Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller was born on November 10, 1759, at Marbach in Württemberg. His mother was the daughter of the landlord of the Lion Inn. The father was a surgeon—later a captain—in the army of Duke Karl Eugen; he moved about with his regiment, but his wife stayed mostly in Lorch or Ludwigsburg. In those towns Friedrich received his education. His parents intended him for the ministry, but were persuaded by the Duke to send him, aged fourteen, to the Karlsschule at Ludwigsburg (later at Stuttgart), where the sons of officers were prepared for law, medicine, or an army career. The discipline was rigorously military; the studies were uncongenial to a lad almost femininely sensitive. Schiller reacted by imbibing all the rebel ideas that he could find, and pouring them (1779-80) into Die Räuber (The Robbers), a drama that surpassed Götz von Berlichingen as an expression of Sturm und Drang.
In 1780 Schiller was graduated in medicine, and became surgeon to a regiment at Stuttgart. His salary was slight; he lived in one room with Lieutenant Kapf; they prepared their own meals, chiefly of sausage, potatoes, and lettuce, and, on gala occasions, wine. He tried hard to be a man in the soldier’s sense of battle, beer, and bordellos; he visited the prostitutes who attended the camp;67 but he had no taste for vulgarity, for he idealized women as sacred mysteries to be approached with trembling reverence. His landlady, Luise Vischer, was a thirty-year-old widow, but when she played the harpsichord “my spirit left its mortal clay,”68 and he wished he could be “fixed forever to thy lips, … thy breath to drink,”69—a novel way of suicide.
He tried in vain to find a publisher for The Robbers; failing, he saved and borrowed, and paid for its printing himself (1781). Its success astonished even the twenty-two-year-old author. Carlyle thought it marked “an era in the Literature of the World;”70 but respectable Germany was shocked to find that the play left hardly any aspect of current civilization undamned. Schiller’s preface pointed out that the denouement showed the grandeur of conscience and the wickedness of revolt.
Karl Moor, elder son of the aging Count Maximilian von Moor, is especially beloved by his father for his idealism and generosity, and is therefore envied and hated by his brother Franz. Karl goes off to the University of Leipzig, and imbibes the rebellious sentiments that were seething in the youth of Western Europe. Dunned for his debts, he denounces the heartless money-grubbers who “damn the Sadducee who fails to come to church regularly, although their own devotion consists in reckoning up their usurious gains at the very altar.”71 He loses all faith in the existing social order, joins a robber band, becomes its captain, pledges to be loyal to it till death, and comforts his conscience by playing Robin Hood. One of the band describes him:
He does not commit murder, as we do, for the sake of plunder, and as to money … he seems not to care a straw for it; his third of the booty, which belongs to him of right, he gives to orphans, or to support promising youths at college. But should he happen to get into his clutches a country squire who grinds his peasants like cattle, or some gold-laced villain who warps the law to his own purposes, … or any other chap of that kidney—then, my boy, he is in his element, and rages like a very devil.72
Karl denounces the clergy as sycophants of power and secret worshipers of Mammon; “the best of them would betray the whole Trinity for ten shekels.”73
Meanwhile Franz arranges that a false message should announce to the Count that Karl is dead. Franz becomes heir to the estate, and offers marriage to Amelia, who loves Karl alive or dead. Franz poisons his father, and quiets his qualms with atheism: “It has not yet been proved that there is an eye above this earth to take account of what passes on it. … There is no God.”74 Karl hears of his brother’s crimes, leads his band to the paternal castle, besieges Franz, who prays desperately to God for help, and, none coming, kills himself. Amelia offers herself to Karl if he will leave his life of robbery; he longs to do so, but his followers remind him of his pledge to remain with them till death. He respects his pledge and turns away from Amelia; she begs him to kill her; he accommodates her; then, having arranged that a poor workingman should receive the reward for capturing him, he gives himself up to the law and the gallows.
All this, of course, is nonsense. The characters and events are incredible, the style is bombastic, the speeches unbearable, the conception of woman romantically ideal. But it is powerful nonsense. There is in nearly all of us a secret sympathy with those who defy the law; we too sometimes feel ourselves “squeezed into stays” by the thousands of laws and ordinances that bind or mulct us; we are so accustomed to the benefits of law that we take them for granted; we have no natural sympathy with the police until lawlessness makes us its victim. So the printed play found fervent readers and applause, and the complaints of preachers and lawmakers that Schiller had idealized crime did not deter a reviewer from hailing Schiller as promising to be a German Shakespeare,75nor producers from proposing to stage the play.
Baron Wolfgang Heribert von Dalberg offered to present it in the Na-tionaltheater at Mannheim if Schiller would provide a happier ending. He did: Moor marries Amelia instead of killing her. Without asking permission of Duke Karl Eugen, his military commander, Schiller slipped away from Stuttgart to attend the première on January 13, 1782. People came from Worms, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, and elsewhere to see the performance; August Iffland, one of the finest actors of that generation, played Karl; the audience shouted and sobbed its approval; no other German drama had ever received such an ovation;76 it was a high-water mark in Sturm und Drang. After the play Schiller was feted by the actors and courted by a Mannheim publisher; he found it hard to return to Stuttgart and resume his life as regimental surgeon. In May he escaped again to Mannheim to see another performance of The Robbers, and to discuss with Dalberg plans for a second drama. Back again with his regiment, he received a reproof from the Duke, and was forbidden to write any more plays.
He could not accept such a prohibition. On September 22, 1782, accompanied by a friend, Andreas Streicher, he fled to Mannheim. He offered Dalberg a new play—Die Verschwörung des Fiesko zu Genua (The Conspiracy of Fiesko at Genoa). He read it to the actors; they pronounced it a sad decline from The Robbers; Dalberg thought he might produce the play if Schiller revised it; Schiller spent weeks on this task; Dalberg rejected the result. Schiller found himself penniless. Streicher spent, in supporting him, the money he had saved to study music in Hamburg. When this ran out, Schiller welcomed an invitation to stay in Bauerbach in a cottage owned by Frau Henrietta von Wolzogen. There he wrote a third play, Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), and fell in love with Fräulein Lotte von Wolzogen, aged sixteen. She preferred a rival. Meanwhile Fiesko, published, had a good sale. Dalberg repented, and sent Schiller an invitation to be resident playwright for the Mannheim theater at three hundred florins per year. He agreed (July, 1783).
Despite many unpaid debts, and one serious illness, Schiller, modestly lodged in Mannheim, had a year of precarious bliss. Fiesko received its première January 11, 1784; the incredibly happy ending which Dalberg had insisted upon spoiled it, and the play aroused no enthusiasm. But Kabale und Liebe was better constructed, had fewer orations, and showed a growing sense of the theater; some have pronounced it, from the theatrical point of view, the best of all German tragedies.77 After the initial performance (April 15, 1784) the audience gave it such tumultuous applause that Schiller rose from his seat in a box and bowed.
His happiness was extreme and brief. He was not temperamentally fit to deal with actors, who were almost as high-strung as himself; he judged their acting strictly, and reproved them for not accurately memorizing their lines.78 He was unable to finish a third play, Don Carlos, by the stipulated time. When his contract as Theaterdichter neared expiration in September, 1784, Dalberg refused to renew it. Schiller had saved nothing, and was again faced with destitution and impatient creditors.
About this time he published some letters, Philosophische Briefe, which indicate that religious doubts were added to his economic embarrassments. He could not accept the old theology, and yet his poetic spirit was revolted by such materialistic atheism as d’Holbach had expressed in Système de la nature (1770). He could no longer pray, but he envied those who could, and he described with a sense of great loss the comfort that religion was bringing to thousands of souls in suffering, grief, and the nearness of death.79He kept his faith in free will, immortality, and an unknowable God, basing all, like Kant, on the moral consciousness. And he expressed memorably the ethic of Christ: “When I hate, I take something from myself; when I love, I become richer by what I love. To pardon is to receive a property that has been lost. Misanthropy is a protracted suicide.”80
Amid these complications Christian Gottfried Körner brought into Schiller’s life one of the finest friendships in literary history. In June, 1784, he sent to Schiller from Leipzig a letter of warm admiration, accompanied by portraits of himself, his fiancée Minna Stock, her sister Dora, and Dora’s fiancé Ludwig Huber, and a wallet that Minna had embroidered. Körner had been born in 1756 (three years before Schiller) to the pastor of that same Thomaskirche where Bach a generation earlier had conducted so much enduring music. The youth became a licentiate in law at the age of twenty-one, and was now counselor to the Upper Consistory in Dresden. Schiller, pressed with troubles, delayed reply till December 7. Kórner answered: “We offer you our friendship without reserve. Come to us as soon as possible.”81
Schiller hesitated. He had made friendships in Mannheim, and had had several amours, especially (1784) with Charlotte von Kalb, who had been married only a year before. At Darmstadt, in December, 1784, he met Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar, read to him the first act of Don Carlos, and received the title of Rat, or honorary councilor; but no offer came of a place in the Weimar firmament. He decided to accept Körner’s invitation to Leipzig. On February 10, 1785, he sent to his unknown admirer an emotional appeal that shows him near the breaking point:
While half of Mannheim is rushing to the theater … I fly to you, dearest friends. … Since your last letter the thought has never left me that we were meant for each other. Do not misjudge my friendship because it may seem somewhat hasty. Nature waives ceremony in favor of certain beings. Noble souls are held together by a delicate thread which often proves lasting. . . .
If you will make allowances for a man who cherishes great ideas and has performed only small acts; who as yet can only surmise from his follies that Nature has destined him for something; who demands unbounded love and yet knows not what he can offer in return; but who can love something beyond himself, and has no greater torment than the thought that he is very far from being what he desires to be; if a man of this stamp may aspire to your friendship ours will be eternal, for I am that man. Perhaps you will love Schiller; even should your esteem for the poet have declined.
This letter was interrupted, but was resumed on February 22.
I cannot remain any longer in Mannheim.... I must visit Leipzig, and make your acquaintance. My soul thirsts for new food—for better men—for friendship, affection, and love. I must be near you, and, by your conversation and company, freshness will be breathed into my wounded spirit. … You must give me new life, and I shall become more than I ever was before. I shall be happy—I never yet was happy. … Will you welcome me?82
Körner answered on March 3, “We will welcome you with open arms”; and he paid G. J. Göschen, a Leipzig publisher, to send Schiller an advance payment for future essays.83 When the poet reached Leipzig (March 17, 1785) Körner was absent in Dresden, but his fiancée, her sister, and Huber revived Schiller with food and solicitous hospitality. Göschen took to him at once. “I cannot describe to you,” he wrote, “how grateful and accommodating Schiller is when given critical advice, and how much he labors at his own moral development.”84
Körner met Schiller for the first time at Leipzig on July 1, and then returned to Dresden. “Heaven brought us together in a wonderful manner,” Schiller wrote to him, “and our friendship is a miracle.” But he added that he was again approaching bankruptcy.85Körner sent him money, assurance, and advice:
Should you be in want of more, write to me, and by return post I will send you any amount … If I were ever so rich, and could … place you above ever wanting the necessaries of life, still I would not dare do it. I know that you are capable of earning wherewith to provide for all your wants as soon as you put your hand to the work. But allow me at least for one year to place you above the necessity of working. I can spare it without being worse off myself; and you can repay me, if you like, at your own convenience.86
Körner’s generosity was all the more remarkable since he was preparing for marriage. The wedding took place at Dresden on August 7, 1785. In September Schiller joined them, and he lived with them, or at their expense, till July 20, 1787. It was about this time—perhaps amid the happiness of the newlyweds—that he composed his most famous poem, An die Freude, the Ode to Joy that became the crown of the Ninth Symphony. Everyone knows Beethoven’s stirring melody, but few of us, outside of Germany, know Schiller’s words. They began with a call to universal love, and ended with a summons to revolution:
Freude, sch öner G ötterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng gesteilt,
Alle Menschen werden Br üder
Wo dein sanfter Fl ügel weilt.
Chorus: Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Br üder— überm Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein,
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja—wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund,
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der steble
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund.
Chorus: Was den grossen Ring bewohnet,
Huldige der Sympathie!
Zu den Sternen leitet sie
Wo der Unbekannte thronet. . . .
Festen Mut in schweren Leiden
Hilfe wo die Unschuld weint.
Ewigkeit geschwornen Eiden,
Wahrheit gegen Freund und Feind,
M änerstolz vor K önigsthronen,
Br üder, g äit es Gut und Blut;
Dem Verdienste seine Kronen,
Untergang der Lügenbrut!
Chorus: Schliesst den heilgen Zirkel dichter,
Schw ört bei diesem goldnen Wein,
Dem Gel übde treu zu sein,
Schw ört es bei dem Sternenrichter!
Joy of flame celestial fashioned,
Daughter of Elysium,
By that holy fire impassioned
To thy sanctuary we come.
Thine the spells that reunited
Those estranged by custom dread;
Every man or brother plighted
Where thy gentle wings are spread.
Chorus: Millions in our arms we gather;
To the world our kiss is sent!
Past the starry firmament,
Brothers, dwells a loving Father.
Who that height of bliss has provèd
Once a friend of friends to be,
Who has won a maid beloved,
Join us in our jubilee.
Whoso holds a heart in keeping—
One in all the world his own—
Who has failed, let him with weeping
From our fellowship be gone.
Chorus: All the mighty globe contained!
Homage to Compassion pay!
To the stars she leads the way
Where the unknown Godhead reigneth. . . .
Hearts in direst need unquailing,
Aid to innocence in woe;
Troth eternally unfailing,
Loyalty to friend and foe!
Fronting kings, and manly spirit,
Though it cost us wealth and blood!
Crowns to naught save noblest merit,
Death to all the Liars’ brood!
Chorus: Close the holy circle. Ever
Swear it by the wine of gold!
Swear these sacred vows to hold,
Swear it by the stars’ Lawgiver!
For two years Körner supported Schiller, hoping that the poet would beat into presentable shape the drama that was to portray the conflict between Philip II and his son Carlos. But Schiller dallied so long with the play that he lost the mood in which he had begun it; perhaps more reading of history had altered his view of Philip; in any case, he changed the plot out of unity and sequence. Meanwhile (February, 1787) he fell in love with Henrietta von Arnim, and love letters consumed his ink, while Henrietta shopped for a richer suitor. Körner persuaded Schiller to isolate himself in a suburb until he had finished his play. At last it was complete (June, 1787), and the Hamburg theater offered to produce it. Schiller’s spirits and pride revived; perhaps now he might be judged worthy to join the galaxy of literary lights that shone around Duke Karl August. Körner, relieved, agreed that there was no future for the poet in Dresden. Besides, Charlotte von Kalb was in Weimar, husbandless and beckoning. On July 20, after many farewells, Schiller drove out from Dresden into a new life. On the morrow he was in Weimar, and the great circle was complete.