Translated from German by Shelley Frisch (Meet her here.)

August 2014 and I visit Jena, birthplace of German Romanticism. November 2020, I finally put together a German Romanticism TBR. I delay the start of the project again when I hear about the imminent publication of Peter Neumann’s Jena 1800, because if you’re going to start something new, you might as well start at the beginning.

German Romanticism is divided into three phases: early, centred in Jena (1798-1805) ; middle, centred in Heidelberg (1806-1815), and late, centred in Berlin (1815-1830). Each phase was a reaction against contemporary norms. The early German romantics were reacting politically against the values of the French Revolution, philosophically against the rationality of the Enlightenment, and in literary terms against Weimar Classicism. Key players were Ludwig Tieck, the Schlegels, Wilhelm and Friedrich, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis), and they all, ably supported by leading ladies, Caroline Schlegel-Schelling (she married both Wilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Schelling) and Dorothea Veit, feature prominently in Neumann’s account. The supporting cast is huge: Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Herder, Hegel, Jean-Paul etc. The index runs to some 11 pages at the back.

Emphasising the individual in true romantic style, Neumann focuses on the everyday lives of the key characters: the frequently messy relationships including the Wilhelm Schlegel – Caroline Schlegel/Schelling – Friedrich Schelling love triangle. Their illnesses – unsurprisingly there was a lot of depression. He writes movingly of the deaths of Schiller and Novalis (both from TB). He devotes a lot of time to the development of romantic theory, associated theological argument and the career paths of the two Schlegels and Schelling. The contrast between the everyday and the formulation of philosophical systems and creation of world literature serves to emphasise that these intellectual giants – in those days mostly in their late-20s, early 30s – still had to find pedestals on which to stand.

Jena 1800 isn’t an academic study; it’s targetted at the layreader. So it should have been perfect for me. However, I found the way Neumann deviated from a chronological timeline, constantly jumping from one year and location to the next and back again, quite disorientating. For example, the final chapter entitled The Night Before tells of Hegel’s leaving Jena after it had been overrun by Napoleonic troops in 1806. Inserted into the midst of this we find Caroline (still) Schlegel taking leave of Jena in 1801. This adds nothing apart from some mirroring as Caroline had been divorced from Schlegel and married to Schelling some 20 pages earlier but 2 years later.

I did like the “What became of them” section at the back, though it did give me reason to quibble with the constant references to Wilhelm Schlegel not being a good-looking man ???

Wilhelm Schlegel ca 1800

Shelley Frisch’s translation is as ever seamless, and I have to admire her skill in rendering complex philosophical constructs into fluent English sentences.

This is the kind of book that engenders a long list of follow-up reads. By rights I should have moved onto reading some early romantic literature, but the universe had other plans, and I started reading a giant of German Romanticism, not even mentioned in that 11-page index! More soon ….

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