I first heard of Hugo Von Hofmannsthal in Stefan Zweig’s ‘The World of Yesterday’ – a kind of autobiography of Zweig himself in Vienna before World War one and between that war and World War Two. For the Viennese, and particularly for the Jewish Viennese like Zweig, this time was simultaneously traumatic and exciting: as the Hapsburg Empire crumbled, Austria became a rump of its former self, and central Europe lurched towards extremism and violence, Vienna was reaching a cultural apotheosis, producing some of the greatest writers, psychologists, economists and philosophers of the Twentieth Century.
For the younger Zweig, at least, foremost among these names was the poet Hugo Van Hofmannsthal.
Hofmannsthal was a prodigiously young poet who, as Zweig puts it, ‘had written his way into the eternal annals of the German language in his sixteenth and seventeenth year’ before giving up poetry for short stories and subsequently concentrating on Operetta lyrics for Richard Strauss.
His works are not widely known in the English speaking world, but perhaps deserve to be. A book of his short stories – intense, dreamlike, sometimes fairytale-esque – was printed a few years ago by the New York Review of Books Press. Hopefully someone will follow this up with a decent translation of his poetry…
But, until then, here is one of his most famous poems. This is not a translation exactly – I don’t speak German, I’m afraid. Instead I have taken Leonard Forster’s literal prose translation and tried to turn it into a viable English poem, with rhymes or half-rhymes (or, once or twice, near-rhymes or not-rhymes) and reasonably regular line lengths.
She held the chalice in her hand
– Her chin and mouth seemed as the rim –
And light and sure she was in step
So not a drop fell from the cup.
He too was light and firm in hand:
Upon a hale young steed he rode,
And with one single, careless command
Had the horse, quivering, stilled.
And yet when from the woman’s hand,
The man to take the cup came forth,
The weight for both proved too much
For he and she both so shook
That neither hand the other found.
The dark wine spilled out on the ground.
Hugo Von Hofmannsthal
(Based on a prose translation by Leonard Forster)
It’s not a difficult poem to understand, I think. Love is tricky. Some students posted a somewhat tongue in cheek visual interpretation of the poem – or rather two interpretations of the poem on Youtube. This is funny – you won’t regret watching it. Well, you might a bit, but not much.
Talking of regret though, I find the image of the chalice (or, if you like, the cup) quite intriguing. The cup brimming with wine recalls the communion vessel of Catholic rite, and is neatly connotative of a possibly holy union – that of marriage, and of the profaning of that union with their botched attempt. There’s more than a whiff of sexual longing and guilt in there too. I wonder if Hofmannsthal ever met Freud…
To read the original poem and prose translation, by the way, try this website (of a writer whose taste in poetry I applaud but whose political opinions I do not endorse!)