(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

In the preface to the first issue of Blätter für die Kunst, Stefan George defined artistic goals for the journal that gave direction to his own poetry for the rest of his career. With its high literary standards, its personally selected group of contributors, and its carefully formulated program, Blätter für die Kunst was intended to be a force in the creation of a new German poetry. Its express purpose, specifically reflecting George’s perception of his own poetic calling, was to foster a newly refined and spiritual form of literature based on a rejuvenation of classical ideals and a revival of pure literary language. Poetry thus engendered was to be a manifestation of a new way of feeling, furthering the quest for permanent values while rejecting any idea of literature as simple diversion, political instrument, or vehicle for naturalistic social criticism. George’s ultimate goal was to provide artistic leadership for a generation that would build a new humanistic society embodying Platonic ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty. Everything that George wrote was directed toward the accomplishment of these purposes.

Intimate association with the French Symbolists in Paris was the formative experience of George’s career. It provided him with models for his approach and technique, ideas concerning the poet’s role in life, and a starting point for the lifelong exploration of his own poetic nature and its delineation in his works. From Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine, he learned to view the poet as a mediator between phenomena and literary art, who describes his perceptions using symbolism that is understood completely only by the poet himself. Through his symbolic creation, the poet thus isolates himself in a world to which his own spiritual identity provides the key, a key that the reader must seek in the poem. In this regard, it is important to understand that George completely rejected the idea of identity between the poetic and the personal self. The progressive revelations in his lyrics of the poet’s role in life are therefore idealizations rather than reflections of experience.

A clearly defined process of strengthening, refinement, and crystallization of the poet’s role emerges in the cycles that document George’s development. His Odes, which belong within the frame of traditional idealism, examine such themes as the tension between reason and feeling, change as a basic force in life, and unhappy love and death; therein is revealed a personal struggle with self-examination and doubt. In Algabal, however, there is a new sense of personal validity; the title figure symbolizes the exclusive artist who creates a private realm in isolation from nature. A further objectification of poetic self appears in the prologue to The Tapestry of Life, in the figure of an angel. This alter ego of the poet appears not as a heavenly messenger but as a representative of life, announcing the colorful fabric of the artistic yet puzzling order of existence. George’s attempts to refine and perfect the revelation of his poetic identity culminate in the Maximin poems of The Seventh Ring and The Star of the Covenant, in which Maximin becomes the ultimate symbol for the desired perfect fusion of body and spirit in self-awareness.

Central to George’s view of the social role of the poet was the idea that the poet enjoys the special position of “master” within a circle of devoted disciples. This principle, which he saw modeled in the salon of Mallarmé, had significant impact on his poetry and the conduct of his personal life. The relationship of the poet to his disciples is reflected in poems dedicated to close friends and associates in The Books of Eclogues and Eulogies, of Legends and Lays, and of the Hanging Gardens and other cycles. It is also evident in the consistent emergence of the symbolic poet as a teacher figure. This casting of the poet in the role of educator is readily visible in poems from The Year of the Soul and in the “Zeitgedichte” (“Time Poems”) section of The Seventh Ring, where the poet-teacher gives specific directions to his contemporaries, suggesting appropriate models for them to emulate. Developed to its ultimate in The Kingdom Come, the poet’s role as teacher becomes that of a prophet who judges the age and sounds a warning.

From the standpoint of technique and approach, George considered the revitalization, refinement, and purification of literary language to be the most important aspect of his creative task. He protested against the debasement of language, advocating a revival of pure rhyme and meter with precise arrangement of vowels and consonants to achieve harmony in a distinctly musical poetic form. Creation of language became a basic principle of his writing. He followed the pattern of Mallarmé and rejected everyday words. Stressing the importance of sound and internal melody in his poems, he formed new, musically resonant words and imbued his verses with rich vowels, assonances, alliteration, and double rhymes. George’s perception of the spoken and the written word as embodiments of the reality of the world extended even to a regard for the importance of the visual impression created by printed forms. In order to offer language that was unusual in this respect, he developed a special typeface and modified traditional orthography and punctuation for his publications. George undertook all of these measures because he believed that language alone can open hidden levels of mind, soul, and meaning.

While progressively modifying French Symbolist and other external influences to suit his own purposes, George succeeded at least partially in creating the new German poetry toward which he was striving. Patterning his poems after Baudelaire’s perception of the symbolic structure of existence, he created works that reflected his personal attitudes of austerity and self-denial, while celebrating the ethical supremacy of the spirit over material existence. The poetic cycle became his characteristic form, and each of his collections exhibits the basic unity that it demands. In addition to genuine originality in the coining of words and in imagery, George’s poems typically feature colorful calmness of motion, sensually intense metaphors and symbols, and remarkable simplicity. The unaffected wording and ordering of lines in The Year of the Soul, for example, anticipate certain tendencies in Surrealism, while the smoothly flowing verses of the “Gezeiten” (“Tides”) section of The Seventh Ring and the utter clarity and lack of ambiguity in the poems of The Star of the Covenant reflect the complete creative control of words that George consistently demonstrated in his poetry. It is perhaps in that rare mastery of personal poetic language that George made his greatest contribution to German literature.

Even George’s earliest, less successful cycles...

(The entire section is 2862 words.)