Letter 328b

328b. Sophie Bernhardi to Wilhelm Schlegel in Jena: Berlin, 25 August 1801 [*]

[Berlin, 25 August 1801]

I am alone now and want to use this time to write to you, of whom I am constantly thinking. [1]

It is, after all, indescribably harsh that not a single cordial word from you can come to me. I often feel so abandoned and forgotten by you that I cannot but feel enormous pity for myself. Although I would like to cry out in an inexhaustible stream of laments and tears and speak with a full voice about my longing for you and how it torments my heart, I am held back by the feeling that even then, you cannot say anything in response, not a single, paltry word of comfort.

Could I but seek refuge at your heart and pour into your bosom all my unspeakable grief with all my burning tears, look into your eyes and in them find love and comfort and hope. [2] But alas, my dear, beloved friend, I am to postpone all these desires for many, many long weeks yet. [3]

How you would smile at me were you to see me now, fool that I am, the way I torment myself in unseemly gaiety to conceal the grief in my heart, how every person is dear to me who merely speaks about you, or even does not understand you, or even hates you and mocks you, if he but mentions your name.

It often seems so bizarre to me that I am supposed to write to you something other than how I love you, how I will incessantly love you, and it simply seems impossible to me that anything else could possibly be important to you, or that you would have to respond to anything else. I seize your letters with such vehement craving, and every word always wounds me so deeply if you do not write what I want, and then I must remind myself that you must not, cannot do so. And then precisely that you cannot do so also rends my heart. And I must not, cannot express this grief to you.

You once spoke those harsh words to me, saying I should just go ahead and “make a decision.” I cannot deny to myself that even if I do not deceive Bernhardi, I am concealing things from him, and often when I am cordial toward him it seems like an act of unfaithfulness toward both you and him. [4]

I feel that my love for you is the most noble and lofty thing my heart can attain. He has never expected this love from me, but he did perhaps assume that no other being after my brother would ever touch me so vehemently and powerfully. And is then my behavior not deception? [5]

Forgive me for speaking about this, I know you cannot share this grief with me, for you can acknowledge and honor it as little as Bernhardi might understand my love for you. Hence that love must remain a secret from him just as I must bear this grief alone.

Could I but see you again; much of what now consumes me flees from your presence. Alas, could I but once press you to my heart again, I could heal it from all its torment for a long, long time.

Dear, dear Wilhelm, could you ever forget that you are the first, the only man to whom my entire heart is so wholly, totally inclined and to whom I surrender myself with my entire soul? But forgive me for conjuring up the old mistrust again. [6] I know that my devout disposition, which has chosen you for eternity, like its eternal bliss, runs counter to your own. I know I actually am demanding too much of you.

I focus all my thoughts on you and am jealous of everything you do, for everything should be devoted to me. And can I demand that from you? I am not beautiful and charming enough to make you forget all beautiful women, [7] and even were I, I still could not reward your forgetting and never grant you what your worldly disposition wishes. [8] Surely I can hope that my sacred glowing heart might be compensation for you? [9]

I almost do not want to write anymore, for can I even know whether my letter gladdens you? I cannot help smiling at my own foolishness, the way I press your letters to my burning lips with such desire and then when I read them and find that these indifferent words did not really even deserve a kiss, and then resolve to be angry with you and to throw the pages away — and then nonetheless carry them around for days at my breast, warming them at my heart simply because, after all, you once touched them, and the way I engage in all the exact same foolishness I have so often made fun of in others.

Indeed, let me confess to you now that I once was terribly depressed and could have wept when you were able to step on a flower I was wearing on my breast that fell to the ground when you were kissing me. I do not believe I would be writing such silly things now were it not night and were I not sitting here alone and lonely. Bernhardi is out with Fichte, pursuing the same old amusements; how my soul finds such crude pleasures so disgusting. [10]

Stay well, my beloved, precious friend; do you think about me as well? Do you long to see me again? Does such violent longing ever seize you the way it does me such that you would like to stretch out your arms to the winds and such that you — but alas, how unwise are all my questions.

Stay well; be as happy and cheerful as I am tormented until I see you again. I cannot even console myself with my children. How often must I apologize to them for having been able to neglect them as long as you were here and press them to my breast with a thousand sighs. [11]

Dear, dearest friend, I feel that for all the pain that has already torn my breast apart I deserve to be loved, and not just with half-passion. I beg you, I implore you, my beloved friend, do not love me with half a heart! Stay well; sleep gently. O if my most tender wishes could but reach you. Eternally yours,

S.[ophie] B.[ernhardi]


[*] Source: Krisenjahre 1:13–15.

This letter, composed in the familiar form of address, du rather than the formal Sie, was probably enclosed in letter 328a, composed in the Sie-form, of the same date. That is, this letter was meant solely for Wilhelm.

See in this regard the editorial note to Wilhelm’s letter to Sophie on 14 August 1801 (letter 327a) (Rudolf Koch and Fritz Kredel, Deutschland und angrenzende Gebiete [Leipzig 1937]):



[1] Leipzig Taschenbuch für Frauenzimmer zum Nutzen und Vergnügen aufs Jahr 1789 Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[2] Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, So ist es denn nicht Täuschung (ca. 1787–95); Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Uh 4° 47 (264):



[3] Wilhelm did not depart Jena on his return trip to Berlin until 3 November 1801. Back.

[4] Illustration: “Die schlechte Hausfrau” (“the bad/unfaithful housewife”), Berlinischer Damen-Kalender auf das Gemein-Jahr 1809, Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:


Concerning the interpretation of “unfaithfulness” in this remark: Sophie had just given birth to a son at the beginning of July, was seemingly beset by illness in any case, and at the time was thus unlikely in a position to engage in physical adultery. Concerning the birth, see Wilhelm from Berlin to Ludwig Tieck in Dresden on 10 July 1801 (Lohner 86): “You have probably already heard from your relatives the initial news of your sister’s successful childbirth.” Back.

[5] Josef Körner, Krisenjahre, 3:18, remarks that Sophie’s “pathological-rapturous” love for her brother Ludwig, who responded in kind to these feelings, prompted malicious rumors of an incestuous relationship, which Theodor Mundt even dared to address publicly.

An unpublished note from the hand of Karl August Varnhagen von Ense (among the papers of Ludwig Tieck in the Varnhagen Sammlung) allegedly unequivocally contradicts that notion. Concerning Sophie in general as a child, see Rudolf Köpke, Tieck: Erinnerungen, 1:19:

The sister’s disposition sooner resembled that of her elder brother [Ludwig]. She was cheerful and animated, cheeky and frivolous, quick and sharp to comprehend, resolute in her answers, possessed a precocious wit and irresistible inclination for teasing. She was always ready to participate in her brothers’ jokes, whose sufferings she also courageously shared. Back.

[6] Sophie had also tormented her brother Ludwig with similarly passionate jealousy; see Edwin Hermann Zeydel, Ludwig Tieck, the German Romanticist: A Critical Study [Princetown 1935], 38):

Nowhere do we get a deeper insight into his [Ludwig Tieck’s] mind than in the interesting letters he exchanged with Wackenroder. Their affection for each other was all-pervading and surpassed such awakening love for the other sex as would be expected in normal youths of nineteen.

As for Tieck, at least part of the reason lies in the tyranny which his sister Sophie exercised over him. Her letters reveal how she struggled to keep his affections. Secretly she sent him money from her own pocket. She was jealous when Bernhardi, not she, received a letter from him. She assured him that he was her only confidante, and she spoke constantly of her love for him and of the tears she shed over their separation.

She did all she could to nip in the bud any affection for a girl which he might develop. A passing interest [which Ludwig had] in a certain Fräulein Weller of Dahme near Potsdam was promptly quashed by her. She went so far as to open one of the girl’s letters to Ludwig and to write her a mendacious note stating that he had enlisted in the army and could not be reached. She tried just as hard to break up his love affair with Amalie Alberti, whom she disliked.

In explaining the relations of Sophie to Ludwig, and incidentally also to Friedrich, it may be helpful to study the sexual inhibitions and abnormalities — libido — which characterized the three. This takes us into the heart of Freudian psychoanalysis.

As often in a family of two boys and a girl of practically equal ages and of abnormal endowment, especially in the case of a girl so self-willed and domineering as Sophie, their infantile sexuality may well have turned very early to the other sex. To psychoanalysts the kernel of the central conflict over infantile sexuality is its incestuous nature, particularly in the girl.

But we do not wish to suggest that Sophie developed a “complex” in this direction, nor that through her strong will-power she transmitted it to her brothers. Nor is there firm basis for the belief that this impulse subsequently came to a head, as Varnhagen von Ense in a letter to Bernhardi of February 6, 1807, and Mundt, one of Tieck’s Young German foes, later intimated. Because of external inhibitions and internal resistance it remained platonic and subconscious, if indeed it was a factor at all.

But many traits in Ludwig’s later character — particularly his constant advocacy of morality and his adherence to the religious attitude — may had had their origin in his repudiation of such impulses. Such jealousy as Sophie showed toward Ludwig, of which we shall later see many manifestations, is often a symptom of the same attitude. Back.

[7] Concerning Sophie’s appearance: In her letter to Luise Wiedemann on 31 January 1807 (letter 421), Caroline refers to Sophie Bernhardi as a “pale, gaunt, toothless and eyebrowless and hairless woman with her imperious, obstinate, essentially evil character.”

In 1805 the poet-painter Friedrich Müller (1749–1825) found her to be “a beautiful woman” (Erinnerungen des Dr. Johann Nepomuk von Ringseis, ed. Emilie Ringseis, 4 vols. [Regensburg 1886–91], here 2:63).

Varnhagen speaks of her “meager charms” (see supplementary appendix 327d.2).

In 1808 Caroline Pichler (1769–1843) did not find her particularly pretty (Caroline Pichler geborene von Greiner: Denkwürdigkeiten aus meinem Leben, ed. Emil Karl Blümml, 2 vols. [Munich 1914], 1:418–19):

At the time I saw him [Ludwig Tieck], he was a handsome, slim, albeit not particularly tall man about 30 or 32 years old . . . His sister was much less pretty as a woman, but she was a writer, a bright, creative woman, who, as word had it, had left her husband, Bernhardi, and was travelling around with a certain Herr von Knorring, whom she later married. At the time, such was the manner in which intelligent women applied the teachings of the Romantic school to life. Back.

[8] Josef Körner mentions in Krisenjahre, 3:18, that his own essay, “A. W. Schlegel und die Frauen,” Donauland I (1917/18), 1219–27, assesses Wilhelm’s capricious womanizing (anonymous, Galante Szene mit Handkuss [1776–1800]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. Res. A: 179):


He acknowledges, however, that the essay needed considerable expansion in view of documentary evidence that had since come to light. See also Sophie’s fretful reference to (viz., knowledge of) Wilhelm’s relationship with Friederike Unzelmann in her letter to Wilhelm of 14 October 1801 (letter 329o). Back.

[9] Concerning the expression “my sacred glowing heart,” see stanzas 3 and 4 from Goethe’s poem “Prometheus” (The Works of Goethe, vol. 1, trans. Hjalmar Hjorth Boyese [Philadelphia, New York, Boston 1885], 133):

While yet a child
And ignorant of life
I turn'd my wandering gaze
Up tow'rd the sun, as if with him
There were an ear to hear my wailings,
A heart like mine
To feel compassion for distress.

Who help'd me
Against the Titans' insolence?
Who rescued me from certain death,
From slavery?
Didst thou not do all this thyself,
My sacred glowing heart?
And glowedst, young and good,
Deceiv'd with grateful thanks,
To yonder slumbering one? Back.

[10] From the very outset of his stay in Berlin, Fichte maintained close social contact with Bernhardi, indeed, as he writes to Friedrich Schlegel in Jena on 16 August 1800 (Fichte Briefwechsel (1930), 2:251), “I am living a quite solitary existence now. Bernhardi is now the only person I occasionally see. The Freemasons have so utterly bored and ultimately made me so indignant that I have wholly taken my leave of them.” See also Varnhagen, Ausgewählte Schriften, vol. 19, 93–94:

Amusements that were rather different from these just discussed, and also more precisely contoured and measured while nonetheless similarly permeated by wit and jocularity, were those Bernhardi enjoyed with Fichte.

I myself was also often present for these, albeit only as a quiet observer when the more profound questions of philosophy were being subjected to dialectical treatment, when problems of linguistics wrestled toward the light of pure conceptual explication, or when the citizenry or national politics had to submit equally to examination by both thought and history.

Although in such discussions it was Fichte who was always imperturbably steadfast and straightforward, Bernhardi nonetheless distinguished himself through a greater wealth of material, which he consistently was able to develop, explicate, and summarize with grace and often surprisingly articulate conceptual language, so much so that Fichte not infrequently could not help but be enormously pleased with his counterpart.

There was, however, another side to the relationship between Fichte and Bernhardi, namely, that of, essentially, carousing partners in Berlin (illustration: Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, Das Leben eines Lüderlichen: Ein moralisch-satyrisches Gemälde nach Chodowiecki und Hogarth, 3 vols. [Gotha 1787–88]; here the frontispiece to vol. 3 by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki):


See Wilhelm to Fichte on 13 December 1808 in a letter that, however, remained unsent because of developments in Sophie’s child-custody case against Bernhardi (see supplementary appendix 328b.1).

Fichte’s and Bernhardi’s inclination to imbibe is sufficiently attested in other documents as well. Joseph von Eichendorff (Sämtliche Werke. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe, ed. Philipp August Becker, Wilhelm Kosch, August Sauer, 25 vols. [Regensburg 1908ff.], 11:251) speaks about Fichte’s “boozy nose” (Frauenzimmer Almanach zum Nutzen und Vergnügen für das Jahr 1801; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):


Sophie relates to Wilhelm in a letter from Dresden on 12 September 1804 (Krisenjahre 1:155) how the physician Josef Ludwig Stoll returned to Weimar and related to Friedrich Tieck how he had “met with Bernhardi in the wine cellar every evening and how they spent whole nights gadding about” ([1] Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Servitör [17783]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Chodowiecki Sammlung [4-259]; [2] Chodowiecki [1777]; Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin):




[11] Sophie had two children at the time, Wilhelm (born in July 1800) and the infant Ludwig, who was not even two months old at the time and who died on 28 February 1802. Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott