Karoline von Günderrode was born in 1780 to am impoverished, aristocratic, German family. At the age of nineteen she went to live in a convent of sorts, the Cronstetten-Hynspergische Evangelical Sisterhood in Frankfur am Main, which housed poor young woman and widows from upper class families who were waiting for the right man to marry. While at the convent she was determined to educate herself and began writing poetry, drama and letters. She spent time with many of the important intellectuals of her day including Clemens Brentano, Goethe, Karl von Savigny, Bettina von Arnim and Friedrich Creuzer who read her works and gave her feedback. Christoph von Nees published two volumes of her writings under the pseudonym “Tian” in 1804 and 1805. In a letter included in the anthology Bitter Healing: German Women Writers 1700-1830, Günderrode responds to Clemens Brentano who has accused her of sounding rather masculine and “too learned” in her poetry:
How I got the idea to have my poems printed, you want to know? I have always had a secret inclination to do so—why? and what for? I rarely ask myself. I was very happy when someone was willing to represent me at the publishers. Easily, an not knowing what I did, I have destroyed that barrier that separated my innermost heart from the world; and I have not regretted it as yet, for always new and alive is my desire to express my life in a permanent form, in a shape worthy of joining the most excellent minds, greeting them and sharing their society. Yes, I have always been drawn to that community; it is the church toward which my spirit is continuously making its earthly pilgrimage.
Her intellectual interests, influenced by German Romanticism, are evident in the poetry also translated for this collection. Themes of nature, love, free will, metaphysics, death and gender roles pervade her verse. The poem “Once a Dulcet Lie was Mine” begins:
Once a dulcet life was mine,
For I seemed all of a sudden
But a fragrant wisp of cloud;
Nothing to be seen above me
But a deep-blue ocean sea,
And I sailed now here, now younder
Lightly cradled by the waves.
And in “The Prime Lament” she ends with:
Who with all her heart and nature
Came to love a human creature
Ah! is not consoled
By the thought that joys departed
Usher in some newly started—
They can’t match the old.
That sweet state of living, learning
Both accepting and returning
Words and looks and airs,
Eager search and joyous ending,
Sentiment and apprehending,
Not a god repairs.
I found these lines beautiful and haunting in light of her romantic concerns and her death. Most biographies, films and works focus on her affairs with Clemens Brentano, Karl von Savigny and Friedrich Creuzer. Brentano and Savigny loved her and appreciated her intellectual talents but passed Gunderrode over to marry other women. Creuzer was unhappily married to a woman thirteen years his senior, but decided that he could not endure the scandal that would be involved if he left his wife for Günderrode. In 1806 Creuzer broke off their affair in a letter and Günderrode committed suicide by plunging a dagger into her heart which she had reportedly carried with her for many years. Her story sounds like something out of a Greek tragedy and it is not surprising that interest in her has largely been focused on her love affairs and her sad end. Bettina von Arnim writes about her dear friend’s suicide, the full report of which is also included in the Bitter Healing anthology:
…It is quite impossible for me to write of Gunderrode on the Rhine: it is not that I am so sensitive, but I am on the spot not far enough removed from the occurrence for me perfectly to review it. Yesterday I went down yonder where she had lain; the willows are so grown that the spot is quite covered; and when I thought how she had run here, full of despair, and so quickly plunged the violent knife into her breast, and how long this idea had burned in her mind, and I , so near a friend, now wandered in the same place, along the same shore, in sweet meditation on my happiness…
The translations included in Bitter Healing are the last few scraps of her work that I could find in English. There are additional letters and a translation of an “Apocalyptical Fragment” in this anthology and I am hoping that more of her work will continue to be translated into English.