Monday, July 18, 2011
Friedrich Schiller by Frederick Unger
Don Carlos was first performed in Berlin in 1788. Schiller had reason to be satisfied with the initial success of his play. Yet, although he fully realized that he had produced a work immeasurably superior to his first three plays, he could not free himself from gnawing doubts about his qualifications as a dramatist or as a poet and creative writer in general. His habitual self-criticism did not allow him to overlook the fact that there were serious gaps in his education, both in knowledge and understanding.
A particularly impressive example of Schiller's thinking at this time is found in a letter addressed to his friend and early patron Gottfried Korner:
"It was with gentle shame - a feeling which does not depress but arouses a manly decision - that I looked back to a past I had abused in the most unfortunate dissipation. I sensed the bold inherent disposition of my talents, the failure of Nature's perhaps great intentions for me. One half was destroyed by the insane method of my education and the ugly mood of my fate, the other and greater one by myself. All that I felt most deeply, and in the general ferment and ardor of my feelings, my heart and my head were at one in the herculean vow- to make up for the past and star out anew in the noble race for the highest goal."
He did not feel that he was ready to satisfy the exacting requirements he expected every creative writer and poet to fulfill. Thus he reached a decision to dedicate the ensuing years to a rigorous discipline of self-training, accepting freely the implication that for a long time he would have to renounce all manner and form of poetic work. In fact, for fully a decade he wrote nothing for the stage and for several years not a single poem. The perseverance with which Schiller applied himself through-out the following years to his studies, first of history, then of the literature of the ancients, and finally of philosophy indicated the seriousness and severity of his self-criticism. It was not a passing mood.
Schiller’s subsequent historical writings, however, made such an impression on the public that many thought Schiller had only now found his true profession. The History of the Thirty Years’ War, published in three volumes between 1889-1791 had the greatest sales success ever enjoyed up to that time by a work of non-fiction in the German language! His historical work and other writings, combined with fee-per-student teaching responsibilities, were produced, however, by dint of fourteen hour workdays and with a complete disregard for his health. A consequence of this continuous exertion was physical collapse. Schiller developed a high fever, violent chest pains and pneumonia, for which the medical science of the day could offer nothing but palliatives.
Schiller’s recuperation progressed very slowly. The abdominal spasms and the pressure in his chest persisted with rare intervals of relief. On the basis of recent research, which is borne out by Schiller’s own precise statements, it is probable that suppuration from a pleurisy infection spread through his peritoneum and brought on a progressive paralysis of his abdominal organs. In the months and 14 years that followed he continued to suffer series of painful spells of dyspnea and came to realize that his days were numbered.
The pride and strength of a great soul rising triumphantly above toil and torment even while succumbing to it, the heroic greatness of mind and soul which he demanded as a thinker and depicted as a poet, he himself was now called upon to practice. It was a basic tenet of his philosophy that the true stature of a man is measured by the degree of his inner freedom, self-determination- his ability to flourish as an individual- for beyond the realm of matter there is a higher life which can only be won by the triumph of the spirit over the misery of the body and every form physical, social, economic and political misfortune, even in the face of death itself. He rose to the occasion. He lived his ideals
Friedrich Schiller; An Anthology For Our Time with an Account of His Life and Work by Frederick Unger; Unger Publishing; N.Y. 1959