The Poetry of Hofmannsthal Critical Essays

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

All efforts to classify Hugo von Hofmannsthal as a member of a period or a literary school have failed. Terms such as romantic symbolist, neoclassicist, neo-romanticist, expressionist, aesthetician, mystic, or naturalist may all be partially true, but they are still insufficient to encompass his work. His success as a librettest for Richard Strauss operas has obscured his even greater contributions as a poet. Followers of literary fashions tended to ignore Hofmannsthal, who refused to be typified. The turn of the century “melting pot” atmosphere of Vienna—German, Italian, Slavic, Jewish—and Hofmannsthal’s own Jewish, German, and Italian parentage had considerable influence on his development. He was open to all manifestations of his surroundings, including all new literary trends. Needless to say, the psychological findings by his famous fellow Viennese citizens, most notably Freud, Jung, and Adler, were among those influences.

Hofmannsthal was born in 1874. During his last three years in high school he published his first poems under a pen name. As a student at the University of Vienna he had already gained fame as a poetical “Wunderkind.” Under his pen name, Loris, he became a member of the habitues in Vienna’s literary coffee-houses.

His early age was also his major period of poetic writings. The poems express some of the anguish of Goethe’s well known lament: “. . . If pain forbids a man to talk, God gave me the gift to speak.”

Many truly down below must perishWhere the heavy oars of ships arepassing;Others by the helm up there havedwelling,Know the flight of birds and starrycountries.

In the same poem the young Hofmannsthal also indicates his recognition of the interdependence of all things.

I can never cast off from my eyelidsLassitudes of long-forgotten peoples,Nor from my astounded soul can banishSoundless fall of stars through outerdistance.Many destinies with mine are woven;Living plays them all through one an-other,And my part is larger than this slenderLife’s ascending flame or narrow lyre.

In a Vienna coffeehouse he met Stefan George; a friendship developed, which led to his contribution in a literary magazine (“Blaetter fuer die Kunst”) published by George. George was greatly impressed by Hofmannsthal and wrote him: “You and I could have exercised a most beneficial dictatorship in literature for many years,” yet Hofmannsthal refused to become a follower of George’s strict concept of art for art’s sake, and he did not share the loyalty of George’s disciples known as the “George Circle.” The second meeting with George ended in an argument and a request for a duel by George. Later he was again invited by George to make contributions to his magazine, but in 1906 the correspondence came to an end. Hofmannsthal was too eager to study new developments to be concerned by only one literary point of view. Like Goethe before him, he tried to interpret his environment in terms of all available knowledge; however, the pace of expanding knowledge in Hofmannsthal’s time had accelerated to such a degree that any effort to obtain a true universal knowledge was bound to fail. His intensive readings of contemporary authors were not used to fortify a personal point of view, but rather to absorb more manifestations of the complexity of life. He did not build an...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)