The Poet of the Reich

By Simon, John | New Criterion, October 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Poet of the Reich


Simon, John, New Criterion


German-language poetry from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, produced three superstars: Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Stefan George. Among them, they accomplished almost everything modern German lyric poetry could do; the rest was filled in later by Bertolt Brecht and Paul Celan. By way of a somewhat simplistic analogy, one could say that Rilke was a Mozart, although less merry; Hofmannsthal a Schubert, although less prolific; George an amalgam of Beethoven and Wagner. The marvel is that they were contemporaries, offering simultaneously their near-infinite variety.

For Anglophone readers, Rilke has been translated almost to death--though, of course, no translation of lyric poetry ever quite does the trick. Hofmannsthal, whose lyrical output was far from copious, is not well known hereabouts for his lyrical poetry or his plays, only for his librettos for Richard Strauss. George, despite some translations, is the least known of the three. Even loudly dropped, his name is unlikely to produce reverberations in American ears.

One of the problems--and it is a big one--is that George has become associated with the rise of Nazism. This is partly right and partly not. Some of George's ideas, as promulgated by him and his circle of followers, the George Kreis, were indeed close to those of National Socialism, but on a more elevated, intellectual plane, and were co-opted, without George's explicit consent, by the Nazis. George was neither the innocent his champions have tried to make of him, nor was he entirely seduced by the Nazis, without, however, openly rejecting them. What might have come of this political relationship remains unknowable; George died at age sixty-five in 1933.

Robert E. Norton's critical biography Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle (1) is, at some 750 pages, the first exhaustive analysis in English (and perhaps any language) of George and the George Circle. Like Paradise Lost in Dr. Johnson's view, no one would have wished it any longer. Still, for all its minutiae, its sedulous (and perhaps overzealous) attention to marginal or background phenomena, detailed accounts of the careers of George disciples and apostates, and even occasional repetitions and longueurs, the book all but justifies its length.

Norton exhibits a nice sense of humor and welcome unpretentiousness. But his book does have a few drawbacks. Except for the occasional key word, quotations from George are given only in English, which in the case of the profusely quoted poetry is a serious loss, uncompensated for by Norton's not always even accurate prose translations. I can appreciate the publisher's unwillingness to make the book longer yet, but even readers with a little German ought to have been given some sense of George's idiosyncratic diction, sovereign prosody, and magnificent sound.

Consequently, although Norton offers cogent interpretations of the meanings and implications of George's verse, he seldom addresses what makes it so often hypnotic--for which, of course, he would have had to reproduce the German texts. Moreover, though we read that he is "Professor and Chair of German and Russian Languages and Literatures at the University of Notre Dame," and though he writes generally flavorous and resonant English, there are throughout the book inexcusable lapses. A few examples: Horace's famous aere perennius means "more enduring than brass," not "granite." Lady from the Sea, which Ibsen wrote at sixty, is hardly "a youthful work." Poems do not "comprise a book," but vice versa. French knows a bon vivant and a viveur, but not a bon viveur. There are no such words as "obstinance" and "prophesized." Redundancy is frequent, as in "they shared little else in common." Things have come to a pretty pass when academics write like this. Still, Secret Germany is an imposing achievement of research, readability, and exemplary fairness: dedication without partisanship, judicious balance of pros and cons, and leaving no pebble--let alone stone--unturned.

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