Letter 281

• 281. Caroline to Schelling in Jena: Braunschweig, January 1801

[Braunschweig, January 1801]

|27| What news you have sent us, my dear Schelling, and what news will be coming today? [1] I am unable either to write or to do anything proper until your letters arrive, and I confess I am emotionally sick from anxiety at the thought whether hope, eternally wakeful hope, and the element of good trust, |27| might not already have entirely expired.

And you said so little. It was only through a letter from the Hufelands that we learned that Starke had been summoned, [2] and if Goethe can but avoid completely losing his senses, then he will at least not be too stubborn to do what is best according to Starke’s indications and instructions.

But what kept you from writing more, even a few words more? Stahl is allegedly also quite ill; had you perhaps visited him? — Can one really have so much yet to lose after one has already lost so much?

If it is — but no, let us not talk about that. It is the worst, and you must preserve yourself all the more. What would happen then in this world?!

After a sleepless night, I arose this morning with my heart beating most violently and am counting the quarter hours until the mail arrives. Surely you will not miss me today? It already occurred to me that you might go over there on Sunday, [3] and who knows whether you even returned.

But surely you made provisions for me. You know, of course, that he was my sanctuary and salvation for you, and that I depended far more on him than on myself. [4] What could the subdued voice of your lady friend accomplish?


[1] Goethe seems to have been suffering from a severe case of the streptococcal infection erysipelas (St. Anthony’s Fire); here an illustration of a child with the infection ca. 1900 (H. Muller, M.D., The Household Medical Adviser [London 1900], illustration following p. 96):


Although the disease was a discrete subject of treatises as early as the late eighteenth century (James Bureau, An Essay on the Erysipelas [London 1777]), without antibiotics it was still essentially untreatable even at the close of the nineteenth century (Charles E. de M. Säjous et al., ed., Annual and Analytical Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine, vol. 3 [Philadelphia 1899], 177–85):

Erysipelas is a violent inflammation of the lymph-channels, caused by the streptococcus. . . .

True cutaneous erysipelas is characterized by severe elevation of temperature, attended by a disseminated inflammation of the skin. This is sometimes preceded by a chill. The elevation of temperature continues until the erysipelatous process reaches its end. There may be a wound from which the redness starts, or there may be no cutaneous evidence of the seat of infection. A mere scratch, though healed, may have allowed the streptococcus to enter; having traveled up the lymphatics, the organism starts the erysipelatous process at a distance from the seat of entrance. There may be red streaks showing lymphatic glands extending from the wound to the special place where the poison now develops very freely. . . .

The constitutional symptoms correspond to the intensity and extent of the local process. The temperature rises to about 104°F., and may read 107°F. The fever may be of a continuous remittent or intermittent type, and is in direct proportion to the extent of the inflammation. There may be gastric symptoms, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, and a highly coated tongue. The urine is generally dark colored, and may contain albumin, blood, bile-pigment, and micrococci. The spleen is sometimes swelled, and there may be pain in the region of the kidneys. If the process be not arrested, death may result from the extension of the local infection to some vital organ, as the brain or peritoneum. . . .

The duration of the infection is very uncertain. It may seem to have disappeared, and subsequently starts up again. It may last a few hours, and continue for several weeks. Again, it may travel over the whole body and possibly attack the same locality several times. As a rule, it delineates its course within two or three weeks. . . .

Delirium and stupor, accompanied by vomiting and convulsions, may follow. A collapsed condition of the system may take place after the disappearance of the symptoms. Hallucinations and certain motor disturbances may occur. . . .

Prognosis: The prognosis of erysipelas [in 1899] is very uncertain. The mortality-rate is somewhat above 10 per cent. . . .

Treatment: Local: The multiplicity of remedies advocated for the treatment of erysipelas is the best proof that no specific exists to arrest this infection [in 1899].

Contemporary accounts are documented, e.g., in Walzel, 455n1:

Goethe had caught a severe cold in the chilly, damp rooms of the Jena castle, then was treated with unnecessary vehemence and quite incompetently by a young physician from the Brunonian school; on 3 January 1801, after his return to Weimar, he was befallen by a “horrible illness,” then hovered between life and death. On 15 January, however, he was out of danger.

Friedrich Schlegel wrote to Wilhelm Schlegel from Jena on 16 January 1801 (Walzel, 455; KFSA 25:219): “You doubtless already know that Goethe has gotten much better again.” See also the final paragraph of Henrik Steffens’s account of the New Year’s Eve celebration attended by Goethe, Schelling, Schiller, and himself (supplementary appendix 279.1).

Caroline Herder wrote to Karl Ludwig von Knebel on 22 January 1801 (Ungedruckte Briefe aus Knebels Nachlass, 2 vols., ed. Heinrich Düntzer [Nürnberg 1858], 2:1–2; illustrations: [1] [N.] Schwerdtgeburt, Moritz Müller, Ein Kranker auf seinem Lager [1814]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. A1: 1831; [2] Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Friedrich II besucht seinen sterbenden Freund General von Rothenburg [1793]; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki AB 3.967):

The beginning of Goethe’s illness was allegedly a catarrhal fever he had come down with in the theater on 1 January at the performance of Haydn’s Creation, and which gradually turned into swollen St. Antony’s Fire [Germ. Rose: “Rose signifies also, the erysipelas . . . a superficial, an inflammatory Tumour that extends easily over the Skin and is attended with a sharp Burning or Heat”; The New and Complete Dictionary of the German and English Languages composed chiefly after the German Dictionaries of Mr. Adelung and of mr. Schwan, ed. John Ebers, vol. 2: H–R (Leipzig 1798), s.v. Rose] with fever and cramped coughing.

It worsened so quickly that on 5 and 6 January he could not even remain in bed lest he suffocate. He would not agree to be bled, which Huschke, his physician, deemed necessary.

On 7 January his left eye was threatened by the swelling and pus discharge; the swelling also spread to all the glands in his head and neck. Stark came that afternoon.


An extremely strong bloodletting followed by an extremely stimulating foot bath were administered on his orders, and these two procedures saved him.


During this night and the next morning he no could longer recognize anyone; his right eye, which was always his good one, was now also affected; through this eye he saw the veins of his eye on the wall in red, just as indeed everything seemed reddish to him.

During the night after the bloodletting and foot bath, a tumescence like that of the fish-handler’s disease [erysipelas] appeared on his foot, and the one on his face gradually went down. There a kind of brownness appeared, which was also dangerous. Stark, with whom we spoke the first day ourselves, thought he was mortally ill and feared a stroke, since his head, brain, and breast were so severely affected.

Steffens, who was extraordinarily busy with work at the time and had not been aware of Goethe’s condition, writes to Schelling on 13 February 1801 (Plitt 1:325–26; Fuhrmans 2:309):

I just heard some horrible news. People here are saying that Goethe is allegedly mortally ill. For God’s sake — can such possibly be true? — I shudder even to think such a thing. My dear friend! — you must let me know quickly, even if in but a few lines.

See Nicholas Boyle’s description of the course of Goethe’s particular case in Goethe: The Poet and the Age, vol. 2, Revolution and Renunciation, 1790 –1803 (Oxford 2000), 695–96. Back.

[2] It may be recalled that Madam Hufeland was Luise Wiedemann’s sister-in-law. Back.

[3] I.e., to Weimar. Since Goethe was apparently out of danger by 15 January, the reference seems to be to Sunday, 11 January 1801 (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795]; illustration of Goethe’s Weimar house on an early postcard: “Vor dem Goethehaus zu Weimars klassischer Zeit”; photograph of Goethe’s sleeping chamber from Franz Neubert, Goethe und sein Kreis, 2nd ed. [Leipzig 1922], 184):





[4] See Caroline’s letter to Goethe on 26 November 1800 (letter 276). Back.

Translation © 2014 Doug Stott