Other Literary Forms
Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s outstanding poetry forms only a very small portion of his literary legacy. During the 1890’s, when his best poems were written, editions of his early lyric plays also appeared. They include Gestern (1891), Der Tor und der Tod (pb. 1894; Death and the Fool, 1913), Die Hochzeit der Sobeide (pr., pb. 1899; The Marriage of Sobeide, 1913), and Theater in Versen (1899). After 1900, he devoted most of his creative energy to the stage and published more than twenty additional books of dramatic writings before his death. Such works as Elektra (pr. 1903; Electra, 1908), Jedermann (pr., pb. 1911; Everyman, 1917), Der Schwierige (pb. 1920; The Difficult Man, 1963), and Das Salzburger Grosse Welttheater (pr., pb. 1922; The Salzburg Great Theatre of the World, 1958) became very popular. Hofmannsthal achieved his greatest theatrical success, however, as librettist for the operas of Richard Strauss. Because of his lyric virtuosity, Electra, which he revised for Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier (pr., pb. 1911; The Cavalier of the Rose, 1912; also known as The Rose Bearer), and Arabella (1933; English translation, 1955) received lasting acclaim. Hofmannsthal also wrote a few excellent short stories, parts of a novel, scenarios for several ballets, and more than two hundred essays, all of which have been published. Since his death, his notebooks and diaries have been edited, as have some twenty volumes of his extensive correspondence.
Unlike most poets, Hugo von Hofmannsthal did not go through a period of gradual literary development leading to eventual mature control of his art. Rather, he emerged at the beginning of his career as an accomplished lyricist and immediately became an enigma to the Austrian literary establishment. His earliest poems quickly caught the attention of critics and writers alike, especially the young Viennese moderns. His combination of youth and poetic genius was unparalleled in German letters, and many of his contemporaries found it very hard to reconcile the artistic power of his works with the teenage poet who had written them.
Among those most impressed with the young Hofmannsthal’s creative facility was Stefan George. Much of Hofmannsthal’s poetry appeared for the first time in Blätter für die Kunst, the literary organ of George and his circle. As a result, Hofmannsthal is often associated with the German Symbolists. Although he shared with George the desire to achieve the greatest possible perfection and purification of literary language and expression, his own lyrics are far more closely related to those of his friends Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, and Richard Beer-Hofmann. As a part of this group, Hofmannsthal mediated ideas and prosody from a broad range of European models and traditions, created some of the most sensitive poems in modern German literature, and received acclaim in his own time as the greatest of the German Impressionists.
Hofmannsthal resisted the idea of compiling his poetry until years after he had turned his creative attention almost exclusively to drama. Only two collections were published in his lifetime, yet during a brief decade he had contributed to Austrian literature poems of beauty unequaled in the German language since the time of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The wider recognition that he later enjoyed as a dramatist and librettist came in no small measure as a result of his utter mastery of poetic language and lyric technique.
The only son of a Viennese bank director, Hugo Laurenz August Hofmann Edler von Hofmannsthal came from a mixed heritage of Austrian, Italian, and German-Jewish elements which were vitally important to his cultural and intellectual development. He was educated by private tutors until he was ten; then he entered secondary school in Vienna. An avid reader, he assimilated an astounding amount of knowledge in a very short time. His precocious intellect set him apart from the young people around him, contributing to a sense of loneliness that remained with him throughout his life.
In 1890, Hofmannsthal published his first poem, “Frage,” under the pseudonym “Loris Melikow.” That summer, he became acquainted with the actor Gustav Schwarzkopf, who introduced him to Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, and Felix Salten. Within the next few months, Hofmannsthal published additional poems, his first essay, and his first lyric play, Gestern, in periodicals in Vienna and Berlin.
One of three important friendships that strongly influenced Hofmannsthal’s creative career began in December, 1891, when he met Stefan George, who had come to Vienna to seek him out. A productive, if often stormy, relationship with George lasted for fifteen years and generated a correspondence which in its significance for German literature has been compared to that between Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Although Hofmannsthal initially felt comfortable in George’s group, differences in temperament and creative outlook caused severe tension. Hofmannsthal soon removed himself from active participation in George’s literary ventures, even though their association did not break off completely until 1906.
During the 1890’s, Hofmannsthal traveled extensively, met a variety of people, and set patterns that informed the remainder of his life. His first trip to Venice in 1892 was of special importance for his work as a whole. Venice became his second home and the setting for some of his later dramas. In 1892, he enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he briefly studied law. Between 1895 and 1899, he successfully completed a doctoral program in Romance philology. The late 1890’s were especially productive years. While in Italy in 1897, he composed more than two thousand lines of poetry and lyric drama in one two-week period. By 1900, he had already written and staged several plays.
After marrying Gertrud Schlesinger in 1901, Hofmannsthal moved to Rodaun. During the years that followed, he devoted his time to mastering the drama, entering into enormously productive relationships with producer Max Reinhardt and composer Richard Strauss. In 1903, Reinhardt encouraged him to create a free rendition of Sophocles’ Electra (418-410 b.c.e.), the production of which brought Hofmannsthal his first major theatrical success. After the play attracted the attention of Strauss, Hofmannsthal revised it, creating a libretto which when set to music was even more successful than the original drama. During the next twenty-three years, the two artists collaborated in the creation of five additional operas and several ballets.
For Hofmannsthal, World War I and the death of the old Austrian regime were a personal disaster from which he never recovered. After the war, he dedicated himself to the revival of Austrian and German culture. In 1917, he participated in the founding of the famous Salzburg Festival, and in the early 1920’s he edited and published several collections of writings by earlier authors. Beginning in 1920, however, his health began to fail, and he suffered recurring illness until his death. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage two days after the tragic suicide of his older son Franz.
In the essay “Der Dichter und diese Zeit” (“The Poet and This Time”), written in 1907, Hugo von Hofmannsthal outlined the key concepts which informed his poems. From his perspective, the principal responsibility of the modern poet was to provide the reader with access to the whole spectrum of human experience. If nothing else, Hofmannsthal’s poetry reflects his overriding desire to participate in and become a part of everything that he saw, felt, or dreamed, and to share with others the intensity of his impressions of life. He envisioned the poet as one who unites past, present, and future into an eternal “now,” recording, preserving, and analyzing everything that moves his era. A human seismograph that responds to living realities, the poet awakens his audience to the inner meaning of their own unexamined experience.
Hofmannsthal’s view of the poet’s relationship to his times explains the diversity of his lyric creations and the complexity of themes, moods, and ideas that inform his literary art. His poems are like fragments of a vast mosaic, in which each carefully positioned element exposes the beholder to a small yet powerful aspect of the human condition. Hofmannsthal sought to reveal the broad range of possibilities to be found or generated within the individual, while moving people in the direction of cogent answers to basic existential questions: What is man? How can man perceive his own nature and actively create, refine, and perfect the features of his unique inner world? He did not wish to impose upon the reader a finished worldview but rather to offer raw materials, tools, and stimuli that might enable another person to awaken, expand, and mold his own perceptions. While giving direction to those searching for meaning, he sounded the abyss of his own soul, exposing to the public eye the sensitive observations, the multicolored dreams, and the speculative visions that constituted his innermost self. The poems thus engendered reflect his encounters with beauty and loneliness interwoven with feelings of love and defiance, with landscapes, people, and the material things of external reality.
As an Impressionist, Hofmannsthal sought a faithful reproduction of subjective sensual experience and precisely noted mood. His lyrics are remarkable for their acute awareness of the incidental, the transitory, the matchless spiritual state in all its peculiarities and narrow differentiations, nuances, shades,...