Historic painting of people in colourful 18th-century clothing walking and riding horses in a town square with a backdrop of buildings and distant hills, captioned “AM FÜRSTENGRABEN 1779”.

‘At the Fürstengraben, 1779’ from Jena from its Origins to the Present Day (1850) by Carl Schreiber. Courtesy the British Library


The first Romantics

How a close group of brilliant friends, in a tiny German university town, laid the foundations of modern consciousness

by Andrea Wulf + BIO

‘At the Fürstengraben, 1779’ from Jena from its Origins to the Present Day (1850) by Carl Schreiber. Courtesy the British Library

In September 1798, one day after their poem collection Lyrical Ballads was published, the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth sailed from Yarmouth, on the Norfolk coast, to Hamburg in the far north of the German states. Coleridge had spent the previous few months preparing for what he called ‘my German expedition’. The realisation of the scheme, he explained to a friend, was of the highest importance to ‘my intellectual utility; and of course to my moral happiness’. He wanted to master the German language and meet the thinkers and writers who lived in Jena, a small university town, southwest of Berlin. On Thomas Poole’s advice, his motto had been: ‘Speak nothing but German. Live with Germans. Read in German. Think in German.’

After a few days in Hamburg, Coleridge realised he didn’t have enough money to travel the 300 miles south to Jena and Weimar, and instead he spent almost five months in nearby Ratzeburg, then studied for several months in Göttingen. He soon spoke German. Though he deemed his pronunciation ‘hideous’, his knowledge of the language was so good that he would later translate Friedrich Schiller’s drama Wallenstein (1800) and Goethe’s Faust (1808). Those 10 months in Germany marked a turning point in Coleridge’s life. He had left England as a poet but returned with the mind of a philosopher – and a trunk full of philosophical books. ‘No man was ever yet a great poet,’ Coleridge later wrote, ‘without being at the same time a profound philosopher.’ Though Coleridge never made it to Jena, the ideas that came out of this small town were vitally important for his thinking – from Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s philosophy of the self to Friedrich Schelling’s ideas on the unity of mind and nature. ‘There is no doubt,’ one of his friends later said, ‘that Coleridge’s mind is much more German than English.’

Few in the English-speaking world will have heard of this little German town, but what happened in Jena in the last decade of the 18th century has shaped us. The Jena group’s emphasis on individual experience, their description of nature as a living organism, their insistence that art was the unifying bond between mind and the external world, and their concept of the unity of humankind and nature became popular themes in the works of artists, writers, poets and musicians across Europe and the United States. They were the first to proclaim these ideas, which rippled out into the wider world, influencing not only the English Romantics but also American writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Many learned German to understand the works of the young Romantics in Jena in the original; others studied translations or read books about them. They were all fascinated by what Emerson called ‘this strange genial poetic comprehensive philosophy’. In the decades that followed, the Jena Set’s works were read in Italy, Russia, France, Spain, Denmark and Poland. Everybody was suffering from ‘Germanomania’, as Adam Mickiewicz, one of Poland’s leading poets, said. ‘If we cannot be original,’ Maurycy Mochnacki, one of the founders of Polish Romanticism, wrote, ‘we better imitate the great Romantic poetry of the Germans and decisively reject French models.’

This was not a fashionable craze, but a profound shift in thinking, away from Isaac Newton’s mechanistic model of nature. Despite what many people might think today, the young Romantics didn’t turn against the sciences or reason, but lamented what Coleridge described as the absence of ‘connective powers of the understanding’. The focus on rational thought and empiricism in the Enlightenment, the friends in Jena believed, had robbed nature of awe and wonder. Since the late 17th century, scientists had tried to erase anything subjective, irrational and emotional from their disciplines and methods. Everything had to be measurable, repeatable and classifiable. Many of those who were inspired by the ideas coming out of Jena felt that they lived in a world ruled by division and fragmentation – they bemoaned the loss of unity. The problem, they believed, lay with Cartesian philosophers who had divided the world into mind and matter, or the Linnaeun thinking that had turned the understanding of nature into a narrow practice of collecting and classification. Coleridge called these philosophers the ‘Little-ists’. This ‘philosophy of mechanism’, he wrote to Wordsworth, ‘strikes Death’. Thinkers, poets and writers in the US and across Europe were enthralled by the ideas that developed in Jena, which fought the increasing materialism and mechanical clanking of the world.

So, what was going on in Jena? And why was Coleridge so keen to visit this small town in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar that had become a ‘Kingdom of Philosophy’? Jena looked unassuming and, with around 4,500 inhabitants, it was decidedly small. It was compact and square within its crumbling medieval town walls, and it took less than 10 minutes on foot to cross. At its centre was an open market square, and its cobbled streets were lined with houses of different heights and styles. There was a university, a library with 50,000 books, book binders, printers, a botanical garden and plenty of shops. Students rushed through the streets to their lectures or discussed the latest philosophical ideas in the town’s many taverns. Tucked into a wide valley and surrounded by gentle hills and fields, Jena was lovingly called ‘little Switzerland’ by the Swiss students.

Back in the 18th century, Jena and its university had been part of the Electorate of Saxony but, because of complicated inheritance rules, the state had been divided up and the university was nominally controlled by no fewer than four different Saxon dukes. In practice, it meant that no one was really in charge, allowing professors to teach and explore revolutionary ideas. ‘Here we have complete freedom to think, to teach and to write,’ one professor said. Censorship was less strict compared with elsewhere, and the scope of subjects that could be taught was broad. ‘The professors in Jena are almost entirely independent,’ Jena’s most famous inhabitant, the playwright Friedrich Schiller, explained. Thinkers, writers and poets in trouble with the authorities in their home states came to Jena, drawn by the openness and relative freedoms. Schiller himself had arrived after he had been arrested for his revolutionary play The Robbers (1781) in his home state, the Duchy of Württemberg.

On a lucky day at the end of the 18th century, you might have seen more famous writers, poets and philosophers in Jena’s streets than in a larger city in an entire century. There was the tall, gaunt-looking Schiller (who could only write with a drawer full of rotten apples in his desk), the stubborn philosopher Fichte, who put the self at the centre of his work, and the young scientist Alexander von Humboldt – the first to predict harmful human-induced climate change. The brilliant Schlegel brothers, Friedrich and August Wilhelm, both of them writers and critics with pens as sharp as the French guillotines, lived in Jena, as did the young philosopher Friedrich Schelling, who redefined the relationship between the individual and nature, and G W F Hegel, who would become one of the most influential philosophers in the Western world.

In an age of absolutism, the Jena Set were united by an obsession with the free self

Also in Jena was the formidable and free-spirited Caroline Michaelis-Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling. She carried the names of her father and three husbands, but she was fiercely independent and had no intention of living according to social conventions. The young poet Novalis, who had studied in Jena, regularly visited his friends there from his family estate in nearby Weißenfels. In the winter months, you might have glimpsed Germany’s most celebrated poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as he skated on the river – his bulging belly buttoned together with a flowery waistcoat. Older and more famous, Goethe became something like a benevolent godfather to the younger generation. He was inspired, even rejuvenated, by their new and radical ideas, and they, in turn, worshipped him.

These great thinkers attracted students from across Germany and Europe to Jena. Starstruck to see so many famous poets and philosophers sitting in one row at the concerts in the Zur Rose tavern, they couldn’t believe their eyes when seemingly all of Germany’s greatest minds squeezed into one room at a party.

Each of these great intellects lived a life worth telling, but the fact that they all came together at the same time in the same place is even more extraordinary. That’s why I’ve called them the ‘Jena Set’ in my book Magnificent Rebels (2022).

In an age when most of Europe was still held in the iron fist of absolutism, the Jena Set were united by an obsession with the free self. ‘A person,’ Fichte shouted from the lectern during his first lecture in Jena in 1794, ‘should be self-determined, never letting himself be defined by anything external.’ Fichte’s philosophy promised freedom at a time when German rulers presided over the smallest details of their subjects’ lives with an authoritarian delight – refusing marriage proposals, arbitrarily raising taxes, or selling their subjects as mercenaries to other nations. They were the law, police and judge rolled into one. For centuries, philosophers and thinkers had argued that the world was controlled by a divine hand – but now, Fichte said, there were no absolute or God-given truths, certainly not safeguarded to princes and kings. The only certainty, the fiery philosopher explained, was that the world was experienced by the self. The self (or the Ich, in German), ‘originally and unconditionally posits its own being’ – it basically brings itself into existence. And through this powerful initial act, it also conjures up Fichte’s so-called non-Ich (the external world). According to Fichte, the reality of the external world was simply transferred from the Ich to the non-Ich. This didn’t mean that the Ich creates the external world, but that it creates our knowledge of the world. By making the self the first principle of everything, Fichte recentred the way we understand the world. Not only was the self the ‘source of all reality’, but it was imbued with the most exciting of all powers: free will and self-determination.

Fichte’s Ich-philosophy was lit by the fire of the French Revolution. When the French revolutionaries denounced aristocratic privilege and declared all men equal, they promised a new social order, grounded in freedom. ‘My system is, from beginning to end, an analysis of the concept of freedom,’ Fichte declared: ‘Just as the French nation is tearing man free from his external chains, so my system tears him free from the chains of things-in-themselves, the chains of external influences.’

There were passionate love affairs, scandals, and fights with the authorities

These ideas were so radical and influential that these few years in Jena became the most important decade for the shaping of the modern mind and our relationship to nature. The story of the Jena Set is one of radical ideas – ideas about the birth of the modern self and the importance of Romanticism – but it also plays out like a soap opera as the young men and women broke conventions and used their own lives as a laboratory for their revolutionary philosophy. They placed a free and emboldened self not only at the nexus of their work but also at the centre of their lives. Their lives became a stage on which to experience the Ich-philosophy.

There were passionate love affairs, scandals, and fights with the authorities. Caroline Schlegel, for example, widowed at 24, hung out with German revolutionaries and was imprisoned by the Prussians for being a sympathiser of the French Revolution. In prison, she discovered that she was pregnant after a one-night stand with a young French soldier. After her imprisonment, she was treated like an outcast, but the young writer August Wilhelm Schlegel came to her rescue: he married her, gave her a new name and, with that, a new beginning. The Schlegels had an open marriage, which Caroline explained was ‘an alliance that between ourselves we never regarded as anything but utterly free’. Both of them had lovers. When Caroline fell in love with Friedrich Schelling, 12 years younger than she, Schlegel didn’t mind. In fact, he joked: she ‘isn’t done yet … her next lover is still wearing a little sailor suit!’

The Schlegels were not the only ones who had come to such an unusual arrangement. The Humboldts also had an open marriage and Caroline von Humboldt’s lover moved in with the couple; Goethe lived with his mistress; meanwhile, Friedrich Schlegel outraged the literary establishment and polite society by taking readers into his bedroom to watch him and Dorothea Veit make love. Schlegel had intended to shock, and succeeded. ‘I want there to be a real revolution in my writing,’ he told Caroline.

The group met almost daily. ‘Our little academy,’ as Goethe called it in the spring of 1797, was very busy. They composed poems, translated great literary works, conducted scientific experiments, wrote plays, and discussed philosophical ideas. They went to lectures, concerts and dinner parties. They were interested in everything – art, science and literature. They were thrilled by this communal way of working. As the poet Novalis explained: ‘I produce best in dialogue.’ They called this way of working ‘symphilosophising’, a new term they had invented. They added the prefix ‘sym-’ to words such as philosophy, poetry and physics – it essentially meant ‘together’. ‘Symphilosophy is our connection’s true name,’ Friedrich Schlegel said, because they believed that two minds could belong together.

They often met in Caroline’s sunlit parlour on the ground floor of the Schlegel house near the market square. Caroline had no interest in playing the domestic wife. She simply served some gherkins, potatoes, herrings and a tasteless soup. No one complained. The flavour, one visitor said, was not provided by the ingredients of the meal but by the intellectual menu that Caroline prepared.

Caroline Schlegel steered discussions, demanded opinions and her sharp analytical mind shaped the friends’ thinking. She awakened Friedrich Schlegel’s interest in ancient Greek poetry, for example, editing his essays, suggesting books and teaching him about strong female figures in ancient mythologies. ‘I felt the superiority of her mind over mine,’ he admitted, adding ‘she made me a better person.’ Caroline’s opinions about poetry, Friedrich Schlegel told his brother August Wilhelm, were illuminating, and her passionate support for the French Revolution was infectious.

For the Jena Set, Shakespeare was the epitome of the ‘natural genius’, the quintessential romantic writer

Caroline also wrote many reviews under her husband’s name, and August Wilhelm Schlegel counted on her literary contributions. Together, they produced the first major German verse translation of Shakespeare, translating 16 plays in six years. It was a close collaboration, with August Wilhelm translating and Caroline scanning the verses in a kind of chant. Their Shakespeare is, to this day, the standard edition in Germany, but her name is still missing from the cover.

August Wilhelm Schlegel’s published lectures on Shakespeare also resurrected the playwright in England. In the 18th century, Shakespeare had become unpopular with critics who described his language as disordered, ungrammatical and vulgar. Voltaire, for example, had declared Hamlet ‘the work of a drunken savage’. For the Jena Set, though, William Shakespeare was the epitome of the ‘natural genius’, the quintessential romantic writer. In contrast to the polished refinement of the French dramatists Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille, who had followed rigid rules, Shakespeare’s plays were emotional and his language unruly and organic – ‘the spirit of romantic poetry dramatically pronounced’. English poets and writers, such as Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Hazlitt and Thomas Carlyle, all read and admired August Wilhelm’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1809-11). Wordsworth, said Coleridge, had declared that ‘a German critic first taught us to think correctly concerning Shakespeare.’

At the end of 1797, Friedrich Schlegel convinced his brother August Wilhelm, his sister-in-law Caroline Schlegel and his friend Novalis that they should publish their own literary magazine. It would be of ‘sublime impertinence’, he announced, and they would fight the literary establishment. They called it the Athenaeum, a title that stood for learning, democracy and freedom. Caroline was its editor. Printed on cheap paper without any illustrations, the Athenaeum might have appeared unassuming, but its content was the Jena Set’s manifesto to the world. It was in the pages of the Athenaeum that they first used the term ‘romantic’ in its new literary meaning, launching Romanticism as an international movement. They provided its name and purpose but also its intellectual framework – it was ‘our first symphony’, as August Wilhelm said.

Today, the term ‘Romanticism’ evokes images of lonely figures in moonlit forests or on craggy cliffs – as expressed in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings – as well as artists, poets and musicians who emphasised emotion and longed to be at one with nature. Some say the Romantics opposed reason; others simply think of candlelit dinners and passionate declarations of love. For the Jena Set, though, Romanticism was something much more complex and radical. Romantic poetry, they said, was unruly and dynamic – a ‘living organism’. They wanted to romanticise the entire world. They strived to unite humankind and nature, art and science. If two elements could create a new chemical compound, so Romantic poetry could bring together different disciplines and subjects, and weld them into something new. ‘By giving the commonplace a higher meaning,’ Novalis said, ‘by making the ordinary look mysterious, by granting to what is known the dignity of the unknown and imparting to the finite a shimmer of the infinite, I romanticise.’ And for that, the friends insisted, one needs imagination.

They elevated imagination as the highest faculty of the mind. They didn’t turn against reason, but believed it insufficient to understand the world. For centuries, philosophers had mistrusted imagination, believing it obscured the truth. The British writer Samuel Johnson had called it ‘a licentious and vagrant faculty’, but the Jena Set believed that imagination was essential for the process of gaining knowledge. Novalis announced that ‘the sciences must all be poeticised’, and scientist Alexander von Humboldt believed that we had to use our imagination to make sense of the natural world. ‘What speaks to the soul,’ he said, ‘escapes our measurements’.

At the centre of Romanticism were aesthetics, beauty and the importance of art – terms which, for the Jena group, carried a deeply political and moral meaning. Let me unpack this. They had all initially embraced the French Revolution but, as hundreds of heads rolled off the guillotines during Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, many Germans became horrified. By 1795, Friedrich Schiller was arguing that the Enlightenment’s enshrinement of reason over feeling had led to the bloodshed of the French Revolution. Rational observation and empiricism might have encouraged knowledge, but they had neglected the refinement of moral behaviour. All the knowledge in the world could not foster a person’s sense of right and wrong: it might give them the ability to understand natural laws or make medical advances such as smallpox inoculations, even inspire them to wish for universal rights such as liberty and equality, but the horrific excesses of the French Revolution were bloodied proof that this was not enough.

Friedrich Schelling told his students that everything was entangled into one living organism

Societies in Europe were driven by profit, productivity and consumption. ‘Utility is the great idol of our time,’ Schiller bemoaned, ‘to which all powers pay homage.’ The arts had been pushed aside. In his ‘Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man’ (1795), Schiller claimed that only beauty would lead us towards ethical principles and make us morally mature, for beauty protected us against brutality and greed. Maybe the French had simply not been ready for freedom and equality, he suggested, because in order to be truly free, one had to be morally mature. He didn’t mean a morality such as fidelity to a spouse or an individual’s sexuality – because, in that department, the Jena Set definitely had some fun. What Schiller meant was the morality of a society that was ready to govern itself. The French Revolution and the ensuing atrocities had shown how urgent was the need for a philosophy of beauty. ‘Art is a daughter of freedom,’ Schiller said, and ‘it is through beauty that we reach freedom.’

The younger generation admired Schiller’s ideas. They believed, Friedrich Schelling said, in a ‘revolution brought about by philosophy’ – which is exactly what Schelling set out to do. At just 20, he had already published his first philosophical book, followed each year by another one. By 23, he was so famous that he became the youngest professor at the University of Jena in 1798, enthralling students with his revolutionary ideas. There was a ‘secret bond connecting our mind with nature,’ he said. Rather than dividing the world into mind and matter as philosophers had done for centuries, Schelling told his students that everything was entangled into one living organism.

His students were so enraptured that their letters home described an almost religious epiphany. Schelling’s new world was filled with a ‘new, warm, glowing life,’ wrote one: it was alive. Instead of a mechanistic world where humans were little more than cogs in a machine, Schelling conjured a world of oneness. The self was identical with nature, he insisted, and being in nature – be it in a forest or meadow, or scrambling up a mountain – was therefore always also a journey into oneself. ‘Since we find nature in the self,’ one of Schelling’s students concluded, ‘we must also find the self in nature.’ Schelling’s philosophy of oneness became the heartbeat of Romanticism, influencing the English Romantics and the American Transcendentalists both. It flared out of Jena into the wider world.

Schelling’s impact on Coleridge’s thinking is graphically illustrated by the changes the English poet made to ‘The Eolian Harp’, a poem he had originally written in 1795. After studying Schelling’s works intensely, Coleridge republished the poem in 1817 with these new lines to the second verse:

O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought …

After Coleridge learned German, he continued to read the works of the Jena Set. Though he studied Fichte’s Ich-philosophy, Coleridge was a ‘Schellingianer’, said one of his friends (who had studied under Schelling in Jena), someone who ‘metaphysicised à la Schelling’. So obsessed was Coleridge that he translated big chunks of Schelling’s work, then passed them off as his own. He was particularly fascinated by Schelling’s idea of the unity between mind and nature. Page after page, paragraph by paragraph, Coleridge inserted Schelling’s sentences into his literary autobiography Biographia Literaria, describing how he had moved from the materialistic view of British empiricists to German idealistic philosophy. A child of the Enlightenment, Coleridge had initially agreed with the empiricists that the mind was like a blank sheet of paper that filled up over a lifetime with knowledge that came from sensory experience alone. But, after studying the works of the Jena Set, he became a proponent of Idealism – a school of thought that believed that ‘ideas’ or the mind, not material things, constitute our reality.

When his Biographia Literaria was published in 1817, Coleridge’s friend Thomas De Quincey accused him of ‘bare-faced plagiarism’, insisting ‘the entire essay, from the first word to the last, is a verbatim translation from Schelling.’ But Coleridge did the same thing with August Wilhelm Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, from which he imported long passages for his own Shakespeare lectures in London.

Having failed to travel to Jena in 1798, Coleridge, together with Wordsworth, finally met August Wilhelm Schlegel 30 years later in 1828. Showing off his German skills, Coleridge told August Wilhelm that never had any translation of any kind of work in any language been as great as his of Shakespeare. To which August Wilhelm pleaded: ‘Mein lieber Herr, would you speak English? I understand it; but your German I cannot follow.’ Percy Bysshe Shelley, too, studied August Wilhelm Schlegel’s work. In March 1818, as he and his wife Mary Shelley were travelling through France to meet Lord Byron in Switzerland, he read aloud Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature for six long days.

Coleridge was not the only one to learn German in order to study the works of the Jena Set. The American Transcendentalists, who gathered in the small Massachusetts town of Concord in the 1830s and ’40s, were equally keen to master the language. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s elder brother had impelled him to ‘learn German as fast as you can.’ Reading lists included Goethe, Immanuel Kant, Fichte, Schelling and, later, Novalis and Humboldt. And those who couldn’t read German studied the works through English editions such as Madame de Staël’s bestselling book Germany (1810), Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and Thomas Carlyle’s widely read essays, reviews and translations in Foreign Review and other journals.

Jena’s intellectual reign was brief and vital, and its influence was lasting

Emerson’s library was filled with books by Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Humboldt, Fichte, Schelling and the Schlegel brothers. His famous essay Nature (1836), which became the Transcendentalists’ manifesto, was deeply influenced by Schelling’s philosophy of oneness. Each leaf, crystal or animal was part of the whole, Emerson explained, ‘[e]ach particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.’ We are nature, Emerson wrote, because ‘the mind is a part of the nature of things.’

Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau was equally immersed in the ideas coming out of Jena, and in particular Alexander von Humboldt’s work. He filled his journal with observations about the natural world – from the chirping of crickets and the effortless movements of fish to the first delicate blooms of the year. Thoreau’s daily entries record his visceral sense of his synchrony with nature and the changing seasons – or what he called the ‘mysterious relation between myself & these things’. At one with nature, he felt the unity the Jena Set had described. ‘Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?’ he asked in Walden (1854). For Thoreau, the study of nature ultimately became a study of his own self. After his years at Walden Pond, for example, he described a lake as ‘earth’s eye’ and, by looking into it, the ‘beholder measures the depth of his own nature’.

There were many other Jena acolytes: Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville. Poe’s last major work, for example, the 130-page prose poem Eureka (1848) was dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt, and a direct response to Humboldt’s international bestseller Cosmos (1845). It was Poe’s attempt to survey the Universe – including all things ‘spiritual and material’ – echoing Humboldt’s approach of including the external and the internal world. Like Coleridge, Poe also lifted several pages from August Wilhelm Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, and published them verbatim under his own name. Whitman’s poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855) is another example of the Jena Set’s international appeal. Whitman thought of it as a poetic distillation of the ‘great System of Idealistic Philosophy in Germany’. In one poem, he introduced himself as ‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos’ – perhaps a nod to Humboldt’s Cosmos, which the poet reportedly kept on his desk as he composed Leaves of Grass.

Romantic poetry, August Wilhelm Schlegel had argued in Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature was ‘the expression of the secret attraction to a chaos … which is perpetually striving after new and wonderful births.’ It was a sentiment that appealed to American Transcendentalists and British Romantics alike, just as much as Schelling’s unity of mind and matter, and Humboldt’s concept of nature as a living organism.

Jena’s intellectual reign was brief and vital, and its influence was lasting. The Jena Set put the self at the centre of their thinking, redefined our relationship with nature, and heralded Romanticism as an international movement. These ideas have seeped deeply into our culture and behaviour: the self, for better or worse, has remained centre stage ever since, and their concept of nature as a living organism is the foundation of our understanding of the natural world today. We still think with the minds of these visionary thinkers, see with their imaginations, and feel with their emotions.