by Lewis du Pont Smith
The Philadelphia Forum for Anthroposophy will present a talk by Lewis du Pont Smith on Friedrich Schiller, entitled “The Poet of Freedom,” on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2 p.m., at the Chestnut Hill Library, 8711 Germantown Ave. Lewis du Pont Smith, and his wife, Andrea, have been residents of Chestnut Hill for over 20 years. Their three daughters attend the Waldorf School of Philadelphia in Mt. Airy.
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, 1759-1805, the most beloved poet in the history of the German language, was the first poet to unite the idea of political freedom with classical poetical beauty. His most famous poem was “Ode to Joy,” which Beethoven set to the fourth movement of his “Ninth Symphony.” Schiller’s most famous play was “William Tell.”
Schiller was inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution, but was censored by the ruling authorities and was forced to use the poetic device of setting scenes in an earlier historical period. It was immediately recognized that the story of William Tell being forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head with a bow and arrow by an Austrian tyrant was an allusion to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. In the famous “Rutli Oath,” Schiller wrote:
“No, there is a limit to the tyrant’s power,
When the oppressed can find no justice, when
The burden grows unbearable — he reaches
With hopeful courage up onto the heavens
And seizes hither his eternal rights,
Which hang above, inalienable
And indestructible as stars themselves…”
I first encountered Schiller, indirectly, in 1968 when I was in 6th grade at the Rectory School in Pomfret, CT. We had a class in music appreciation, and the teacher played records of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He said that if we did not fall asleep in class, we would get an A. This was the only A I ever received except for an A in Polish Literature, which was a class I never even attended, at the University of Michigan. The professor gave me an A simply because he loved the football team!
The musical compositions I enjoyed most were Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” When I went to Avon Old Farms School in Avon, CT, in 1971, the 9th Symphony suddenly became very important because I discovered on the first day at Chapel that the school’s Alma Mater was set to the choral movement of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” the “Ode to Joy.”
But it was not until the spring of 1985 that I discovered Beethoven’s immortal “Ninth Symphony” was set to Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”). This was quite a revelation to me because I had never even heard of the poet Schiller. I knew of “William Tell” only because of the “William Tell Overture” in Rossini’s opera, which was used as the theme music for my favorite childhood TV show, “The Lone Ranger.” Little did I know then that Rossini’s opera was based on the play, “William Tell,” written by Friedrich Schiller.
Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” celebrate the inherent goodness and freedom of man and the need to reconcile our conflicts peacefully in order to achieve universal brotherhood.
Then I discovered that Schiller was referred to all over the world as the “Poet of Freedom.” After more research, I discovered that the famous American freed slave, Frederick Douglass, was the one who gave Schiller that title. As a teacher of American history and English, I found this to be an extraordinary revelation. Was I the only one who had never heard of Schiller? I went to people I knew and respected — teachers, musicians, department heads at local universities, librarians — and, to my shock, found that almost no one had ever heard of Schiller. I did discover that there was a statue of Schiller in Fairmount Park, but when I asked park officials where it was, they had no idea. In fact, Schiller was the first poet in Germany to be honored with such a statue.
I also learned that in 1859 at the Centenary of Schiller’s birth, there were Schiller celebrations all over the world. Celebrations lasting several days long were recorded in the newspapers of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and other American cities. In Philadelphia 2000 people turned out in Fairmount Park to celebrate the life of the Poet of Freedom.
As I became more familiar with Schiller, my love for him grew even stronger. Schiller wrote extensively on aesthetics. For Schiller, the purpose of all great art is the construction of political freedom, which rings from his greatest poems and plays such as “The Maid of Orleans,” on the heroic life of Saint Joan of Arc, and “Don Carlo,” about Philip II and the struggle to free Flanders, which was the inspiration for Verdi’s most ambitious opera (of the same name).
Schiller thus became the poet of freedom fighters everywhere. Hitler banned “William Tell” for fear that the people would rise up and snatch their rights from the dictator. Schiller inspired the poetry of the English poet Shelley, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, among many others. Schiller inspired the great educational reforms of Rudolf Steiner, who developed the Waldorf School curriculum. Let us therefore celebrate the immortal poet of freedom and measure ourselves and our country by his ideals.
Lewis du Pont Smith grew up in Paoli, attended The Haverford School and graduated from Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut after winning the 1975 National Prep School Heavyweight Wrestling Championship. He was awarded a full football scholarship to the University of Michigan. He taught History and English and coached football and wrestling at the Rectory School in Pomfret, CT, as well as at the Hill School in Pottstown, PA, and Friends’ Central School on City Line Avenue. He ran for U.S. Congress three times and has lectured in Rome, Paris, West Berlin and Washington, D.C., on human rights violations in America. He has sailed twice to the high Arctic, including Iceland and Greenland, with his father, E. Newbold Smith, a yachtsman and all-time standout athlete at the Episcopal Academy and U.S. Naval Academy. Lewis Smith serves on the board of the Waldorf School of Philadelphia and Vox Ama Deus, a Baroque and Classical ensemble and choral group. You can contact Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org