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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Bayard Quincy Morgan (1883–1967)
 
BORN into a wealthy Jewish family, and surrounded from childhood with the peculiar cultural influences of the Austrian capital—an age-long civilization, an almost Italian love of beauty, a truly Southern lightheartedness in facing the problems of life—Hofmannsthal remained wholly untouched by the wave of naturalism that swept over North Germany in the early nineties. Indeed, his own literary beginnings were made in an exclusive circle of very eager young précieux, with the poet Stefan George as their chief mentor, whose entire work represented the most emphatic protest against the principles of the naturalistic school. “True poetry,” they insisted, “does not describe: it merely awakens or suggests with the aid of indispensable words.” Hofmannsthal himself stresses “words,” and asserts that “a new and bold combination of words is the most wondrous of gifts for the soul.” So these literary goldsmiths, as they have been called, have carried almost to its highest perfection the art of linking human speech, and Hofmannsthal is by many regarded as the greatest living exponent of exquisiteness in German style. Perhaps no other writer of German could have equalled his tour de force in the adaptation of the old English morality play ‘Everyman,’ for which he created a most fitting linguistic dress by combining with the phraseology of Luther’s Bible certain Austrian dialect forms. Always he has a sure instinct for the correct word or phrase, and his prose and verse are alike characterized by flawless form, beauty of imagery, and perfect euphony. His style has the quality that distinguishes Kipling at his best, a felicity that causes us to linger over his sentences as the gourmet allows some particularly delicious tidbit to melt on his tongue. Such an art has its finest fruition in the lyric, and although Hofmannsthal’s production in this field is not large, he has written almost nothing that is not of distinguished excellence. Unlike many ultra-moderns, he employs no unusual means in his lyrics, but secures his effects by the perfect symmetry and balance of simple elements in euphonious combination.  1
    The bulk of Hofmannsthal’s work is in the field of drama, where he evinces a considerable versatility. Two tendencies, however, can be traced through all his dramatic works. His fellow-craftsmen had once declared: “We purpose not the invention of stories, but the reproduction of moods, not contemplation but delineation, and we desire not to entertain but to leave an impression.” This is essentially the function of the lyric poet, and Hofmannsthal’s plays abound in passages which are essentially lyric in spirit if not in form, and which alone give these works their permanence. Such a classic as ‘Death and the Fool,’ for example, which still perhaps represents the high-water mark of his achievement, is but little more than a series of lyric moods of great beauty and charm.  2
  The other tendency may be gathered from Hofmannsthal’s remark that, “no direct road leads from poetry into life, none from life into poetry.” So we find him, like the Romanticists with whom his spirit most closely allies him, choosing his themes by preference in a far-away age or clime. Now it is classic Greece that attracts him, as in ‘Œdipus and the Sphinx’—a superb study of a man born to rule—and ‘Electra’—a particularly vivid, yet gruesome and overdrawn, psychological picture. Again, it is Italy of the sensuous beauty that he uses for background, in an adaptation of Otway’s ‘Venice Preserved,’—where he attempts a psychological interpretation of the hero-traitor, Jaffier,—in ‘Christina’s Homeward Journey,’ a comedy, and in ‘The Adventurer and the Singer.’ For ‘The Marriage of Sobeide’ he chooses ancient Persia for his romantic setting, while his ‘Rose Cavalier’—a brilliant comedy, chiefly known through Richard Strauss’s use of it as a libretto—gains color from the courtly costumes of an earlier day.  3
  Dramatically, Hofmannsthal’s greatest successes so far are perhaps ‘The Marriage of Sobeide’ and ‘The Adventurer and the Singer.’ The former just falls short of greatness by a straining both of probability and poetic truth in the second act, yet has lines of imperishable beauty, and the third act is quite perfect in its kind. The other verse-drama, founded on an episode in the life of Casanova, succeeds to an extraordinary degree in re-creating the atmosphere of luxury-loving Venice; and the chief figures are poignantly true.  4
  Hofmannsthal matured very early, and in some respects he has not fulfilled the high promise of his first published work, a dramatic sketch written at the age of seventeen. Yet there is surely no other dramatist in Germany to-day whose work holds out such hope for the future as that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal.  5
 
 
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