Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Partly not yet intelligible, partly no longer so - an early Hugo von Hofmannsthal verse play

The early verse plays of Hugo von Hofmannsthal could easily be staged along the lines of a Noh drama.  The characters, such as they are, might as well wear masks and accompany their monologues with five hundred year old gestures and ritual music.  It is no wonder that he later turned to opera.  I have no idea what Hofmannsthal knew about Japanese theater – I do not know what the German equivalent of Pound’s book might have been – but he was working on similar problems.

How to compress meaning, basically, like so many of the poets who were his contemporaries, but with an emphasis on meaning, separating him from Stéphane Mallarmé and Stefan George, poets who often seemed to pursue a pure form of poetry, free of meaning.  Hofmannsthal wrote some poems in that vein, too, but he quickly turned against aestheticism.

In his verse play “Death and the Fool (Der Tor und der Tod),” Death, “the bow of his violin in one hand, the violin hanging from his belt,” comes for the aesthete:

In every hour pregnant with more than chance
Experienced fully in your earthly station,
‘Twas I who touched your very soul’s foundation
With power most holy, fraught with mystery.  (114-5)

Death is claiming that he is actually the source of the aesthete’s sense of beauty, the familiar idea that the Sublime is the result of fear.

Claudio, the aesthete, has been suffering through a crisis of meaning:

Too much attracted to mere artifice,
I saw the very sun with eyes long dead
And through dead ears drew sounds into my head:
Not wholly conscious, not free from consciousness,
My sufferings petty and my joys gone stale,
Always I dragged along that awful curse
Which made my life a book, some twice-told tale
Partly not yet intelligible, partly no longer so…  (103)

A crucifix, a painting, and an old decorated chest (representing tradition or history, I guess) are by turn rejected as insufficient.  Death is accompanied by Claudio’s own dead, his mother, a girlfriend, and a friend who he drove to suicide, all of whom deliver their monologues of woe and exit the stage.  Claudio concludes that he has never really lived (“Indeed unloving and indeed unloved,” 133), and is therefore reconciled with death.

Now obviously this is hardly as compressed or obscure or allusive as a Noh play.  If anything it is all too thumpingly obvious, the ideas hardly justifying the quality of the verse.  But Hofmannsthal was only nineteen years old when he wrote it.  The ideas would develop quickly.  He moved fast.

DEATH:  Strange are these creatures, strange indeed,
Who what’s unfathomable, fathom,
What never yet was written, read,
Knit and command the tangled mystery
And in the eternal dark yet find a way.  (137)

Michael Hamburger is the translator here, as found in Poems and Verse Plays, Pantheon, 1961.


  1. I really like the first few lines that you quoted. In terms of meaning it mirrors some of my own thoughts.

    I have never read Hofmannsthal but I tend to gravitate towards poets and other writers who emphasize ideas. I would like to give his work a try.

  2. Unfortunately I tend to be baffled by writers who emphasize ideas, so Hofmannsthal's work is a bit of a north-face expedition. Sure a lotta cliffs on this side of the mountain.

    Maybe I'll switch to his fiction today. It is not so abstract.