Ludwig Lewisohn.

The spirit of modern German literature; online

. (page 4 of 6)
Online LibraryLudwig LewisohnThe spirit of modern German literature; → online text (page 4 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of its questionable metaphysics, and even discount
the doctrine of the superman, there is left the
noblest and austerest summons to freedom, forti-
tude and greatness in the personal life that ours
or, indeed, any age has known: — there is left the


inspired philosophic vision of that free creative
personality, so tragically forgotten among us, but
in all ages the giver of law and beauty and order
to his kind.

I have purposely confined my quotations to
Thus Spake Zarathustra. It is Nietzsche's great-
est work, it is the one which has had the widest
influence, and also the one in which he spoke
frankly as a poet and seer. Its influence, one
should emphasize, has not been merely, perhaps
not even chiefly, ethical or doctrinal. No one
capable of feeling the full force and beauty of the
German language can separate Nietzsche's mat-
ter from his manner, the soul from the body of
his book. For he is, quite clearly and literally,
to any sensitive and trained perception, one of the
five or six greatest prose writers in the world.
He is as copious as Carlyle, but no shadow ever
clouds his marvelous lucidity. He is one of the
most figurative of stylists, yet every image has
been made with the author's eye on the object.
He uses no words with blunted or conventional
meanings. There is no pale conceptual verbiage


in his great book. The words sing and thunder
and are wroth; they are as sharp and concrete as
heat or cold or pain. The syntax, by virtue of
the archaic, aphoristic form, is very simple. The
rhythm furnishes the orchestration of this style
— cadences that are oftenest stern and heroic, but
now and then melt into an enchanting sweetness.
But all such analytical descriptions are halting
and poor. The soul of Nietzsche's style is in a
great radiance — a radiance strong and full but
without excess of brightness. Read him and
there comes to you the vision of a deep blue sum-
mer sky and of the sunlight on an endless field of
wheat. . . .

The appearance of a stylist of this order of rank
and originality in a literature not historically not-
able for its accomplishment in prose had, nat-
urally, very far-reaching results. If Dehmel is
right in speaking of the "surprising rise of word-
craft in modern German literature" that rise is
largely due to Nietzsche's example. Apart from
the very many cases of direct and demonstrable
influence, this example has acted as a deterrent.


Men have simply not had the courage to write
as flaccidly and conventionally as before and the
whole tone of modern German writing in prose
and verse has been raised. Doubtless other forces
were also at work. But one may detect the in-
fluence of Nietzsche in the rich verse of Dehmel,
in Frensscn's large simplicity, in the frugal per-
fection of Ricarda Huch. He has helped talents
and temperaments as different from himself as
possible to find and then to enrich the medium of
their art. He has had few imitators ; he has been,
at some time, the master and teacher of all. You
recall Dr. Johnson's pregnant though mistaken ac-
count of Dryden's influence on English verse?
That account is but just if applied to Nietzsche's
influence on modern German prose — he found it
brick and he left it marble.



The influence of Nietzsche, though slow at first
to gather force, spread rapidly in the early eight-
een hundred and nineties. A period of social
and economic readjustment had produced the art
of the naturalist — the art in which the creative
imagination strives to identify itself wholly with
the phenomenal world. In its pure form that art
endures and must always endure. Compassion,
fine curiosity, love of the concrete and real for
their own sake — these elements in human nature
are constant and produce the art of the naturalist.
But a counter-current set in and its swiftness
grew under the new impulse which Nietzsche gave
it. I may quote Windelband once more: "As a
counter-pressure against that rule of the masses
which presses its stamp upon the whole life of our



time, there arose that strong and intensified per-
sonal life that desires to regain and to save its
spiritual subjectivity." On the one hand, you ob-
serve, social compassion, social legislation, concern
for the collective welfare — and naturalistic art.
On the other, the reassertion of the eternal sep-
arateness and uniqueness of the individual and
his struggle for liberation from the weight and
uniformity of life.

Such a struggle for liberation is illustrated by
Richard Dehmel (b. 1863), one of the most re-
markable though also one of the most unequal of
modern poets. "If art," he writes in the preface
to his collected verse, "has any value in life, it is
surely this: to keep alive the striving for perfec-
tion in the human soul." By perfection he does
not mean, of course, the deliberate atrophying of
all human powers to produce a pale and withered
blamelcssncss. He means the fullest and most
harmonious activity of all the faculties, tempered
and guided by a pure and self-sustaining will.

Of this central aim of his life and art he was
quite conscious at the very outset of his career.



Too keenly so, perhaps. In his first volume re-
flection predominates over passion and beauty —
no healthy sign for a young poet. It is but lair
to say, on the other hand, that some of these early
verses are very notable in their depth and fullness
of meaning. The book was characteristically
called Redemptions (1891). The poet desired
to redeem his individual from his tribal self and
to create harmony from the confusions of love.
Not to liberate himself from love and desire
through abstention — to exchange a positive for a
negative enslavement, but to experience, through
love, harmony, clarity and beauty. This he has
never succeeded in doing in art, nor, I believe, in
life. But his struggle in its moods of gloom and
splendor, of abandon and resistance has produced
some of the richest and subtlest lyrical work in the
world. I must give you the substance of one of
Dehmel's early poems of reflection to bring out
clearly his purpose and his ideal. "O man, you
are to train yourself I And many will interpret
that command thus: O man, flee from yourself!
Beware of such people I Make your reckoning


with the powers within you and without you.
This is the choice: Is life to shape you, or will
you shape life?" That is quite literally his con-
flict. Is it not ours too? And this representa-
tive character gives Dehmel's work its power
over us.

In the two volumes that followed Redemptions,
namely, But Love. . . I (1893) and Woman and
World (1896), it is possible to follow his strug-
gle. There is a great fullness of biographical de-
tail. Love is clearly, as he himself says, the
turbid element in his life. Yet through love, too,
he achieves, especially in Woman and World the
highest triumphs of his art. In these volumes
there is a lyrical presentation of the modern con-
flicts of sex that shrinks from no realities and no
confusions of soul or sense. To transform life
one must, of course, grasp its full reality and face
all its facts. This Dehmel does and saves the
grossest of these facts for art through his mag-
nificent sincerity and earnestness, and the energy
and splendor of his words and rhythms. Twice
he attempts a liberation from and not through


love. For a time he yielded himself to the social
sympathy that he shares with all his contempo-
raries and wrote a brief scries of poems wholly ad-
mirable in conception and execution — Sombre
Outlook^ Foet's Working-song^ The Toiler^ Har-
vest Song. And once he sought refuge in the
union of the solitary soul with the cosmic oneness
and wrote his greatest poem — The Harp.

But, though he has always ''expiated his yearn-
ing," he has always returned to love. There
only, after all, he finds the intensity of experience
that makes life new and strange and wonderful —
ever more new and strange:

"Oh I have never so deeply known
As often as our close embrace
Made each the other, why thy face
Grew palHd and thy heart made moan
When all my being sought thy grace."

And yet he finds himself in the grip of a force
which, strive as he will, he cannot shape or master.
He tries to reconcile the irreconcilable, he breaks
out into a humorous despair. But he never per-
mits himself to rest, to be at ease. "Every car-


icature bears witness to the god which it dis-
torts," he truly says. It is the god that he seeks.
In his next volume The Transformations of
Venus he turned resolutely from the world
of individual experience and sought to master
his problem by a generalizing and symbolical
representation. The attempt, despite the really
magnificent Venus Primitrda and individual pas-
sages of high interest, is a failure. For the poet's
liberation from life must come through art, not
through reflection and analysis. A mood seizes
him; a passion shakes him. The creative act, the
transmuting of experience into art, lifts the bur-
den of the mood, breaks the tyranny of the pas-
sion. It renders both objective to the poet and
projects them into an eternal and supra-individual
world. They are now added to the sum of hu-
man experience and of the beauty of the world.
The poet contemplates them and is free. If
Dehmel had oftener been able to rest content with
the unreflecting embodiment of experience in art,
he would have become a greater poet than he is.
He would not be so interesting or so representa-


tive of that spirit in modem German literature
which I am trying to interpret. His significance
and the deep hold which he has taken upon the
youth of Gennany lie in his tireless spiritual
energy, in his struggle to develop himself, on the
terms dictated by his temperament, into a free
personality. To assimilate the realities of his
nature into a higher, freer self-hood, to wring
spiritual values from the activity of his primordial
instincts, to transform passion into beauty, power,
truth — such are the aims of this struggling Titan.
And these aims give his work a tonic quality.

Finally, however, he seems to have realized his
frequent failure to render his experience concrete
and objective in art and so proceeded to write
Two Souls (1903). This is a remarkably inter-
esting poem. It is one of the three of four ex-
isting experiments at telling a story of modern,
civilized life in verse. I do not forget the nar-
rative poems of Mr. Masefield. But these seek
their subject matter amid elemental events and
primitive persons. It recalls a poem which I
esteem far more highly: George Meredith's Mod-


cm Love. Like Meredith Dehmel tells his story
by episodes, but he uses a much more flexible form
than Meredith's caudated sonnets. Nevertheless
he succeeds in giving each poem of the sequence
independence and unity. The realistic tradition
firmly established in modern German verse gives
him the further power of dealing quite frankly
yet poetically with the obvious details of our
civilization. One of the finest episodes of the
whole poem consists of a conversation by tele-
phone. I know how almost incredible this seems,
because we have hitherto made next to no at-
tempt to interpret our own lives in English verse.
It is the least noteworthy aspect of the German

The poem consists of three parts. And al-
though Dehmel's energy of speech and rhythm
and his power of evoking landscape never desert
him, I must admit at once that the second part
is romantic in the bad sense, and the third obscure.
The first part, on the other hand, — and it alone
is fifteen hundred lines long, — could not easily
be too generously praised. No other poet has


handled the intimacies of modem life so freely,
powerfully and poetically. The drive through
the wintry landscape, the scene in the woman's
drawing-room, the bicycle ride — these episodes
unite the highest reality with the highest lyrical
energy and charm. In the first part of the poem,
indeed, none of the twenty-eight episodes should
be singled out at the expense of any other. Each
sets a new standard for the interpretation of mod-
ern life through the art of poetry.

But I must not, in view of the light which
Dehmel's development and his experiments throw
on my special and immediate aim, permit myself
to forget that a poet's permanent interest rests,
after all, upon his perfectly achieved products.
Dehmel's true lyrical successes are not as many
as is commonly thought. His fifteen or twenty
best poems, however, belong to the most notable
of our time. In them his passion and his vision
of the world are perfectly fused. The style is
dense without obscurity, the rhythms rich, the
vowel-music varied and sonorous. Each of his
deepest lyrical impulses builds its own form — a


form inevitable, flexible within itself, yet of a fine
severity of outline. He uses, at these moments,
all elements of life to release and express his
poetic passion and the false dignity of an older
poetic convention is wholly abandoned. Like
Liliencron, though in so different a spirit and with
such different material, he merges reality and
poetry into one.

To translate a poet is always to wrong him.
But I am unwilling to leave this account of Deh-
mel without a single English illustration, how-
ever imperfect, of his quality and style.

The sky grew darker with each minute
Outside my room, I felt within it
The clouds, disconsolate and grey.
The ash-tree yonder moved its crown
"With heavy creaking up and down,
The dead leaves whirled across the way.

Then ticked, through the close room, unhurried,
As in still vaults where men are buried
The woodworm gnaws and ticks, my watch.
And through the open door close by,
Wailed the piano, thin and shy,
Beneath her touch.


Slate-like upon us weighed the heaven,
Her playing grew more sorrow-riven,
I saw her form.

Sharp gusts upon the ash-tree beat,
The air, aflame with dust and heat.
Sighed for the storm.

Pale through the walls the sounds came sobbing,

Her blind, tear-wasted hands passed throbbing

Across the keys.

Crouching she sang that song of May

That once had sung my heart away.

She panted lest the song should cease.

In the dull clouds no shadow shivered.
The aching music moaned and quivered
Like dull knives in me, stroke on stroke —
And in that song of love was blent
Two children's voices' loud lament —
Then first the lightning broke.




It was but natural that men of a happier tempera-
ment arose who achieved the liberation, the self-
directingness, the harmony of the Nietzschean
command. They had their struggle; nor were
these struggles without dust and heat. But all
the discordant notes have been hushed, and no
cry of conflict breaks in upon the liquid grace
of Rainer Maria Rilke (b. 1875) the majestic
sweetness of Stefan George (b. 1868), the
ample harmonies of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (b.
1874). I have named the three poets who
chiefly represent the cult of pure beauty in the
modern literature of the German tongue. The
name of Hofmannsthal is well-known among us;
our eager study of the modern drama has per-
suaded us to accept him in an, at least, external



way. It is a painful reflection, on the contrary,
how few people in America, except some profes-
sional Germanists, have ever heard of either
Rilke or George. We are aware, at all events, of
the existence of Emile Verhaeren and Henri de
Regnier. Some of us have even read their books.
And you will certainly not hear me belittle those
subtle and admirable artists. But two of these
three Germans are poets of an entirely different
stature. If I dared, indeed, to outrage all nor-
mal critical susceptibilities, and forestall the ver-
dict of time, I would say that, with the voices
of Henley and Swinburne, of Carducci and
Heredia forever silent, Stefan George is to-day
the first lyrical poet in Europe.

All the three poets in question have been
reckoned among the symbolists. They trans-
cend, I think, any such classification and seek their
lineage among an older and larger order of poets.
To begin with they are highly disciplined spirits.
They have, in the sense of Nietzsche, achieved
their true selves. Having done so, they pro-
ceeded, through this creative self, to shape the


world: to let the imagination transform the phe-
nomenal order into beauty. Or, from another
point of view: Beauty is to them the ultimate
meaning and reality of things which they draw
forth and render permanent in the forms of art,
releasing the eternal from the transitory. Their
renderings of nature, though often very exact, are
always drenched with spirituality; from life they
wring its soul of beauty. And always they de-
liver themselves into the power of the creative
imagination, deliberately estranged from science,
from formal philosophy, from all the activities
of the "meddling intellect." It is in this sense
that Rilke writes:

"I am so fearful of the words of men,"

And Stefan George:

"Words escape us, words betray us,
It is song persuades the soul."

To sustain their intention adequately the work
of such poets needs a faultless form. For form
itself here is far more than the body of thought.
It has a heightened spiritual significance and in-


terprets through its very character the reality it
has absorbed and re-creates. And so we find, in
fact, that in Rilke and George and Hofmannsthal
there is no dust of the workshop, no halting ex-
periment. All is perfect. If Rilke is at times
trivial and Hofmannsthal obscure, it is, at all
events, through no failure in expression. In their
poems substance and form are neither divided nor
divisible. Color and melody and rhythm inter-
penetrate their pure and serene substance and are
interpenetrated by it. There is no such thing in
their work as poetic ornament or decoration. The
whole poem is one creative act.

The poems of Rainer Maria Rilke are all quite
brief. They express a mood of the poet, or of an
historical or of an imaginary personality. But
all, even the concretest in subject — Songs of the
Virgins, Charles XU of Sweden Rides Through
the Ukraine, The Minstrel Sings to a Royal
Child — are raised into a timeless region of
beauty. "Give thy beauty freely," he writes,
"without scheming or speaking. Be silent. It
will proclaim thy being for thee and, in its thou-


sand fold sense, at last find every soul." To this
ideal he adheres strictly. It is indeed character-
istic of all this school of poets that it reveals itself
to the public reluctantly at first, and guards its
treasures rather than make them more accessible
by any concession to a facile taste.

Rilke's art is extraordinarily intricate. These
lovely and apparently effortless lyrics — each like
a bell that gives forth one dark, full, faultless
tone — are a never-ceasing delight to the student
of the technique of verse. Their art is rarely
obtrusive. Upon analysis, however, one per-
ceives a marvelous use of alliteration, of asso-
nance, of brilliant vowel contrasts and harmo-
nies, of all the possibilities of internal and end
rime. He is as notable a master of these arts as
Swinburne. But his tempo is far more restrained
and he makes a cult of concentration not of dif-
fuseness. Swinburne, of course, dwells far more
in the sunlight of the world's great affairs and
emotions than Rilke. But the German poet is,
in the matter of poetic technique, constantly equal
to the English poet at his best and most restrained.


One could not illustrate the character of Rilke's
art better than by recalling a stanza from The
Garden of Proserpine ("Pale beyond porch and
portal. . ."). Only we must remember that
Rilke is deliberate and brief where Swinburne
is impetuous and long of breath; Swinburne's
measures are stormy, Rilke's drop — to use a fine
image of Hofmannsthal —

"Like heavy honey from the hollow combs."

I despair of illustrating the perfection of these
strangely beautiful verses. I have tried my skill
on the opening of his Autumn Day:

"Lord: it is time. So great was Summer's glow.
Lay now thy shadow on the dial-faces.
In level spaces let thy tempests blow."

and I have caught, after a fashion, the exquisite
internal rime. But nothing else. The English
verse is cold and hard. No, I must quote a few
lines, at least, in the original. Their mere music
cannot fail to reach any sensitive ear:

"So klangen Knaben an wle Violinen

und starben fur der Frauen schweres Haar;


so gingen Jungfraun der Madonna dienen,
denen die Welt verworren war."

Or, in an even softer and subtler modulation:

"Und ich weiss jetzt: wle die Kinder werde.

Alle Angst ist nur ein Anbeginn;

Aber ohne Ende ist die Erde,

und das Bangen ist nur die Geberde,

und die Sehnsucht ist ihr Sinn . . ."

On the one hand this art touches music where
the medium itself is substance: emotion, vision,
beauty; on the other, in its firmness and serenity,
it touches sculpture of which, indeed, Rilke is an
accomplished student and critic.

You will probably assume that a poet like Rilke
uses a very precious diction. He has, on the con-
trary, deliberately cultivated plain and even pro-
saic words. But he places them in musical com-
binations so new and yet so inevitable as to lend
them unheard of distinction and mystery and
grace. Of these words he himself says:

"Sie sind noch niemals in Gesang gegangen,
und schauernd schreiten sie in meinem Lied."

With Stefan Georpre we enter the redon of a


higher and austerer art. You cannot analyze his
technique into a use of devices, however exquisite.
One does not think of his poems as having been
made any more than one thinks it of the odes of
Keats. They have a regal ease, a full, temperate
glow, a harmony that never cloys by excess of
sweetness. He is magnificently himself; he is
indeed the leader and inspirer of this whole group.
But he served his own apprenticeship under noble
masters — Keats and Dante and Goethe.

He withdraws from the glare and noise of the

"Speaking alone and pure with star and cloud,"

journeying into an "austere and solitary realm"
to find new names for things that are to reveal
their ultimate meaning. "The transitoriness of
the universe can rob me of nothing that was once
truly mine." And this possession is in his own
subjective experiences which he molds by the
power of his lofty imagination into visionary
forms that have a complete imperishableness of
aspect. Thus he lends dignity and splendor to
the simplest lyrical motives, and evokes in poems


of astonishing brevity his personal imaginative ex-
perience of both Hellenic antiquity and the Mid-
dle Age. He is not concerned of course "with
history or epochs of development." He writes:
"Every age and every spirit in shaping the strange
or the past in their own way transpose them into
the realm of the personal and the contemporary."
Accordingly, that vision alone has permanence
and such truth as is attainable, and the world is
real and beautiful only in the image of it which
a noble personality reflects. George's vision of
Greece (The Book of Shepherds) may be taken
as an example. The poems are short and written
in firm, clear, serenely modulated blank-verse.
Pictures and emotions are restrained and finite,
seen and felt and then rendered with extraordi-
nary precision. It would be hard to describe the
result. But I can convey it by recalling to you
Arnold's line

"Freighted with amber grapes and Chian wine,"

or Keats'

"What little town by river and sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?"


or, better still, the severe beauty of the opening
and closing lines of Landor's Death of Ar time-
dor a. And George's poems are equally wrought
throughout. There is no slovenly word, no weak
line, no flagging of that truly shaping imagination.

In The Year of the Soul he records the forms
of beauty and permanence that have grown di-

1 2 4 6

Online LibraryLudwig LewisohnThe spirit of modern German literature; → online text (page 4 of 6)