Other Literary Forms

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George Joachim Göschen in Leipzig published most of Friedrich Schiller’s early work, including the early plays and the Historischer Kalender für Damen (1790, 1791), which included many of Schiller’s essays and was his only best-seller during his lifetime. After Don Carlos, Infante of Spain , Schiller’s plays were published by...

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George Joachim Göschen in Leipzig published most of Friedrich Schiller’s early work, including the early plays and the Historischer Kalender für Damen (1790, 1791), which included many of Schiller’s essays and was his only best-seller during his lifetime. After Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, Schiller’s plays were published by Johann Friedrich Cotta in Tübingen. Schiller’s poems, reviews, and short stories appeared in literary journals such as the Musenalmanach (edited by Schiller), Die Horen (edited by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Schiller in Weimar), Die Thalia, and Merkur. Schiller’s letters, published posthumously, not only are an indispensable key to the philosophical and historical background of his works, but also are autobiographical documents evocative of the man Schiller, his daily life, and his great gift for friendship. Schiller’s collected works are available in several editions.


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Friedrich Schiller’s audience might not have been ready to make the transition from the wildly emotional Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) of his first play, The Robbers, to the more philosophical and idealistic fervor of subsequent plays, but Schiller won them over with his ever more complex dramas. Schiller’s work spans two literary periods, Sturm und Drang and classicism, and it paves the way for a third, Romanticism. At the same time, his work clearly has ties to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the perfectibility of humankind. In Schiller’s work, German idealism attained its highest form. The lonely poet who wrote from his sickbed, however, never lost sight of the wishes of his audience. After his plays had accustomed later generations to his system of thought, Schiller became for them a poet of the people. He was acclaimed particularly by the middle class of the nineteenth century, which did not appear to notice the radical quality of freedom demanded by Schiller.

Schiller threw himself into his sources and settings, mostly historical, in order to demonstrate their true range and potential—what they might have been. His plays, showing his dialectical consciousness, express the struggle between reality and the ideal. His heroes are larger than life, their struggles overshadowing their time. The fiery younger generation was his first audience, but his idealism determined the intellectual horizon of the era. The romanticists turned away from Schiller’s political idealism to pursue mysticism and the indefinable, but even among them, Friedrich Hölderlin and Novalis were profoundly influenced by Schiller. The German drama was dominated by Schiller’s plays for almost a century, until the advent of naturalism. Then the theater of expressionism rediscovered the revolutionary passion and the power of Schiller’s tragic pathos. Georg Kaiser and Bertolt Brecht, among others, brought Schiller’s influence to bear on twentieth century drama.

Schiller equated the concept of patriotism with such ideals as truth, beauty, nobility, love, freedom, and immortality. He bound all these ideals with a religious sense of duty, as in his latter dramas, in which history appears as the fulfillment of a divine plan. Schiller was a subject of several absolute monarchs in a time of democratic and republican revolutions and reactionary wars and upheavals. He created, for the Germany that did not yet exist, a model of the political tragedy. In it the hero is seen not only as an energetic but also as a suffering human being, living out a metaphysical tragedy, a conflict between ideals and fate.

Schiller gave German literature basic concepts of structure, both of the art of tragedy and of aesthetics. The history of tragedy to the present day has been, to a great extent, a confrontation with Schiller.

Other Literary Forms

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Although Friedrich Schiller wrote poetry throughout most of his life, the bulk of his œuvre belongs to other genres. He became especially famous for his powerful dramatic works. Among the most important of his ten major plays are Die Räuber (1781; The Robbers, 1792), Don Carlos (1787; English translation, 1798), Maria Stuart (1800; Mary Stuart, 1801), and Wilhelm Tell (1804; William Tell, 1841). During the early part of his career, his writings brought him little income, and poverty forced him to turn to fiction for a broader audience. Der Verbrecher aus verlorener Ehre (1786, 1802; The Criminal in Consequence of Lost Reputation, 1841) and the serialized novel Der Geisterseher (1789; The Ghost-Seer: Or, The Apparitionist, 1795) were among the most successful of these endeavors. While a professor of history at the University of Jena, he wrote a number of historical books and essays, and during the early 1790’s, he published a variety of theoretical and philosophical studies on aesthetics, ethics, and literature. His “Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen” (“On the Aesthetic Education of Man”) and “Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung” (“On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”) are among the most significant treatises on literature and art written in Germany during the second half of the eighteenth century. His extensive correspondence with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is the high point in the several volumes of his letters that have been collected and published since his death.


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Although most of Friedrich Schiller’s verse was written for a highly intellectual audience, it also enjoyed popular success. His “thought poems” laid the groundwork for the ensuing development of the poetry of ideas and brought him rightful recognition as Germany’s most important eighteenth century composer of philosophical lyrics. On the other hand, his didactic purpose and his capacity for evoking moods akin to those of folk literature, especially in his ballads, made Schiller also a poet of the common people.

Schiller’s poems and other writings were quickly recognized for their quality by the German literary establishment and were published in the significant periodicals of the time. Supported by Christoph Martin Wieland and Johann Gottfried Herder, Schiller became an important force among the artistic giants in Weimar, even prior to his friendship with Goethe. During the decade of their poetic collaboration, Schiller joined Goethe in shaping literary attitudes, approaches, and forms that influenced German poets and determined the nature of German letters from that time onward.

Even in his own time, however, some of Schiller’s poetic works were highly controversial. The “Epigram War” that he and Goethe waged against their critics was evidence that his works were not universally well received. During the years after his death, Schiller’s reputation in critical circles waned in direct relationship to the increased advocacy of realism and, eventually, Naturalism. Near the turn of the century, a Schiller renaissance began on two levels. Writers such as Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who advocated a return to classical literary values, praised Schiller for his poetic models of idealism and beauty. Among the common people, such poems as “Das Lied von der Glocke” (“The Song of the Bell”) were memorized in school, exposing a new generation of German youth to Schiller’s thought. Although he was overshadowed by Goethe in pure poetic endowment, Schiller’s impact on the whole of German literature is such that the renowned Thomas Mann called his works the “apotheosis of art.”

A Transitional Period

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The years immediately following the publication of the Anthologie auf das Jahr 1782 were a transitional period in Schiller’s growth as a lyric poet. In the lines of “Der Kampf” (“The Struggle”) and “Resignation,” the poet broadened the basic themes of his earlier works. While exploring in depth the conflict between man’s right to joy and the reality of a tear-filled existence, he questioned the validity of God’s justice in forcing man to choose between earthly pleasure and spiritual peace. Some of the lyrics written between 1782 and 1788 examine the possibility of achieving a harmony between the polar forces that act upon man; other poems conclude with terrible finality that the only alternatives, pleasure in this world or hope of peace in the world to come, are mutually exclusive. Only the famous “Ode to Joy,” which praises the harmony between God and a glorified world in a profound affirmation of earthly existence, forms a distinct anomaly in the otherwise troubled reflection that typifies the verse produced during this period of Schiller’s life.

The major poetic works of Schiller’s mature years, beginning with the first version of “Die Götter Griechenlands” (“The Gods of Greece”), written in 1788, and ending with “Das Siegesfest” (“The Victory Celebration”), composed in 1803, offer a more calmly ordered, evenly balanced, and formally perfected presentation of the fundamental Schillerian dichotomies than can be found in the emotionally charged poems of the early 1780’s. With increasing emphasis on natural order as an answer to the problems of civilized society, Schiller attempts to resolve the tension between the ideal and the real. Instead of seeking to establish an internal harmony between the spiritual and physical elements of man’s being, he tries in the later poems to move his reader to accept an external creation of the desired metaphysical unity in art. The appropriate models for the new synthesis were to be found in the artistic and literary legacy of the ancients. Schiller’s most powerful philosophical poems present the search for a golden age of accord between rational man and nature and the need to regain that state through reflection.

From the Epigram to Ballad to Thought Poem

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It is important to understand that these writings are not simply versified philosophy. In Schiller’s eyes, the poet differs from the philosopher in not being required to prove his assertions. Instead, the poet employs a variety of devices to convey his message on several levels of perception, at once teaching and moving the reader through his own personal enthusiasm. To achieve his purpose, Schiller masterfully cultivated a variety of poetic forms, ranging from the epigram to the ballad to the highly stylized “thought poem.”

As a consciously developed form, the epigram is a special phenomenon of the collaboration between Schiller and Goethe. It is a particularly powerful genre for Schiller. His epigrams are basically of two kinds: satirical and purely philosophical. The sharply barbed satirical poems focus on poets, thinkers, and critics of his time, especially those who attacked Schiller and Goethe, as well as the literary movements and specific currents of thought that they represented. Epigrams in the other group, primarily the “Votivtafeln” (“Votive Inscriptions”), are more general in focus and didactic in purpose.

Schiller’s ballads, which are also important documents of his friendship with Goethe, represent more clearly than the epigrams the general tendency of classical German poetry to seek and establish the harmony between the ideal and the real. In that regard, they are especially clear illustrations of Schiller’s aesthetics. Many of them follow a pattern established in 1795 in “Das verschleierte Bild zu Sais” (“The Veiled Image at Sais”) and are best described as lyrically narrated parables that resolve the poet’s metaphysical conflicts by appealing to the natural nobility of the human soul. A second type of ballad, exemplified by “Die Kraniche des Ibykus” (“The Cranes of Ibycus”), addresses itself to art’s ethical and moral purposes, employing the elements of legend to achieve its goals. The ballads are the most readable of Schiller’s lyric works, simply because they benefit from his mastery of drama.

Among the poems of Schiller’s final creative period are some of the most extraordinarily beautiful “thought poems” in German. While stressing the inherent interdependency of ethics and aesthetics, Schiller dealt with basic existential questions such as suffering, death, transience, the quest for truth, and the perception of the absolute. In poems such as the lovely “Nänie” (“Nenia”), written in 1796, he arrived at a final answer to questions posed in his early lyrics, replacing hopelessness and resignation with the achievement in art of a timeless unity of humanity’s real and ideal dimensions.

The Laura Odes

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In 1781, Schiller published “Die Entzückung an Laura” (“Rapture, to Laura”) in Gotthold Stäudlin’s Schwäbischer Musenalmanach auf das Jahr 1782 (Swabian almanac of the muses for the year 1782). It was the first of six poems that have since become known as the Laura odes. The other five, including “Phantasie an Laura” (“Fantasy, to Laura”), “Laura am Klavier” (“Laura at the Piano”), “Vorwurf an Laura” (“Reproach, to Laura”), “Das Geheimnis der Reminiscenz” (“The Mystery of Reminiscence”), and “Melancholie an Laura” (“Melancholy, to Laura”) appeared for the first time in Schiller’s Anthologie auf das Jahr 1782. As a group, these poems present Schiller’s metaphysics of love. They are a product of creative reflection rather than intimate experience. When Schiller left the military academy, he had in fact had few encounters with women, and all his early works reveal a lack of realistic perception of the opposite sex.

“Rapture, to Laura” sets the tone for the odes in its portrayal of love as a force that links the real world with the cosmic realm of absolutes. Schiller employs well-developed images of sight and sound as the outward manifestations of love, with visual contacts playing an especially important role in the communication of feeling. The gaze and what the poet can see in the eyes of his imagined Laura transform him, granting him the ability to move from his own reality into the ideal domain symbolized by the young woman. The last stanza of the poem defines her glances and the love that they represent as a clearly comprehended creative influence that has the power to vivify even inanimate stone.

The external tension between the physical and the spiritual receives special emphasis in the lyric structure of “Fantasy, to Laura,” in which bodily and mental activities are juxtaposed in alternate stanzas and lines. As in all the Laura odes, the two realms are bonded together through the force of love, without which the world would disintegrate into mechanical chaos. This poem, however, emphasizes the unresolved parallelism between sexual love, presented in the literary formulations of Sturm und Drang, and the philosophical love of Enlightenment thought, causing the concept of love as such to remain somewhat ambiguous.

In “Laura at the Piano,” Schiller developed a more precise representation of love as a metaphysical phenomenon. Consistent with his ultimate goal of natural harmony, love appears not so much as a personal experience with the feminine, but as a manifestation of the creative power of the masculine through which man masters all the cosmos. The dual character of love thus comes to symbolize the opposed forces of chaos and creation that mold the universe. A key to Schiller’s message in “Laura at the Piano” lies once more in Laura’s ability, through her very presence, to move her lover into a unified transcendent realm. The scope of this act is divine, and her being emerges as a subtle “proof” for the existence of God.

The notion of conflicting polarities is so basic to the Laura poems that even love has its own antagonist: death. Schiller’s manner of coming to grips with the latter accords the odes a distinct kinship with his early elegies, including “Elegie auf den Tod eines Jünglings” (“Elegy to the Death of a Young Man”) and “Trauer-Ode” (“Ode of Mourning”). In “Melancholy, to Laura,” the death motif receives its most powerful illumination in the baroque imagery of the beloved’s decay. Laura is presented here as a symbol for the entirety of earthly existence, which rests on “mouldering bones.” Even her beauty is not immune to the ravages of death. In the struggle between the optimism of love and the finality of death, death triumphs, devaluating mortality as it ends all human striving for happiness. This conclusion anticipates the pessimistic mood of the famous poem “Resignation.” Although not specifically dedicated to Laura, “Resignation” may be regarded as the thematic culmination of the ideas presented in the odes, a culmination that is encapsulated in a single stanza of the lengthy poem. There, in harshly vivid imagery, the poet tears his Laura bleeding from his heart and gives her to the relentless judge, eternity, in payment for the hope of peace beyond the grave.

Perhaps the most interesting symbol of death in “Resignation” appears in the poem’s second stanza in the silent god who extinguishes the poet’s torch. He is a precursor of more carefully refined images that Schiller based on models from Greek and Roman antiquity and employed in the powerful philosophical lyrics of his classical period. This personification of death signals a transition that occurred in the poet’s creative orientation during the mid-1780’s. By the time the first version of “The Gods of Greece” was printed in Wieland’s periodical Der teutsche Merkur, Schiller had abandoned his metaphysics of love in favor of a poetic search for man’s lost golden age. The characteristics of this new approach are a juxtapostion of the ancient and modern worlds, renewal of classical aesthetic and ethical values, and an appeal for the creation of a unity of sensual and spiritual experience in art.

“The Gods of Greece”

The two variants of “The Gods of Greece,” published in 1788 and 1793, respectively, have in common their focus on the concept of beauty. In the first version, Schiller presented a justification of sensual beauty, couching his arguments in a defense of ancient polytheism against modern monotheism and rationalism. The Christian God in his roles of avenger, judge, and rational defender of truth is too strict for the natural world. For that reason, Schiller advocated return to an order of existence based on feeling. From the notion that the Greek gods symbolize divine perfection in things earthly, a kind of theophany informs the world created by the poem, although the second rendering places heavier emphasis on the timelessness of beauty.

The carefully nurtured inner tension of “The Gods of Greece” derives from its dual nature. It is at once a lament for the loss of man’s earlier existence in nature and a song of praise for the potential immanence of the ideal within the real. In the past for which the poet longs, a closer harmony existed between the physical and spiritual realms, because the gods were more human and man was more divine. When the old gods were driven away by reason, however, they took with them everything of beauty and majesty, leaving the world colorless, empty, and devoid of spirit. The final lines of the respective versions offer two different resolutions of the problem. In the first, the poet issues a simple plea for the return of the mild goddess, beauty. The final form of the poem places the responsibility for beauty’s timeless preservation squarely in the lap of the creative artist. Next to Goethe’s drama Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787; Iphigenia in Tauris), “The Gods of Greece” in its two versions is the most important document of Germanized Greek mythology in classical German literature.


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Most of Schiller’s poems reflect the instructional orientation of his literary work as a whole. Early in his career, Schiller forcefully acknowledged the author’s responsibility to move his reader toward personal, moral, and ethical improvement. The ballads that he wrote after 1795 are among the most successful didactic lyrics in all German literature. They are masterful combinations of simplicity and clarity with vivid, engaging sensual imagery. The parabolic ballads, among them “Der Taucher” (“The Diver”), “Der Handschuh” (“The Glove”), “Der Kampf mit dem Drachen” (“The Battle with the Dragon”), and “Die Bürgschaft” (“The Pledge”), reveal the inherent nobility of the human soul when tested in circumstances that threaten life itself. Each presents a variation on the problem of the individual’s response to extraordinary challenge or temptation, laying bare the inner motivations for action and glorifying the deed that is based on ideal and principle rather than on material gain. In “The Diver,” the implications and consequences of free will are central to the story of a young man who retrieves from the sea a golden chalice, its own reward for the daredevil act, then perishes in a second venture, when the prize is the king’s lovely daughter. “The Battle with the Dragon” explores the dilemma of choice between noble intent and obedience. A heroic knight defies the command of his order’s leader and slays a terrible monster that has ravaged the countryside. He then meekly accepts expulsion from the order as the penalty for disobedience, thereby redeeming himself. Friendship as a moral force is the primary focus of “The Pledge,” Schiller’s rendering of the famous Greek legend of Damon and Pythias.

Typically, the verse parables have a two-part structure that pairs an obviously rash, foolish, and dangerous act with a reasoned deed of noble sacrifice through which the central figure ascends to a higher moral plane. In the popular ballad “The Glove,” the Knight Delorges is asked by Kunigunde to retrieve her glove from the arena, where she has purposely dropped it among bloodthirsty beasts of prey. Delorges demonstrates his stature as a man, not when he faces the tiger to obtain the glove, but when he subsequently rejects Kunigunde’s favors. It is not physical courage but the spiritual act of overcoming self that provides the measure of personal worth in this and similar ballads.

“The Cranes of Ibycus”

Like the parable poems, “The Cranes of Ibycus” is a dramatic, didactic short story in verse form. Its orientation, however, differs markedly from that of the works which stress the importance of heroic self-mastery. In its examination and defense of art as an active moral force in society, “The Cranes of Ibycus” forms a bridge between the ballads and Schiller’s more abstract philosophical lyrics, while providing a concise vindication of his own approach to the drama. The ballad describes the murder of Ibycus by two men. A flock of cranes flying overhead witnesses the crime and later reappears over an outdoor theater where the criminals sit watching a play. Caught up in the mood of the drama, the criminals forget themselves and respond to the sight of the cranes, thereby revealing themselves to the crowd. More than a simple examination of problems of guilt and atonement, the lyric work juxtaposes audience reaction to stage events with the behavior of the villain-spectators to shatter the border between theater and reality. The scene is transformed into a tribunal which has the power to bring criminals to justice, thereby influencing events in the external world.

“The Song of the Bell”

Schiller’s most famous ballad, “The Song of the Bell,” is also the most ambitious of his poetic works. In some 425 lines of verse, the poet projects the broad spectrum of man’s mortal existence against the background of the magnificent bell’s creation. Alternating stanzas of varying length parallel the process of casting the bell with characteristic events of life. Birth and death, joy and tragedy, accomplishment and destruction—all find their symbolic counterparts in the steps taken by the artisans to produce a flawless artifact. The imagery is vividly real, earthy, and natural, presenting the everyday world in a practical frame with which the reader readily identifies. At the same time, the stylized presentation successfully underscores the possibility of harmony between man’s physical environment and the ideal domain of the mind.

In many respects, “The Song of the Bell” represents the culmination of Schiller’s poetic art. The effective integration of the poem’s two threads of description and discussion is a clear realization of the creative unity that he sought to achieve in all his literary works. In his classical ballads, Schiller at last achieved the resolution of tensions caused by the opposing forces that play upon man as he searches for personal meaning. Like “The Cranes of Ibycus,” “The Song of the Bell” assigns to art an ultimate responsibility for man’s attainment of peace through productive interactions between his absolute and his temporal essence. The finished bell’s very name, Concordia, symbolizes the final accord of material and spiritual values that was for Schiller the goal of both literature and life.

Discussion Topics

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How far do Friedrich Schiller’s tragic dramas adhere to the classical Aristotelian theory of tragedy?

What did Schiller achieve for German literature? How did he manage to elevate it to the standards and esteem of other European literatures of the time?

Would you say that Schiller is basically a writer of moral ideas rather than one of psychological exploration?

How dramatic is Schiller’s poetry, and how poetic is his drama?

Explore the high view of art that Schiller propounds. How is this reflected in the literature he produced?

What are Schiller’s views on heroism and the heroic?

What are the main developments from Schiller’s earlier drama to his later drama?

How important is history to Schiller? What does he do to it?


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Carlyle, Thomas. The Life of Friedrich Schiller. 1825. Reprint. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992. A biography of Schiller by a contemporary historian and essayist. An excellent resource on Schiller’s life and work. Includes bibliographical references and index. With new introduction by Jeffrey L. Sammons.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Correspondence Between Goethe and Schiller (1794-1805). Translated by Liselotte Dieckmann. New York: P. Lang, 1994. A collection of letters that offers insight into the lives and works of Goethe and Schiller. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Graham, Ilse. Schiller’s Drama: Talent and Integrity. London: Methuen, 1974. Graham provides an analysis of Schiller’s plays, including The Robbers and Mary Stuart. He looks at both content and technique. Bibliography.

Hammer, Stephanie Barbé. Schiller’s Wound: The Theater of Trauma from Crisis to Commodity. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001. Hammer examines Schiller’s plays from a psychological standpoint, analyzing the thought behind them. Bibliography and index.

Kostka, Edmund. Schiller in Italy: Schiller’s Reception in Italy—Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York: P. Lang, 1997. Kostka’s comprehensive study expands and deepens the understanding of the German-Italian relationship during the past two centuries. The impact of Schiller’s work on Italian poets, critics, musicians, and conspirators is evaluated against the history of the military upheaval in Europe.

Martinson, Steven D. Harmonious Tensions: The Writings of Friedrich Schiller. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996. A critical interpretation of selected writing by Schiller. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Miller, R. D. A Study of Schiller’s “Jungfrau von Orleans.” Harrogate, England: Duchy Press, 1995. Miller provides a close examination of Schiller’s play about Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans. Bibliography and index.

Pugh, David. Schiller’s Early Dramas: A Critical History. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000. One volume in the series Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture: Literary Criticism in Perspective. Focuses on the early works of Schiller, their impact and controversies.

Reed, T. J. Schiller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. A biography of the German writer which sheds light on his writing of dramas. Bibliography and index.

Sharpe, Lesley. Friedrich Schiller: Drama, Thought, and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Part of the Cambridge Studies in German series, this scholarly study looks at Schiller’s views and how they infused his drama and other works. Bibliography and index.

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