August Stramm Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

August Stramm 1874-1915

German dramatist and poet.

The following entry presents information on the life and works of Stramm from 1916 to 1985.

Although he was relatively unknown in European literary circles during most of his lifetime, Stramm is now considered a leader of the avant-garde in German literature of his era. From the time his work began appearing in Der Sturm in 1913, to the end of his life on a World War I battlefield in 1915, Stramm became known for an unconventional and experimental use of language in drama and poetry that placed his works at the vanguard of the German expressionist movement.

Biographical Information

Born July 29, 1874, Stramm's role as a radical poet and dramatist in early twentieth-century European literature was hardly foreshadowed by his unremarkable, middle-class upbringing. His father, a railway official, strongly encouraged him to pursue a career in the German Postal Administration, while his mother would have preferred he become a priest. By age twenty, Stramm had begun a promising career in the German postal service, and by 1909, he had earned a Ph.D. from the University of Halle and had achieved a significant degree of success in his professional field. In 1902, Stramm began to write his first play. Throughout the next decade, he continued to write drama and poetry but faced regular rejection from publishers. In 1913, however, he met Herwarth Walden, editor of the expressionist magazine Der Sturm. Walden championed Stramm's unique literary voice and promoted his work through frequent publication in Der Sturm and by introducing him to other writers and artists who were pursuing modernist techniques and literary theories. The same year, when he was nearly forty, Stramm was made a captain in the Prussian Army. His World War I experiences became a significant influence on both theme and structure in his poetry, and many of his best-known works were written while he was serving active duty on the frontlines of the war. After surviving more than seventy battles, Stramm was killed during an attack in Russia on September 1, 1915.

Major Works

Although Stramm's literary career began as a playwright, he is perhaps best known in the twenty-first century for his poems, which were published in two collections: Du: Liebesgedichte (Thou: Love Poems, 1915), and Tropfblut (Drip-Blood, 1919). Although he was involved in the early stages of planning for the publication of his first volume of poems, he died before the book was in print. Characterized by his streamlined, minimalist approach to language, these poems are expressions of his exploration of love's many faces, and yet, as critic Karin von Abrams has pointed out, only the subtitle of the volume strongly indicates that love is to be considered the “governing theme” of the collection. The poems contained in Drip-Blood exemplify Stramm's evolving style of focusing on individual words and personifying abstract concepts through the manipulation of syntax and the use of such structural elements as one-word lines. These later works exerted a “frequently staccato” effect, writes critic Jeremy Adler.

Stramm saw a number of his poems published in the literary magazine Der Sturm, but he did not live to see either the publication of his volumes of poetry or the performance of any of his plays, several of which, including Die Haidebraut (The Bride of the Moor, 1914) and Sancta Susanna, (1914) were in print before his death. Der Sturm editor Walden oversaw the posthumous publication of the poems and several more plays.

Critical Reception

Stramm received very little critical attention during his lifetime. He was known to a relatively small circle of literary peers and, until after his death, his works appeared only in the literary journal Der Sturm, which was itself a vehicle for experimental works not yet received into the cultural mainstream. During the eighteen months he was associated with Der Sturm, however, Stramm's works appeared in the journal more often than those of any other writer in the magazine's history. In the months following his death, as Walden published and promoted Stramm's works, his contemporaries began to consider Stramm a poet and dramatist whose unique voice, though silenced through the violence of war, would become influential in the emerging expressionist movement in Germany. In his very precise use of language, nothing was written that did not need to be written, and when existing words were not accurate enough for Stramm, he invented new ones. Following his death, his unconventional approach to creative expression was recognized by an English-speaking literary peer, Edward J. O'Brien, who wrote in the American journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, “Stramm gave poetry a new method. … His gift to imaginative literature was just beginning to be perceived.” Although his literary output was limited, later critics concur that Stramm—a postal service bureaucrat who was married with children, who pursued gentle hobbies as an amateur painter and cellist, and who was dismayed and yet fascinated by the horrors of war—forged a significant, though unlikely, role as a literary figure whose works influenced the Dada movement in western Europe and anticipated the techniques of modern poetry.