Heinrich von Kleist (3194 words)

William C. Reeve (Queen's University at Kingston Ontario)
Download PDF Save to Bookshelf Share on Facebook Tweet Report an Error

Now recognized as the most “modern” and most performed German classical dramatist and as the author of eight narrative masterpieces, Heinrich von Kleist never saw any of his plays on stage and achieved notoriety throughout most of the 19th century primarily for his scandalous suicide. Because his dramas were considered unperformable and dealt with socially unacceptable themes such as rape, sado-masochism, guerilla warfare or a Prussian officer's fear of death, they could only appear in adaptations until the 20th century. Suddenly, a writer who identified art with life and whom his contemporaries had rejected as a “sick” romantic had anticipated the crisis of modernity and raised crucial existential issues. Since Jean Vilar's triumphant French production of Prinz Friedrich von Homburg in 1951, Kleist's plays have increasingly dominated the staging of classical German works. However, as a result of the inimitable character of his poetic language, a disjointed, often alienating syntax reflecting the incongruous nature of his world, and hence the considerable difficulty in translating his verse, his dramas have been largely restricted to German-speaking audiences and, in contrast to Büchner's prose plays, have enjoyed at best a succès d'estime on the international stage.

Even before Kleist's birth on 18 October 1777 in Frankfurt an der Oder, circumstances conspired against him. A Spartan Prussian military barrack could scarcely compete with the sophisticated Frankfurt am Main where Goethe was born to wealthy middle-class parents. Although the Kleists had provided several generals for the Prussian army including Heinrich's father, Joachim Friedrich, company commander in Frankfurt an der Oder, they also bore evidence of conflicting artistic aspirations as exemplified in Ewald von Kleist (1715-1759), the author of some idyllic poems, who was required to enter the military against his will.

When Kleist was only eleven years old, his father died, leaving his young widow, Juliane Ulrike, née von Pannwitz, with two children by her husband's first marriage and five offspring of her own. Five years later, she also passed away and an aunt assumed responsibility for raising the children. In 1788 Kleist attended preacher Samuel Heinrich Catel's boarding house in Berlin, but, consistent with family custom, he enlisted at age fourteen in the Potsdam Regiment of the Guards. Here he remained until 1799, taking part in the Rhine Campaign against the French Revolutionary army in 1793 and receiving his commission as a second lieutenant in 1797. While stationed in Potsdam, he made a trip into the Harz Mountains disguised as a musician, joined a musical club as a clarinetist and frequented the home of his cousin by marriage, Marie von Kleist. By 1799 his aversion to martial life had become so intense that, to the dismay of his relatives, he resolved to resign his commission in order to perfect his “moral education”. In a letter to his former private tutor, Christian Ernst Martini, to justify his rebellion against a sacrosanct military tradition, Kleist noted: “[The Regiment] appeared to me as a living monument to tyranny [. . .] I was always in doubt as to whether I had to act as a human being or as an officer, for to unite the obligations of both I consider impossible, given the present state of the armies”. Nurtured on eudaemonistic philosophy (Leibniz, Shaftesbury, Wolff), Kleist still clung to belief in divine benevolence, a morally governed world order, and a personal happiness free from external constraints. This general optimism of the Enlightenment mirrored in his “Aufsatz, den sichern Weg des Glücks zu finden” (“Essay: How to Find the Certain Way to Happiness”) largely dictated the decision to quit the army.

Kleist always admired Rousseau and, like him, wanted to deny his noble birth to seek a simple, humble existence. In keeping with his “life-plan”, he returned home to study physics, mathematics and philosophy and met Wilhelmine von Zenge, the conventional daughter of the local commander. Asking for “permission to impart to her the main rules of the German language in short essays”, he sent her instead a confession of love and a marriage proposal. Thus commenced their bizarre engagement as Kleist endeavored to mould his fiancée and promote her moral education by giving her a series of problems to solve and by emphasizing the inferior, supportive role of women. Above all he expected and demanded from her and those close to him complete trust despite all appearances to the contrary, a constant theme in his literary output.

In 1800 he made his clandestine journey to Würzburg accompanied by Ludwig von Brockes, an educated aristocrat for whom Kleist expressed a homosexual attraction. First to recognize Kleist's genius, Brockes convinced him of the destructive potential of reason and gave him a new directive: “To act is better than to know”. “[Brockes] always called reason cold and the heart the only active and creative force”. This move from the rational towards the irrational strongly influenced Kleist's later works. The secrecy surrounding the Würzburg trip also anticipates his predilection for the unknown and exaggerated. Critics have posited financial concerns, a mental disorder, and, above all, sexual impotence as motives. An operation did take place and Kleist referred in a letter to his seeking a cure for an ailment rendering him unfit for marriage. Whatever the problem, the Würzburg stay effected the desired recovery and reawakened an enthusiasm for life. “Then I wasn't worthy of you [Wilhelmine], now I am [. . .] Then the awareness that I could not fulfil your most holy claims tortured me, and now, now - - But silence!” Realizing that his calling lay in writing, he began to compose some poems, but what remained a closely guarded secret.

Returning to Berlin and yielding to family pressure, Kleist worked as a civil service volunteer with the view of becoming a political economist; however, after only one month, he complained to his fiancée of how unsuitable he was in temperament for such a profession and refused to become “a mere tool for [the State's] unknown goals.” During this period the first and most important of several crises occurred. Whereas controversy still surrounds the specific cause of his “Kant crisis”, its consequences were clearly devastating for Kleist's personal life but highly productive for German literature since he emerged from it as a writer. The crucial letters outlining this turning point he wrote on 22 and 23 March 1801 to Wilhelmine and his half-sister Ulrike: “Recently I became familiar with the newer, so-called Kantian philosophy [. . .] We cannot determine whether that which we call truth is indeed truth or whether it only appears to be such to us”. Kleist, finding in Kant a confirmation of his own experience, did not pursue this philosophy to its more hopeful conclusion, but chose to dwell upon the ambivalence of empirical reality and our inability to perceive its true nature.

When superiors asked Kleist, now fully exasperated with bureaucratic life, to prepare a lengthy technical report, he determined to leave the civil service, putting forward the excuse that he wished to travel to France to continue his studies. Dressed like a man, Ulrike joined her brother upon his departure for Paris in April 1801. In Butzbach, a donkey's bray spooked their horse. Miraculously the occupants remained unharmed when their carriage overturned. In recounting this incident, Kleist observed, “Thus a human life depended on a donkey's bray”. Arbitrary chance plays a pivotal role in his literary vision as well. Reaching Paris during the July Revolution celebration, Kleist stayed in the Latin Quarter and gained access to the scientific community through Wilhelm von Humboldt's introduction. Under Rousseau's influence, he grew to detest the city, criticizing the corruption, dull routine and overcrowded conditions. Soon he began to quarrel with his sister and he invited Wilhelmine to share his dream of operating a farm in Switzerland. While Ulrike returned home, Kleist eventually discovered his idyll, the Swiss island of Delosea on Lake Thun. Here he enjoyed a brief period of happiness sufficient to complete his first play, Die Familie Ghonorez [The Ghonorez Family] which he subsequently relocated in Germany, retitling it Die Familie Schroffenstein. In this tragedy, a variation on the Romeo and Juliet theme, both the good and bad fathers of two feuding branches of the same family slay their respective child on the basis of a “Versehen” (oversight). It is left to an old blind man to discover the true identity of the young victims.

When Kleist again asked Wilhelmine to join him, her refusal finally ended their shaky relationship. Illness compelled him to abandon his island retreat for Bern where he frequented the house of Heinrich Zschokke. On one of his visits, Kleist participated in a literary contest that supplied the impetus to begin his comedy, Der zerbrochne Krug [The Broken Jug], later completed in Königsberg in 1805/6. The German language's most performed play, it presents a humorous parody of Oedipus Rex as judge Adam presides over his own trial for having attempted to rape Eve. Whereas Oedipus seeks to determine the truth, his village equivalent does everything in his power to conceal it with his entertaining extemporaneous prevarications.

Serious financial straits obliged Kleist to appeal to his family in 1802. Ulrike not only sent money but traveled herself to Switzerland to help her ailing brother. She found him recovered and committed to the defence of Bern against Napoleon's troops. After an acquaintance, Ludwig Wieland, had been banished for anti-French statements, Kleist decided to accompany him to Weimar where his celebrated father, Martin Christoph Wieland, enthusiastically welcomed Kleist into his home in Ossmannstedt. He stayed with his host for ten weeks until an infatuation on the part of Wieland's thirteen-year old daughter finally forced him to leave. Wieland still retained his high regard for Kleist's current work, Robert Guiskard, Herzog der Normänner [Robert Guiskard, Duke of the Normans], and prophesied that its author would fill “the great gap in our literature which still has not been filled by Schiller and Goethe”.

Back again in Paris, he resolved to live up to Wieland's expectations by writing a masterpiece combining Greek and Shakespearian influence. Although he slaved over the manuscript of Robert Guiskard, he finally burned it in despair. Only a fragment of the first ten scenes has survived, written down from memory for publication in his periodical Phöbus. This Guiskard crisis resulted in such a sense of utter hopelessness that he resolved to die in battle by joining Napoleon's army preparing to invade England. Compelled through illness to abandon this plan, the prodigal son finally returned home, a complete failure in the eyes of his family which constrained him to renounce his literary aspirations and return to government bureaucracy. This attempt to re-enter the civil service proved to be one of Kleist's most humiliating ordeals. Since he had the reputation of a deserter for having left the army and public service and for having enlisted in the enemy's forces, his interrogator, General von Köckeritz, entertained such strong prejudices against the candidate that he reduced Kleist to tears. Nevertheless, through family intervention, he went to Königsberg in 1805 to study finance and law. Uninspired by his courses, he turned his attention to Napoleon, then at the height of his power, and maintained some contact and sympathy with the Hardenberg and Stein reform group.

While recovering from a nervous digestive disorder in Pillau, Kleist worked on three of his most celebrated narratives, Die Marquise von O . . . [The Countess of O . . .], Michael Kohlhaas and Das Erdbeben in Chili [The Earthquake in Chile], all of which portray “the strange constitution of the world” and the individual's insecure status in that ambivalent, paradoxical world. The same year (1805) his other comedy Amphitryon was ready for publication. What started out as a translation of Molière's Amphitryon ended up a completely different drama. The focus shifts from the titular hero to his wife Alkmene and from social satire to a critique of pure feeling, raising the question: can we depend on feeling to ascertain the truth? Working on the tragedy Penthesilea, he announced in 1806 his intention to apply for a leave of absence to devote himself to his writing, but the ignominious defeat of the Prussians at Jena and the occupation of Berlin by Napoleon caused him to postpone this step. “It would be terrible”, he commented, “if this ruthless tyrant were to found his empire”.

Early in January 1807, Kleist, together with several officer buddies, left for Dresden. Distrusting their motives, the French authorities arrested the party in Berlin on suspicion of espionage and sent Kleist to prison in France, first in Fort des Joux and later in Châlons sur Marne. Bearing this incarceration well, he employed his time to continue with Penthesilea and depended heavily upon Ulrike to provide sufficient funds to cover his expenses. Through her unrelenting efforts he eventually secured his release and traveled to Dresden only to be heralded as a great author by acquaintances and literary salons. A friend, Rühle von Lilienstern, had shown Der zerbrochne Krug and Amphitryon to the political philosopher Adam Müller who recognized their merit. This joyful period is reflected in Das Käthchen von Heilbronn [Cathy of Heilbronn], his most popular play throughout the 19th century. Divine intervention and unquestioning devotion to an inner compulsion lead to a happy ending as a burgher's daughter (the illegitimate child of the emperor) marries a nobleman in a medieval fairy-tale setting. Kleist now realized his fondest dream: admirers crowned him with a wreath at a literary gathering. In an attempt to promote his protégé, Müller published Amphitryon in May 1807 and sent a copy of this comedy along with the manuscript of Der zerbrochne Krug to Goethe. Collaborating with Müller, Kleist launched a new monthly literary periodical, Phöbus. It became a vehicle for publishing fragments of his works, but as frequently happens in a Kleistian plot, an adverse series of events followed a period of good fortune. Although Goethe agreed to première Der zerbrochne Krug, he rejected Penthesilea for its dionysiac treatment of a classical theme. The queen of the Amazons, torn by the conflicting desires of conquest and submission, pursues Achilles on the battle field. When Penthesilea's own people repudiate her and a failure to communicate attributable to cultural discrepancies leads to a misunderstanding, she erroneously concludes that Achilles has rejected her as a woman. In a fit of sado-masochistic insanity, she shoots down her unsuspecting lover and joins her dogs in ripping apart his body. “Kisses, bites, that rhymes” she remarks in her own defense. Clearly such excesses were at odds with the harmony and discipline advocated by Goethe. Moreover, Der zerbrochne Krug failed on the Weimar stage, relations between Goethe and Kleist became strained, and Phöbus folded with the November/December issue of 1808, a financial disaster for Kleist.

Renewed enthusiasm inevitably succeeded a period of depression. Kleist now devoted himself to the campaign to force Prussia to come to Austria's aid. An emotionally inspired patriotism and a love-hate attitude to Napoleon contributed to the composing of Die Hermannsschlacht [Hermann's Battle], a political drame à clef written against the French. To defeat a superior Roman army with the tyrannical aim of world conquest, Hermann resorts to deception, manipulation and guerrilla tactics since, for the underdog, the end of national freedom justifies the means. Die Hermannsschlacht became one of the most performed plays during the Nazi regime as the Party regarded Kleist as a prophet of the Third Reich. Again on the road, he arrived in Vienna in time for Napoleon's first defeat, the battle of Aspern (21-22 May 1809). This event lent greater credence to Kleist's conviction that Austria would be the savior of the German-speaking people. From Vienna he proceeded to Prague where he conceived the idea of a political periodical, Germania, for which he prepared several articles and satires, none of which could be published. A product of this period with a German nationalistic subtext was completed in 1811: his masterpiece Prinz Friedrich von Homburg. One of the richest, most dramatically evocative plays in German literature, it explores the human unconsciousness, father/son rivalry, the individual versus the state, the reliability of the senses and the human heart, the confrontation with death and its bearing upon human values, and the manipulative, sadistic nature of power relations. The defeat of Austria at Wagram (5-6 July 1809), Prince Metternich's rise to prominence, and Napoleon's marriage to the Austrian emperor's daughter, Marie Louise, dashed Kleist's political hopes and plunged him into despair and poor health.

In late autumn 1809 he resurfaced in Frankfurt. Although broken in mind and body and close to financial ruin, he sought to reestablish himself in Berlin in 1810. He continued his political activities, attempted to re-enter the King's service, associated with the Berlin romantic circle, and quarreled with August Wilhelm Iffland, the director of the National Theater who had rejected Das Käthchen von Heilbronn. He also fell in love with Marie von Kleist through whose influence he obtained an introduction to the Queen Mother, a short-lived patronage since she died shortly thereafter. Again he collaborated with Adam Müller, this time in the publication of the first daily Prussian newspaper, Berliner Abendblätter [Berlin Evening Paper]. To attract a wider audience, Kleist wisely concentrated on local news, especially crime bulletins, while relegating cultural matters to a secondary position. At first the daily enjoyed tremendous success, but once Kleist lost access to police reports through stricter censorship, the paper forfeited much of its popular appeal and ceased publication with the March 1811 issue. The Berliner Abendblätter contained some of his narratives such as Die heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik [St. Cecilia or The Power of Music] and important essays, notably “Über das Marionettentheater” [“Concerning the Puppet Theater”].

The collapse of the paper administered the final blow. Faced with real poverty, deserted by friends, and rejected as a “completely useless member of human society” by Ulrike and his family, he chanced to meet Henriette Vogel, a married woman suffering from an incurable cancer. Betraying Marie von Kleist who declined to enter a proffered suicide pact, Kleist turned to Vogel who enthusiastically endorsed a double death. They carefully planned the final details, and on 21 November 1811, in the garden of an inn overlooking Wannsee near Potsdam, Kleist first shot Vogel and then himself. Anxious to reach an understanding with his sister beyond the grave, he wrote to her: “I can't die without having reconciled myself, content and happy as I am, with the whole world and thus also, above all else, my dearest Ulrike, with you. [. . .] The truth of the matter is that there was no help for me on earth. And now, goodbye. May heaven grant you a death which only half equals mine in happiness and ineffable joy. That is the most heart-felt and sincere wish that I can hope for you. Your Heinrich. Stimmings near Potsdam on the morning of my death.”

In addition to the extraordinary appeal of Kleist's dramas and narratives today, his name has remained at the forefront of national and international interest through the Heinrich-von-Kleist-Gesellschaft, a society founded in 1920, the Jahrbuch der Kleist-Gesellschaft (Kleist Society Yearbook), the Kleist-Preis established in 1984 to acknowledge outstanding literary achievement, and the Kleist-Gedenk- und Forschungsstätte (Kleist Memorial and Research Facility) that houses a collection supportive of Kleist scholarship.

Citation:
Reeve, William C.. "Heinrich von Kleist". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 28 August 2003
[https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5477, accessed 20 August 2018.]


Save this article

If you need to create a new bookshelf to save this article in, please make sure that you are logged in, then go to your 'Account' here.