• How a Group of Young Writers and Poets Revolutionized 18th-Century Literature

    Andrea Wulf on the Origins and Enduring Legacy of German Romanticism

    When did we begin to be as self-centered as we are today? At what point did we expect to have the right to determine our own lives? When did we first ask the question, How can I be free? It all began in a quiet university town in Germany in the 1790s, when a group of playwrights, poets, and writers put the self at center stage in their thinking, their writing, and their lives. This brilliant circle included the famous poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schiller, and Novalis; the visionary philosophers Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel; the contentious Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm and Friedrich; and, in a wonderful cameo, Alexander von Humboldt. And at the heart of this group was the formidable Caroline Schlegel, who sparked their dazzling conversations about the self, nature, identity, and freedom.

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    The French revolutionaries may have changed the political landscape of Europe, but the young Romantics incited a revolution of the mind that transformed our world forever. We are still empowered by their daring leap into the self, and by their radical notions of the creative potential of the individual, the highest aspirations of art and science, the unity of nature, and the true meaning of freedom. We also still walk the same tightrope between meaningful self-fulfillment and destructive narcissism, between the rights of the individual and our responsibilities toward our community and future generations.


    In May 1798, August Wilhelm Schlegel travelled to Berlin. The Royal Theater in Berlin had asked him to consult on its first staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, using his and Caroline’s verse translation, and he wanted to help his brother  Friedrich with the Athenaeum. But August Wilhelm was not only interested in work. He soon became enthralled by the beautiful Friederike Unzelmann, one of Berlin’s most celebrated actresses.

    Despite her diminutive statue, elfin Friederike had a strong presence and grace on stage which captivated August Wilhelm and many other admirers. She was a “strange fairy child,” he wrote in a poem, and soon rumors reached Caroline Schlegel  that her husband had embarked upon an affair with the married actress.

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    If hurt, Caroline didn’t show it—their marriage had always been a practical arrangement based on mutual respect, friendship and their shared interest in literature. If August Wilhelm was having fun in Berlin, so be it. As Caroline joked with her old friend Luise, her husband was being fêted “even by actresses” to whom he dedicated poems filled with “tender sighs.”

    Though busy with their social lives and flirtations, the Schlegel brothers worked on the Athenaeum. The first issue was ready in May 1798 and the second followed a few weeks later, in July. Like Schiller’s Horen, the Athenaeum was printed on cheap paper without any illustrations, and each issue came in at just under two hundred pages. Produced as a so-called octavo size, it was not much larger than a modern paperback. Though unassuming from the outside, its content was the friends’ manifesto to the world.

    They wanted to romanticize the entire world, and this meant perceiving it as an interconnected whole.

    This was a revolution of words. Language shaped minds, August Wilhelm Schlegel wrote in a fragment about the French Revolution, and language should therefore be “republicanized through the power of the general will.” If language carried political power, then it had to evolve accordingly. Didn’t France abound with new words associated with the Revolution? Sans-culottes, for example, which literally meant “without breeches,” referred to the common people who wore loose trousers rather than breeches and who were the true revolutionaries. Or terroriste, the term coined in 1794 in the aftermath of Robespierre’s brutal reign. As writers, poets and philosophers, the friends used words as their weapons. It was time to deploy what Friedrich called the “omnipotent alphabet.”

    The first two issues of the Athenaeum were filled with contributions by the Schlegels and Novalis. There was an overview of contemporary literature, a long review of Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister and a piece about ancient Greek poetry, but half the pages featured fragments. Novalis had written more than one hundred fragments of various lengths, collectively published under the title Pollen. Another set of more than four hundred were simply called Fragments and mostly written by Friedrich Schlegel but included also several dozen by Caroline and August Wilhelm, as well as some by Schleiermacher.

    Pollen and Fragments became the foundational texts of a new movement, launching Romanticism on the public stage—it was “our first symphony,” as August Wilhelm Schlegel said. It was here, on the pages of the Athenaeum, that the term “romantic” was coined and first used in print in its new literary and philosophical meaning. The German word romantisch was derived from the French word for “novel”—roman. Romantisch or “romantic” had been used in the sense of romanhaft—“like a novel,” and also as a descriptive term for picturesque landscapes; but it was in the pages of the Athenaeum that it received a new definition. When August Wilhelm had asked his brother to send him his explanation of the word “romantic,” Friedrich had replied that it was impossible before it was two thousand pages long. In the Athenaeum, he managed to summarize it in one, albeit long, fragment that spread over three pages.

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    Romantic poetry is a progressive, universal poetry. Its aim isn’t merely to reunite all the separate species of poetry and put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric. It tries to and should mix and fuse poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of nature; and make poetry lively and sociable, and make life and society poetical; poeticize wit and fill and saturate the forms of art with every kind of good, solid matter for instruction, and animate them with the pulsations of humor…

    But what did this all mean? To romanticize was not to be sentimental, lovelorn or overly emotional. To romanticize had nothing to do with candlelit dinners or declarations of love, as we often understand it today. The term “romantic” has metamorphosed through several stages since the mid-seventeenth century. There is the original meaning of “like a novel” and our modern understanding that associates the word with love or romance; but for the friends in Jena it was something much more ambitious.

    They wanted to romanticize the entire world, and this meant perceiving it as an interconnected whole. They were talking about the bond between art and life, between the individual and society, between humankind and nature. Just as two elements could create a new chemical compound, so Romantic poetry could weld different disciplines and subjects into something distinctive and new. Novalis explained: “By giving the commonplace a higher meaning, by making the ordinary look mysterious, by granting to what is known the dignity of the unknown and imparting to the finite a shimmer of the infinite, I romanticize.”

    They pushed the rules that society had imposed on them, so they now pushed the boundaries of philosophy and literature.

    Though the meaning of the term “romantic” may have been confusing, it was the unwieldiness of the concept that the group liked; their definition was never meant to be a neat entry in a dictionary. Romantic poetry was unruly, dynamic, alive and forever changing, they believed, and should not be corseted by metric patterns because it was a “living organism.” Its essence was “that it should forever be becoming, never perfected,” Friedrich Schlegel explained. It was inherently incomplete and unfinished. And because it was incomplete, Goethe explained a few years later, it left room for the imagination of the viewer or reader.

    The friends employed the same open-ended and evolving modus operandi when they thought and wrote. Fichte, for example, developed his philosophy in front of his students; Novalis shaped his ideas as he read and excerpted; and Friedrich Schlegel formed his thoughts as he spoke. Ideas were formulated, overturned and discarded. They were not interested in a closed system, bound by rigid rules but in a world view that was open and in flux. In the same way they pushed the rules that society had imposed on them, so they now pushed the boundaries of philosophy and literature.

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    At the center of everything was poetry—but not poetry as we understand it today. The friends turned back to the original ancient Greek term poiētikós—“creative” or “productive.” For them, romantic poetry could be anything: a poem, of course, but also a novel, a painting, a building, a piece of music or a scientific experiment. They discussed the concept in great detail. Did this mean that everything could be transformed into poetry? Yes, Friedrich Schlegel believed, as long as it “possesses an invisible spirit.”

    In fact poetry was within all of us. They agreed that poetry in its original sense was the foundation of their new approach. August Wilhelm Schlegel described it as the power to create the beautiful, and Novalis simply said “to poeticize is to create.” It was within us and in nature—it was active and productive. And most importantly, it was not bound by rules. “Annotations to a poem,” August Wilhelm quipped in one fragment, “are like an anatomical lecture on a piece of roast beef.”

    What connected all this was imagination. It was the most important faculty of the mind, they insisted, because reason alone was not enough to grasp the world. Without imagination there wasn’t an external world at all. This new approach provided the bridge between Isaac Newton, who had explained that rainbows were created by light refracting through raindrops, and the British poet John Keats, who would declare twenty years later that Newton “had destroyed all the Poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism.”

    Ordinary logic was cold mechanical thinking, Novalis wrote, but imagination was creative and alive. The future world was “rational chaos,” he said, and at the center of it all was the unruly power of the mind to create. The “poet is but the highest degree of thinker,” Novalis explained. This didn’t mean that they turned against science or philosophy—quite the opposite, they wanted to bring together what had been separated for too long. And that could only be done through imagination, and that he had abundantly, Novalis said, because it was the “most prominent feature of my identity.”

    They were not interested in a closed system, bound by rigid rules but in a world view that was open and in flux.

    For centuries, imagination had been relegated to a subordinate role in the discipline of philosophy. Already Plato had asserted that imagination only occurred in moments of ecstasy, when an artist or poet was possessed by a divine spirit. Later, philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz had regarded imagination with suspicion because they believed that it could only ever provide an illusory account of reality. The British writer Samuel Johnson had called it “a licentious and vagrant faculty.” Imagination was unreliable and obscured the truth, those earlier thinkers had believed.

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    Finally in 1740, David Hume had given it a more important role in his philosophy, arguing that “men are mightily govern’d by the imagination.” Hume, though, believed its ability was limited because it was derived from our sensory experiences and impressions. Imagination just combined what was already in our mind. When we “imagine” a golden mountain, he explained, we just brought together the familiar ideas of “gold” and “mountain.”

    It had been Kant and Fichte who had declared imagination essential for the process of gaining knowledge. Kant had granted imagination the important role of mediating between the sensory and the conceptual worlds. Similarly, Fichte placed it at the center of his Ich-philosophy when he explained that imagination brought the non-Ich into existence. “Imagination alone is the basis of all consciousness,” he wrote. Or as Friedrich Schlegel described it: nature was like a work of art or a poem—“we write the world as a poem, so to speak, only we don’t know it at first.” Fichte’s elevation of the power of imagination was a first step, but, for the Schlegels and Novalis, he didn’t go far enough because he failed to incorporate art or poetry into his philosophy. Alexander von Humboldt would go even further when he insisted on the importance of imagination in the natural sciences. It was like “a balm of miraculous healing properties,” he said.


    The Athenaeum was their attempt to work collectively as a group. They wanted to “symphilosophize”—a new term they invented. They added the prefix “sym” to words such as philosophy, poetry, evolution and physics—it essentially meant “together” or “communal” and signified the way they strived to work in a kind of intellectual symbiosis. “Symphilosophy is our connection’s true name,” Friedrich Schlegel said—a concept based on the idea that two minds could belong together. Like divided halves, they could only reach their full potential when joined.

    The Athenaeum was “a strange phenomenon,” the eminent Weimar poet Christoph Martin Wieland said, and Friedrich Schlegel proudly reported from Berlin that everybody was talking about “how brazen we are.” This was exactly what he had wanted. “The Schlegels,” an old but disgruntled friend claimed, “are against everyone alive and everyone who has ever lived.”

    Only Goethe was delighted with the way his young friends treated him. How could he not be? When Wieland questioned how Goethe could possibly let the Schlegel brothers praise him in such an exaggerated manner—where was the modesty in that?—Goethe simply replied: “You just have to accept it, the same way you accept full-throated criticism.” He was having a great time and was looking forward to discussing the first issue with August Wilhelm in person.

    Unsurprisingly, Schiller was less impressed by the Athenaeum. “This know-it-all, cutting, implacable, one-sided tone makes me physically sick,” he wrote to Goethe, after reading the first two issues. By now, Schiller hated everything connected to the Schlegels—their publications, their personalities and their influence on others. For once, though, despite his deep loyalty to Schiller, Goethe openly rooted for the Schlegels. The fragments were a marvelous “wasps’ nest,” Goethe replied, and a tremendous retort to the general mediocrity and triviality of the literary world.

    But Schiller was not to be placated. The Schlegel brothers were egoistical, cold, repellent, exaggerated, partisan and heartless, he replied two days later and predicted—or maybe hoped—that they would never be of any influence. The Athenaeum was full of nonsense, Schiller told his wife, and anyone who claimed to understand it must surely be mentally deranged. Goethe, meanwhile, told August Wilhelm how much he liked the fragments, but warned him that the journal had placed the brothers on a war footing with the literary establishment.

    As it turned out, the sales figures didn’t reflect their ambition—only a few hundred copies per issue were sold. But since the journal was circulated, borrowed and handed on from one reader to the next, its long-term impact was enormous. Some of the most important texts of the Romantic project were first published in the Athenaeum: Fragments and Pollen, of course, but also Novalis’s Hymns to the Night. The group’s celebration of imagination, their rejection of traditional literary forms and styles as well as their insistence on the value of individual experience, would later be found in most works of the Romantic writers and poets. These ideas came to shape Romanticism across the world.


    Excerpted and adapted from Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf. Copyright © 2022. Available from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

    Andrea Wulf
    Andrea Wulf
    Andrea Wulf was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She is the award-winning author of several books, including Founding Gardeners, Brother Gardeners, and The New York Times best seller The Invention of Nature, which has been published in twenty-seven languages and won fifteen international literary awards. Wulf has written for many newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. She’s a member of PEN America Center and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in London.

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