Friedrich Schiller: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson provides an introduction to the life and work of Friedrich Schiller, who vigorously argued for the values of the Romantic movement as conducive to the formation of an ideal society. A poet and professor, Schiller advocated for his ideas about human worth and relationships in history lectures and, more popularly, in plays and poetry.

Schiller and the Romantic Movement

Schiller was an enthusiastic exponent - even, you could say, an embodiment - of Romantic ideals. Much more than pictures of sunsets or angsty novels, the Romantic movement integrated philosophy and social activism with new artistic and literary endeavors. As Schiller himself put it in his play Wilhelm Tell, 'The times are changing. The old order is collapsing... and new life is flourishing in the ruins.'

The members of the Romantic movement were hardly united in their views on God, nature, classicism, social order, or gender. Still, in their engagement with all these subjects, they collectively introduced to Europe new ideals in the realms of seeing, of thinkingā€¦ even of feeling. This movement could be described as a revolution without weapons; an intellectual and emotional rebellion against the old order of strict social hierarchy, militarism, and laws governing taste, marriage, and religion. Schiller hailed the collapse of this old order as the prelude to new ways of living. In his plays, in his poems, and in his lectures and writings as a history professor, Schiller advocated for a world where individuals and societies could be absolutely at peace with each other, and thereby participate in true freedom.

Biography

Friedrich Schiller was born in 1759, in Marbach, Germany. Schiller's upbringing was extremely conventional. The son of a military doctor, he had his first lessons with a Protestant priest, then a rigorous Latin education in a garrison town. At the command of the Duke of Württemberg, Schiller, at age 13, entered the duke's military academy, where he studied first law, and then medicine. More significantly for his future work, he read the complete works of Shakespeare, Rousseau, and the Romantic author Klopstock, despite the fact that reading and studying fiction was forbidden at the school.

Portrait of Schiller by Anton Graff, 1791
Friedrich Schiller

Schiller's first poems were written while he was still at school. These include rhapsodic poems about nature, inspired by Klopstock's similar work. Schiller experimented a great deal in this early work, mingling philosophy and ecstatic thoughts about love with typical Romantic enthusiasm. During this phase, Schiller was already exploring the idea of nature's harmony as a model for all good relationships. He also wrote 'Odes to Laura' as an homage to the Renaissance poet Petrarch... as one does. While still at school, Schiller wrote his first successful play, The Robbers.

Schiller subsequently got a job as a military doctor, but kept breaking the rules by traveling, and eventually, in 1782, fled the regiment with a musician friend. Allegedly, this involved jumping out a window. Fueled by more successful plays, Schiller's popularity grew unabated in succeeding years. He spent much of 1787-88 in Weimar, unofficial capital of the Romantics, and even got to meet Goethe! Schiller was hugely excited about this. In the same year, he took an unpaid position, arranged for him by Goethe, as a history lecturer at the university of Jena.

Schiller gave his first public lecture on the nature of world history (all of it.) This was hugely popular, and widely reprinted (something most history lecturers scarcely dream of.) Schiller continued to explore the influence of historical forces on people and events in both plays and philosophical texts. These writings made him such a hero that the government of the French Republic gave him honorary citizenship in 1792. This was especially big news because the French Republic was basically at war with everyone. Schiller was delighted, and even more delighted when his acquaintance with Goethe developed into friendship in 1794. They even published work together, adorably. The last decade of Schiller's life saw him work on plays on historical subjects, uniting his interests in philosophy, history, and the beauty of language itself. He was given a title of nobility in 1802 (hence Friedrich von Schiller) but continued to be in poor health, and died in 1805. Unlike many artists, he had the satisfaction of being hugely admired in his own lifetime, and his work continued to exercise enormous influence on German literature through subsequent generations.

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