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By Michael Hamburger
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1972 PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS
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POEMS AND VERSE PLAYS
Hugo von Hofmannsthal published his first poem in June 1890, when he was a schoolboy of just over sixteen, his first playlet or "lyrical drama" in the following year. Though not unprecedented, this early emergence of a poet was extraordinary enough; and it was made more extraordinary by the emergence at the same time of the critic and man of letters — under the pseudonyms of Loris, Loris Melikow, Theophil Morren, or, in one case only, Archibald O'Hagan, B.A. From the autumn of 1890 onwards, this schoolboy poet and man of letters was also to be seen at the literary meeting-places of Vienna, such as the Café Griensteidl, at first in his father's company, later with older friends or alone. To say that he mixed on equal terms with established writers is an understatement; for he was accepted at once not merely as a youthful prodigy and a writer of the greatest promise, but as a master of his art. "Here at last," Hermann Bahr wrote of this first impact in a book published in 1894, "here at last was someone who contained the whole age, for all its thousand-fold contradictions and conflicts, within his mind."
This first, predominantly lyrical, phase of Hofmannsthal's working life lasted for roughly ten years, the last decade of the century. Though he continued to write poems after this period, he himself considered his lyrical vein exhausted and thought only five of his later poems worth preserving in book form. Much has been made of this apparent break in Hofmannsthal's development and of the crisis to which it was due. The majority of those who admired the lyrical poet neither understood nor forgave the change; they felt about it much as Rimbaud's admirers might have felt if he had lived to become a member of the Academie Frangaise. Hofmannsthal's fame declined; it was said about him that if he had died at twentyfive he would have been a great poet. This epigram, as wrong and foolish as it was cruel, is quoted only because it sums up a superficial view of Hofmannsthal which not only prevailed during the greater part of his later life but persisted long after his death, in 1929, and has only recently been corrected by the publication in Germany of a fifteen-volume edition of his works, supplemented by several volumes of correspondence. The insight and researches of Hofmannsthal scholars like K. J. Naef, Richard Alewyn, and Martin Stern have also contributed to a reappraisal that is still in progress; and a collection of Hofmannsthal's posthumous works, soon to be published for the first time, should shed further light on one of the most complex and enigmatic minds of the half-century.
If one thing has already become clear, it is that the whole of Hofmannsthal's work, from the first poems, playlets, and stories to the last librettos, essays, and plays, is linked by strong, though bewilderingly subtle, threads. Hofmannsthal himself traced such threads in notes on his own work, but there are many others which he was unable or unwilling to indicate. Every perceptive student of his works has been aware of them. To treat the poems and lyrical plays in isolation would be to perpetuate the legend of Loris, of the "young prince," the "marvellous boy" of the fin de siècle, of whom it was also said that he dipped his hand into a bowl of precious stones while he wrote his "jewelled" verse. (The real Loris went to school, sailed, played tennis, and toured Italy on his bicycle; his parents were far from rich.) It will be necessary to stress not only the uniqueness of the early poems and plays — and Hofmannsthal's abandonment of his first media has a significance not confined to his personal development — but their relation to the whole of his work. Had this legendary Loris really existed, his writings would still maintain their prominent place in German literature beside the contemporary work of Stefan George and Rilke: but for historical reasons, rather than for their enduring power to move and to disturb us.
The truth is that the early admirers of Loris saw only those facets of his poetry and prose which answered the requirements of the age; above all, they saw him as the belated representative in Austrian and German literature of that aesthetic movement whose progress they had followed in France and England. Hofmannsthal's early essays on the Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne, Pater, Wilde, on Vielé-Griffin and Bourget, his translations from Maeterlinck and D'Annunzio, and his association with Stefan George's Blätter für die Kunst did point to a genuine affinity with an international movement opposed in various ways to mere Naturalism. What Hofmannsthal's contemporary readers and interpreters failed to see was that, however preoccupied with the reigning antinomy between art and life, even Loris, the real Loris, was as much intent on resolving the antinomy as the propagandists of a "consistent" Naturalism; but in a very different way. Even the critical essays of Loris bridge the gulf between aestheticism and Naturalism. Ibsen's plays are treated not as social documents, but as self-confessions; Barrès, on the other hand, is censured for lacking a "centre, style, form." Swinburne is praised for his "dionysian" fervour, but with this important reservation: "These artists, as I said, do not come out of life: what they produce does not enter into life." Throughout these early critical pieces Hofmannsthal shows only a half-hearted sympathy with the cult of decadence as such, much as he appreciates some of its artistic achievements. His marked preference for the English aesthetic movement from Ruskin to Pater was due to its habit of combining moral passion and social consciousness with the pursuit of beauty. Where these were lacking, Hofmannsthal disapproved, though he was still unsure of the grounds of his disapproval. A passing addiction to Nietzsche's vitalism is evident in several of the essays and reviews, then again a concern with the forms of social life, style in life rather than in art, pointing to Hofmannsthal's later solution of the antinomy between art and life, introspection and activity, individualism and community, in comedies at once realistic and metaphysical, explorations of the symbolism and mythology of manners.
If the critic was still unsure of his grounds — and this critic, too, was predominantly lyrical, delighting in the leaps and somersaults of the spontaneous causerie — the imaginative writer was far less so. His very first verse play, Gestern, written when he was seventeen, was at once lyrical and didactic, an expression of the moods of the age and a critique of the self-centred hedonism that was one manifestation of contemporary aestheticism. In Der Tor und der Tod, written in 1893, this critique goes farther and deeper — incomparably farther and deeper, too, than any theoretical or polemical critique of aestheticism, because it is a criticism from the inside. The aesthetic man is revealed as the man who, ultimately, feels nothing at all; and by placing him in extremis, face to face with death, Hofmannsthal uncovers a much more radical and universal paradox. Only one of his early verse plays, the fragment Der Tod des Tizian of 1892, seems to lack the didactic sting of the other works, and only because it was left unfinished. But more of this later.
The paradox I am trying to indicate here is that it is the early lyrical plays of Hofmannsthal, the very works that were hailed as pure poetry in the sense defined by the French Symbolists and by Stefan George, which tended towards didacticism; and not even towards that didacticism into which the advocates of art for art's sake were apt to fall despite their creed — Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and George frequently did so — but towards one opposed to the creed itself. The richness and virtuosity of diction in these early plays, quite close at times to the freedom of Symbolist verse, make the contradiction not less, but more, acute. It is hardly suprising that Hofmannsthal could come to regard Der Tor und der Tod as the first in a series of morality plays continued much later by his Jedermann (1911) and Das grosse Salzburger Welttheater (1922). The paradox has something to do both with the "impasse of aestheticism" — Hofmannsthal's own phrase in an early letter — and with the predicament of verse drama in his time. Das kleine Welttheater is the outstanding exception; for, having come to recognize the lyrical nature of his playlets, Hofmannsthal no longer aimed at dramatic effects in this work; it is, as he called it, a puppet play, a sequence of very loosely interrelated monologues with no obvious moral framework and no dramatic interplay of characters. W. B. Yeats, who was faced with similar problems throughout his active life, was to resort to a related form in many of his later plays; but his Plays for Dancers, with their fusion of mime, music, mask, and the spoken word, offer a still more revealing parallel with Hofmannsthal's opera librettos and ballet scenarios of later years. Here it is important not to be misled by preconceptions about genres or by Hofmannsthal's greater readiness to affect an outward compromise with the requirements of the stage. In essence and conception, these works are as esoteric as those of Yeats, and both are late products of the Symbolist tradition. Hofmannsthal rightly emphasized the connection between his early lyrical plays and his librettos for Die Frau ohne Schatten (1913–14), Ariadne auf Naxos (1910 and 1916), and Die ägyptische Helena (1926).
To explain the transformation of the "pure" poet into the "mere" librettist of later years, the dramatist who did not disdain such "humble" tasks as the adaptation of plays by Sophocles, Calderón, Molière, Otway, and Jules Renard, the writing of scenarios for Diaghilev and even for a film about the life and work of Daniel Defoe, I must turn back to the beginning. Hofmannsthal's precocity was a real one. In reading his letters of the early period one is struck by his astonishing capacity for receiving and absorbing disparate experience, so that his attitudes never remain fixed for long, but are perpetually modified, corrected, and strengthened by self-criticism. His openness to external influences of every order — including the aura of persons, things, and places, of institutions, ways of life, ways of thinking and feeling — was such as to amount to a danger. To take only the most obvious of relationships, the personal, he was always in danger of being fascinated, overwhelmed, and abused by those whose strength lay in their monomania, the one kind of strength opposed to his own. This danger was inseparable from his strength; and the "magical" inspiration of his early work was nothing other than the presentiment or intuition of a multiplicity and underlying unity which his later work could only embody in a corresponding multiplicity of media, themes, and forms. The difference, as he said, lay between "pre-existence" and "existence," between potentiality and realization, between the homunculus in his bottle — endowed with prophetic and magical faculties as in Goethe's Faust — and the mature man's need to particularize, to separate, and to distinguish, a need inseparable from involvement in active life. Where Hofmannsthal's later works remain fragmentary or imperfectly realized, it is nearly always because the conception is too complex to be subordinated to the demands of the particular medium chosen, to be absorbed into the surface. So in the cases of his first prose comedy, Silvia im Stern, abandoned because too crowded with diverse characters and their intricate interactions, of the novel Andreas, the most tantalizingly enthralling of his many unfinished works, and, to a lesser extent, of his last tragedy, Der Turm.
All the hostility and misunderstandings to which Hofmannsthal's later work and person were subject arose from the prejudice that a writer so protean, so receptive, and so many-sided must be lacking in individuality and integrity. Yet even in the early poems and playlets Hofmannsthal's individuality had been nourished by his uncommon capacity for identification with what was not himself, whether experienced directly in his environment or indirectly in paintings, in the theatre, or in books. Unlike Yeats or Stefan George, he assumed no mask or anti-self, but relied on the social conventions to protect his privacy. "Manners," he noted, "are walls, disguised with mirrors"; and "manners are based on a profound conception of the necessity of isolation, while upholding — deliberately upholding — the illusion of contact." In the same way, Hofmannsthal could at once project and conceal his individuality by borrowing the artistic conventions of past ages; his refusal to draw a categorical line between "art" and "life," past and present, not only absolved him from the false dichotomies of his time but gave him a scope and a freedom that far exceeded the resources of direct self-expression. Needless to say, it also exposed him to the charge that he was a mere imitator of obsolete conventions, a receiver and renovator of stolen goods. Only the most minute attention reveals how much of himself he put even into adaptations of other men's works. His so-called translation of Molière's little comedy Les Fâcheux is a good instance; it is nothing less than a preliminary sketch for Hofmannsthal's own comic masterpiece, Der Schwierige.
The escape of Loris from his legend and even the crisis recorded in the Chandos Letter were by no means the only turning points in Hofmannsthal's development. His correspondence shows a marked change of style after the summer of 1892, when he left school to study law for a time, then Romance languages and literatures. If Loris ever existed, it was only till July 1892, when Hofmannsthal was eighteen years old. The affectation of fin de siècle languor — the French term occurs in several earlier letters, like other modish phrases — of sophistication, preciousness, and intellectual coquetry, hardly appears after this early period. The analogy with Rimbaud, in any case, is a far-fetched one. Hofmannsthal had never been a rebel or a bohemian; as the only child of parents who approved and fostered his interests, he had no cause to revolt. Though he was to find it necessary at times to remind his father that he was, after all, an artist — and an artist far more bizarre than even his father knew — neither at this time nor at any time of his life did Hofmannsthal wear his art on his sleeve. The more sober tone after this summer had several causes; one of them is too important to be omitted here.
In December 1891, Stefan George, who was staying in Vienna, was introduced to Hofmannsthal in a cafe. The meeting was followed by others, by a hectic exchange of notes, and by two poems written by Hofmannsthal, who was at once flattered and repelled by George's impetuous demands for friendship and loyalty. At one point George sent a bouquet of roses into Hofmannsthal's classroom at school! His other presents included not only an inscribed copy of his early Hymnen but a transcription in his own hand of Mallarmé's L'Aprèsmidi d'un faune, made in Paris with Mallarmé's permission. If this was Hofmannsthal's introduction to the French poet's work, the gift proved more than a token of his initiation into the Symbolist fraternity. But George's behaviour was not priestlike; in one letter he addressed Hofmannsthal as "my twin brother," and begged him to save him "from the road that leads to total nothingness." Hofmannsthal's replies became more and more stilted and evasive; another meeting in a café was cut short by Hofmannsthal, apparently because George had kicked and sworn at a dog. Hofmannsthal refused further meetings and returned some of the books sent to him by George, who accused Hofmannsthal of insulting him and even mentioned a possible challenge to a duel. Hofmannsthal offered a formal apology, but, when George renewed his appeals, could no longer cope with the situation and had to ask his father to intervene. All this within a month. A second, seemingly calmer, phase followed in May, when George returned to Vienna and persuaded Hofmannsthal to become a contributor to his periodical, Blätter für die Kunst. The two poets continued to correspond until 1906.
Excerpted from Hofmannsthal by Michael Hamburger. Copyright © 1972 PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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