Hugo Laurenz August Hofmann Elder von Hofmannsthal was born on February 1, 1874, in Vienna. His father was a bank manager. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there was considerable social unrest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but Hofmannsthal enjoyed a sheltered and carefree childhood and youth. From an early age, he was exposed to the theater, to opera, and to other forms of art. From 1884 to 1892, he attended the prestigious Wiener Akademisches Gymnasium (academic high school). He was a brilliant student, particularly in languages and literature. At the age of twelve, he had read the German classics ( Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich von Kleist, and Franz Grillparzer). Three years later, he was acquainted with the works of Homer, Voltaire, Dante, William Shakespeare, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Robert Browning, all of which he read in the original languages. In 1890, he published his first poems under the nom de plume “Loris.” This pseudonym became known rapidly in the literary circles of Vienna, particularly in the famous Café Griensteidl. When Hofmannsthal was eventually introduced to the influential critic Hermann Bahr, the latter was astounded to meet a seventeen-year-old youth; given the intellectual maturity of Loris’s writings, he had expected to encounter a man in his forties.
Hofmannsthal’s precocious maturity was based primarily on reading, not on real, “lived” experiences. The accumulation of his vicarious experiences and their transmutation into literature eventually led to a human and artistic crisis. In his famous “Ein Brief” (“The Letter of Lord Chandos”), he described how the “presumptuousness of his intellect” had given way to dejection and feebleness, how he had lost the ability to speak and think coherently because he had lost faith in language itself. In this seminal work, half-story, half-essay, Hofmannsthal renounced lyric poetry.
From 1892 to 1894, Hofmannsthal studied law, and from 1895 to 1897, he studied Romance philology, both at the University of Vienna. In 1899, he earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation on the use of language by the poets of the Pléiade. From 1900 to 1901, he worked on a second dissertation (on Victor Hugo) with the aim of becoming a university professor. He abandoned this idea shortly afterward, however, and devoted the rest of his life to literature, to writing, editing, and translating. In 1901, he married Gertrud Schlesinger, and he purchased a house at Rodaun, near Vienna, where he continued to live until his death in 1929.
Hofmannsthal’s studies were interrupted by periods of military service, and when World War I broke out, he entered the Austrian army with the rank of an officer but was quickly reassigned to administrative duties at the Ministry of War in Vienna. The war inspired in Hofmannsthal a feeling of “Austrianness,” of patriotism, which resulted in a series of essays on Austrian (as differentiated from German) culture. He also edited a series of specifically Austrian literary, philosophical, and political texts, collectively entitled Die österreichische Bibliothek (1915-1917; the Austrian library).
The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 had a devastating emotional effect on Hofmannsthal. He felt as though the soil in which he was rooted had been washed away. In his view, the bond between the political and the cultural spheres had been cut, and he felt that traditional spiritual and intellectual values had been lost. During the last years of his life, he was increasingly worried about political and social conditions in Europe and Asia; he looked into the future with despair. The poet’s son Franz committed suicide on July 13, 1929. Two days later, Hugo von Hofmannsthal died of a heart attack.
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