Arno Holz Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Literary history recognizes Arno Holz as the cofounder and first important author and theorist of Naturalism in Germany. In the novella, Papa Hamlet (1889; coauthored with Johannes Schlaf, under the pseudonym Bjarne P. Holmsen), Holz contrasts the horrid living conditions and death of an unemployed Shakespearean actor and his family with the idealistic verses which the actor constantly recites. His play, Die Familie Selicke (pr., pb. 1890), is a bleak tragedy, ridiculed by traditional critics as “primitive animal grunts of an ape theater,” which presents the misery of an impoverished family, on Christmas Eve, bitterly awaiting the arrival home of the drunken father with his already spent paycheck, while the youngest child is dying.

Holz’s significant theoretical writings are Revolution der Lyrik (1899), which rejects rhyme, meter, and all artificial stratagems of traditional poetry in favor of the natural rhythms of Holz’s own Mittelachsendichtung (central-axis poetry), which is based “on the natural rhythms of things themselves”; and Die Kunst: Ihr Wesen und ihre Gesetze (1891-1893), which seeks to develop and present a new “natural-scientific” aesthetic.

Holz also wrote four monumental plays: Sozialaristokraten (pb. 1896), one of the few successful Naturalistic comedies; Die Blechschmiede (pb. 1902; the sheet metal workshop), a 754-page satirical verse-drama with a dramatis personae of more than 3,200 characters; Sonnenfinsternis (pb. 1908; eclipse of the sun), the tragedy of a Naturalist painter who has mastered the “most complex precision-machinery of artistic technique” but cannot produce a masterpiece until his insight is heightened by the breakup of his marriage; and, finally, Ignorabimus: Tragödie (pb. 1913), an epistemological tragedy that pits natural-scientific positivism against Haeckelian cosmic monism.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

In nonlyrical genres, Arno Holz is firmly established as the cofounder, with Johannes Schlaf, of Naturalism or “consistent realism,” which sought to reproduce reality with photographic precision, neutrally and without structure and emphasis; he was also the coinventor of the technique known as Sekundenstil, which meticulously registers every detail and change in an event “from second to second.” On the stage, this technique is manifest in the seemingly unedited, undramatic dialogue, enabling dramatic time and performance time to coincide.

Holz’s theoretical writings on lyric poetry have a certain permanent value insofar as he was the first theorist in Germany to break with the old notion of metrics; in a broader perspective, he pioneered the quest for the “essential” innate laws of artistic materials, a quest which Impressionism, Expressionism, abstract art, Surrealism, and all modern art movements have pursued. He was wrong, however, in believing that his Mittelachsenlyrik (central-axis lyrics) would be the one universal form of all future poetry. Despite feeble attempts at imitation by other poets, including Rainer Maria Rilke, this central-axis poetry never became generally accepted, and today it is regarded as an interesting but merely idiosyncratic approach.

Recent critical appreciation has shifted from Holz’s Naturalist contributions to the elaborate later versions of his great lyric masterpiece Phantasus (the short proto-Phantasus, 1898, although considerably less brilliant, has both intrinsic and hermeneutic value). This work did not, however, fulfill Holz’s ambition to create a work which would be for the twentieth century what Homer’s epics were for classical antiquity, or what Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) was for the Middle Ages. Dafnis, written in the language and style of late-sixteenth century Baroque poetry, although generally acclaimed for its antiquarian virtuosity, seems thematically limited to a kind of Naturalist pansexualism. Buch der Zeit expresses the new Zeitgeist within traditional forms.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Burns, Rob. The Quest for Modernity: The Place of Arno Holz in Modern German Literature. Bern, Germany: Lang, 1981. A critical study of Holz’s work. Includes bibliographic references.

Domandi, Agnes, ed. Modern German Literature. New York: Ungar, 1972. Includes a short biographical and critical essay on Holz and his work.

McFarlane, J. W. “Arno Holz’s ‘Die Sozialaristokraten’: A Study.” Modern Language Review 44, no. 4 (October, 1949): 521-533. A critical assessment of a poem by Holz.

Oeste, Robert. Arno Holz: The Long Poem and the Tradition of Poetic Experiment. Bonn, Germany: Bouvier, 1982. An analysis of the poetic works of Holz and the historical background of epic and experimental poetry. Includes an index and a bibliography.

Wrasidlo, Barbara J. The Politics of German Naturalism: Holz, Sudermann, and Hauptmann. Ph.D. thesis. San Diego: University of California, 1986. Examines Naturalism in the works of Holz, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Hermann Sudermann.