by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, 1874-1929
In the thumbnail sketch of European culture, the French are the painters, the Italians the sculptors and architects, the Russians the novelists, the English the poets and playwrights, and the Germans the composers. It's only a bare sketch, of course. Every nation has its geniuses in every art — think of Italian opera. The thumbnail sketch is not quite empty of meaning, though. While the German-speaking peoples have produced many fine poets, there has been a tendency for their work to be swamped by music. Any non-German who knows a German poem at all quite likely knows it from lieder — or, if he is a pious Lutheran, from the hymnal.
The Viennese Hugo von Hofmannsthal illustrates the problem. To the degree that he is known at all outside the German-speaking world, he is known as Richard Strauss's librettist. Yet von Hofmannsthal was a fine lyric poet before he turned to drama, opera, and broader literary-promotional activities (he was one of the founders of the Salzburg Festival) in his twenties.
Here is one of his gems, a sweet, thought-provoking little poem he wrote in 1896, when he was 22 years old.
Von Hofmannsthal seems not to have been, or at least to have believed he was not, very good at human relations. In this poem we see a man and a woman both perfectly confident and capable when each is alone with a solitary task. When they come together for mutual accomplishment, though, emotions kick in and suddenly everything is far more difficult.
The translation I've attached below the poem is by Leonard Forster, editor of the 1957 Penguin Book of German Verse. In his introduction to that book, Forster passes the following comment:
The chief themes on which German lyric poetry of high quality has been written are dusk, night, peace of mind, death, and God; nature and love occupy a much less important place than in English or French poetry.
I would put this poem in the "peace of mind" category; though possibly there is some personal bias at work there.
One pleasing thing about this poem, and about von Hofmannsthal's poetry in general, if the samples in the Penguin book are representative, is that no annotation is required. The poet's language is plain and clear, very gratifyingly so for a reader whose school German is five decades in the past. I will only tentatively note that the final word rollte is closer in meaning to the English "rolled" than the translator allows. The reader can see, in his mind's eye, little droplets of dark wine rolling, gathering dust on the forecourt of some country inn.
[Note added later: A friend who lives in Germany and is fluent in the language offered, at my request, the following comments on my reading: "Your cadence was maybe a little more cautious than it needed to be, as your pronunciation is very good — for a native English speaker, excellent. The only difficulty, which we share, is the 'r'. 'Sie trug' is extremely hard for non-Germans. The 'r' is not formed by curling the front of the tongue as in English, but, in this case, by a very slight lifting of the back end of the tongue towards the soft palate. On the other hand, 'Becher,' 'ihr,' 'sehr,' and 'sicher' came across pretty well."]
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
Sie trug den Becher in der Hand
— Ihr Kinn und Mund glich seinem Rand —,
So leicht und sicher war ihr Gang,
Kein Tropfen aus dem Becher sprang.
So leicht und fest war seine Hand:
Er ritt auf einem jungen Pferde,
Und mit nachlässiger Gebärde
Erzwang er, daß es zitternd stand.
Jedoch, wenn er aus ihrer Hand
Den leichten Becher nehmen sollte,
So war es beiden allzuschwer;
Denn beide bebten sie so sehr,
Daß keine Hand die andre fand
Und dunkler Wein am Boden rollte.
Leonard Forster's prose translation, from The Penguin Book of German Verse:
She carried the cup in her hand — her chin and mouth were like its rim — her gait was so light and assured, not a drop spilled out of the cup.
His hand was equally light and firm; he rode on a young horse, and with a careless movement he made it stand still, quivering.
But when he was to take the light cup from her hand, it was too heavy for both of them: for both trembled so much that no hand found the other hand, and dark wine flowed on the ground.