Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen: an unusual love story

In the spring of 1837, the later famous philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard met the then 14-year-old Regine Olsen (1822-1904) for the first time. Despite the ten-year age difference, both are strongly attracted to each other. In the following years, Kierkegaard is a frequent guest at the Olsen family home. In September 1840 Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine. However, just days after the engagement, Kierkegaard begins to doubt his ability to make Regine happy. Over time, despair and inner turmoil take control of him. Years later, Kierkegaard would write that he had ,suffered indescribably, at that moment. In August 1841, Kierkegaard ended the engagement with a letter to Regine, in which he placed the engagement ring. This break had a major impact on both of their lives and on the development of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. So it’s time to shed light on this mysterious relationship. In his surviving notes, Kierkegaard himself mentions his melancholy and his previous life (vita ante acta) as reasons for breaking the engagement. The letters and fragments he wrote later show that his deep introspective religiosity and sense of sinfulness also played a role. Moreover, Kierkegaard seems to find marriage contrary to his religious purpose in life.

The story of their love

That Kierkegaard, despite his enormous intelligence, struggled with himself, with his past and with his social-emotional ineptness is evident from comments by contemporaries, but especially from his own letters and notes. His philosophical work, published under a pseudonym, such as Either/Or, also contains autobiographical fragments that shed more light on the philosopher’s strange emotional life.

The engagement in 1839

Nine years after their first meeting, Kierkegaard describes how he had felt when he proposed an engagement in her parents’ house.

,On September 8, I left home with the full intention of settling the whole matter. We met on the street just outside their house. She said no one was home. I was hasty enough to accept this as the invitation that I needed. I went inside with her. There we stood, the two of us alone in the living room. She was a little nervous. I asked her to play something for me like she usually did. She did, but I managed not to say anything. Then I suddenly picked up the score, clapped it not without a certain vehemence, threw it on the piano and said: Oh! How I care about music, it’s you, I’ve wanted you for two years. She was silent. I had not taken any steps to charm her, I had even warned her against me, against my melancholy. And when she mentioned a relationship with Schlegel, I said: let that relationship be just an interlude, because I have a priority. .. She mainly remained silent.,


One year later: breaking off the engagement

Despite his bungling, Regine agrees to marry Kierkegaard. They have been engaged for almost a year when Kierkegaard sends his engagement ring and farewell letter on August 11, 1841. Not a nice way to break an engagement. The letter reads, in part: ,Above all, forget whoever wrote this: forgive someone who, whatever else he could do, was not able to make a girl happy.,

In his letters, Kierkegaard attributes the break to his own melancholy and sadness. In short: he didn’t think he was good material to be married, and a girl who wanted him had to be out of her mind. He knew that he owed his melancholic attitude to his strict, deeply religious father. When Sören’s mother and five of the seven children died, his father was convinced that this was a punishment from God. As a child he had cursed God on top of a hill, shouting loudly. Sören himself remained convinced for a long time that, like the other children, he would not live longer than 33, the age when Christ died on the cross. The relationship with his father and the idea that he should not stray from the right path prevented him from living an ordinary happy married life.

,In my gut I knew I had made a mistake. I would have to initiate her into the most terrible things, my relationship with Father; his melancholy, the eternal darkness that broods within me, my excursions into lust and debauchery. The Voice of Judgment said, ‘Give her up.’

By these ,excursions into lust and debauchery, Kierkegaard is referring to a period in his student life when he went out with his friends.

Regine Olsen remarries

After breaking up with Regine, Kierkegaard apparently never tried to approach a woman again. However, Regine married Johan Frederik Schlegel, a lawyer, high official and later governor of the Danish West Indies, two years later, in 1843. It is a heavy blow for Kierkegaard, who apparently had assumed that neither of them would start another relationship.

Kierkegaard in 1840 / Source: Neils Christian Kierkegaard, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Regine Olsen ca.1840 / Source:, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Influence of Regine Olsen on Kierkegaard’s work

The importance of Regine Olsen to Kierkegaard’s work can hardly be overestimated. It is possible that many of his writings would not have emerged in their final form without this momentous episode. Regine Olsen, who did not die until 1904, was well aware of her own importance to Kierkegaard’s work. She followed with great interest Kierkegaard’s growing fame in Denmark, Germany and other countries and later also collaborated with biographers.

Reunited again in death

Kierkegaard never fully recovered from his failed relationship with Olsen. In a letter to her he described a kind of merging of both souls when he thought of her:

,Everywhere, in the face of every girl, I think I see traces of your beauty, but I think I would have to possess the beauty of all the girls in the world to bring out your beauty, that I would have to sail around the world to that part of the world where you are so close to me, so present, filling my spirit and deepest self so overwhelmingly that I transfigure myself and feel it is good to be there.”

The story of Kierkegaard’s engagement and incomprehensible break with his great love Regine Olsen remains one of the greatest and, above all, most shocking and mysterious love stories of the 19th century. After the break-up, Kierkegaard remained emotionally loyal to her throughout his life and even made her his sole heiress after his death. Kierkegaard is buried on a hill in the cemetery in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen, less than fifty meters from Regine’s grave. His tombstone reads ‘Det er en liden tid’: ,Only a short time.,

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