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Death of the First Romantic: January 12, 1829

Friedrich von Schlegel was a man his friends greatly admired. Indeed, they admired him so much that they gave him the name Messias, a form of Messiah or Christ—“the anointed one.” In giving Schlegel this name, his friends did not necessarily mean any disrespect to Jesus, the Christ, whom at least one or two of them worshiped. By calling him Messias, Schlegel’s friends were merely acknowledging his important role in the development of a new movement in literature, to which he and his friends belonged. This movement was called Romanticism.

Friedrich von Schlegel in 1801

To understand what Romanticism was and is, we can hardly do better than follow the life of Schlegel himself.

Friedrich was born in the German electorate of Hanover on March 10, 1772. With his 10 brothers and sisters, he came from a family of Lutheran ministers who had been ennobled in the 17th century (which is where the von in von Schlegel came from). Friedrich was not destined to be the only famous member of his family; his father, Johann Adolf, was a well-known literary figure, and his uncle, Johann Elias, wrote dramas. Friedrich’s older brother, August Wilhelm, is remembered as the great translator of Shakespeare into German and as a literary critic.

As a young man, Friedrich von Schlegel studied law at the University of Göttingen. When he became interested in more than just law, he ventured to the University of Leipzig, where he began to study the “classical” literature of ancient Greece and Rome. This was not an unusual interest for a man of the 18th century; indeed, the artists of the time (painters, sculptors, writers, and composers) were thoroughly classical. They looked to the ancient world, its plastic art and literature, as the ideal of beauty. Artists studied classical art forms and sought to imitate them—or, at least, they tried to capture the classical spirit in their artwork. The classical style of the 18th century moreover was inspired by Enlightenment rationalism. It emphasized reason, proportion, brilliance, and wit. It insisted that art follow certain strict rules and rarely, if ever, deviate from them.

Though Friedrich von Schlegel started out as a classicist, he finally broke from classicism and became one of the founders of what is called the Romantic school. In Schlegel’s mind, the word romantic did not refer to the love between a man and a woman, as it generally does today. It referred instead to the spirit behind the fanciful literary works of the Middle Ages—the heroic chansons de geste (like the Song of Roland) or the poetic creations of the troubadours, trouvères, and minnesingers. In the 18th century, a fanciful literary prose work was called a roman—what we today call a novel. The novel or roman became the ideal literary form for Schlegel and his “romantic” friends, for it allowed a writer a great deal of freedom to express what was in his mind and heart. Such freedom was of immense importance to the Romantic artists for reasons that we shall now explore.

Friedrich von Hardenbeg, "Novalis," in 1799

Despite the religious background of his family, Friedrich von Schlegel was not a very religious young man when he studied at the University of Leipzig. At Leipzig, however, he became friends with a rather religious fellow student—Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known by his pen name, “Novalis.” The same age as Schlegel, Novalis had been raised in a Pietist family, from whom he had learned a deeply mystical religious faith. This faith led Novalis to turn against the rationalism of the Enlightenment in favor of a Christian faith that would transform all of human life. Rationalism, Novalis thought, was the fruit of the Protestant Reformation, which had destroyed the union of religion and culture that was found in the Middle Ages, when religion influenced all of life. Novalis praised the Catholic unity of medieval Europe and thought a new Christendom needed to be created in his own time.

Schlegel was not much influenced by his friend’s religious ideas, but he and Novalis both had the same ideas about art. They both thought that works of art express the infinite ideas artists have in their minds but express only imperfectly in their art. Schlegel thought that, in his inner self, the artist knows infinite beauty. In writing a poem, painting a picture, or composing a song, the artist makes a beautiful thing that is like the infinite beauty he knows inside himself; but because the poem, picture, or song is finite, it is yet unlike that infinite beauty.

A bust of Voltaire, by Jean-Antonine Houdon. An example of sculpture in the classical style

This notion of art was very different from the classical ideas of the 18th century. For the classicist, the artist did not just imitate the natural world around him, but the way the ancient Greeks and Romans did their works of art. A statue of King Louis XV, for instance, had to look like King Louis XV; but it also had to be done in the style of the ancients. Art, too, had to be strictly rational; it could express emotion, but only if it observed strict rules that classicists thought were drawn from principles discovered by reason.

Schlegel did not reject the use of reason in making artworks. He did not think art should be a wild expression of the artist’s feelings. Reason, he thought, is important because it disciplines how an artist works and creates art. Schlegel did not entirely reject classical ideas; he just thought the purpose of art was to express infinite beauty, not just copy the finite beauties of this world.

If Schlegel’s Romanticism was simply a rejection of classical styles of art, it would not have been as important as it became. In the end, Romanticism was more than a theory about art; it was a rejection of the whole Enlightenment. Enlightenment rationalists had said human reason is the only judge of what is true, good, and beautiful. True knowledge, they said, came only by experience and experiment. They thought faith is worthless and labeled anything miraculous or supernatural as irrational. Rationalists had, for instance, rejected the divinity of Christ, his miracles, and his resurrection, and had turned the Christian Faith into nothing more than a system of moral laws. They thought religion is good only insofar as it makes individuals good neighbors and citizens.

What Romantics like Schlegel longed for was the very thing that rationalism had rejected—mysticism. Mysticism refers to one’s sense or knowledge that the world contains mysteries that cannot be grasped by the senses or by reason alone. Such mysteries can be seen only by a kind of inner eye; they cannot be demonstrated by scientific methods or by deduction. For the mystic, everything he sees or perceives points to something else greater and deeper than itself. For the mystic, everything is an image or symbol of God.

Wanderer Above a Sea of Clouds, by Caspar David Friedrich — a painting that epitomizes the spirit of Romanticism

Properly understood, mysticism is not only agreeable to the Catholic Faith, but is a central part of it. By faith, the Christian is joined to God in a way that goes beyond our understanding; God comes to dwell within each and every believer. This union of the soul and God is not against reason, but it goes beyond the powers of reason to fully understand. For the Catholic, each believer lives at once in the world of reason and the senses and in an unseen world.

Romantics like Schlegel thus thought art should express the unseen world, not just what one sees and experiences in everyday life. “By giving the common a noble meaning,” Schlegel wrote, “the ordinary a mysterious aspect, the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite the appearance of the infinite—I romanticize.” Schlegel shared his ideas of “romanticizing” with others—his brother, August Wilhelm; his friend, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher; the writers Wilhelm Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck; and, not least of all, Novalis. To Novalis, Schlegel wrote, “Your spirit stood nearest to me in my efforts to lay hold upon the truths of the unseen world.”

Friedrich von Schlegel was already a full-fledged Romantic when he arrived in Berlin in 1797. He was not, however, the Romantic he would become. Having rejected his Christian faith, Schlegel had come to think of himself as the infinite source of his own life and his only master. Good and evil, right and wrong, he thought, were the creations of his own infinite mind—just as if they were works of art.

Dorothea Veit

In Berlin, Schlegel became friends with Schleiermacher and met other prominent figures in what was becoming the Romantic movement. There, too, he met Dorothea, the wife of the banker Simon Veit. The daughter of the great Jewish Enlightenment thinker, Moses Mendelssohn, Dorothea Veit was interested in artistic and intellectual subjects while her banker husband decidedly was not. For this reason she was attracted to Schlegel, and he to her. They fell in love and, in 1798, Dorothea left Simon Veit and their four children and went to live with Schlegel.

The same year, Friedrich and his brother August Wilhelm founded a journal, the Athenaeum, to spread the ideas of Romanticism and to usher in a new era in poetry. The Athenaeum carried pieces by Novalis, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and other prominent Romantics—but it especially featured the writings of Friedrich von Schlegel himself. In 1799, Friedrich published the novel Lucinde, in which he described his ideas on love. Many people of the time objected to the immoral theme of the novel and the ideas Schlegel defended in it.

Yet, by the time he moved from Berlin to Jena in 1800, Schlegel’s ideas were beginning to change. He was thinking less of his own greatness and more about God. This was in part because of Schleiermacher, who spoke of how man needed to open himself to God; but Novalis, too, must have influenced Schlegel. In Jena, these men, with August Wilhelm von Schlegel and other Romantic artists and thinkers, gathered and formed a kind of philosophical and artistic colony. “Those beautiful days at Jena were among the most glorious, most joyous of my whole life,” Friedrich von Schlegel later wrote. There, “bright minds and their many plans and their views of life, poetry, and philosophy prepared for us a never-ending feast of wit and humor and philosophy.”

The “beautiful days at Jena,” however, lasted but a short time—as beautiful days always must. Novalis died in March 1801 (he was only 28), and the “Jena Circle” of artists and thinkers eventually broke up. Friedrich and Dorothea themselves left Jena in December 1801; and after spending some time in Berlin and Dresden, they moved to Paris in June 1802. There, Schlegel founded a new journal, Europa, and studied painting and sculpture. In Paris, too, Dorothea (who was Jewish) was baptized in a Protestant church, and she and Friedrich were married.

It was after the Schlegels’ move to Köln (Cologne) on the Rhine River in 1804 that the greatest change in their life came. In Köln, Friedrich began to study Sanskrit and Hindu manuscripts, as well as German Gothic architecture. The study of the Gothic brought him into contact with the Middle Ages and their religion, the Catholic Faith. The “romantic” culture of medieval Christendom attracted both Friedrich and Dorothea to the Catholic Church, and they both became Catholic in April 1808.

Köln cathedral in 1856

Becoming Catholic was a life-changing event for Schlegel, though it did not change his basic Romantic ideas. Yet, instead of thinking that art expressed the artist’s infinite self, Schlegel came to think it expressed the artist’s inner grasp of the beauty of God. Art, Schlegel continued to think, was a symbol; but after becoming Catholic, he saw it as a symbol of the infinite Trinity.

In 1809 Schlegel went to Vienna, where he accepted a job under Metternich. In the Austrian capital, Schlegel published a newspaper bitterly attacking Napoleon Bonaparte and gave public lectures on a variety of topics. There, too, he joined the many intellectuals and artists who gathered around Father Klemens Maria Hofbauer.

From 1820 to 1823, Schlegel edited the journal Concordia, in which he championed the idea of a traditional Christian state. Though he did not think constitutions like that of the United States of America were in themselves bad, he thought they were too mechanical. Monarchy was far superior, he thought, because the king was a better symbol of God. Instead of republicanism, Schlegel thought European nations should look to the medieval Christian empire with its monarch as the ideal form of government. He praised the medieval empire’s cooperation with the Church and its social order divided into families, schools, and guilds. Only such a government, ruled by a monarch, Schlegel thought, was the proper symbol for God’s rule over the universe.

Even in politics, Friedrich von Schlegel was Romantic.

Romanticism in Music

Romantic artists and scholars sought to draw inspiration from the folk traditions of their peoples. Between 1805 and 1808, the German poet, Clemens Brentano, published three volumes of German folks songs, called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Child’s Wonder Horn”). These songs were set to music by such composers as Franz Schubert. The following features a performance by the late German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, of  such Lieder (“songs”) – Die Winterreise – by Schubert.

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