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Romanticism: Friedrich Karl Wilhelm von Schlegel: Excerpts from Selected Works (1798-1804)

In the following excerpts from Athenaeum Fragments (1798), The Fundamentals of Gothic Architecture (1803), and Appeal to Painters of the Present Day (1804), the writer, philosopher, poet, and literary critic Friedrich Karl Wilhelm von Schlegel (1772-1829) describes the characteristics of Romantic poetry. Athenaeum, a literary magazine edited by Schlegel and his brother August Wilhelm from 1798 to 1800, was the leading mouthpiece for Early Romanticism. The magazine featured literary fragments, and in this respect was uniquely well-suited to the Romantic movement, which took incompleteness as a leading theme. The following excerpts on Gothic architecture and painting identify two additional sources of Romantic inspiration: the ornamental imitation of nature in Gothic architecture and wild, uncorrupted nature itself.

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I. From Athenaeum Fragments (1798)

[ . . . ]

Romantic poetry is a progressive universal poetry. Its destiny is not merely to reunite all of the different genres and to put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric. Romantic poetry wants to and should combine and fuse poetry and prose, genius and criticism, art poetry and nature poetry. It should make poetry lively and sociable, and make life and society poetic. It should poeticize wit and fill all of art's forms with sound material of every kind to form the human soul, to animate it with flights of humor. Romantic poetry embraces everything that is purely poetic, from the greatest art systems, which contain within them still more systems, all the way down to the sigh, the kiss that a poeticizing child breathes out in an artless song. Romantic poetry can lose itself in what is represented to the extent that one might believe that it exists solely to characterize poetic individuals of all types. But there is not yet a form which is fit to fully express an author's spirit. Thus many artists who only wanted to write a novel ended up presenting a kind of self-portrait. It alone is able to become a mirror of the entire surrounding world, an image of their age in the same manner as an epic. And yet it is Romantic poetry which can best glide between the portrayer and what is portrayed, free from all real and ideal interests. On the wings of poetic reflection, it can raise that reflection to a higher power and multiply it in an endless row of mirrors. Romantic poetry is capable of the highest and most comprehensive refinement [Bildung] – not merely from the inside out, but also from the outside in. In everything that should be a whole among its products, it organizes all parts similarly, through which a vision of an infinitely expanding classicism is opened. Romantic poetry is to the arts what wit is to philosophy and what society, company, friendship, and love are in life. Other kinds of poetry are finished and can now be fully analyzed. The Romantic form of poetry is still in the process of becoming. Indeed, that is its true essence, that it is always in the process of becoming and can never be completed. It cannot be exhausted by any theory, and only a divinatory criticism would dare to want to characterize its ideal. Romantic poetry alone is infinite, just as it alone is free and recognizes as its first law that the poetic will submits itself to no other law. The Romantic kind of poetry is the only one which is more than a kind – it is poetry itself. For, in a certain sense, all poetry is or should be Romantic.

[ . . . ]

Translation: Jonathan Skolnik

Source of original German text: Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, ed., Wolfdietrich Rasch. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1958, pp. 37-38.

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