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Sublime Egos

The Tumultuous Lives of the First Romantics

At its peak in the eighteenth century, Jena in Germany may have had a higher concentration of geniuses than Renaissance Florence or ancient Athens—and plenty of drama.

Illustration by Joan Yang
Illustration by Joan Yang

“Romantic” is one of those words that has traveled so far from its original meaning, and been used in so many different contexts, that by now it seems to mean almost anything. Keats’s Odes and “Roses are red, violets are blue” on a Valentine’s Day card can both be described as romantic poetry. In the fourteenth century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was called a romance; in the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne used the same term for The House of the Seven Gables; today, you’ll find Fifty Shades of Grey in the romance section of the bookstore. Nor is it only works of art that can be called romantic. The adjective has been paired with everything from egotism to irony to fascism.

If there’s a single point where all these lines of meaning converge, the best candidate may be the book On Germany, published in 1813 by the French intellectual Germaine de Staël. In fact, the book was first printed in 1810, but the entire run was destroyed by the order of Napoleon, who saw its praise of German culture as an implicit rebuke to France. Since 1789, French revolutionary doctrines of liberty and equality had spread across Europe as Napoleon’s armies swept away feudal regimes in Germany, Italy, and beyond. Yet in her comprehensive survey of German society and culture, Madame de Staël, a prominent political figure and critic of the Napoleonic regime, dared to suggest that it was in conquered Germany, not conquering France, that the most important new cultural developments were taking place. “The French are not reduced to seeking models among the people you admire,” the minister of police wrote to de Staël, informing her that she had to leave the country.

What she admired about the new German literature was summarized in the chapter “Of Classic and Romantic Poetry.” In France, the Greek and Roman classics had long been considered the best models for literature. The great French playwrights Racine and Corneille took their plots from Greco-Roman history and myth, and strove for the poetic qualities they believed Aristotle had ordained: clarity, unity, balance. But classical poetry, de Staël argued, was unsuited to expressing modern experience, which was more inward and more complex. “In ancient times, men attended to events alone, but among the moderns, character is of greater importance,” she wrote. Rather than ancient Greece, then, nineteenth-century writers should look for inspiration to the “romances” that were popular in medieval Europe. These long narratives—called romances because they were written not in Latin but in vernacular Romance languages—focused on emotions like “honor and love, valor and pity,” as experienced by heroes facing “dangers, exploits, loves, misfortunes.”

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self
by Andrea Wulf
Knopf, 512 pp., $35.00

This “romantic interest,” de Staël proposed, is what makes literature truly modern, and allows it to speak to a popular audience. The difference between classic and romantic poetry is the difference between Racine, who was admired by a cultivated elite, and Shakespeare, a truly national poet. The German writers of her day, de Staël argued, had grasped this truth, which still eluded the French.

The ideal that de Staël called Romanticism would conquer the mind of Europe as swiftly as Napoleon conquered its territory. From the beginning, it was a vague concept—not because de Staël failed to clarify it, but because it rejected clarity as an ideal. “It would be very difficult to quote in their literature any writings generally accepted as models,” she observed, because “their language is not fixed; taste changes with every new production of men of genius; all is progressive, all goes on, the stationary point of perfection is not yet attained.” The writers she praised in “On Germany”—poets like Goethe and Schiller, as well as philosophers like Fichte and Schelling—were romantic not because their work resembled medieval romances in form, but because they were strange and challenging, psychologically acute and spiritually profound.


They also happened to be neighbors. In the 1790s, one of the most tumultuous decades in European history, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Friedrich Schelling all converged on Jena, a tranquil university town of about 4,500 people in central Germany. So did the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, the country’s most influential literary critics; it was Friedrich Schlegel who coined the term “romantic,” which de Staël later popularized. Their friend Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote under the pen name Novalis, was a frequent visitor. At arm’s length from this central group was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who would become the most influential thinker of them all. Jena at its peak might have boasted a higher concentration of genius than Renaissance Florence or ancient Athens.

Yet writing a group biography of the “Jena set,” as Andrea Wulf sets out to do in Magnificent Rebels, is more challenging than telling the story of Leonardo and Michelangelo, or Plato and Aristotle. Most educated Americans have at least a general sense of what those names stand for and why they are important. But even Goethe, the most famous figure in Magnificent Rebels, is little more than a name here. (When was the last time you heard someone say they had read Elective Affinities or Götz von Berlichingen?) The work of Schiller and Novalis is still less familiar. As for Schel­ling and Fichte, though they were central to the philosophical movement known as German idealism, even philosophy majors don’t read them today. Their brand of metaphysical speculation is antithetical to the philosophy of logic and language that dominates the English-speaking world.

Wulf’s previous book, The Invention of Nature, was a biography of the scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who may be equally little-known outside Germany—yet it became an international bestseller. He makes cameo appearances in Magnificent Rebels, but the story Wulf has to tell this time is less picturesque. While Humboldt was canoeing 1,400 miles up the Orinoco River and climbing volcanoes in the Andes, Fichte and Schelling were delivering lectures to college students about exactly how the “I” posited the “not-I,” while the Schlegel brothers feuded with Schiller over a negative review.

Such incidents are fascinating only when they can be understood as symbolic—when they stand for developments in the history of spirit. Wulf is certain that the Jena set possesses this kind of importance, crediting them in her subtitle with nothing less than “the invention of the self.” “For most of my adult life,” she writes in the prologue, “I have been trying to understand why we are who we are,” and she has concluded that the answer lies in Jena: “We still think with their minds, see with their imaginations and feel with their emotions.”

This kind of enormous, unprovable claim has become a genre convention in popular intellectual history, but what Magnificent Rebels actually offers is more modest. Wulf explains the ideas behind Romanticism only in broad strokes, and describes the books written in Jena—Schiller’s historical play Wallenstein, Novalis’s Hymns to the Night, Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism—in a paragraph or two, with minimal quotation. Her real subjects are the relationships among these writers—their friendships and feuds, love affairs and professional rivalries, about which she writes vividly and well. This focus is practically inevitable, since we can approach Goethe and company on the human-interest side much more easily than we can through their thought and writing. Still, familiarity sets its own limits. The complicated adulteries and hatreds of one group of intellectuals are much like that of another; Jena starts to sound like Bloomsbury or Brooklyn.


The convergence of all these geniuses in the same small town in the late 1790s was primarily thanks to Goethe. In addition to being one of Europe’s most famous writers, Goethe served for decades as a government official in Saxe-Weimar, a small duchy whose ruler recruited him as an all-purpose adviser. The duke of Saxe-Weimar was a patron of the university at Jena, just 15 miles away, which meant that Goethe could often arrange job offers for writers he admired. Fichte and Schelling were brought to Jena on his recommendation, in part simply so that he would have interesting people nearby to talk to.

Their common allegiance to Goethe didn’t stop Jena’s geniuses from fighting among themselves. Fichte, whose “I-philosophy” made him a celebrity and drew hundreds of students to his lectures, was not pleased when the much younger Schelling, his former protégé, became even more popular. August Wilhelm Schlegel was a regular contributor to the literary magazine Schiller edited, but this didn’t stop his brother Friedrich from attacking Schiller in print, whereupon Schiller cut off August Wilhelm’s commissions, costing him much of his income.

One advantage of Wulf’s focus on lives rather than texts is that it enables her to foreground the women of the Jena set, who wrote relatively little. The central figure in Magnificent Rebels is Caroline Michaelis Boehmer Schlegel Schelling, whose three husbands included two of Jena’s leading lights. “In Jena the ‘esprit de Caroline’ reigned supreme,” Wulf writes. Her literary legacy is the German translations of Shakespeare she produced with August Wilhelm Schlegel, whom she married in 1796, shortly before arriving in Jena. By bringing Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and other plays into German, they helped to catalyze the Romantic movement, whose main theorist and propagandist was Friedrich Schlegel.

The personal relationships behind this intellectual alliance, however, were tense and complicated. August Wilhelm had fallen deeply in love with Caroline when she was a young widow, but she didn’t return his feelings. A few years later, after Caroline became a pariah for giving birth to a child out of wedlock, August Wilhelm rehabilitated her in society by marrying her, but by then his passion had cooled. When they moved to Jena in 1796, they were literary partners and devoted co-parents to Auguste, Caroline’s daughter by her first marriage, but both parties were free to find other lovers.

Like many open marriages since, this arrangement foundered when the outside relationships got serious. In 1798, the 23-year-old prodigy Schelling came to Jena to teach and quickly fell for Caroline, who was more than a decade older. She reciprocated with a passion she never felt for August Wilhelm, who raised no objections to Schelling’s constant presence in his home.

But others in Jena did, including Friedrich Schlegel, whose bitterness came in part from jealousy—he, too, had spent time under Caroline’s spell. Friedrich’s own love life was hardly conventional. He was sharing quarters in his brother’s house with Dorothea Veit, the daughter of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who had left her husband and community to be with him. He even published a scandalously erotic novel about their relationship.

But the two couples’ open-mindedness about sex and marriage didn’t make them any more tolerant of the everyday annoyances of sharing a house. Dorothea grew to loathe her quasi–sister-in-law’s presence: “even her tone of voice slices right through you,” she wrote. Caroline went away on a long trip in 1800, returning to find that Friedrich and Dorothea had moved out and taken her piano with them. She demanded they return it, but when they did, it was stained.

All this seems a long way from the Romantic realms where Novalis, the Schlegels’ close friend, wandered in his Hymns to the Night (as translated by George MacDonald):

What springs up all at once so sweetly boding in my heart, and stills the soft air of sadness? Dost thou also take a pleasure in us, dark Night? What holdest thou under thy mantle, that with hidden power affects my soul? Precious balm drips from thy hand out of its bundle of poppies.

The contrast between the divine strivings of the Jena set and their all-too-human foibles has the potential for deflationary comedy, though Wulf has too much respect for her subjects to satirize them. Certainly, Friedrich Schlegel seems like a familiar type of intellectual egotist, whose war on convention leaves no time for things like paying his bills or ordinary politeness.


The interesting question, which Magnificent Rebels raises but doesn’t go far toward answering, is how this garden-variety egotism is connected with the sublime egotism of Romantic poetry and thought. Fichte, Jena’s philosophical leader, expounded a theory of radical subjectivism, arguing that everything we know as the world is actually produced by our own minds. As he wrote in his 1795 book, The Foundations of the Science of Knowledge, “The I determines reality, and by means thereof determines itself … reality is posited in the I, and there is no other reality but it.”

Fichte did not mean to justify solipsism or mere selfishness. He was making an argument about the conditions of our knowledge of the world. But the elevation of the individual mind to the pinnacle and source of the universe couldn’t help but have ethical and aesthetic implications. If the mind creates the world, then the creative work of poets and philosophers is the paradigmatic human activity, and these figures are invested with a kind of moral authority that once belonged to priests. There is a direct line from Jena to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s grandiose description of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

The elevation of the “I” in Romanticism thus opened two paths for literature that might seem mutually exclusive. The insistence on total inwardness, the exploration of the mysterious depths of the self, made possible the psychological richness and formal innovation of Romantic poets from Novalis to Coleridge, Leopardi, and Whitman.

At the same time, the belief that what the poet finds inside himself is universally valid, that art has the power to unite a people and change society, led to the aestheticized politics of nationalism and fascism. Fichte himself became one of the chief inspirations of German nationalism, thanks to his 1807 “Addresses to the German Nation,” where he politicizes the distinction de Staël would later draw between classic and Romantic poetry. Germans who “are themselves alive and creative and productive of new things,” Fichte declared, “are true Germans,” while those who think mechanically according to rules are “strangers and foreigners.”

By then, the Jena constellation had long since fractured into separate orbits. Fichte himself lost his post at the university in 1799 after publishing an article in which he seemed to deny Christianity, stating that “the living and active moral order is itself God … we require no other God and we can grasp no other.” The same year, Schiller relocated to Weimar to be closer to Goethe and farther from the detested Schlegels. Soon, August Wilhelm moved to Berlin to return to a former love, an actress, and in 1802 he and Caroline divorced. He went on to take a job as tutor to the children of Madame de Staël, and served as the main source for her discussion of Romanticism in “On Germany.” The story of the Jena set was over, but the life of their ideas was just beginning.