Schlegel, August Wilhelm von
August Wilhelm von Schlegel 1767-1845
German translator, essayist, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Schlegel's life and works. For additional information on his career, see NCLC, Volume 15.
Schlegel was an influential figure of the German Romantic movement and an illustrious nineteenth-century translator of William Shakespeare's plays. As a scholar, Schlegel advanced the philosophy formulated by his brother Friedrich von Schlegel and other members of his circle at Jena, systematizing and eloquently applying their ideas. With his lectures on aesthetics, including those collected as Über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur (1809-1811; A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature), he played a significant role in disseminating the principles of Romanticism throughout Europe. Schlegel's synthetic articulation of the division between Romantic and Classical literary forms is recognized as his foremost contribution to the field of literary aesthetics. Likewise, his illustration of the principles of organic form in drama, in connection with his study and acclaimed translations of the works of Shakespeare and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, remains Schlegel's legacy to the history of European dramatic art.
Born in Hannover in 1767, Schlegel was the son of Johann Adolf Schlegel, a noted hymn writer and fabulist, and the nephew of the dramatist and critic Johann Elias Schlegel. He was educated at Göttingen University, studying under the poet Gottfried August Bürger and the classical philologist Christian Gottlieb Heyne, and subsequently worked in Amsterdam as a private tutor. In approximately 1796, the year of his marriage to Caroline Böhmer, Schlegel moved to Jena, where he was appointed to a professorship in literature and aesthetics and became part of a group of Romantic writers that included his brother Friedrich, Ludwig Tieck, and philosopher Georg Philipp Friedrich (known as Novalis). In 1798, the brothers established Das Athenaeum, a periodical disseminating Romantic thought, and Schlegel also made extensive contributions to such periodicals as the Allegemeine Literatur-Zeitung and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller's Die Horen. Schlegel oversaw the publication of the majority of his Shakespeare translations at this time as well. With some initial resistance from his wife, he issued translations of sixteen Shakespearean dramas between 1797 and 1801; he published his seventeenth and final translation in 1810. The Jena Circle dissolved in about 1800, as did Schlegel's marriage to Caroline, who had fallen in love with the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Shortly thereafter, Schlegel delivered a series of lectures in Berlin (first published posthumously in 1884 as A. W. Schlegels Vorlesungen über schöne Litteratur und Kunst). The lectures served to clarify and popularize Romantic aesthetic theory and fortified Schlegel's position as a spokesperson for the Romantic movement. In 1804, he became the traveling companion of the French writer Madame de Staël, as well as her advisor on German literary matters. It was during the course of their extensive European tour that he delivered in Vienna his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. Published in German between 1809 and 1811, and soon thereafter translated into many languages, this Romantic survey of ancient and modern European drama obtained wide circulation and became the cornerstone of Schlegel's influence and reputation as a critic. His fame was far-ranging and likely contributed to his appointment as secretary to the crown prince of Sweden in 1813. Schlegel subsequently rejoined his patron de Staël, staying with her until her death in 1817. He was named professor of art and literature at the University of Bonn the following year and retained this post for the rest of his life. He distinguished himself professionally in his remaining years through his pioneering work in the field of classical Indian (Sanskrit) language and literature. He died in 1845.
Schlegel's A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature is generally considered to contain his most representative and influential critical thought. Combining his own extensive philological knowledge and the theories developed by the other German Romantics at Jena, the Lectures comprise an account of the formal development of Western drama from the antique to modern periods. Elaborating such key concepts in Romantic aesthetic theory as the distinction between mechanical and organic form and the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic art, the work presents Schlegel's contention that theological differences between ancient and contemporary cultures had caused significant formal discrepancies between their respective art forms. In particular, he used the concepts of organic form in Romantic drama to defend the artistic integrity of Shakespeare's plays and thus played a crucial role in improving Shakespeare's critical reputation in continental Europe. In the Berlin lectures collected as A. W. Schlegels Vorlesungen über schöne Litteratur und Kunst, Schlegel likewise summarized and expanded the Romantic theoretical doctrines articulated by his younger brother Friedrich and the other members of the Jena group. In addition to his critical acumen, Schlegel was an extraordinarily gifted translator who brought his linguistic skills to bear on his German translations of works by Dante Alighieri, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and other authors. In his line-by-line, verse translations of Shakespearean drama, Schlegel is said to have exceeded all previous German translators in replicating the sense and rhythm of the original plays in English. The majority of Schlegel's purely literary works appeared in the early years of the nineteenth century, after the initial success of his Shakespearean translations. His poetry was originally published in German literary periodicals and later collected in his Gedichte (1800). In 1803, Schlegel adapted a tragic drama based on a work by Euripides entitled Ion: ein Schauspiel. He also wrote numerous essays, many of them polemical and satirical, including his humorous occasional piece Ehrenpforte und Triumphbogen für den Theater-Präsidenten von Kotzebue bey seiner gehofften Rückkehr ins Vaterland (1801).
As a central figure of the Jena Circle at the turn of the nineteenth century and subsequently as a renowned scholar and proponent of German Romanticism, Schlegel enjoyed high regard among the European intellectual elite in the early 1800s. By the time of his death in 1845, however, the relative exhaustion of the Romantic movement, combined with Schlegel's lengthy retreat as Madame de Staël's personal literary advisor, had put his reputation into steep decline. Since that time, commentators have reasserted the importance of Schlegel's critical, if not his purely literary, works. Nonetheless, systematic appreciation of his writing and thought has remained elusive. Most contemporary scholars have acknowledged that Schlegel did not necessarily originate the ideas contained in Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature and other works of his dramatic criticism, although they almost universally concede his success in elucidating and applying them. Furthermore, in the view of many commentators, Schlegel's synthesized theories concerning the nature and development of Western literature are thought to have exerted a limiting impact on his later scholarly pursuits. The rigid division he posited between Classical and Romantic aesthetics is generally seen as having prevented him from appreciating formal eclecticism in general and such “hybrid” forms as French Neoclassical drama in particular. Still, Schlegel has been often admired for producing well-realized commentary and for invoking a clearly defined and applicable set of literary standards in his critical writings. Overall, modern critics have focused on Schlegel's role as the popularizer, rather than as the progenitor, of Romantic aesthetic theory. His non-scholarly writings, including his poetry, have for the most part elicited little critical interest, with the exception of his dramatic translations. It is with these works, critics have asserted, that Schlegel exerted his greatest influence over German literature. As a translator of Shakespeare, Schlegel stimulated the acceptance of Shakespearean drama into the core of modern German culture and aesthetics. While advances in linguistic and textual scholarship have made Schlegel's translations themselves vulnerable to obsolescence, modern commentators nevertheless regard them as his finest literary achievement.
Shakspeares dramatische Werke. 9 vols. [translator] (plays) 1797-1810
Gedichte (poetry) 1800
Ehrenpforte und Triumphbogen für den Theater-Präsidenten von Kotzebue bey seiner gehofften Rückkehr ins Vaterland (essay) 1801
Ion: ein Schauspiel (drama) 1803
Blumensträuse italiänischer, spanischer, und portugiesicher Poesie [translator] (poetry) 1804
Comparaison entre la Phèdre de Racine et celle d'Euripide (essay) 1807
Schauspiele von Don P. Calderón de la Barca [translator] (dramas) 1809
Über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur. 2 vols. [A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature] (lectures) 1809-11
Poetische Werke. 2 vols. (poetry) 1811
Observations sur la langue et la littérature provençales (essay) 1818
Vorlesungen über Theorie und Geschichte der bildenden Künste (lectures) 1827
Essais littéraires et historiques (essays) 1842
August Wilhelm von Schlegels sämmtliche Werke. 12 vols. (lectures, essays, poetry, and translations) 1846-47
A. W. Schlegels Vorlesungen über schöne Litteratur und Kunst. 3 vols. (lectures) 1884
A. W. Schlegel's Lectures on German Literature from Gottsched...
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SOURCE: Review of A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. American Monthly Review 4, no. 1 (July 1833): 1-14.
[In the following review, prompted by the republication of Schlegel's A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature in the United States, the reviewer praises Schlegel's critical insight and summarizes the content of the Lectures.]
An American reprint of A. W. Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, is in itself a sign that the taste of the public is growing better. We have been of late years so deluged with novels of the robber school, and poems of the satanic school, and worse than both, with romances of the fashionable school, that we began “to despair of the republic” of letters. There seemed to be a kind of rabidness, a mental hydrophobia fast spreading over the earth, with which men, women and children were seized. Paul Clifford, the Hounslow Heath Robber, Eugene Aram, the sordid thieving murderer, and Mr Trelawney, the semi-piratical scourge of the Indian seas, were suddenly elevated to the rank of heroes, admired by sentimental maidens, and sighed for by the tender of heart. All this has had its run, and will soon be handed over to “the receptacle of things lost upon earth,” there to rest with Carolina Chivalry, Nullification, Animal Magnetism, Terrible Tractoration, and other marvellous delusions laid up in the great...
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SOURCE: Black, John. “Memoir of the Literary Life of August Wilhelm von Schlegel.” In A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, by August William Schlegel, translated by John Black, pp. 7-15. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1846.
[In the following essay, Black surveys Schlegel's life and literary career.]
Augustus William Von Schlegel … 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,...
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SOURCE: Atkinson, Margaret E. “Introductory.” August Wilhelm Schlegel as a Translator of Shakespeare: A Comparison of Three Plays with the Original, pp. 1-8. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958.
[In the following essay, Atkinson reviews Schlegel's translations of Shakespearean drama.]
There is no doubt that August Wilhelm Schlegel fully realized the magnitude of the task he was undertaking in his translation of Shakespeare's plays. This emerges clearly from statements in his essay, “Etwas über William Shakespeare bei Gelegenheit Wilhelm Meisters,”1 and from scattered remarks in his other theoretical writings and in his letters and reviews.2 On the one hand he was acutely aware of the intricate problems inherent in the very process of translation, and on the other his reverence for the complex organic unity and absolute uniqueness of any literary work and his particular admiration of Shakespeare's artistry impelled him to set himself a high ideal of achievement.
Schlegel naturally saw the translator's initial problem and responsibility in the process of appreciation. It was not, however, the obvious difficulty of understanding the intellectual content of the foreign words that he had in mind but a more baffling obstacle. Even in the mother-tongue literary appreciation seemed to him a complicated and exacting task, involving not only intellectual perceptivity but,...
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SOURCE: Hofe, Harold von. “August Wilhelm Schlegel and the New World.” Germanic Review 35, no. 4 (December 1960): 279-87.
[In the following essay, Hofe considers Schlegel's diverse and thoughtful treatment of America and American themes in his writing.]
In the monographs and articles on America in German literature and thought August Wilhelm Schlegel is either misrepresented or not mentioned;1 in the critical and biographical studies of Schlegel, America is ignored. A revaluation of the part which the New World played in his life and works is needed, for abundant pertinent material is contained in his verse, critiques, essays, and letters.
Schlegel actually thought of emigrating to the United States with Caroline in 17952 and, from 1809 to 1811, of finding refuge in the United States with Madame de Staël.3 Clemens Brentano wrote to Joseph Görres in 1811 that Schlegel's departure was imminent: “Adieu Shakespeare und Calderon, bald werden wir amerikanische Sonette lesen und machen müssen.”4
The most important American theme in Schlegel's writings is reflection on the influence of the New World on the literary and intellectual life of the Western World and the role of the Americas in historical development. Furthermore, he treats American topics—slavery, German mercenaries and the Revolutionary War, Benjamin...
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SOURCE: Hirschberg, Edgar W. “G. H. Lewes and A. W. Schlegel: An Important Critical Relationship.” University of South Florida Language Quarterly 5, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1967): 37-40.
[In the following essay, Hirschberg compares the critical methods of Schlegel and G. W. Lewes, arguing for the influence of the former on the latter.]
Bernard Shaw once termed George Henry Lewes “the most able and brilliant critic between Hazlitt and our own contemporaries.”1 Certainly at the time he wrote most of his dramatic criticism, during the 1840's and 1850's, he was better equipped by way of background, education and experience for the task of criticism than any other English writer. Many literary historians regard him as the equal of any nineteenth-century critic and superior to most of them—with the notable exception, of course, of Shaw himself. One—and perhaps the chief—reason for his superior critical acumen was his thorough acquaintance with contemporary European thought, in particular the literature and philosophy of Germany. His most enduring book has been his Life of Goethe, completed in 1855 and still in print. His Biographical History of Philosophy, first published in 1845-46, came out in numerous editions during the next thirty years and contains observations that are still pertinent concerning Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.
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SOURCE: Thalmann, Marianne. “August William von Schlegel.” In August William von Schlegel, pp. 5-30. Bad Godesberg: Inter Nationes, 1967.
[In the following essay, Thalmann details Schlegel's career as an eminent literary critic and scholar in the Europe of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.]
On April 1st, 1804, Madame de Staël1 wrote to her friend Albertine Necker de Saussure: “In the whole of this Berlin, who is it that has engaged my interest? The famous Prince Louis? No. A few from among those ‘grands seigneurs’ who abound here? No. A professor, a German professor! … If you are thinking of a flirtation, there is no question of that, and the first look at him would convince you …, but if you are looking for more esprit and originality in literature than anybody else has and as much as you have yourself, then I can guarantee it.”2
We may begin the life story of August Wilhelm Schlegel with this eulogy, the like of which has rarely been bestowed on any other professor; his life was the Odyssey of a romantic who remained the restless Ulysses all his life.
Hanover was proud of August Wilhelm, son to Johann Adolf Schlegel, vicar of the Marktkirche, when he, on the occasion of his graduation from the Ratsgymnasium, delivered a speech in perfect hexameters in praise of poetry. Even at the age of eighteen he faced his...
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SOURCE: Ewton, Jr., Ralph W. “The Speculative History of Poetic Origins.” In The Literary Theories of August Wilhelm Schlegel, pp. 22-38. The Hague: Mouton, 1972.
[In the following essay, Ewton analyzes Schlegel's theory of poetic language.]
In his “Briefe über Poesie, Sylbenmaß und Sprache” (1795-96) Schlegel observes, “indem man erklärt, wie die Kunst wurde, zeigt man zugleich auf das einleuchtendste, was sie sein soll” [Sämtliche Werke, ed. Ednard Böcking, 12 vols. (Leipzing, 1846-47). Hereafter SW, VII, 107]. Herder is Schlegel's model in this approach to the nature of art. It should be noted, however, that Schlegel had some reservations about the value of such a procedure as history. He later admits that there are no historical data to support the ideas which follow and that, in fact, their only proof is a philosophical one. This admission seems to suggest that the ‘should be’ of poetry could just as easily be determined without the intermediate step of history. In fact, the context of the statement quoted above implies that one of the justifications for the pseudo-history which follows is to make art theory more palatable to those who doubt its worth. Historical speculation could convince where a more abstract approach might fail. History is here merely the form of Schlegel's literary theories.
Schlegel is concerned to show Poesie to be a...
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SOURCE: Stoljar, Margaret. “The Art of Criticism.” In Athenaeum: A Critical Commentary, pp. 111-33. Bern: Herbert Lang & Co., 1973.
[In the following excerpt, Stoljar discusses Schlegel's contributions to the journal Athenaeum, including his numerous polemical pieces and his study of Ludwig Tieck's Volksmärchen.]
The importance of the Athenäum in the definition of romantic attitudes to the art of literary criticism is greater than the proportion of critical articles in the strict sense would indicate. So great is the originality and fecundity of the journal in respect of aesthetic and literary theory that its purely critical function at first appears less challenging. In truth, however, both the theory and the practice of literary criticism sustained through the innovations of the romantic school very far-reaching changes, to such an extent that Friedrich Schlegel, in particular, may in a very real sense be considered the founder of modern criticism in Germany.1
The subject is approached on a number of different levels, which very frequently meet and influence one another on points of specific literary practice. In the first place there is the approach of the reviewer, who fulfils a useful function as the guide and informant of the public in his discussion of new works. In this rôle August Wilhelm Schlegel was foremost among...
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SOURCE: Hughes, Glyn Tegai. “Profusion and Order: The Brothers Schlegel.” In Romantic German Literature, pp. 41-60. London: Edward Arnold, 1979.
[In the following excerpt, Hughes summarizes Schlegel's literary criticism, principally concentrating on the writer's influential formulation of Romantic theory, and notes his accomplishments as a translator of Shakespeare.]
August Wilhelm studied at Göttingen, where he came into close and fruitful contact with the great classical scholar Heyne and with the poet Bürger, both of whom thought highly of him. After four years as tutor to a Dutch family he married Caroline as a kind of rescue operation and moved with her to Jena, where he lectured in aesthetics and made ends meet by reviewing. In 1801 he went to Berlin to lecture on literature and art, and the series of lectures he delivered there between then and 1804, although not published as a whole until 1884, may be said to have schematized and tamed Romantic doctrine for the educated German public. He had been divorced from Caroline in 1803 and in the following year he was persuaded by Mme de Staël to become tutor to her son and to join her at her home at Coppet near Geneva and on her wanderings around Europe. He appears to have been part literary adviser, part resident lion, part henpecked lover, but came into his own during a visit to Vienna in the spring of 1808, when he delivered a course of...
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SOURCE: Goslee, Nancy M. “Plastic to Picturesque: Schlegel's Analogy and Keats's Hyperion Poems.” Keats-Shelley Journal 30 (1981): 118-51.
[In the following excerpt, Goslee considers the insight that Schlegel's A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature provides into the poetry of John Keats.]
In a series of lectures on literature from 1811 through 1818, Coleridge drew upon the attempts of Schiller, Schelling, and most extensively A. W. Schlegel to define the relationship of ancient to modern culture through analogy to the plastic and visual arts. “The spirit of ancient art and poetry is plastic, and that of the moderns picturesque,” Schlegel declares in John Black's 1815 translation of his lectures.1 In an 1811 lecture on Shakespeare, Coleridge, too, virtually translates Schlegel: “The Shakespearean drama and the Greek drama may be compared to statuary and painting. In statuary, as in the Greek drama, the characters must be few, because the very essence of statuary is a high degree of abstraction, which prevents a very great many figures being combined in the same effect. … Compare this same group with a picture by Raphael or Titian … an effect is reproduced equally harmonious to the mind, more true to nature with its varied colours, and, in [almost] … all respects, superior to statuary.”2 Such a scheme may well have suggested...
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SOURCE: Behler, Ernst. “Lyric Poetry in the Early Romantic Theory of the Schlegel Brothers.” In Romantic Poetry, edited by Angela Esterhammer, pp. 115-41. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2002.
[In the following excerpt, Behler studies Schlegel's ideas regarding the mythic origins and the formal, metrical, and aesthetic features of lyric poetry.]
Considering the prominent rank of lyric poetry in European Romantic literature, we would expect an equally important position of the lyric genre in the thought of the Romantic critics about poetry. Indeed, this expectation is met by rich and diversified reflections on the nature of the lyric in essays, letters, fragments, and conversational pieces by the Romantics. These texts testify to their awareness of the revolution they accomplished in this genre perhaps more decisively than in any other. Yet these diversified reflections hardly congeal into anything like a theory of Romantic lyric poetry and cannot easily be synthesized through comparative analysis to a unified whole. The problem with these reflections on the lyric is that they reveal more in terms of mood than of genre and are so diversified according to national traditions and personal predilections that they resist articulation in a more general theory, a difficulty reflecting the particular nature of the genre. As one attempts to ascertain common features among the statements of the...
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Behler, Ernst. “The Reception of Calderón among the German Romantics.” Studies in Romanticism 67, no. 4 (winter 1981): 437-60.
Includes discussion of Schlegel's translations of three plays by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, as well as his critical appraisal of the Spanish dramatist's work.
———. “The Impact of Classical Antiquity on the Formation of the Romantic Literary Theory of the Schlegel Brothers.” In Classical Models in Literature, edited by Zoran Konstantinovic, pp. 139-43. Innsbruck: Verlag des Instituts für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, 1981.
Centers on the groundbreaking formulation of aesthetic theory in terms of an opposition between Classicism and Romanticism undertaken by August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
———. “‘The Theory of Art is its own History’: Herder and the Schlegel Brothers.” In Herder Today: Contributions from the International Herder Conference Nov. 5-8, 1987, edited by Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, pp. 246-67. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990.
Records the Schlegel brothers' admiration for Johann Gottfried von Herder as the epitome of the Romantic thinker and discusses their synthesis of his historical theories.
———. “Cross-Roads in Literary Theory and...
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