1902 Encyclopedia > Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller
German poet and dramatist

JOHANN CHRISTOPH FRIEDRICH SCHILLER (1759-1805), German dramatist and poet, was born at Marbach, in Würtemberg, on the 10th or llth (probably 10th) November 1759. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been bakers in Bittenfeld, a village at the point where the Rems flows into the Neckar; and the family was probably descended from Jacob Georg Schiller, who was born in Grossheppach, another Swabian village, in 1587. Schiller's father, Johann Kaspar Schiller, who was about thirty-six years of age when his son was bom, was a man of remarkable intelligence and energy. In 1749, after the War of the Austrian Succession, in which he had served as a surgeon in a Bavarian regiment of hussars, he went to visit a married sister at Marbach, a little town on the Neckar ; and here, a few months after his arrival, he married Elizabeth Dorothea Kodweiss, a girl of seventeen, the daughter of the landlord of the inn in which he had a lodging. She had great sweetness and dignity of character, and exercised a strong influence over her husband, who, although essentially kind and thoroughly honourable, was apt to give way to a somewhat harsh and imperious temper. They had six children, of whom the eldest, Christophine, was born eight years after their marriage. Next came Schiller, and after him were born four daughters, of whom only two, Louisa and Nanette, survived infancy.

Until Schiller was four years of age his mother lived with her parents in Marbach, while his father served in the Würtemberg army, in which he gradually rose to the rank of major. In 1764 the elder Schiller was joined by his family at Lorch, a village on the eastern border of Würtemberg, where he served for about three years as a recruiting officer. Afterwards he was transferred to Ludwigsburg, and in 1775 he was made overseer of the plantations and nursery gardens at the Solitude, a country residence of the duke of Würtemberg, near Stuttgart. The duties of this position were congenial to the tastes of Major Schiller, and he became widely known as a high authority on the subjects connected with his daily work.

At Lorch Schiller had been taught by the chief clergyman of the village, Pastor Moser, whose name he afterwards gave to oiie of the characters in Die Räuber. When the family settled in Ludwigsburg he was sent to the Latin school, which he attended for six years. He took a good place in the periodical examinations, and was much liked by his masters and fellow-pupils, for he was active, intelligent, and remarkable for the warmth and constancy of his affections. At a very early age he gave evidence of a talent for poetry, and it was carefully fostered by his mother, who was herself of a poetic temperament. His parents intended that he should become a clergyman, but this decision was abandoned at the request—practically by the order—of the duke of Würtemberg, who insisted on his being sent to the military academy, an institution which had been established at the Solitude for the training of youths for the military and civil services. Schiller entered this institution early in 1773, when he was between thirteen and fourteen years of age, and he remained in it until he was twenty-one. For some time he devoted himself to the study of jurisprudence, but the subject did not interest him, and in 1775, when a medical faculty was instituted at the academy, he was allowed to begin the study of medicine. In that year the academy was transferred from the Solitude to Stuttgart.

Schiller was often made wretched by the harsh and narrow discipline maintained at the academy, but it had no permanently injurious effect on his character. With several of his fellow-students he formed a lasting friendship, and in association with them, notwithstanding the vigilance of the inspectors, he was able to read many forbidden books, including some of the writings of Rousseau, Klopstock's Messiah, the early works of Goethe, translations of a few of Shakespeare's plays, and a German translation of Macpherson's rendering of the poems of Ossian. Under these influences he became an ardent adherent of the school which was then protesting vehemently against traditional restrictions on individual freedom; and he contrived to make opportunities for the expression, in more or less crude dramas and poems, of his secret thoughts and aspirations. For about two years work of this kind was interrupted by the pressure of professional studies; but in the last year of his residence at the academy he resumed it with increased fervour. In this year he wrote the greater part of Die Räuber, the most striking passages of which he read to groups of admiring comrades.

On the 14th December 1780 Schiller was informed that he had been appointed medical officer to a grenadier regiment in Stuttgart, and he almost immediately began his new duties. He was not a very expert doctor, and he was too passionately devoted to literature to take much trouble to excel in a profession which he disliked. Die Räuber was soon finished, and in July 1781 it was published at his own expense, some persons of his acquaintance having become security for the necessary amount. This famous play is ill-constructed, and contains much boyish extravagance, but it is also full of energy and revolutionary fervour, and it captivated the imagination of many of Schiller's contemporaries. Early in 1782 it was represented at the Mannheim theatre, and it was so warmly applauded that Schiller, who had stolen away from Stuttgart to see his play, began to think it might be possible for him to devote his time wholly to the work of a dramatist. By and by he was persuaded to go again to Mannheim without leave; and for this offence, of which the duke of Würtemberg was informed, he was condemned to two weeks' arrest. Shortly afterwards he was peremptorily forbidden to write books, or to hold communication with persons who did not reside in Würtemberg. This tyrannical order filled him with so much indignation that he resolved at all costs to secure freedom, and on the 17th September 1782, accompanied by his friend Streicher, a young musician, he fled from Stuttgart.

Schiller had now before him a time of much distress and anxiety. In the course of a few weeks he finished Fiesco, a play which he had begun at Stuttgart; but Dalberg, the director of the Mannheim theatre, declined to put it on the stage, and the unfortunate poet knew not how he was to obtain the means of living. At the same time it was thought probable that a request for his extradition might be addressed to the elector of the Palatinate. In this perplexity Schiller wrote to Frau von Wolzogen, a friend at Stuttgart, asking to be allowed to take refuge in her house at Bauerbach, a village in the Thuringian Forest, within two hours' walk of Meiningen. This request was granted, and at Bauerbach Schiller remained for nearly seven months, working chiefly at the play which he ultimately called Cabale und Liebe and at Don Carlos.

In July 1783 Schiller returned to Mannheim, and this time he obtained from Dalberg a definite appointment as dramatic poet of the Mannheim theatre. Fiesco, which was soon represented, was received rather coldly, but for this disappointment Schiller was amply compensated by the admiration excited by Cabale und Liebe. These two plays express essentially the same mood as that which prevails in Die Räuber, but they indicate a striking advance in the mastery of dramatic methods: This is especially true of Cabale und Liebe, which still ranks as one of the most effective acting plays in German literature.

In addition to his dramas Schiller wrote a good many lyrical poems, both before and during his residence at Mannheim. Few of these pieces rise to the level of his early plays. For the most part they are excessively crude in sentiment and style, while in some his ideas are so vague as to be barely intelligible. Perhaps the best of them are the poems entitled Die Freundschaft and Rousseau, both of which have the merit of expressing thoughts and feelings that were within the range of the writer's personal experience.

Schiller's engagement with Dalberg was cancelled in August 1784, and, as he had now a heavy burden of debt, he thought for some time of resuming the practice of his profession, but in the end he decided to try whether he could not improve his circumstances by issuing a periodical, Thalia, to be written wholly by himself. This plan he accomplished, the first number being published in the spring of 1785. It contained the first act of Don Carlos and a paper on "The Theatre as a Moral Institution," which he had read on the occasion of his being admitted a member of the German Society, a literary body in Mannheim, of which the elector palatine was the patron.

Meanwhile, he had been corresponding with four admirers who had written from Leipsic to thank him for the pleasure they had derived from his writings. These friends were C. G. Körner, L. F. Huber, and Minna and Dora Stock. Weary of incessant struggle, Schiller proposed to visit them ; and Körner, the leading member of the party, not only encouraged him in this design, but readily lent him money. Accordingly, in April 1785 Schiller left Mannheim, and for some months he lived at Gohlis, a village in the Rosenthal, near Leipsic. In the summer of the same year Körner and Minna Stock were married, and settled in Dresden, taking with them Dora, Minna's sister. Schiller and Huber also went to Dresden, and Schiller remained there nearly two years. Almost every day he spent the afternoon and evening at Korner's house, and he derived permanent benefit from this intimate intercourse with the kindest and most thoughtful friends he had ever had. While in Dresden, he published in Thalia several prose writings, among others Philosophische Briefe, in which he set forth with enthusiasm some of his opinions about religion, and a part of the Geister-seher, a romance, which, although written in a brilliant style, was so imperfectly planned that he was never able to finish it. He also issued Don Carlos, which he completed early in 1787. A considerable interval having passed between the writing of the earlier and that of the later parts of this play, Don Carlos represents two different stages of intellectual and moral growth. It lacks, therefore, unity of design and sentiment. But it has high imaginative qualities, and the Marquis Posa, through whom Schiller gave utterance to his ideas regarding social and political progress, is one of the most original and fascinating of his creations. Posa is not less revolutionary than Karl Moor, the hero of Die Räuber, but, while the latter is a purely destructive force, the former represents all the best reconstructive energies of the 18th century.

In July 1787 Schiller went to Weimar, where he was cordially welcomed by Herder and Wieland. For several years after this time he devoted himself almost exclusively to the study of history, and in 1788 he published his Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlände von der Spanischen Regierung. This was followed by a number of minor historical essays (published in Thalia), and by his Geschichte des dreissigjährigen Krieges, which appeared in 1792. These writings secured for Schiller a high place among the historians of his own time. In every instance he derived his materials from original authorities, and they were presented with a freedom, boldness, and energy which made them attractive to all classes of readers. One result of the publication of his history of the revolt of the Netherlands was his appointment to a professorship at the university of Jena, where he delivered his introductory lecture in May 1789. He lived in Jena for about ten years, and during that time frequently met Fichte, Schelling, the two Schlegels, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and many other writers eminent in science, philosophy, and literature.

On the 22nd of February 1790 Schiller married Charlotte von Lengefeld, whom he had met at Rudolstadt about two years before. She was of a tender and affectionate nature, bright and intelligent, and Schiller found in her love and sympathy a constant source of strength and happiness. They had four children, the eldest of whom was born in 1793.

About a year after his marriage he was attacked by a dangerous illness, and from this time he was always in delicate health, suffering frequently from paroxysms of almost intolerable pain. In the autumn of 1793 he went with his wife to Wiirtemberg in the hope that his native air might do him good; and he did not return to Jena until the spring of the following year. He was enabled to obtain this period of rest through the kindness of the hereditary prince of Augustenburg and the minister Count von Schimmelmann, who had jointly begged to be allowed to place 3000 thalers at his disposal, to be paid in yearly instalments of 1000 thalers. Schiller heartily enjoyed his visit to his native state, where he had much pleasant intercourse with his father, mother, and sisters, and with some of his early friends. He did not again see his father and mother, the former of whom died in 1796, the latter in 1802.

The Geschichte des dreissigjährigen Krieges was the last important historical work written by Schiller. He abandoned history in order to study philosophy, which, under the impulse communicated by Kant, was then exciting keen interest among the educated classes of Germany. Schiller's philosophical studies related chiefly to aesthetics, on which he wrote a series of essays, some of them being printed in Neue Thalia (issued from 1792 to 1794), others in the Horm, a periodical which he began in 1794 and continued until 1798. The most remarkable of these essays are a paper on "Die Anmuth und Würde," a series of letters addressed to the prince of Augustenburg on "Die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen," and a treatise on "Die Naive und Sentimentalische Dichtung." In philosophical speculation Schiller derived inspiration mainly from Kant, but he worked his way to many independent judgments, and his theories have exercised considerable influence on those German writers who have dealt with the ultimate principles of art and literature. Goethe was of opinion that in " Die Naive und Sentimentalische Dichtung " Schiller had laid the foundation of modern criticism. In that powerful essay the vital distinction between classical and romantic methods was for the first time clearly brought out.

Schiller had been introduced to Goethe in 1788, but they did not begin to know one another well until 1794, when Goethe was attracted to Schiller by a conversation they had after a meeting of a scientific society at Jena. Afterwards their acquaintance quickly ripened into intimate friendship. To Schiller Goethe owed what he himself called "a second youth," and this debt was amply repaid, for by constant association with the greatest mind of the age Schiller was encouraged to do full justice to his genius. Moreover, his intellectual life was enriched by new ideas, and he was led by Goethe's indirect influence to balance his speculative judgments and idealistic conceptions by a keener and more accurate observation of the facts of ordinary life.

During the years which followed his departure from Mannheim Schiller had written An die Freude, Die Götter Griechenlands, Die Künstler, and other lyrical poems, all of which are of very much higher quality than the poems of his earlier period. But he had been so absorbed by labours of a different kind that he had had little time or inclination for his proper work as a poet. Now, stimulated by intercourse with Goethe, he began to long once more for the free exercise of his creative faculty; and from 1794 he allowed no year to pass without adding to the list of his lyrical writings. Among the lyrics produced in this the last and greatest period of his career the foremost place belongs to the Lied von der Glocke, but there is hardly less imaginative power in Das Ideal und das Leben, Die Ideale, Der Spaziergang, Der Genius, Die Erwartung, Das Eleusische Fest, and Cassandra. Few of Schiller's lyrics have the charm of simple and spontaneous feeling; but as poems giving expression to the results of philosophic contemplation the best of them are unsurpassed in modern literature. Schiller had a passionate faith in an eternal ideal world to which the human mind has access; and the contrast between ideals and what is called reality he presents in many different forms. In developing the poetic significance of this contrast his thoughts are always high and noble, and they are offered in a style which is almost uniformly grand and melodious.

In 1796 Schiller and Goethe together wrote for the Musenalmanach (an annual volume of poems, issued for several years by Schiller) a series of epigrams called Xenien, each consisting of a distich. Most of them were directed against contemporary writers whom the poets disliked, and much animosity was excited by their sharply satirical tone. A higher interest attaches to Votivtafeln, another series of epigrams, written at the same time as the Xenien. They are among the most suggestive of Schiller's writings, for, as he explains in the introductory epigram, they embody truths which he had found helpful in the experience of life. Soon after finishing these fine poems Schiller began, in rivalry with Goethe, to write his ballads, which surprised even his most ardent admirers by the boldness of their conceptions and by the graphic force of their diction. As a writer of ballads Goethe yielded the palm to Schiller, and this judgment has been confirmed by the majority of later critics.

Schiller never intended that Don Carlos should be his last drama, and from 1791 he worked occasionally at a play dealing with the fate of Wallenstein. He was unable, however, to satisfy himself as to the plan until 1798, when, after consulting with Goethe, he decided to divide it into three parts, Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini, and Wallensteins Tod. Wallensteins Lager was acted for the first time at the Weimar theatre in October 1798, and Die Piccolomini in January 1799. In April 1799 all three pieces were represented, a night being given to each. The work as a whole produced a profound impression, and it is certainly Schiller's masterpiece in dramatic literature. He brings out with extraordinary vividness the ascendency of Wallenstein over the wild troops whom he has gathered around him, and at the same time we are made to see how the mighty general's schemes must necessarily end in ruin, not merely because a plot against him is skilfully prepared by vigilant enemies, but because he himself is lulled into a sense of security by superstitious belief in his supposed destiny as revealed to him by the stars. Wallenstein is the most subtle and complex of Schiller's dramatic conceptions, and it taxes the powers of the greatest actors to present an adequate rendering of the motives which explain his strange and dark career. The love-story of Max Piccolomini and Thekla is in its own way not less impressive than the story of Wallenstein with which it is interwoven. Max and Thekla are purely ideal figures, and Schiller touches the deepest sources of tragic pity by his masterly picture of their hopeless passion and of their spiritual freedom and integrity.

Wallenstein was received with so much favour that Schiller resolved to devote himself in future mainly to the drama; and in order to be near a theatre—partly, too, that he might have more frequent opportunities of intercourse with Goethe—he transferred his residence, in December 1799, from Jena to Weimar, where he spent the rest of his life. He took with him to Weimar three acts of Maria Stuart, and early in the summer of 1800 he finished it at Ettersburg, a country house of the duke of Weimar. The technical qualities of Maria Stuart are of the highest order, but the subject does not seem to have interested Schiller very deeply, and it cannot be said either that the characters are finely conceived or that the closing scenes of Queen Mary's life are presented in a truly poetic spirit. In his next play, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, completed about a year afterwards, Schiller had a more congenial theme, and the vigour with which he handled it commanded the warm admiration of Goethe. The scenes in which the maid is misled by her passion for Lionel are slightly perplexing, as they do not appear to accord with the essential qualities of her character; but in the earlier and later parts of the play Schiller displays splendid dramatic art in revealing the lofty courage and enthusiasm with which she fulfils her mission. In Die Braut von Messina, which was acted for the first time at the Weimar theatre in March 1803, Schiller attempted to combine romantic and classical elements. The experiment is not perfectly successful, and even in its most striking passages the play is remarkable rather for brilliant rhetoric than for pure poetry. His last original drama, Wilhelm Tell, the first representation of which took place in March 1804, is in some respects greater than any of those which preceded it, Wallenstein excepted. It has some obvious faults of construction, but these defects do not seriously mar the impression produced by its glowing picture of a romantic and truly popular struggle for freedom.

Besides his complete original plays, Schiller left some dramatic sketches and fragments, the most important of which, Demetrius, has been finished in Schiller's manner by several later writers. He also produced German versions of Macbeth, of Gozzi's Turandot, of two comedies by Picard, and of Phèdre. His renderings of Picard's comedies are entitled Der Parasit and Der Neffe als Onkel.

In his last years Schiller received many tokens of growing fame. In 1802 he was raised to noble rank, and in 1804 he was informed that if he pleased he might be invited to settle in Berlin on advantageous terms. He went with his family to the Prussian capital, but the only result of the negotiations into which he entered was that the duke of Weimar, alarmed at the prospect of losing him, doubled his salary of 400 thalers. His health was at this time completely undermined, and from the summer of 1804 work was often rendered impossible by serious illness. On the evening of the 29th April 1805 he returned from the Weimar theatre in a state of high fever, and from this attack he was unable to rally. He died on the 9th May 1805, in his forty-sixth year.

Schiller was tall, slight, and pale, with reddish hair, and eyes of an uncertain colour, between light-brown and blue. At the military academy he acquired a manner somewhat formal, like that of a soldier; but in carrying on conversation that interested him he became eager and animated. He had little appreciation of humour, and even in the treatment of subjects which he made his own he was apt to recur too frequently to the same ideas and the same types of character. But when he is at his best he is excelled among the poets and dramatists of Germany only by Goethe in the power with which he expresses sublime thoughts and depicts the working of ideal passions. As a man he was not less great than as a writer. He started in life with high aims, and no obstacle was ever formidable enough to turn him from paths by which he chose to advance to his goal. Terrible as his physical sufferings often were, he maintained to the last a genial and buoyant temper, and those who knew him intimately had a constantly increasing admiration for his patience, tenderness, and charity. With all that was deepest and most humane in the thought of the 18th century he had ardent sympathy, and to him were due some of the most potent of the influences which, at a time of disaster and humiliation, helped to kindle in the hearts of the German people a longing for a free and worthy national life.

There have been many editions of Schiller's collected works. The first was issued in twelve volumes at Stuttgart and Tübingen in 1812-15, the editor being his friend C. G. Körner. There are also a good many volumes of Schiller's correspondence, the most interesting being his correspondence with Goethe. Of the biographies of Schiller, Carlyle's—published in 1825—was one of the earliest. See also Schillers Leben, by Frau von Wolzogen, Schiller's sister-in-law; Schillers Leben, by Hoffmeister (extended by Viehoff); Schillers Leben, by Boas; Schillers Leben und Werke, by Palleske ; Schillers Leben, by H. Düntzer; and Schiller, by J. Sime (in "Foreign Classics for English Readers"). (J. SI.)

The above article was written by: James Simes, M.A., author of History of Germany.

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