Adelbert von Chamisso Prize of the Robert Bosch Stiftung

The Aristocrat as Citizen

Adelbert von Chamisso was luckier than many political emigrants in our own time. Born in France, he found a new home in Berlin, led a middle-class life, and achieved recognition during his lifetime as a German poet and as a researcher in the world of international science. But Chamisso never forgot how untypical his experiences as an immigrant were.

The son of a count, Chamisso was eleven years old when he was thrust out of his sheltered childhood into the war-torn world after the French Revolution. "Wandering from town to town and country to country, without roots, without a home country, almost without hope – the support of the destitute – I came to know misfortune; I was barely granted the chance to be useful to those who gave me life. Bound to their fate and following their footsteps, I traveled the length of Brabant, Holland, the kingdom: Everywhere I looked, I saw scenes of desperation; everywhere I found my countrymen of the highest rank fallen into destitution," Chamisso wrote in a school essay. For four years the family wandered through Europe before finding a permanent refuge in Berlin in 1796. Before this happened, however, they had to deal with the same difficulties modern refugees face today: The Prussian police threatened to deport the unwelcome guests. But the old aristocratic title of the Chamisso family was still worth something in conservative Prussia, which had fought in the first coalition war against the armies of the French Revolution. In Berlin, the family made contact with the French colony of Huguenots and the Prussian court. Adelbert was able to attend the French grammar school, served as the queen's page, and joined the Prussian army as an ensign in 1798, at the age of seventeen. The family residence, Château de Boncourt in Champagne, had been confiscated by the French government and turned over to the region's peasants for demolition in 1793.

”Ich träum als Kind mich zurücke
Und schüttle mein greises Haupt;
Was sucht ihr mich heim, ihr Bilder,
Die lang ich vergessen geglaubt?”

(In dreams I return to my childhood and shake my aged head; why do you haunt me, you pictures which I thought were long forgotten?) These are the opening lines of a famous poem by Chamisso entitled "Château de Boncourt." In it, he evokes the lost sites of his childhood: the picturesque towers and battlements of the castle, the stone bridge leading to the gate, the coats of arms and the fig tree in the courtyard, and finally the tombs of his ancestors in the castle chapel. In the last three stanzas, however, the poem takes an unexpected turn:

”So stehst du, o Schloss meiner Väter,
Mir treu und fest in dem Sinn,
Und bist von der Erde verschwunden,
Der Pflug geht über dich hin.

Sei fruchtbar, o teurer Boden,
Ich segne dich mild und gerührt,
Und segn’ ihn zwiefach, wer immer
Den Pflug nun über dich führt.”


("O castle of my fathers, you stand faithful and firm in my mind, and you have vanished from the earth, the plough passes over you. Be fruitful, o cherished earth, I bless you gently and tenderly, and I bless twice over whoever now guides the plow over you.") The poem ended with this gesture of reconciliation, but Chamisso is not content to let the issue rest with a melancholy acknowledgment of the inevitable:

”Ich aber will auf mich raffen,
Mein Saitenspiel in der Hand,
Die Weiten der Erde durchschweifen,
Und singen von Land zu Land.”


(But I want to rise with my lyre in hand to travel the breadth of the earth and sing from land to land.) For the emigrant, there is no return to the places of the past except in memory. Chamisso, the poet, was profoundly aware of this fact and determined to transform the story of his life into a vision of the future. This motif also appears in his most famous work, "Peter Schlemihl's Remarkable Story." The life of this man, who has sold his shadow, goes downhill for as long as he clings to the hope that he could revive the past. At the turning point of the story, however, Schlemihl forswears both wealth and his shadow and is rewarded by the chance gift of seven-league boots and by a new vocation as a scientist. The romantic fairy-tale motifs cannot conceal the fact that this story is imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Its hero succeeds in overcoming his tribulations – which he brought upon himself – mainly by personal insight and effort. Like Schlemihl, the French-German Chamisso felt like an outsider in Berlin society for many years. His isolation deepened when Napoleon's troops invaded Prussia in 1806. Two years later, he resigned from the Prussian army. Chamisso wrote "Peter Schlemihl's Remarkable Story" in the summer of 1813 on a country estate in Brandenburg where he went into hiding with friends to escape the heated public feelings during the wars of liberation against Napoleon. Shortly before, Chamisso had resolved to devote the bulk of his time and attention to science rather than literature. Although paradoxical at first sight, it is nonetheless a logical development that Chamisso, who had been an imitative verse writer until then, now [... GERMAN TEXT BREAKS OFF IN MID-SENTENCE HERE!]

From 1815 to 1818, Chamisso traveled the world as a natural scientist on a Russian expedition ship. These adventures and his scientific discoveries earned the erstwhile outsider the wider social recognition he had previously experienced only among a close circle of friends. After finding employment in the Botanical Gardens of Berlin, he was able to start a family. The aristocratic immigrant, who had for so long been eyed with mistrust, became a respected Prussian citizen. Chamisso himself was very proud of owing his modest wealth not to aristocratic privilege, but to his own achievements:

”Willst deines Hauses Glanz du aufrecht halten –?
Lass rosten deiner Väter Schild und Schwert;
Die tun es nicht, die geben nicht den Wert,
Die Zeit ist abgelaufen, wo sie galten.
Das Neue wird. Das Alte muß veralten.
Die Meinung hat im Lichten sich verklärt
Und von der rauhen Faustkraft abgekehrt,
Das Wort ist’s, der Gedanke, welche walten.”

(If you want to maintain the glory of your family, Leave your fathers' shields and swords to rust; They cannot do it, they do not yield the value; The time is past when they had any weight. The new is coming. The old must cede. Opinion has been transformed in the light and has turned from the raw power of the fists; It is words and thoughts that rule.) The liberal citizen Chamisso dreamed of a world that would develop not through wars and revolutions, but through a contest of opinions. "To a stranger who can barely believe his eyes, the walls of London, with their political placards, are the most marvelous, wonderful, incredible book he could ever hope to see," he wrote in admiration in his autobiography, "Reise um die Welt." He had nothing but contempt for every form of censorship. Himself a victim of the French Revolution, he became the poetical advocate of its ideals as an adult citizen. In addition to gothic ballads and love poetry, Chamisso also wrote hard-hitting political poems. "The invalid in the madhouse" is the title of one such poem which is an allegory of the betrayal of the people by their kings. During the Napoleonic wars of liberation, they had promised their people greater freedom – but the military triumph was followed by political restoration. In Chamisso's poem, a soldier who was wounded in the battle of Leipzig protests against this return to reaction:

”Schrei ich wütend noch nach Freiheit,
Nach dem bluterkauften Glück
Peitscht der Wächter mit der Peitsche
Mich in schnöde Ruh zurück.”

(As I clamour furiously for freedom after happiness was paid for in blood, the guard with his whip drives me back into shameful silence.) Chamisso's poetic criticism of social conditions is equally drastic. In "The beggar and his dog", for instance, he describes the desperation of a poor man who cannot afford to pay the dog tax. The man cannot bring himself to drown the dog – so he ties a rock around his own neck and leaps into the water:

”Er ward verscharret in stiller Stund,
Es folgt’ ihm winselnd nur der Hund,
Der hat, wo den Leib die Erde deckt,
Sich hingestreckt und ist verreckt.”

(He was buried in a quiet hour, and only the whining dog followed. Where the earth covers his body, the dog lay down and perished.) With verses like these, but without explicitly defining himself as a political poet, Chamisso paved the way for the polemical literature of the "Vormärz" period anticipating the revolution of 1848. As the publisher of the Deutscher Musenalmanach magazine in the last years of his life, Chamisso promoted young talents like Ferdinand Freiligrath and Hoffmann von Fallersleben and also championed the cause of Heinrich Heine, whose works were banned in Germany. This led to a rift between him and his co-publisher Gustav Schwab, who loathed "Heine-esque, young-German diabolical rubbish." Heine himself, while in exile in Paris, praised the older Chamisso as one of the "most original and important modern poets" who "belonged to the young Germany much more than to the old."

But Chamisso's verse does not fit into any of the categories of literary history – its creator was far too strong-willed and urbane for that. He moved constantly between languages and cultures and was the first to translate the poems of Hans Christian Andersen from the Danish and popular poetry into German from exotic languages. He devoted many years to compiling a dictionary of Hawaiian. "There is an archetypal poetry that is innate to people just as birdsong is innate to birds. The people do not let themselves be led astray by unauthorized soloists – they stay faithful to their own songs," Chamisso wrote in his preface to poems "in the Malay style". The songs might deal with nature, love or even the social tensions that dominated everyday life. Chamisso saw no insurmountable differences in substance between natural poetry and political verse – the decisive factor for him was whether the poems expressed something fundamental about the life of a nation.

For Chamisso, the poet's ideal was typified by French chanson writer Jean Pierre de Béranger. Chamisso would have liked to hear similarly audacious songs in Germany. His last great project before his death was to translate a large number of Béranger's poems. "Attitude and character are the roots of his poetry; without these, he would be just talented like so many others, not the poet who towers over them," Chamisso wrote about Béranger, but these words fit him just as well.

"If I cannot become rich with my writing, I can still make others rich," Chamisso said to a friend in 1838, the year of his death. He wrote two sensitive poems about an aged washerwoman in Berlin who had raised her three children largely on her own and now had no pension. Chamisso had the poems printed on loose sheets and sold them to give the proceeds to the washerwoman. The proceeds came to 150 thaler, a respectable sum. Adelbert von Chamisso, the son of a French count, the respected citizen, the world-famous scientist, regarded the simple washerwoman with great humility:

”Und ich, an meinem Abend, wollte,
Ich hätte diesem Weibe gleich,
Erfüllt, was ich erfüllen sollte
In meinen Grenzen und Bereich;
Ich wollt, ich hätte so gewußt,
Am Kelch des Lebens mich zu laben,
Und könnt am Ende gleiche Lust
An meinem Sterbehemde haben.”
(And I, in my twilight, wish that, like this woman, I had fulfilled what I was meant to fulfill in my sphere and limits; I wish I had known so well to drink the cup of life and could, in the end, take the same joy in my shrouds.")
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Adelbert von Chamisso
portrait as a young man, by an unknown artist
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»Auf der Weltreise«
Illustrations for Peter Schlemihl's Remarkable Story, 1835
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Papilio chamissonis.
Many plants and animals which Chamisso discovered and classified are named after him
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Adelbert von Chamisso,
R. Schoebel after a
painting by Robert Reinicke