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Radical, Modern Hofmannsthal

Hulton Archive/Imagno/Getty Images
Hugo von Hofmannsthal, circa 1910


From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, many young men and women would go through a spell of writing lyric poetry in late adolescence, abandoning the practice forever when they reached the age of reason around twenty-one years old. However, those who failed to persist beyond their early twenties never achieved great fame as poets, with two remarkable exceptions at the end of the nineteenth century: Arthur Rimbaud, who composed some of the most memorable verse of his time from the age of fourteen to twenty-one between 1868 and 1875, after which he renounced literature for the rest of his life; and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who dazzled Viennese literary society with a series of lyric poems published under the pseudonym Loris, written from the age of sixteen to twenty-four (1890 to 1898), at which point he permanently ceased to write lyric poetry, with a few insignificant and incidental exceptions.

He did not quit literature, however, but remained a major figure in the cultural life of Vienna as a brilliant critic and a dramatist, with an international fame chiefly due to his opera librettos for Richard Strauss. A recent selection of his work, The Whole Difference, offers some new translations and some old ones from an earlier collection, including a few pages of verse, two plays, one act of the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier, and a number of essays. The poetry of both Rimbaud and Hofmannsthal is now permanently in the literary canon today, represented in bulk by every anthology of nineteenth-century French or German poetry.

They were very different. Arthur Rimbaud was a scruffy boy from a poor family in Charleville, a small town in the north of France, who generally dressed in rags, rarely washed, and became known above all for his flamboyant misbehavior in public and his homosexual liaison with the somewhat older poet Paul Verlaine. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the elegant son of a wealthy banker, with two Jewish grandparents in his recently ennobled family, was educated at the most fashionable and elite high school of Vienna. They had much in common, nevertheless—classical studies, to begin with. When he was fourteen, Rimbaud, who won first prize in school for every subject except mathematics, displayed an extraordinary talent for writing Latin verse, as well as a mastery of the traditional styles of French poetry (one must acknowledge the high standard of classical studies in French high schools even in provincial small towns). Hofmannsthal concentrated on Greek, and his most impressive early works in this field were translations and free adaptations of Sophocles and Euripides.

Rimbaud’s ambition was above all to leave the suffocating provincial atmosphere of his hometown and to become part of the literary life of the capital. Arriving penniless in Paris, he astonished the members of the most advanced literary circle with his imitations of their work, sometimes mocking as well as serious. His poetry soon displayed an expansive vocabulary, far beyond the range of the usual literary lexicon. Later he would claim that poetry will have to be written in a new language. In an excellent new biography, one of the best so far in English, Edmund White declares roundly that “Rimbaud invented modern poetry.”1 As Rimbaud’s fame continued to grow after his death, he was triumphantly hailed by the Surrealists as their precursor (but for the Surrealists, violating the decorum of language was as much a game as an expression of anxiety).

Rimbaud redefined the nature of poetic meaning. “Before Rimbaud, poetry had to make sense,” Paul Valéry remarked, when the late work was finally made known, and predicted that people would erect monuments to him. “Poetry is not a form of communication,” Valéry wrote later, when discussing the Symbolist period in French literature. A provocative observation, of course—nevertheless, when one has received a telegram and understood its message, one can throw away the telegram, which no longer has much value; but when one has grasped the sense of a poem, its interest is far from exhausted and has sometimes only begun. Rimbaud initiated the modernist attempt to isolate the intensely poetic effect from the effort to communicate information. In his last works, he went further than anyone else before him in dislocating the translatable content of poetry from its total impact. His influence has continued unabated, not only throughout French poetry, but also in American poetry from Hart Crane to John Ashbery.

Hofmannsthal was able very early to publish his poems and essays pseudonymously in literary magazines. When he turned up one day in the most important literary meeting-place in Vienna, the Café Griensteidl, he had already built up a formidable reputation. Established writers like Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig were astonished that this seventeen-year-old in short pants was the author of poems and essays they had presumed to be by a much older man. Schnitzler, the major Austrian dramatist of the time, wrote about a reading by the young Hofmannsthal of some of his work:

We had never heard verses of such perfection, such faultless plasticity, such musical feeling, from any living being, nor had we thought them possible since Goethe.

Certainly, it must have been difficult to live up to that reputation. It is true that the greatest influence from German literature on the lyric poetry of Hofmannsthal was Goethe, generally as disastrous a model as Shakespeare, but Hofmannsthal’s success was astonishing. As for more recent writing, however, his work showed an experience of French Symbolism. The editor of the anthology The Whole Difference, J.D. McClatchy, writes:

The German poet Stefan George sought him out at the Griensteidl, trying to add another disciple to his circle of devotees, all of whom worshiped at the altar of symbolism. But George found that the young Hofmannsthal already knew the work of Swinburne and Pater, Baudelaire and Mallarmé….

In fact, he sent the teenager bouquets of flowers at his high school, to the indignation of Hofmannsthal’s father.

At that time, the new French poetry dominated the work of the avant-garde in German lands, and both Rainer Maria Rilke and George wrote some poetry in French of varying quality. Many years later, toward the end of his life, Hofmannsthal appreciatively characterized the poetic revolution in France of the late nineteenth century as the most radical change of style in French literature for three hundred years:

The secret life of language, on which the most intimate vitality of the nation depends, readied itself for defense. The old battle led in the sixteenth century by the Pléiade—the battle for a free syntax, for sharper and more complexly significant metaphors, for a merger with the music of the time—, we see this renewed at the end of the nineteenth century. Mallarmé is the great doctrinaire leader of this movement (but his doctrine is like his poetry, consummated in suggestion, and in it reigns the elimination of precision, of pragmatic connections, and the effect is all the greater and more durable). However, before Mallarmé go Baudelaire and Rimbaud, with the majestic stream and secret polyphony of the one and the savage violation of conventions of the other; with both of them there is a movement of poetry into the kingdom of music that makes them brothers to Mallarmé. For he was almost as much musician as poet: in composition, it is hard to discover any distinction between him and Debussy.


Rimbaud never explained his abandoning literature (he did not need to: he had had no popular success during his short productive years, almost nothing had been printed, and he was without money). But Hofmannsthal famously did, in 1902, with a short prose work, “A Letter,” that was soon recognized as a fundamental document of modernism. It casts light on the dazzling achievement and the renunciation of poetry by both Rimbaud and Hofmannsthal and on the tumultuous history of modern literature, art, and music.

It is not a tract but a short narrative that has no parallel elsewhere in literature, as far as I can see. It presents itself as a letter sent to the philosopher Francis Bacon in 1603 by a young English aristocrat, Lord Philip Chandos, explaining how he gradually became aware that he would never be able to write anything in the future. Generally called “The Chandos Letter,” it became Hofmannsthal’s best-known work, rivaled only by the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier.

A Letter”2 is a detailed account of the progressively developing sense of alienation that was an important aspect of modernist style, and that motivated the rejection by so many writers and artists of conventional forms of expression. It is all the more persuasive as it is not couched as a theoretical exposition, but as a work of historical fiction. It begins with the young Lord Chandos’s grandiose literary ambition, an encyclopedic work:

In those days I, in a state of continuous intoxication, conceived the whole of existence as one great unit: the spiritual and physical worlds seemed to form no contrast, as little as did courtly and bestial conduct, art and barbarism, solitude and society; in everything I felt the presence of Nature, in the aberrations of insanity as much as in the utmost refinement of the Spanish ceremonial; in the boorishness of young peasants no less than in the most delicate of allegories, and in all expressions of Nature I felt myself.

His faith in language gradually wanes, and he writes, “I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently.” This loss started with a distaste for familiar abstract words, like

spirit, soul, or body…. The abstract terms of which the tongue must avail itself as a matter of course to voice a judgment—these terms crumbled in my mouth like rotting mushrooms.

Chandos continues to lead his social life, and, in the midst of his anguish, there are “gay and stimulating moments,” but of a strange character:

Once again words desert me. For it is, indeed, something entirely unnamed, even barely nameable which, at such moments, reveals itself to me, filling like a vessel any casual object of my daily surroundings with an overflowing flood of higher life…. A pitcher, a harrow abandoned in a field, a dog in the sun, a neglected cemetery, a cripple, a peasant’s hut—all these can become the vessel of my revelation. Each of these objects and a thousand others similar, over which the eye usually glides with a natural indifference, can suddenly, at any moment (which I am utterly powerless to evoke), assume for me a character so exalted and moving that words seem too poor to describe it.

The most astonishing point of “A Letter” follows hard upon this. Chandos had given an order to spread rat poison in his dairy cellars, and goes riding in the country:

There suddenly loomed up before me the vision of that cellar, resounding with the death struggle of a mob of rats. I felt everything within me: the cool, musty air of the cellar filled with the sweet and pungent reek of poison, and the yelling of the death cries breaking against the moldering walls; the vain convulsions of those convoluted bodies as they tear about in confusion and despair…. But why seek again for words which I have forsworn! You remember, my friend, the wonderful description in Livy of the hours preceding the destruction of Alba Longa: when the crowds stray aimlessly through the streets which they are to see no more…. I carried this vision within me, and the vision of burning Carthage, too; but there was more, something more divine, more bestial, and it was the Present, the fullest, most exalted Present….

Forgive this description, but do not think that it was pity I felt. For if you did, my example would have been poorly chosen. It was far more and far less than pity: an immense sympathy, a flowing over into these creatures, or a feeling that an aura of life and death, of dreams and wakefulness, had flowed for a moment into them—but whence? For what had it to do with pity, or with any comprehensible concatenation of human thought when, on another evening, on finding beneath a nut tree a half-filled pitcher…and the water in it, darkened by the shadow of the tree, and a beetle swimming on the surface from shore to shore—when this combination of trifles sent through me such a shudder at the presence of the Infinite, a shudder running from the roots of my hair to the marrow of my heels?

  1. 1

    Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel (Atlas, 2009).

  2. 2

    I have altered the translation in a very few places. See also The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg and with an introduction by John Banville (New York Review Books, 2005).

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