German periodical, 1798–1800
This biannual publication was founded by the brothers Schlegel primarily as an outlet for their own writings, although they also printed contributions by others, notably the poet and novelist Novalis and the theologian Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher. August Wilhelm Schlegel is now remembered primarily as a translator of Shakespeare and for his Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur (1808; A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature), which, translated into English and French, spread the doctrine of “Romantic poetry” throughout Europe. The essays he contributed to the Athenäum can be dealt with briefly. The first issue of the periodical begins with a long parody and criticism of a dialogue in praise of the German language by the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, which is now at best of historical interest. His second contribution to the periodical, “Die Gemälde: Gespräch” (The paintings: dialogue), cowritten with his wife Caroline, mingles remarks on the theory of art with descriptions of paintings in the famous art gallery in Dresden. The speakers being a woman and two men, one of them an artist, the dialogue form is used to juxtapose different points of view, male and female, artist and critic. August Wilhelm Schlegel also displays his talent as an art critic in a long essay on John Flaxman.
The contributions to the Athenäum by Friedrich Schlegel were much more substantial: they laid the foundations of the German Romantic theory of literature. The bulk of the second issue of the periodical (Fall 1798) is taken up by a collection of aphorisms (“Fragmente”), mostly by him, but with substantial contributions by his friends; they
quickly became famous for their wit and incisiveness and at the same time notorious for their extravagant terminology. The same issue of the Athenäum also contains an essay about the most important German novel of its time, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–96; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship). According to the neoclassical canon that prevailed throughout Europe at that time, the novel was an inferior genre, “mere prose.” Schlegel provided a structural analysis of Wilhelm Meister which showed that by an ingenious narrative technique, the use of contrasts and parallels, foreshadowing, echoes, and similar devices, Goethe had given his novel a kind of unity in diversity that rivaled that achievable in the classical genres and raised his work to the status of “poetry in prose.” In his own essay, Schlegel attempted something similar. He held that critics should not merely provide an objective account of a work of art, but also communicate to their readers their own emotional reaction to the work—a task that is, he thought, best performed by poetry, i.e. by writing “a poem about a poem.” In his essay on Wilhelm Meister, he did the next best thing: he wrote it in elevated, poetic prose—an unusual undertaking at that time for a critic.
By contrast, the form of Friedrich Schlegel’s major essay in the Athenäum, Gespräch über die Poesie (1800; Dialogue on Poetry), is quite traditional: it follows the form of Plato’s Symposium, though it does not, like that work, privilege a single speaker. In Schlegel’s essay, six friends—four men and two women—meet from time to time to talk about literature. The four men give papers, which are discussed by the whole group.
Together with the “Fragmente,” these papers and discussions are the earliest, and arguably still the most important formulations of the German theory of Romantic poetry.
The two other essays that Friedrich Schlegel contributed to the Athenäum, “Über die Philosophie: An Dorothea” (1799; On philosophy: to Dorothea) and “Über die Unverständlichkeit” (1800; “On Incomprehensibility”), are less important. The first is interesting mainly because of its form: it is a fictitious letter to a real person—his mistress and later wife, the daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. The second, with which Schlegel rang down the periodical when it folded in Fall 1800, is a brilliant exercise in sustained irony a welcome reminder of the fact that Friedrich Schlegel played such a central role in the modern history of this elusive term.
It is striking how often the Schlegels used the dialogue form in the Athenäum.
Assertive and cocksure in their aphorisms and shorter reviews, they reveal in their dialogue essays their conviction that nothing can be more damaging to creativity than holding to a system. The dialogue form as they used it precludes systematization and reminds us of an older meaning of “essay”: a tentative approach to a subject. This was, however, not seen by most of their readers. Their virulent attacks on a number of established and beloved writers and poets made them anathema to most of their older contemporaries, though Goethe appreciated and befriended them. Among the younger generation, the Schlegels had an ardent following; but while the young tend to be the most enthusiastic readers, they can rarely afford to be enthusiastic buyers. The Athenäum did not sell well enough to be continued past the third volume. Today, it counts as a major source for the study of German Romanticism and as a milestone in the history of literary criticism.
Editions and Selections
Athenäum, edited by August Wilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Schlegel, 3 vols., 1798– 1800, reprinted 1960
Schlegel, Friedrich, in Kritische Ausgabe, edited by Ernst Behler and others, 28 vols., 1958–95
Schlegel, Friedrich, Dialogue on Poetry; Literary Aphorisms, edited and translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc, 1968
Schlegel, Friedrich, Lucinde and The Fragments (includes the novel Lucinde; “Critical Fragments”; “Athenaeum Fragments”; “Ideas”; “On Incomprehensibility”), translated by Peter Firchow, 1971
Behler, Ernst, “Goethes Wilhelm Meister und die Romantheorie der Frühromantik,” Études Germaniques 44 (1989): 409–28
Behler, Ernst, German Romantic Literary Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
Behler, Ernst, “Le Dialogue des ‘Tableaux’ d’August Wilhelm Schlegel et la conception de la peinture dans le premier romantisme,” Revue Germanique Internationale 2 (1994): 29–37
Eichner, Hans, “Friedrich Schlegel’s Theory of Romantic Poetry,” PMLA 71 (1956): 1018–41
Eichner, Hans, Friedrich Schlegel, New York: Twayne, 1970
Eichner, Hans, “Friedrich Schlegel’s Theory of Literary Criticism,” in Romanticism Today, Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1973:17–26
Hamlin, Cyrus, “Platonic Dialogue and Romantic Irony: Prolegomena of a Theory of Literary Narrative,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (1976): 5–24
Stoljar, Margaret, Athenäum: A Critical Commentary, Berne and Frankfurt-on-Main: Lang, 1973
Wellek, René, “Friedrich Schlegel” and “August Wilhelm Schlegel,” in his A History of Modern Criticism 1750–1950, 2. The Romantic Age, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981:1–73 (original edition, 1955)
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