Letter 329o

329o. Sophie Bernhardi to Wilhelm Schlegel in Jena: Berlin, 14 October 1801 [*]

[Berlin, 14 October 1801]

Bernhardi has ridden out to see Fröhlig in Spandau, so I want to use this day of freedom to speak with you, my beloved, precious friend. [1] Just please forgive me for my letter and do not be angry with me any longer. Alas, were you only here that I might rush into your arms and express all my suffering and laments at your breast. [2] The thought of you elevates me above the present and gives me hope that in the future, this suffering, which is destroying me now, might be comforted. My love for you gives me the strength and will to endure a life that I myself would otherwise hasten to destroy.

I do sense that one ought not complain about certain things, and yet when they so violently destroy all the peace in our lives, our overflowing heart forces us against our will. I am sure I am enduring with more steadfastness than any other person all the worries about our external life and am sparing Bernhardi as much as possible, whose weak disposition I know only too well. You yourself noticed during your stay here the ignoble lethargy to which he has succumbed. [3]

It finally became absolutely and unavoidably necessary to speak with him and to let him know that he either must change his behavior or find some other way to free me from the daily drudgery that is destroying my health. I was completely startled by the foolish despair he gave into, and when I was finally unable to repress any longer my anger at such childish behavior, he fell into a rage so coarse and crude that my heart genuinely trembled. [3a]

I felt completely abandoned, and it all seemed like a horrifically bad dream in which I am so irrevocably and unalterably tied to a being that seems so utterly alien to me. He was so crude reproaching me by saying it was actually my brother’s fault that we are in such oppressive straits, [4] my eyes filled with tears, and in my tears I saw your image, and my heart was overcome by such violent melancholy that it seemed my whole being would just melt away, it seemed I would dissolve into air and thereby be completely hidden from common earthly view.

Come, my beloved, and comfort me, I can feel that this hour is still making my heart tremble. Bernhardi afterward asked me for forgiveness; I could not speak a word, I let him kiss me as he wanted without being moved, and now, only now that he has gone out, I wish I could cry my very life out with my tears. Only now am I wringing my hands full of despair at the thought that I cannot sunder the bonds to which I acquiesced so thoughtlessly. [5] Not even the sight of my own children can comfort me, they are also his, and now even nature itself has tied us together more closely. [6]

In this entire world, you are the only person who can comfort me, it is from you that I ask for compensation for my lost life. Come back, hasten into my arms, let me press you against my breast, alas, and could I then but breathe away my life with the first kiss with which I greet you. [6a] Let me read comfort in your eyes, let your gentle words bring back my heart’s tranquility, but do not let my letter lead you astray into giving me all sorts of advice to take violent measures. [7]

Reproach me not, for I can do nothing, I cannot break my word to him who in his own way has invested in me his life’s happiness. He knows I have never loved him, but he believes we must finish out life eternally united accompanied by tender friendship. [8]

Be not angry with me for being unable to cease worrying about him even amid my ardent love for you. He thinks scenes such as these, in which he rips my heart apart, will necessarily pass, he views them as nothing but petty arguments. My heart belongs completely and undividedly to you, but ask not that because I give my richest gem to you I withdraw from him that which he thinks has already made him happy and with which he is content. Empathy and love are fighting in my breast.

You say it is love that dissolves and binds all other ties, [9] but there is surely also a kind of love that is elevated above all other ties, and no relationship can destroy that love, because it is too pure and too amicable to make such a tie. It is with that love that I love you. With all the strength of my soul, I would like to draw to myself all your thoughts, all your glances, and close them off enviously in my breast away from the world. In your kisses I find the highest bliss, they are for me the only and highest pleasure of love.

Do but come, oh please come, and even if we are surrounded by coercion, I still sense your glances, which touch me so softly and so comfortingly, and how even if I experience such days of suffering, I nonetheless know you are near, so that in the evening your very presence rewards all my suffering.

Oh, that you can bear to live separated from me so far away, and that this most ardent longing that burns and trembles through me does not have the power to draw you here to me. It depends solely on you to be here with me. Why do you not hasten and leave behind there what should not be keeping you back.

Alas, could you but see me, how I reach out my hands toward you, how I constantly repeat your name softly to myself, how I waste all my sweetest words of enticement trying to draw you here to me. Oh, but just please do finally come and still this yearning and end my grief.

Do not let my letter make you angry with Bernhardi, or I will regret having written it. Because I have directed all my laments to you, your image hovers so vividly before me, looking at me with faithful eyes, and leaves the anger in my breast, and reproaches me for allowing anything other than solely my love for you to find any space in my heart.

How happy will I be when you and my brother are finally here. I was half glad to hear that he will probably be returning to Weimar, for then I can seriously insist on traveling there myself. [10] And once I am but there, some reason can be found for me to stay a long while. But one must not try to determine anything more specific yet. It will all happen on its own. Your lectures will now come about without question; just you yourself need to come, and then we can hope to live together for an entire year.

How often do utter strangers vex me when they speak about you. Catell was here and spoke about you and Madam Unzelmann, and about how you are so utterly occupied with her and about your relationship and your love for her, as if it just goes without saying and there is simply no doubt at all about how vehemently passionate you are about her. [11] I could not answer, and could hardly repress my emotions. What is it that is coercing me so irresistibly to belong so completely and utterly to you with every fiber of my being and to demand that you be so utterly and completely mine as well?

I am living amid the most peculiar tension; whenever the door opens, I think you must enter the room, and then I am unable greet cordially anyone who does come to visit me. I think that were it possible for your image to be torn out of my heart, I could not but die from the resulting emptiness.

Oh, just do come, my beloved friend, you — the star that holds sway over my fate and my life. Can it ever be possible, can you ever hear my name with indifference, could there ever come a time when your heart would not be moved by joy at the mere thought of my love, could your blood ever cease flowing more rapidly when my eyes, my hands, my lips touch you?

Forgive me, forgive me for constantly allowing this old mistrust to return. [12] I have enjoyed such little happiness in this world, and happiness has touched me so rarely, could it ever be possible for it to bestow its favor on me abidingly and not merely to pass me by, fleetingly?

Oh, do stay well. Alas, might I but never again take leave of you. I gaze at your letters, how cold and reasonable they are next to mine. [13] Alas, but must I now part without you feeling the kisses I press upon these pages because it is you to whom I am sending them?

But no, I cannot endure it. When I now get up from writing, I feel so keenly the pain that you are not here. Everything that shuns your presence, that torments and grieves me — it all then approaches me again and takes my poor heart prisoner, and half turns away from me your image that is in between.

Stay well. In the end you do not even read everything I write so ill. Alas, is it that my words give you no joy, and do not ignite the flame of love in your heart?

Do not mention this letter when you answer in general. I am, of course, sending it off without Bernhardi knowing.

So, then stay well. I do not want to write even another word.

S[ophie] B[ernhardi]


[*] Source: Krisenjahre 1:30–33. — This letter uses the informal du form of address. Concerning the use of Sie and du in the correspondence between Sophie and Wilhelm, see the editorial note to Wilhelm’s letter to her on 14 August 1801 (letter 327a). Back.

[1] Gottlieb Böttger der Ältere, Der hypochondrische Reiter [1804]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. A1: 267:


Spandau is located ca. 18 km west of Berlin (Rudolf Koch and Fritz Kredel, Deutschland und angrenzende Gebiete [Leipzig 1937]; Matthäus Merian der Ältere, Die Stadt und Festung Spandaw [ca. 1638]):



Heinrich Frölich published August Ferdinand Bernhardi’s Sprachlehre, 2 vols. (Berlin 1801–3). Concerning this work, which was clearly Bernhardi’s most important scholarly contribution, see NDB 2:122–23:

Here Bernhardi systematically summarizes the theoretical accomplishments of eighteenth century language studies and incorporates concepts from Kant, Schelling, and especially from Fichte‘s Wissenschaftslehre.

The task of language, so Bernhardi, is a “representation of understanding,” and on this basis he develops a universal grammar based on logical categories, a theory of the origins of language, a theory of style based on linguistic-aesthetic considerations, and a philosophical interpretation of the metaphorical character of language.

This work influenced both Wilhelm Schlegel and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Back.

[2] Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Ach! willst du deiner ganzen Familie den Tod bringen? (ca. 1782&ndashh;97); Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Uh 4° 47 (257):


It was during precisely a scene such as this that Fichte unexpectedly walked in on the couple — i.e., Sophie and Wilhelm — while visiting the Bernhardis one evening. The scene was then allegedly adduced during divorce proceedings as evidence demonstrating Bernhardi’s assertion that Sophie was an unfit mother. See, however, Wilhelm’s (unsent) letter to Fichte from Geneva on 13 December 1808 (supplementary appendix 328b.1)

“Forgive me for my letter”: Sophie’s (second) letter on ca. 10 September 1801 (letter 328i) had prompted a vehement response from Wilhelm’s in his (second) letter of 3 October 1801 (letter 329l). Sophie also mentions that “foolish letter” in her letter to Wilhelm on 13 October 1801 (letter 329n). Back.

[3] Chodowiecki, Sechs männliche und sechs weibliche Eigenschaften (1784); Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki AB 3.589:


This reproach of lethargy is raised repeatedly in the ensuing divorce proceedings between Sophie and Bernhardi. See again Wilhelm’s (unsent) letter to Fichte from Geneva on 13 December 1808 (supplementary appendix 328b.1).

Wilhelm similarly mentions this lethargy, especially as such affected Bernhardi’s ability to support his wife and children, in a lengthy letter to Ludwig Tieck from Coppet on 8 October 1804 concerning the failed relationship between Sophie and Bernhardi; excerpt here from Lohner 153 (illustration: Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Familienszene, ca. [1770–1813]; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki-Kopie Z AB 3.1):

Every wage earner acknowledges his obligation to support his wife and children, and when he neglects to do so because of lethargy, the mother is certainly justified in assuming the entirety of such parental rights, to support her children by herself, and to remove both herself and them from the man to whom solely the satisfaction of sensual desire rather than any humane feeling has given the right to the name “father.” Bernhardi had withdrawn so completely from caring for his family that he should not have been surprised if sheer lack of the bare necessities had not dissolved his domestic life entirely. . . .


This man, raised amid base coddling, and afterwards a slave to the most helpless lethargy, never had the slightest inkling of what it means to battle and overcome difficulties. Back.

[3a] Der Freund des schönen Geschlechts: Ein angenehm [sic] und nützlicher Taschenkalender für das Jahr 1805; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[4] I.e., the fault of Ludwig Tieck, who, lacking both steady employment and income, was living at the expense of his friends and siblings. Back.

[5] See the beginning of Sophie’s (second) letter on ca. 10 September 1801 (letter 328i): “It is with a peculiar feeling that I am writing to you today — today is my wedding anniversary; how much unexpected suffering has tormented me during these two years and almost exhausted my heart.” It seems Sophie’s brother Ludwig Tieck had urged her to marry Bernhardi. Back.

[6] Frauenzimmer Almanach zum Nutzen u Vergnügen für das Jahr 1793; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:


See Sophie’s (second) letter on 25 August 1801 (letter 328b): “I cannot even console myself with my children.” Back.

[6a] Berlinischer Damen Kalender auf das Jahr 1803; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[7] This remark together with that in Sophie’s (second) letter on 25 August 1801 (letter 328b) (“you once spoke those harsh words to me saying I should just go ahead and make a decision”) suggest that at this time Sophie was still resisting the notion of actually divorcing Bernhardi. Back.

[8] Words remarkably similar to those used by Dorothea Veit in her letter to Schleiermacher on 15 May 1800 (letter 259s): “For Caroline has never loved him [Wilhelm]! not even when she married him, and he knows it.” — Concerning Sophie’s marital situation ca. 1801, see supplementary appendix 327d.2. Back.

[9] Wilhelm had written in his (second) letter on 3 October 1801 (letter 329l) that “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.” See esp. note 10 there. Back.

[10] After returning to Berlin in early December 1801 and remaining for six-months, Friedrich Tieck returned to Weimar on 13 June 1802 (Edmund Hildebrandt, Friedrich Tieck: Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte im Zeitalter Goethes und der Romantik [Leipzig 1906], 33). See Wilhelm’s (first) letter to Sophie on 3 October 1801 (letter 329k), note 9.

Sophie’s remark here is her first mention of plans to leave her spouse, plans eventually realized in the spring of 1803. Back.

[11] The architect Ludwig Friedrich Catel in Berlin had commissions involving the Weimar castle but did not leave Berlin until late November 1801. Caroline mentions him visiting her in Jena in her letter to Wilhelm on 3 December 1801 (letter 334).

Sophie has been fretful concerning Wilhelm’s interest in Friederike Unzelmann ever since he left Berlin in early August 1801; see, e.g., her letter to him on 25 August 1801 (letter 328b), and on 30 August 1801 (letter 328d). See Caroline’s similar remarks in her letter to Wilhelm on 22 June 1801 (letter 322) (anonymous, Galante Szene mit Handkuss [1776–1800]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. Res. A: 179):

You allegedly were getting on so well with Unzeline that you wanted to marry her, she intending to get a divorce from Unzelmann and you from me.



[12] Sophie had similarly begged Wilhelm’s pardon in her (second) letter of 25 August 1801 (letter 328b). Back.

[13] Sophie refers to Wilhelm’s letters similarly in her (second) letter of 25 August 1801 (letter 328b) (“find that these indifferent words [in Wilhelm’s letters] do not really even deserve a kiss”) and 30 August 1801 (letter 328d):

I must tell you that your cold 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 your indifferent words.

And in her letter to him on ca. 10 September 1801 (letter 328i), she remarks:

I can as little weigh out my words in a reasonable manner as I can my feelings. I have never loved except now, and yet now I am supposed to sacrifice the most precious possession of my heart to a “reasonable” internal and external diet? and that is supposed to be the “most affectionate” thing I can demonstrate to you?

See also note 7 there. Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott