Radical, Modern Hofmannsthal

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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,…

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