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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Adelbert von Chamisso (1781–1838)

LOUIS CHARLES ADELAIDE DE CHAMISSO, known as Adelbert von Chamisso, the youngest son of Count Louis Marie de Chamisso, was born in the paternal castle of Boncourt, in Champagne, January 30th, 1781. Driven into exile by the Revolution, the family of loyalists sought refuge in the Low Countries and afterward in Germany, settling in Berlin in 1797. In later years the other members of the family returned to France and established themselves once more as Frenchmen in their native land; but Adelbert von Chamisso, German by nature and characteristics as well as by virtue of his early education and environment, struck root in Germany and was the genuine product of German soil. In 1796 the young Chamisso became page to Queen Louise of Prussia, and while at court, by the Queen’s directions, he received the most careful education. He was made ensign in 1798 and lieutenant in 1801, in the Regiment von Goetze. A military career was repugnant to him, and his French antecedents did not tend to make his life agreeable among the German officers. That the service was not wholly without interest, however, is shown by the two treatises upon military subjects written by him in 1798 and 1799.

As a young officer he belonged to a romantic brotherhood calling itself “The Polar Star,” which counted among its members his lifelong friend Hitzig, Alexander zur Lippe, Varnhagen, and other young writers of the day. He diligently applied himself to the mastery of the German tongue, made translations of poems and dramas, and to relieve the irksomeness of his military life incessantly studied Homer. His most ambitious literary effort of this time was a ‘Faust’ (1803), a metaphysical, somewhat sophomoric attempt, but the only one of his early poems that he admitted into his collected works.

While still in the Prussian army, he edited with Varnhagen and Neumann a periodical called the Musenalmanach (1804), which existed three years. After repeated but vain efforts to obtain release from the uncongenial military service, the capitulation of Hameln at length set him free (1806). He left Germany and went to France; but, disappointed in his hopes, unsettled and without plans, he returned, and several years were lost in profitless and desultory wanderings. From 1810 to 1812 he was again in France. Here he became acquainted with Alexander von Humboldt and Uhland, and renewed his friendship with Wilhelm Schlegel. With Helmina von Chézy he undertook the translation into French of Schlegel’s Vienna lectures upon art and literature. Chamisso was indifferent to the task, and the translation went on but slowly. To expedite the work he was invited to stay at Chaumont, the residence of Madame de Staël, where Schlegel was a member of her household. Here his careless personal habits and his inevitable pipe brought odium upon him in that polished circle.

Madame de Staël was always his friend, and in 1811 he went to her at Coppet, where by a happy chance he took up the study of botany, with August de Staël as instructor. Filled with enthusiasm for his new pursuit, he made excursions through Switzerland, collecting and botanizing. The period of indecision was at an end, and in 1812, at the age of thirty-one, he matriculated as student of medicine at the University of Berlin, and applied himself with resolution to the study of the natural sciences. During the war against Napoleon he sought refuge in Kunersdorf with the Itzenplitz family, where he occupied his time with botany and the instruction of young Itzenplitz. It was during this time (1813) that ‘Peter Schlemihl’s Wundersame Geschichte’ (Peter Schlemihl’s Wonderful History) was written,—one of the masterpieces of German literature. His ‘Faust’ and ‘Fortunatus’ had in some degree foreshadowed his later and more famous work,—‘Faust’ in the compact with the devil, ‘Fortunatus’ in the possession of the magical wishing-bag. The simple motif of popular superstition, the loss of one’s shadow, familiar in folk-stories and already developed by Goethe in his ‘Tales,’ and by Körner in ‘Der Teufel von Salamanca’ (The Devil of Salamanca), was treated by Chamisso with admirable simplicity, directness of style, and realism of detail.

Chamisso’s divided allegiance to France and Germany made the political situation of the times very trying for him, and it was with joy that he welcomed an appointment as scientist to a Russian polar expedition, fitted out under the direction of Count Romanzoff, and commanded by Captain Kotzebue (1815–1818). The record of the scientific results of this expedition, as published by Kotzebue, was full of misstatements; and to correct these, Chamisso wrote the ‘Tagebuch’ (Journal) in 1835, a work whose pure and plastic style places it in the first order of books of travel, and entitles its author, in point of description, to rank with von Humboldt among the best writers of travels of the first half of the century.

After three years of voyaging, Chamisso returned to Berlin, and in 1819 he was made a member of the Society of Natural Sciences and received the degree of Ph. D. from the University of Berlin, was appointed adjunct custodian of the botanical garden in New Schöneberg, and in September of the same year he married Antonie Piaste.

An indemnity granted by France to the French emigrants put him in possession of the sum of one hundred thousand francs, and in 1825 he again visited Paris, where he remained some months among old friends and new interests. The period of his great activity was after this date. His life was now peaceful and domestic. Poetry and botany flourished side by side. Chamisso, to his own astonishment, found himself read and admired, and everywhere his songs were sung. To the influence of his wife we owe the cycles of poems, ‘Frauen-Liebe und Leben’ (Woman’s Love and Life), and ‘Lebens Lieder und Bilder’ (Life’s Songs and Pictures), for without her they would have been impossible. The former cycle inspired Robert Schumann in the first days of his happy married life, and the music of these songs has made ‘Woman’s Love and Life’ familiar to all the world. ‘Salas y Gomez,’ a reminiscence of his voyage around the world, appeared in the Musenalmanach in 1830. The theme of this poem was the development of the romantic possibilities suggested by the sight of the profound loneliness and grandeur of the South Sea island, Salas y Gomez. Chamisso translated Andersen and Béranger, made translations from the Chinese and Tonga, and his version of the Eddic Song of Thrym (‘Das Lied von Thrym’) is among the best translations from the Icelandic that have been made.

In 1832 he became associate editor of the Berlin Deutscher Musenalmanach, which position he held until his death, and in his hands the periodical attained a high degree of influence and importance. His health failing, he resigned his position at the Botanical Garden, retiring upon full pay. He died at Berlin, August 21st, 1838.

Frenchman though he was, his entire conception of life and the whole character of his writings are purely German, and show none of the French characteristics of his time. Chamisso, as botanist, traveler, poet, and editor, made important contributions in each and every field, although outside of Germany his fame rests chiefly upon his widely known ‘Schlemihl,’ which has been translated into all the principal languages of Europe.