Fresh air versus rotten apples: an etching of romantic poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ( left) with Friedrich von Schiller. Photo: Roger Viollet via Getty Images

How Goethe and Schiller ushered in the romantic age

A circle of friends in a provincial German town revolutionised language, literature and the world. But they could never escape the petty absurdities of everyday life
November 3, 2022
Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self
by Andrea Wulf (RRP: £25)
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Andrea Wulf’s substantial yet pacey new book concerns itself with a dazzling generation of German philosophers, scientists and poets who between the late 18th and early 19th centuries gathered in the provincial town of Jena and produced some of the most memorable works of European romanticism.

Perhaps the most wonderful account of this group’s intellectual and emotional life published in English is Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1995 historical novel The Blue Flower. For that book’s epigraph, Fitzgerald chose a comment made by Friedrich von Hardenberg, the man later known as Novalis: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” This fragmentary thought is both allusive and cryptic. We might take it to mean that novels pick up where history leaves off; that fiction comes into being in order to chart the private, intimate, domestic aspects of life rather than the large-scale, public sweep of grand events that governs a conventional historical narrative. Novels implicitly challenge the priorities of history, inviting us to look within and to reconceive the world. Novalis, himself a wildly experimental writer of fiction and a poetic thinker of terrific originality and insight, argued strenuously for the need to romanticise and revolutionise our surroundings according to what we find inside ourselves: philosophy, he said, originates in feeling.

Fitzgerald’s response as a novelist to that call—to recognise the primacy of individual sensations—was to write in such an unobtrusively informed and tactful way as to convince us that she personally knew the characters about whom she was writing. Conveying her sense of the past through beautifully assured, delicately economical glimpses of the Hardenbergs and their circle at home in the 1790s, her style is as clipped and fragmentary as that of her philosophical subject, intimating via imaginary reconstructions a world of familiarity with private love, pain and grief.

Historians do not tend to write like this, even if it is true that modern accounts of the late 18th century now strive to include attention to the female and domestic realms previously thought beneath their remit. Nevertheless, the burden of history is to explain and account for the past and, in the case of the notoriously abstruse Novalis and his fellow-thinkers at Jena, such attempts at clarity can lead to a certain awkwardness. The least persuasive sections of Wulf’s book are the brief synopses she offers of the philosophical and aesthetic theories of her chosen “set”—Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the Schlegel brothers (August Wilhelm and Friedrich), Novalis and Friedrich Schelling—all of whom made the case, in their own highly idiosyncratic ways, for self-examination and self-realisation, without necessarily aspiring to be completely or perfectly understood by their readers. When these theories are boiled down to their essentials the results can sound rather thin: “Only if we are fully aware of ourselves,” Wulf concludes in summary, “can we truly embrace the other.”

One of the strengths of Magnificent Rebels is that, like The Blue Flower, it dwells on the practical realities and frequent absurdities of philosophising amid tea cups, babies, illness, death, lost furniture and endless house moves. Wulf shows how her characters endured and annoyed one another; how, against the backdrop of Napoleonic invasion and conquest, they quarrelled and sometimes patched things up. For all their attempts to throw off the shackles of convention and to reject the dictates of chilly rationality, the Jena group found—as everyone eventually does—that human nature has an irresistible tendency to pettiness and vanity.

At the centre of Magnificent Rebels stands the perky, redoubtable figure of Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling, her unwieldy surname reflecting her three marriages, who presided over gatherings at Jena from 1796 to 1803. As an incisive reviewer and a dynamic, collaborative translator (with her husband August Wilhelm Schlegel) of Shakespeare, Caroline exerted a formidable influence on German language and literature—and, by extension, on romanticism as a global phenomenon—albeit one largely unacknowledged at the time.

One thing that emerges very clearly from this book is that an author’s working arrangements, whether collaborative or solitary, may be steady, intermittent, or just plain weird. Fragments and aphorisms were a favoured mode because such writing sprang quite naturally from wine-fuelled dinner parties and friendly disputes.

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A town with a view: Jena in Germany. Copyright: Bridgeman Images

Schiller, the most thin-skinned of the Jena bunch, reputedly insisted on composing his works within sniffing distance of a drawer of rotten apples. This story, retold in Wulf’s fourth chapter, was also included in George Henry Lewes’s The Life and Works of Goethe (1855) as a detail that communicates the vital differences between two poetic temperaments:

“An air that was beneficial to Schiller acted on me like poison,” Goethe said to Eckermann. “I called on him one day; and as I did not find him at home, I seated myself at his writing-table to note down various matters. I had not been seated long before I felt a strange indisposition steal over me, which gradually increased, until at last I nearly fainted. At first I did not know to what cause I should ascribe this wretched and to me unusual state, until I discovered that a dreadful odour issued from a drawer near me. When I opened it, I found to my astonishment that it was full of rotten apples. I immediately went to the window and inhaled the fresh air, by which I was instantly restored.”

For all their attempts to throw off the shackles of convention, the Jena group found that human nature has an irresistible tendency to pettiness and vanity

The story summarises, a little too conveniently, the opposition of two continental romantic chart-toppers: Goethe, the man who loved open windows and fresh air and lived into his eighties, and Schiller, the man who loved bolted trunks and closed drawers full of mouldy apples and died in his forties. It resembles the distinction that Coleridge, who travelled to Germany in 1798 (although he didn’t make it to Jena) and taught himself the language, perceived between the novelists Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson: the difference, as he saw it, between a healthy outdoor landscape and the stench of a sick room.

A whiff of something contrived hangs about the apple anecdote. There was in the romantic period, as Wulf notes, a great popular revival of Nordic and Germanic fairytales. Some of these concerned apples and sudden death (Snow White is one of many); they have the lurid atmosphere and homely brutality of a woodcut or a ballad. One such tale has a mother ask her son if he would like to take an apple from their chest (fruit was often dried at home like this). The son immediately says yes, he would like an apple. Why not? When he leans over to take one from the chest, his mother, apparently possessed by “the Evil One” drops the lid on his head and decapitates him. Hard as it may be to credit, the story gets a lot worse after that, thanks to family efforts to put this poor boy back into something resembling the shape of a live human being.

Ten years Goethe’s junior, Schiller had struggled to gain an equal footing with the older man and initially felt that all his well-meant attempts to win a celebrity poet’s attention had been repulsed. By 1794, they were apparently the best of friends, but the younger man died long before the older one, the son before the father. Goethe, for his part, declared again and again that it was Schiller above all members of the Jena set who had brought him back to poetry, who had given him a second youth. But how had Schiller done that? Did he want to do such a thing? Not at the cost of his own life, presumably.

Goethe took possession of his friend’s desk, opened his window, dispersed the smell of rotten fruit and thereby eliminated the younger poet’s source of inspiration—that stench (or sweet odour) without which, as Schiller’s wife said to Goethe, her sick husband not only could not write, but could not live. Rumours circulated about murder plots after Schiller’s death, plots involving Goethe’s knowledge of or at least acquiescence in foul play; there is an ongoing mystery about where his bones ended up. We don’t have to take these gothic tales entirely seriously to think there might be something awry.

Goethe’s response to Schiller having spent his glorious light so fast, for burning the midnight oil instead of using the free daylight hours to decent effect, was to keep on his desk the skull he believed to be that of his friend as an emblem of lost talent. He even wrote a poem about that skull (“Schädel”), having spotted it in a nearby “bone-house” (“Beinhaus”), as the word is in German:

Im ernsten Beinhaus wars, wo ich beschaute,
Wie Schädel Schädeln angeordnet paßten;
Die alte Zeit gedacht ich, die ergraute.
Sie stehn in Reih geklemmt, die sonst sich haßten,
Und derbe Knochen, die sich tödlich schlugen,
Sie liegen kreuzweis, zahm allhier zu rasten.

It was in the grim charnel house that I saw
How skull lay tidily packed by skull,
And of old times I thought, that now were grey.
Jammed together they stand in rows, those that once hated one another,
And hardy bones, that to the death contended,
They lie crosswise, tamely here to rest for all time.

This dense poetic exercise was an act of recycling on Goethe’s part, a consummately German form of repurposing the survivor’s guilt from which so many people in Magnificent Rebels understandably suffered. Schiller died, and it did not take long for Goethe—however grief-stricken he might have been—to think of well-ordered rows and shelves, of tightly packed lines of poetry, as in some sense a legitimate use of human remains. The feeling, he goes on to say in this poem, refreshes him; it is “Als ob ein Lebensquell dem Tod entspränge” (“As if a source of life from death came springing”). Schiller’s posthumous revenge on Goethe—admittedly not much consolation—was that the skull probably wasn’t his.