Analysis

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963

The poetry which Stefan Zweig began writing at an early age, published in Die Gesellschaft, Die Zukunft, Die Welt, Deutsche Dichtung, and other newspapers, periodicals, and almanacs, was informed by the Zeitgeist of fin de siècle Vienna. The last decades of the moribund Habsburg empire, governed...

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The poetry which Stefan Zweig began writing at an early age, published in Die Gesellschaft, Die Zukunft, Die Welt, Deutsche Dichtung, and other newspapers, periodicals, and almanacs, was informed by the Zeitgeist of fin de siècle Vienna. The last decades of the moribund Habsburg empire, governed by a six-hundred-year-old dynasty, were characterized by a latter-day Weltschmerz, by overrefinement and an aesthetic cult of beauty expressive of an aloofness from the world’s pursuits, and by surface smiles masking a world-weary abandonment of political solutions. Zweig himself described these early efforts, impressionistic poems marked by preciosity, as “verses of vague premonition and instinctive feeling, not created out of my own experience, but rather born of a passion for language.” The same may be said of the astonishingly precocious poems of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who published his verse as a schoolboy under the pseudonym “Loris” and for whom Zweig always had admiration and affection, though it turned out to be a case of unrequited love. While Zweig’s early poems, however, are eminently lyrical and display great musicality as well as a certain mastery of form, they lack the psychological penetration, the poetic intuition, and the linguistic magic of Hofmannsthal’s poetry.

In 1900, Zweig wrote in a letter to Karl Emil Franzos: “I have published to date 150 or 200 poems, written double that number, and now have put together a volume under the title Silberne Saiten which contains 50, that is, a most stringent selection.” That volume appeared in February of 1901 with a dedication “to my dear parents.” It was well received, even by such established poets as Detlev von Liliencron, Richard Dehmel, and Rainer Maria Rilke. The Revue allemande noted that “a quiet, solemn beauty pervades the lines of this Young Vienna poet, a translucence rarely to be found in first works . . . Zweig is a virtuoso in technique; each single poem gives us fresh opportunity to enjoy the fineness of his diction, of immeasurable harmony and wealth of imagery.” A severe judgment, however, was rendered by Erich Mühsam, who rejected “a book that, with its obtrusive sickly sweetness and insipid exaggeration, would hardly be worth mentioning were it not typical of the pretentious manner which is spreading ever more widely through the Young Vienna movement and which seeks to impress by mere playing with form.” Even though Zweig had the satisfaction of seeing the eminent composer Max Reger set two of the poems from Silberne Saiten, “Neue Fülle” and “Ein Drängen ist in meinem Herzen,” he soon disowned this early poetry and refused to have it reprinted in later collections.

Die frühen Kränze

Some of the young Zweig’s characteristic feelings, themes, and stances (dreaming, longing, youthful ardor aiming at interpersonal relationships, evanescence, delicate autumnal and nocturnal moods, subtle transitions) are also in evidence in the poetry written in the early years of the twentieth century and published in Zweig’s second collection, Die frühen Kränze (the early wreaths), issued in 1906. This volume is notable, among other reasons, for marking Zweig’s first collaboration with the celebrated Insel Verlag. Here, Zweig presented his more mature, though still rather unoriginal poetry, with its cyclical form adumbrating the later grouping of a number of his prose works. Thus, the series “Fahrten” (journeys) includes poetic evocations of a sunrise in Venice (“Sonnenaufgang in Venedig”), nights on Lake Como (“Nächte am Comersee”), and the city of Constance (“Stadt am See”). The sequence “Lieder des Abends” (songs of evening) contains the euphoric “Lied des Einsiedels” (hermit’s song); the cycle “Frauen” (women) includes “Das fremde Lächeln” (a female stranger’s smile), “Die Zärtlichkeiten” (the caresses), and “Terzinen an ein Mädchen” (terze rima for a girl); and the cycle “Bilder” (images, or portraits) includes one of Zweig’s longest poems, “Der Verführer” (the seducer).

Die gesammelten Gedichte

Many of these and other groupings are included in the more ambitious collection of his poems which Zweig published in 1924. Its first section, “Musik der Jugend” (music of youth), presents a selection from the early poems. The cycle “Die Herren des Lebens” (the masters of life), placed toward the end of the volume, gathers eleven of what may be described as lyric statues. Notable among these is the only poem (or work of any kind) of which Zweig is known to have made a recording: “Der Bildner” (the sculptor). This poem memorializes Zweig’s visit to Maison Rodin at Meudon in 1913. He depicts the aged sculptor surrounded by his timeless and changeless works, those “frozen crystals of infinity,” and describes his astonishment in the petrified forest of his studio as he prayerfully comes to realize what his true mission is: to represent, shape, and complete something more permanent than he is, to create life beyond his own life. “Der Kaiser” is a poetic evocation of Emperor Franz Joseph, and “Der Dirigent” (the conductor) was written in memory of Gustav Mahler.

Two of the most powerful poems in this collection were born of Zweig’s vibrant pacifism. “Der Krüppel” (the cripple) is a sensitive poetic depiction of a war-injured man on crutches, and “Polyphem” evokes the mythical monster Polyphemus, the cannibalistic giant who comes under attack as the demon or bringer of war. The long “Ballade von einem Traum” (ballad of a dream), written after World War I, which concludes the Die gesammelten Gedichte, may be read as a highly personal allegory. In a nightmare, the poet feels that his vaunted private sphere has been invaded and his most secret self exposed. He reads the fiery handwriting on the wall: “Du bist erkannt!” (You are known!). Tormented by this revealing refrain, he finally awakes, grateful that his innermost thoughts have not, in fact, been betrayed and that his deepest self remains inviolate.

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