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(Karl Wilhelm) Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829)


German writer, critic and philosopher, contemporary of Goethe, Schiller and Novalis, a pioneer in comparative Indo-European linguistics and comparative philology. Friedrich von Schlegel deeply influenced the early German Romantic Movement – he is generally held to be the person who first established the term romantisch in the literary context. Schlegel stressed the importance of subjective and spiritual elements in fiction and poetry.

"There are writers who drink the absolute like water; and books in which even the dogs refer to the infinite." (from Philosophical Fragments, translated by Peter Firchow, 1991)

Friedrich von Schlegel was born in Hannover, the youngest son in a family of seven children. His father was a Lutheran pastor. At the age of fifteen,  Schlegel was apprenticed to a banker in Leipzig. However, the work did not interest him and in 1790 he entered the University of Göttingen, where his brother Augustus Wilhelm (see below) pursued classical studies.

Schlegel studied law for a year, and then left Göttingen for Leipzig. During this period he become friends with Novalis. Schlegel's stay at Leipzig laid the foundations for his humanistic education. In the spring of 1793, he decided to devoted himself entirely to study of philosophy and literature. Especially he was interested in Greek antiquity, believing that Greek philosophy and culture were essential to a complete education.

In 1794 Schlegel moved to Dresden, where he studied literature and culture of antiquity. His essay On the Study of Greek Poetry (1797) was intended as the introduction to a much larger work, The Greeks and Romans. From 1797 Schlegel contributed to Deutschland and Der Deutsche Merkur. Friedrich Schiller, who was enraged by his reviews of his work, responded with saritical epigrams, the Xenien, which he wrote together with Goethe.

After joining his brother August Wilhelm in Jena, Schlegel began to develop his aesthetic ideas of romanticism. Schlegel encouraged the blend of different literary forms and developed the idea of romantic irony, which made the difference between the created work and the author's idea. Influenced by J.G. Fichte's philosophy, he argued that poetry should be at once philosophical and mythological, ironic and religious.

As a literary critic Schlegel sought not to reveal objective truths, but to write criticism so that the usual discursive prose becomes a work of art itself. Chamfort's Pensées, Maximes,  Anecdotes,  Dialogues (1796, German translation, 1797) gave him the idea of writing aphorism, or "fragmente" as he called them. These pieces he published in Lyceum der schönen Künste and Athenaeum. Schlegel's occupation with chemistry provided him ideas for metaphors: "The chemical classification of disintegration into dry and wet varieties is also applicaple in a literary sense to the dissolution of writers who are doomed to sink into obscurity after reaching their greatest heights. Some evaporate, others turn to water."  (from  Philosophical Fragments, translated by Peter Firchow, 1991)

With his brother Schlegel founded the quarterly Athenäum, an organ of the early Romantic movement, and was later the editor of the magazine (1798-1800). In 1800-01 Schlegel was a lecturer at the University of Jena. He then settled in Paris for a few years with Dorothea Veit, his mistress. Lucinde (1799), a semi-autobiographical novel, was based on his affair with her, the daughter of the philosopher and theologian of Judaism, Moses Mendelssohn. She had married in 1784 the banker Simon Veit, a man considerably older than herself. Only two of their four children had survived infancy. Schlegel had met her at Henriette Herz's saloon soon after moving to Jena. Lucinde in the novel was a thinly disguised Dorothea, and the artist Julius, her lover, was Schlegel's alter ego.

In Lucinde, which was first regarded as an unusually bad novel and was not reissued until 1835, love was seen as the synthesis of physical and spiritual elements. Lucinde is called the "priestess of the night." Most of Schlegel's contemporaries read it as an attack on morality, but the novel had admirers as well, among them the philosopher Fichte who declared that it was a work of genius.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard had no doubts that the novel was obscene. According to Kierkegaard it was "the gospel of Young Germany and the system for its Rehabilition des Fleisches" (rehabilition of the flesh). Schlegel himself omitted Lucinde from his own edition of his complete writings in 1823. Basically the work demonstrates Schlegel's art theory. In the dialogue Gespräch über die Poesie (1800) Schlegel declared that any theory of the novel should itself be a novel.

Gespräch über die Poesie (Dialogue on Poetry) was Schlegel's most comprehensive work on romantic theory. He argued that Dante, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare are the major figures of poetry. When he lectured on the history of European literature, he devoted more than half of his time to Greek and Roman periods. Also large part of Geschichte der alten und neueren Literatur (1812, History Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern) is devoted to antiquity. "The historian is a prophet in reverse," he said in Athenaeum.

In Paris, where Schlegel studied Sanskrit, he founded in 1803 the journal Europa and worked as its editor until 1805. In 1804 he married Dorothea, who converted to Protestantism for a period, and settled with her in Cologne (1804-1807). Dorothea began her literary career by copying and editing many of Schlegel's works. She even wrote an unfinished novel of her own, Florentin (1801).

After converting in 1808 to Catholism, Schelegel and Dorothea moved to Vienna, where he became a counsellor in Metternich's government. It was self evident for  Metternich that Schlegel's calling was not to be a diplomat but once after a lunch he expressed his satisfaction with Schlegel's literary work. However, the secret police reported  that during the Vienna Congress Schlegel spent much of his day in the coffee houses and in the evenings went to wine bars. (Realpoetik: European Romanticism and Literary Politics by Paul Hamilton, 2013, pp. 130-131) Schlegel did not have the political skills of his brother August, who served in 1813-14 in Sweden as press secretary to the crown prince Bernadotte.

An apologist for the Empire, Schlegel is credited with giving the first systematic exposition of the Austrian idea. Its cornerstones were the medieval period before the cult of the national state and the reign of the Habsburg Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), who had advocated "peace among the Christian powers of Europe; unity in the face of a common enemy, the Turks; a preference for settling disputes by peaceful negotiations rather than by force of arms; the maintenance of good relations between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy." (Cosmopolitan Outsiders: Imperial Inclusion, National Exclusion, and the Pan-European Idea, 1900-1930 by Katherine Sorrels, 2016, p. 104) Due to his services, Schlegel was rewarded in 1815 by rank and title. 

Schlegel founded and edited Deutsches Museum (1812-13) and through his Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808,  On the Language and Philosophy of the Indians) Schlegel became the founder of the study of Indo-Aryan languages and comparative philology. Schlegel's pioneering attempt at comparative Indo-European linguistics also influenced Goethe's Westöstlicher Divan. Heinrich Heine praised Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier and  Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Literatur (1810) as one of Schlegel's best works, but at the same time he criticized Schlegel and his brother August for their motives behind the Sanskrit translations:  "These people had rediscovered in the Indian poems not merely the mysteries of Catholicism, but the whole Catholic hierarchy as well as its struggles with secular authority. In the Mahabharata and IN the Ramayana they saw, as it were, the elephantine Middle Ages." (The Romantic School and Other Essays by Heinrich Heine, edited by Jost Hermand and Robdert C. Holub, 1985, p. 49) 

The thoughts of Sir William Jones (1746-1794), who had found similarities between Sanskrit and three other languages, Latin, Greek, and Persian, inspired Schlegel to claim, that India was the cradle of Western culture. He believed that there are parallels between language and race, and started to speak of "Aryans" (the honorable people), who had moved from northern India to Europe. Schlegel was also interested in the history of the New World and the American Indian customs. In his linguistic writings he dealt with the structure of Quechua, Otomi, Huaxteco, Cora, Moskam, Mixteco and Totonaco.

Over the years, Schlegel's aesthetic sympathies changed less than his political and religious orientation. The conservative political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), one time member of the Nazi Party, dismissed Schlegel in Politische Romantik (1919, Political Romanticism) more of an opportunist than political activist. In his youth Schlegel had been enthusiastic about Goethe's Wilhelm Meister and the Revolution but in his old age he supported Metternich and the Holy Alliance. With the rise of the anti-Napoleonic movement, Schlegel became the ideological spokesman for German liberation. From 1815 to 1818 he served as a secretary of the Austrian legation at the German Confederation in Frankfurt. In 1820-23 he edited the right-wing Roman Catholic paper Concordia.

Schlegel died of a stroke in Dresden on Janury 12, 1829. He was  buried in the Alter Katholischer Friedhof. After the death of her husband, Dorothea lived in Frankfurt with her son Philipp Veit, a prominent artist like his brother Johannes.

The writings of German Romantic ironists, including Novalis, Tieck, and Karl Solger, together with the writings of Coleridge and Shelley, paved the way for modern critical theory, starting with the Russian formalists and leading through Mikhail Bakhtin, the new Criticism, and structuralism to both deconstruction and the new historicism. The appearance of Schlegel's Literary Notebooks, 1797-1801 (1957), edited by Hans Eichner, marked a resurgence of interest in his work in the English-speaking world, after a long period of scholarly aloofness.

"Die romantische Poesie ist eine progressive Universalpoesie. Ihre Bestimmung ist nicht bloss, alle getrennten Gattungen der Poesie wieder zu vereinigen und die Poesie mit der Philosophie und Rhetorik in Berührung zu setzen. Sie will und soll auch Poesie und Prosa, Genialität und Kritik, Kunstpoesie und Naturpoesie bald mischen, bald verschmelzen, die Poesie lebendig und gesellig und das Leben und die Gesellschaft poetisch machen [...]. Sie allein ist unendlich, wie sie allein frei ist und das als ihr erstes Gesetz anerkennt, dass die Willkür des Dichters kein Gesetz über sich leide." (from Athenäeum-Fragment, 1798)

August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845) was a scholar and critic, translator of William Shakespeare. His translations appeared in 1797-1810 and became the standard editions. Schlegel worked as a professor at the University of Jena and Bonn. His lectures Über dramatische Kunst und Literatur (1809-11) helped spread Romantic ideas thoroughout Europe. Schlegel founded Sanskrit studies in Germany and set up a printing press, with which he printed Bhagavadgita and Ramayana. Johann Elias von Schlegel (1719-1749), uncle of August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel, became known as a playwright and critic.

For further reading: German Romanticism by Oskar Walzel (1932); Friedrich Schlegel by Hans Eichner (1970); Friedrich Schlegel by Hans Eichner (1979); The Androgyne in Early German Romanticism: Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis and the Metaphysics of Love by Sara Friedrichsmeyer (1983) ; German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism, ed. by K.M. Wheeler (1984); The Romantic Irony of Semiotics: Friedrich Schlegel and the Crisis of Representation by Marike Finlay (1988); Fragments of the Feminine Sublime in Friedrich Schlegel and James Joyce by Ginette Verstraete (1998); The Laboratory of Poetry: Chemistry and Poetics in the Work of Friedrich Schlegel by Michel Chaouli (2002); The Daybreak and Nightfall of Literature: Friedrich Schlegel's Idea of Romantic Literature: Between Productive Fantasy and Reflection by Veli-Matti Saarinen (2007); Friedrich Schlegel and the Emergence of Romantic Philosophy by Elizabeth Millán-Zaibert (2008); The Romantic Idea of the Golden Age in Friedrich Schlegel's Philosophy of History by Asko Nivala (2017); Ironic Approach to the Absolute: Schlegel's Poetic Mysticism by Karolin Mirzakhan (2020); Romantic Movement in Germany by Robert Ignatius Letellier (2023)   

Selected works:

  • Versuch über den Begriff des Republikanismus, 1796
  • Die Griechen und Römer, 1797 (Teil 1: Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie, edited by P. Hankamer, 1947)
    - On the Study of Greek Poetry (translated by Stuart Barnett, 2001)
  • Kritische Fragmente, 1797 (Lyceums-Fragmente, in Lyceum der schönen Künste)
    - Fragments (translated by Peter Firchow, in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, 1971) / Philosophical Fragments (translated by Peter Firchow, 1991)
  • Fragmente, 1797-1798 (Athenaeums-Fragmente, in Athenaeum)
    - Fragments (translated by Peter Firchow, in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, 1971) / Philosophical Fragments (translated  by Peter Firchow, 1991)
    - Fragmentteja (suom. Vesa Oittinen, teoksessa Oi runous. Romantiikan ja modernismin runouskäsityksiä, toim. Tuula Hökkä, 2000)
  • Geschichte der Poesie der Griechen und Römer, 1798
  • Lucinde, 1799
    - Lucinde (translated by Paul Bernhard Thomas, in The German Classics, 1913; Peter Firchow, in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, 1971)
    - Lucinde: romaani. Ensimmäinen osa  (suom. Veli-Matti Saarinen, 2015)
  • Gespräch über die Poesie, 1800
    - Dialogue on Poetry; Literary Aphorisms (edited and translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc, 1968)
  • Charakteristiken und Kritiken, 1801
  • Alarkos: Ein Trauerspiel in zwei Aufzügen, 1802
  • Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indie, 1808
    - On the Language and Philosophy of the Indians (translated by E. J. Millington, in The Aesthetic And Miscellaneous Works Of Friedrich Von Schlegel, 1849)
  • Gedichte, 1809
  • Reise nach Frankreich, 1803
  • Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, 1808
  • Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Literatur, 1810
  • Über die neuere Geschichte, 1811
    - A Course of Lectures History (translated by Lyndsey Purcell & R. H. Whitelock, esqrs., 1849)
  • Geschichte der alten und neueren Literatur, Vorles., 1812
    - Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern. Volume 1 (translated by John Gibson Lockhart, 1818)
  • Geschichte der alten und neueren Literatur. Vorles. II, 1815
    - Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern. Volume 2 (translated by John Gibson Lockhart, 1818)
  • Signatur des Zeitalters, 1820 (Signature of the Age)
  • Philosophie des Lebens, Vorles., 1828
    - Philosophy of Life, and Philosophy of Language: In a Course of Lectures (translated by A. J. W. Morrison, 1847)
  • Philosophie der Geschichte, Vorles. II, 1829
    - The Philosophy of History: In a Course of Lectures (translated by James Burton Robertson, 1835)
  • Friedrich Schlegel's philosophische Vorlesungen aus dem Jahren 1804 bis 1806, 1836 (edited by C.J. H. Windischmann)
  • Philosophische Vorlesungen, 1830
  • Fried. v. Schlegel’s sämmtliche Werke, 1846 (15 vols.)
  • The Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works of Frederick von Schlegel, 1849 (translated by E. J. Millington)
  • Seine prosaischen Jugendschriften 1794-1802, 1882 (edited by Jacob Minor)
  • Briefe, 1887 (edited by Karl Hegel)
  • Friedrich Schlegels briefe an seinen bruder August Wilhelm, 1890 (edited by Oskar F. Walzel)
  • Der Briefwechsel Friedrich und Dorothea Schlegels 1818-1820, 1923 (edited by Heinrich Finke)
  • Neue philosophische Schriften, 1935 (edited by Josef Körner)
  • Krisenjahre der Frühromantik: Briefe aus dem Schlegelkreis, 1936-58 (3 vols., edited by Josef Körner)
  • Kritische Schriften, 1956 (edited by Wolfdietrich Rasch)
  • Schlegel und Novalis: Biographie einer Romantikerfreundschaft in ihren Briefen, 1957 (edited by Max Preitz)
  • Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, 1958-1995 (28 vols., edited by Ernst Behler et al.)
  • Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, 1968 (translated by Ernst Behler & Roman Struc)
  • Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, 1971 (translated with an introd., by Peter Firchow)
  • Kritische Schriften, 1971 (edited by Wolfdietrich Rasch)
  • Schriften zur Literatur, 1972 (edited by Wolfdietrich Rasch)
  • Kritische und Theoretische Schriften, 1978 (edited by Andreas Huyssen)
  • Friedrich Schlegel's Literary Notebooks, 1797-1801 (edited by Hans Eichner, 1957)
    - Literarische Notizen, 1797-1801, 1980 (herausgegeben, eingeleitet und kommentiert von Hans Eichner; Vorwort, Einleitung und Kommentar übersetzt und bearbeitet von Henriette Beese)
  • Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie, 1795-1797, 1982 (edited by Ernst Behler)
  • Theorie der Weiblichkeit, 1983 (edited by Winfried Menninghaus)
  • Athenäum: eine Zeitschrift von August Wilhelm Schlegel und Friedrich Schlegel: Auswahl, 1984 (edited by Gerda Heinrich)
  • Dichtungen und Aufsätze, 1984 (edited by Wolfdietrich Rasch)
  • Der Historiker als rückwärts gekehrter Prophet: Aufsätze und Vorlesungen zur Literatur, 1991 (edited by Marion Marquardt)
  • Philosophical Fragments, 1991 (translated by Peter Firchow, foreword by Rodolphe Gasché)
  • Transcendentalphilosophie, 1991 (edited by Michael Elsässer)
  • Schriften zur kritischen Philosophie: 1795-1805, 2007 (edited by Andreas Arndt and Jure Zovko)
  • Höhepunkt und Zerfall der romantischen Schule (1799-1802), 2009 (edited by Hermann Patsch)
  • Friedrich Schlegel, Hefte Zur Philologie, 2015 (edited by Samuel Müller)
  • Pariser und Kölner Jahre (1802-1808): erster Teil (Juni 1802-Dezember 1805): Kommentar / Friedrich und Dorothea Schlegel, 2019 (edited by Hans Dierkes; with Almuth Dierkes)
  • Während der Erhebung gegen Napoleon (1811-1814), 2023 (Friedrich und Dorothea Schlegel; herausgegeben von Cosima Jungk und Anke Lindemann)

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