The Life of August Wilhelm Schlegel, Cosmopolitan of Art and Poetry

Roger Paulin

Open Book Publishers. 664 pages. ISBN Paperback : 9781909254954

Roger Paulin, The Life of August Wilhelm Schlegel. Cosmopolitan of Art and Poetry (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2016), xiv + 662 pp.


    It may startle even the ill-disposed to learn that this is “the first full-scale biography, in any language” of August Wilhelm Schlegel, while the critical edition of his improvident brother Friedrich’s works stands at 30 volumes and counting. This comprehensive and elegant biography distils a lifetime of study to review Schlegel the writer and the man. For the man has been used to demean the writer since Die Romantische Schule ; in Heine’s hands, Schlegel is a nerveless fop, “the German Osiris” (the god Osiris was castrated) (540-5). Paulin lays out the personal debts to Schlegel that Heine chooses not to mention, and teases out the motives for this ungenerous attack. True, Schlegel’s marriage to Caroline Michaelis ended with her leaving him for Schelling ; and his second marriage, to Sophie Paulus, ended quickly in fiasco when her eccentric parents demanded her return to Heidelberg. Her father launched the libel Heine turns to with such vim ; there is, as Paulin judiciously lays out, no biographical evidence that Schlegel was impotent (438-41). Yet caricatures can have lives of their own, as any Staël scholar knows ; and Paulin retraces this caricature’s outlines across two centuries of neglect. Rather aptly, Paulin calls the approach “vitalist” (238) : August Wilhelm (unlike his equally childless brother Friedrich) is seen as impotent, sterile, as (in Goethe’s precise words) “not a man” (533).

    Three biographical truths likely aided this misapprehension. First, Schlegel left Germany’s life-giving soil for thirteen years, 1804-1817, and to speak French, at that ; second, he did so in the company of a patroness, Mme de Staël, with whom his relations remained platonic ; and third, he could be vain, as Paulin documents. To the clear-headed, this may not seem enough to disqualify Schlegel from even the most rudimentary biography, given his founding role in German Frühromantik ; but such qualities are not always to be met with among national literary historians.

    Let us review the actual man a moment, as he emerges in Paulin’s biography. Some traits are documented in detail across Schlegel’s long life, 1767-1845 : his intellectual curiosity ; his omnicompetence as a critic ; his capacity for work ; his generosity ; his love of children, many of whom – the Staël children for instance – he helped to raise ; his patriotism ; his prickliness ; his vanity. Some principles seem unwavering – his work ethic – in others, such as religion, there is an arc, taking him, in opposite trajectory to his brother Friedrich (that propagandist for Metternich), from a youthful Frühromantik taste for the Catholic Middle Ages to a mature inclination for progress and the liberty of the press. Coppet may well have influenced his medievalism here, with its insistence that “c’est la liberté qui est antique” (414). The brothers fell out shortly before Friedrich’s death, with August Wilhelm even asking for repayment of one of his many loans (522-526).

    And now perhaps we can review Schlegel’s contributions to history. It seems fair to divide these, as Paulin does, by period : the Jena and Berlin years, 1795-1804 ; the years with Staël ; the years at Bonn, 1818-1845. Paulin, who wears his extensive learning lightly, documents in detail and from the sources Schlegel’s compendious written output ; this is ground-breaking work, since no critical bibliography exists, and much of Schlegel’s work is, as he shows, in manuscript, lost to us, or in need of new critical editions.

    A.W. Schlegel, one of nine children of a Protestant dignitary in Hannover, studied at Göttingen, Germany’s premier university. Here, he met Wilhelm von Humboldt, Caroline Michaelis, and his early mentor, the poet Bürger. Schiller mentions Schlegel in his devastating Bürger review of 1791 ; Schlegel had indexed Virgil and published a review of Homeric geography ; he was now publishing poems – rather correct than good, says Paulin of his lifelong efforts, though Schubert set a few (333)that touch on Spanish and Indian literature, foretelling some continuity in his long career. Schlegel also produced twenty-five reviews, 1789-1791, as Paulin notes, on books in four languages. Leaving Göttingen, Schlegel published an essay on Dante setting out principles for translators : the quirks of the original deserve respect, being the aerugo nobilis, the patina that declares an ancient coin to be genuine. Schlegel returns to these views in Schiller’s Die Horen ; they are not Staël’s practice. Meanwhile, in 1792, Caroline née Michaelis, in occupied Mainz, fell in love with a French officer, became pregnant, was imprisoned (55-7). Caroline was freed and the child fostered, much as Friedrich escaped his debts, at the expense of “the ever-provident August Wilhelm Schlegel” (59-63).

    Then came Jena. In a few years, Schlegel produced four major contributions to Schiller’s Die Horen, including a verse translation from the Divine Comedy, the first in German and which, says Paulin, “reads quite well” (89 ); sixteen Shakespeare plays (with Caroline) in blank verse, a form his uncle had introduced to German, to this day the standard version and one which “can still stand up to any kind of analysis” (91, 96-97, 103) ; and nearly three hundred reviews. He even published a Walpole translation (126). Schiller doubtless never heard Caroline’s description of his and Goethe’s Xenien as “piglets enclosed in their own sty” (70) ; in the mid-1790s, Weimarer Klassik and the Romantics were closer than was to be the case. Schlegel was reviewing new work, helping to launch both Tieck and Wackenroder (73). A tight chronology might shed further light on Friedrich and August Wilhelm’s relative contributions to Frühromantik ; their correspondence, for instance, contains “thoughts that both reacted to Friedrich’s notions but also went far beyond them” (85), while Schlegel’s Die Horen essays – on Wilhelm Meister, on poetry – presage many ideas to which their joint Athenaeum returned (75).

    Goethe maintained cordial relations with various Romantics. But in 1796, Friedrich came to Jena and “effectively destroyed August Wilhelm’s good working relationship with Schiller” (67). Schiller denied Friedrich any talent as a writer ; Friedrich compounded this distaste by reviewing Die Horen in their enemy Reichardt’s journal (77, 80-1). Schiller at once wrote to August Wilhelm closing Die Horen to him. “From now on,” writes Paulin, “Schlegel was not capable of objective or reasonable comment on Schiller” (82). He would barely mention Schiller in the next fifty years. Schlegel made another lifelong enemy with his 1796 review of Voss’s Homer (86) ; Voss became a great Romantic-hater, ridiculed in the Athenaeum where Schiller is ignored (117) – the sort of detail De l’Allemagne chooses to neglect. Meanwhile, Schlegel worked, on Dante, on Shakespeare. He translated Dante’s Ugolino passage, but left King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello untranslated ; horror and cruelty do not feature in his Vienna Lectures (90), and I am tempted, as Paulin is not, to see Schlegel as a little bürgerlich, in his dislike of extreme tragedy (287), his fiscal probity, his growing distaste for Catholic converts.

    Paulin calls Jena in 1798-1800 less a group than a circle, with Schleiermacher, Novalis, the Schlegels, Caroline Schlegel, Dorothea Veit (110). Also Fichte, Tieck, and Schelling, who wrote nothing for the Schlegels’ Athenaeum, that extraordinary if “over-clever” journal which made Schiller “feel almost physically ill” (119). As the Athenaeum appeared, so did other texts from the circle : Friedrich’s Lucinde, Tieck’s Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva, Novalis’s Die Christenheit oder Europa. Schlegel was not immune to the circle’s calls for a new religion, publishing a poem “that later caused him some embarrassment” (136). Paulin reviews the to-and-fro of print invective between Romantics and their enemies (Nicolai, Kotzebue), noting the paradoxes and marital irregularities which helped to occasion them. There were alliances and fallings-out (139-42), this just as the young Brentano arrived. In 1798, as Schlegel took over the ailing Schiller’s university post, Caroline’s attention had wandered to Schelling (125-6). Schlegel’s Jena lectures on aesthetics “never had more than twelve listeners” (128), but these included Savigny and the author of the Nachtwachen des Bonaventura ; Die Horen sold poorly, as did most of the Schlegels’ own journals, but they had a gift for reaching ears ready to profit from them. In 1799, Fichte was dismissed for atheism ; Novalis died in 1801 ; in 1800, Caroline’s daughter died. The marriage with Schlegel was over, and the “Jena circle was effectively at an end” (146).

    In 1799, Goethe invited Schlegel to correct his verse, a fact which has “always mildly scandalized Goethe scholarship” (153). Schlegel’s work continued : poems in 1800, criticism in 1801, more poems in 1802, the year of his tragedy Ion – “Man lache nicht”, said Goethe at the premiere (188). These were the years in which Schlegel perhaps fathered a child with the grasping Sophie Tieck-Bernhardi (183). In 1803, he also published translations from Calderón, amazing Goethe (198). And in 1801-1804, he gave his Berlin Lectures. These offered a systematic overview of literary history (unlike the fireworks of Friedrich), in which modern and German literature, as later in Vienna, was given short shrift (206, 210). Schlegel stresses the orgiastic origins of Greek tragedy, as Nietzsche later would ; he sees Romanticism arising from the fusion of North and South (213) ; he lectures on the Nibelungenlied, which he did much to edit, and defines the novella; he praises India, seeing mythology as “the mediating factor between philosophy and poetry, that which produces ‘nationaler Geist’” (218).

    In 1804, Schlegel met Staël, with whom he had appeared in Die Horen, and contracted to tutor her sons. Paulin notes the scattering of the Romantics in these years, adding that “somehow one person held all this together : Schlegel” (224), a little-known story Paulin retraces. He reviews Staël’s actual meetings with German sources, arguing that she best absorbed information thus (231-237). He explains that Staël’s and Schlegel’s “notions of human progress diverged irreconcilably”, but that these things “likely did not worry her” (237). All this seems apt, as does his conclusion that Sismondi, Constant, and Bonstetten “hardly ever” had a good word to say about Schlegel (245-248), though Schlegel was to praise Constant’s Wallstein in print (319). In Rome with Staël, Schlegel continued to publish : praise of Canova and Thorwaldsen, an elegy addressed to Staël. Paulin traces some debts in Corinne (253-259). Schlegel’s role expanded : directing the costumes for Staël’s théâtre au Molard, publishing a piece on her acting (269-73) ; co-signing loans, reviewing Corinne (276-7) ; but his own path continued, as in the Comparaison entre la Phèdre de Racine et celle d’Euripide, opposing both Schiller, who had translated Phèdre, and Napoleon, who favored Louis XIV (280-90).

    Friedrich and Dorothea née Veit joined the Roman Catholic church in 1808, the year of Faust I, of Schlegel’s Vienna Lectures, and of Friedrich’s famous book on India, with the organic-mechanical distinction which Schlegel used to structure his aesthetics (299). Schlegel’s Jena and Berlin lectures remained unpublished ; it was his Vienna Lectures on Drama which sold from Boston to St Petersburg (better translated into English than into French or Italian), and Paulin reviews their content (302-14, 422-3). It is not Paulin’s task to tease out De l’Allemagne’s debts to Schlegel, but he sketches some details (337-40), as of Schlegel’s dash to Friedrich in Vienna with Staël’s 1810 proofs. Then came flight to Russia – Paulin notes Schlegel’s description of Moscow in a Latin address at Bonn (351) – and the Wars of Liberation, in which Schlegel became a propagandist for Bernadotte, working in a flurry of pamphlets (which incidentally sketch his ideal Germany), to raise up Germany against Napoleon and to hand Norway to Sweden, as occurred (354-76).

    In Paris in 1814, Schlegel spoke of project s: two old ones, on the Nibelungenlied, on Provençal and French etymology, and the new one of learning Sanskrit (379). Doing so, and editing Sanskrit texts, would occupy the remainder of his life. Reviews continued : identifying a fragment by Wolfram von Eschenbach, chastising the Grimm brothers, which inspired them to necessary rigor, or Niebuhr, which made him a new enemy (400-3, 408-9). Schlegel believed that the new Romantic criticism “required more rigour than the one which it had succeeded” (405) ; in fact, he was a major inspiration for Romantics throughout Europe (422-30).

    Staël died in 1817, leaving Schlegel all her papers ; an arrangement revised with her heirs to give Schlegel only the Considérations, on whose cover his name does not appear. Professor now at Bonn, his “lecturing range was extraordinary”; Heine and Marx heard him, as Paulin documents (466-9). Schlegel believed in early wisdom, in a divine origin for language (474-8), and this brought him to Sanskrit. Paulin chronicles his labor editing and publishing the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, Râmâyana, and Hitopadeśa – Schopenhauer was a reader – taking him to Paris to procure adequate devanagari type, publishing the Indische Bibliothek ; a tad intemperate, as Schlegel perhaps became in Staël’s absence, for instance in editing the works of Frederick the Great (486-97, 557-60). In 1828, Goethe published his correspondence with Schiller, detaching himself from a ‘reactionary’ Romantic movement some “wished to see consigned to history” (531). Meanwhile, Tieck completed and ‘revised’ Schlegel’s Shakespeare ; the original was last published in 1823, “surely a national disgrace” (529). This fate has also befallen the Vienna Lectures (554). At Schlegel’s death, his library was sold ; the catalogue was, before Paulin, the most complete list of his works extant, since the ‘complete works’ in German, French and Latin are markedly incomplete.

Paulin appends short biographies (567-602), a bibliography, and a full index.

John Claiborne Isbell


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