Letter 328f

328f. Wilhelm Schlegel to Sophie Bernhardi in Berlin: Jena, 4 September 1801 [*]

[Jena, 4 September 1801]

I can no longer refrain from writing to you from my heart, regardless of the possible consequences.

How could you possibly believe that anything could keep me from doing so apart from my apprehension that the letter might by chance fall into the wrong hands and cause you unpleasantness, something I could all the sooner imagine happening insofar as you wrote of not feeling well and of indisposition. I assumed that the zeal with which I began preparing for my return, having hardly even gotten settled here after my journey, would suffice to maintain your conviction concerning my true feelings and render all other writing in that regard superfluous.

But that is how all of you are, putting more faith in talk than action. Please do not take that the wrong way, my dear. What a joy it would be for me to repeat to you endlessly both in person and in writing that I am yours, that I belong completely to you, and that I want to live for you alone; that I consider my own fate now inextricably tied to you, and cannot refrain from scheming about how to tie your own fate even more tightly to mine. I am resolved not to rest until I have seen you made completely happy through my love, until the old, inner strife has been resolved and all that you have suffered made up to you. Just please be gentle and patient and do not overly exert yourself, and in so doing give me the most beautiful proof of your affection.

I wish I had not had to leave you, but it was unavoidable, and has profited me in that I can now see more clearly that there are absolutely no external obstacles, that I will be leaving behind no void if I devote myself entirely to you. [1]

I found things a bit different here than I had imagined after our time together in Braunschweig, [2] though without having to be taken aback or, even less: hurt. [3] There will always remain a cordial and even amicably tender relationship between Caroline and me. She makes absolutely no claims on me, and yet is consistently interested in all my activities and indeed all that happens in my life.

Given her own current disposition and physical constitution, [4] she has, for herself, already completely taken leave of this world, and her life is now but a faint semblance. [5] I am very sorry I cannot make her my confidante. And for just that reason I wish you could make her acquaintance and perhaps strike up a friendship.

But since things do stand thus, I really ought not too forcefully try to persuade her to accompany me back to Berlin. She genuinely is, moreover, as I now see, too weak for such just now. [6] I am hopeful she will eventually brighten up completely again, and then this present condition may perhaps disappear without leaving even a trace; but one simply cannot know for sure.

What besides you could entice me all that much back to Berlin? [7] I have more or less already taken advantage of the external aspects. My circle of friends? [8] Though it is indeed quite agreeable, here I at least have my brother and Schelling. [9]

How can you put such unfair emphasis on my seeming “frivolity,” which was merely an escape from my own feeling of forlornness? [10]

I, too, can doubtless claim compensation from fate, and such has indeed, truly unexpectedly and in such abundance, been granted to me in you yourself. Being loved so intimately, and by a woman like you, is the most beautiful, indeed is the first beautiful event of my life. [11] Nor will I neglect it, I will not allow this hour of celebration to pass by. [12] How often have I not told you that henceforth I would and indeed must live for you, otherwise all that would be left me is a merely worldly, external life, beyond, with, and for no one, from and toward nothing. But now I can focus all my activity on you, and I cannot but anticipate producing so much that is beautiful and magnificent that I might dedicate it to you.

As for your reference to Aurelia: what an ill notion, one that genuinely makes me angry toward you. [13] Not everyone merits knowing you as someone to be loved; but you are definitely such when you love, and to precisely the same extent, which for me means: infinitely so. You remember what I told you about your beautiful anger, notwithstanding it frightened me such that I might well be partial against it.

I similarly can henceforth not tolerate hearing you say that you can “never be happy.” [14] If a person loves and is loved in return, then that person must want to be happy, regardless of how large the required steps might be. You must maintain yourself for our future. Health is the first requirement for organizing one’s life as one might wish. Hence strengthen yourself, take care of yourself for my sake, and always believe that doing so is the truest proof of your affection. Could you but once again repose against my heart! I am full of longing and glad that nothing is distracting that longing in any way.

Though I am a long way from wanting to close this, if it is to be peeled off from an interior letter, it cannot, after all, turn into a package. You cannot read any acceptable double meaning into my letters that I myself did not already intend. [15]

Next time I will include a letter to Schleiermacher in the same way as this one. [16] But how is it to be done thereafter, considering that one cannot simply continue repeating this same method? I feel so helpless having absolutely no one as a confidant.

I am very eager to see your youngest brother, to see whether he resembles you. I will put forth every effort to win his affection. [17]

Stay well, very, very well.


[*] Source: Krisenjahre 1:17–19. — In this letter, Wilhelm uses du, the familiar form of address. This letter was likely an enclosure in Wilhelm’s ostensible letter (using Sie) of the same date (letter 328e).

Concerning the use of Sie, the formal form, and du in his correspondence with Sophie, see the editorial note to Wilhelm’s letter to her on 14 August 1801 (letter 327a).

That this and other intimate, compromising letters from Wilhelm to Sophie ended up in Coppet rather than in the literary estate of Sophie herself or her descendants may have been the result of Wilhelm himself having collected together after his return to Berlin all the incriminating letters he wrote to her during this period. Such would also explain why her estate contained only letters he wrote after having moved to Coppet in May 1804. Back.

[1] I.e., no void in Caroline’s life, who was now inextricably attached to Schelling. Back.

[2] Caroline and Wilhelm were together in Braunschweig from early October 1800 till 21 February 1801, when Wilhelm departed for Berlin; she returned to Jena in April 1801 (Rudolf Koch and Fritz Kredel, Deutschland und angrenzende Gebiete [Leipzig 1937]):

Braunschweig_Berlin_Jena_ map


[3] The increasing alienation between Wilhelm and Caroline is reflected in their correspondence of 1801. How his friends assessed Wilhelm’s tolerance (he was aware of his own complicity in the situation) can be seen in the letters Schleiermacher wrote from Berlin to his sister, Charlotte Schleiermacher, on 27 December 1800 (letter 277e) and 10 November 1801 (letter 329s); see also Friedrich Schlegel to Schleiermacher on 21 September 1801 (letter 329g).

Dorothea Veit provides perhaps the most profound and accurate psychogram of the Schlegels’ marriage in a manuscript intended to be part of the continuation of her novel Florentin, which never appeared (Heinrich Finke, Über Friedrich und Dorothea Schlegel [Köln 1918], 83; here: Florentin: part Two, chap. 1; the roles of husband and wife in the following sketch are reversed from that of Wilhelm and Caroline):

Delicacy, sacrifice, generosity! Beautiful traits of an amiable personality; for social life — but what do they mean in a marriage, where a person is no longer social in that sense, but rather where two must be one, where a person is then two and yet nonetheless alone?

I have experienced this myself: two people, admired by their age for both cultivation and intellect. The woman threw herself into the man’s arms at a moment where he had been abandoned by all his friends, disowned, when his welfare, even his life and honor were in danger — and she did so with a rare element of sacrifice that elevated the admiration for her rare soul even more. The man allied himself with her because she had thrown herself into his arms publicly and had sacrificed herself for him, without any real love, but with the loftiest generosity.

So both of their intellects were cultivated in a quite refined fashion, and both individuals had lived in the most refined circumstances, hence both probably possessed considerable delicacy as well. As long as they were young and without worries, and as long as their relationship drew attention and they themselves thought highly enough of themselves in that regard, an element of vanity and a certain love of competition held them aloft.

But when the more serious side of concrete life approached more closely, and they were making demands on each other different from those that had previously served them in the place of all others, they discovered to their horror that they lacked precisely the one perpetually valid, all-powerful, all-creative, and all-encompassing motivating factor; and after there was no more talk of sacrifice or generosity, or of generosity or renunciation and common activity, after neither represented anything to the other, and they instead were supposed to mutually bear and indeed excuse not only the most secret folds of their souls, but also every momentary temper, every outburst, tomfoolery, or accommodation — after that, they tormented each other with loathing, and found peace again only by separating.

See similarly Dorothea’s lengthy description in her letter to Rahel Levin from Jena on 2 June 1800 (letter 260f), and, from Caroline’s perspective, her revealing letter to Julie Gotter on 18 February 1803 (letter 375), in which she mentions, among other things, that “Schlegel should never have been anything but my friend, just as he has indeed been in so upright and often so noble as fashion throughout his life.” Back.

[4] Caroline had been sickly almost since arriving back in Jena from Braunschweig, and in her letter to Pauline Gotter in September 1801 (letter 329) speaks of her “illness and weakness.” Julie Gotter’s letters home during the summer of 1801 frequently refer, often at length, to Caroline’s illness. Back.

[5] Caroline had already written to Luise Gotter on 18 September 1800 (letter 268): “I only half live now and am wandering about like a shadow on this earth”; and to Wilhelm on 19–20 July 1801 (letter 326): “I myself am no longer of this world.” Back.

[6] Wilhelm relates in his (first) letter to Sophie on 3 October 1801 (letter 329k) that Caroline would in all likelihood not be accompanying him back to Berlin. She did not come until April 1802, a visit which, as the attendant letters demonstrate, did not go well at all. Back.

[7] In her letter of ca. 30 August 1801 (letter 328d), Sophie had remarked: “I try to believe that your efforts to return here so soon are solely because of me, and I try to forget all the other things that draw you back here as well.” Back.

[8] Wilhelm’s circle of friends in Berlin included Schleiermacher, Fichte, August Ferdinand Bernhardi, Wilhelm von Schütz, Friedrich Bury, and Hans Christian Genelli.

Wilhelm von Burgsdorff in Berlin writes to Rahel Levin on 24 March 1801 (Wilhelm von Burgsdorff, Briefe an Brinkmann, Henriette von Finckenstein, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Rahel, Friedrich Tieck, Ludwig Tieck und Wiesel, ed. Alfons Fedor Cohn, Deutsche Literaturdenkmale des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts 139 [Berlin 1907], 181; Rahel was in Paris at the time, where she would remain until April 1801; see Dorothea’s letters to her on 23 January 1800 [letter 258j], note 5; and on 28 April 1800 [letter 259l], note 1); illustration: Gottlieb Böttger, Drei Herren in einem Zimmer; Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig GR000785):

I see a great deal of Tieck and his family, usually every Tuesday and Saturday evening. Were you but here, you really would have to become better acquainted with him, and he would have to read something aloud for you. One can certainly give fêtes with him. I encounter [Wilhelm] Schlegel quite often with him, whose company actually often bores me, — Genelly, — a certain painter, Bury; — Fichte. In fact I just spent almost the entire day with him and Tieck the day before yesterday.



[9] The relationship between Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel was strained at the time and indeed very close to breaking, though their intellectual exchanges continued. Julie Gotter writes to her mother in her letter of 18/21 August 1801 (letter 327d.1): “Although the brothers have, by the way, always had literary connections, Wilhelm is now avoiding any other contact.” Wilhelm’s friendship with Schelling remained, as evident throughout the rest of this correspondence, remarkably cordial and even supportive despite the marital disruption. Back.

[10] In her (second) letter to Wilhelm on 25 August 1801 (letter 328b), Sophie had remarked that “I am not beautiful and charming enough to make you forget all beautiful women, and even were I, I still could not reward your forgetting and never grant you what your worldly disposition wishes.” Josef Körner, Krisenjahre, 3:18, speaks of Wilhelm’s “capricious womanizing.” Whether Wilhelm is referring here to a specific instance in Berlin is uncertain (perhaps with Friederike Unzelmann? see Sophie’s fretful reference to the actress in her letter to Wilhelm on 14 October 1801 [letter 329o]). Back.

[11] Sophie’s less-than-flattering character traits, which certainly come to sufficient expression in her letters related here and elsewhere in the edition Krisenjahre, should not obscure her unique and more admirable qualities. Her brother Ludwig Tieck and her son Felix Theodor Bernhardi both confirm her considerable intellectual gifts, albeit while simultaneously pointing out other parts of her personality.

Ludwig Tieck writes to Friedrich Tieck on 9 April 1818 (Moses Breuer, Sophie Bernhardi geb. Tieck als romantische Dichterin. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Romantik [Borna-Leipzig 1914], 10–11):

All her grand virtues and splendid traits notwithstanding, our sister is an egoist who cannot help, in her passion, rationalizing through sophistry everything she does into a virtue, an inclination she has had since her earliest childhood.

Her son Felix Theodor Bernhardi writes in his memoirs, Aus dem Leben Theodor von Bernhardis, vol. 1, Jugenderinnerungen (Leipzig 1893), 156:

These discussions [in which his mother, Sophie, took part in Berlin society] seemed all the more noteworthy to me insofar as my mother, with a wealth of intellect and rare adroitness, expressed herself in sentences such that a young boy [such as Bernhardi himself] was simply not up to following the discussion.

It is quite difficult to describe an intellect as radiant and rich as my mother’s. Her sparkling radiance was such that in many circles she was viewed as a learned woman, whereas in reality she quite lacked erudition of that sort. She had never studied in any organized fashion, never followed any specific goal in her reading, and instead learned whatever pleased and interested her; and both her romantic disposition, on the one hand, and this lack of coherent erudition, on the other, resulted in her creating for herself an arbitrary world of the imagination in which she then lived.

Wilhelm’s womanizing notwithstanding, his later confession to Madame de Staël in October 1805 attests the authenticity of his own asseverations of love in these letters (Comtesse Jean de Pange, née Broglie, August-Guillaume Schlegel et Madame de Staël d’après des documents inédits [Paris 1938], 151; illustration: Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Rieckchen, Sieh mich an! Gott weiss, es ist kein falsch in mir [1786]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Uh 4° 47 [63]):

For three years [1801–3], all my attentions, all my efforts were devoted to winning and maintaining one particular heart. I succeeded in evoking an affection that, although quite passionate, was unfortunately perhaps not particularly durable.



[12] An allusion to Schleiermacher’s “Idee zu einem Katechismus der Vernunft für edle Frauen,” published among the fragments in Athenaeum (1798) 285–87, here 286 (repr. as no. 164 in Friedrich Schlegel’s Jugendschriften; also KGA I.2, xxxviii, 153–4). The reference is specifically to the fourth commandment (Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow [Minneapolis 1971], 220): “Idea for a catechism of reason for noble ladies. . . . (4) Remember the sabbath day of your heart, to keep it holy, and if they hold you, then break free or perish.” Back.

[13] Sophie’s painful allusion to a character in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; see Sophie’s letter of ca. 30 August 1801 (letter 328d): “unhappy Aurelia from Meister, who could never excite the passion she herself felt when she loved, and that seems to be my fate” (see Goethe’s text in note 9 there). Back.

[14] See Sophie’s (second) letter of 25 August 1801 (letter 328b) and esp. on ca. 30 August 1801 (letter 328d): “then you would see that I am not at all happy and never can be.” Back.

[15] See Sophie’s letter of ca. 30 August 1801 (letter 328d): “I must tell you that your cold, indifferent letters cannot chill me, that I am instead so foolish as to read them over and over until I am able to read tender sentiment into those indifferent words.” Back.

[16] Sophie had from the outset (20 August 1801 [letter 327e]) suggested using letters to others — her first suggestion was Schleiermacher — as ostensible cover letters in which to include private letters (to be “peeled off” from that letter).

If, as might be supposed, Wilhelm’s letter to Schleiermacher on 7 September 1801 (Aus Schleiermacher’s Leben 3:289–92, albeit misdated there to 1800) is such a cover letter (see the end of Wilhelm’s letter to Sophie of 18 September 1801 [letter 329e]: “Next time I will definitely write to Schütze, and a proper letter at that, just as I did the last time to Schleiermacher”), the enclosed, private letter to Sophie has been lost, though a reference to it is likely found in Sophie’s letter at the end of September 1801 (letter 329j): “I hope you are still healthy and happy as you recently wrote.” Back.

[17] Sophie had enclosed a letter for Friedrich Tieck in her letter to Wilhelm on ca. 28 August 1801 (letter 328c). Wilhelm had been carrying on a correspondence with Friedrich Tieck since early 1800 and had immediately thought of him in connection with the memorial for Auguste (see, e.g., Wilhelm’s letter to Ludwig Tieck on 14 September 1800 [letter 267b]). Wilhelm describes his first meeting with Friedrich Tieck in a letter to Ludwig on 17 September 1801 (Lohner 90):

Your brother arrived in Weimar almost two weeks ago now [ca. 5 September 1801]. On Tuesday a week ago [8 September 1801] he traveled over to Jena with Catel (who is working on the Weimar castle and with whom he is living), the same day I myself had just ridden over to Weimar to look for him; hence I missed him there. [See Wilhelm’s letter to Sophie on 4 September 1801 (letter 328e), note 2]

The bad weather kept me from returning that evening, so I spent the day with Goethe and returned to Jena the next morning [9 September]. Fortunately, your brother had waited, and then stayed with us for a couple of days. I was immediately fond of him; we are like old acquaintances.

And indeed, the two developed a lifelong friendship. Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott