Stefan George was probably the strongest defender in Germany of the art for art’s sake thesis, and his sense of the aesthetic was strong enough to lead him to write his first poems in an invented language, a lingua romana similar to Spanish. He disregarded the German rule of grammar that calls for capitalization of all nouns. The resulting loss in reading speed was a most desired effect for the author because he wanted his readers to note that individual words were artistic instruments that may evoke as many, or more, emotions as the colors of a painter’s palette. For many years, he printed his books privately, and they were not offered to the public until 1899.
In 1890, George published his first series of poems. With the title of the first poem, “Initiation,” he indicates his awareness of his radical departure from the literary mainstream and of his poetry’s limited appeal to an audience used to naturalism: “The river calls! Defiant reeds unfurl/ Their slender banners to the languid breeze/ And check the coaxing ripples as they swirl/ To mossy shores in tender galaxies.”
The author surrounded himself with a small treasured circle of devoted friends. Most of his works carry dedications; that of his next work, Pilgrimages, was written for the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, although that friendship, as the poem anticipates, never matured: “Then I journeyed forth/ And became a stranger,/ And I sought for some one/ To share my mournfulness,/ And there was no one.”
In Hymns and Pilgrimages, George illuminates the conflict between his poetic ideals and the baseness of everyday life. For his next work he used earlier historical periods and Asia as times and places for escape from the unpleasant realities of the present. Algabal, written in Paris in 1892, is his personal interpretation of a Roman emperor who moves in a world of time-removed serenity and passionate feelings. George’s sense of remoteness, however, never excluded his knowledge of the “mystical body of Christ” inherited from his Catholic childhood in a small town in the German Rhineland: “For I, the one, comprise the multitude.”
The Books of Eclogues and Eulogies, of Legends and Lays, and of the Hanging Gardens indicates a turn toward tranquillity; the wanderer once in desperate search for beauty finds it in his own backyard.
Struck with amazement, as though we were entering a regionFrostbound when last we had seen it, yet now full of flowers,We, who felt old and sorrowful, gazed at each other,And our reflections were fused in the river below us.
The Year of the Soul, probably George’s best-known book, indicates that the author no longer needed to search for remote backgrounds; an old park is sufficient for the description of images symbolizing the principles of nature and love. Beginning with autumn, the...
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