"And what of living verdure lingers yet, / Around the autumn vision lightly twine" Stefan George

12 July 1868, the lyrical poet Stefan George was born in Büdesheim (Bingen) as one of three children of a local innkeeper and wine trader.

“Komm in den totgesagten park und schau: / Der schimmer ferner lächelnder gestade, / Der reinen wolken unverhofftes blau / Erhellt die weiher und die bunten pfade. // Dort nimm das tiefe gelb, das weiche grau / Von birken und von buchs, der wind ist lau, / Die späten rosen welkten noch nicht ganz, / Erlese küsse sie und flicht den kranz, // Vergiss auch diese lezten astern nicht, / Den purpur um die ranken wilder reben / Und auch was übrig blieb von grünem leben / Verwinde leicht im herbstlichen gesicht.“ (Come to the park they say is dead, and view / The shimmer of the smiling shores beyond, / The stainless clouds with unexpected blue / Diffuse a light on motley path and pond. // The tender grey, the burning yellow seize / Of birch and boxwood, mellow is the breeze. / Not wholly do the tardy roses wane, / So kiss and gather them and wreathe the chain. // The purple on the twists of wilding vine, / The last of asters you shall not forget, / And what of living verdure lingers yet, / Around the autumn vision lightly twine. – Stefan George, translated by Carol North Valhope)

A portrait of Stefan George by Karl Bauer (lithography , around 1920)

George grew up as solitary, aloof child, quickly learning ten different languages more or less on his own, starting to write symbolist poetry already during his school days and touring the cultural centres of Europe, regularly meeting with Verlaine and Mallarmé, finally dropping out of his Berlin college and ending up in Vienna having a messed-up (and unrequited) crush on the poet Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and gathering a circle of like-minded young poets and philosophers around him in Munich, the George-Kreis, at the end of the 19th century.

Georges expressed aim of a lyrical renewal, first of poetry and, rather soon, of society as a
Stefan George ca 1910
whole soon materialised itself in a radically elitist conception of “l’art pour l’art”, strongly influenced by Nietzsche. George saw himself more or less as Nietzsche’s successor as role model as well as verbally, writing poetry in a highly stylised and austere language in a mastership second to none, but without achieving Nietzsche’s cognisance, deeply rooted in psychological and philosophical insight, nor his poetical vehemence.

Making his mark as congenial translator of Dante, Shakespeare and Baudelaire as well, George became more and more a prophet than poet within his circle as the early 20th century progressed, refusing to praise the Great War and predicting the end of the German Second Empire already in 1914, preaching a realm of intellect as counter-draft, emulating Zarathustra’s words from the Grave Song: ” Ye would still create a world before which ye can bow the knee: such is your ultimate hope and ecstasy.”. George had a considerable influence among professors teaching humanities between the wars, and the three brothers von Stauffenberg, Claus among them, were part of the George-Kreis, soaking up his ideas of an ideal world.

In line with the Zeitgeist of the 1920s and early 1930s, George’s more and more expressionistic, esoteric and finally apocalyptic visions attracted ideologues who understood his metaphysics as intellectual exegesis of their own rather simple “Blut und Boden” mythology, and when the lights finally went out in Germany in 1933, George withdrew nauseated from the advances of Goebbels’ and his ilk to Switzerland where he died later that year. Finally, Stefan George went down into literary history as a mastersinger with a few moderate delusions who put sublime form over substance.

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