Letter 243e

243e. Wilhelm Schlegel to Elisabeth Wilhelmine van Nuys in Braunschweig: Jena, 13 September 1799 [*]

[Jena] 13 September [1799]

May these pages provide a pleasant moment for you by greeting you immediately upon your arrival in Braunschweig. [1]

Above all, I would like to hear that you were well and cheerful during your journey, and that you found ample stimulating distraction — though it be also my wish that the latter was also admixed with some modest reflection.

I myself accompanied you in thought all the way to Dessau, which you presumably left today; unfortunately I am unfamiliar with the route past there. Although I immediately, and intentionally, threw myself into my work, such was not initially successful, and on my solitary walks now I am quite unlikely to reclaim my former, more collected presence of mind any time soon, and will instead have to allow my imagination free rein to engage in sundry daydreams and reverie. [1a]

It was a divine inspiration that you had my sister give you a letter to pass along to us. [1b] How did you come upon the idea? For surely my name did not prompt you to think any further. —

And yet the idea of returning by way of Jena was no less impressive an inspiration. Do you still remember whose idea that was? We should certainly be grateful to that person. —

The second stay was considerably more enjoyable than the first, when I still had to struggle a bit with your uneasiness, as if I might misinterpret you. It was not until this outer covering, too, had been removed that I could recognize your sensitive personality in its true and complete breadth. You see, precisely that is one of the many ways the approach of two hearts rewards itself, namely, by revealing and awakening so much hidden charm and amiability. That which strangers admire in a person, or that which pleases strangers, is usually something merely external and accidental.

This evening, it will have been 14 days since I first saw you. [2] The delicate sentiment you so gently prompted in me that last morning, when a sudden bit of pain seized you and you broke down in tears, [3] — that pure, inner, sympathetic concern has now become the dominant feeling for me, and I flatter myself that you yourself are convinced that no other you might have evoked can ever come into conflict with it.

I so desire to know more of the details about your situation and your fate, and it seems I could sit quite calmly next to you just now, listening, without ever interrupting you. And though such might prove to be a deceptive notion because of the power of your presence, I do nonetheless know that my friendship accompanies you as you move off into the distance, and that it can never grow cold. It will always unsettle me should I not be permitted to think you happy, — and yet even the price of such pain can never remotely approximate the value of the sweetness, the heavenly sweetness, of being together with you those few days.

I still have certain cordial quarrels to navigate on account of these past few days. Regardless of the tact I take, a certain person is simply too smart [4] — namely, from precisely the perspective with which I must be concerned, [5] — not to see through it all. I really am quite sorry you did not become that well acquainted with Caroline, — it was doubtless in part intentional, and in part an unconscious sentiment that prompted her sooner to avoid you. [6] Certainly, you cannot think too highly of her mind and character.

At the same time, our alliance is of a peculiar sort. [7] Nonetheless, everything I told you that last morning is exactly true, that is, concerning the danger to my peace and quiet; our arrangements really are that peculiar. If, however, such incomprehensible surprise is merely a beautiful secret, one must probably go ahead and simply accept it.

If in Braunschweig you should become personally acquainted with the addressee on the package you took along, you will no doubt be astonished at the dissimilarity between the two sisters. The one is quite good-natured, but niaise, [8] lacking both grace and cultivation.

You will likely not so soon be receiving back the pages you left behind, or at least not find them there immediately when you arrive — but surely this letter can act as a replacement, can it not? I have reflected at considerable length about composing a poem on our relationship, something you alone would be able to understand and that would otherwise be quite mysterious; — but I have not yet been quite successful in doing so without eliminating the more personal elements that I really would like to express. [9]

The poem “Heliodora” now makes me think of you; it was composed shortly before we made each other’s acquaintance, and I must have had a presentiment that something quite fortunate was imminent for me. The name seemed to suit you, — such a serene, radiant appearance, and then with respect to me the element of the unexpected that descends as if from heaven. As an aside I then also alluded to the place where, in so wondrous a fashion, all those beautiful moments took place. [10] And have you already forgotten the sun, the accursed Sun into which the sun never shines? I never pass by without cordially greeting you. [11]

I honestly was being quite ingenuous when I asked how you came to seek us out so kindly in the first place. I do realize you were familiar with various dispersed poems I have published, and had read the translation of Shakespeare, [12] but both could have pleased you without necessarily prompting any particular wish for a personal acquaintance. [13]

Things stand differently with men of long-established and widespread fame. In such cases, simple curiosity alone can suffice, even if one does not really either love or admire their work. Thus I myself was similarly curious to speak with the elderly Wieland when I arrived here, even though I thought no better of him then than now. [14]

My own fame is still very young indeed, and by far not what my own plans would have it become if I but maintain both strength and vitality. I know the value of my own mind very well, — yet it is for precisely that reason that I think so poorly of what I have accomplished to this point. Circumstances thwarted me for most of my youth, — and I do not want to lose the years of manhood thus as well. I am currently going through a phase of constantly increasing activity in which I do hope nothing will disturb me, since I am quite determined to be cautious concerning my independence. —

If you are interested in reading something I have done, my dear Elisa, I will be delighted to provide you with materials as often as you wish, and indeed I will cherish the thought that I might be contributing to the entertainment of your more solitary hours.

It is quite natural that with your gentler view of things, you cannot but find part of my literary profession repugnant, namely, that involving the conduct of literary wars; but I am convinced that could I but initiate you into all the details of the literary landscape, you would concede that I am completely in the right. I am simply disinclined to occupy you with stories of pathetic individuals and literary tracasseries and misères. [15] Since you have found my company to be free of both arrogance and vanity, please do believe me when I say these characteristics play no part when I publish caustic and sarcastic opinions either.

As it is, I have chosen to become engaged in criticism, and yet without the most severe and incisive opinions and judgments, criticism itself is nothing, really nothing at all. When one must deal with mindless writing and people, mockery and derision remain the only effective weapons; when one seriously gets down to work, one always runs the risk of falling into the same mindlessness. Heaven protect us from ever trying to improve such people themselves; such would merely be to bleach Moors.

One can, however, perhaps hope to enlighten their previous reading public concerning them, and to counter detrimental authorities. Believe me, we are not making enemies for ourselves, we already have them, — the enemies of any and all progress hate us because we are such a considerable distance ahead of them, and because what they have already done is being destroyed by what we are doing. If they could at all repress us, how gladly would they do so.

Imagine that the entirety of German literature is caught up in a revolution, and that we, my brother, Tieck, Schelling, and several others, together constitute the Montagnards. [16] We need not be ashamed in this regard, since the leaders, though they may well appear not to be taking sides, are, after all, Goethe and Fichte. If one is capable of idolizing something as unconditionally as I do these men, one must also be capable of disdaining with equal determination, and I myself genuinely do so. It seems to me that, even in a general sense, a man must be of a bellicose disposition regardless of the profession he pursues, and those who do not have a whole plethora of enemies I cannot really consider to be proper men at all.

But enough, indeed, more than enough of such things. While those we have attacked are trying to mobilize the world against us, and while especially those in Weimar would like to retreat behind the special protection of the duke, I myself have long forgotten the exchange of rockets and such and am now composing my poetry amid the most serene disposition. [17] That particular occupation provides the salutary benefit of being able to forget the petty activities of such subaltern people, which is why I will be trying to devote myself to it with increasing exclusivity. [18]

Goethe, — if I may turn to a more pleasant topic, — is here now [19] and immediately inquired after you at his very first visit and with considerable interest. I spent each morning for an entire week with him; [20] he is publishing his more recent poems [ . . . ] [21]

You can easily see that I cannot push it too zealously. Then I am also not at all sure what exactly I ought to write in it. [22] I am rather disinclined toward anything indifferent and general, so I must find something that will satisfy me at least to a certain extent but also be presentable. I wanted to enter the moral proverb of the golden age: S’ei piace, ei lice. But the golden age is not valid, or acknowledged, hence: non lice, benchè piaccia. [23]

Please do recall the poem “Heliodora” and allow it to speak for me. It will tell you everything I dare not entrust to this paper. And do you know what “Heliodora” means? It is a Greek name meaning gift of the sun. Indeed, beautiful and salutary gifts must come from the sun, — and some even believe that the sun is also the seat of the blessed.

Let me urgently entreat you once more to answer my request for a special letter. Please also send along your direct address, since the indirect route always makes me anxious.

Could we but hear from you quite soon!

Our guests will be leaving us the day after tomorrow, and because our Auguste will be accompanying them to Dessau for several weeks, things will become very quiet indeed here in our house; [24] I myself will have ample leisure, together with my brother and Schelling, to engage in philosophizing or derision depending on the demands of the moment. [25] My refuge is my work. Life must indeed provide very quiet times indeed before such moments can arise or indeed even be possible.

On the paper in which I am keeping the inconspicuous but dear memento, I have written the following line from my Shakespeare: And thereby hangs a tale. [26]

I am including in these paltry pages a thousand times over what I cannot include in them. Stay well, dearest, loveliest Elisa, and may you be happy. To be such, however, surely you need not change your feelings toward me, or forget me?

Adieu! adieu! Good night, if you receive this letter in the evening; good morning, if it is brought to you early.


[*] Sources: Excerpts in Rudolph Schleiden, Jugenderinnerungen eines Schleswig-Holsteiners, vol. 1 (Wiesbaden 1886), 13–15; complete in Josef Körner, “Carolines Rivalin,” Preussische Jahrbücher 198 (1924) October, 27–52, here 30–35. — In this letter, Wilhelm refers to his addressee as “Elisa” rather than “Minna,” as later when they meet in Vienna; see the background information in her biogram. Back.

[1] Representative illustrations (in order): (1) Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Schnell und ungleich ist die Fahrt, die uns durch das Leben träget (1778) (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki AB 3.252); (2) Königl. Großbrit. Genealogischer Kalender auf das 1786 Jahr (Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):



Wilhelm mentions in his letter to Goethe on 1 September 1799 (letter 243d) that Elisa van Nuys was traveling to Weimar from Dresden by way of Jena (“Le coche de voyage du dix-huitiéme siécle,” in anonymous, “La locomotion terrestre: Les ancients coutures de voyage,” La nature: Revue des sciences etc. 16 [1888], premier semestre, no. 768 [18 February 1888], 177–79, here 177):


Concerning the locales mentioned in this letter relating to her itinerary, see the following map (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795]):


Wilhelm was familiar with the route between Jena and Dessau from his and Caroline’s visits to the Tischbein family (see supplementary appendix 181c.1), also from his (Wilhelm’s) trip to Berlin during the spring of 1798. Back.

[1a] Representative illustration: Gottlieb Böttger d.Ä, Mann auf Hügel (1805) (Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. A1: 238):



[1b] Concerning the house of Wilhelm’s sister, Charlotte Ernst, and her husband in Dresden, see Friedrich Laun, Memoiren, vol. 2 (Bunzlau 1837), 3 (illustration: Goethe’s Works, vol. 4, trans. G. Barrie [New York 1885], 300):


Among the many bourgeois families that offered a welcome refuge for conviviality and respectable mirth in Dresden, the Ernst house stood at the very top of the list. Its head, Hofsekretär Ernst, a zealous aficionado of both learning and art, was always extremely attentive to his guests’ entertainment. His intelligent wife, the sister of the Schlegel brothers, also most exemplary as a hostess, supported him with energy and vigor. Back.

[2] Wilhelm is writing on Friday; he made Elisa van Nuys’s acquaintance on Saturday evening, 31 August 1799. Back.

[3] Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Heyrath aus Hochmuth (1788) (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki AB 3.767):


The departure scene with tears is possibly (see below) reflected in the initial stanza of Wilhelm’s poem “Die Stunde vor dem Abschied.”

See also Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki’s evocation of a similar scene — one frequently occuring in dramatic pieces of the period, whence the expression weinerliches Lustspiel, “comedy of weeping,” coined by Lessing after the French expression comédie larmoyante, in which comic elements recede in favor of sentimentality — in one of his illustrations to Schiller’s Die Räuber (Aber dis Bild rechter Hand? Du weinst, Amalia? [1783]; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki AB 3.543):



[4] The reference is to Caroline (Königl. Gros-Britt.Genealogischer Kalender auf das Jahr 1784; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):



[5] From the perspective of an incipient romantic relationship (Göttinger Taschen Calender vom Jahr 1790; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[6] It is not insignificant that Caroline was disinclined to spend time with Elisa van Nuys even from the outset, not least because, as clearly demonstrated in this letter, Wilhelm was in his own turn from the outset romantically smitten by their guest (Goettinger Taschen Kalender vom Jahr 1790; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:


Elisa van Nuys, moreover, and as Josef Körner points out, was universally acknowledged as a beautiful woman, and was both intelligent and younger than Caroline. Concerning her background and her relationship with Wilhelm and Caroline, see Josef Körner’s article “Carolinens Rivalin,” translated on this site as Caroline’s Rival. She reappears later in the couple’s lives in Braunschweig during the fall and winter of 1800/1801, and in Caroline’s letters later in volume 2. Back.

[7] This paragraph makes Wilhelm’s romantic interest in Elisa van Nuys clear and similarly attests the nature of his marriage to Caroline.

Caroline, in a letter to Julie Gotter on 18 February 1803 (letter 375), i.e., shortly before her divorce from Wilhelm was granted in Weimar (May 1803), refers to her marriage with Wilhelm as “an alliance which the two of us otherwise never viewed as being anything but completely free.” Josef Körner, discussing this aspect of their marriage, describes it as “a marriage in which one could give notice at any time, as it were.” See the supplementary appendix Caroline’s Rival: Minna van Nuys, p. 28. Back.

[8] Fr., “silly, simple, foolish.” Back.

[9] Josef Körner (32n16) suggests that Wilhelm Schlegel might have addressed the following poems to Elise van Nuys: the two love poems “Derselben” (“Bange nicht der Thränen willen”) and “Lied” (“Eine holde süsse Kranke”) (Sämmtliche Werke 1:30, 31–32); “Die Stunde vor dem Abschied” (“Aus deinen Augen sah ich Thränen fliessen”) (ibid., 69–70), which echoes many of the sentiments in this letter; “Warnung” (“Ja, ich gestehe mir es mit Entzücken”) (ibid., 71–72); and the sonnet “Zum Andenken” (“Du nahtest nur, uns wieder zu verlassen”) (ibid., 327). Back.

[10] Presumably intimacy of the sort described in the poem “Heliodora” (Bergoldt, Ein Liebespaar in einem Zimmer [ca. 1797–1836]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. Res. A: 395.6):



[11] An allusion to the Jena hotel “Zur Sonne,” where Madam van Nuys seems to have stayed, an edifice bordering the Jena marketplace and dating to 1370 (some walls possibly deriving from an even earlier edifice) that has recently been renovated.

A contemporary guide to Jena for new students remarks (anonymous, Zeichnung der Universität Jena: Für Jünglinge welche diese Akademie besuchen wollen [Leipzig 1798], 83): “The Sun. An inn on the market square. Students never frequent this locale; only non-residents stop here.”

This inn along with the town hall are the oldest buildings preserved in the city center. Here in an eighteenth-century illustration, the hotel Zur Sonne is the second building from the far right corner; the first (behind the carriage) is Markt 23, which Wilhelm had rented when he first arrived in Jena; see Friedrich’s letter to him on 11 June 1796 (letter 163a) (Das alte Jena und seine Universität: eine Jubiläumsgabe zur Universitätsfeier [Jena 1908], 138; and a photograph from a 1916 postcard, on which the (now larger) hotel’s sign is visible):




[12] Four volumes of Wilhelm’s and Caroline’s translation of Shakespeare had already appeared. Back.

[13] Josef Körner (“Carolinens Rivalin,” 36;) suggests the connection may have been through Johann Joachim Eschenburg in Braunschweig, who was acquainted both with Elisa (Minna) van Nuys there and with Wilhelm and the Schlegel family in Hannover. Back.

[14] Concerning the unfortunate break with Christoph Martin Wieland, see supplementary appendix 194c.2. Although Wilhelm was planning a more comprehensive critique, he never got around to it. Back.

[15] Fr., “bickering” and (here) “wretchedness” (Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, “Die Philosophen,” Illustrationen zu Erasmus’ Lob der Narrheit in sechs Abteilungen (1780) (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki WB 3.31):



[16] During the French Revolution, members of the extreme revolutionary party in the national assembly, so named (la montagne) because they occupied the highest benches. They eventually constituted a third of the assembly, were led variously by Danton, Marat, and Robespierre, and instituted the Terror, though also contributed to the fall of Robespierre.

Drawing parallels between the literary revolution in Germany and the revolution in France was quite popular at the time and even later as well (German references can be found in Körner’s original article, 33n22).

In the following illustrations, the Montagnards storm and disrupt the National Convention on 2 June 1793 (from Charles D’Hericault, La Revolution 1789–1882 [Paris 1883]), and two representatives engage in fisticuffs in December 1792 (Revolutions-Almanach von 1794; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):




[17] See Caroline’s letter to Auguste on 30 September 1799 (letter 245): “Wilhelm composes a poem each morning.” The collection would eventually be published as Wilhelm’s Gedichte (Tübingen: Cotta, 1800). Back.

[18] Wilhelm had written to Goethe back on 24 September 1797 (Körner-Wieneke 61): “I have recently often had the quite vivid feeling that compared with this, the most free-spirited of all occupations of the spirit [i.e., poetry], all the others cannot but lose their charm.” Back.

[19] A chronological difficulty arises here; see the chronology according to Goethe’s diary entry, cited in Wilhelm’s letter to Goethe on 19 July 1799 (letter 242a), note 2. See Josef Körner’s note to this passage (34n25):

According to Goethe’s diaries (Weimarer Ausgabe 3:2:259), Goethe did not arrive in Jena until 16 September; nonetheless, the date of this present letter cannot be incorrect . . . since on 1 September Wilhelm Schlegel is already commending his new acquaintance to Goethe [see letter 243d of present edition]; that is, on 13 September precisely 14 days genuinely had passed since that first encounter between Wilhelm Schlegel and Madam van Nuys. Hence either Goethe’s diary is incorrect, or this present letter was written in stages — possibly between 13 and 18 September.

Concerning this present letter being written in stages, Körner continues in 34n31:

The guests [whom Wilhelm later reports will be leaving in two days] were Sophie Tischbein and her children, who had been staying with the Schlegels from August till 20 September 1799 (dating the second half of this letter) [though see note 24 below]; they then took Caroline’s daughter, Auguste Böhmer, with them to Dessau for eight weeks (till 26 November 1799). Back.

[20] Wilhelm was helping Goethe polish his hexameter poems for volume 7 of the edition of his Neue Schriften, which Johann Friedrich Unger was publishing in Berlin. Toward the end of September, Goethe’s diary notes almost daily sessions during 24–28 September 1799 with Wilhelm. Unfortunately, later metrical specialists assessed Wilhelm’s intervention as on balance being quite detrimental to Goethe’s original choices; see (in German) Josef Körner, Romantiker und Klassiker: Die Brüder Schlegel in ihren Beziehungen zu Schiller und Goethe (Berlin 1924), 104–6. For translations of the pertinent texts, see supplementary appendix 245.1. Back.

[21] Unfortunately, an entire sheet or double sheet is missing here. Back.

[22] The reference is apparently to an album that Elisa van Nuys had friends and acquaintances sign, often — as was customary — with a line or two of poetry or a similar citation or remark. Back.

[23] “S’ei piace, ei lice“: “If it is pleasing, it is allowed.” Object of a controversy between Tasso (the line appears in the pastoral Aminta [1573/80]) and Guarini (in his Pastor fido [1590]) as a characterization of the Golden Age.

Goethe incorporates a version of the line into his own play Torquato Tasso, Goethe’s Schriften, vol. 6 (Leipzig 1790 ), act 2, scene 1, where Tasso remarks to the princess that “What pleases is allow’d,” whereupon the princess counters that “My friend, the golden age hath pass’d away . . . What’s fitting is allowed.” (trans. from Goethe’s Works, vol. 3, trans. George Barrie [Philadelphia 1885]; here the accompanying illustration ibid.):


Wilhelm — tellingly — writes instead: “non lice, benchè piaccia,” “It is not allowed even though it is pleasing.” Back.

[24] Chronological problems persist with respect to the Tischbeins’ departure from Jena, since certain considerations suggest that it was on 14 (or 15) September (not 20 September 1799, as maintained by Adolf Stoll, Der Maler Joh. Friedrich August Tischbein und seine Familie: Ein Lebensbild nach den Aufzeichnungen seiner Tochter Caroline [Stuttart 1923], 103; see the editorial note to Caroline’s letter to Auguste on 16 September 1799 [letter 244] for this particular explanation of the chronology) that Sophie Tischbein and her two girls, Caroline, and Betty concluded their stay with the Schlegels in Jena and returned to Dessau, taking Auguste along with them (she would remain there until 26 November 1799).

This information helps date the second half of this letter. In any event, on 5 October 1799 (letter 246) Caroline remarks to Luise Gotter that “it has been three weeks now since these guests, too, left us.” Adolf Stoll, Der Maler Joh. Friedrich August Tischbein und seine Familie. Ein Lebensbild nach den Aufzeichnungen seiner Tochter Caroline (Stuttgart 1923), 103, states specifically that

Sophie Tischbein visited the Schlegel family in Jena from August till 20 [14] September 1799 — Tischbein himself had gone to Karlsbad — initially with their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Karl; her daughters initially came over to Jena from Weimar only occasionally. Once Caroline’s five Braunschweig relatives had departed — prior to whom Ludwig Tieck and Hardenberg had visited her — the two girls could come over permanently as well. Back.

[25] Friedrich Schlegel had arrived in Jena between 2 and 5 September 1799. Back.

[26] In English in Wilhelm’s original letter; from As You Like It, act 2, scene 7, line 28. The “memento” is possibly the portrait Elisa van Nuys left with Wilhelm. Back.

Translation © 2013 Doug Stott