Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Fair Young Bull

The Gay Love Letters of Heinrich von Kleist

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Portrait of Von Kleist Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (1777–1811) resigned his commission from the Prussian army in 1799 because he was by nature a musician, a writer, an enthusiast, and for several years he travelled restlessly across Europe experiencing a series of obscure intellectual and emotional crises. A personal "dark night of the soul" around 1801, Napoleon's defeat of Prussia from 1806, and his imprisonment as a spy in France in 1807, culminated in a fanatical patriotism as the basis for a purpose in life and literary inspiration. His poetry, short stories and plays are excellent examples of the medievalism and Apollonianism of the high German Romantic movement. He is most noted for his unrelenting psychological realism in describing characters obsessed by an unsparing sense of justice which becomes a personal desire for revenge, in a malign medieval universe where tragedy prevails. His writings exhibit in fact the single-minded intensity of the sadomasochist: in his finest play Penthesilea the heroine tears her lover Achilles limb from limb with her teeth and bare hands, and in several short stories he describes in graphic detail how the hero blows out his own brains after first killing the heroine. Kleist threatened to kill himself on several occasions, inexplicably broke off an engagement to be married, and loved secrecy and disguise and mysterious trips with male friends. At the age of thirty-four, Kleist entered into a suicide pact with Henriette Vogel – not as doomed lovers, simply as doomed individuals, she doomed by terminal cancer, he by poverty and disillusion – and one day in November 1811 on the shore of the Wannsee he shot her and then himself. Kleist's characters are subject to states of high excitement and violent turmoil, and finally a desire to be damned. The early psychoanalysts were fascinated by his bizarre life and monomaniacal characters. A homosexual conflict is obviously the key to unlocking his inner life, but his biographers tend to refer vaguely to "the mysteries" of his emotional and sexual life. An astonishing letter survives to Ernst von Pfuel, written while Napoleon was ravaging the country and separating the two men who were obviously lovers; Pfuel was destined to become the Prussian War Minister. Most of Kleist's letters are addressed to his close friend Rühle von Lilienstern, his confidant rather than his lover, but that relationship also seems to have begun in similarly intense circumstances.


7th January, 1805

With your eloquence, dear boy, you wield a strange power over my heart, and although it is I myself who gave you full insight into my state of mind, yet at times you show me an image of myself so close to my very soul that I start as before the newest phenomenon in all the world. I shall never forget that festive night when, in the worst hole in all of France, you abused me in a manner that was truly awe-inspiring, nearly as the archangel abused his fallen brother in the Messiad [an epic poem by Klopstock]. Why can I no longer venerate you, whom I still love above all, as my master? How we rushed into one another's arms a year ago in Dresden! How boundlessly the world opened out, like a racetrack, before our beings trembling with desire for the contest! And now we lie there, flung across one another, ending with our glances the race that never seemed so splendid to us as now, enveloped in the dust of our fall. The fault is mine, mine, I entangled you in this, oh I can't tell you this as I feel it. My dear Pfuel, of what use are all these tears to me? To pass the time minute by minute as they fall, I would, like the bereft [literally "naked"] King Richard, hollow out a grave with them and in that grave bury you and me and our endless pain. So we shall embrace no more! Not even if one day, recovered from our [i.e. our country's] plunge into ruin – for what is there from which man does not recover – we meet again, old and hobbling along on crutches. What we loved in one another then were the highest qualities of mankind; for we loved to observe our natures unfolding through a few fortunate gifts that were only then developing. We felt – or at least I did – the delightful enthusiasm of friendship! You brought back the times of ancient Greece to my heart, I could have slept with you, dear boy; thus all my soul embraces you. Often, as you went to bathe in the Lake of Thun, I would gaze at your beautiful body with truly girlish feelings. An artist might well use it for a study. Were I an artist, it might perhaps have inspired me with an idea for a god. Your small, curly head set on a sturdy neck, two wide shoulders, a sinewy body: the whole a model of strength, as though you had been designed after the fairest young bull ever sacrificed to Zeus. All the laws of Lycurgus, as well as his concept of the love of youths, have become clear to me through the feelings you have awakened in me. Come to me! Listen, I want to tell you something. I have become fond of Altenstein, I have been entrusted with the drawing up of several edicts and I no longer doubt that I can reasonably expect to pass the test. I can work out a differential and write a poem; are not these the two summits of human capability? They will surely employ me, and soon, and with a salary: come to Anspach with me and let us enjoy the sweets of friendship. Let me have gained something from all these battles that makes my life at least bearable. You shared what you had with me in Leipzig, or you wanted to, which comes to the same thing; accept as much from me! I shall never marry – be wife to me, and children, and grandchildren! Go no farther along the road that you have walked. Don't throw yourself at the feet of destiny, it is mean-spirited and will trample you. Let one sacrifice be enough. Preserve the ruins of your soul, that they may forever remind us with pleasure of the romantic part of our lives. And if one day you are called to the battlefield to fight for your country, then go, your worth will be recognized if needs must be. Accept my suggestion. If you do not, I will feel that no one in the world loves me. I should like to say more, but it won't do in a letter. Diverse matters in person.
          Heinrich v. Kleist



If I hesitated unnecessarily in answering until now, my friend, you would nonetheless pick up your pen so as to bind the unravelling garland of our friendship and, moreover, to add a new blossom to it; but this time you let it go, and as for you, it seems, it could fall apart forever. Well, it isn't important, my good Rühle, and I kiss you. This garland was well wound in the beginning and without further effort the binding will last as long as the flowers. If in your heart of hearts you change as little as I do, one day, if we see one another again, we can say "good day" and "did you sleep well?" and continue our last year's conversations as though they had taken place the day before. I have received the last part of your love and life story. My darling boy, love as long as you live, but do not love the sun as the Moor loves it, and turn black. When it rises or sets, glance up at it, and let it shine on you the rest of the time through your good deeds and fortify yourself for them and forget it. I cannot yet get the thought out of my head that there is still something we have to do together. Who would want to be happy in this world of ours! I might almost say "You ought to be ashamed of yourself if that is what you wish. What myopia, you noble creature, to strive for anything, here, where everything ends in death." We meet, we love one another through the springtimes of three years, and we shun one another for an eternity. And what is worth striving for, if not love! Oh, there must be something besides love, happiness, fame and X Y or Z, something that even our souls don't dream of. . . .
          H. K.

SOURCE: To Ernst von Pfuel, from Heinrich von Kleist in seinen briefen, ed. Ernst Schur (Charlottenburg: Schiller-Buchhandlung Verlag [1911]); to Rühle, from Heinrich von Kleist's Leben und Briefe ed. Eduard von Bülow (Berlin: Verlag von Wilhelm Besser, 1848); English translation by Alexandra Trone, specially commissioned by Rictor Norton.

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