Letter 329l

329l. Wilhelm Schlegel to Sophie Bernhardi in Berlin: Jena, 3 October 1801 [*]

[Jena, 3 October 1801]

Your letter sorely disheartened me, my dearest, most precious friend. Alas, although I did indeed sense that my own might cause trouble, I simply constantly feared it might fall into the wrong hands, [1] and you in your own turn interpreted as coldness what was in fact the covert constraint this anxiety forced upon me.

But in this way I can never get it right with you. My involuntary silence provoked your mistrust, indeed made you doubt my feelings, and even now, writing this letter, my words insult you notwithstanding how faithfully and sincerely they are intended. I certainly do not underestimate the value of words that express one’s inner feelings, [2] and all of yours are safeguarded in my own heart.

But I merely believed that the calmest, simplest expressions would most effectively persuade you of the authenticity of my feelings. Unfortunately, that did not happen, and it took so long before I even discovered I had displeased you, and will again take just as long before this letter gets to you, nor am I there in person to throw myself down before you to persuade you, to have you look into my eyes, to reconcile you. [2a]

Absence is a terrible predicament. That I might never leave you again once I am back with you, not for a single day of my life, that I might forever dwell in the same rooms with you — you shall see that I intend to live only for you, and that I am focused on nothing else in this world. [3]

I no longer recall the exact details of what I wrote. But I do know for certain that the essential content of my letter was that that I am yours, wholly and completely yours, and forever. My pleas for you not to overly exert yourself and not to mistrust me so [4] — you take these as reproaches. How is that even possible? Is it so wrong of me to try to divert you away from what might tear you away from me by destroying you? Am I not even allowed to be anxious about your health? Even as you might value your own life but little — a life on which love could, however, have bestowed an entirely new value — do you not at least intend to acknowledge and care for it as my most precious possession, [5] the loss of which would once more completely impoverish me?

Since the beginning of our alliance, I have blamed myself for all the suffering that befalls you, not merely the suffering I myself may unfortunately often have caused, but even chance suffering, that caused by others, because my own love was unable to protect you from it.

Hence how can I possibly be satisfied that you acquiesce to never again being happy? I do not understand what you said: that if a person still has steps to take before being happy, then that person precisely cannot want to. [6] I was speaking merely about clearing away external obstacles. [7]

You lament that so much in your present circumstances oppresses you. [8] I can at least be pardoned for not considering those circumstances wholly unalterable for that reason. If you think otherwise, then I suppose I must be content with doing and being everything I can for you in those circumstances.

What I call acting on behalf of love perhaps seems to you not as easy and ordinary as you imagine. [9] To my way of thinking, it is love that has the first claims in life and the power to dissolve and bind all other circumstances. [10] I am constantly coming up with wonderful plans for the future that will turn into phantoms if you do not concur with me in them. [11] But I will always subordinate even my fondest wishes to your will. And for all this do I now merit having you mock me and say such bitter things to me?

But I do not wish to defend myself further.

Yet even had you hurt me unjustly, what is it compared with all that I, even undeservingly, have already received from you that is so immeasurably loving, sweet, and sacred? O dear, dear Sophie, be kind and compassionate toward me, do not have me tremble before your displeasure. Imagine that I am lying at your feet and will not stand up again lest you forgive me. [12] Regardless of how you may reject me and push me away, I will not leave you; should you never again give me even a cordial glance, I will nonetheless never cease seeking your love. I no longer wish to belong even to myself, but rather to be completely, utterly in your power and control. Do with me what you will; I am your possession. [13]

What I said about putting more faith in talk than action certainly never intended to draw any comparison between you and ordinary women. [14] I was thinking of the only woman I ever loved before you, but without reciprocation, and being mentioned in the same breath with whom you certainly have no reason to be ashamed. [15]

Please do not think me so thoughtless and without conscience, most precious beloved [16] — even had I been so, I could not help but be transfigured by your purity and holiness. You will see that I respect everything that deserves respect. I can but adduce the future itself as proof.

I beg you, I implore you not to be so harsh as to leave this letter unanswered [17] — I cannot rest until I know whether I am allowed to surrender to this inexpressible longing to be close to you, to enfold you in my arms. [18]

Stay well, my most wonderfully beloved, dear, precious friend.


[*] Source: Krisenjahre 1:25–27. — 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 329k).

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).

This letter largely addresses Wilhelm’s and Sophie’s exchange in two previous letters: (1) “Your letter sorely disheartened me”: Sophie’s (second) letter (du-form) of ca. 10 September 1801 (letter 328i); and (2)”My own might cause trouble”: Wilhelm’s (second) letter (du-form) of 4 September (letter 328f).

Wilhelm here responds to specific points Sophie herself had made in letter 328i, in which she in her own turn had been responding to his letter 328f. Both letters are referenced in the notes below. Back.

[1] Wilhelm had already expressed the same anxiety, and in the same words, in letter 328f. Back.

[2] In letter 328f, Wilhelm had complained that women (in general) put “more faith in talk than action,” to which Sophie then responded in letter 328i that she was “indeed foolish enough to put more stock in words than in actions.” Back.

[2a] Toiletten Kalender für Frauenzimmer 1796 (Vienna); Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[3] In letter 328f, Wilhelm had similarly asseverated that “I am yours, that I belong completely to you, and that I want to live for you alone.” Back.

[4] Wilhelm had urged Sophie in letter 328f to “be gentle and patient and do not overly exert yourself, and in so doing give me the most beautiful proof of your affection.” Back.

[5] Wilhelm had written in 328f: “strengthen yourself, take care of yourself for my sake,” to which Sophie responded in 328i:

I am supposed to sacrifice the most precious possession of my heart to a ‘reasonable’ internal and external diet, and that is the most affectionate thing I can demonstrate to you? I consider it a paltry thing to lose life, peace of mind, and health in this ardent longing for you. Back.

[6] In letter 328f, Wilhelm had remarked: “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,” to which Sophie had responded in letter 328i: “If a person still has steps to take before being happy, then that person precisely cannot want to.” Back.

[7] Wilhelm had remarked in letter 328f with respect to his relationship with Caroline: “I can now see more clearly that there are absolutely no external obstacles,” i.e., to his relationship with Sophie. Back.

[8] Sophie had remarked in letter 328d (ca. 30 August 1801): “I could relate so much to you that wounds me and oppresses me.” Back.

[9] Wilhelm had remarked in letter 328f: “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.” Back.

[10] Josef Körner, Krisenjahre, 3:25, calls this remark an “important witness to the erotic libertinism of early Romanticism.”

As early as June 1800 (related by Friedrich Schlegel in an undated letter to Schleiermacher [Aus Schleiermacher’s Leben 3:187; Fambach 4:517; KGA V/4:108; KFSA 25:128]), Wilhelm was extolling Schleiermacher’s bold “thoughts concerning attempts in love as something quite plausible and in fact confirmed by his [Wilhelm’s] own experience.”

The reference is to Schleiermacher’s Vertraute Briefe über Friedrich Schlegels Lucinde (Lübeck, Leipzig 1800), 90–92:

Just consider, my dear child, whether all human intellectual activity does not similarly begin with an instinctive, indefinite inner drive and only gradually, through self-initiated activity and practice, develop into a quite specific act of willing and consciousness. And yet before it has grown to such a point, there can be no thought of any enduring relationship between these inward movements and specific objects.

Why should things stand any differently with love than with everything else? Is it, the highest pinnacle in our humanity, supposed to grow and develop, upon its very first attempt, from the faintest stirrings up to the most definite perfection, and all in a single act? Is love to be viewed as even more facile than the most simple art of eating and drinking, something children first practice with inappropriate objects and in rather crude attempts that in fact are carried out quite without the child’s own merit and yet not so very badly?

In love, too, there must be preliminary attempts from which nothing genuinely enduring can yet emerge, from which, however, each attempt contributes its part in making emotion more definite and the prospect of love grander and more splendid. In such attempts, the relationship to a specific object can similarly be something quite fortuitous, indeed, at the beginning often merely a phantasy, and always something extremely transient, as transient as the feeling itself, which soon yields to a clearer, more inward feeling.

And thus will you find it among the most mature, cultivated people, who smile at their own first love as at a childish, wondrous beginning, and who often live quite indifferently alongside the alleged objects of that love. And it must be thus in the nature of things, for to demand faithfulness here or to insist on creating a lasting relationship is as detrimental as empty fantasy.

Remember it well, my dear child, for you will have need of it in order to come to terms with your first more noticeable onslaughts of passion and love. Similarly, forget any nonsense about the sacredness of one’s first emotional attachment, as if everything depended on it. . . .

Sophie, too, in her early story “Männertreue” (1797? according to Moses Breuer, Sophie Bernhardi geb. Tieck als romantische Dichterin. ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Romantik [Dissertation Tübingen 1914], 21, this piece appeared in Straussfeder 4 [Berlin 1795]), offers from her own experiences the following advice to young men:

Promise faithfulness with respect to your actions. For no person can make a vow regarding feelings, over which he has no control. If, however, he allows these feelings to induce him to commit unjust acts, then love alone can tear asunder the sentence of condemnation. Back.

[11] Wilhelm had remarked in letter 328f: “I consider my own fate now tied inextricably to you, and cannot refrain from scheming about how to tie your own fate even more tightly to mine.” Back.

[12] The emotional tenor of the scene Wilhelm evokes here (see also above) is frequently reflected in the arts at the time, e.g., in this illustration by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki to the novel by Johann Timotheus Hermes, Sophiens Reise von Memel nach Sachsen, 5 vols. (Leipzig 1769–73) (Der Capit. Puff küsst kniend Sophien die Hand [1777]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Uh 4° 47 [147]):


Wilhelm had alluded in letter 328f to “beautiful anger, notwithstanding it frightened me such that I might well be partial against it,” while Sophie herself had in letter 328i conceded at least: “how foolish I am for still trying to articulate my anger and my love.” Back.

[13] Both the wording and the masochistic sentiments strikingly recall Wilhelm’s written declaration of, essentially, serfdom to Madame de Staël on 18 October 1805 (original letter in French; excerpt in Pauline de Pange-Broglie, Madame de Staël et la découverte de l’Allemagne [Paris 1929], 57; full letter in Pauline Gräfin de Pange, Auguste-Guillaume Schlegel et Madame de Staël [Paris 1938], Germ. trans. by Will Grabert as August Wilhelm Schlegel und Frau von Staël. Eine schicksalhafte Begegnung [Hamburg 1940], 110):

You expressed the wish, my dear, adored friend, that I might give you a written promise, but believed I was putting it off. Here you have it: I herewith declare that you possess all rights to me and I none to you. My person and life are at your disposal, you need but command and prohibit — I will obey in every way. I renounce all other happiness except for that which you choose to grant me voluntarily. I will possess nothing and will accept everything solely from your magnanimity. I am perfectly willing no longer to give any thought at all to my own renown, and intend to devote myself exclusively to you, with everything I may possess in the way of knowledge and talent. I take pride in being permitted to belong to you as your possession.

I will accept no new obligations that might separate me from you, I hope only that you might understand and permit me to fulfill earlier obligations imposed by old commitments.

Perhaps I am wrong — I do not know — in tying myself so utterly to another person with my feelings and decisions. But you have a supernatural power over me — it would be useless to fight against it. I think I can see the hand of fate in the strange vicissitudes of my life.

Certainly it was not by chance that we were brought together, and you yourself felt drawn to me in the midst of social distractions and also precisely in the moment when you encountered the most cruel and irreplaceable loss [of her father, Jacques Necker, in 1804]. I myself, who have spent the greater part of my life searching, have finally found what is intransient and what will not leave me until the grave itself.

Please do not exploit your power over me: you could easily make me unhappy without me having any weapons to use against you. Above all, however, I implore you: please do not ever exile from your presence your slave,

A. W. Schlegel
18 October 1805 Back.

[14] In letter 328f Wilhelm had remarked about women in general: “But that is how all of you are, putting more faith in talk than action”; see reference above to Wilhelm’s remark about “words that express one’s inner feelings.” Sophie additionally responded in letter 328i, including the accusation that “you really were intentionally trying to put me under the rubric of all females in general and I must say that, for me, in that very attempt you really were acting just like a man.” Back.

[15] The reference is presumably to Caroline, about whose feelings for her spouse Caroline Wilken, née Tischbein, wrote in her memoirs (Adolf Stoll, Der GeschichtsschreiberFriedrich Wilken [Cassel 1896], 274; for the complete text, see Caroline Wilken’s memoirs of the Schlegels in Jena):

Schlegel passionately loved this intelligent woman despite her more than ambiguous reputation, whereas she, by contrast, had already openly declared to him on several occasions that she did not love him but would marry him under the condition that she could divorce him as soon as she tired of their union.

See similarly Dorothea Veit to Schleiermacher from Jena on 15 May 1800 (letter 259s):

Wilhelm genuinely does still love her and will no doubt continue to love her until some other woman similarly finds it compliant with her own purposes to ensnare him. For Caroline has never loved him! not even when she married him, and he knows it. Back.

[16] Sophie had remarked in letter 328i: “You have proven to me that you do not understand what torments me, as little as you understand my love,” and later in the same letter: “I could just weep for myself when I think about how lost and lonely I am in this world and how my striving is so ignored and how even my most ardent love is now supposed to stay so ‘reasonable’.” Back.

[17] Sophie had resolved in letter 328i “not to write specifically to you anymore, and instead to let this letter be the last one.” Back.

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



Translation © 2015 Doug Stott