Stefan Zweig Essay - Critical Essays


The poetry which Stefan Zweig began writing at an early age, published in Die Gesellschaft, Die Zukunft, Die Welt, Deutsche Dichtung, and other newspapers, periodicals, and almanacs, was informed by the Zeitgeist of fin de siècle Vienna. The last decades of the moribund Habsburg empire, governed by a six-hundred-year-old dynasty, were characterized by a latter-day Weltschmerz, by overrefinement and an aesthetic cult of beauty expressive of an aloofness from the world’s pursuits, and by surface smiles masking a world-weary abandonment of political solutions. Zweig himself described these early efforts, impressionistic poems marked by preciosity, as “verses of vague premonition and instinctive feeling, not created out of my own experience, but rather born of a passion for language.” The same may be said of the astonishingly precocious poems of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who published his verse as a schoolboy under the pseudonym “Loris” and for whom Zweig always had admiration and affection, though it turned out to be a case of unrequited love. While Zweig’s early poems, however, are eminently lyrical and display great musicality as well as a certain mastery of form, they lack the psychological penetration, the poetic intuition, and the linguistic magic of Hofmannsthal’s poetry.

In 1900, Zweig wrote in a letter to Karl Emil Franzos: “I have published to date 150 or 200 poems, written double that number, and now have put together a volume under the title Silberne Saiten which contains 50, that is, a most stringent selection.” That volume appeared in February of 1901 with a dedication “to my dear parents.” It was well received, even by such established poets as Detlev von Liliencron, Richard Dehmel, and Rainer Maria Rilke. The Revue allemande noted that “a quiet, solemn beauty pervades the lines of this Young Vienna poet, a translucence rarely to be found in first works . . . Zweig is a virtuoso in technique; each single poem gives us fresh opportunity to enjoy the fineness of his diction, of immeasurable harmony and wealth of imagery.” A severe judgment, however, was rendered by Erich Mühsam, who rejected “a book that, with its obtrusive sickly sweetness and insipid exaggeration, would hardly be worth mentioning were it not typical of the...

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