Thomas Ernest Hulme



German Chronicle


Prefatory Note. – How do I take my duties as a chronicler? Rather lightly perhaps. My tale will be rather haphazard. I do not intend to make a careful inventory of current literature, either by honestly tasting everything, or by collecting current opinions. I shall make no special effort. I shall not read anything on your behalf that I should not naturally have read for my own amusement. I intend merely to give an account of the things which reach me naturally, as I sit nightly gossiping at the Café des Westens (the Café Royal of Berlin, immortalised by Rupert Brooke's poem). I am actually on the spot. I walk down Tauenzienstrasse in the afternoon. I know many of the people I have to write about. I daily contemplate the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (so frequently mentioned in modern verse), and derive certain advantages from this physical fact. This is the extent of my superiority. I make no claim to judicial estimate of tendencies, but humbly communicate the "latest thing" – quite a useful function when you remember that by the ordinary channels of print it takes twenty years for an idea to get from one country to another, while even a hat takes six months.

After all, it is time that German had this kind of treatment. It has been written about by people who felt that the literature of the country was a phenomenon of the same kind as its rainfall or its commerce, and deserved periodical notice and report. Careful chronicles of this kind put the whole situation in an entirely wrong perspective. You have to mention writers whom the native never considers.

Nobody seems to have written about German for fun. The natural motive for such writing, the fact that you have discovered something exciting and want to communicate your excitement, seems to have been entirely lacking here. It seems rather as if men who at some trouble to themselves had learnt German, had looked round for suitable means of revenging themselves on others who had not had that trouble. French, on the contrary, has been written about by people who possessed the curious characteristic of insisting on reading only what amused them.

[222] One can account for the fact that this type of enthusiastic amateur does not write about German, by a rather curious reason. It lies in a certain difference between the two literatures, which makes the one more easily accessible to the amateur of this kind than the other. Every speech is at once a language serving the purposes of the will, expressing intimate desires and commands, and at the same time a language expressing thoughts by a sequence of concepts. The second aspect of a language can be readily grasped by a foreigner who has learned the language in the usual literary way. The first, depending as it does on the emotional values attaching to simple words, can only be appreciated when one has oneself used the language as a weapon of daily abuse. The qualities inherent in this direct use of speech cannot be deliberately learnt. Here comes the point I am trying to make clear. Both French and German are in an equal degree used for these two purposes. But as far as literature itself is concerned, I should be inclined to assert that while the qualities of French literature are to be found in the use of language as a sequence of concepts, the essential qualities of German literature depend on its more homely use as a language of will and emotion.

While the essential qualities of French literature are thus easily seizable by a foreigner who has learnt the language in the usual way – i.e., as a descriptive conceptual language – those of German are not. It may seem rather paradoxical, in view of the qualities of German as a philosophical language, to assert it is less a conceptual language than French. I am not, however, speaking of the languages in general, but only of the qualities they exhibit in literature. If one is not studying "comparative literature," but just reading foreign literature in the spirit in which one reads one's own, one is apt, for this reason, at first to be repelled by German. It does not lie open at once as French does. It is only when one comes across the old peasant poems and song in dialect, which exhibit prominently of course the qualities of a speech as a "language of will," that one begins to appreciate it. Then one begins also to recognise these qualities in classical German literature and find it more bearable. One sees it most familiarly in the extraordinary homeliness and solidity of certain parts of Goethe.

These, I repeat again, are qualities which cannot be appreciated by [223] the literary amateur who has learnt German as he has learnt French.


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To turn now to contemporary German verse. A consideration of its immediate past is of some importance. Its roots do not go very deep. One should always bear in mind that German literature had no important Victorian period. Between the classical period of 1780- 1830 and the moderns lies a gap. I am quite aware that this is an exaggeration, and that anyone who has ever read a manual of German literature could supply a continuous list of names stretching from one period to the other. But that would not affect the truth of what I assert. If you read Nietzsche's denunciation of German literature about 1870 you will see what is meant. It is only when one realises the state of German literature at that time that his denunciations become comprehensible. I point this out because it does seem to me to be important. The literary cabaret I speak of later commenced by a reading of these passages from Nietzsche's "What the Germans lack." This is not a mere dead fact from history, but throws light on the present.

The roots of the present lie only thirty years back. They resemble strawberry runners, springing from a mother root – in this case situated in Paris, Norway and elsewhere. The history of this period divides naturally into three decades. In 1880 comes the beginning of the modern period with the influence of Zola, Ibsen and Tolstoi. A few years later come the German names Conrad, Hauptmann and Hart. About 1892 you get a new tendency showing itself, "Los von Naturalismus." The principal names of this generation are Lieliencron and Dehmel; Stephan Georg, Max Dauthendey, and Hofmannsthal, the group associated with Blatte für die Kunst; Mombert, Peter Hille, Bierbaum, Falke, and Arno Holz, who perhaps belongs to the previous generation. From 1900 till 1910 you get another change. Naturalism is quite dead – but no formula can be given to describe this period. Carl Spitteler does not, properly speaking, belong to this generation, but I put him here because it was only at this time that his poems began to be read. The best poet of the period seems to me to be undoubtedly Rainer Maria Rilke. Other names are Schaukal, Eulenberg, and, among those who are not, properly speaking, poets, Wedekind, Heinrich, and Thomas Mann; Paul Ernst, Loublinski, and "the Neo-Classical Movement," of which I hope to say something more later.

[224] The generation that I am to write about is the one since this.

Before doing this, however, I should like to interpolate a list of papers and reviews where new work may be found: Pan, 6d. weekly, published by Cassirer, very lively indeed; Die weissen Blätter, a 2/- monthly, which, at present at any rate, includes some of the best of the younger men; Der neue Rundschau, a 2/- monthly something like the English Review; Der Sturm, a 4d. fortnightly, in reality a Futurist and Cubist art-paper, but always containing verse of Futurist type, well worth taking in; Aktion, a 2d. weekly, publishing good modern verses; Der lose Vogel; and finally two 3d. weeklies something like The Academy, Das literarishe Echo and Der Gegenwart.


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I can only give certain haphazard impressions of this last generation. Someone is sure to say that I have mistaken a small clique for contemporary poetry, but I take the risk. I attempt to give only my impressions. I attended a meeting of the "Cabaret Gnu." This takes place every month in a Café The Cabaret has a president who calls on various poets to get up and read their poems. All do so without any diffidence whatever, and with a certain ferocity. It is all much pleasanter than a reading here, for having paid to go in, you are free to talk and laugh if the poem displeases you. Moreover, the confidence and the ferocity of the poets is such that you do not feel bound to encourage them. To anyone accustomed to ordinary German, the language is very surprising. Very short sentences are used, sometimes so terse and elliptical as to produce a blunt and jerky effect. It does not send you to sleep like the diffuse German of the past, but is, on the other hand, so abrupt that the prose itself at times almost resembles Futurist verse. The result is not always happy, but it is clear that a definite attempt is being made to use the language in a new way, an attempt to cure it of certain vices. That this reaction is a conscious one is shown, I suppose, by the opening reading of the passage from Nietzsche I have mentioned above. One feels that the language is passing through a period of experiment. Whether this is a local and unimportant fashion, or whether something will come of it, one cannot of course say. But there it is, an undoubted fact. The same reaction against softness and diffusiveness seems to me to be observable in the verse as in the prose.

[225] As conveniently representing this present generation of poets, I take the anthology Der Kondor (edited by Kurt Hiller, published by Weissbach in Heidelberg, 1912). I might compare it with the Georgian Anthology. Though it has shown no signs yet of passing from edition to edition, like its remarkable English prototype, it yet attracted a certain amount of notice and criticism. Whatever its merits may be, it does represent the literary group with the greatest amount of life in it at the present moment. The editor, Kurt Hiller, was the conductor of the Cabaret Gnu I mentioned above.

The editor writes a short preface. Protesting in the first place against certain influences from which he imagines the present generation must make itself free – Stephan Georg and his school – the aristocratic view of art, "we ourselves understand the value of strict technique, but we reject Hochnäsigkeit as the constitutive principle of poetry."

Secondly, he protests against those who mistake a metaphysical and pantheistic sentimentality for poetry.

Der Kondor then is to be a manifesto, a Dichter Sezession, "a rigorous collection of radical strophes. It is to include only those verse writers who can be called artists. It is to give a picture of all the artists of a generation." The eldest were born at the end of the 70's, and the youngest in 1890. In the opinion of the editor it includes the best verse that has been written in German since Rilke.

To turn now to the verse itself, I obviously cannot give any detailed criticism of the fourteen poets included. I propose, therefore to quote one or two and then give my general impression.

Take first Ernst Blass, whose book Die Strassen komme ich entlang geweht, has appeared with the same publisher as Der Kondor itself. I quote his "Sonnenuntergang":

Noch traüm ich von den Ländern, wo die roten
Palastfassaden wir Gesichter stieren
Der Mond hängt strotzend
Weiss er von den Toten?
Ich gehe an dem weichen Strand spazieren.
Schräg durch Bekannte. (Schreien nicht einst Löwen?)
Vom Kaffeegarten kommt Musike her,
Die grosse Sonne fährt mit seidnen Möwen.
Uber das Meer.

[226] Elsa Lasker Schuler, the best known of those included in the volume, in reality belongs to a slightly earlier generation. Some of her poems, for example, are translated in Contemporary German Poetry (Walter Scott, i/-). She is a very familiar figure in the Café des Westens; her short hair, extraordinary clothes and manly stride are easily recognisable in the neighbourhood of Kurfürstendamm. Her prose, however, is extremely feminine, and anyone who is interested in gossip about the poets of this generation will find Mein Herz amusing. (It is put in the form of letters addressed to her former husband, Herwath Walden, the editor of the Futurist paper, Der Sturm.)


Deiner Seele, die die meine liebet
1st vervrirkt mil ihr im Teppichtibet

Strahl in strahl, verliebte Farben,
Sterne, die sich himmellang umwarben.

Unsere Füsse ruhen auf der Kostbarkeit

Süsser Lamasohn auf Moschuspflanzenthron
Wie lange küsst dein Mund den meinen wohl
Und Wang die Wange buntgeknüpfte Zeiten schon?

Then Georg Heym, who can be compared to Richard Middleton, in that he died young, leaving behind him a volume of verse and some short stories:

Beteerte Fasser rollten von den Schwellen
Der dunklen Speicher auf die hohen Kähne.
Die Schlepper zogen an.   Des Rauches Mähne
Hing russig neider auf die ölligen Wellen

Zwei Dampfer kamen mit Musikkapellen.
Den Schornstein kappten sie am Brückenbogen.
Rauch, Russ, Gestank lag auf den schmutzigen Wogen
Der Gerbereien mit den braunen Fellen.

In allen Brücken, drunter uns die Zille
Hindurchgebracht, ertönten die Signale
Gleichwie in Trommeln wachsend in der Stille.

[227] Wir liessen los und trieben im Kanale
An Gärten langsam bin. In dem Idylle
Sahn wir der Riesenschlote Nachtfanale.

Arther Drey's "Kloster":

Und Mauern stehen ohne sich zu rühren
Wie graue Faüste, die im wind erfrieren,

like several other poems in the volume, illustrates the use, which has now become epidemic, of the word Und at the beginning of every other line (derived probably from Hugo von Hofmannsthal's well-known "Ballade des Äusseren Lebens").

From René Schickele's Auf der Friedrichstrasse bei Sonnenuntergang:

An der Ecke steht ein Mann
Mil verklärtem Gesicht
Du stösst ihn an,
Er merkt es nicht,
Starrt empor mit blassem Blick
Schlaff die Anne herunter
Tiefer gestallet sich sein Geschick
Und der Himmel bunter.

I have no space to quote any more, but I give the names of the other poets and their books: Franz Werfel, Der Weltfreund and Wir Sind; Alfred Lichenstein, Dammerung; Max Brode, Tagebuch in Versen; Shickele, Weiss and Rot, published by Paul Cassirer; Crossberger, Exhibitionen, published by Meister, Heidelberg.

The group has to a certain extent divided. Kurt Hiller is writing for Die weissen Blätter a review which commenced last autumn, while Kronfeld told me when I saw him that he and Ernst Blass were starting a new review this spring, of which I hope to say something in my next chronicle.

As to my general impression of the whole group. First of all must be placed to their credit the fact that none of the poems can be described as pretty. They are not then sentimentally derivative, they are the product of some constructive intelligence, but I doubt whether this intelligence is one making for poetry. I doubt it, because the poems are so recognisably those which intelligent people would write.

To explain in more detail, I assume that the sensibility of the poet [228] is possessed by many who themselves are not poets. The differentiating factor is something other than their sensibility. To simplify matters then, suppose a poet and an intelligent man both moved in exactly the same way by some scene; both desire to express what they feel; in what way does the expression differ? The difficulty of expression can be put in an almost geometrical way. The scene before you is a picture in two dimensions. It has to be reduced to verse, which being a line of words has only one dimension. However, this one-dimensional form has other elements of rhythm, sound, etc., which form as it were an emotional equivalent for the lost dimension. The process of transition from the one to the other in the case of the poet is possibly something of this kind. First, as in the case of all of us, the emotional impression. Then probably comes one line of words, with a definite associated rhythm – the rest of the poem follows from this.

Now here comes the point This first step from the thing clearly "seen" to this almost blind process of development in verse, is the characteristic of the poet, and the step which the merely intelligent man cannot take. He sees "clearly" and he must construct "clearly." This obscure mixture of description and rhythm is one, however, which cannot be constructed by a rational process, i.e., a process which keeps all its elements clear before its eyes all the time.

The handicap of the intelligent man who is not a poet is that he cannot trust himself to this obscure world from which rhythm springs. All that he does must remain "clear" to him as he does it. How does he then set about the work of composition? All that he can do is to mention one by one the elements of the scene and the emotions it calls up. I am moved in a certain way by a dark street at night, say. When I attempt to express this mood, I make an inventory of all the elements which make up that mood. I have written verse of that kind myself, I understand the process. The result is immediately recognisable. Qualities of sincere first-hand observation may be constantly shown, but the result is not a poem.

The Germans I have been writing about seem to me to be in this position. The qualities they display are destined rather to alter German prose than to add to its poetry.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Poetry and Drama.
Jg. 2, 1914, Nr. 6, Juni, S. 221-228.

Gezeichnet: T. E. Hulme.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien). Deutschsprachige Texte und deutsche Namen nicht korrigiert.





Kommentierte Ausgabe




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