After August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s masterly translation of Shakespeare (1798 ff.) the German stage provided a new home for the Elizabethan’s plays. Native dramatists, between Lessing and Kleist, usually aimed at the common denominator of the middle class; and their popular successes were lost in the detritus of time. Zacharias Werner put his mysticism passingly on the boards. August von Kotzebue (1761–1819) pleased one generation with his plays, and outdrew Goethe and Schiller even in Weimar; he is now a fading memory except for his assassination. But Germany remembers Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist with pity for the man, and respect for his pen.
Born (1777) in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, he was near-Slav in temperament as well as in geography. Like a good German he spent seven years in the Army, but later mourned those years as wasted. He studied science, literature, and philosophy in the local university, and lost his faith in both religion and science. He proposed to a general’s daughter, but he shuddered at the thought of marriage. He fled to Paris and then Switzerland, where he played with the fancy of buying a farm and letting the discipline of the seasons calm the instability of a mind dizzied with ideas. Relapsing into literature, he wrote, but never finished, an historical tragedy, Robert Guis-kard; and in 1808 he staged at Weimar a comedy, Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Pitcher), which a later generation ranked as a lasting classic. Staying in Weimar for a while (1802–03), he won friendly encouragement from the kindly old agnostic Christoph Wieland, who, after hearing bits of Guiskard, told the young dramatist that he held in him the “spirits of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare,”31 and that the genius of Kleist was destined “to fill the gap, in the development of the German drama, which even Schiller and Goethe had not yet filled.”32 This was enough to destroy the twenty-five-year-old Sophocles.
He went to live in Paris, felt its fever, and pondered hopelessly over the skepticism inherent in German idealist philosophy: if we know only so little of the world as comes to our consciousness after being transformed by our modes of perception, then we can never find the truth. Only one thing is certain: philosophers, scientists, poets, saints, beggars, lunatics, all are fated soon to be dust, or a memory fading in a mortal few. Kleist lost the courage to face, accept, and enjoy reality even as so precariously known. He concluded that his genius was a delusion, that his books and manuscripts were vanities. In a moment of wrath and despair he burned such manuscripts as he had with him, and tried to enlist in the army that Napoleon was gathering at the Channel. On October 26, 1803, he wrote to his sister, whom perhaps he loved beyond taboo:
What I am going to tell you may cost you your life; but I must, I must do it. I have perused again, rejected, and burned my work; and now the end has come. Heaven denies me fame, the greatest of earthly goods; like a capricious child I throw down before it all the rest. I cannot show myself worthy of thy friendship, and without thy friendship I cannot live; I choose death. Be calm, exalted one! I shall die the beautiful death of battle. I have left the capital of this country, I have wandered to its northern coast, I shall enter the French service; soon the army will embark for England; the ruin of us all is lurking over the sea. I exult in the prospect of the glorious grave. Thou, beloved, shalt be my last thought.33
His plan to be a German soldier in the French Army aroused suspicion. He was expelled from France at the insistence of the Prussian ambassador. Shortly thereafter France declared war on Prussia; in 1806 Napoleon destroyed the Prussian Army, almost the Prussian state. Kleist sought refuge in Dresden, but French soldiers arrested him there as a suspected spy; he spent six months in jail. Returning to Dresden, he joined a patriotic group of writers and artists, and collaborated with Adam Müller in editing a periodical to which he contributed some of his finest essays.
In 1808 he published a tragic drama, Penthesilea. Its heroine is an Amazonian queen who, after Hector’s death, comes to join the desperate Trojans against the Greeks at Troy; she sets out to kill Achilles, is vanquished by him, falls in love with him, and then (following the law of the Amazonian women that each of them must prove herself by overcoming her lover in battle) pierces Achilles with an arrow, sets her dogs upon him, joins them in tearing him to pieces, drinks his blood, and collapses in death. The play is an echo of the Bacchic frenzy which Euripides had told of in The Bacchae—a. side of the Greek mythology and character not emphasized by Hellenists before Nietzsche.
Doubtless the anger aroused by Napoleon’s ruthless dismemberment of Prussia had raised the poet out of his own woes to make him one of the voices calling Germany to the War of Liberation. Toward the end of 1808 he issued a play, Die Hermannsschlacht, which, by telling of Arminius’ victories over the Roman legions of A.D. 6, sought to rouse the courage of the Germans in the apparently hopeless conflict with Napoleon. Here again the fervor of Kleist’s patriotism raised him to neurotic excesses: Hermann’s wife Thusnelda lures the German general Ventidius to an assignation with her, and leads him into the fatal embraces of a wild bear.
The years 1809–10 were the apex of Kleist’s genius. His poetic drama Das Käthchen von Heilbronn was staged to success in Hamburg, Vienna, and Graz; and the two volumes of short stories that he issued in 1810 marked him out as perhaps the finest prose stylist of the age of Goethe. Thereafter his spirit failed, perhaps through the breakdown of his health. Some strange affinity of suffering brought him into association, finally into a love romance, with an incurably sick woman, Henriette Vogel. His letters to her reveal a mind on the edge of sanity. “My Jette, my all, my castle, meadows, sum of my life, my wedding, baptism of my children, my tragedy, my fame, my guardian angel, my cherub and seraph!” She answered that if he loved her he would kill her, On November 21, 1811, on the banks of the Wansee, near Potsdam, he shot her fatally, and then himself.
In him the Romantic surrender to feeling reached its highest point in uncontrolled intensity, in power of imagination, and in brilliance of style. He seems at times to have been more French than German, antipodal to Goethe and brother to Baudelaire, or rather to Rimbaud. He almost justified Goethe’s unsympathetic judgment: “The classic is healthy, the romantic is sickly.” Let us see.