Letter 91

• 91. Caroline to Luise Gotter in Gotha: Göttingen, 8 March [17]89

Göttingen, 8 March [17]89 [*]

|178| I certainly could not respond to an invitation like yours, my perpetually beloved friend, merely with empty words of gratitude, so I had to wait, for only now am I able to tell you anything definite.

It contradicts my own wishes only too severely, and your amiable heart will also not be satisfied, but I also know that what prevents our meeting contains reasons enough for us to excuse fate on that account. I will not be coming to see you, and everything you are so graciously offering to me — your house, your company, the joys of recollection of the first, happy years of my youth, years that seemed to foretell such a different future — I cannot accept because I have a different journey to make, and you will easily enough guess just which journey that is.

As soon as I had lost my own home, my brother offered me his house; |179| but my condition at the time and the wishes of my parents — to which I acquiesced all too easily because I simply did not have the energy to consider things properly, it being a time when I had to summon all my energy to get through the misfortune that had befallen me — prompted me not to consider his offer appropriately, and as a result I initially declined it. But after gradually beginning to consider my own circumstances more clearly, after returning to circumstances one too easily neglects when one’s heart is no longer able to see anything beyond its own present grief, and after my brother renewed his repeated requests, I gradually resolved on the course of action I will now be taking.

I believe he is a good person, and that will doubtless sweeten some of the sacrifices I will be making for him. There I can be more useful and more active and freer for myself, and — the factor really shaping my decision — for the rearing of my children. [1] They are the only thing on which I must truly be able to count, for they are necessary for my happiness, and I feel they are a possession entrusted to me and that I can thus never treat them merely according to my own convenience.

In my understanding, such upbringing is not a matter of directing, which has more to do with a certain purpose that through rigor I might very well accomplish. It is rather the development of a person’s natural disposition through circumstances, and I do not believe myself capable of countering those circumstances here — where I do not really have my children alone, where they are being influenced by the example of others — such that they might become what I would like them to become.

In this respect I do not trust my own arts, which are not really arts at all, but rather merely a certain element of passivity that at most tries to preserve them from bad habits and to guide their initial, critical impressions. Hence I would prefer to choose the free setting myself where my own ability in this regard must prosper, when children resemble their parents, rather than expose myself to the danger of seeing that ability fall short.

|180| On the other hand, with regard to the future it would only be with considerable disquiet that I could countenance the prospect of my daughters, with no protection other than their mother, growing up in a university setting. [2] Although Marburg is one as well, the extent to which it is not to be such depends entirely on me; I am expecting nothing at all from the place, it is simply where the house of my brother is located, the place where I will find more solitude, freedom, and quiet. The joy I will be bringing to this brother, and even the help I will be able to give him would be reason enough, though not the primary reason for me.

Although to you I perhaps need mention only this one reason, here, where people do not quite comprehend why I am exchanging an extremely pleasant situation for one apparently less so, no one will accept it, and I cannot very well mention any other. It will also be difficult for me to leave here, I certainly do not deny that; Göttingen is a town about which in general not much can be said that is encouraging, except that in no other town of such limited size can one encounter so many individual, interesting, bright people, and I could certainly enjoy these individuals and need not tie myself to the general tone were I willing to put up with what is proper and fitting according to the way of the world.

I had a comfortable life, but I do not want a comfortable life if it cannot last forever. In short, the die has been cast — I will be departing between Easter and Whitsun. [3] Only the gods know what will now become of our reunion! As wide open as everything now lies before all my senses, so totally open to every possibility, I despair of nothing, but neither do I expect anything — whatever my will is capable of doing, it will do — and whatever necessity demands, I will grant it, though I will never give it more than it really demands. It does not seem probable to me |181| that I should not see you sometime soon, and wherever and however and whenever it happens, it will make us both very happy indeed, and be it ever so late in coming about, it will not make us less happy than today.

Your husband, my dear Louise, could very well bring you here for a visit sometime, nor would he regret it even as far as he himself is concerned. I confess I am loathe to invite any bel esprit and poet to Göttingen, where what amounts to an emigration wave has occurred recently, suggesting it is in fact not their promised land at all, and how could one presume such in any case in a place where knowledge alone is reckoned as interesting, and where a multitude of people are preparing themselves not to be interesting, but that they might instead have something to eat?

Bürger, whose acquaintance I very recently made [4] — after living here with him for an entire year without even having seen him, he who is leading, as he himself puts it, a bear’s life, rarely coming out of his cave — Bürger will probably also be leaving; he and Meyer do not yet know where, perhaps Berlin. Meyer wrote me and, at least according to the assurances he gives, knows nothing about where he himself will be in the future except that it will not be Schweinfurt. Although I would like to hope things will go well for him, it will probably end up being merely another one of those pious wishes.

Madam Forkel is surely in Berlin, a certain Herr Seydel followed her there immediately — he is the unfortunate one among many others who would have just as much right to do the same thing. [5]

The recovery of our king from his illness is an extremely desirable thing to have happen. [6] Prince Augustus is similarly doing quite well, and it will soon become so warm in Hières that he will have to return. [7] Could I but once breathe in the balsamic air of such a mild clime, once take a walk in a shower of orange blossoms, see such a merry people, or behold a theater of passions warmer than those which our own moderate zone allows — these, too, |182| are perhaps mere pious wishes! —

Nonetheless, life with my brother will in its own turn open up a somewhat broader perspective for me, since I will be living closer to the Rhine regions. It is, after all, rather depressing to realize one has not yet seen anything beautiful at all. [7a]

Stay well, my dear friend, till chance is more favorable. Please extend warm greetings to your husband and sister-in-law from their old acquaintance. I would certainly like to know what all of you would think of me could you see me now. One thing will in any case always remain the same — the gentle fondness with which I am yours,

Caroline Böhmer

I am enclosing a poem for you that my children presented to their grandfather [8] on his birthday with the head of Asclepius that I myself embroidered and beneath which the inscription stood that one finds beneath the poem itself. Both by Schlegel. [9]


[*] Caroline here responds to an offer from Luise Gotter to visit Gotha under apparently quite generous circumstances; in the meantime, however, Caroline has finally decided to move to Marburg (Rudolf Koch and Fritz Kredel, Deutschland und angrenzende Gebiete [Leipzig 1937]):

Marburg _Goettingen_Gotha_map


[1] Auguste and Therese Böhmer, albeit still younger than the two daughters in this illustration (Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1802 für edle Weiber und Mädchen; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):



[2] See (an admittedly very young) Caroline’s letter to Julie von Studnitz on 21 July 1779 (letter 8):

Believe me, my dear friend, you have good reason to give thanks to God that you were not born in a university town. It is the most dangerous place for a girl, and if it were up to me, I would flee and hide somewhere on earth where I could live peacefully incognito, in possession of your friendship.

See esp. notes 1b and 2 there. Back.

[3] Caroline seems to have departed more toward Whitsun, which in 1789 fell on May 31; see Georg Ernst Tatter’s letter to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer on 25 January 1789 (letter 89), with note 3. Back.

[4] Caroline’s correspondence with Gottfried August Bürger has been lost. The distichs in the Göttinger Musenalmanach (1790) 81, “An Madam B. geb. M.” (which read in part: “They [blossoms] bloomed with their fragrance for three days for thee and me”) are referring not to “Madam Böhmer, née Michaelis,” but to Sophie Christiane Friederike Brun, née Münter; see Meyer to Bürger on 1 May 1790 (Strodtmann, 4:56): “But then who is B., née M.? Is it Caroline B[öhmer]? But that cannot be, for she certainly bloomed longer than three days for you.”

Wilhelm Schlegel, a student in Göttingen since 1786 whom Bürger, his first mentor, would celebrate as a “young eagle,” established a more intimate connection with Bürger later when he passed along to Bürger Caroline’s request from Marburg to act as a referee for boûts rimés composed in Marburg (Waitz [1882], 20; texts supplementary appendix 91.1). Concerning Bürger’s celebration of Wilhelm, see Gottfried August Bürger, Gedichte, 2 vols. (Göttingen 1789), 1:262, “An August Wilhelm Schlegel: Sonnett”; stanza 2 reads:

Thou young eagle! With royal flight
Willt thou surely overcome the heavy clouds
And discover the path to the temple of the sun,
Or Phoebus’s word in me is surely a lie.

See also Bürger’s letter to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer on 12 January 1789 (Elise Campe, Erinnerungen, 1:325): ” . . . Schlegel, my poetic son with whom I am well pleased!”).

On 11 June 1791, Wilhelm, then in Amsterdam, asked Bürger to send Caroline, then in Marburg, a copy of the Akademie der schönen Redekünste (1790), which Bürger edited, containing Wilhelm’s essay on Dante (“Should it be too much trouble for you to send them yourself, please simply drop them off at the Michaelis house” [Strodtmann, 4:123]). Caroline’s later stay in Göttingen in 1791 resulted in a more familiar acquaintance with Bürger (Therese Forster also highly revered Bürger; See Strodtmann, 3:240; Therese Huber Briefe, 1:254–55, text supplementary appendix 91.2).

Caroline and Bürger examined the translation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, shared Schlegel’s letters from Amsterdam, and took walks together; Bürger remarks (Strodtmann, 4:137):

During a walk we took together, Madam B[öhmer] read aloud to me quite a bit from one of your letters in which you spoke about all the things worth seeing in Amsterdam. Quite well written, I thought.

After Johann David Michaelis’s death in August 1791, the Göttinger Musenalmanach (1792), 192, published Bürger’s eulogy, “Todtenopfer den Manen Johann David Michaelis dargebracht von seinen Verehrern,” which begins:

Weary melancholy, lament, and tears
Do ill suit, as eulogy, those
Whose praise resounds through time and space. Back.

[5] Sophie Margarete Dorothea (Meta) Forkel, née Wedekind, appears often in Caroline’s life and correspondence. In 1781 (when she was sixteen), she became the wife of Göttingen music professor Johann Nikolaus Forkel. After several alleged affairs in Göttingen after 1784, and after an affair with Gottfried August Bürger since late 1787 that had scandalous repercussions for Meta Forkel’s reputation in Göttingen when Bürger himself ridiculed her publicly in verse and privately in letters, she left Göttingen, her husband, and her son, Karl Gottlieb, in the autumn of 1788 and went to Berlin, followed by the former Göttingen theology student Karl Günther Friedrich Seidel (Monika Siegel, “Ich hatte einen Hang zur Schwärmerey,” 81–87). It is to these affairs that Caroline is — somewhat cattily — referring. Back.

[6] George III’s mental health had deteriorated during the summer of 1788, likely as a result of porphyria, leading to the “Regency crisis” during the late autumn of that year. When parliament reconvened on 20 November and George III was unable to deliver the Speech from the Throne opening parliament, parliament itself began discussing the possibility of a regency with the Prince of Wales exercising sovereignty. In November George III became seriously deranged, sometimes speaking for hours without pause, causing him to foam at the mouth and making his voice hoarse. Here a satirical illustration of the situation (Thomas Rowlandson, Filial Piety! 25 Nov 1788); the description from the Royal Collection Trust reads:

A hand-coloured print of a bedroom scene in which an ill George III is disturbed by his son, the Prince of Wales and his friends; George Hanger (later Equerry to the Prince) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (a playwright). The Prince and his cronies are drunk and have disturbed a bishop in the act of giving the King Communion. A picture on the wall compares the Prince to the Prodigal Son of the Bible.


On 3 February 1789, Parliament was formally opened by an “illegal” group of Lords Commissioners. The Regency Bill was introduced, but before it could be passed the King recovered. Back.

[7] The three young princes (sons of King George III of England) Ernest Augustus, Augustus Frederick, and Adolphus Frederick had come to Göttingen in August 1786; the middle brother, Augustus Frederick, spent the winter of 1788/89 in the vicinity of Hyères, in France (4 km from the Mediterranean in southern France), with his personal physician, Fischer, and it was these two visits during the winters of 1788 and 1789 that made Hyères popular with the British. Back.

[7a] Although Caroline would indeed be living closer to the Rhine River, the broad waterway to the west of Marburg, she would also be considerably closer to Mainz at the confluence of the Main and Rhine Rivers, where, as she already knew, Therese and Georg Forster had been living since 1788; her decision not only to visit them in Mainz, but later also to move to Mainz itself, would take her life in a completely different direction (Rudolf Koch and Fritz Kredel, Deutschland und angrenzende Gebiete [Leipzig 1937]):



[8] Erich Schmidt (1913), 1:710 (see Caroline’s letter to Luise Gotter on 13 October 1795 [letter 158]), assumes the reference is to Auguste and Therese Böhmer’s paternal grandfather, namely, Georg Ludwig Böhmer, who was born on 18 February 1715 (or 1717); their maternal grandfather, however, Johann David Michaelis, was indeed born on 27 February 1717, the date associated with the poem (see below). Back.

[9] Wilhelm Schlegel was a student in Göttingen at the time. Concerning Asclepius, see William Smith, A Smaller Classical Dictionary of Biography, Mythology, and Geography, 11th ed. (London 1868), 14; illustration, Asclepius with a sick man, ibid.):

Asclepius, Aesculapius . . . the god of the medical art. In Homer he is not divinity, but simply the “blameless physician” whose sons, Machaeon and Podalirius, were the physicians in the Greek army. The common story relates that Aesculapius was a son of Apollo and Coronis, and that when Coronis was with child by Apolo, she became enamored of Ischys, an Arcadian. Apollo, informed of this by a raven, killed Coronis and Ischys. When the body of Coronis was to be burnt, the child Aesculapius was saved from the flames, and was brought up by Chiron, who instructed him in the art of healing and in hunting. . . . he not only cured the sick, but recalled the dead to life. Zeus (Jupiter), fearing lest men might contrive to escape death altogether, killed Aesculapius with his thunderbolt; but on the request of Apollo, Zeus placed him among the stars.


The poem, which is not included in Wilhelm Schlegel’s Sämmtliche Werke, reads as follows (illustration of family and grandchildren honoring grandparents from Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1802 für edle Weiber und Mädchen; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):

Prayer to the god of healing from Augusta and Therese Böhmer. 27 February 1789. Göttingen: printed by Johann Christian Dieterich.

You, who to all mortal generations dost provide
Both balm and health,
Hear this prayer of two daughters
Which children's love did impart to them!
Thus did in the comeliest days of his youth
Our father devote himself in piety to you,
Enjoying your service alone
Till to the cold grave was he carried;
Thus for his efforts, as reward, have
His brothers, children, spouses ever blessed him;
Ever with gentle help and comfort
Did he meet misery’s sick son;
Great Paeon! If he has but done that:
Then strew your gentle gifts
On this good man’s life path,
Whom we grandchildren do joyously approach!
May he be refreshed with deserved peace!
May he be ever serene, unweakened
And long warm himself in life’s evening rays!
May a flourishing family,
Whose pride he is, long adore him!



Translation © 2011 Doug Stott