The precocious, outstanding, gifted poet and frustrated conservative who sought to escape his Jewish roots
Can a bad economy make for great poetry? Hugo von Hofmannsthal thought so. Indeed, he saw his own gift for lyrical writing and reflection as being, in a way, a consequence of the stock market crash of 1873. This self-understanding starts with the fact that Hofmannsthal was conceived at the very moment of the bust. His father, a banker, got word of it soon after arriving in Naples for his honeymoon. Cutting his trip short, he hurried back to Vienna, where he was able to confirm that the family fortune, which stemmed from his silk-trading, noble “von”-earning, devoutly Jewish grandfather, had evaporated. But even harder hit, Hofmannsthal believed, was his mother. She already suffered from weak nerves; according to him, the cause was the tumultuous context of her own birth: the revolutions of 1848. When financial worries came, she dealt with them poorly. In Hofmannsthal’s view his mother’s stress imprinted itself on him in the womb. Its mark was the special sensitivity of the poet.
Clearly, Hofmannsthal liked to spin myths about himself. Yet in treating his talent as a phenomenon that demanded a back story, he was merely acknowledging what was plain to see. Even Karl Kraus, who loathed Hofmannsthal and seized every opportunity to debunk him, acknowledged that Hofmannsthal was a great writer. In a fin-de-siècle Viennese literary scene famously well stocked with brilliant poets and thinkers Hofmannsthal stood out. It helped that he entered the scene so young. He was still in high school when, under the pseudonym “Loris”, he began placing essays and poems in literary journals. His precociousness as well as his virtuosity and the refinement of his observations were unrivalled. Here is Arthur Schnitzler evoking his impression of a reading Hofmannsthal gave in 1892, at the age of eighteen:
"After a few minutes we riveted our attention on him, and exchanged astonished, almost frightened glances. We had never heard such verses of perfection, such faultless plasticity, such musical feeling, from any living being, nor had we thought them possible after Goethe. But more wondrous than this unique mastery of form (which has never since been achieved in the German language) was his knowledge of the world, which could only have come from a magical intuition in a youth whose days were spent sitting on the school bench."