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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 Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829)

FRIEDRICH VON SCHLEGEL was born in Hanover on March 10th, 1772. Although reared among family traditions so entirely intellectual, he was, strangely enough, destined for a mercantile career; but the inherited tendencies proved too strong, and he joined his brother Wilhelm at Göttingen. There and at Leipzig he pursued the study of law; in 1793, however, he abandoned this also, and the remainder of his life was devoted to scholarly and literary labors. His mind turned first to the Greeks, and for the literature of Greece he aspired to do what Winckelmann had done for her art; but beyond a few thoughtful essays his attainments in this field never grew, and in 1796 he turned all his energies to the study of modern literature and philosophy. Fichte was the largest influence in his intellectual life; Goethe was his idolized master in the realms of poetry. The offensive tone of his reviews, however, led to a bitter unpleasantness with Schiller. In 1797 Schlegel went to Berlin, where he began a campaign against the rationalistic Philistinism that dominated the intellectual life of the Prussian capital.

During this sojourn in Berlin, Schlegel met the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, the wife of a Jewish merchant named Veit. This was the famous Dorothea, who played so prominent a part in the annals of the Romantic circle. One year later she separated from her husband, to live thenceforth with Friedrich von Schlegel. Their relations have been set forth in Schlegel’s ‘Lucinde,’ the exemplification of the author’s dogma that the poet’s caprice is the supreme æsthetic law. This book became the center of a literary strife in which Schleiermacher undertook its defense. It has been omitted from the later editions of Schlegel’s collected works. In April, 1804, Friedrich and Dorothea were married. Four years later, both became Catholics. Dorothea outlived her husband by ten years. Her few writings, including the unfinished romance, ‘Florentia’ (1801), all appeared under her husband’s name. The standard German version of Madame de Staël’s ‘Corinne’ was her work.

Schlegel’s career was a brilliant one. For a brief space he was tutor at Jena; but his most effective work was as a lecturer. In Paris he made a thorough study of Persian and Hindu; and with a most unusual scholarly equipment, including a knowledge of ancient, modern, and remote literatures, he entered the lecture field. Honors were showered thickly upon him; crowds thronged to his lecture-room. When in 1809 he went to Vienna he was made court councilor, and became the literary secretary of the State Chancellery. The ringing proclamations with which Austria announced her uprising against Napoleon in 1809 were from his pen. In the campaign that followed, it was he who at the headquarters of the Archduke Karl took editorial charge of the army paper, known as the Austrian Gazette. But after the disenchanting peace in the autumn Schlegel fell back into that state of pessimistic resignation which characterized the Metternich régime. From 1815 to 1818 he was counsel of the Austrian legation at Frankfort. In 1819 he accompanied Metternich to Italy; but on his return he left the service of the State, and gave his energies exclusively to literature. He founded a magazine called Concordia, whose sole purpose was to bring all confessions back into the fold of the church. A course of lectures which in 1827 he delivered in Vienna on the ‘Philosophy of History’ showed that his Catholicism had injured his catholicity. In the following year, in Dresden, he began another course on the ‘Philosophy of Language and of Words’; but it was never finished. He died on January 12th, 1829.

Schlegel’s most important contributions to literature, with one notable exception, were conceived in the form of lectures. That exception was the ripe fruit of his Oriental studies, and appeared in 1808 under the title of ‘Sprache und Weisheit der Indier’ (Language and Wisdom of the [East] Indians). It gave an important impulse to the then young science of comparative philology. Of more far-reaching influence was the course of lectures, delivered in Vienna before crowded audiences in the years 1810 to 1812, on ‘Die Geschichte der Alten und Neuen Litteratur’ (History of Ancient and Modern Literature). Although the heyday of his youthful enthusiasm is tamed, and a growing intolerance is evident, there is an exultant vigor in these lectures that marks the man who consciously commands his subject, and develops it with a sure mastery along clearly thought-out and original lines. He fights for the ideal of a free individuality which he saw incorporated in Goethe; but the tinge of mediævalism is apparent in his exaltation of Dante and Calderón. Schlegel, if he was not creative, may be called productive; his work was vital, and the rich nobility of his essentially poetic mind has made his critical writings a positive constructive force.