Roger Paulin’s monumental biography of August Wilhelm Schlegel is a rescue mission. Now one might not think that Schlegel needed rescuing. His name is familiar in the English-speaking world from the Schlegel–Tieck translation of Shakespeare (1825–33). Schlegel himself translated seventeen of the plays, with help from his then wife Caroline; the rest were translated by Dorothea Tieck (daughter of the Romantic author Ludwig Tieck) and the diplomat Wolf Graf von Baudissin. The translation has given its name to the Schlegel–Tieck Prize, which is awarded annually by the Society of Authors (in partnership with the TLS) for the best translation from German published in Britain.
Schlegel has many other claims to fame. With his younger brother Friedrich, he edited the periodical Athenäum (1800–02) in which they defined the concept of Romanticism. Of his copious critical works, the lectures on European drama that he delivered in Vienna in 1808 were translated into many languages. It was through them that the language of German philosophical criticism reached Coleridge and hence the English-speaking world. From 1817, as a professor at the University of Bonn, he devoted himself increasingly to the study of Sanskrit and became one of the founders of German Indology.
So why the need for rescue? The audience for Schlegel’s lectures at Bonn included Heinrich Heine, who at the time intensely admired Schlegel and dedicated three sonnets to him. Schlegel, for his part, had gone out of his way to advise the young, unknown Heine on his poetry. Later, however, in his polemical essay The Romantic School, Heine wrote a cruel, malicious, but memorable caricature of Schlegel, and many readers of German literature first encounter Schlegel in Heine’s sketch. Schlegel appears here as a fop, as a critic narrowly obsessed with metrics, as the submissive companion of Germaine de Staël, and as someone whose second marriage was ruined by his physical deficiencies.
Schlegel’s well-known association with Staël was certainly of the utmost importance to him. In 1804, Staël, encouraged by Goethe, engaged Schlegel as a tutor for her children and an intellectual companion for herself. They were never lovers: that role was filled by Benjamin Constant, at least until 1809, when he made an initially secret marriage to Charlotte von Hardenberg. Schlegel was, in Paulin’s words, “abjectly devoted” to Staël, but such a fascinating personality could easily inspire devotion. The long section of the biography where she takes centre stage is fast-moving and hard to put down.
As an outspoken opponent of Napoleon, Staël was banished to the family mansion at Coppet, on Lake Geneva. There Schlegel educated her children – he once took young Albert on a walking tour through German-speaking Switzerland. They retained a lifelong affection for him. Staël, bored and restless, hired a theatre in Geneva and staged a number of plays by Voltaire and Racine, with herself, Schlegel and Constant in leading roles. She also travelled extensively with what is here called her “cavalcade”.
In 1812 Staël set off for Sweden with Schlegel and her new lover, John Rocca. Staël’s husband, the obnoxious Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, now dead, was Swedish, her children were therefore Swedish citizens, and she hoped to get employment for her sons in the Swedish service. To get to Sweden without passing through territory controlled by Napoleon, however, it was necessary to go through Russia, and so Staël and Schlegel were among the last foreigners to see the old Moscow before it was burnt (as we remember from War and Peace) to save it from French occupation. Once in Stockholm, Staël used her many connections to bring Schlegel into contact with the Prince Royal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who employed him as a pamphleteer writing against Napoleon.
Thanks to Staël, therefore, Schlegel had a more adventurous life than most scholars. It may be that she was more important to him than either of his wives. His first wife, Caroline Böhmer, née Michaelis, was the widowed daughter of an eminent professor at Göttingen, where Schlegel studied. They married in 1796 and lived in Jena, where Schlegel obtained a professorship, and where Romantic writers gathered round the journal Athenäum. Their marriage soon cooled, however; Caroline – emotionally devastated by the death of Auguste, her eldest, and only surviving child from her previous relationships – transferred her affections to the philosopher Schelling, and divorced Schlegel in 1801.
Schlegel’s second marriage was even briefer and more disastrous. After Staël’s death in 1817 had freed him from her thraldom, he seems to have longed for children of his own. In 1818, quite suddenly, he married Sophie Paulus, twenty-two years his junior, the daughter of a distinguished theologian in Heidelberg. The Paulus parents intervened to prevent Sophie from following her husband to Bonn, where Schlegel had just obtained his chair, and accused Schlegel of various unspecified underhand dealings. They also spread a rumour that Schlegel was impotent, an allegation that came to Heine’s ears and contributed to the malice of his pen portrait. From 1818 until his death in 1845, Schlegel was celibate, obliged to live for his studies.
These studies now centred on ancient India. His study of Indian literature was the culmination of a lifelong preoccupation with world literature. His work on Shakespeare is only part of his varied activity as a translator. He was the first German to translate Dante into verse (previous translations of the Divine Comedy had been in prose). He translated a large body of poetry from Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. And he introduced Germans to the great Spanish dramatist Calderón by translating five of his plays, which aroused enthusiasm among Goethe and the Romantics.
Schlegel also attempted poetry of his own. Although Paulin describes most of it as “correct, learned – and soulless”, he lets us make up our own minds by giving us the full text of a rather impressive fifty-six-line poem in ottava rima, “Dedication of the Tragedy Romeo and Juliet”, in both German and English. Paulin’s rendering, which sensibly preserves the metre but not the rhymes, is good enough to make one wish that he would do more translating. Schlegel’s only attempt at dramatic verse, a neoclassical play inspired by Euripides’ Ion, was staged at Weimar in January 1802, but was a complete flop. This was the occasion when Goethe rose in his box and commanded the audience: “Man lache nicht!” (No laughing!).
Comparative literature was then in its infancy, having arguably begun with Voltaire’s Essay on Epick Poetry (first published in English in 1727). Schlegel is among its great pioneers. He undertook a comparison (written in French) between Euripides’ Hippolytus and Racine’s Phèdre, claiming that the former was much better. This comparison, however, was undertaken in bad faith. Schlegel did not in fact admire Euripides, and was only using him as a stick with which to beat French classical drama. And classicism had to be downgraded because Schlegel, especially in his Vienna lectures, offered a new history of European literature focusing on Romanticism. Romantic literature, beginning in the Middle Ages, represented a fusion of pagan and Christian, North and South; its high points included not only the Divine Comedy but also the Nibelungenlied, in which a pagan story is Christianized by incorporating the notion of divine retribution.
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