On Beauty’s Transience with Freud, Goethe and Especially Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau

“I am consumed like rotting compost,” says Job. Engraving by Alexander Mair, Germany, c.1605. Click to enlarge.

Around 1600 the Baroque Era arrived in Italy ushering an increasingly exuberant style of visual and performance arts. Of course by 1600 the works of Boccaccio and Petrarch were by then a century and a half old so the amorous and erotic were not new to literature, although they because more prevalent. Germany, by contrast, saw no sudden cultural change then. Of course, the capital accumulated by the great traders and the wealth collected by the church from all Europe made possible lavish architecture, sculpture, murals and paintings in Italy that could never be rivalled elsewhere, particularly in Germany which still had not much emerged from the wealth-dissipating economic patterns in effect since early Medieval times. And not long after the beginning of the 17th century, the great religious war (or wars) would devastate much of Germany to the middle of the Century. And while its music was influenced by Italy from the beginning of the century, its literature and engravings long-continued in the memento mori themes from the Middle Ages.

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. c 1625-30. Click to enlarge.

And so we see for the first half of the  1600s Italy celebrating Life and Love and Eroticism and Germany musing on Death and Destruction. This of course is a simplification, and not a very profound one at that. Of course these themes are never completely separated. The death of young lovers actually makes their love more transcendent. And Death can actually be an act of Love by God (Ich habe genug, BWV 82, is Bach’s great contribution to this view). And even in Italy both Love and Death were embraced Monteverdi, for example, wrote one book of madrigals, one of his last, best and longest (Book VIII), devoted to Love and War. But often in Monteverdi war is simply a metaphor for the quest for love. In any event we can say, as accurate as any statement of cultural tendency can be, that the Germans in the Baroque while Italians celebrated the earthly beauties and joys, Germans from North to South spent most of their artistic energy examining humanity’s possible response to the reality of Death. Of course, Germany, which was the battle ground for one of the most devastating wars in European history for the first part of the Baroque, had every reason to focus on death. It was everywhere. And through the rest of the 17th Century and even (or especially) in Bach, the sadness caused by that war with it train of famine and pestilence is never far removed. Even in Bach’s day, to remove oneself from the prevailing seriousness, piety and pensiveness meant moving to Italy, as did Handel. (A century earlier, during the Great War, travel between parts of German and Italy was still possible. Heinrich Schütz, for example, travelled from Dresden to Venice in 1628 to meet Monteverdi.)

Only known portrait of Christian Hoffmann von Hoffmanswaldau. By unknown engraver. Click to enlarge.

Today’s poet, Christian Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau (in English references usually spelled with two double  fs) (born on Christmas 1616, died on April 18, 1679), came from Breslau (today Wrocław), now in Poland, then it was the capital of Lower Silesia, but in the day was part of the Holy Roman Empire within the Kingdom of Bohemia. In 1526 it went by inheritance to the Habsburgs.Hofmannswaldau’s father benefitted from the Habsburg connection. Between 1526 and 1540 he was Secretary of the Silesian Chamber. Later he would be a member of the Imperial Council.

By the time Hofmannswaldau was baptized in 1616, Breslau had become Protestant (or at least tolerant, supporting free exercise of religion). Two years later it joined the Bohemian Revolt and war ensued. Although Breslau was now against the Habsburgs neither it nor Hofmannswaldau was t much affected by war during Hofmannswaldau’s childhood. The disaster to Breslaw (and Silesia generally) would come later when the Protestant forces of Sweden occupied it. During that time Breslau lost 18,000 of its residents (45%) to the plague. In 1635, Silesia was returned to the Habsburgs by the Peace of Prague. Persecution of Protestants and desecration of the churches predictably followed. The Hofmannswaldaus seem again not to have been effected, possibly owing to their Habsburg connection, but in any event by 1636, Hofmannswaldau himself went abroad for education, and abroad he would meet two Silesian poets who would affect the rest of his life.

In 1636 he matriculated at the Academic Gymnasium in Danzig (today Gdańsk). There he came in contact with the “father of German poetry,” Martin Opitz. Opitz was already of great renown, having in 1624 written Buch von der deutschen Poeterey (The Book of German Poetry), which defined the prosody, diction and style of the new vernacular poetry. He had studied non-Latin verse (French, Italian and Dutch) as far back as Gymnasium days and concluded that German was suited to poetry. For his requiem on the death of the Archduke of Austria, Ferdinand II named him poet laureate and ennobled him. He had arrived at Danzig (at the invitation of King Władysław, to be his secretary) the year before Hofmannswaldau and would live only a year after Hofmannswaldau left. Opitz died in 1639 of the plague.

Hofmannswaldau studied law from 1638, first in Leiden and then Amsterdam. It was in Holland that he met Andreas Gryphius, the first real genius of German lyric poetry. He had also studied in Danzig and knew Opitz, and like him was named poet laureate and ennobled by Ferdinand II. Though the same age as Hofmannswaldau he had already published a collection of poems (mostly in German) in 1637. Gryphius did not have the Habsburg protection in the early part of the war and saw much devastation, and the banishment of his brother when the Habsburgs returned in 1635. His poetry is suffused with melancholy that Hofmannswaldau never experienced.

After law school Hofmannswaldau traveled through France, England and Italy. He returned to Breslaw in 1641, and by 1647 became an Alderman. A decade later he was with the legation to the Viennese Court, where the Emperor appointed him to the Imperial Council (just as his father was). By 1677 he became Bürgermeister of Breslau, where he died three years later.

Although Hofmannswaldau was not published in his lifetime, his poems were known in manuscript and collections of his verse were published beginning immediately after his death. He wrote in the style of dramatic (or melodramatic) expression of Italian verse and was particularly known for his eroticism. His early poetry involved “hero letters,” poetic letters of legendary figures together with brief lives. He would later write Hero and Clergy Odes in the style of Ovid. He also undertook translations of classical poetry and prose. And he translated Guarini’s highly popular play Il pastor fido (The Faithful Servant). (When Handel later wrote in 1712 the early London opera based on the play (HWV 8), he used an Italian libretto by Giacomo Rossi.) Hofmannswaldau was perhaps most popular, however, for his secular songs with frankly erotic descriptions.

Hoffmann’s poetry was first published in Breslau in 1679, shortly after his death. For the next several decades editions of his work would be published in Breslau. Collections were also published at the beginning of the eighteenth century in Leipzig and Frankfurt.His extravagance and eroticism guaranteed his popularity until the middle of the next century when German classicism came down like a blanket on all forms of exuberance.

Vanitas with Death and a Maiden by Andries Jacobsz Stock. Engraving c. 1620-21. Click to enlarge.

Regular readers of these musings on poetry (and other posts) will expect our selection to be one less dramatically exuberant and more contemplative (for lack of a better word). And so we have a little lyric on the fleetingness of things beautiful, specifically the beauty of a lady. Hofmannswaldau catalogs the physical charms of the mistress, which willl be rendered to dust or worse, much as in other poems he catalogs them to describe his desire. (See “Arie,” for example: “Ihr hellen Mörderin’ …” Your eyes, those bright assassins ….)

The Death and a Maiden theme, known from the Renaissance, would be come widely prevalent in Germany during and for a long while after the religious wars in literature, art and even music. (Much later Schubert would write a string quartet so named.) After the war, the theme became more didactic, often a lesson on the vanity of beauty itself. And here Hofmannswaldau uses the last stanza to contrast the fleetingness of beauty with the permanence of the heart. Cynic that I am, I often wonder at these Death and the Maiden pieces whether the narrator is not a jilted lover who takes pleasure or consolation in the inevitable decay of the charms of his would-be lover. The last stanza here argues a more pious (although not particularly religious) intent.

The Death and the Maiden theme and the transitoriness of beauty are particularly German themes (especially in Romantic literature and music). And as with all things German, Goethe has his say about it. In the theatrical prologue to Faust (I) the poet announces the fleetingness and its opposite in this couplet:

Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren,
Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.

[What glitters is born for the moment,
  The Real lasts for eternity.]

Goethe’s alter ego sounds quite the materialist scientist here, no? Something like Faust himself? A closer reading suggests that Goethe’s Poet was simply spouting metaphysical “truths.”

Sigmund Freud commented on the German tendency to contemplate how impermanent beauty is. It comes from a short essay entitled “Vergänglichkeit” from a book with the (English) title The Land of Goethe 1914-1916: A Patriotic Memorial Book (Stuttgart and Berlin: German Institute: 1916). Freud recalls strolling with a young poet friend in a summer field admiring blossoming nature. His poet friend was able to admire it, but not enjoy it because he was brought low by the idea that all of the blooms would be dead by winter, just as all human beauty eventually dies, as does everything that man creates. Freud observed that there are two reactions to the contemplation of Vergänglichkeit: One is the painful Weltüberdruß, the world-weariness, of the poet. The other is the irrational impulse to protest against the reality. (Like Dylan Thomas’s “rage against the dying of the light”?)

Freud explains that the world-weariness comes from the inability of the libido to disengage itself from objects of its love even when there are other objects to replace it. Nor can the libido return to the ego in these cases. (There is much more of this, and if you are a fan of psychoanalysis, you might want to read it.) The interesting part for us here, however, is Freud’s own reaction to transience of beauty. Freud says that it does not diminish its value, but rather increases it. A fleeting beauty is a rare one, its limitation increases our enjoyment of it. As for Nature, its summer beauty returns. But as for human beauty, its brevity should add to its charms. Even if everything human disappears, and even life itself on this planet, we should not despair because beauty itself is only defined in terms of its importance to our emotional life, and this need not outlast us.

Vergänglichkeit der Schönheit

by Hoffmann von Hoffmannswaldau

Es wird der bleiche Tod mit seiner kalten Hand
Dir endlich mit der Zeit um deine Brüste streichen,
Der liebliche Korall der Lippen wird verbleichen;
Der Schultern warmer Schnee wird werden kalter Sand,

Der Augen süßer Blitz, die Kräfte deiner Hand,
Für welchen solches fällt, die werden zeitlich weichen.
Das Haar, das itzund kann des Goldes Glanz erreichen,
Tilgt endlich Tag und Jahr als ein gemeines Band.

Der wohlgesetzte Fuß,  die lieblichen Gebärden,
Die werden theils zu Staub, theils nichts und nichtig werden,
Denn opfert keiner mehr der Gottheit deiner Pracht.

Dies und noch mehr als dies muß endlich untergehen.
Dein Hertze kann allein zu aller Zeit bestehen,
Dieweil es die Natur aus Diamant gemacht.

The Transience of Beauty

[translated by DK Fennell]

Some day anemic Death with clammy, frigid hand
At last, when time is ripe, against your breast will brush, 
And pale will be your lips that now with coral blush;
Your shoulders’ balmy snow will turn to freezing sand.

Sweet glimmer of your eyes, the vigor of your hand,
Before such mortal things that bow to him, decline.
Your hair at present rivals even gold in shine
But final time will render it a worthless band.

That well-turned little foot, your elegance of style
These will become in part just dust, the rest but void;
No more will any man revere you as sublime.

Yet this and even more than this at last will end.
Your heart alone is able to outlive this fate,
For Nature cut a diamond made to last all time.

Note: I was unable to find the original published version (which I try to obtain for these little posts) either in print or in the comprehensive German Baroque Literature set of microfilm of Yale’s collection. So I take the above German text from a (somewhat) modern anthology: The Penguin Book of German Verse, ed. Leonard Forster (Baltimore: Penguin: 1957). I made one emendation. I changed “izund” in the Penguin text to “itzund,” which I believe is the form regularly used in Baroque verse; see, e.g., Bach (“The Coffee Cantata” as well as Sacred Ode, BWV Anh 36) and Schein (“Itzund ich mich vergleiche”).

  1. December 19th, 2012

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