Kierkegaard and Olsen – An Account of Their Relationship

The Meeting

Kierkegaard, at the time when he was just a young university student (around 25), met Regine Olsen when she was just 14 years old in May of 1837. In two journal entries, he recollects the instance of making his way to the Rordam’s family house, where Regine coincidently happened to be as well. In these two entries she is not explicitly named, though Kierkegaard makes claims such as “the devil of banter and quiblling stay behind, that spirit who with a flaming sword. . . places himself between me and the heart of every innocent maiden,” (May 8, 1837)* – (see note below) – and speaks also of an “inclination… to awaken precisely at this time” (May 9, 1837).

However, in a famous passage from his Journals he first recollects his encounter with ‘Regina’:

Thou queen of my heart (‘Regina’), enfolded in the deepest recesses of my heart, in the most vital fullness of my thought, equidistant from Heaven and Hell – unknown divinity! Oh, can I really believe what the poets sing: that when a man sees his beloved for the first time he believes that he has seen her long before, that all love, as all understanding, is memory, that love, also in the individual, has its prophecies, its types, its myths, its Old Testament. Everywhere, in every girl’s face, I see features reminding me of your beauty, but it seems to me I would need all the girls in the world to distil, as it were, your beauty from theirs, that I would have to circumnavigate the world to find the continent I miss, yet which the deepest secret of my whole being polarically indicates. . . (Rohde 1960, 35-36)

In a small section in his Stages on Life’s Way (1845) he accounts his spying on Regine, frequently visiting a pastry shop nearby where she had music lessons:

I never dared sit by the window, but when I took a table in the middle of the room my eye commanded the street and the opposite sidewalk where she went, yet the passerby could not see me. Oh, beautiful time; Oh, lovely recollection; Oh, sweet disquietude; Oh, happy vision, when I dressed up my hidden existence with the enchantment of love! [6]

In the summer of 1840, Kierkegaard (now 27) went to the Olsen’s house to find Regine alone, thence proposing to her in an abrupt passion where her only response was to show him the door. Fortunately enough, with a two day passing and her father’s consent, Regine accepted the proposal. However, in his journal, eight years after the event, Kierkegaard writes that “inwardly – the next day I saw that I had made a blunder. . . I suffered indescribably in that period” [7]. Regine of course was not blind to the melancholy associated with her fiance, and so, in 1841 Kierkegaard sent her back her ring with a note that read the following: “Forget him who writes this, forgive a man who, thought he may be capable of something, is not capable of making a girl happy” [8].

Kierkegaard at this time was working on his dissertation (The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates), and for two months after the break up he would continue to work and defend his thesis. Kierkegaard finally meets Regine for an exchange which he accounts as follows:

I went and talked her round. She asked me, Will you never marry? I replied, Well, in about ten years, when I have sown my wild oats, I must have a pretty young miss to rejuvenate me. She said, Forgive me for what I have done to you. I replied, It is rather I that should pray for your forgiveness. She said, Kiss me. That I did, but without passion. Merciful God! . . . To get out of the situation as a scoundrel, a scoundrel of the first water if possible, was the only thing there was to be done in order to work her loose and get her under way for a marriage. [9]

Some explanation must be underway in order to understand his latter statement. To break off an engagement at this time was – in a social sense – not so good for the woman. Kierkegaard knew this and, in an attempt to save Regine, took all the blame of the engagement upon himself. As Charles Moore writes, “[F]or the next several months he posed as an irresponsible philanderer, noisily showing off in public and striving to turn appearances against himself by every means in his power. Not surprisingly, he quickly aroused the indignation of public opinion and the disapproval of friends” [10].

When the break up took place in 1841, Kierkegaard wrote: “When the bond broke, my feeling was: Either you plunge into wild dissipation, or into absolute religiousness – though of a different kind from that of the pastor’s melange” [11].

Reasons for the Break-Up

Kierkegaard doesn’t seem to give her an exact reason for his breaking of the engagement, although a couple things emerge as clear. First, he felt that he was unable to marry Regine due to his rather severe “melancholy,” and that it was perhaps God’s chastisement against him. In 1849 he wrote:

Naturally now my melancholy is reawakened, for her giving herself means that I am again “responsible” in the highest possible measure – whereas her “pride” to a certain extent relieved me of “responsibility” – I see that a break must come. My judgement is, and my idea was, that it is God’s chastisement of me. (Rohde 1960, 38)

Second, he felt that due to the curse God had put on his family he would not live much longer. He was a rather unfit man (allegedly, rejected by the military for being so), all the while recognizing that his wits and “brilliant intelligence” is what kept him from being defenseless. Hence, being the last out of 7 children (5 of whom are dead as well as his mother), Kierkegaard suspected that like the rest of his family he might die rather young – only remembered by his father, who he thought would out-live his entire family (instead, it was his brother Peter to die last).

Did the two ever see each other again? Yes, and for many years after the broken engagement was this so. In fact, in Morten Hoi Jensen’s review of Joakim Garff’s – a great scholar on Kierkegaard who published a groundbreaking biography in Denmark in 2000, later to be published in English in 2005 – recent book on Regine Olsen, he summarizes one of several encounters the two ex-lovers had:

On March 17, 1855, the 33-year-old Regine Olsen was due to leave Copenhagen for the Danish West Indies, where her husband of eight years, Johan Frederik Schlegel, had been appointed governor. The appointment would keep the couple abroad for more than five years, making the toll of saying goodbye to family and friends especially great…

Whether in spite or because of the ominous journey ahead of her, Regine made an important decision, it seems, on the day of her departure: she sought out a strange man to whom she had once been engaged; a man who had left her, and to whom she had not spoken in 14 years. But if they had not spoken, Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard had not exactly remained strangers either.

For years they had passed each other on their walks throughout the city, often in an openly calculated fashion. On Kierkegaard’s 39th birthday, for instance, Regine suddenly appeared on the street in front of his home on Østerbro. “As often happens to me of late, I can’t help but smile when I see her,” the melancholy Dane wrote in his journal. His smile was returned, whereupon the birthday boy removed his hat in greeting. Then, as if by agreement, the old lovers again went their separate ways.

Even on one occassion in April of 1843, Kierkegaard was leaving Vor Frue Church, attending a sermon by Peter Mynster, which Regine had also attended. Upon seeing him, she simply nodded, and this seemed rather insightful for Kierkegaard. In a Journal entry, he comments:

At Vespers on Easter Sunday in Frue Kirke (during Mynster’s sermon), she nodded to me. I do not know if it was pleadingly or forgivingly, but in any case very affectionately. I had sat down in a place apart, but she discovered it. Would to God that she had not done so.

Now a year and a half of suffering and all the enormous pains I took are wasted; she does not believe that I was a deceiver, she has faith in me. What ordeals now lie ahead of her. The next will be that I am a hypocrite. The higher we go, the more dreadful it is. That a man of my inwardness, of my religiousness, could act in such a way. And yet I can no longer live solely for her, cannot expose myself to the contempt of men in order to lose my honor – that I have done. Shall I in sheer madness go ahead and become a villain just to get her to believe it – ah, what help is that. She will still believe that I was not that before (quoted here).

The Resulting Story of Kierkegaard 

The consequence of Kierkegaard’s breaking engagement is the full devotion he is now able to apply to his writing. From 1843 to 1846, Kierkegaard would produce an impressive body of works, even by today’s standards. In February of 1843, his two-volume work Either/Or is published under the pseudonym Victor Eremita (Victorious Hermit). In May of the same year, Two Edifying Discourses is published under his own name. Later, before the year is out, RepetitionFear and TremblingThree Edifying Discourses, and other works are also produced.

Those these works are an impressive bunch – some of Europe’s greatest works of philosophy, indeed – it would be a mistake to suppose that “his melancholy and gloomy spirit [darkened] her radiant youth and beauty” [12]. Kierkegaard loved Regine Olsen very deeply, and would proceed to write about her in his journals even towards the end of his life. As C. Stephen Evans writes, “[Kierkegaard] believed he was called by God to be an ‘exception’ who must sacrifice Regine and the joys of married life” [13]. The broken engagement most certainly gave Kierkegaard the proper materials for becoming a prolific author; one that would that develop in a such a maturing fashion over his years as a writer.

__________________

Notes:

  • [1] John D. Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard (Granta Publications: 2007) p. 2
  • [2] See C. Stephen Evans’ Kierkegaard: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press: 2009) p. 4; John D. Caputo’s How to Read Kierkegaard (Granta Publications: 2007), pp. 1-2; Soren Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity. trans. Walter Lowrie (Vintage Books: 2004), xxiii. Soren Kierkegaard’s Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. ed. Charles E. Moore (Orbis Books: 2003), xiv, xvi.
  • [3] From Charles E. Moore, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (2003), xiv.
  • [4] C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard (2009), p. 4
  • [5] Soren Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity (2004), xxiii. The quote in full reads: “The senior Kierkegaard’s religious denomination was the Herrnhuter fraternity, and he practiced a strict form of Christianity that emphasized the sufferings of Christ.”
  • [6] Quoted from Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary (Princeton University Press: 1997), ix.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., x.
  • [9] Ibid., xi.
  • [10] Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (2003), xvi.
  • [11] From Training in Christianity (2004), xxv.
  • [12] John Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard (2007), p. 2.
  • [13] C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard (2009), p. 5.

* – A better translation of this passage more simply states: “the devil of my wit. . . who places himself between me and every innocent girlish heart.”

For further reading:

  1. There is a review by Morten Hoi Jensen on Joakim Garff’s book published earlier this year in Denmark that I think would be of some interest: Regines gåde: Historien om Kierkegaards forlovede og Schlegels hustru (Regine’s Mystery: The Story of Kierkegaard’s Fiancée and Schlegel’s Wife) – see the review here.
  2. The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, edited by Peter Rohde (Citadel Press, 1960), see “Childhood and Youth,” entries 47-56.
  3. C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 5-6
  4. John Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard (Granta Publications, 2007)
  5. Alastair Hannay, Kierkegaard: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  6. Murray Rae, Kierkegaard and Theology (Continuum Press, 2010), pp. 24-29
  7. Peter Vardy, Kierkegaard: An Introduction (Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), pp. 4-5

The Cover Photo to this Article:

I have taken the image for this article from the Soren Kierkegaard Collection in the Copenhagen City Museum. The desription of the photo reads as follows:

With five diamonds forming a cross. [sic] Søren Kierkegaard gave Regine Olsen the ring during their engagement. When the engagement was broken, she returned the ring and Kierkegaard decided to have the diamonds reset in the form of a cross as a symbol of renunciation and his love of God. He wore the ring the rest of his life.

About Steven Dunn

Young. Reformed. Restless.
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1 Response to Kierkegaard and Olsen – An Account of Their Relationship

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