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Roger Paulin - The Life of August Wilhelm Schlegel: Cosmopolitan of Art and Poetry. Reviewed by Nicholas Halmi

Thursday, April 6, 2017 - 14:56

Paulin, Roger, The Life of August Wilhelm Schlegel: Cosmopolitan of Art and Poetry (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2016), 662 pp. (Pbk. £29.95; ISBN 978-1-909254-95-4; PDF version free at

Nicholas Halmi

University of Oxford

August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) has long languished in the shadow of his younger brother Friedrich, whose essays and aphorisms of 1797–1800 helped defined the literary program of early German Romanticism. Though in his lifetime August Wilhelm was the better known and more celebrated of the two brothers—he boasted justly that his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature were read from “Cadiz to Edinburgh, Stockholm and St. Petersburg”—his reputation never recovered from the devastating caricature of him by his former student Heinrich Heine in The Romantic School (1835). This is not the only reason, however, that no comprehensive biography of Schlegel has appeared in any language till now: his interests were remarkably varied (e.g., classical philology, medieval German philology, classical and German prosody, contemporary German literature, Shakespeare, Calderón, the history of drama, Provençal poetry, Italian Renaissance painting, contemporary politics, comparative mythology and linguistics, Sanskrit philology, Indian art), and his works are difficult of access. Much of his criticism and scholarship took the fugitive forms of periodical contributions and unpublished lectures; the three collected editions (one each of writings in German, French, and Latin) date from the mid-nineteenth century and are far from complete; and only selections from his voluminous correspondence have been published. The ongoing critical edition of Schlegel’s lectures (4 vols. since 1989) and digital edition of his letters (hosted by the Kompetenzzentrum at the Universität Trier) will require years to be completed. Thus, Paulin’s biography, based on prodigious reading in both published and manuscript sources (Schlegel’s extensive Nachlass being preserved in Dresden and Bonn), will long remain the fullest presentation of the range of Schlegel’s activities. (The well-conceived capsule biographies of numerous figures mentioned in the text, from Ernst Moritz Arndt to Johann Georg Zimmermann, are themselves a mine of useful information.)

Although undertaken explicitly to redress Heine’s malicious portrayal of Schlegel as a pompous pedant, intellectually desiccated and sexually impotent, The Life is no hagiography. Paulin concedes his subject’s vanity, prickliness, and excessively polemical approach to scholarship and is forthright about the weakness of his poetry (“correct, learned—and soulless” [105]). Moreover, the biographer notes that Schlegel’s Shakespeare translations included unacknowledged contributions from his first wife, Caroline Michaelis (96–97, with reproductions of manuscript pages), and that his later editions of Sanskrit texts depended on perhaps insufficiently acknowledged assistance from his student Christian Lassen (508, 519), who eventually became a professor of Sanskrit himself. This is not to say that Schlegel was particularly duplicitous for the time—Ludwig Tieck, for example, entrusted “his” Shakespeare translations of the 1820s to his daughter Dorothea and the diplomat Wolf von Baudissin—but rather that the collaborative nature of these publications complicates the assessment of Schlegel’s individual achievement in them. More generally, for all we learn about him from this biography, it remains difficult to take his measure.

While Schlegel was, and considered himself to be, “a professional writer for much of his career” (5), that career fell into quite distinct stages, to which Paulin admirably pays equal attention. Romanticists think of Schlegel above all as the translator of Shakespeare (seventeen plays between 1797 and 1810); the co-editor of (with Friedrich) and a contributor to the Athenaeum (1798–1800), a periodical whose foundational status in German Romanticism is roughly equivalent to that of the Lyrical Ballads in British Romanticism; and as the author of the Vienna lectures on drama (published 1809–11 and widely translated thereafter), which canonized distinctions between the classical and the romantic, symbol and allegory, and organic and artificial form (the second and third of these distinctions appropriated by Coleridge). But during his itinerant “middle years” in the service of Madame de Staël (1804–17) with a two-year secondment (1812–14) to Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, the French general who became the Swedish king, Schlegel’s writings were largely directed towards his employers’ anti-Napoleonic ends. Even his Comparaison entre la Phèdre de Racine et celle d’Euripide (1807), whose denigration of Racine provoked outrage in France, could be interpreted as “an act of solidarity with Schlegel’s patroness” (285), while the Vienna lectures offered “a veiled homage” to the cosmopolitan values of de Staël’s Coppet circle (305). At the same time, however, Schlegel’s reviews for the Heidelberger Jahrbücher (founded in 1808)—which Paulin ranks “as a scholarly achievement almost commensurate with the more accessible Vienna Lectures”—reflected the critic’s own concern to cultivate a “National-Geist” as a form of resistance to the Napoleonic occupation of the German lands (292).

Not the least of the biography’s virtues is its lucid explanation of the complex cultural politics that conditioned the production and reception of Schlegel’s works. One aspect of such complexity, which emerges strongly from The Life, is the cosmopolitanism signalled in Paulin’s subtitle. Schlegel was born a subject of George III (as Elector of Hanover), died a subject of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and identified as German, but lived for over a decade in a francophone milieu and published extensively in French, while Madame de Staël, the Paris-born Swiss Calvinist widow of a Swedish diplomat, spent periods of exile in England and admired German Romanticism. It is salutary to be reminded that national identities were not so fixed nor were cultural affinities so narrow in the Romantic period as nativist politics today or the limits of our own disciplinary formation might lead us to believe.

Schlegel’s antagonism to Napoleon did not, as Paulin reveals, make him sympathetic to the political climate of the Restoration: he deplored the Prussian government’s repressive Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, contested the imposition of censorship on professors (he himself having been appointed to a chair in Bonn after Madame de Staël’s death in 1817), and became increasingly estranged from his brother, who had not only converted to Catholicism but become a secretary to the reactionary Austrian chancellor Metternich. Yet one enthusiasm the brothers shared was for Sanskrit: if Friedrich (who had studied the language in Paris in 1802–03) inaugurated German Indology with his On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians (1808), August Wilhelm professionalized and institutionalized it, teaching Sanskrit at Bonn, corresponding with other European Indologists, and editing the first German journal devoted to India (Indische Bibliothek, published irregularly between 1820 and 1830). Without attempting to assess the scholarly value of Schlegel’s editions of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, Râmâyana, and Hitopadeśa (1823–31)—for which he commissioned Germany’s first Devanagari typeface—Paulin emphasizes their continuity with Schlegel’s earlier researches for unrealized projects on Provençal poetry and the Nibelungenlied (486).

Underlying all of Schlegel’s critical and philological work, Paulin argues persuasively, was a concern, traceable back to his Göttingen training as a classicist in the 1780s, with “human origins and development” and the conviction that all academic disciplines “conformed to general patterns of knowledge about mankind” (32). His thesis on Homeric geography was the first expression of an “interest in the origin and movements of peoples” that was to be sustained throughout his life (37), broadening in focus from particular nations and literary traditions to poetry, myth, and language in general. But what is noteworthy about Schlegel’s preoccupation with origins is that it was not, in contrast to his contemporary Wilhelm von Humboldt’s, historicizing: as a self-confessed Platonist, he rejected evolutionary interpretations of culture in favor of the search for Urbilder (primal images or archetypes) and an Indic Ursprache attesting to a divine revelation as the origin of human culture (473–76). Paulin’s impressive biography—which Open Book Publishers are to be commended for making freely downloadable in PDF from their website—reveals a Schlegel who, for all his engagement with history, was resistant to the historicist school of thought that was to dominate German historiography in the nineteenth century.