The Magazine

Ode to Joy

Freedom was Friedrich Schiller's muse.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THIS YEAR WAS THE 200TH anniversary of the death of Friedrich Schiller, after his dearest friend Goethe, the most superb peak in Germany's literary mountain range: dramatist, historian, philosopher, poet celebrated for An die Freude, the "Ode to Joy" that Beethoven set in his Ninth Symphony.

The Germans still treat Schiller as a revered eminence, though their appreciation has acquired some 21st-century kinks. The national tourist board promoted the bicentennial as a veritable Schiller lovefest, replete with the usual high-mindedness--museum exhibitions, theatrical productions, lofty speeches--but also with the odd emission from the dogpile: a play showing the free-spirit Schiller hassled by airport security, a comic book version of his life published by the Schiller National Museum and the Archive of German Literature.

The distinctive quality of Schiller's genius naturally prompts questions about high and low, in art, thought, politics, morality. For Schiller, born in 1759, stands among the greatest figures at the inauguration of the democratic era, when no dream of the future seemed too bold or too splendid to be realized. And Schiller's was one of the boldest minds of the time, espousing the most noble conception of freedom's true meaning for the new order. To ask how congenial that mind appears today, when the civilized world enjoys freedom, equality, and their attendant democratic goods to an unexampled degree, is to search not only Schiller's essence but also our own.

Thomas Carlyle, who literally wrote the book on hero-worship, observes in his Life of Schiller (1825) that future generations around the world will venerate him as the Germans do, "for such nobleness of heart and soul shadowed forth in beautiful imperishable emblems, is a treasure which belongs not to one nation, but to all." That Carlyle's biography remains the best-known life of Schiller available in English indicates a shortfall in the worldwide veneration market. But this neglect only makes one doubly grateful to have Carlyle, whose enthusiasm for moral, intellectual, and literary excellence--the highest nobility, he calls it--makes him Schiller's ideal biographer.

Schiller was born in Marbach, a small town in the Duchy of Württemberg. His parents were humble in station--his father's loyal service to the Duke of Württemberg as army surgeon and adjutant in war earned him a peacetime job as nurseryman--but elevated in spirit. Father and son shared a gravely joyous piety, and young Schiller envisioned a life in the church. The Duke, however, had other plans for him, and strong-armed his parents into sending the 14-year-old boy to a newly founded academy for the sons of officers. There Schiller moped and languished in the study of law, then languished and moped in the study of medicine.

History, drama, poetry--Plutarch, Shakespeare, the young Goethe--ravished him, and he began to write. He concealed this activity from the authorities--"any tendency toward poetry is an offense against the rules of the Institution," he noted--while he pursued his medical studies. In 1778 he completed the first draft of his tragedy Die Rauber (The Robbers), but kept it under wraps until 1780, when his commission as a regimental surgeon came through. No bookseller could be found to publish the play, so Schiller went into debt to publish 800 copies at his own expense. The Duke of Württemberg, a fan of Racine and Corneille, took a dim view of Schiller's Romantic extravagances, told him he would do well to stick to doctoring, and directed him to submit any future works for prior approval.

The determined Schiller went AWOL to see his first play's first production, at the Mannheim National Theater, and the audience's response confirmed him in his renegade vocation. Molten rapture overcame the theatergoers; earnest Teutonic eyes wept hot torrents, or rolled back into their sockets, and smitten ladies needed manly assistance to remain upright. The duke, however, was not smitten, and had Schiller arrested for truancy; when Schiller bolted for the theater again, dire warnings informed him he had better stay put.

The next time Schiller slipped out of the Duke's grasp for good, to Franconia, in 1782, living under an alias for a time. The Mannheim theatrical producer sent him survival funds, a gracious lady who admired his writing took him in, and he set to work with everything he had. Within a year he produced two more tragedies, Die Verschwörung des Fiesco (Fiesco's Conspiracy) and Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love). The plays premiered in Mannheim, audiences loved them, and the post of poet to the theater became his. Esteemed and endowed with a sufficient living, Schiller devoted himself to literature with preternatural diligence, and pursued a life of the utmost seriousness.