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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?

The key point in this rendering of an inexpressible feeling of unity with the world outside is the extraordinary phrase: “there was more, something more divine, more bestial, and it was the Present, the fullest, most exalted Present.” At the moment of feeling intensely at one with other creatures or with objects, all calculations of the future disappear, the mind is free of all contamination with memories of the past, and we concentrate on the single moment at hand. This experience can be understood oddly either as mystical or as aesthetic. In “The Dry Salvages” from The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot makes almost exactly the same point:

Man’s curiosity searches past and future:
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses.

Here we find all the elements of Hofmannsthal’s predicament: the collection of natural objects observed by chance that stimulates a mystical sense of the present (the “intersection of the timeless with time”) and annihilates the trivial daily obsession with past and future, and that ends up for most of us only as a fragile and transient aesthetic experience, the impossibility of a full rational explanation, and the intensity that appears in a moment of distraction.

Hofmannsthal found his greatest poetic eloquence in the odd prose fiction of “A Letter,” which affirms the impossibility of using language for the purpose of conveying the deepest emotional experiences. For him this was not a paradox, but a truth essential to the nature of language. Lyric poetry for him was properly the expression of the most personal and individual thoughts and feelings. Hofmannsthal would claim later: “The individual is inexpressible. What is expressed already slips into generality, and is no longer individual in the strictest sense. Language and individuality are opposed.” Language is social, not personal; words must be understood by others, an idiolect is a nonsense. There are no special words to convey what I alone have experienced. What is most individual, most deeply personal, is therefore perverted and ruined by being put into words.

Chandos concludes “A Letter” with a prevision of future stylistic fireworks:

The language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, neither Italian nor Spanish, but a language none of whose words is known to me, a language in which mute things speak to me and wherein I may one day have to justify myself before an unknown judge.

The effort to invent a language more individual and less bound by social convention was not in the future but was taking place during Hofmannsthal’s lifetime, and in all the arts. “A Letter” is a witness to a widespread, enduring movement.

Three decades after the Chandos “Letter,” Samuel Beckett could still write:

It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to write in formal English. And more and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get at those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it. Grammar and style! To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is best used when most efficiently abused…. Or is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting? Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts?3


Hofmannsthal himself held back from radical modernism, not for lack of sympathy, as his remarks in the 1920s on Rimbaud and Mallarmé show, but he could not bring himself to go as far as they had ventured. His social philosophy became very conservative, although his views had basically an aesthetic cast; he was buried, at his request, costumed as a Franciscan friar. Nevertheless, as editor of a literary magazine, he was the first to publish a major essay by Walter Benjamin, who aroused his enthusiasm. Perhaps the extraordinary facility and intuitive grace that so impressed his contemporaries when he was only seventeen made it impossible for him to venture into the rough experimentation that accompanied modernism, and he drew back from the steps he had already tentatively taken in that direction.

His long relation with Richard Strauss is significant. Their first collaboration was Elektra, Hofmannsthal’s most successful essay at radical avant-garde expressionism, and with this work Strauss, too, went further in the employment of modernist dissonance than any composer before him. At its London premiere under Thomas Beecham in 1910, the leading British critic, Ernest Newman, declared that Strauss may be a great composer but that the new opera was both unintelligible and vulgar, provoking a splendid protest from George Bernard Shaw. From then on, Strauss’s work was considerably more conservative.

Hofmannsthal’s most important article on the visual arts is a passionate description published in 1907 but written in 1901 of an exhibition of the most provocative avant-garde art of the time by a then little-known painter, Vincent van Gogh. Both Van Gogh and his friend Paul Gauguin had gone beyond the Impressionists and even beyond Cézanne in their rejection of the academic conventions of painting. Hofmannsthal’s account demonstrates the relation of the “Chandos Letter” to the new artistic developments. On stepping into the exhibition, Hofmannsthal was at first taken aback by the pictures:

At first sight they seemed to me harsh and disturbing, quite raw, quite odd, I had first to adjust in order to see the first ones as pictures, as a unity—then, however, then I saw them all as such, each one, and all together, and Nature in them, and the human spiritual power that Nature had formed, and tree and bush and field and slope, and something further, something behind what was painted, the essential thing, the indescribably fateful thing—, I saw the whole, so that I lost the sense of myself in these images, and came back powerfully and was lost again.

In this fourth “Letter from a Returning Voyager,”4 written the year before “A Letter,” Hofmannsthal suggests that Van Gogh had invented a pictorial language capable of rendering the extraordinary sense of the unity of one’s consciousness with the mute inanimate world. The new visual language had found a way to allow the mute to speak. As he continues, the naming of the objects portrayed in the exhibition recalls the collection of images in “A Letter”—the pitcher, the harrow, the dog in the sun, the neglected cemetery are replaced by a pitcher, a pan, a chair, a wall. Hofmannsthal proceeds to identify the difference between this new style of painting and the tradition that preceded it:

Shall I tell you about the colors? There is an unbelievably intense blue that keeps recurring, a green like molten emeralds, a yellow that is practically orange. But what are colors, if the inner life of objects does not break forth from them! And this inner life was there, tree and stone and wall and tunnel exuded their innermost and simultaneously flung it at me; but not the sensuous quality and the harmony of their beautiful life which in the past, from old pictures, sometimes flowed at me like a magical atmosphere. No, only the full weight of their existence, the raging, incredible staring wonder of their existence attacked my soul. How can I convey to you that here every being—a being of every tree, every yellow strip or green field, every fence, every hollow tunnel in the stone hill, a being of the pewter pitcher, the earthenware pan, the coarse chair,—rose up to me as if newborn out of the frightful chaos of non-life, out of the abyss of non-being….

He experienced the paintings as an assault, flung at him, and puts his finger on a major element of Van Gogh’s originality: the absence of the harmony, sensuousness, and magical atmosphere of traditional painting, now replaced by a feeling of sheer physical weight conveyed by the often unremitting intensity of the colors. The initial impact of seeing a painting by Van Gogh sometimes makes us, for a second or two, more aware of the shapes of the colors on the canvas than of the nature of the objects represented. The coercive intensity of the color patterns on the surface initially has the upper hand, and the absence of academic trompe l’oeil make the artist’s sense of the represented objects all the more real and powerful in the end, the paint on the canvas becoming not an illusion of the scene but a physical, palpable substitute for it. Many of Van Gogh’s works shocked contemporary observers by his painting objects the wrong hues, using color for purely emotional effect.

The remaking of the conventional language of painting continued with Matisse and the other Fauves. The information given about the details of the objects and figures represented in their work is scaled down to bring the raw emotional meaning to the fore. I do not think that anyone would comprehend at once that Matisse’s great painting French Window at Collioure (1914) represents an open window. We first see four strips of color—blue, black, gray, green—almost as abstract as a Barnett Newman; without knowing the title, we would need some minutes of contemplation to decipher the scene.

The modernist movement was extraordinary in the brutality of its rejection of the reigning artistic conventions, in its dissatisfaction with the basic language in all the arts. Every new style has always opposed what it considered the outdated style it wishes to replace, but the violence of the rejections from 1850 to 1920 may be unique in the history of culture. It would seem as if Rimbaud and Mallarmé in the end found it physically repellent to write the kind of verse of the great Romantic generation of Hugo, Vigny, and Musset. After 1850, painters like Courbet, Degas, Monet, and Manet became quickly famous, and they all hoped their paintings would eventually end up in the Louvre; but, in spite of their virtuosity, they consistently refused ever to make the slightest compromise, to paint a single picture that would have been bought by the Ministry of Fine Arts.

They achieved effects of realistic representation unknown before their work, above all in the rendering of light, but insisted on producing canvases that emphasized the distance between a painting and the reality represented, and that called constant attention to the physical surface of paint. Poets from Mallarmé to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot also wrote verse that showed at times an unbridgeable distance both from the spoken language of everyday life and from traditional literary language, one exception being Eliot’s ironic deployment of popular and learned speech in the Prufrock volume:
> Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the water in his bath
The masters of the subtle school
Are controversial, polymath.

The accepted languages of art were attacked in different ways, and initial comprehension was made more difficult for the public. The first abstract paintings of Kandinsky began as landscapes, which then got harder to read, and it is difficult to distinguish the last landscapes from the first abstracts. Cubism and Surrealism are inventions of pictorial language that proved deliberately puzzling. In music, the assault on the conventions of the previous two hundred years by Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and others was initially scandalous and had the clear intention of devising a style free of old conventions. When Schoenberg began the songs of Pierrot Lunaire, he wrote in his diary that he had at last achieved something “new, an almost animal, direct expression of sensuous and psychic movement,” and we are reminded of Hofmannsthal’s divine and bestial Present. There was a glorious sense of anarchy and improvisation in all the arts for a few short decades with the invention of each new style, which accompanied, and was stimulated by, a despairing anguish—a ferociously pessimistic and contemptuous view of everyday life, eventually intensified by the killing of twelve million men in World War I.

In short, the visual arts followed the same loosening of the immediately communicative aspect of language that we find in the last works of Rimbaud. The remaking of language by Mallarmé was equally radical. He wrote in a letter about one sonnet: “It has a meaning, but I would console myself with the contrary by the large dose of poetry it contains.” And this was about an earlier version that would become considerably more opaque—and more poetic—with revision. That is what Hoffmannsthal meant by saying that with Mallarmé and his predecessors, poetry had “joined the kingdom of music.” Literary experiments ventured still further with the Surrealists and with Gertrude Stein. The limits of modernist experiments with language are probably reached with James Joyce’s Ulysses and, above all, Finnegans Wake, written in a macaronic amalgam of all the languages that Joyce knew well. The latter is, surprisingly, readable, but only for adventurous spirits, and Joyce’s recordings of parts of it are intelligible and beautiful enough to give a pleasure like that of listening to music.

In one respect, the renunciations of Rimbaud and Hofmannsthal after a few years have an emblematic character for early radical modernism. Creating a new language for literature or art that dispensed with convention and allowed individualistic perceptions of the outer world was essentially an undertaking that could never be perfectly realized (as Hofmannsthal had seen), although for a few years it produced a great heritage. In most cases, the freewheeling energy of the movement lasted only a decade or so. The T.S. Eliot of The Waste Land soon turned into the poet of the Four Quartets. The atonal style of Schoenberg’s initial revolution (the years of Pierrot Lunaire, Erwartung, and the Five Pieces for Orchestra) quickly developed into the highly organized, more regimented twelve-tone technique in which he could realize classical forms like the sonata. During the years from 1907 to 1917, Matisse painted almost nothing but imaginative masterpieces; in the years that followed great works may still be found, but now more infrequently alongside a large number of odalisques lolling in well-upholstered armchairs.

Stravinsky followed the few years of Petrouchka, The Rite of Spring, and Les Noces with a turn to neoclassicism: he continued for many decades to produce some of his finest music, but nevertheless the energetic panache of the first years had evaporated. Picasso’s art took a similar turn after Cubism, and Kandinsky’s savage early abstracts became more orderly and hard-edged. Webern’s complex early atonal style was reduced to insistently regular rhythms and lean textures. Even with Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake was a far more systematic project than Ulysses. In all these cases, the initial impulse could not be sustained.

As for Hofmannsthal, who fully understood the roots of the stylistic revolutions of his time, but remained aloof after a few tentative moves, Walter Benjamin remarked about him soon after his death:

Hofmannsthal turned his back upon the task which emerges in his Lord Chandos letter. His “loss of speech” was a kind of punishment for this. Perhaps the language that escaped Hofmannsthal was the very language that was given to Kafka around the same time. For Kafka took on the task which Hofmannsthal had failed morally, and therefore also poetically, to fulfil.

  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).

  3. 3

    From a letter of Samuel Beckett, quoted by Gabriel Josipovici in a review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One: 1929–1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), The Times Literary Supplement, March 11, 2009.

  4. 4

    Not contained in The Whole Difference.

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