttingen, 6 December 1791

Göttingen, 6 December [17]91

|241| It was ill-considered of me, my dear Meyer, to give Herr von Launay this letter, and to give him one for you in any case; but — I am hopeful of committing similarly ill-considered mistakes in my 80th year should I not be so fortunate as to die before my 40th. — I cannot in the least deny that the tone of your letter is a bit sullen — but it is certainly not my intention to convert you. I am well aware one does not do such things in letters — I will take your example merely as an instructive warning. Could I see you — well — my cheerfulness would not make you euphoric — one might hope to get something from it.

But do tell me, is such |242| not at all possible before I go to where you will not be coming? — This time, that place is neither heaven nor hell, but Mainz, a place where human beings are living and thus something in between the two. I am daring to take this step with settled confidence, for I confess I do indeed have a slight inclination to engage in projects that have the appearance of a task, and even were I not to accomplish much, even were I not to contribute anything special toward moving forward, I would probably nonetheless bring things to a modest standstill and would myself remain completely unchanged. Perhaps I will be of some use to Therese, [1] something that would please me greatly, since I know with absolute certainty that I will only be performing noble service for her, and the independence that has become a necessity for me — as an accoutrement of utility rather than of luxury — cannot suffer under such an arrangement.

Her health is suffering, that much is only too true — Forster is unbearable — something that is no less true. They lost their youngest child to inoculated smallpox. — In the meantime, F[orster] is seeing to it that there will be a replacement, which is ten times more distasteful — and if you do not consider that to be torment, if you are able to condone F[orster], who must realize he does not possess his wife’s heart, [2] — well, then you are being unjust — just like all men.

But why am I arguing with you about this? — is it not a matter of indifference what you believe as long as your own heart is comfortable in this regard? Nor do I even have reason to conceal from you that I took from your faith what was serviceable to my own, and that the final idol, which I did not voluntarily select for myself in this regard, has been toppled. I have never counted on her friendship — there is none among women — and I myself doubt she is genuinely, sincerely fond of me — but she must respect me, and that accomplishes the same thing — I am a kind of rival who does not assert my own claims — which is something salutary — and I love her because I find her to be a remarkable person and because she will remain so |243| even should she no longer be quite so novel to me.

Moreover, Mainz is a city where I can live anonymously and where in addition to a certain element of solitude can also enjoy pleasures of both the intellect and the senses. I have an insufferable number of connections in Gotha that would rob me of too much time, and have my dear ones there not shown that they have a poor enough understanding of my happiness to likely hinder me in the lifestyle that is so necessary for me? [3]

In this regard I can render to you an account quite equal to that concerning the man of God! I will be glad to do so because I do not want to become a stranger to you.

It may be that we will forever remain separated, and that the blossom of benevolent trust will never bear fruit; but I still cherish it — every pleasant moment is valuable to me — indeed, happiness consists only in moments — I became happy when I realized that. Hence even were I to see you for only a short time — how gladly would I do so! Is there no way? Will you not be coming to this loathsome place — will you not be passing through any place that might lie along the path of my own journey? [4] Were the efforts made on your behalf to succeed — would it not be expedient? [5]

I am basically aware of where things would go then, and I hope even more ardently than do you that it may succeed. It is a matter of indifference to you because you can do without it — it would be less so when you possess it. Here, too, talking does not help — but believe me, my dear Meyer — the time till a decision is made will last as long for me as it will be irksome for you. I would have had an attentive interest in it even had we not gotten to know each other better than we did 8 years ago [6] — and I will continue to do so even should I hear nothing from you for a long time. If that surprises you, then I would certainly ask where the laws are written down giving you that right. —

I will not be leaving |244| Göttingen yet this year, indeed presumably not until February of the coming year, as much as I loathe being here — which really means: as much as I loathe being in this particular house — but my mother believes I can be of some use to my sisters — and as long as I can do so without disadvantage to my little one and myself, I would like to honor her belief.

Lotte’s fate has reached a crisis in which I was genuinely able to do something — now may heaven grant a favorable outcome, though my own vision cannot see beyond that, regardless of how things may or may not go. [7] The consequences of an improper upbringing are sadly visible now — all her earlier predispositions now manifest themselves only in distortions — what little understanding or good sense she has gained is really only self-love and foolishness, and her lack of prejudice has become — mere languor. —

A closer relationship with a certain Madam Bürger has once again proven to be extremely disadvantageous for both girls! “Frau Frightful” indeed! [8] You know people, and you prophesized correctly! She is a small, dainty creature with a charming face and a gift for gab — sentimental when necessary, an intrigant to the highest degree — and the most vacuous coquettishness — concerned not so much with securing a lover — though there, too, she goes as far as one can — as securing a swarm of undistinguished admirers with whom she contaminates all her time and in the process essentially loses her head.

I am very sorry for Bürger — a reasonable woman, appropriate to his age, might still have turned him into a respectable man — whereas now his household is threatened with complete ruin because she does not take care of anything — not even her own child — little Agathon, who, now that people are no longer distracted by the name, has been forgotten by the entire world and even by his mother. Not even the faintest glimmer of maternal feeling is in her! [9]

So you see, Meyer — that is why women must not have lovers, |245| since they then too easily neglect their children and household. I could tell you anecdotes in this regard that have brought tears to my eyes — it stirs my innermost indignation when a woman is so little a woman that she forgets her own child, and were I a man, I would certainly not want to take such a woman in my arms.

Bürger senses everything and simply cannot help himself — Tatter’s remark to me was, “Is it really that difficult to be a man next to you women?” — Really, Bürger becomes quite vacant and dull next to her — silent — staring with numb eyes at the creature before him.

He recently lamented bitterly to me that he simply no longer had any spirit at all — please come and waken him again — you are certainly safe from her net — no man with any sense has yet been caught in it. Ah, but then one might excuse it — for it goes without saying that I am not judging thus simply out of intolerance. My own cloak of love is as broad as is a person’s heart and sensibility for the beautiful.

But do tell me what letter I allegedly wrote that was not addressed to you and that you nonetheless read and that alluded to you and then also to “the charming woman” (my greetings to the ladies in Gotha are always addressed to the “imposing” one, the “charming” one, and the “good” one). Although I remember nothing of the sort, I must hear about it because I really would like to quit practicing “false acumen.”

Amalie is quite likeable [10] — we are what we appear to be to a man — although I found her pleasing, I know little about her otherwise — one must first live a while with such people before one can enjoy being around them. I told Wilhelmine about a passage from the play Juliane in Schiller’s Thalia [11] — about which I would be interested in hearing your opinion. — “Give love to this flower, and just as today she takes pleasure in my joy in her splendor, so also tomorrow will she herself rejoice in the blossoms of her neighbor.” [12]

Love! It |246| need not be love for this or that specific man. To be sure, my dear Meyer, do not think that I deny such love — I do not suffer from that particular fear — for were my own feelings less free than they are — I might well possess the jealousy to conceal it had I reason to fear desecrating it — but I did not want to conceal anything from you — I just did not relate it — and with that, farewell.

Launay wrote me a letter about the theater; might you not also do that? [12a]

8 December

Against my best intentions, this letter remained unsent for yet another postal day, and thus I still have the opportunity to request, first, that you say nothing to Launay, for example, in conversation, about my assessment of Madam Bürger — car il est un des amateurs [13] — and, second, — might you provide either to me or to one of your friends with whom I, too, am acquainted, such as Gotter or Bürger, an explication of “Der letzte Seufzer des Opfers ihrer Kunst” — for though I firmly maintain that the last lines are alluding to the Trinity — it nonetheless seems to me that the commentary might not really be suitable for the eyes of a demure young woman [14] — and they are also in the dark with regard to it. I do understand another of your poems quite well — He who cannot do what he wants — and like it very much. [15] But what do you think in general about the [17]92 [Göttinger Musen] Allmanach? [16]


[1] Therese and Georg Forster had been living in Mainz since October 1788, ca. 200 km southwest of Göttingen (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795]):



[2] Therese Forster speaks about this “torment” in her letter to Caroline on 25 February 1794 (letter 142). Back.

[3] An allusion to Friedrich Wilhelm and Luise Gotter’s (from Caroline’s perspective: ill-considered) attempts to facilitate a marriage between Caroline and Josias Friedrich Löffler (see letters 105–10 excepting 107a and 108a). Back.

[4] Meyer, currently in Hamburg, seems next to have gone to Berlin, ca. 250 km to the southeast. He and Caroline would not see each other again until sometime between 16 and 22 October 1793 in Lucka, and then never again (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795]):



[5] Possibly but not necessarily a reference to Caroline’s plans to help Meyer secure the position as tutor to the crown prince of Kassel, the later Wilhelm II, who was studying in Marburg; see Caroline’s letter to Meyer on 24 October 1789 (letter 92). Back.

[6] A puzzling reference. Meyer studied in Göttingen 1775–79, moving then to St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Vienna before accepting a position in Stade in 1783 (on the Schinge River, approx. 45 km west of Hamburg), which would presumably be the year in question. Meyer did not return to Göttingen until 1785, when Christian Gottlob Heyne secured him a position in the Göttingen university library. Meyer remained there until 1788. Back.

[7] The reference is to Lotte Michaelis’s relationship with Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Dieterich, which his father trenchantly opposed. See Caroline’s letter to Philipp Michaelis on 22 June 1791 (letter 102), note 1. Back.

[8] “Frau Frightful” (Frau Menschenschreck) is the signature (viz. Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer’s pseudonym) beneath the jesting poem “Die Warnung. An Bürger” (“Warning: to Bürger”) in the Göttinger Musenalmanach (1791), 116, following the fateful verses of the “Swabian maid,” Elise Hahn, and Gottfried August Bürger’s own response. Meyer sent it from Rome on 1 May 1790 after reading Elise Hahn’s original laudatory poem to Bürger in Marianne Ehrmann’s husband’s weekly Der Beobachter 8/9 (1789), no. 20, ed. Theophil Friedrich Ehrmann (1788–89), a poem ending essentially with a proposal of marriage, urging Bürger to take a “Swabian girl” as a bride, to wit: Elise herself, should he ever set about to court a lady again after the death of his second wife. Elise’s first and final two stanzas read as follows:

O Bürger, Bürger, noble man,
Singing lieder as no one can,
Full of spirit, passion higher!
Hither! help the praise depart
That surges from within my heart,
By loaning me your own sweet lyre!

. . .

A thousand wooers, rich and bold 
Might offer heavy bags of gold,
Yet should Herr Bürger then appear,
To him would I then give my hand
And trade e'en my own fatherland,
For Bürger, Bürger, you my dear!

If wooing be what you decide,
A Swabian maid should be your bride,
Let me be the choice for you!
With Swabian sincerity
And German sense and honesty,
I, the one who loves you true,

am the Authoress

Bürger responded with two poems of his own, and Meyer in turn responded with a warning in a letter to Bürger from Rome on 1 May 1790 (Strodtmann, 4:52–53). Bürger then had all four pieces and his response published in the Göttinger Musenalmanach (1791), 108–17, signing Meyer’s “Frau Frightful.” Meyer’s poem went as follows (with a portion of the referenced frontispiece to Bürger’s Gedichte [Göttingen 1778]; reprod. Herzog August Bibliothek, Chodowiecki Sammlung [2-103]):

A Warning: To Bürger

In Swabia a girl at twenty years of age
Is inexperienced, and certainly no sage,
Loving and courting quite sight unseen.
The future spouse is quickly found,
More quickly still runs her love aground,
How indeed can it endure?

Has not Chodowiecki you portrayed,
With harp and song,
A philistine for all the world to see?
Your head with the adornments of Bürgermeisters,
Your nightgown the mockery of beaux esprits:
Thus does the world now long know you.


And yet would this young lady from Swabia
Take you as her first spouse?
Oh, Bürger, listen closely to my words:
This young lady from Swabia does intend,
To quickly bury that first spouse,
Hence on you does her choice now fall.

From within clouds that do oft conceal me
I now emerge to cover my friend,
Bringing severe mien and words to bear:
Severe out of respect for you,
Hence lend your half-beguiled ear
To my well-meant advice.

Odysseus himself could scarce withstand
The siren's song, a song yet strengthened
By her beauty's mere sight.
Should you wish to save your own neck,
Half-ensnared, from these fetters of roses,
Then never see her, ever, ever.

Bürger’s answer, “Antwort: An Frau Menschenschreck,” followed on pages 118–19, beginning “In Swabia a girl of twenty / Has often already had experience a-plenty etc.” Bürger married Elise, and the marriage quickly took a disastrous turn because of Elise’s serial love affairs in Göttingen. Concerning Elise Bürger’s relationship with the Michaelis family, and specifically with Philipp Michaelis, see supplementary appendix 102.1. Back.

[9] Representative period illustrations of neglectful or resentful mothers ([1] Frauenzimmer Almanach zum Nutzen u Vergnügen für das Jahr 1793; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung; [2] Göttinger Taschen Calender Für das Iahr 1798; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):



Bürger writes to his wife, Elise, on 29 November 1791 (i.e., barely a week before Caroline’s letter here); after enumerating a litany of complaints about her failure as a housewife in the larger sense, he continues (Strodtmann, 4:157):

As poorly as you play the role of housewife according to the general and — unfortunately — quite justified opinion of everyone in town, just as poorly do you, second — and similarly according to the opinion of everyone in town — play the role of mother.

Alas! I once so ardently longed for the time when you might have a child in your lap.

(Taschenbuch für das Jahr 1813: Der Liebe und Freundschaft gewidmet; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):


Fool that I am, I thought that at least a child, if nothing else, might prompt a careless and thoughtless if otherwise well dispositioned mother — as I thought you to be — to lose her taste for at least some frivolities and come to prefer instead quiet, reasonable domesticity.

But how I deceived myself! With profoundly, profoundly, profoundly gnawing grief I now find that you almost completely lack any genuine, authentic maternal instincts. You offer nothing, absolutely nothing to our poor, utterly neglected Agathon apart from that particular type of miserable, elegant female manner of the degenerate world that at most from time to time deigns to dally with the child for a few paltry minutes, while otherwise being utterly incapable of countenancing even the least inconvenience for his sake.

Great God! what sacrifices have I so often seen other mothers make for their children, mothers who love convenience and amusement certainly as much as you do! This child, however, is not allowed to cause you even the least trouble, nor, certainly, to disrupt in the least your hundreds of frivolities.

And for precisely that reason this child, who was born healthy and strong from a fit and healthy mother, has now, 4 months later, become a lamentable weakling and the object of universal sympathy or mockery. Even good, decent people, people otherwise quite inclined to forgive you all your other foolishness, can nonetheless not forgive you for having sacrificed your first, indeed your only child to such unprecedented vanity, to your excessive predilection for wildly rapturous and noisy amusements. A child who, had he but been nursed solely by the milk of a healthy and strong mother, would certainly have been able to flourish —

(Taschenkalender auf das Jahr 1798 für Damen; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):


This child, mere weeks after his birth, was forced to accommodate himself to mush merely so that his voluptuous mother might get rid of him as soon as possible and might frolic around all the more freely in the arena of wild amusements.

That your milk dried up prematurely amid all this certainly comes as no surprise, for just as milk flows more freely the more often a child is taken to the breast, so also must it dry up all the more quickly the less frequently the child is so nursed.

Bah! why did you not tell me earlier that you could not sacrifice even a single miserable waltz for the sake of your own child? I would have insisted, with force if necessary, on securing a wet nurse that I might have a healthy, well-nourished child, instead of having the mere sight of this wretched worm tear my heart apart. For either the child will die prematurely — something I am almost inclined to entreat God for in any case — or will grow up to be a perpetually ailing, sickly adult [ed. note: both were the case; Agathon was thought by some to be mentally impaired, and died in 1813 in Dresden; after Elise left Göttingen, Bürger seems never to have seen his son again]. Back.

[10] Amalie Reichard, Therese Forster’s comely girlfriend, was initially on rather cool, then clearly hostile terms with Caroline. See her letter to Meyer on 13 December 1791 (cited in Waitz [1871], 1:87n1; not in Elise Campe, Erinnerungen): “Everything I write you, my dear friend, is admittedly for your eyes only; Madam Böhmer should not be permitted to read even a single word of what I wrote you about Therese.” Back.

[11] Ludwig Ferdinand Huber, Juliane. Ein Lustspiel, published in Schiller’s periodical Thalia 3, no. 9 (1790), 110–42, continued in no. 12 (1791), 78–97, “by the author of Das heimliche Gericht. Eine dramatisirte Geschichte,” the latter a tragedy by Huber that first appeared in Thalia 2, no. 5 (1788), 1–66, continued in no. 6 (1789), 72–83 and no. 9 (1790), 3–40.

Wilhelm Schlegel praised it in his overall review of Thalia in the Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen (1790) no. 165 (reprinted in Sämmtliche Werke 10:34): “Juliane, ein Lustspiel. First act. A very promising beginning distinguished by adroit dialogue, by the manners deriving from the social tone of the more refined world, and by a very skillful exposition of the action.” Wilhelm was less favorably inclined toward Das heimliche Gericht; see Caroline’s letter to Johann Diederich Gries on 27 December 1799 (letter 258), note 13. Back.

[12] This passage (Caroline alters it slightly from the original) is from act 3, scene 12 of Huber’s Juliane, ein Lustspiel, in Thalia 3, no. 12 (1791), 96. The play involves a count who is in love with one woman but is persuaded to marry another, whom he does not love. The word “love” plays a conspicuous role in the dialogue, e.g., act 3, scene 10:

Juliane (to her cousin, Lucie). Am I not always satisfied when my child [Luise] is with you? Love, everywhere the child turns: love! And then your love as well, which is so different from mine . . .

Luise. And do not forget his love, which is also quite different . . .

A court intrigant tries to sow discord through insinuation concerning the count and a certain “Juliane” at an assembly, but is put in his place, as it were, by the count’s determined wife. The count comes to tell Juliane, his earlier lover, of his newfound love for his wife, and in a sketchy scene with subtle allusions and intimations not entirely clear to the reader, Juliane seems to vacillate. The scene ends with Juliane’s apparent metaphor concerning a neighbor to whom she has decided to give a rose bush (an embroidered rose also plays a role earlier in the scene with Juliane’s daughter, Luise):

Juliane (to the count): Ah, help me choose! Tomorrow is her [Lotte’s, the neighbor’s] name day, and I want to send her a rose bush; and I have already stood before these two here and for the life of me cannot decide which to send her. I would like to keep one for myself . . .

The count: Well — and naturally you will not keep the most beautiful one for yourself, and that would be this one here.

Juliane: Indeed — I must have been blind. The splendid flower basket seduced me — but when this bush is in full bloom the day after tomorrow, the other will already have wilted. Lotte is to have this one! — Oh, my friend! Give love to this flower, and just as today she takes pleasure in our joy in its own splendor, so also tomorrow will it rejoice, wilting, in the blossoms of its neighbor. — You want to say something. I am culpable, but do not punish me, and remember our agreement. I was a woman, a woman in love, but human happiness must be weighed by something other than pictures and flowers. — But go now. Your time is up. Go, quickly — and keep your word [not to say anything to his wife about her].

The count. I will keep my word, Juliane, for its own sake. And you, too, must keep your word; we will talk again, and — you will change nothing! (Exit.) Back.

[12a] See the description of the later theater in Hamburg as Caroline herself would experience it. Back.

[13] Fr., “for he is one of her devotees (i.e., lovers).” Concerning Auguste de Launay de Tilliers and Elise Bürger, see Caroline’s undated letter to Lotte Michaelis in 1789 (letter 94) with note 16. Back.

[14] Concerning the expression “demure young woman” (Germ. Frauenzimmer), here approximately in the sense of a “refined woman,” see the editorial note to Friedrich Schlegel’s letter to Wilhelm Schlegel on 6 March 1798 (letter 198). Back.

[15] Among Meyer’s poems here, the first (whose title Caroline cites slightly altered), “Letzte Seufzer eines Opfers ihrer Kunst,” appeared in the Göttinger Musenalmanach (1792), 202–4 (reprinted in Meyer’s Spiele des Witzes und der Phantasie [Berlin 1793], 103–5 [volume frontispiece below]; here in an approximate prose rendering):


Final Sighs of a Victim of Their Art

Woe! What ardent fervor
Enflames my rising blood?
Am I by murderous arrow struck?
Have I partaken of poison strong?
Ah! too true, too true:
'Tis art that has taken me hither.
Merit of Poussin and Claude:
'Tis you that guides me to early death,
Nor hastens to my aid any savior strong
Who might restore me to life!
The ancients will yet claim victory,
So here I lie, even at death's door.
A girl of talent am I,
Accepted even by artists themselves,
Who their assistance did not deny
In my quest to be their equal;
Virtue alone did frown
On such devils' Antiquarius;
For thus do I call him, though he himself
prefers "Tibers' Antiquarius."
"How is it," pondered he, "that your ancients
Be so utterly and completely belittled?
That a genius of modern times
Devotes himself to landscape painting,
Preferring to study nature
Than to copy bas-reliefs?
The results betray the consequences:
Houses are large, people small;
Paint a single moment,
Not beginning, middle, end all at once;
No learned eye beholds a hero in multiples
On the same canvas;
People topsy-turvy one over the other,
Where does such sober world find its construct?
Ah, you art of Apelles: how low have you sunk!
Now even using shameful bird's-eye view."
Thus did he speak, and his soul's peace
Did the Furies tear asunder;
Thirsting for revenge, he did suddenly perceive
My stringed song.
Music, for him earth's plague,
Does he avoid, renouncing even happiness thus:
What he saw, and now heard,
Seemed doubly worthy of death.
Thus did the severe malevolent 
Secretly mix patina with water,
Which drink I did accept from his hand —
May his thanks come from hell itself!
But I will not sigh, nor lament,
And instead, despite my adversaries, insist
On what my final intimation prophesies
For all that follows:
May an elderly sage of paradise itself
Teach me to venerate art even more;
For me does a lamb bear parchment;
And a dove bear feathered quills;
The Antiquarius shall be forced, as punishment,
To bring me the soot of hell for beasts;
And should things stand as I do believe,
Paintbrushes will be found in that world as well.

The second (Caroline cites its opening line rather than its title) is “Zuruf Leonardo’s da Vinci,” Göttinger Musenalmanach (1792) 163 (reprinted in Spiele des Witzes und der Phantasie [Berlin 1793], 132–33; approximate rendering here):

Leonardo da Vinci's Encouragement

Let he who cannot do what he wants, instead want what he can do!
A fool will labor for the goal denied;
And yet does the wise man dissuade us
From withdrawing our will entirely from impossibility.

Both life's torment and its happinenss
Depend on our awareness of complying with the will:
May reason teach you to comply with duty,
Directing your steadfast gaze to both,
Sweetness is too easily turned to bitterness,
And often do we blush at naming the price of battle.

You, who hear my words with fresh energy,
Should personal peace and external love be denied,
May you always desire to do only what you ought!

The allusion here (“ought”) is to an apocryphal story about Leonardo da Vinci in Giorgio Vasari’s Le Vite delle più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (1550); see Caroline’s letter to Wilhelm Schlegel on 19 July 1801 (letter 326), esp. note 9, concerning Wilhelm’s own take on this story in his “Leonardo da Vinci. Romanze,” Gedichte (Tübingen 1800). Back.

[16] Meyer published eleven poems in that volume. The presence of a poem by Friedrich Bouterwek under the pseudonym “Bajocco Romano,” namely, “An Kleobulides,” on p. 164 of this same volume of the Göttinger Musenalmanach (1792) (and five additional poems as well), i.e., on the page following the poem Caroline just mentions (“Zuruf Leonardo’s da Vinci”), may have misled Caroline into mistaking Meyer for Bajocco Romano in the next volume (1793) of the Musenalmanach. See her indignant letter to Meyer on 22 September 1792 (letter 115). Back.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott