Hugo von Hofmannsthal began his literary career as a poet. In 1890, at the age of 16, he published his first poem, Frage, under the pseudonym Loris Melikow. In the same year, he published other poems under different psedonyms. It was his lyric poetry that made Hofmannsthal famous, but curiously enough, shortly after the turn of the century, he basically ceased to compose in this form, and instead devoted himself to other genres.
In this section I would like to introduce several of Hofmannsthal's more important poems, such as Vor Tag (1907), Ballade des äusseren Lebens, and Weltgeheimnis, among others. In addition, commentary will be given in some instances.
First, however, I would like to draw some attention to the major themes that appear in Hofmannsthal's poetry. From an early age, Hofmannsthal felt great loneliness, which was due to several factors in his life. For example, he came from a different social background than many of his peers in school, and so although he made friends well and participated in many activities, there was still a gap between him and the others of his age. Secondly, as a bright child with a great capacity for learning, he was naturally set apart for the other pupils. Finally, as a married adult, although he was generally happy in his marriage, he felt unable to communicate those things of greatest importance - especially those relating to his work - to his wife. Hence, one notices that the loneliness and estrangement of the individual often plays a role in his writings, especially his poems.
Let us look at some examples.
Another topic that shows up quite often, and is particularly pronounced in Vor Tag, is the contrast between Being and Becoming. The conflict is as follows: in Becoming (Werden) ones stable (and static) identity - that is, who one is - is compromised. How can one Become, and still remain true to who one is? But Becoming is a natural part of life, since life is dynamic, and that which does not change. It is therefore inherent in life and living that one becomes estranged from one's own identity. We notice this in Vor Tag in that the young man has lost "Den guten Knaben, den er war" - the person he was is lost, as if murdered. It is also a theme inherent in the poem as a whole, and especially in its title. "Before Day" - the moments before dawn. These moments are caught between night and day, and hang in the air as they were an eternity and time stood still. At the same time, this moment is on the verge of becoming, of - like the water in the waterfall - plumetting over the edge into something new.
As much as Hofmannsthal plays with Romantic imagery and themes, he is much more of a Neuromantiker (although let me qualify this by saying that Hofmannsthal is much more than a Neuromantiker: his works hit on Jugendstil, impressionism, and expressionism) than a Romantiker. This is nowhere more evident than in here lyric poetry, such as in Ballade des äusseren Lebens, where the theme of Müdigkeit comes into play. The individual comes recognize his or her alienation from others and from nature, but there is a weariness, an acceptance of death and dissolvement of the self that precludes any faustian striving for wholeness. This is expressed in Ballade des äusseren Lebens through several images, such as the coming of evening. Evening signals the end of the day and the coming of night, and of sleep. Evening is also a recognition of time, and that it is constantly slipping away. We see it also in the last line of the poem: "Wie schwerer Honig aus dem hohlen Waben." The honey although a sign of life, is also here a symbol of weariness - when described as "schwerer Honig" it can be nothing else.
However, this life force is a pervasive element of Hofmannsthal's lyric poetry. Adrian del Caro draws the connection between Hofmannsthal's lyric poetry and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1993). Although post-structuralists latch onto Nietzsche's deconstruction of Western epistemology and morality, they tend to ignore the great vitality that flows through his works. This sense of vitality is a crucial aspect to Hofmannsthal's poetry. One notices it in the constant juxtoposition of life and death, for example, as well as in the references to nature and the well of life (Weltgeheimnis).
When one understands the content of Hofmannsthal's poetry, it may be difficult to come to terms with his close relationship with Stefan George during the time when he published most of his poems. George was an artistic elitist, as well as a domineering figure who built a cult of personality around him. His art was devoid of the Romantic imagery of Hofmannsthal's works, and fit in more closely with the term "symbolism." When one thinks of Hofmannsthal's feelings of loneliness, it is easier to understand his connection with George. George wanted art for art's sake, and to that end he collected like-minded artists around him. In this atmosphere, Hofmannsthal orginally felt at home, as if he were with people who finally understood him. However, later he realized that the price of this "wholeness" was the loss of his identity to George. Still, George and his Blätter für die Kunst were responsible for publishing many of Hofmannsthal's early poems and dramas.
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