Most of Stefan George’s works were consciously addressed to a carefully selected and limited readership, and until 1898, his lyric cycles were published only in private, limited editions. Poems that appeared in early issues of Blätter für die Kunst (leaves for art) were initially ignored in Germany because of the journal’s limited circulation, the general obscurity of its contributors, and the poets’ lack of connections with accepted literary circles. On the other hand, George’s early poems and translations were received very favorably by poets and critics in France and Belgium. In 1898, the first public edition of The Year of the Soul, still his most popular cycle of poems, brought George the beginnings of broader recognition. Subsequent collections won him increasing acclaim for his originality and artistic virtuosity, until in 1927 he became the first, if reluctant, recipient of the Frankfurt/Main Goethe Prize. By 1928, when his collected works appeared, George was recognized internationally as the most gifted of the German Symbolist poets and the most influential renewer of the German language since Friedrich Nietzsche.
George’s important contributions to modern German poetry resulted from his efforts to revitalize and elevate decaying artistic standards. His efforts in cultivating a new literary language took into account contemporary literary influences from other national literatures. While pursuing his goals, he actively encouraged other German poets, including Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Leopold von Andrian, and Karl Wolfskehl, to strive for a new idealism focused on truth, originality, and self-examination, rejecting the identification of poetry with the personality of the poet and his experiences that had long characterized the nineteenth century imitators of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In 1933, when the Nazis endeavored to distort and exploit his artistic ideals, George refused their offers of money and honor, including the presidency of the German Academy of Poets. Nevertheless, after his death, misinterpretation of his ideas and attitudes regarding artistic and intellectual elitism established a link with Nazi ideology that reduced his literary stature and for many years deprived him of his rightful place in German literary history. Above all else, George was a poet of uncompromising artistic integrity, whose attempts to give German poetry a new direction of humanism and idealism were prompted by profoundly moral and ethical motives.