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- Lectures on Dramatic Art - 3/97 -


AUGUSTUS WILLIAM VON SCHLEGEL, the author of the following Lectures, was, with his no-less distinguished brother, Frederick, the son of John Adolph Schlegel, a native of Saxony, and descended from a noble family. Holding a high appointment in the Lutheran church, Adolph Schlegel distinguished himself as a religious poet, and was the friend and associate of Rabener, Gellert, and Klopstock. Celebrated for his eloquence in the pulpit, and strictly diligent in the performance of his religious duties, he died in 1792, leaving an example to his children which no doubt had a happy influence on them.

Of these, the seventh, Augustus William, was born in Hanover, September 5th, 1767. In his early childhood, he evinced a genuine susceptibility for all that was good and noble; and this early promise of a generous and virtuous disposition was carefully nurtured by the religious instruction of his mother, an amiable and highly-gifted woman. Of this parent's pious and judicious teaching, Augustus William had to the end of his days a grateful remembrance, and he cherished for her throughout life a sincere and affectionate esteem, whose ardour neither time nor distance could diminish. The filial affection of her favourite son soothed the declining years of his mother, and lightened the anxieties with which the critical and troubled state of the times alarmed her old age. His further education was carried on by a private tutor, who prepared him for the grammar-school at Hanover, where he was distinguished both for his unremitting application, to which he often sacrificed the hours of leisure and recreation, and for the early display of a natural gift for language, which enabled him immediately on the close of his academic career to accept a tutorial appointment, which demanded of its holder a knowledge not only of the classics but also of English and French. He also displayed at a very early age a talent for poetry, and some of his juvenile extempore effusions were remarkable for their easy versification and rhythmical flow. In his eighteenth year he was called upon to deliver in the Lyceum of his native city, the anniversary oration in honour of a royal birthday. His address on this occasion excited an extraordinary sensation both by the graceful elegance of the style and the interest of the matter, written in hexameters. It embraced a short history of poetry in Germany, and was relieved and animated with many judicious and striking illustrations from the earliest Teutonic poets.

He now proceeded to the University of Göttingen as a student of theology, which science, however, he shortly abandoned for the more congenial one of philology. The propriety of this charge he amply attested by his Essay on the Geography of Homer, which displayed both an intelligent and comprehensive study of this difficult branch of classical archaeology.

At Göttingen he lived in the closest intimacy with Heyne, for whose _Virgil_, in 1788 he completed an index; he also became acquainted with the celebrated Michaelis. It was here too that he formed the friendship of Bürger, to whose _Academie der Schönen Redekünste_, he contributed his _Ariadne_, and an essay on _Dante_. The kindred genius of Bürger favourably influenced his own mind and tastes, and moved him to make the first known attempt to naturalize the Italian sonnet in Germany.

Towards the end of his university career he combined his own studies with the private instruction of a rich young Englishman, born in the East Indies, and at the close of it accepted the post of tutor to the only son of Herr Muilmann, the celebrated Banker of Amsterdam. In this situation he gained universal respect and esteem, but after three years he quitted it to enter upon a wider sphere of literary activity. On his return to his native country he was elected Professor in the University of Jena. Schlegel's residence in this place, which may truly be called the classic soil of German literature, as it gained him the acquaintance of his eminent contemporaries Schiller and Goethe, marks a decisive epoch in the formation of his intellectual character. At this date he contributed largely to the _Horen_, and also to Schiller's _Musen-Almanach_, and down to 1799 was one of the most fertile writers in the _Allgemeinen Literatur-Zeitung_ of Jena. It was here, also, that he commenced his translations of Shakspeare, (9 vols., Berlin, 1797-1810,) which produced a salutary effect on the taste and judgment of his countrymen, and also on Dramatic Art and theatrical representation in Germany. Notwithstanding the favourable reception of this work he subsequently abandoned it, and on the publication of a new edition, in 1825, he cheerfully consigned to Tieck the revision of his own labours, and the completion of the yet untranslated pieces.

Continuing attached to the University of Jena, where the dignity of Professorship was associated with that of Member of the Council, he now commenced a course of lectures on Aesthetics, and joined his brother Frederick in the editorship of the _Athenaeum_, (3 vols., Berlin, 1796-1800,) an Aesthetico-critical journal, intended, while observing a rigorous but an impartial spirit of criticism, to discover and foster every grain of a truly vital development of mind. It was also during his residence at Jena that he published the first edition of his Poems, among which the religious pieces and the Sonnets on Art were greatly admired and had many imitators. To the latter years of his residence at Jena, which may be called the political portion of Schlegel's literary career, belongs the _Gate of Honour for the Stage-President Von-Kotzebue_, (_Ehrenpforte fur den Theater Präsidenten von Kotzebue_, 1800,) an ill-natured and much- censured satire in reply to Kotzebue's attack, entitled the _Hyperborean Ass_ (_Hyperboreischen Esee_). At this time he also collected several of his own and brother Frederick's earlier and occasional contributions to various periodicals, and these, together with the hitherto unpublished dissertations on Bürger's works, make up the _Characteristiken u Kritiken_ (2 vols., Koenigsberg, 1801). Shortly afterwards he undertook with Tieck the editorship of _Musen-Almanack_ for 1802. The two brothers were now leading a truly scientific and poetic life, associating and co-operating with many minds of a kindred spirit, who gathered round Tieck and Novalis as their centre.

His marriage with the daughter of Michaelis was not a happy one, and was quickly followed by a separation, upon which Schlegel proceeded to Berlin. In this city, towards the end of 1802, he delivered his _Lectures on the Present State of Literature and the Fine Arts_, which were afterwards printed in the _Europa_, under his brother's editorship. The publication in 1803 of his _Ion_, a drama in imitation of the ancients, but as a composition unmarked by any peculiar display of vigour, led to an interesting argument between himself, Bernhardi, and Schilling. This discussion, which extended from its original subject to Euripides and Dramatic Representation in general, was carried on in the _Journal for the Polite World_ (_Zeitung fur die elegante Welt_,) which Schlegel supported by his advice and contributions. In this periodical he also entered the lists in opposition to Kotzebue and Merkel in the _Freimüthige_ (_The Liberal_), and the merits of the so-called modern school and its leaders, was the subject of a paper war, waged with the bitterest acrimony of controversy, which did not scruple to employ the sharpest weapons of personal abuse and ridicule.

At this date Schlegel was engaged upon his _Spanish Theatre_, (2 vols., Berlin, 1803-1809). In the execution of this work, much was naturally demanded of the translator of Shakspeare, nor did he disappoint the general expectator, although he had here far greater difficulties to contend with. Not content with merely giving a faithful interpretation of his author's meaning, he laid down and strictly observed the law of adhering rigorously to all the measures, rhythms, and assonances of the original. These two excellent translations, in each of which he has brought to bear both the great command of his own, and a wonderful quickness in catching the spirit of a foreign language, have earned for Schlegel the foremost place among successful and able translators, while his _Flowers of Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese Poetry_ (_Blumensträusse d. Ital. Span. u. Portug. Poesie_, Berlin, 1804), furnish another proof both of his skill in this pursuit and of the extent of his acquaintance with European literature. Moreover, the merit of having by these translations made Shakspeare and Calderon more widely known and better appreciated in Germany would, in default of any other claim, alone entitle him to take high rank in the annals of modern literature.

But a new and more important career was now open to him by his introduction to Madame de Staël. Making a tour in Germany, this distinguished woman arrived at Berlin in 1805, and desirous of acquainting herself more thoroughly with German literature she selected Schlegel to direct her studies of it, and at the same time confided to his charge the completion of her children's education. Quitting Berlin he accompanied this lady on her travels through Italy and France, and afterwards repaired with her to her paternal seat at Coppet, on the Lake of Geneva, which now became for some time his fixed abode. It was here that in 1807 he wrote in French his _Parallel between the Phaedra of Euripides and the Phèdre of Racine_, which produced a lively sensation in the literary circles of Paris. This city had peculiar attractions for Schlegel, both in its invaluable literary stores and its re-union of men of letters, among whom his own views and opinions found many enthusiastic admirers and partisans, notwithstanding that in his critical analysis of Racine's _Phèdre_ he had presumed to attack what Frenchmen deemed the chiefest glory of their literature, and had mortified their national vanity in its most sensitive point.

In the spring of 1808 he visited Vienna, and there read to a brilliant audience his _Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature_, which, on their publication, were hailed throughout Europe with marked approbation, and which will, unquestionably, transmit his name to the latest posterity. His object in these Lectures is both to take a rapid survey of dramatic productions of different ages and nations, and to develope and determine the general ideas by which their true artistic value must be judged. In his travels with Madame de Staël he was introduced to the present King, then the Crown Prince, of Bavaria, who bestowed on him many marks of his respect and esteem, and about this time he took a part in the _German Museum_ (_Deutsche Museum_), of his brother Frederick, contributing some learned and profound dissertations on the _Lay of the Nibelungen_. In 1812, when the subjugated South no longer afforded an asylum to the liberal-minded De Staël, with whose personal fortunes he felt himself inseparably linked by that deep feeling of esteem and friendship which speaks so touchingly and pathetically in some of his later poems, he accompanied that lady on a visit to Stockholm, where he formed the acquaintance of the Crown Prince.

The great political events of this period were not without their effect on Schlegel's mind, and in 1813 he came forward as a political writer, when his powerful pen was not without its effect in rousing the German mind from the torpor into which it had sunk beneath the victorious military despotism of France. But he was called upon to take a more active part in the measures of these stirring times, and in this year entered the service of the Crown Prince of Sweden, as secretary and counsellor at head quarters. For this Prince he had a great personal regard, and estimated highly both his virtues as a man and his talents as a general. The services he rendered the Swedish Prince were duly appreciated and rewarded, among other marks of distinction by a patent of nobility, in virtue of which he prefixed the "Von" to his paternal name of Schlegel. The Emperor Alexander, of whose religious elevation of character he always spoke with admiration, also honoured him with his intimacy and many tokens of esteem.

Upon the fall of Napoleon he returned to Coppet with Madame de Staël, and in 1815 published a second volume of his _Poetical Works_, (Heildelberg, 1811-1815, 2nd edit., 2 vols., 1820). These are characterized not merely by the brilliancy and purity of the language, but also by the variety and richness of the imagery. Among these the _Arion_, _Pygmalion_, and _Der Heilige Lucas_ (St. Luke,) the Sonnets, and the sublime elegy, _Rhine_,

Lectures on Dramatic Art - 3/97

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