(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Arno Holz’s masterpiece in the lyric genre is Phantasus, a poem-cycle on which he worked for more than thirty years, and which developed from two tiny fifty-page booklets (1898) to several successive expanded editions (1916, 1925, 1929), ultimately resulting in a final version sixteen hundred pages long (published posthumously in 1961). In the first edition, the poems were short, only one being more than one page long, and so scantily developed as to be almost outlines rather than poems—the term “telegram poetry” has since been applied to them. By the 1916 edition, however, more by a process of internal germination and luxuriation than by cumulative addition, the book had reached monumental proportions. A single line could have as many as thirty-five words, and one poem in book 6 is 372 pages long and contains one of the longest sentences on record in the German language—a single sentence occupying seventy pages. Thus, an author who first became known as a cofounder of the Naturalist movement in Germany climaxed his literary career with a work which, in its Baroque virtuosity, at first sight seems to represent the very opposite of Naturalism.

Phantasus, 1898

The poem-cycle Phantasus aims to be a modern Divine Comedy, a cosmic embodiment of the twentieth century “scientific” worldview, largely as understood in the evolutionary writings of the monist philosopher Ernst Haeckel. The Haeckelian conception of the embryonic repetition of phylogenetic evolutionary stages underlies Arno Holz’s self-interpretation: “Just as before my birth I passed through the entire physical development of my species, at least in its main stages, so since my birth through its psychic ones. I was ‘everything’ and the numerous and variegated residues of this [evolution] are stored up in me.”

The lyrical technique by which the vast panorama of world reality is deployed in Phantasus is, basically, the detailed elaboration of introspective contents, whether from the real world or imaginary worlds, and the identification of the lyric self with each and all. In Holz’s own words: “The ultimate secret of the . . . Phantasus-composition consists in my incessantly splitting myself up into the most heterogeneous things and forms.” Many short poems of proto-Phantasus, which are lengthened only moderately in later editions, identify the lyrical self with particular beings: natural objects, such as a star (“I am a star, I shine”) or a lake (“. . . my heart is this lake. . . . Purple fishes swim through my dark water”); real human beings (“I am the richest man on earth”); mythical figures (“I am the dwarf Turlitipu”); imaginary creatures (“Every thousand years I grow wings. Every thousand years my purple dragon body rushes through the darkness”); a cultural artifact, such as a Greek statue (“Corinth created me. I saw the sea”) or an Oriental idol (“At night around my temple grove, seventy bronze cows stand watch”); or God himself, in caricature (“My silver cloud-beard floods the sky. I snore”).

Holz’s aesthetic dicta, “Art equals nature minus x,” and “Art has a tendency to become nature again,” are thus not meant in the sense of a meticulous Naturalistic copying of external reality. For Holz, the location of detailed “nature” is in the inner experience, memory, thought, and aspirations of the individual consciousness, where all reality is concentrated. The Holzian postulate that makes it possible for the lyric consciousness to become coextensive with the entire universe and with each item in it is the phenomenological view that reality exists neither centrifugally in a transcendental realm beyond things nor centripetally in a quasi-substantial subjective self but on a middle ground in the phenomena themselves. One poem begins: “Do not listen beyond things. Do not brood over yourself. Do not seek yourself. You do not exist.” The poem then identifies the self: “You are the dispersing smoke that curls from your cigar,” “the raindrop on the window-sill,” the “soft crackling” of a kerosene lamp. The subjective-objective dichotomy is overcome in the phenomena which are understood as the contents of consciousness, where the lyrical self and the universe coincide—which accords with the psychology of Ernst Mach.

In Phantasus, this self reaches to the outer limits of time and space, ranging from the infinite to the infinitesimal, open-endedly in either direction. The objects in space are, moreover, not static and inert but dynamic and changing: “tattered planet-systems” mark late stages of stellar development; “glacial primal suns” have not yet ignited to full life. An organic metaphor depicts the prolific genesis of new reality in the cosmos: beyond “red fixed-star forests which are bleeding to death” [that is, dispersing their energy] . . . beyond worlds of night and nothingness, grow glimmering new worlds—trillions of crocus blossoms.” An organic metaphor also succinctly affirms the paleontological antiquity of the lyric self in a “telegram-poem,” which later became the first poem of the entire expanded cycle:

Seven billion years before my birth
I was a sword-lily.
My seeking roots
into a star.
On its dark water
my huge blue blossom.

Stylistically, this organic metaphor which structures Holz’s cosmic imagination is made even more evident in the lexical and syntactical profusion of the 1925 Phantasus version. In that version, the genesis of the stars and galaxies is visualized in the metaphor of a plant scattering its sparkling spores into interstellar darkness. From a relatively static impressionistic snapshot, the poem has developed into a sinewy, twisting vine sprouting forth lexical tendrils out of its plantlike syntax. This is typical: In the later versions of Phantasus, the proliferation of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and pages-long prepositional phrases destabilizes the images by inundating the nouns in a flood of less substantial parts of speech. In proto-Phantasus, Holz’s central-axis poetry served to capture momentary static impressions; in the expanded versions it...

(The entire section is 2587 words.)