This exhilarating book illuminates a group of extraordinary thinkers – among them the writer Goethe and playwright Friedrich Schiller – who gathered in Germany in the 18th century and introduced the concept of romanticism
A philosophy student attending a concert in the heart of Germany in the spring of 1797 could scarcely believe the evidence of his eyes. Seated in one row were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest writer of the age; Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the philosopher of the moment, whose packed lectures attracted students from across Europe; Alexander von Humboldt, just setting out on a career that would transform our understanding of the natural world; and August Wilhelm Schlegel, then making a name for himself as a writer, critic and translator. It seemed extraordinary to see so many famous men lined up together.
Except that it wasn’t, not then in Jena, a quiet university town at the heart of Germany of only 800 houses and fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. For a brief period, as the 18th century gave way to the 19th, Jena had a claim to be the intellectual capital of Europe. The nation’s finest minds were gathered there.
It happens very occasionally that exceptionally talented people congregate in one place for a while, to encourage and stimulate one another. Jena in the late 1790s and early 1800s was such a town. In this exhilarating book Andrea Wulf tells the story of what she calls “the Jena set”, a group of mainly young writers and poets who came together in “this lovely crazy little corner of the world”, as Goethe described it.
At the core of the Jena set were the Schlegels, August Wilhelm and his wife, Caroline, who worked together on translating Shakespeare’s plays into German verse; Friedrich, August Wilhelm’s younger and more quarrelsome brother, also a writer and critic, who for a while was in love with Caroline; the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (“Novalis”), almost the personification of Goethe’s Young Werther in his melodramatic posturing and adoration of a sickly, pubescent girl; and the serious young philosopher Friedrich Schelling, whose naturphilosophie envisaged the self as at one with everything living, and who conceived of art as the expression of this union.
This group saw themselves with some justification as cleverer, wittier and more poetic than anyone else. In their own eyes they were “the chosen ones”. Like other young people of their generation across Europe, they were inspired by the upheaval of the French Revolution, a challenge to established authority and ideas everywhere. Their irreverence inevitably led to feuds, first between the upstart Schlegels and the venerable poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, and later between Schelling and Fichte. Caroline’s refusal to conform to convention earned her widespread disapproval, especially from other women. Eventually she would divorce August Wilhelm and marry Schelling, 12 years her junior. Despite this, the three remained on good terms.
One reason why Jena became such a magnet for independent thinkers was the unusual constitution of the university, which allowed its professors comparative freedom. The most prominent of these was Fichte, who declared that “the source of all reality is the Ich” – a word with no exact equivalent in English. Fichte’s concept of the Ich placed the self at the centre of everything, always an attractive idea to self-regarding young people.
Goethe had been attracted to Jena from his home in nearby Weimar by the presence of Schiller. While Goethe was staying in Jena he and Schiller would meet daily, since they lived only a few minutes’ walk from each other. They made an odd couple as they strolled around town together, the cadaverous playwright towering above the older and now corpulent poet. Like the young English poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, Goethe and Schiller collaborated closely, editing each other’s work and suggesting improvements and changes. After Schiller’s death, Goethe would strive unsuccessfully to complete his unfinished work.
Goethe and Schiller were father figures to the group of younger writers and thinkers who gravitated to Jena. Schiller’s letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man would become a founding document for this new generation of thinkers, who called themselves romantics.
Goethe was a true renaissance man, as interested in science as he was in literature. For him, another attraction of Jena was the company of the young scientist Alexander von Humboldt. The two formed “our little academy”, carrying out dissections and experiments together, including electrical experiments on animals – “galvanism”. To the romantics, electricity seemed the fuel of life. It was no coincidence that Frankenstein’s monster would be brought to life by a massive electrical charge. Electricity also provided a fresh, almost irresistible metaphor. In its incessant and impassioned debate the Jena set was “electrified by our intellectual friction”; while apart, one of their number lamented the absence of “the electricity I feel with them”.
This is indeed an electrifying book, in its illuminated portraits, its dynamic narrative and its sparking ideas. Wulf writes clear, flowing prose, which is a pleasure to read. It’s informed by scholarship without being bogged down by jargon. Her book begins with an autobiographical prologue, explaining how, as the impulsive child of progressive parents, she chose to leave school early, rather than going to university, and became a single mother at a young age, learning in the process to balance free-spiritedness and responsibility. This introduction is appropriate, because her experience mirrors that of the woman at the heart of the story, Caroline Schlegel.
The Jena set broke up in 1803, dispersing across Germany and beyond in a general exodus. Magnificent Rebels ends with a dramatic set-piece chapter as French troops arrive in Jena in 1806, plundering the town and setting fire to buildings, before the battle that ends in devastating defeat for the Prussian army. The victorious emperor slept that night in Goethe’s bed. For the Jena set, Napoleon was not an enemy but a hero. They admired him as a force of nature. Ominously, Fichte began to talk about the “Ich” of a nation.
In her epilogue Wulf traces the influence of the Jena thinkers on subsequent generations: through the English romantic poets, especially Coleridge, and via him the American transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman), on to the thoughts of Sigmund Freud and James Joyce, and into the present. We have so far “internalised the Ich”, the author argues, that we no longer recognise it. What was revolutionary is now standard: we are all romantics now. And all this began in a small town in Germany more than 200 years ago.
Adam Sisman is the author of The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge (Harper Perennial)
Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf is published by John Murray (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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