Letter 432e

432e. Georg Michael Klein to Schelling in Munich: Würzburg, 29 (21?) May 1808 [*]

Würzburg, 29 (21?) May 1808

. . . From Pauls I received a letter dated 23 April, the day Friedrich Schlegel allegedly created the spectacle in Cologne; yet even though he wrote quite a bit about Schlegel in the letter, he did not once even allude to anything like that . . . I wrote to Pauls a few days ago and asked him whether and how things really stand with Friedrich Schlegel’s change of faith; as soon as I receive a response, I will waste no time sending you news. [1] . . .


[*] Source: Fuhrmans 3:508–9, here 508–9. — “Pauls” is unidentified. Back.

[1] Friedrich and Dorothea Schlegel were quietly accepted into the Catholic church on the afternoon of 16 April 1808 in the Cologne church St. Maria im Pesch (original name: St. Maria in pasculo), a small adjunct church built in 1508 formerly located on the north side of the unfinished cathedral but demolished in 1843 to make way for an expansion of the cathedral itself (Die Kunstdenkmäler der Stadt Köln, ed. Paul Clemen, 2 vols. [Düsseldorf 1937], 2:71):


Regarding the date “23 April”: The (French) Kölner Zeitung reported that the Schlegels had converted on that date not in this modest adjunct church Maria im Pesch, but rather in the cathedral itself, moreover, “for the edification” of all who attended. The Staats- und gelehrte Zeitung des Hamburgischen unpartheyischen Correspondenten [1808] 75 [10 May 1808] also reported the conversion (Fuhrmans 3:509fn3; text in Krisenjahre 3:315):

Friedrich Schlegel, famous for his Lucinde and several other belletristic pieces, converted to the Catholic church on 23 [April] with his wife, a daughter of the famous Mendelssohn. This solemn act took place in the former cathedral in Cologne. Those attending discerned an element of edification and fear of God in the two new converts that were certainly worthy of this sublime ceremony.

One reason the conversion seemed scandalous was that Friedrich was planning a move to Vienna at the time, and indeed left Cologne for Vienna on 24 (or 29) April (dating: Krisenjahre 3:315), arriving in Dresden on 11 May, where he was planning to meet Wilhelm Schlegel, who had left Vienna on 22 May after spending five months there with Madame de Staël (delivering his lectures on the dramatic arts), with Wilhelm arriving in Dresden on 29 May and remaining until 6 June before returning to Coppet. In a letter to his brother Karl Schlegel from Leipzig on 14 May 1808 (Krisenjahre 1:542–43), however, Friedrich was startlingly disingenuous about the conversion accounts, hinting at their essential veracity only at the end of the letter:

I need to ask you for a great favor in the name of friendship. Some gossip against me has arisen once again that is quite unpleasant for me, at least at the moment.

To wit, one newspaper reported that I had become Catholic. It is admittedly an extremely obscure newspaper, and one of my friends published a disclaimer even before I myself had learned of it. But I still fear that one newspaper will copy it from another, and that makes me anxious as far as Mother is concerned. — So my request is as follows:

(1) Be very cautious concerning all the newspapers circulating in Hannover, and see to it that none in which that article has been repeated falls into Mother’s hands.

(2) Use both your own and your friends’ influence to prevent the article from being repeated at least in any newspaper in Hannover. You should be able to accomplish that easily enough by assuring people that the article is full of errors and that a disclaimer has already been published. . . .

(3) Should Mother nonetheless unfortunately come in contact with this gossip, I entreat you to reassure her in every possible way. Just remind her of how often I have already been slandered in newspapers and subject to gossip, and how in every case I have ultimately emerged victorious and have always gained in enduring respect. . . .

In any event, let me also ask that you definitively arrange all this with Wilhelm when he is in Hannover; I will inform him of the entire situation and entreat him as well. . . .

That such a rumor could arise should surprise you all the less insofar as I lived for such a long time in Catholic states and made so many close friends among Catholics (these days one can easily count ten enemies and grudgers for every friend). Which is why actually the only puzzling thing is why the same noise did not arise 2 or 3 years ago.

Sulpiz Boisserée, Friedrich and Dorothea’s friend in Cologne, describes the conversion as follows (Sulpiz Boisserée, 2 vols., ed. Mathilde Boisserée, née Rapp [Stuttgart 1862], 1:44–45):

All prospects for a pleasant position on the Rhine [for Friedrich Schlegel] had disappeared; by contrast, his brother, August Wilhelm, had recently delivered a series of lectures in Vienna on the dramatic arts [Über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur. Vorlesungen, 3 vols. (Heidelberg 1809–11)], and had received acclaim and interest there amid the cultivated and refined world that justified his hope that Friedrich might establish an honorable career in Vienna as a public teacher and scholar. Hence he invited him to come there, and also began taking steps to enable Friedrich to deliver lectures on both older and contemporary literature there before the same circle of attendees.

[Friedrich] Schlegel thus made arrangements in April 1808 to leave Cologne, though his wife was to remain behind with us [Sulpiz and his brother, Melchior] for the time being. We were both completely absorbed with the notion of this journey when the two of them declared to us one day — it was 16 April [1808] — that on that very morning they had converted to the Catholic church. This announcement came as a complete surprise to us.

Although we had indeed long been familiar with the unmistakable inclination Schlegel had developed for the Catholic faith and worship service, and could anticipate that some day he would indeed declare his conviction publicly, and though we were glad to know that he concurred with our own religious disposition, — yet at this particular moment, when such a conversion, which was purely a matter of conscience, might so easily elicit the appearance of ulterior motivation and thereby arouse highly unpleasant disgust, it was difficult for us to comprehend that such a significant step had actually been taken.

Our two friends did, however, assure us that because they had taken this step as quietly as possible, both for personal reasons and for reasons related to the circumstances of the age, and thus had not told us anything about it beforehand, they in their own turn had been assured utter secrecy until the appropriate time. But Schlegel had been away from Cologne for hardly a couple of days before the French Kölner Zeitung published an account worded to suggest the act took place intentionally in public and, moreover, in the cathedral itself.

Neither the circumstances nor even the stipulated day were commensurate with the truth; the author of the account was concerned solely with trumpeting news of this conversion. Whether he did so out of a false sense of zealousness for the church or out of hatred toward Schlegel — enough, the irksome annoyance we had immediately feared when we heard about the conversion ourselves soon rained down on us in torrents.

The most unpleasant sort of gossip was perpetrated both in and outside the newspapers, people exhausted every suspicion and tortured explanation, and yet no one gained a thing by it all. We had to engage every means at our disposal to protect the sincerity of our friends, who did not at all wish to be so ostentatious about what they viewed as a matter of conscience, and because they had wished to nourish their conviction in the quiet sanctuary of the heart and at the proper time and occasion had not wanted to deny that conviction.

Friedrich made a cautious admission to Schleiermacher from Dresden on 9 June 1808 similar to the one in the final line of the letter to Karl Schlegel above (Aus Schleiermacher’s Leben 3:425):

What you have probably read in the newspapers about me was published very prematurely. Prematurely even in and of itself, and even more so on account of the errors in details, and even with respect to external considerations. But, then, as far as such things go, I have long been so accustomed to be misjudged and abused by my noble countrymen that I can finally simply surrender to it. The only thing is that in the process I will perhaps be driven and coerced into presenting my philosophical and theological views earlier than is advisable and earlier than I would prefer.

He wrote with less equivocation in his letter to Ludwig Tieck on 30 May 1808 (Lohner 164):

You have probably read things about me in the newspapers that could have just as easily or indeed far more appropriately been published several years ago. The time indicated is utterly incorrect; but you have been familiar with my views on these things for a long time now.

Peter Joseph Förster, head of the diocesan seminary in Cologne at the time, provided the following account as early as 17 November 1807 to the general vicar in Aachen (Annalen des historischen Vereins für den Niederrhein 107 [1923], 164; cited in Krisenjahre 3:316):

Herr Professor Schlegel here first visited me about a year and a half ago and then continued his visits from time to time. He himself then regularly turned the conversation to religious matters, in which I conversed with him both openly and cordially to cut off any inclination on his part to engage in dispute, restricting him to the changes made under the Protestants during the past forty years, adducing Spalding, Teller, Bahrdt, and [Johann Salomo] Semler [1725–91; Enlightenment theologian in Halle].

He finally committed himself to reading the church fathers, whereupon I asked him to have a look first at Optatus of Milevis, De schismate Donatistorum. After many discussions, he recently came to me and said he was prepared to render the professio fidei with his wife, and asked me to make the necessary arrangements. I remarked in response that since he was living in the local cathedral parish, moreover at the home of a presbyter in this parish, it would be appropriate for him to do this before his own priest; I promised to perform any service I could for him. I have already spoken with Herr [Johann Michael] Dumont [the priest] in that regard.

Concerning the alleged “spectacle,” see esp. the Cologne Quartalschrift für katholische Theologie (July 1808) (cited in Krisenjahre 3:316, with some question about the bibliographical information; Körner cites this text from Alois Stockmann, Die deutsche Romantik: Ihre Wesenszüge und ihre ersten Vertreter [Freiburg 1921], 161–62):

Herr Dr. Schlegel has already been living in Cologne now for some years, lecturing on literature and philosophy as a public professor at the higher secondary school and writing some of his better works. During this time, he and his spouse exhibited such subtle signs of their inclination for Catholic worship that many thought they were Catholic. They were observed attending these services often enough and with a devotion so visibly expressing the religious feelings evoked in their hearts by the more moving elements of our liturgical customs, that a silent observer might well become convinced that they understood the value of these customs far better even than many of those whose task it in fact was to instruct others in that regard.

This respect for the Catholic clergy aroused in them the desire to become more closely acquainted with the entire Catholic doctrinal system through purposive reading; and the theologian to whom they entrusted themselves [Peter Joseph Förster] found in Herr Schlegel a man who through his own reflection and extensive research . . . had prepared himself for Catholicism such that in his case the task of actually changing confession was already essentially complete, whereas in the case of most others it usually just begins . . .

Finally, they voluntarily requested of cathedral priest Herr Dumont, in whose parish they resided, to accept the Catholic confession of faith from them formally before the Easter vacation of the current, 1808th year. This took place, however, not in the grand cathedral itself, but in the adjoining church, otherwise known as Maria im Pesch, and not before a large assembly of the people, but rather in the presence solely of the necessary number of witnesses, and not amid festive pomp, as the Cologne French newspaper incorrectly reported, but rather in the silent calm of the afternoon.

Friedrich and Dorothea had not taken this step precipitately. Indeed, see Dorothea’s letter to Auguste in June 1800 (letter 263), esp. with also with note 5 there and her remarks to Schleiermacher. Being the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn was similarly no small consideration. Friedrich in his own turn was the son of a Protestant consistory councilor and superintendent and brother of a pastor and later general superintendent in the church.

Friedrich and Dorothea, however, despite both contemporary and later detractors, resolutely stayed the course for the rest of their lives despite entering into an ecclesiastical and spiritual world quite different from that which either had previously known but which nonetheless did exert a well-documented attraction to writers and thinkers at the time who might be associated either more proximately or distantly with what has since become known as the Romantic movement (Sainte messe ou ordinaire de la messe, orné d’estampes, qui représentent les différentes actions du prêtre, & les circonstances des mystères etc. [Paris 1734]):




Translation © 2018 Doug Stott