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Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller

by B. L. Farjeon

It is a common belief, and a common error, that clever children seldom became illustrious, and though we have instances of youthful dullards who have ripened into fame, they are rare in comparison with those who in early youth have given some indications of future renown. Of these last Germany's favorite bard is one. Born in the little village of Marbach, in the duchy of Würtemberg, on November 10, 1759, he, when a child, evinced proofs of remarkable imaginative and creative power. At as early an age as six he showed that he possessed a fearless nature and an inquiring mind. A terrific storm was raging, and his parents searched for him in vain; the vivid lightning and the crashing thunder increased their anxiety, but they could find no trace of the child. At length, when the storm was over, he was seen to descend from the topmost branches of a great lime-tree near the house. They rushed toward him and inquired why he had selected so dangerous a refuge. "I wanted to see," he replied, with an intrepid air, "where all the fire came from." Even at this period he found his favorite reading in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, and it was probably from Ezekiel that he derived his inspiration for Franz Moor's dream in "The Robbers." His mother taught him to read, and the stories she related to him were listened to with avidity; she was his closest companion and friend, and from her he inherited the gifts which made his name a household word in every home in Germany. He was brought up in a religious and scholarly household. Prayers twice a day, regular attendance at church, the study of Greek and Latin already commenced—these were his principal occupations at seven years of age, when other lads were playing about the fields. From his father he also inherited the literary instinct. The elder Schiller, at the time his son was born, was a lieutenant in the service of the dissolute and tyrannical Duke of Würtemberg, and was subsequently appointed governor of the palace of Solitude. He was a struggling man, and often felt the pinch of poverty. Nine books composed his library, among them "Erkenntniss Sein Selbst" and a Würtemberg "Hymnal." During the performance of his duties in Solitude he wrote a treatise on the cultivation of trees, which was very favorably received. Young Schiller's poetic instinct displayed itself on his tenth New-Year, when he greeted his father in German verse, to which he attached a translation in Latin. His taste for the stage also found early vent in the construction of a mimic theatre and cardboard characters, with which he used to play till he was fourteen, when the important question of his future education was discussed in family council. His mother wished him to be placed in a private school at Tübingen, and his father was not averse; but the question was decided by the despotic Duke Carl, who insisted that the lad should be educated in the military academy he had established upon his estate, a few miles from Ludwigsburg, and which, two or three years afterward, was transferred to Stuttgart. Thither, therefore, Schiller was sent to study and prepare himself for the battle of life, and it was there he imbibed that contempt for servile obedience to military authority which, in "The Robbers," gave so extraordinary an impetus to revolutionary ideas in his native country, especially in the minds of the young. Slavish discipline was the law in the academy; the scholars wore a military uniform; they were soldiers, and were taught to obey the word of command; the sword and the drum were the symbols of authority; there were stated minutes and hours not only for important duties, but for the smallest observances and pleasures. The drum heralded the pupils to church, summoned them to their meals, announced when they were to begin to play and when to leave off, dismissed them to bed, commanded them to rise.

Schiller writhed under this discipline, which, to those who yielded patiently and uncomplainingly, might have been a death-blow to personal independence. In one of his letters to a young friend he wrote, "Do not imagine that I shall bow to the yoke of this absurd and revolting routine. So long as my spirit can assert its freedom it will not submit to fetters. To the free man the sight of slavery is abhorrent; to calmly survey the chains by which he is bound is not possible. My soul often revolts at the anticipation of punishment in cases where I am satisfied that my actions are reasonable." The masters of the academy had a difficult task to subdue the spirit of such a youth, and it was fortunate for literature that they did not succeed. The poet's wings would not be clipped, and in spite of the restrictions by which he was surrounded, Schiller pursued his imaginative course, and found time to feed upon the poetry he adored. To Klopstock's works he was specially indebted; that poet's "Messiah" and Virgil's "Æneid" may be said to have been the first solid stones in the foundation upon which his fame was to rest. There were, it is true, but slight traces of originality in a poem he wrote at this period, the hero of which was the prophet Moses, and it was due to the religious sentiment by which he was powerfully affected through Klopstock's works, that he chose such a subject. It had been decided that the church was to be his career, but he soon abandoned the idea, and transferred his affections to medicine, which he studied assiduously, without neglecting the groove to which his genius was leading him by slow but sure steps. Gerstenberg's great tragedy, "Ugolino," fell by chance into his hands, and gave him a new impetus; "Goetz von Berlichingen" fascinated him; and then came a revelation from a greater poet than all. Shakespeare, whose works he loved and revered with passionate ardor, and to emulate whom was perhaps the greatest ambition of his life. He was seventeen when he first saw himself in print. He wrote a poem called "Evening," which he sent to Haug's "Swabian Magazine;" it possessed no particular merit, and was chiefly remarkable for its resemblance to the works he had read and admired; but the editor spoke of it in terms of praise, and predicted that its author would become an honor to Germany. He wrote in secret, and was already busy sketching "The Robbers," and writing scenes in that famous drama; he and his young friends used to meet clandestinely and declaim their compositions, concealing their manuscripts when their rooms were searched and inspected by the ushers and masters. He suffered intensely in his friendships, and his letters breathed rather the spirit of a man who had lived to see his fondest idols shattered, than that of a youth who had scarcely reached his spring-time. In his criticisms upon himself he was unsparingly harsh, and long after "The Robbers" had been declared to be a work of the highest genius, he penned the following remarkable condemnation of the play: "An extraordinary mistake of nature doomed me, in my birthplace, to be a poet. An inclination for poetry was an offence against the laws of the institution in which I was educated. For eight years my enthusiasm had to struggle with military discipline; but a passion for poetry is strong and ardent as first love. It only served to inflame what it was designed to extinguish. To escape from things that were a torment to me my soul expatiated in an ideal world; but, unacquainted with the real world, from which I was separated by iron bars—unacquainted with mankind, for the four hundred fellow-creatures around me were but one and the same individual, or rather faithful casts from the same model which plastic nature solemnly disowned—unacquainted with the passions and propensities of independent agents, for here only one arrived at maturity (one that I shall not now mention)—unacquainted with the fair sex, for it is well known that the doors of this institution are not open to females, except before they begin to be interesting and when they have ceased to be so—my pencil could not but miss that middle line between angels and devils, and produce a monster, which fortunately had no existence in the world, and to which I wish immortality merely that it may serve as a specimen of the issue engendered by the unnatural union of subordination and genius. I allude to 'The Robbers.' The whole moral world had accused the author of high treason. He has no other excuse to offer than the climate under which this piece was born. If any of the numberless censures launched against 'The Robbers' be just, it is this, that I had the presumption to delineate men two years before I knew anything about them." He was but twenty-one when The "Robbers" appeared in print and was produced upon the stage, and while he was hailed on all sides as the German Shakespeare, he lived in want and extreme privation.

Duke Carl was deeply incensed by the patriotic and independent sentiments of the poet, and he sent an official mandate to Schiller, ordering him to discontinue all further literary work and composition. To disobey the despotic command and to remain in the Duke's service, would have entailed imprisonment. He resolved upon flight from Solitude, and on the night following that on which "The Robbers" was being enacted for the first time in Hamburg to a crowded and enthusiastic audience, he fled, with a friend, from his fatherland to pursue his eventful and turbulent career. A description of his appearance at this period is extant: "He was cramped into a uniform of the old Prussian cut, that on army surgeons had an even uglier, stiffer look; his little military hat barely covered his crown, behind which hung a long queue, while round his neck was screwed a horse-hair stock several sizes too small. More wondrous, however, was the nether part of him. Owing to the padding of his long, white gaiters, his legs seemed thicker at the calf than at the thigh. Moving stiffly about in these blacking-stained gaiters, with knees rigid and unbent, he reminded one irresistibly of a stork." Freed now by his own bold act from military slavery, Schiller entered Mannheim with joyful hopes. With the manuscript of "Fiesco" under his arm, he called upon the régisseur, Meyer, in whose house he read two acts of the play before a company of actors. His hopes were speedily dashed to the ground; when he finished reading the second act every actor but one had left the room, and Meyer thrust a dagger into the poet's heart by declaring that "Fiesco" was nothing but high-flown rubbish. Having, however, heard but two acts of the play, and probably stirred to compassion by Schiller's mournful countenance, the régisseur requested that the manuscript should be left with him; and the following morning the poet was compensated for the intervening night of misery, by hearing Meyer proclaim that "Fiesco" was a masterpiece, and that the bad effect it had produced was due to the villainous manner in which Schiller had read his verse. Notwithstanding this favorable opinion, which was endorsed by others who read the play, it was with great difficulty that Schiller succeeded in obtaining a publisher for the drama, and then he was in an agony to see the public criticisms upon it. Meanwhile he was working at fever heat on "Marie Stuart" and "Don Carlos." Into this last work he threw all his heart and soul, spurred on, doubtless, by the passion of love, which now for the first time possessed him. The object of his affections was Charlotte von Wolzogen, whom he had met in Stuttgart, and into whose society he was now thrown. He experienced all an ardent lover's joys and tortures. "It is fearful," he wrote, "to live apart from humanity, without some sympathizing soul; yet no less fearful is it to cling to some kindred heart from which, sooner or later, in a world where nothing stands sure, one must wrench oneself, bleeding, away." On January 10, 1784, he was elected a member of the Deutsche Gesellschaft, and on the following day "Fiesco" was produced. Its first representation was but a partial success. It met with more favor on its second performance on the 18th. Its third representation was less favorable, and then it was quietly laid aside. His suit with Charlotte did not prosper, and he relinquished the hope of winning her. He was despondent and in debt. He owed money to Charlotte's mother and to his father; but he struggled on, and in the latter part of the year he issued a prospectus of a new journal, "Thalia," which was to make his fortune—an anticipation which was not realized. The journal was to be published six times a year; philosophy, biography, literary reviews, and dramatic criticisms were to be its leading features; and he threw himself into the task with enthusiasm. The difficulties he encountered were tremendous; these, with his love affairs (for Charlotte von Wolzogen was not the only woman upon whom he set his affections), the labor entailed by "Thalia," and the numberless ideas for fresh romance with which his brain was teeming, would have broken down most men; but though he repined at reverses, he rose continually superior to them. Long before "Don Carlos" was finished he commenced "The Ghostseer," in which he intended to develop an idea which had originally formed the scheme of "Friedrich Imhof." His life was a kind of fever; with his ardent friendships, his susceptible passions, his pecuniary anxieties, and his fertile brain forever at work, he knew no rest. He had removed to Jena, the capital of Saxe-Weimar, and at that time the literary centre of Germany. The Prince Charles Augustus and his famous mother, the Princess Amalia, made him welcome and encouraged him. A gleam of sunshine now shone upon him; and he saw a prospect of domestic happiness. He fell in love with Charlotte von Lengenfeld, and in 1789 they were engaged. On February 22, 1790, the fond couple were married at the little village church of Wenigen-Jena. It was a simple wedding. "We spent the evening in quiet talk over our tea," wrote Lotte, sixteen years after, when she was a widow. It was a happy union, and the honeymoon was short, for Schiller had no time for idleness. This year he wrote his "History of the Thirty Years' War," and had the satisfaction of hearing it highly praised in influential quarters. He had never enjoyed such happiness as now, his only sorrow in the early months of his marriage arising from a brief separation from his wife, who had to go to Rudolstadt for her mother's birthday.

Schiller presented to the Princess of Saxe-weimar.

In one of his letters to her he says, "Your dear picture is ever before me; all seems to speak to me of where the little wife walked, and My Lady Comfort" (Lotte's sister, Caroline) "sat enthroned. And to feel that my hand can always reach what my heart would have near it, to feel that we are inseparable, that is a sense which I unceasingly foster in my bosom, finding it exhaustless and ever new." Recognition of his genius came from all sides, from Goethe, Wieland, Körner; and by the press he was hailed as the Shakespeare of Germany. He needed some such encouragement, for he was attacked by a dangerous illness, which was aggravated by pecuniary troubles; had it not been for his wife's tender care he could scarcely have recovered, and it was well for him and for his country that there came to him at this crisis an offer from the Hereditary Prince and Count von Schimmelmann, of a thousand thalers per annum for three years, in order that he might obtain the rest needed for his restoration to health. "I am freed for a long time," he wrote joyfully to his dear friend Körner, "perhaps forever, from all care." To the generous donor he said, "I have to pay my debt, not to you, but to mankind. That is the common altar where you lay down your gifts and I my gratitude." The method he adopted to recruit his health was to begin to work again. The French National Assembly conferred upon several celebrated foreigners the right of citizenship, and at this distance of time it is strange to read the name of the German Schiller among them. Though seldom free from suffering, which was frequently so acute that he spoke of it as torture, it was a proof of his indomitable spirit that during his last decade he achieved his most memorable triumphs; and yet, in the height of his powers, his youthful dread returned to him, and he expressed a doubt whether he had not mistaken his vocation. The encouragement of Goethe went far to sustain him; between these two great poets existed a warm friendship, and Goethe showed his confidence in Schiller by asking him to correct "Egmont" for the stage. But still he desponded, and it was not till he read Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister" that the full force of poetic fervor awoke within him. "Wallenstein" had been laid aside; he took it up again with glowing feelings; he wrote "The Glove" and "The Ring of Polycrates;" he revised "The Ghostseer" for a new edition, and later on he had the joy of witnessing a masterly performance of the part of Wallenstein by the fine actor, Graff. Following his great dramatic trilogy, "The Camp of Wallenstein," "The Piccolomini," and "The Death of Wallenstein" (the English rights in which he sold to Bell, the publisher, for £60). Schiller now devoted himself to "Mary Stuart" and "Macbeth," and still farther undermined his health by regularly burning the midnight oil. On May 14, 1790, "Macbeth" was performed, and received with tumultuous applause; three days before this performance he had read to the players the first four acts of "Mary Stuart," and when the last and fifth act was written he said to Körner, "I am only now beginning to understand my trade." Following "Mary Stuart," he wrote "The Maid of Orleans," and then he was absorbed in what is perhaps the greatest of his works, "William Tell," the first reading of which took place in Goethe's house on March 6, 1804. On the 9th it was rehearsed at the theatre, and on the very next day he commenced a new drama, "Demetrius, or, The Bloody Bridal of Moscow," thus following out, as indeed he had done throughout the whole of his career, his axiom that life without industry was valueless. "William Tell" was a triumphant success, and may be said to have been the last leaf in his laurel wreath, for he was destined not to live long after this great triumph. On May 9, 1805, he died, at the early age of forty-six, and all Germany mourned the loss. "Dear good one!" he said to his devoted wife, fondling her hand and kissing it the day before his death. It is recorded that in his last hours he spoke of hearing in his dreams the pealing of a bell. It may be that his own beautiful poem, "The Song of the Bell," was in his mind, and that, with the conviction that death was nigh, the fancy was inspired by the lines in his poem:

"And as the strains die on the ear
That it peals forth with tuneful might,
So let it teach that nought lasts here,
That all things earthly take their flight."