Else Lasker-Schüler 1869-1945
(Born Elisabeth Schüler) German poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist.
A noted Expressionist poet and playwright, Lasker-Schüler is best known for works in which she presents a fictionalized version of her life. The subject of critical controversy, these works have been alternately viewed as enigmatic masterpieces and as the failed experiments of a highly egocentric talent. Lasker-Schüler's books were burned by the Third Reich and were not republished until the 1950s, when they were read and admired by many postwar German poets and critics. The obscurity of her works and the confusion surrounding the facts of her life have made her both an alluring and a puzzling subject for literary critics and biographers.
The daughter of a cultured and prosperous German Jewish family, Lasker-Schüler was born in Eberfeld, Germany. She married Dr. Jonathan Berthold Lasker, a Berlin physician, in 1894 and gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1900. In 1899 Lasker-Schüler published her first poems, some of which she had written as a teenager, in various literary journals. At this time she also began to act out the personality traits and the lifestyle of characters in her poems, such as "Prinz von Theben" ("Prince of Thebes") and "Tino of Baghdad." She wore colorful, unusual clothing and pursued an itinerant existence, occupying various furnished rooms and hotels and often sleeping on park benches. She frequented the cafes where Expressionist artists and writers gathered, and became acquainted with such prominent figures as painter Franz Marc, poet Gottfried Benn, critic Karl Kraus, and film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. During this period, Lasker-Schüler also met poet Peter Hille, who became her close friend and mentor. In 1903 she divorced Lasker and married Georg Levin, a noted Expressionist writer who used the pseudonym Herwarth Walden. Walden published a great many of Lasker-Schuler's poems in his Expressionist periodical Der Sturm and was an avid promoter of her works. The two divorced for unknown reasons in 1911. In 1933, when the political climate became hostile for German Jews, Lasker-Schuler fled the country and traveled through Europe before settling in Palestine in 1937. Refusing all offers of assistance from friends, Lasker-Schuler lived in poverty until her death in 1945.
Lasker-Schuler's works reflect a fictionalized version of the realities of her life and portray actual people as extravagant characters in fantastic settings and imaginary circumstances. For example, she portrays her relationship with Hille in Das Peter Hille-Buch, which comprises forty-six short scenes in which the Apostle Peter and his female follower Tino travel through forests and mountains, encountering other characters with whom they attempt, unsuccessfully, to establish an isolated community in order to escape what they perceive as a hostile world. When Peter dies, Tino becomes grief-stricken and lives out the rest of her life in the mountains in a state of solitary, self-imposed exile. The character Tino returns later in the collection of short stories Die Ndchte der Tino von Baghdad. Other examples of Lasker-Schuler's use of autobiographical material include her depictions in her poetry of her mother, her brother, and her son as idealized, saintly figures. Several of the literary figures with whom Lasker-Schüler was acquainted, including Benn and the poet Jakob van Hoddis, serve as the models for such characters as The Slav, The Bishop, The Dalai-Lama, and The Son of the Sultan of Morocco in her epistolary novel Mein Herz. In her last collection of poetry, Mein blaues Klavier, Lasker-Schüler expresses her readiness for death and the pain and loneliness of living as an exile in Palestine, where she feels she has lost her will to live and her ability to write. In the title poem, she states: "I have a blue piano at home, / But I don't know a single note. / It is standing in the dark of the cellar door / Since the world turned savage."
Lasker-Schüler's poetry has often been faulted for its egocentrism and obscurity. In a letter to philosopher Martin Buber, she defended her highly personal imagery and subject matter by stating that since she knew only her own life, this subject was the only one about which she could write with authority. G. Guder asserted: "Else Lasker-Schüler … wrote her poems in the first person singular, but she is not subjective in the worst sense of the word.… Even at a time when the motif of her poems was increasingly homelessness, uprootedness and dread of life, she the ageing, ailing woman, remained concerned with the efficiency of her poetic voice as mediator, so that her last poems, too, with the same subjective tone transcend all that is purely individual and are timeless symbols of the fate of man and of the artist in an age of increasing inhumanity."
Styx (poetry) 1902
Der siebente Tag (poetry) 1905
Das Peter Hille-Buch (short stories) 1906
Die Nächte der Tino von Bagdad (short stories) 1907
Die Wupper: Schauspiel in fünf Aufzügen (drama) 1909
Meine Wunder (poetry) 1911
Meine Herz: Ein Liebesroman mit Bildern und wirklich lebenden Menschen (novel) 1912
Gesichte: Essays und andere Geschichten (essays and poetry) 1913
Hebrdische Balladen (poetry) 1913
Der Prinz von Theben: Ein Geschichtenbuch (short stories) 1914
Die gesammelten Gedichte (poetry) 1917
Der Malik: Eine Kaisergeschichte mit Bildern und Zeichnungen (novel) 1919
Die Kuppel: Der Gedichte zweiter Teil (poetry) 1920
Theben: Gedichte und Lithographien (poetry) 1923
Ich räume auf I Meine Anklage gegen meine Verleger (essays and poetry) 1925
Arthur Aronymus: Die Geschichte meines Vaters (drama) 1932
Konzert (essays and poetry) 1932
Das Hebräerland (poetry) 1937
Mein blaues Klavier: Neue Gedichte (poetry) 1943
Dichtungen und Dokumente: Gedichte, Prosa, Schauspiele,...
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SOURCE: "The Blue Piano of Else Lasker-Schueler," translated by Ralph Manheim, in Commentary, Vol. 9, No. 4, April, 1950, pp. 335-44.
[Politzer was an Austrian-born American educator, editor, and critic who became personally acquainted with Lasker-Schüler in Palestine, and has written a number of scholarly works on the role of Jewish writers in German literature. In the following excerpt, he surveys Lasker-Schüler's career, noting especially her wordplay, and her role in the evolution of Jewish-German literature.]
On a cold winter's day at the end of 1944, as the war was drawing to its close, we buried Else Lasker-Schueler. Services were held in the mortuary of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, under the merciless sun of Palestine, on a vitreous clear noonday, in view of the desert which descends in dunes to the Dead Sea.
The sextons busied themselves with a little bundle smaller than the body of a child. The last words were spoken by a friend of the dead woman who had feared her and cared for her, smiled and worried over her, like almost everyone who had befriended her here in Palestine. The portly rabbi with the face of an actor suffering because he had to play-act and because his sufferings were also play-acting, did something unheard of in view of the vast hatred that prevailed in Jewish Palestine for all things German: he recited a poem in German, a poem by Else...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler," in Modern Languages, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, June, 1962, pp. 53-60.
[In the following essay, Guder surveys the major themes of Lasker-Schüler's poetry.]
Examining the whole body of [Lasker-Schüler's] poetry from the publication of her first volume of verse, Styx, in Berlin, 1902, to Mein Blaues KinFier, written in exile and published in 1943 in Jerusalem, two years before the poet's death, one realizes that throughout her whole life her poetry was the expression of one unchanging experience. This experience was the outcome of an aim which was deeply rooted in Else Lasker-Schuler's thought and feeling, and of which a clear definition is given by the poet herself in her essay 'Meine Andacht':
Ich habe mich stets befleissight, nicht nach Gold aber nach Gott zu graben; manchmal stiess ich auf Himmel [Gedichte 1902-1943, 1959].
When Else Lasker-Schuler is classified as one of the German Expressionists, with whom she has, no doubt, stylistic characteristics in common (her second husband was Herwarth Walden, the editor of Der Sturm), it is too readily overlooked that for Else Lasker-Schüler God is not 'die grosse, nur mit unerhörter Ekstase zu erreichende Spitze des Gefdhls' (Edschmid) [quoted by Arno Schirokauer, 'Expressionismus der Lyrik,' in...
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SOURCE: "The Significance of Love in the Poetry of Else Lasker-Schuler," in German Life & Letters, Vol. XVIII, 1964-65, pp. 177-88.
[In the following essay, Guder compares Lasker-Schüler's concept of love to that of the German Expressionists, and examines the effect of her personal experiences on the emotional outlook of her poetry.]
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SOURCE: "The Play Element in the Poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler," in The German Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, September, 1970, pp. 571-76.
[In the following essay, Blumenthal discusses Lasker-Schüler's use of childhood and play imagery in her love poetry.]
The poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler is distinguished by its rich and deceptively simple imagery and by the fact that almost all of it consists of love poems. Her poetic acts of love are at once ritual, entertainment, artistry, riddle-making, doctrine, persuasion, sorcery, soothsaying, prophecy, and competition: in short—play. Gottfried Benn knew this and dedicated his volume of verse, Söhne, to her playfully: "Ich grüsse Else Lasker-Schuler: ziellose Hand aus Spiel und Blut." The poetess was herself aware of the central position which play occupies in her work and frequently defined her poetic mission in terms of it: "Spielen ist alles," she states simply, for "die Spielsachen sind wohl die Hauptsachen der Welt, die fassbaren und die unberührbaren."
The literature on Else Lasker-Schüler gives, however, very sparse treatment to the play motif in her work. Nowhere is the topic developed beyond a few sentences, and where reference is made to it, play appears only as a mechanism of escape. The poetess' toying with the world, however, constitutes no retreat from life, for she was very much involved with the affairs of everyday life...
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SOURCE: "The Swing of the Pendulum: The Backward Movement, Withdrawal," in Else Lasker-Schiuer: The Broken World, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 37-79.
[In the following excerpt, Cohn examines several of Lasker-Schüler's works, demonstrating the departure from reality evidenced in her poetry.]
It is my intention to show the bipolar structure of Else Lasker-Schüler's mode of being, as it manifests itself in her poetry. I have chosen to start with an examination of the various manifestations of her tendency to withdraw from reality, and to follow this with a consideration of the opposite tendency, her outgoing search for contact.
This order of examination is not immediately given by the bipolar structure of withdrawal and outgoing. Using the image of the swinging pendulum, it is clear that, to some extent, it is arbitrary at what point we start to describe its movement. Throughout Else Lasker-Schüler's life, outgoing and withdrawal impulses alternated, often in quick succession. If, nevertheless, I have chosen to examine her search for contact after her tendency to withdraw, it is because I believe that in the highest manifestation of this search, her search for God, she came closest to reconciling the opposing forces, and that she came increasingly closer to this point of reconciliation—the point where the pendulum comes to rest in a centre—as she grew older....
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SOURCE: "Else Lasker-Schüler and Her People," in Ariel, Jerusalem, No. 41, 1976, pp. 61-76.
[In the following excerpt, Hessing discusses Lasker-Schüler's regard for her Jewish heritage and its influence on her works.]
I am not a Hebrew for the sake of the Hebrews, but—for God's sake! This confession, however, includes the love and the faith of an unshakeable devotion to His people. To my smallest nation amongst the nations, to which I belong with heart and soul.
Else Lasker-Schüler, Dos Hebräerland (The Land of the Hebrews)
She was born in 1869, into a pious Jewish family of Wuppertal-Elberfeld, Germany; between the years 1894 and 1911, she was married twice, and twice divorced; by 1933, when she had to leave Germany, her poetry had established her as one of the leading figures in the literary world of her country; she spent her last years in Switzerland and, after 1939, in Jerusalem, where she died in 1945. Her outward life falls into the all-too familiar pattern. There does not seem to be anything very particular about it.
Except, perhaps, for one little fact. She was "… the greatest lyrical poetess Germany ever had": this is the verdict of the famous German poet Gottfried Benn about Else Lasker-Schüler.
Almost inevitably, Gottfried Benn's dictum accounts for the fact that...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Hebrew Ballads and Other Poems by Else Lasker-Schüler, edited and translated by Audri Durchslag and Jeanette Litman-Demeestere, The Jewish Publication Society, 1980, pp. xi-xxii.
[In the following excerpt, Durchslag and Litman-Demeestere survey Lasker-Schuiler's career and discuss major images and themes in her poetry.]
[In 1902, Lasker-Schüler's first book of poetry], Styx, appeared. Certain general themes and characteristics which appear in this early volume were to recur—though in different guises and styles—throughout Lasker-Schüler's poetic career. Like a mystical Ovid, Lasker-Schüler saw the world as a tribute to and an embodiment of passion and unfolding life. With her, however, the runic replaces the metamorphic. Nature, like almost everything else in Lasker-Schuler's world, reveals a dynamism beyond itself, possessing special power as a hieroglyph (a word which recurs in both her poetry and prose) of yet another, magical realm. Although images of real flowers appear in her poems, generally the names of her flowers resonate with other meanings, for example, the "Immortelle" of "A Lovesong" ("Ein Liebeslied") (the English translation, "strawflower," cannot, unfortunately, capture the symbolic dimension of the word play). More characteristic are such fabulated flowers as "fireroses" ("Feurrose') in the poem "Parting" ("Abschied") or the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Your Diamond Dreams Cut Open My Arteries by Else Lasker-Schuler, translated by Robert P. Newton, The University of North Carolina Press, 1982, pp. 3-50.
[Newton is an American educator, translator, and noted scholar of German poetry. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of Lasker-Schüler's career and the criticism on her works.]
Though the basic themes of Lasker-Schüler's art persist through all of her books, lines of thematic and formal development do exist.… Her first-born (Stvx, 1902) contains, if we may believe the poetess, some poems that had been written in her adolescent years, from the age of fifteen to seventeen. In this volume she had not yet developed her most characteristic metrical style—the two- and three-line, free-verse strophes—but her rhymed forms are often handled freely in terms of meter and stanzaic structure. The use of extravagant, grotesque, intensifying metaphor is already her own. The main themes—love, dejection, religious feeling, her child—are all convoked, but verses astir with a candid erotic passion are more prominent than in her settled years, and, on the whole, the taste of the times shows through. But despite its reflection of literary fashion, the volume contains some fine lyrics.
Echoes of neoromanticism, decadence, and art nouveau can be heard in the titles: "Jealousy," "Instinct," "My...
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Hirshberg, Jehoash. "Joseph Tal's Homage to Else." Ariel, Jerusalem, No. 41 (1976): 83-93.
Discusses Tal's opera based on Lasker-Schuler's life and works.
Guder, G. "Else Lasker-Schüler's Conception of Herself as a Poet." Orbis Litterarum 25, No. 1 (1960): 184-99.
Analyzes Lasker-Schüler's depiction of the poet as prophet in her poetry.
—. "The Meaning of Colour in Else Lasker-Schüler's Poetry." German Life & Letters XIV (1960-61): 175-87.
Explores the symbolic use of color in Lasker-Schüler's poetry.
Zohn, Harry. "Poet and Scarecrow." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,098 (16 October 1981): 1207.
Briefly examines Lasker-Schuler's personal life and provides a mixed assessment of Hebrew Ballads, and Other Poems.
Additional coverage of Lasker-Schuler's life and works is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 66 and 124.
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