Letter 282

• 282. Caroline to Schelling in Jena: Braunschweig, Tuesday morning, January 1801

[Braunschweig] Tuesday morning [January 1801]

|28| My dear friend, I have already come quite far on this early morning, and was there when the molten, glowing earth first began to harden and form blisters from which the mountains then came into being, all of which seems quite comprehensible to me. [1] Dear God, once one grants the presence of matter beforehand, one has an eminently easy game of it and can conceive of things being formed however one pleases.

|29| But this thing with “matter” does genuinely weigh heavily upon me, the way I must struggle with it in connection with this théorie de la terre and époques de la nature, which, of course, is quite foolish of me, since I know for certain that my own understanding and conceptions will never really be able to rise above “matter” in any solid fashion; instead, they will have to flutter back down again, like birds if the air were to become too light for them, indeed, even were eagles beneath them.

But do tell me, how far have all of you managed to get beyond it? In the meantime, however, you must not take this to imply I necessarily separate out “matter” in such a crude fashion insofar as I am dealing with it only in reading Buffon. I recall quite well that the spirit is at the center and that light is spirit and spirit light.

Although this is not comprehensible to me, it is believable, and through belief and imagination you will easily be able to guide me to the true beginning of the end; [2] but the rungs of the ladder, the demonstrazions, the deductions — those are not for me.

And so do you really believe I will ever attain anything other than a poetic understanding of your poem? [3]

I recently collected together a great many concepts and terms, and may heaven but grant that my memory can keep track of them. I absolutely cannot weigh it down with some accumulation of facts of the sort that here and there makes this or that article in Buffon resemble a compilation of Meiners. [4] Hence I ask merely what he is trying to prove in any given case, and then always simply grant him half of his proofs. I am suspecting, my friend, that you, too, are not really reading any more closely than that.

And now let me relate a new fact to you that you will perhaps be learning for the first time from me. In the terrible storm of 9–10 November, the entire island of St. Thomas in the West Indies went under. [5] Thus does the last century’s phantom yet stir in such natural occurrences, in plagues and wars, before it |30| takes its leave. — This storm had to have had a subterranean origin, some hollowing of the earth must have collapsed inwardly and created an exit for it.

Do you see how I am increasing in wisdom? When at lunch I ask for further explanations from this or that person, the gentlemen laugh at me but then do indeed offer quite earnest information, and Schlegel never fails to remark: “Ah, had you but occupied yourself that seriously with some matter involving my activities!” And what, indeed, would such have been except precisely that which I would not need to learn, namely, poesy! [6] — And what is . . .

[End of sheet.]


[1] Caroline here briefly imitates the style of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s Époques de la nature, part of his famous, immensely successful and popular work L’histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (almost as important as Diderot’s encyclopedia), one she was doubtless reading at Schelling’s behest.

Here are Buffon’s illustration of the formation of the continents (Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, vol. 1 [Paris 1774], plates following. pp. 204, 206):


This multi-volume work consisted of the following volumes (as cited in The Oxford Companion to French Literature, ed. Sir Paul Harvey and J. F. Heseltine [Oxford 1969], 92, s.v. Buffon):

L’histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, 44 vols. (1749–1804): prospectus 1748
• first 3 vols. (Théorie de la terre and general views on generation and man): 1749
• 12 vols. on quadrupeds: 1755–67
• 9 vols. on birds: 1770–83
• 5 vols. on minerals: 1783–88
• 7 more vols.: 1774–89 on geological periods of the earth (including Époques de la nature 1779)
• 8 posthumous vols. on reptiles, fishes, etc.

Caroline similarly mentions here not only the Époques de la nature, but also the Théorie de la terre.

With respect to her allusions here in the first paragraph and later: In Les époques de la nature, Buffon discusses the origins of the solar system, speculating that the planets had been created by a comet’s collision with the sun and that the earth originated much earlier than 4004 BC. The earth had allegedly passed through seven epochs, concerning the first of which see Martin J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (Chicago 2005), 143–44:

At the first epoch, the earth had been a body composed of extremely hot fluid; in consequence of its rotation it had acquired the oblate spheroid shape that it has retained ever since. As before, Buffon suggested that like the other planets it had originated as a result of a glancing blow by a comet against the sun . . . this causal explanation of the earth’s origin formed an essential prelude to his account of its subsequent development . . .

By the second epoch the earth had cooled enough to be a solid body, or at least to have a solid crust. But it had not solidified into a perfectly smooth spheroid; its primitive surface had had irregularities — minor in relation to the size of the earth as a whole — the relics of which were the mountain ranges of “vitrifiable” Primary rocks such as granite.

In effect, Buffon adopted the standard geognostic classification . . . while siding with those who believed that most of the Primaries were relics of the earth’s original or “primitive” state, and of “igneous” origin rather than being ancient precipitates or sediments.

Although Caroline seems to be reading a French edition of Les époques de la nature, her word choice here and later in the letter reflects the German translation (no English translation seems ever to have been made; see Rudwick, 143n13) (Epochen der Natur, trans. from the French, 2 vols. [St. Petersburg 1781], 88–89; illustration from Buffon, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: Les époques de la nature, supplement vol. 6 [Amsterdam 1779], 1):


Hence at the time all the planets were masses of liquid glass surrounded by a vapor envelope. As long as this state of liquidity persisted, and even long afterward, the planets had their own light, just as do all molten bodies that glow; as soon as the planets acquired firmness and solidity, however, this light diminished: but they did not go completely dark until they had come securely to rest at their center and long after the hardening of their surface, just as in a mass of molten metal the light and heat persist long after the surface has already become hard.

During this first period, when the planets radiated by their own fire, they necessarily emitted rays, sparks, and various discharges, and as they cooled, they also formed blisters, as water, air, and other matter incapable of withstanding the fire fell back onto their surface. The emergence and struggle of the elements necessarily generated unevenness, discharges, recesses, elevations, hollowings on the surface and in the initial strata of the interior of these enormous masses.

It is to this epoch that one must date the emergence and origin of the highest mountains on earth and the moon, and all the uneven and coarse features one discerns in the planets. Back.

[2] Caroline (“[der] Zweck von allem End und Ziel”) essentially cites the translation from her and Wilhelm Schlegel’s edition of Shakespeare, vol. 1 (1797), A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, act 5, scene 1 (“Das ist der wahre Zweck von unserm End’ und Ziel”); here the line in context (Shakespeare: Complete Works, ed. W. J. Craig [London 1966]):

Enter Quince for the Prologue

Prol. If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight,
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are at hand; and, by their show,
You shall know all that you are like to know.

Upon which Theseus declares: “His speech was like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered.” Christoph Martin Wieland had already translated the passage similarly in his own edition of Shakespeare Back.

[3] Concerning this poem on nature, see the supplementary appendix on Schelling’s stanzas to Caroline at Christmas 1799, esp. with the editorial note; it seems clear from this remark that Schelling had not yet abandoned the project. Back.

[4] In addition to being astoundingly prolific as a scholarly author, Christoph Meiners was also (ADB [1885], 224–26):

monomaniacally driven by the urge to enlighten his contemporaries historically concerning every possible subject, prompting a hasty plethora of publications in which, in addition to quite cogent and correct elements, he often also came up with premature assumptions he then often stubbornly repeated again and again. Back.

[5] Caroline has presumably read a newspaper account of an earthquake on the island of St. Thomas, which was prone to such, rather than a hurricane, though neither seems to be historically attested for the autumn of 1800, e.g., in the Staats- und gelehrte Zeitung des Hamburgischen unpartheyischen Correspondenten, which was available in Braunschweig and which Caroline demonstrably read later (excerpt from M. Richmond, A Map of the Caribbee, Granadilles and Virgin Isles [London 1779]; Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans):


In any case, the graphic notion Caroline — and many Europeans who had not traveled to such exotic and exotically distant locales — had of such sensational disasters often reflected illustrations from journals, almanacs, and periodicals of the sort encountered elsewhere in this correspondence; examples might include those of Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki from the widely read Kupfersammlung zu J[ohann] B[ernhard] Basedows Elementarwerke für die Jugend und ihre Freunde: Erste Lieferung in 53 Tafeln. Zweyte Lieferung in 47 Tafeln von L bis XCVI [Leipzig, Dessau, Berlin 1774], here plates XCIII, XXIII:




[6] An essentially accurate statement given, e.g., her acknowledged innate understanding of poetic meter and rhythm and, to take another example, her early and unerring sense for the difference between the writings of Goethe and Schiller, which also came to expression in her ability to read such materials aloud. On the other hand, she also discerns the element of what she understands as poesy in the broader sense in, e.g., Schelling but not Fichte (see her letter to Schelling on 1 March 1801 [letter 294]). More examples might be adduced. Back.

Translation © 2014 Doug Stott