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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 Edward Payson Evans (1831–1917)

By Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805)

JOHANN CHRISTOPH FRIEDRICH SCHILLER was born November 10th, 1759, at Marbach, a small town of Würtemberg situated near the junction of the Murr and the Neckar. He was the second child and only son of Johann Caspar Schiller, a worthy man of humble origin, but of sterling character and superior abilities; who began his career as barber and cupper, was advanced to surgeon in a Bavarian regiment of hussars, received the rank of captain and finally of major, and died as landscape gardener in the service of the Duke of Würtemberg. Schiller’s mother, Elizabeth Dorothea Kodweiss, the daughter of an innkeeper in Marbach, was a woman of warm affections, as well as a person of uncommon intelligence and fine taste, with a special fondness for poetry, in which she showed a discrimination rare in people of her class. Both parents were sincerely and even fervently pious, and wished that their son should study theology; and this desire corresponded to his own early inclinations. He afterwards abandoned divinity for jurisprudence, and then exchanged law for medicine, before finding his true vocation in literature.

The dull military drill and preceptorial pedantry of the school founded by Duke Karl, and entered by Schiller at the age of fourteen, were extremely irksome to him, and tended to repress and stunt rather than to cherish and develop the natural propensities and powers of his mind. His love of letters, and especially his passion for poetry, could be gratified only by stealth, or by the feint of a headache or a sore throat, which enabled him to evade for a few hours the stern eye of the pedagogical task-master and to devote himself to his favorite pursuits in his own room. But notwithstanding these depressing circumstances, his genius kept its native bent with laudable firmness, and he succeeded in cultivating the best literature of his day,—Klopstock’s ‘Messias,’ Goethe’s ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ and ‘Werther,’ Miller’s ‘Siegwart,’ Müller’s ‘Faust,’ Gerstenberg’s ‘Ugolino,’ Leisewitz’s ‘Julius von Tarent,’ Lessing’s dramas, Klinger’s tragedies, and other products of the “storm and stress” period; and Shakespeare, through the somewhat imperfect medium of Wieland’s translation. To his over-intense and effusive sentimentalism the ruggedly healthy English poet seemed cold and cynical, and the introduction of clowns and fools with their jests in the most pathetic scenes of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ jarred upon his sensibilities; but as he afterwards confesses, this indignation had its source in his own limited knowledge of human nature.

He left the Ducal Academy December 14th, 1780, as a doctor of medicine, and even practiced this profession for a time as assistant surgeon in a grenadier regiment at a salary of eighteen florins ($7.50) a month. Meanwhile, when he was scarcely eighteen years of age, he had written ‘The Robbers’; the existence of which he prudently kept secret until after his graduation, and then, not being able to find a publisher, printed it at his own expense, and even borrowed the money for this purpose. This play, in which not only his hatred of the galling personal restraints and daily vexations he had suffered, but also the restless and impetuous spirit of the storm and stress movement, found vigorous expression, excited great enthusiasm in Germany, and was soon translated into the principal languages of Europe. It also made a strong but by no means favorable impression on the mind of the Duke of Würtemberg, who punished the author with a fortnight’s arrest for going clandestinely to Mannheim to see it performed in January 1782, and forbade him “henceforth and forever to compose comedies or anything of the sort.” Having before his eyes the fate of the poet Schubart, whom for a less heinous offense the same paternal sovereign had confined for ten years in the fortress of Hohenasperg, he took advantage of some public festivity on September 17th, 1782, to slip out of the gates of Stuttgart and flee to Mannheim, beyond the reach of Würtemberg bailiffs.

‘The Robbers’ is a work of unquestionable but undisciplined genius; a generous wine in the first stages of fermentation. The characters are the mental creations of an ardent and enthusiastic youth, taking shape and color in a great measure from the dramatic literature on which his imagination had fed. As Schiller himself confessed, it was an attempt to portray men by one who had not the slightest knowledge of mankind. Its power and popularity, in spite of all defects, and the firm hold it still has of each rising generation, are due to the sincere spirit of revolt against social, political, and intellectual tyranny that permeates it, and is the sole source of its verity and vitality.

Not feeling himself safe from ducal catchpolls at Mannheim, Schiller went to Bauerbach near Meiningen, where he was hospitably received by Frau von Wolzogen, the mother of one of his schoolfellows; and remained for several months under the name of Dr. Ritter. In this friendly retreat and place of refuge he finished ‘The Conspiracy of Fiesco,’ brought in a rough draught from Stuttgart; and wrote ‘Cabal and Love,’ or ‘Luise Miller’ as it was originally called. The first of these plays marks a decided advance in artistic execution: the situations are more probable and the characters truer to life; indeed, the ambitions, intrigues, loves, hatreds, pomp and pageantry of the Genoese nobility in the sixteenth century are vividly and vigorously delineated, although a certain crudeness in laying on the glowing colors, and a conspicuous lack of delicacy in blending them, still betray the hand of the novice. ‘Cabal and Love’ is a bold exposure of the selfish greed, corruption, and cruelty of contemporary court life in Germany; and puts the Hessian landgrave (who sold his subjects to England as soldiers to fight against American independence, to get money to squander on his mistresses) in the pillory forever. The plan of this tragedy formed itself in his mind while undergoing the fourteen days’ arrest already referred to, and this circumstance doubtless added to the impressiveness of his protest against the oppression of the middle and lower classes by arbitrary power; the enthusiastic applause with which it was received, proved that it dared to utter the thoughts and feelings timorously concealed in the bosom of every citizen.

During his stay at Bauerbach he began a new drama, ‘Don Carlos,’ based chiefly on a historical novel with the same title published by the Abbé de Saint-Réal at Paris in 1672. This partially finished piece he took with him to Mannheim, whither he went as poet to the theatre in July 1783; but he did not complete and print it until 1786, when he was living with Körner at Loschwitz near Dresden. This is his first drama in blank verse, and it is in every respect maturer than the earlier ones, which are all in prose; it follows them also in its tendency as a fit and logical sequence. In the three former plays he inveighs vehemently against existing evils; in ‘Don Carlos’ he sets forth his own ideas of humanity and liberty, in the utterances of the Infante and especially of Marquis Posa. Schiller’s intention was to make the prince the hero of the piece, and he did so in the first three acts: but as the composition was delayed, the marquis gradually usurped this place in the poet’s imagination, and finally overshadowed Carlos altogether; and although this change may mar the artistic unity of the plot, it adds immensely to the energy of the action in the last two acts and to the impressiveness of the whole.

The poet now turned his attention to historical and philosophical studies, as the best means of correcting the defects—arising from inadequate acquaintance with human nature and human affairs, and from imperfect knowledge of æsthetic principles—that had hitherto characterized his dramatic productions. In 1787 he went to Weimar, where he enjoyed the friendship of Herder and Wieland. In 1788 he published ‘The History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands,’ and in the following year was appointed to a professorship in the philosophical faculty of Jena. From 1790 to 1793 appeared his ‘History of the Thirty Years’ War,’ in three volumes. These works, while showing careful and conscientious research, are most remarkable for the vivid descriptions of events and lifelike delineations of individual characters, congenial to the pre-eminently plastic taste and talent of the dramatist. In the province of æsthetics he wrote a series of thoughtful and readable dissertations bearing throughout the visible stamp of Kantean criticism and speculation: ‘On Tragic Art,’ ‘On Grace and Dignity,’ ‘On the Sublime,’ ‘Letters on Man’s Æsthetic Education,’ and finally a less abstract and more distinctively literary essay ‘On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.’ Meanwhile he did not cease his devotion to the Muses; although exchanging for a time the service of the buskined Melpomene for that of Euterpe the delightful goddess of the softly breathing flute, and Erato with the lyre. Besides some occasional poems and amatory odes to Laura, evidently suggested by Petrarch’s canzoni, he wrote at this time the exalted and exultant hymn ‘To Joy,’ subsequently set to music in Beethoven’s ninth symphony. This was followed by numerous lyrics and ballads, the most noteworthy of which are ‘The Gods of Greece,’ ‘The Artists,’ ‘The Knight Toggenburg,’ ‘The Sharing of the Earth,’ ‘The Visit’ (dithyramb), ‘The Power of Song,’ ‘Worth of Women,’ ‘German Art,’ ‘The Fight with the Dragon.’ ‘The Glove,’ ‘The Maiden from Afar,’ ‘Resignation,’ and ‘The Song of the Bell.’ As a purely lyrical poet Schiller is decidedly inferior to Goethe; and the best of his minor poems are those in which the qualities of the historian, the philosopher, and the poet are combined, and epic narration and didactic meditation are blended and fused with lyrical emotion, as in ‘The Song of the Bell.’

It is the historical drama for which Schiller showed a strong predilection and peculiar talent, and in which he stands pre-eminent. While engaged in his ‘History of the Thirty Years’ War’ he was irresistibly attracted by the imposing form of Wallenstein, and resolved to make him the hero of a drama; which was originally conceived as a single piece in five acts, but was gradually expanded into three parts: ‘Wallenstein’s Camp’ (one act), ‘The Piccolomini’ (five acts), and ‘Wallenstein’s Death’ (five acts). In the following year (1800) appeared ‘Maria Stuart’; then ‘The Maid of Orleans’ (1801), ‘The Bride of Messina’ (1803), and ‘William Tell’ (1804),—of which the last mentioned surpasses all the others in dramatic continuity and creative power: the individuals are admirably portrayed, and the idyllic life and occupations of the honest, fearless, freedom-loving Swiss peasants brought out with wonderful fidelity, in contrast to the blind brutality of their Austrian oppressors. Indeed, the very fact (which some critics have regarded as a defect) that there is no outward connection between the deed of Tell and the oath of the men of Rütli, so far from disturbing the unity of the plot, renders it more effective; since they both work together, like unconscious forces of nature, for the attainment of the same noble end. The first part of ‘Wallenstein’ is a masterpiece of its kind; in the second part the action drags somewhat, but in the third moves on with the force and irresistibility of fate, in a tumult of conflicting aims and interests, and with touches of tender pathos, as in the relations of Max to Thekla, to its tragical conclusion. ‘Maria Stuart’ violates to some extent the truth of history, by making the conflict chiefly a matter of personal animosity instead of an antagonism of political principles and religious systems; but is distinguished for depth of psychological insight in the delineation of the characters of the rival queens and the principal statesmen and courtiers,—Burleigh, Talbot, Leicester, Mortimer, and Shrewsbury. In ‘The Maid of Orleans’ the heroine is the pure-souled and patriotic representative of her people, and the Divinely chosen defender of her country; and the contest is between nations. She is here no longer the devil’s satellite and sorceress of her English foes and of Shakespeare, and her memory is cleansed of the fifth with which Voltaire defiled it. In this “romantic tragedy,” as Schiller called it, he images forth with wonderful accuracy the romantic spirit of the age, which rendered such apparitions and supernatural agencies credible. Touchingly human and true is the scene with Lionel, in which the invincible and inexorable virgin is suddenly transformed into a tender-hearted and weak-handed woman through the power of earthly love. The fable of ‘The Bride of Messina,’ the fatal enmity of two brothers, rivals in love, was the theme of Greek tragedy, and forms the plots of Klinger’s ‘The Twins’ and Leisewitz’s ‘Julius of Tarentum.’ The dialogue is interspersed with choral odes, suitable to the action and summing up the supposed reflections of the spectators; and the traditional idea of fate pervades the whole, although Schiller gives larger scope to free-will, and makes the individual in reality the author of his own destiny through the inevitable sequence of cause and effect. The poet comprises it all in the concluding verse: “Life is not the chief good, and the greatest of evils is guilt.” Schiller’s dramatic style is the grand style, and rather ornate and oratorical. He is truly eloquent, and in the glittering coils of his rhetoric there is no pinchbeck; but his speeches are often too long, and in the mouths of second-rate actors are apt to degenerate into rant. It would be unjust, however, to hold the poet responsible for the deficiencies of the player.

While holding his professorship at Jena, Schiller married, on February 22d, 1790, Charlotte von Lengefeld; by whom he had two sons (Carl and Ernst) and two daughters (Caroline and Emilie), and who died at Bonn July 9th, 1826, thus surviving her husband more than twenty-one years. In 1799 he settled permanently in Weimar; in 1802 he was raised to the nobility,—a distinction for which he cared little himself, but which he thought might be of some advantage to his children. Personally he prized far more highly the honorary citizenship of the French Republic, which had been conferred upon him by the National Convention in 1793. In 1797 he was chosen a member of the Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. In 1791 he had a severe attack of catarrhal fever, from the effects of which he never wholly recovered. Fortunately his pecuniary anxieties were partially relieved by the Danish poet Jens Baggesen, who induced the Duke of Holstein-Augustenburg, and the Danish minister Count von Schimmelmann, to grant him a pension of a thousand speciesdaler (equivalent to about $1000), with the injunction to take care of his health and not overwork. In the spring of 1804 he went to Berlin to a representation of ‘William Tell,’ but the exertion caused a recurrence of his old malady. He grew better, however; translated Racine’s ‘Phèdre’ in twenty-six days, and completed two acts of a new play, ‘The False Demetrius,’—when a return of catarrhal fever ended his days on May 9th, 1805.

During the last ten years of his life, Schiller’s relations to Goethe were those of cordial friendship and literary co-operation; one of the most important results of which was the joint production of a series of satirical epigrams called ‘Xenien,’ and published in the Musenalmanach in 1797. The more philosophic and less personal, or what Schiller called the “harmless” ones, were also collected and printed under the title of ‘Tabulæ Votivæ’ (Votive Tablets). ‘Xenia’ ([Greek], gifts to guests) is the title of the thirteenth book of the epigrams of the Roman poet Martial, from whom the term was borrowed by Goethe, who first mentioned it in a letter to Schiller dated December 23d, 1795; Schiller immediately replied that the idea “is splendid, and must be carried out.” The epigrams contain many happy hits at the isms and ologies of the day, as well as at individual foibles. They were evidently thrown off hastily, and are not always perfect in form; but they are full of pointed wit and pungency, and made an immense sensation. Some writers by whom they were fiercely resented, ought to have been gratified and grateful, since the allusions to them in these distichs have alone saved their names from oblivion.

In the ordinary relations of life Schiller was a simple-hearted, noble-minded, and clear-sighted man, all alive with enthusiasm and full of delicate sensibility, but free from every sort of affectation. He was endowed with an intellect of high order, which he spared no pains to cultivate by assiduous and systematic study. The versatility of his genius was remarkable; and he might have excelled as a philosopher or historian, had it not been for the predominance of his poetic gifts, to which he made all acquisitions of learning subordinate and contributory. Perhaps the least conspicuous of his mental powers was humor; but the scenes in ‘Wallenstein’s Camp,’ ‘The Famous Wife, an Epistle from One Husband to Another,’ and some of his epigrams and parables, show that he was by no means destitute of this rare faculty. Remembering that he died before he was forty-six, and suffered severely from sickness during the last decade of his life, one cannot but wonder at the extent and brilliancy of his achievements as a poet and scholar.