Schlegel, August Wilhelm von
SCHLEGEL, AUGUST WILHELM VON
SCHLEGEL, AUGUST WILHELM VON (1767–1845), German literary critic and scholar.
August Wilhelm von Schlegel, older brother of the now more famous Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829), was the most learned and wide-ranging literary critic and scholar of the Romantic period in Germany. The journal Athenaeum, edited by both brothers from 1798 to 1800, served as a vehicle for their shared ideas about Romantic art and literature. Subsequently, in public lectures delivered over the course of his long career, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, more than any other writer of the time, disseminated the new ideas about literature that came to be identified with Romanticism. In addition, combining an unusual facility for other languages with a precise sense of literary form and style, Schlegel published verse translations of a number of important writers from European literature—most notably William Shakespeare (1564–1616)—that established a standard for accuracy, thoroughness, and poetic sensitivity unsurpassed to this day.
Schlegel was born in Hannover and attended the University of Göttingen (1786–1791), where he studied philology under the classical scholar Christian Gottlieb Heyne (1729–1812) and worked closely with the poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747–1794). Already as a student he published important reviews of new books in the Göttinger Gelehrte Anzeigen, including works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and Johann Christian Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), and he began an extended essay on Dante's Divine Comedy, translating selected cantos into verse. Together with Bürger he also translated, though did not yet publish, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. After several years in Amsterdam as a private tutor, Schlegel moved to Jena in 1794, where he worked with Schiller as co-editor of the literary journal Die Horen (The Graces, 1795–1797).
In 1796, Schlegel married Caroline Böhmer (née Michaelis), who established a literary salon in their home, where the group of young Romantics gathered in the final years of the century (including Friedrich von Schlegel and his companion Dorothea Veit, Novalis [1772–1801], Ludwig Tieck [1773–1853], Friedrich Ernst Daniel Schleiermacher [1768–1834], Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling [1175–1854], and others), as vividly depicted in Friedrich von Schlegel's Dialogue on Poetry (published in the Athenaeum, 1800). During these years in Jena, Schlegel published a great many reviews in the Jena Allgemeine Literaturzeitung and a number of important essays on literature and poetic form, including a program piece in Die Horen entitled "Something on William Shakespeare upon the Occasion of Wilhelm Meister" (1796), a response to the discussion of Hamlet in Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795–1796). Schlegel's translations of Shakespeare commenced at this time, including such plays as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, The Tempest, several of the later history plays, and, above all, his masterpiece, Hamlet (1797–1800).
In 1801, Schlegel moved to Berlin, where he began a series of lectures on the history of classical and romantic (i.e., medieval) literature, extending through three consecutive winters, in which a coherent critical perspective on European letters and culture was developed. He single-handedly revived the sonnet as poetic form in German after a century and a half of neglect, publishing several collections of his poems, which, though formally perfect, are generally facile and superficial; he adapted Euripides' play Ion into German, which was performed in Berlin and Weimar, though with only limited success; he began serious scholarly work on the medieval German epic Das Nibelungenlied, planning an edition with commentary that was never completed; he continued his activities as a translator, publishing two volumes of plays by the seventeenth-century Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600–1681) in 1803 and 1809; and he published a volume of poems translated from Provencal, Italian, Spanish, and Portugese, under the title Blumensträuße (1804).
In 1803, having divorced his wife Caroline, who subsequently married the philosopher Schelling, Schlegel attached himself to Madame Anne-Louise-Germaine de Staël (1766–1817). He met de Staël when she visited Berlin in the same year, became tutor to her children, and moved with her to her château in Coppet on Lake Geneva. There he remained, apart from intermittent travels with her to Italy, to Vienna, to Sweden, and to England during the years of upheaval due to the Napoleonic Wars, until her death in 1817. In 1808, when Schlegel visited Vienna with de Staël, he delivered a course of public lectures titled On Dramatic Art and Literature (published in three volumes, 1809–1811, and quickly translated into several languages, French, English, and Italian, among others). In addition to brilliant interpretations of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean drama, Schlegel also formulates at the outset his central conviction that criticism consists of a balanced mixture of theory, history, and interpretation. These lectures, along with the major work by de Staël, De l'Allemagne (1815)—which is arguably a direct product of her close collaboration with Schlegel—spread the ideas of German Romanticism throughout Europe. Schlegel also wrote a great deal in French during these years, which established his reputation as a scholar in France.
The final stage in Schlegel's career began with his appointment as Professor of Literature and Art History at the newly founded University of Bonn in 1818. In 1816–1817 in Paris, Schlegel had devoted himself intensively to the study of Sanskrit, and during the 1820s he published in nine volumes his Indische Bibliothek, containing editions and translations of such works as the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana and the Hitopadesa, with essays and commentary (much of it in Latin). Schlegel continued to write on a wide range of topics, to lecture on many aspects of literature and the arts, and to engage in frequent exchanges, many polemical, with contemporaries on an enormous diversity of subjects. In 1841 he was appointed to a chair at the University of Berlin by the newly inaugurated Prussian King, Frederick William IV (r. 1840–1861), but he soon returned to Bonn, where he continued to write until his death in 1845. His final publication was an edition of his essays in French, Essais litteraires et historiques (1842).
Schlegel was often criticized for a certain pedantry in his manner, and he has been unfavorably contrasted to his brother Friedrich on the question of originality and theoretical brilliance. Yet August Wilhelm von Schlegel, more than any other scholar of his time, established a model for the academic study of literature with an international, indeed almost global scope. His critical essays are often remarkable for their practical insights, and his translations are always painstakingly close to the originals in style and poetic form. Few scholars of literature have ever equaled Schlegel in range, diversity, linguistic finesse, critical insight, and consistent methodological expertise. He should be regarded as one of the greatest literary critics of all time.
Körner, Josef, ed. Briefe von und an August Wilhelm Schlegel, 2 vols. Zurich, 1930. By the leading scholar of Schlegel in the first half of the twentieth century.
Schlegel, August Wilhelm von. Oeuvres ecrites en francais, 3 vols. Edited by Eduard Böcking. Leipzig, 1846.
——. Sämtliche Werke, 12 vols. Edited by Eduard Böcking. Leipzig, 1846–1847.
——. Deutsche Litteraturdenkmale des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts, 3 vols. Edited by Jacob Minor. Heilbronn, 1884. The Berlin lectures of 1801–1803.
——. Kritische Schriften, 7 vols. Edited by Emil Staiger. Zurich, 1962.
Schlegel, August Wilhelm von, and Friedrich von Schlegel. Charakteristiken und Kritiken, 2 vols. Leipzig, 1801. Collections of his essays.
Atkinson, Margaret E. August Wilhelm Schlegel as a Translator of Shakespeare. Oxford, U.K., 1958.
Becker, Claudia. "Naturgeschichte der Kunst": August Wilhelm Schlegel's ästhetischer Ansatz im Schnittpunkt zwischen Aufklärung, Klassik und Frühromantik. Munich, 1998.
Haym, Rudolf. Die romantische Schule. Berlin, 1870. Still the best historical assessment of Schlegel's early work.
Höltenschmidt, Edith. Die Mittelalter-Rezeption der Brüder Schlegel. Paderborn, 2000.
Körner, Josef. Romantiker und Klassiker. Berlin, 1924. Valuable monograph dealing with the relations of the brothers Schlegel to Schiller and Goethe.
——. Die Botschaft der deutschen Romantik an Europa. Augsburg, 1929. Monograph on the European reception of the Vienna lectures on drama.
——. Krisenjahre der Frühromantik; Briefe aus dem Schlegelkreis, 3 vols. Brünn, 1936–1958.
Wellek, Rene. "August Wilhelm Schlegel." In History of Modern Criticism, 1750–1950, vol. 2: The Romantic Age, 36–73. New Haven, Conn., 1955. The first serious assessment of Schlegel's achievement in English.