Poet Adelbert von Chamisso
During recent research, I found documents of Adelbert von Chamisso and dug deeper – with success. I found his estate stored at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Germany. Who was Adelbert? He and his family were avid travelers, as his estate includes no less than 45 passports of him and his family, spanning 1792 to 1837.
Adelbert von Chamisso (30 January 1781 – 21 August 1838) was a German poet and botanist, author of Peter Schlemihl, a famous story about a man who sold his shadow. He was commonly known in French as Adelbert de Chamisso (or Chamissot) de Boncourt, a name referring to the family estate at Boncourt.
The son of Louis Marie, Count of Chamisso, by his marriage to Anne Marie Gargam, Chamisso began life as Louis Charles Adélaïde de Chamissot at the château of Boncourt at Ante, in Champagne, France, the ancestral seat of his family. His name appears in several forms, one of the most common being Ludolf Karl Adelbert von Chamisso.
In 1790, the French Revolution drove his parents out of France with their seven children, and they went successively to Liège, the Hague, Würzburg, Bayreuth, and possibly Hamburg, before settling in Berlin. There, in 1796, the young Chamisso was fortunate in obtaining the post of page-in-waiting to the queen of Prussia, and in 1798 he entered a Prussian infantry regiment as an ensign to train for a career as an army officer.
Shortly thereafter, thanks to the Peace of Tilsit, his family was able to return to France, but Chamisso remained in Prussia and continued his military career. He had little formal education, but while in the Prussian military service in Berlin he assiduously studied natural science for three years. In collaboration with Varnhagen von Ense, in 1803 he founded the Berliner Musenalmanach, the publication in which his first verses appeared. The enterprise was a failure, and, interrupted by the Napoleonic wars, 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. Poet Adelbert von Chamisso
Chamisso had become a lieutenant in 1801, and in 1805 he accompanied his regiment to Hamelin, where he shared in the humiliation of the town’s capitulation the next year. Placed on parole, he went to France, but both his parents were dead; returning to Berlin in the autumn of 1807, he obtained his release from the Prussian service early the following year. Homeless and without a profession, disillusioned and despondent, Chamisso 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 the Vendée.
He set out to take up the post, but instead joined the circle of Madame de Staël, and followed her in her exile to Coppet in Switzerland, where, devoting himself to botanical research, he remained for 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 William Howitt). It was written partly to divert his own thoughts and partly to amuse the children of his friend Julius Eduard Hitzig. Poet Adelbert von Chamisso
In 1815, Chamisso was appointed botanist to the Russian ship Rurik, fitted out at the expense of Count Nikolay Rumyantsev, which Otto von Kotzebue (son of August von Kotzebue) commanded on a scientific voyage round the world. He collected at the Cape of Good Hope in January 1818 in the company of Krebs, Mund, and Maire. His diary of the expedition (Tagebuch, 1821) is a fascinating account of the expedition to the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. During this trip, Chamisso described a number of new species found in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area. Several of these, including the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, was named after his friend Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, the Rurik’s entomologist. In return, Eschscholtz named a variety of plants, including the genus Camissonia, after Chamisso. 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 1819 he married his friend Hitzig’s foster daughter Antonie Piaste (1800–1837). He became a leading member of the Serapion Brethren, a literary circle around E. T. A. Hoffmann.
In 1827, partly for the purpose of rebutting the charges brought against him by Kotzebue, he published Views and Remarks on a Voyage of Discovery, and Description of a Voyage Round the World. Both works display great accuracy and industry. His last scientific labor was a tract on the Hawaiian language. Chamisso’s travels and scientific research restrained for a while the full development of his poetical talent, and it was not until the forty-eighth year that he turned back to literature. In 1829, in collaboration with Gustav Schwab, and from 1832 in conjunction with Franz von Gaudy, he brought out the Deutscher Musenalmanach, in which his later poems were mainly published. Here are examples of the passports.
Chamisso died in Berlin at the age of 57. His grave is preserved in the Protestant Friedhof III (Cemetery No. 3 of the congregations of Jerusalem’s Church and the New Church) in Berlin-Kreuzberg, to the south of the Hallesches Tor. Poet Adelbert von Chamisso
Chamisso collected numerous zoological and botanical specimens as well as occasional human bones. His collections are in the care of a number of European museums.