German Romanticism affected almost every phase of the nation’s life: music in Beethoven, Weber, and Felix Mendelssohn; the novel in Hoffmann and Tieck; philosophy in Fichte and Schelling; religion in Schleiermacher and a hundred such conversions as those of Friedrich Schlegel and Dorothea Mendelssohn. Five men in particular led the movement in German literature; and we should commemorate with them the Romantic women who snared or shared them in love free or bound, and in an intellectual companionship that shocked modest matrons from one Frankfurt to the Oder.
Flickering near the fountainhead of the movement was Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (1773–98), frail and shy, uneasy with reality and reason, comforted with religion, happy with art. In the artist’s power of conception and execution he saw an almost godlike faculty of creation. He phrased his new religion in worshipful essays on Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Dürer … At the Universities of Göttingen and Erlangen he found support from Ludwig Tieck; this enthusiastic fellow student proposed a jolly title for his friend’s writings: Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Heart Outpourings of an Art-loving Christian Brother). So christened, it found a publisher in 1797. Wackenroder ridiculed the rationalism of Lessing and the classicism of Winckelmann almost as much as the impermeability of the German bourgeois soul to artistic exaltation, and he summoned his time to recapture the medieval brotherhood of artist and workman under their common name of artisan. Typhoid ended Wackenroder’s life at the age of twenty-four.
His friend Tieck (1773–1853) played through eighty years the risky game of feeling versus reason, of imagination versus reality. Together with Wackenroder he studied Elizabethan drama and medieval art, and rejoiced over the fall of the Bastille. Unlike Wackenroder he had a sense of humor and a flair for play; he felt that life was a game played by the gods with kings and queens, bishops and knights, castles and cathedrals and humble pawns. Returning to his native Berlin after his university days, he published in 1795–96 a three-volume novel, Die Geschichte des Herrn William Lovell, written in Richardsonian letter form, and describing in sensuous detail the sexual and intellectual wanderings of a young man who has emptied the Christian ethic with the Christian theology, and who concludes from the Fichtean epistemology that if the self is the only reality directly known to us, it should be lord of morals and doctor of laws:
All things exist only because I think them; virtue exists only because I think it…. In truth, lust is the great secret of our existence. Poetry, art, even religion, are lust in disguise. The works of the sculptor, the figures of the poet, the paintings before which devoutness kneels, are nothing but introductions to sensuous enjoyment….
I pity the fools who are forever babbling about the depravity of our senses. Blind wretches, they offer sacrifice to an impotent deity, whose gifts cannot satisfy a human heart…. No, I have pledged myself to the service of a higher deity, before which all living nature bows, which unites in itself every feeling, which is rapture, love, everything…. Only in the embraces of Louisa have I come to know what love is; the memory of Amelia appears to me now in a dim, misty distance.18
Here, eighty-five years before The Brothers Karamazov (1880), is Ivan Karamazov’s fateful preview of the amoral century that was to follow him: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” However, Lovell returns to religion before his end: “The most reckless freethinker,” he explains, “at last becomes a worshiper.”19 In his case just in time, for soon after this confession Lovell is killed in a duel.
The book was the boast of a youth liberated before reaching the age of reason. In 1797 he published a short story, “Der blonde Eckhert,” which won the admiration of the brothers Schlegel. At their invitation he moved to Jena, which was now the Romantic citadel; Tieck, however, left in 1801 to live on a friend’s estate in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. He devoted himself for a time to translating Elizabethan plays; then to editing, with brilliant critiques, the works of his contemporaries Novalis and Kleist. Following in Lessing’s steps, he filled for seventeen years (1825–42), the pilloried post of Dramaturg—dramatic critic and manager—at the Dresden Theater; his forthright essays there brought him some enemies, but also a national renown second only to Goethe’s and August von Schlegel’s in the field of literary criticism. In 1842 King Frederick William IV (who had never heard of Lovell) invited him to Berlin; Tieck (having long outlived Lovell) accepted, and spent his remaining years as a pillar of literature in the Prussian capital.
Novalis (1772–1801) was not given so many years in which to recover from the ideas of his youth. He had, for literature, the uncertain advantage of noble birth: his father, director of the salt works in Saxony, was cousin to Prince Karl von Hardenberg, of the Prussian ministry. The poet’s real name was Freiherr Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg; he used “Novalis” as a pseudonym, but it had been the actual name of his ancestors in the thirteenth century. His family belonged to the Herrnhut community of Pietists; he held to their strong religious bent, but toward the end he sought a reconciliation of Catholicism with Protestantism as a step toward European unity. In his nineteenth year he entered the University of Jena, developed a warm friendship with Tieck, Schiller, and Friedrich von Schlegel, and probably took some of Fichte’s courses, which were scattering sparks from Jena to Weimar.
After a year at the University of Wittenberg he followed his father into business at Arnstadt in Thuringia. At nearby Grüningen he met Sophie von Kuhn, whose beauty of form and character so moved him that he asked her parents for her hand in marriage. In 1795 he and Sophie were formally engaged, though she was only fourteen. Soon thereafter she fell ill of an incurable ailment of the liver. Two operations further weakened her, and in 1797 she died. Novalis never recovered from this Liebestod. His most famous poems, six Hymnen an die Nacht (1800), were somber memories of Sophie. In 1798 he became engaged to Julie von Charpentier, but this betrothal too failed to reach marriage; tuberculosis had joined with grief in consuming the poet; and on March 25, 1801, Novalis died, aged twenty-eight.
He left behind him a novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1798–1800), which gave intense expression to the longing for religious peace. He had once praised Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister as a realistic yet wholesome description of a man’s development; now he condemned it as idealizing a prosaic adjustment to earthly tasks. The hero of his own novel was presented as an historical character, the real author of the Nibelungenlied, a Galahad devoted to pursuit of a blue flower symbolizing the transformation of death into an opening to infinite understanding. “It is the blue flower that I long to see,” says Heinrich; “it lies constantly in my mind, and I can imagine and think of nothing else.”20 Here, and in a once famous essay on “Christendom in Europe,” Novalis idealized the Middle Ages (even to defending the Inquisition) as having realized Europe’s recurring aspiration—political unity under one religious faith. It was (he felt) wise and right for the Church to resist the growth of materialistic science and secular philosophy; in this perspective the Enlightenment was a tragic setback for the European soul. As death beckoned to him Novalis rejected all earthly aims and delights, and dreamed of a coming life in which there would be no sickness and no grief, and love would never end.