Regine Olsen

Regine Schlegel (née Olsen; January 23, 1822 – March 18, 1904) was a Danish woman who was engaged to the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard from September 1840 to October 1841. Olsen's relationship with Kierkegaard exerted a crucial influence over his intellectual development, philosophy and theology, and the legacy of their engagement figures prominently in his writings.

Engagement to Kierkegaard

Olsen was born on January 23, 1822, in Frederiksberg, a district of Copenhagen, Denmark. She first met Kierkegaard on a spring day in 1837 when she was 15 and he 24. Olsen later recalled that upon this first meeting Kierkegaard had made "a very strong impression"[1] upon her. A mutual infatuation developed between the two while Olsen was being tutored by Johan Frederik Schlegel, her future husband.

Olsen had also made a strong impression on Kierkegaard, who began to pursue her over a long period of time, ingratiating himself first as a friend and later attempting to court her. On September 8, 1840, Kierkegaard finally revealed his feelings to Olsen when she was playing the piano for him at her family's house. He recounted the events years later in his journal: "'Oh! What do I care for music, it's you I want, I have wanted you for two years.' She kept silent." Kierkegaard proceeded to plead his case to Etatsraad (Councilman) Olsen, Olsen's father, immediately. Her father granted Kierkegaard his blessing, and the two became engaged to be married.[2]

Almost immediately, however, Kierkegaard began to have doubts about his ability to be a husband. Throughout the following year, Kierkegaard threw himself into his work. He began his seminarian studies, preached his first sermon, and wrote his dissertation for his magister degree. Olsen sensed that Kierkegaard's ostensibly busy schedule was a pretence for avoiding her. They did maintain a voluminous correspondence; for a time he wrote her cryptic letters every Wednesday. Kierkegaard's letters have survived, but, aside from a few lines, Olsen's letters seem to have been destroyed.[3]

Kierkegaard's letters were very reminiscent of Abelard's letter to Philintus where Abelard wrote:

Fulbert surprised me with Heloise, but what man that had a soul in him would not have borne any ignominy on the same conditions? The next day I provided myself with a private lodging near the loved house, being resolved not to abandon my prey. I abode some time without appearing publicly. Ah! how long did those few days seem to me! When we fall from a state of happiness with what impatience do we bear our misfortunes! It being impossible that I could live without seeing Heloise, I endeavoured to engage her servant, whose name was Agaton, in my interest. She was brown, well-shaped, and a person superior to her rank; her features were regular and her eyes sparkling, fit to raise love in any man whose heart was not prepossessed by another passion. I met her alone and entreated her to have pity on a distressed lover. The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise[4]

On August 11, 1841, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, sending Olsen a farewell letter along with his engagement ring. Olsen, heartbroken, immediately went to Kierkegaard's house; when he wasn't there, she left a note pleading for him not to leave her.

Kierkegaard seems to have genuinely loved Olsen but was unable to reconcile the prospect of marriage with his vocation as a writer, his passionate, introspective Christianity and his constant melancholy. Olsen was shattered by his rejection of her, and was unwilling to accept Kierkegaard's breaking of their engagement, threatening to kill herself if he did not take her back.[5] Kierkegaard attempted to quell her interest, he later wrote, "there was nothing else for me to do but to venture to the uttermost, to support her, if possible, by means of deception, to do everything to repel her from me to rekindle her pride."[6] He wrote her cold, calculated letters to make it seem that he didn't love her anymore, but Olsen clung to the hope that they would get back together, desperately pleading to him to take her back. On October 11, 1841, Kierkegaard met with her and again broke off the engagement in person. Her father tried to persuade him to reconsider after assessing Olsen's desperate condition, claiming that "It will be the death of her; she is in total despair"[6] Kierkegaard returned the next day and spoke with Olsen. To her query as to whether he would ever marry, Kierkegaard icily responded: "Well, yes, in ten years, when I have begun to simmer down and I need a lusty young miss to rejuvenate me."[6] In reality, Kierkegaard had no such plans, and would remain a celibate bachelor for the rest of his life.[7]

Olsen was crushed by the whole affair, as was Kierkegaard, who described spending his nights crying in his bed without her.[6] The story of the engagement became a source of gossip in Copenhagen, with Kierkegaard's flippant dismissal and apparently cruel seduction of Olsen becoming wildly exaggerated. Olsen's family reacted with a mixture of confusion, finding Kierkegaard's actions incomprehensible, to outright hatred for causing Olsen such pain. Kierkegaard would later beg for Olsen to forgive him for his actions. In a famous letter, he wrote, "Above all, forget the one who writes this; forgive someone who, whatever else, could not make a girl happy."[8]

Kierkegaard's concern

Kierkegaard was so concerned that Olsen might actually destroy herself because she said she couldn't live without him that he tried to give her advice in his Fourth Upbuilding Discourse of 1844. He wanted her to be able to stand on her own with or without him. He asked her:

"When the first self submits to the deeper self, they are reconciled and walk on together. ... Would you be better off now by having lost some of that burning desire and having won the understanding that life cannot deceive you; is not that kind of losing a winning? That little secret we two have between us, as the deeper self said. What, presumably, is this secret, my listener? What else but this, that with regard to the external a person is capable of nothing at all. If he wants to seize the external immediately, it can be changed in the same instant, and he can be deceived; on the other hand, he can take it with the consciousness that it could also be changed, and he is not deceived even though it is changed, because he has the deeper self's consent. If he wants to act immediately in the external, to accomplish something, everything can become nothing in that same moment; on the other hand, he can act with this consciousness, and even if it came to nothing, he is not deceived, because he has the deeper self's consent. But even if the first self and the deeper self have been reconciled in this way and the shared mind has been diverted away from the external, this is still only the condition of coming to know himself. But if he is actually to know himself, there are new struggles and new dangers." Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 1844, Hong translation p. 316-317 (Four Upbuilding Discourses)

Kierkegaard mentioned the concern that awoke his conscience in this Upbuilding Discourses and came to the conclusion that the power of forgiveness is a good and perfect gift from God. See Four Upbuilding Discourses, 1843. And that Love Will Hide a Multitude of Sins[9] See Three Upbuilding Discourses, 1843 He wanted one thing from Regine that she would not give, forgiveness. If one can't forgive another how does one forgive himself or herself or expect forgiveness from God? He wrote the following in 1845:

"That it [the broken engagement] can be forgiven, if not here then nevertheless in an eternity. Is there anything dubious about this forgiveness? Yes, there is – that I do not have her forgiveness; and she is and remains an intermediate court, a legitimate court, that must not be bypassed. Her forgiveness certainly cannot justify me eternally, no more than a person's implacability can harm anyone but himself, but her forgiveness is a part of a divine procedure. Why, then, do you not have it? Because I could not make myself understandable to her. ... Suppose she had forgiven me. Then, of course, she would not have forgotten me. But can we see each other then? Suppose she stood beside someone else. When she stands that way within time, I am standing in her path and therefore shall go away. But if I stood in her path in eternity, where should I go. Compared with eternity, is time the stronger? Has time the power to separate us eternally?" Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life's Way (1845), Hong p. 380-382, 390–391

What would indeed be as disconsolate, yes, almost to the point of despair, as this-if, at the moment when the misunderstanding one returned and sought understanding, when the unfriendly one returned and sought friendship, when the one who had hated returned and sought reconciliation-what would be as disconsolate as this: if the one who loves has then wasted away, so that neither understanding nor the restoration of friendship nor the renewal of reconciliation in love could really take place with the blessed joy of eternity! On the other hand, what can make the moment of forgiveness, the transition of agreement so natural, so easy as this: that the one who loves by abiding, has continually cleared away the past. Works of Love, 1847 Hong 1995 p. 313-314

"You must have God’s help to believe that you are saved by Baptism; you must have God’s help to believe that in the Lord’s Supper you receive the gracious forgiveness of your sins. Be it done for you as you believe.[10] But everything in you that is flesh and blood and is timorousness and attachment to things of this earth must despair, so that you cannot acquire external certainty. If this like for like holds true even in relation to what most definitely must be called Gospel, how much more, then, when Christianity is itself the Law. "Forgive, then you will be forgiven" Works of Love, Sep 29, 1847, Hong 378–380[11]

Olsen outlived Kierkegaard by almost a half century; she died in March 1904 at the age of eighty-two. Johannes Hohlenberg preserved a letter she wrote to Henrik Lund, Kierkegaard's nephew, in which she said, "His death filled me not only with sorrow but with concern, as though by postponing action I had committed a great injustice against him. …. But since his death, it has seemed to me as if it were a duty I had neglected from cowardice; a duty not only towards him, but towards God, to whom he sacrificed me, whether he did it from an innate tendency to self-torment (a misgiving he himself had), or whether, as I think time and the results of his work will show, from a higher call from God."[12]

Marriage to Johan Frederik Schlegel

On November 3, 1847, Olsen married her old tutor, Johan Frederik Schlegel, in the Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen.[13] The marriage was happy and stable. The two even read aloud to each other passages from Kierkegaard's writings, which were then getting much attention in Denmark.

On a number of occasions in 1849, Olsen and Kierkegaard crossed each other's paths, beginning with dispersing from church after Mass, and later on the routes for afternoon walks both of them took. On November 19, 1849, Frederik Schlegel received a letter from Kierkegaard entreating him to allow him to speak to Olsen. Schlegel did not respond to the letter, and denied Kierkegaard further requests to talk with Olsen. Soon afterwards, Frederik was appointed governor of the Danish West Indies, and Olsen accompanied him there, departing on March 17, 1855.[5] She was never to see Kierkegaard again.

In 1995 Kierkegaard biographer Joakim Garff gained access to letters written by Regine to her sister Cornelia during the period of the Schlegels' time in the West Indies. Though somewhat guarded, her letters reveal Regine's discomfort with the tropical climate and distaste for what she viewed as the superficiality and pettiness of colonial life. She does not refer to Kierkegaard directly in these letters, despite receiving and reading his posthumous papers from Kierkegaard's nephew Henrik Lund during this period.[14]

Regine and Frederik returned from the Danish West Indies to Copenhagen in 1860, five years after Kierkegaard's death. The remains of his estate had been bequeathed to Olsen as his "former fiancé". Frederick died in 1896. In 1897, Olsen moved to Frederiksberg to live with her older brother.

After the death of Schlegel, she accepted requests by biographers, commentators and friends, to discuss her side of the relationship between her and Kierkegaard. The interviewers include Hanne Mourier, Raphael Meyer, Peter Munthe Brun, Robert Neiiendam, Julius Clausen, and Georg Brandes.[15] In 1898 she decided to dictate to, among others, the librarian Raphael Meyer the story of her engagement to Kierkegaard. This account was published after Olsen's death in 1904 as Kierkegaardian Papers: The Engagement; Published on Behalf of Mrs. Regine Schlegel, but in general scholars concede that it offers little information that wasn't already known through Kierkegaard and other sources. Olsen is buried in Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen, along with both Kierkegaard and Frederik Schlegel. In his commentary about her, Robert Neiiendam wrote that "she knew 'that he took her with him into history.' And this thought made up for what she had suffered."[16]

Effect of breakup on Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard never fully recovered from his failed relationship with Olsen. For a time in between their break-up and her marriage to Schlegel, they had polite and civil contact during daily walks and in church. These were mostly non-verbal on Kierkegaard's part and caused him great anxiety. It seems that he was attempting to utilize his complicated authorial method of indirect communication in his personal life, and his tormented approach caused him great distress. When he absconded to Berlin in 1842 to study philosophy, he was haunted by a woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Olsen. Even while immersing himself in his studies, she was always on his mind: "Not even here in Berlin has my, alas, all-too-inventive brain been able to refrain from scheming something or other. She must either love me or hate me, she knows no third possibility. Nor is there anything more harmful to a young girl than half-way situations."[17] It was during this time that Kierkegaard was formulating his own philosophy, as well as his first book, Either/Or.

Olsen in Kierkegaard's writings

Regine Olsen occupies a central role in Kierkegaard's thought and writings, and indeed a unique position in the history of all of Western philosophy. In some ways, it is difficult to understand Kierkegaard fully without at least a cursory knowledge of his failed relationship to Regine.

Kierkegaard's failed relationship with Olsen influenced his views on marriage, love, commitment, authenticity, and perhaps above all, faith and relationship to God. His mention of her in his writings, however, (aside from his personal journals) is always indirect. Either/Or, Kierkegaard's first book, is full of veiled references to his relationship with Olsen. Aside from lengthy sections dealing with the matters of erotic seduction and a sermon on the virtues of marriage, it includes The Seducer's Diary, featuring a young man who calculates his seduction of a young girl from afar, and upon winning her affection, breaking off the relationship. The story has strong parallels to Kierkegaard's relationship to Olsen, and has often been taken to be a fictionalization of it. It has also been published as its own separate volume. Stages on Life's Way contains an analysis of the three "spheres of existence" — the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. As the ethical corresponds to dedicating one's life to another – to marriage – the religious corresponds to dedicating one's self to God. It seems to have been this decision – this "either/or" — which consumed Kierkegaard during the years of his engagement, and he felt that he could not reconcile his marriage with his religious calling.

With the exception of a single work dedicated to Poul Martin Møller, Kierkegaard dedicated all of his writings to his father, another formative figure in his life, and to Olsen.

The first full-length biography of Olsen to date is Joakim Garff's Regines gåde: Historien om Kierkegaards forlovede og Schlegels hustru ("Regine's Riddle: The Story of Kierkegaard's Fiancee and Schlegel's Wife") (Copenhagen: Gads, 2013), subsequently translated as Kierkegaard's Muse: The Mystery of Regine Olsen (trans. Alastair Hannay, Princeton University Press, 2017).

  • British author David Lodge delves extensively into the love story between Kierkegaard and Olsen in his novel Therapy, as the protagonist Tubby Passmore goes through a mid-life crisis and become obsessed with Kierkegaard's writings and especially the story of his love for Olsen, visiting Copenhagen and Kierkegaard's study.
  • Italian post-rock band, port-royal, has a song titled "Regine Olsen."
  • US indie pop band, The Receptionists, have a song titled "Søren Loved Regina".
  • There is a Russian synthpop duo called Regine Ollsenn [sic].

Notes and references


  1. Encounters, p. 34
  2. An edited account of Kierkegaard's relation to Olsen and her family, from the point of view of Kierkegaard, appears roughly around August 1849 in Journals, 49 X 5 A 149
  3. In an interview in 1896, Olsen claims to have burned her letters to Kierkegaard, when she accepted the portion of Kierkegaard's inheritance relating to her. See Encounters, p. 38.
  4. Abelard to Philintus
  5. Tudvad, Kierkegaards København, p. 39.
  6. Again in Journals, slight difference in translation, 49 × 5 A 149.
  7. There is really no way to know this for sure, but based on his journal entries, it seems highly likely. "I saw a pretty girl today — that does not interest me anymore... At the same time it is good for me; those little romances distracted me a good deal."; in Alexander Dru’s translation of Journals, 41 III A 175.
  8. Hannay's Kierkegaard p. 155
  9. See 1 Peter 4:7–12, The Holy Bible Kierkegaard decided to forgive Olsen so that his love might hide her sin from the eyes of God just as Christ's love hides our sin from the eyes of God.
  10. Matthew 8:5–13
  11. Matthew 6:14–15 English Standard Version (ESV) For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
  12. Søren Kierkegaard, a Biography by Johannes Hohlenberg 1954 P. 230-231
  13. Tudvad, Kierkegaards København, pp. 418–9.
  14. Garff, Joakim. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography. Trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse. Princeton, 2005, 0-691-09165-X
  15. Encounters, Ch. 3
  16. Encounters, p. 54
  17. Garff, SAK, p. 175. "Mit destoværre, altfor opfindsomme Hoved har end ikke her i Berlin, kunnet undlade at udtænke et og andet. Enten maa hun elske mig eller hade mig, hun kjender intet Tredie. Der er heller intet fordærveligere for en ung Pige end Mellemtilstandende."


  • Garff, Joakim (2000). SAK (in Danish). Gads Forlag. ISBN 87-12-02243-8.
  • Garff, Joakim (2005). Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09165-X.
  • Garff, Joakim (2017). Kierkegaard's Muse: The Mystery of Regine Olsen. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-17176-0.
  • Kierkegaard, Søren (1996). Papers and Journals: A Selection. tr. Hannay. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044589-7.
  • Kirmmse, Bruce H. (1996). Encounters with Kierkegaard: A Life as Seen by his Contemporaries. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01106-0.
  • Tudvad, Peter (2004). Kierkegaards København (in Danish). Politikens Forlag. ISBN 87-567-6533-9.
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