August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767–1845) and Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829) made a remarkable brotherhood: different in temperament and love, diverging in studies and creeds, and united at last in Sanskrit and philology. Born in Hanover to a Protestant pastor, they became theologians at puberty, and heretics at twenty. At Göttingen August Wilhelm was charmed into studying the transmigrations of words by the lectures and personality of Christian Heyne, translator of Virgil, and into Elizabethan lore by Gottfried Bürger, translator of Shakespeare and author of the ballad Lenore.21 The same university received Friedrich von Schlegel five years after his brother; he began as a student of law, and wandered into literature, art, and philosophy. He ripened rapidly, joined his brother at Jena in 1796, and shared with him in founding the Athenäum, which for two years (1798–1800) was the mouthpiece and lodestar of the Romantic movement in Germany. Novalis and Schleiermacher contributed; Tieck came; Fichte and Schelling added their philosophies; and the lively circle was rounded out by some talented women romantically free.

Friedrich von Schlegel was the intellectual pacemaker of the coterie, if only because he moved faster than the others in adopting and discarding ideas. In 1799 he issued a novel, Lucinde, which became a red flag leading the attack upon aging creeds and troublesome taboos. Theoretically it was (like Shelley’s Defence) a plea for the rights of poetry as an interpreter and guide of life. How wise, for example, is the poet’s scorn of the pursuit of riches? “Why this constant striving and pushing without rest and repose? Industry and utility are the angels of death.”22 The hero proclaims also “the divine gospel of joy and love,” by which he means the joy of loving without the bonds of matrimony. When Friedrich tried to visit his brother, then teaching at Göttingen (1800), the authorities at Hanover sent a worried order to the university rector: “Should the Professor’s brother, Friedrich Schlegel, notorious for the immoral tendency of his writings, come to Göttingen, for the purpose of staying there for any time, this is not to be permitted; you will be so good as to intimate to him that he must leave the town.”23

The woman who had served as Schlegel’s inspiration for Lucinde was Caroline Michaelis. Born in 1763, she married a university professor (1784), became unhappy with him, was freed by his death, and enjoyed for several years the pleasures of a widow celebrated for both intellect and beauty. August von Schlegel, while a student at Göttingen, fell in love with her, and proposed marriage. She refused him as four years her junior. When he left to tutor in Amsterdam (1791) she entered upon a series of adventures, in one of which she was surprised with motherhood. She joined a revolutionary group in Mainz, was arrested, was freed by her parents, and went to Leipzig to give birth. There August von Schlegel appeared, proposed again, married her (1796), adopted her child, and went with them to Jena.

There her education, her vivacity, and her intelligent conversation made her the favorite hostess of the liberals. Wilhelm von Humboldt called her the cleverest woman he had ever known.24 Goethe and Herder came over from Weimar to sit at her table and enjoy her company.25 Friedrich von Schlegel, who was then living with his brother, took his turn falling in love with her. He made her the Lucinde of his novel, and raised such paeans to her that his passion was suffocated with words. Meanwhile August, whose passion had cooled to chivalry, went off to lecture in Berlin (1801). There he formed an attachment with Sophie Bernhardi, who divorced her husband to live with her new love. Returning to Jena, August found Caroline enamored of Schelling, and amiably agreed to a divorce. Caroline married Schelling (1804), and stayed with him till her death (1809). Schelling, though he married again, felt her influence through many years. “Even if she had not been to me what she was, I should mourn the human being, should lament that this intellectual paragon no longer exists, this rare woman who, to masculine strength of soul and the keenest intellect, united the tenderest, most womanly, loving heart.”26

Quite as remarkable was Dorothea von Schlegel (1763–1839), nee Brendel Mendelssohn. To please her famous father, she married in 1783 the banker Simon Veit. She bore him a son, Philipp Veit, who became a prominent painter in the next generation. Having plenty of money, she lost interest in it, ventured into the still more uncertain game of philosophy, and became an intellectual luminary in Rachel Varnhagen’s salon in Berlin. There Friedrich von Schlegel found her, and straightway fell in love with her; and she, who was enamored of ideas, found him swimming in them. He was then twenty-five, she was thirty-two; but the volatile author was captivated by the complex charms of this femme de trente ans and more. She was not strikingly beautiful, but she gave him a sustaining appreciation of his mind, she could accompany him understandingly in his philosophical and philological explorations, and she offered him a devotion that survived all quarrels till his death. Her husband, feeling that she was lost to him, gave her a divorce (1798). She lived contentedly in unregistered union with Schlegel, accompanied him to Paris in 1802, accepted baptism, was renamed Dorothea, and became Friedrich’s legal wife in 1804.

Brother August had by that time become the most famous lecturer on the Continent, and had made progress with that remarkable translation of Shakespeare which soon made the great Elizabethan almost as popular in Germany as in England. Though August has been called “the founder of the Romantic school in Germany,”27 he had many qualities of the classic mind and character: order, clarity, proportion, moderation, and a steady procession toward a defined goal. His lectures “On Dramatic Literature,” given in various cities and years, excel in those qualities; and those on Shakespeare abound in illuminating comments—sometimes bravely critical of his beloved bard. These lectures, wrote William Hazlitt in 1817, “give by far the best account of the plays that has hitherto appeared…. We confess to some little jealousy… that it should be reserved for a foreign critic to give reasons for the faith which we English have in Shakespeare.”28

Mme. de Staël, touring Germany in quest of material for a book, persuaded August (1804), for twelve thousand francs a year, to go with her to Coppet as tutor for her children, and reference encyclopedia for herself. Later he traveled with her in Italy, France, and Austria, returned with her to Coppet, and stayed with her till 1811, when the Swiss authorities, obeying Napoleon, ordered him to leave Switzerland. He went to Vienna, and was surprised to find his brother lecturing there on the Middle Ages as the golden era of European faith and unity.

Vienna was the Catholic capital of Germany, and Friedrich and Dorothea had been converted to Catholicism in 1808. Years ago she had said: “These pictures [of saints] and the Catholic music touch me so, that I am determined, if I become a Christian, to be a Catholic.”29 Friedrich von Schlegel ascribed his own conversion to a “prédilection d’artiste”; and in many ways Catholicism—so hospitable to imagination, feeling, and beauty—seemed the natural ally and fulfillment of Romantic sentiment. The rationalist, buffeted by mystery and humiliated by mortality, grew weary of reasoning. The individualist, lonely in the insecurity of self, turned to the Church as a communal shelter and comforting home. So Friedrich von Schlegel, cleverest of reasoners, the most ardent of the young individualists, the most reckless of the rebels, turned now back of Voltaire, back of Luther and Calvin, to medieval Europe and its omnipotent Church. He mourned the replacement of inspiring myths with desolating science, and declared that “the deepest want and deficiency of all modern art is the fact that the artists have no mythology.”30

Perhaps his respect for mythology had been widened by his researches in the literature and myths of ancient India. Begun in Paris in 1802, these researches had culminated in a scholarly and seminal treatise Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder (On the Language and Wisdom of the Hindus, 1808), which shared in establishing the comparative philology of the Indo-European languages. Presumably Friedrich discussed this aspect of his life when his brother joined him for a while in the Vienna of 1811. August, recalling his work with Christian Heyne in philology, resumed his interest in that field; and the combined contribution of the brothers to Sanskrit studies was the most solid and lasting result of their lives.

Friedrich had made quite a place for himself in the cultural and political life of Vienna. He had won a secretarial post in the Austrian government, and had helped to write the anti-Napoleonic blast which Archduke Karl Ludwig had issued as part of the 1809 campaign. In 1810 and 1812 he delivered, in Vienna, outstanding lectures on European history and literature; in these discourses he expounded his theories of literary criticism and scholarship, and gave a classic analysis of Romanticism. In 1820 he became editor of the right-wing Catholic journal Concordia; his repudiation, in this, of the beliefs that he had so lustily defended in his Jena days led to a lasting alienation from his brother. He gave his final course of lectures in Dresden in 1828, and died there in the following year. Dorothea treasured his memory, and followed him, in thought and deed, till her end in 1839.

August outlived both of them. In May, 1812, he was reunited with Mme. de Staël; he guided her through Austria and Russia to St. Petersburg, and went on with her to Stockholm. There, through Madame’s influence, he was appointed secretary to Bernadotte, crown prince of Sweden, and accompanied him in the campaign of 1813 against Napoleon. For his services he was ennobled by the Swedish government. In 1814 he rejoined Mme. de Staël at Coppet, and he stayed with her till her death. Then, his remarkable devotion to her having been fulfilled, he accepted a professorship in literature at the University of Bonn (1818). He resumed his studies of Sanskrit, set up a Sanskrit press, edited and published the text of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramayana, and labored for ten years on an Indische Bibliothek, or library of Hindu literature. He died in 1845, aged seventy-eight, leaving behind him a treasure of Shakespeare painstakingly transformed into German, and, in his lectures, a harvest of literary memories and ideas for Coleridge to glean from on his way to German philosophy. It was a good life.

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