CHAMISSO, ADELBERT VON [Louis Charles Adelaide de] (1781–1838), German poet and botanist, was born at the château of Boncourt in Champagne, France, the ancestral seat of his family, on the 30th of January 1781. Driven from France by the Revolution, his parents settled in Berlin, where in 1796 young Chamisso obtained the post of page-in-waiting to the queen, and in 1798 entered a Prussian infantry regiment as ensign. His family were shortly afterwards permitted to return to France; he, however, remained behind and continued his career in the army. He had but little education, but now sought distraction from the soulless routine of the Prussian military service in assiduous study. In collaboration with Varnhagen von Ense, he founded in 1803 the Berliner Musenalmanach, in which his first verses appeared. The enterprise was a failure, and, interrupted by the war, it came to an end in 1806. It brought him, however, to the notice of many of the literary celebrities of the day and established his reputation as a rising poet. He had become lieutenant in 1801, and in 1805 accompanied his regiment to Hameln, where he shared in the humiliations following the treasonable capitulation of that fortress in the ensuing year. Placed on parole he went to France, where he found that both his parents were dead; and, returning to Berlin in the autumn of 1807, he obtained his release from the service early in the following year. Homeless and without a profession, disillusioned and despondent, he lived in Berlin until 1810, when, through the services of an old friend of the family, he was offered a professorship at the lycée at Napoléonville in La Vendée. He set out to take up the post, but drawn into the charmed circle of Madame de Staël, followed her in her exile to Coppet in Switzerland, where, devoting himself to botanical research, he remained nearly two years. In 1812 he returned to Berlin, where he continued his scientific studies. In the summer of the eventful year, 1813, he wrote the prose narrative Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow. This, the most famous of all his works, has been translated into most European languages (English by W. Howitt). It was written partly to divert his own thoughts and partly to amuse the children of his friend Hitzig. In 1815 Chamisso was appointed botanist to the Russian ship “Rurik,” which Otto von Kotzebue (son of August von Kotzebue) commanded on a scientific voyage round the world. His diary of the expedition (Tagebuch, 1821) affords some interesting glimpses of England and English life. On his return in 1818 he was made custodian of the botanical gardens in Berlin, and was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences, and in 1820 he married. Chamisso’s travels and scientific researches restrained for a while the full development of his poetical talent, and it was not until his forty-eighth year that he turned again to literature. In 1829, in collaboration with Gustav Schwab, and from 1832 in conjunction with Franz von Gaudy, he brought out the Deutsche Musenalmanach, in which his later poems were mainly published. He died on the 21st of August 1838.
As a scientist Chamisso has not left much mark, although his Bemerkungen und Ansichten, published in an incomplete form in O. von Kotzebue’s Entdeckungsreise (Weimar, 1821) and more completely in Chamisso’s Gesammelte Werke (1836), and the botanical work, Übersicht der nutzbarsten und schädlichsten Gewächse in Norddeutschland (1829) are esteemed for their careful treatment of the subjects with which they deal. As a poet Chamisso’s reputation stands high, Frauen Liebe und Leben (1830), a cycle of lyrical poems, which was set to music by Schumann, being particularly famous. Noteworthy are also Schloss Boncourt and Salas y Gomez. In estimating his success as a writer, it should not be forgotten that he was cut off from his native speech and from his natural current of thought and feeling. He often deals with gloomy and sometimes with ghastly and repulsive subjects; and even in his lighter and gayer productions there is an undertone of sadness or of satire. In the lyrical expression of the domestic emotions he displays a fine felicity, and he knew how to treat with true feeling a tale of love or vengeance. Die Löwenbraut may be taken as a sample of his weird and powerful simplicity; and Vergeltung is remarkable for a pitiless precision of treatment.
The first collected edition of Chamisso’s works was edited by J. E. Hitzig, 6 vols. (1836); 6th edition (1874); there are also excellent editions by M. Koch (1883) and O. F. Walzel (1892). On Chamisso’s life see J. E. Hitzig, “Leben und Briefe von Adelbert yon Chamisso” (in the Gesammelte Werke); K. Fulda, Chamisso und seine Zeit (1881); G. Hofmeister, Adelbert von Chamisso (1884); and, for the scientific side of Chamisso’s life, E. du Bois-Raymond, Adelbert von Chamisso als Naturforscher (1889).