Hans Magnus Enzensberger Analysis

Other Literary Forms

Hans Magnus Enzensberger has worked in a wide variety of literary forms. His doctoral dissertation, Clemens Brentanos Poetik (1961; Clemens Brentano’s poetics), completed in 1955, is a central piece of Brentano scholarship. As the founder and editor (now coeditor) of the leftist journal Kursbuch (begun in 1965), Enzensberger exercised a substantial influence as a cultural critic on several fronts. Versed in eight languages, he has been a prolific translator of foreign poets and an astute editor of their works. He has written numerous essays and nonfiction works on politics, poetics, and social issues, as well as experimental fiction, drama, and works for radio and television.


Hans Magnus Enzensberger has significantly influenced the course of German intellectual life and letters since he first appeared on the scene in 1957, and his works have been published in many languages. His career has been distinguished by several honors and literary awards. In 1956, he received the Hugo-Jacobi Prize; in 1962, the literary prize of the Union of German Critics for his critical poems; and in 1963, the treasured Georg Büchner Prize. In 1967, the city of Nuremberg honored him with its cultural award for having represented Germany “in a manner so urgently necessary to counteract the clichéd image of neo-German fanaticism within the Federal Republic.” Also in 1967, he received the Etna-Taormina International Poetry Prize. In 1982 he won the Premio Pasolini, in 1985 the Heinrich Böll Prize, and in 1987 the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts Award.

Early Poetry

Looking for the larger contours in the development of Enzensberger’s poetry, it is instructive to speak of three different phases. The first phase includes the volumes Verteidigung der Wölfe, Landessprache, and Blindenschrift (braille). Here, Enzensberger tried to “determine the situation, not to offer prognoses or horoscopes.” He sharply criticized current conditions, revealing an aesthetic intelligence and an artistic mastery that had at its command a legion of traditional and modern forms and literary techniques. As a political poet in the vein of Heine and Brecht, Enzensberger did much to resuscitate the political poem. Finally, this phase of his poetry demonstrates his rebellious anger and scorn, as well as his dogmatic skepticism.

In these early volumes, one finds a mixture of Brecht’s “public” and Benn’s “private” poetry. From Brecht, Enzensberger learned the nature of political poetry and how to put it across, while from Benn he learned a basic method of composition, the notion of “prismatic infantilism,” the use of concatenated imagery. Enzensberger’s satire is often in the vein of W. H. Auden. In Blindenschrift, in particular, Enzensberger exhibits a strong concentration on particulars, a new sort of detail, along with lyrical grace and simplicity.

The 1960’s and 1970’s

In Enzensberger’s second phase, his poetry receded into the background. These were the years (roughly from 1965 to the early 1970’s) when Enzensberger pursued political theory and action and, at one point, polemically called the whole industry of literature into question. He devoted himself to “factual” literature, to the documentary form then very much in vogue in West Germany. He concentrated as well on polemical essays that came to make his Kursbuch so controversial.

In the early 1970’s, however, Enzensberger returned to poetry. This shift coincided with a renewed interest in the study of history, explicit in recent volumes such as Mausoleum, The Sinking of the Titanic, and Die Furie des Verschwindens (the fury of passing). Here, Enzensberger understands and portrays history in its dialectical dimensions. He locates and concentrates on historical moments during which “the exploitation of science [becomes] the science of exploitation.” Frequently, his poetic history of scientific and technological progress focuses on instances of moral regression. It is particularly in these respects that Enzensberger’s “philosophy of life” has come to resemble that of Gottfried Benn.

The Sinking of the Titanic

One of Enzensberger’s finest works is his epic poem The Sinking of the Titanic, which he himself translated into English in 1980. This poem reveals much about Enzensberger’s attitudes toward poetry, toward history, and toward his own growth and change during the last decade.

Enzensberger began writing The Sinking of the Titanic while in Cuba in 1968-1969 but finished it much later, in 1977, in Berlin, after having lost the original manuscript during one of his many travels. While tracing the history of a work’s composition is often the task of scholarly research, here it is made part of the poem itself. Enzensberger weaves an intricate and polychromatic fabric in his text, creating a kind of space-time continuum in which the catastrophe of the Titanic and his writing about it are simultaneously enacted and represented, explicated and documented, anticipated and recalled, on the various primary, secondary, and tertiary stages which the thirty-three cantos and the sixteen interpolated poems provide.

The structure of the work, as well as its subtitle, “A Comedy,” refer directly to Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). Enzensberger fuses different historical moments and psychological states to form the distinctive texture of the poem: the historical incident of the 1912 catastrophe; the...

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Demetz, Peter. Postwar German Literature: A Critical Introduction. New York: Pegasus, 1970. This basic text remains a useful examination of German postwar authors in the context of their times.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. Hans Magnus Enzensberger in Conversation with Michael Hulse and John Kinsella. London: Between the Lines, 2002. A lengthy interview with Enzensberger, a career sketch, a comprehensive bibliography, and excerpts from critics and interviewers.

Falkenstein, Henning. Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Berlin: Colloquium-Verlag, 1977. A brief biography, in German.

Fischer, Gerhard, ed. Debating Enzensberger: “Great Migration” and “Civil War.” Tübingen: Stauffenberg, 1996. Papers delivered at the 1995 Sydney German Studies Symposium. Includes bibliographical references.

Kilian, Monika. Modern and Postmodern Strategies: Gaming and the Question of Morality—Adorno, Rorty, Oyotard, and Enzensberger. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Examines the debate between modern and postmodern thought, including the postmodern notion that “universalizing strategies of modern thought are cognitively and morally wrong,” with reference to these German writers. Bibliography, index.

Natan, Alex, and B. Keithsmith, eds. Essays on Lehmann, Kasack, Nossack, Eich, Gaiser, Böll, Celan, Bachmann, Enzensberger, East German Literature. Vol. 4 in German Men of Letters Literary Essays. New York: Berg, 1987. A collection of twelve essays, including analysis of Enzensberger in English.

Rim, Byung-Hee. Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Ein Paradigma der deutschen Lyrik seit Mitte der 1950er Jahre. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. An examination of Enzensberger’s poetics. In German.

Schickel, Joachim, ed. Über Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1970. A hefty biography (more than three hundred pages), including a bibliography of works by and about Enzensberger. In German.