Dichterstreit: Homoeroticism in the Conflict between Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Stefan George was born in 1868 in Büdesheim, a small village which now makes up a part of the city of Bingen, on the Rhine. His family was originally of French heritage: George's great-grandfather had moved from the French Mosel River valley into Germany, and there established a moderately well-to-do family. The family retained a sense of loyalty to the French traditions: the family name was, until George's own youth, still pronounced as "Schorsch," [1] and the young Stefan preferred to use the French variant of his given name, Etienne. Growing up in a bilingual household was to prove advantageous to George in his later years of travel, but the choice, from a literary perspective, between writing in French and German was a serious and weighty concern for the young poet.

Even in his youth, George showed a remarkable proficiency and aesthetic obsession for language. His earliest poems, written when he was fourteen, already exhibit a sensual and carefully constructed imagery, one which relies not only on visual portrayals but on aural landscapes as well. One critic has remarked that George consistently makes use of a "specially coded language," [2] as indeed, is evidenced by his linguistic experiments. As a young boy of 8 or 9, George invented a secret language, intended for use in his imaginary kingdom (or "caliphate") of Amhara, into which he initiated a few select playmates. This language only survives in incomprehensible fragments. [3] A later development, in fact a new secret language, survives in certain lines of George's early poetry, such as "Ursprünge," a reflection on childhood. Finally, an Esperanto-like artificial language, which George called his lingua romana, was used in many of his first compositions; only later did George `translate' these works into German.

George's father, a prosperous wine merchant, was able to provide suitably for his eldest son's education and upbringing. George attended grammar school in Bingen, and then continued his studies at the Gymnasium in Darmstadt, where he was a noteworthy student of languages and religion. After finishing school, George embarked in 1888 on the first of his many European journeys: first to England, where he spent five months, and then on to France. His stay in Paris was of fateful importance: a chance meeting with Albert Saint-Paul on his first evening in the city led to George's acceptance into the salon of Stéphane Mallarmé, the French symbolist whose work George had already begun to admire. During his four-month stay in Paris, George wrote a great deal, and upon his return to Germany, published his first volume of verse, Hymnen. This was printed privately and presented to only a small circle of friends, setting a precedent for much of George's later literary publication. His second volume, Pilgerfahrten, underwent a similar distribution, as did Algabal, printed in 1891.

In this same year, George undertook a second European journey: from Berlin to Munich, on to Verona and Venice, then Vienna. After a short return to Bingen, he then went on to London and Paris, only to return to Vienna by the end of the year. And it is here, in December of 1891, that the pivotal meeting with Hofmannsthal occurred, which will be discussed in the next section. After their falling-out, George continued his itinerant lifestyle, publishing several more volumes of poetry before the turn of the century. Perhaps his most memorable achievement at this time is the founding of his literary journal, the periodically appearing Blätter für die Kunst, which continued to be printed until 1919.

By 1895, George had solidified his aesthetic approach to poetry and to culture in general. Although he cannot be classified exclusively as one of the decadent or fin de siècle poets, his works at this time do show many of these characteristics. More importantly, perhaps, is George's belief that he was writing for, and indeed could only be appreciated by, an audience of the elite. To this end, he began to gather around him a circle of admirers, selecting at first amongst his peers and contemporaries, and only later restricting his attentions to the young disciples who sought him out. This group of friends and followers, known from its beginnings as the George-Kreis, gradually took on almost cult-like rituals and symbolism, emphasizing the renewal of culture through the power of youth and beauty. The strength of George's belief in this cult of beauty is reflected not only in many of his later, quite monumental works, such as Der Stern des Bündes and the prophetically titled Das neue Reich, but in the decisive `Maximin-Erlebnis,' which provided the poet with inspiration and material for much of his later poetry.

In 1903 George, during one of his frequent stays in Munich, became acquainted with the 15-year old Maximilian Kronberger: after encountering him on the street several times, George simply approached the young boy and introduced himself. Maximilian became George's close friend and companion over the next year, and was admired by many members of the George-Kreis not only for his youth and beauty, but for his poetic talent as well. Indeed, George saw in Maximilian such perfection that he considered the boy to be an incarnation of the godhead, and worthy of absolute devotion. In 1904, Maximilian died of meningitis, an event which shattered George's stability and drove him to the brink of suicide. Soon afterwards, however, a new focus for George's work emerged: the series of Maximin-Gedichte center on George's belief in the transcendence of Maximin's earthy life - his idealized figure becomes for George the Stern des Bündes, "one of the new awakened spirits who would one day form the new kingdom on earth." [4]

It is not only in reference to Maximin, though, that the overwhelming significance of male friendship for George becomes obvious. Even the most simple of his friendships were extremely meaningful to George, and he made every effort to make his companions feel welcome and loved. As Robert Boehringer, George's devotee and exceptional biographer, remarks: "sein Leben galt den Freunden, und wie Freunde von ihm Trost und Kraft empfingen, so stärkte er sich im Zusammensein mit Freunden." [5] In return, of course, George expected devotion and even submission, often expressed by him in letters as `Hingabe.' This willing subordination was extremely difficult, though, for certain of George's friends, and George's insistence on it led to his fallings-out with several significant figures, among them, of course, Hofmannsthal.

Whether or not George's notoriously close friendships were of a homosexual matter has never been, to my knowledge, definitively examined. To be certain, George never denied his attraction to young men, and homoerotic themes are rampant in both his poetry and personal correspondence. In many cases, the coded word "griechisch" was used, both by George and his circle, to refer not only to the Greek ideals of aesthetic beauty, but indeed to homoerotic tendencies. A prime example of this occurs in Boehringer's biography, where the author quotes a letter written by George to his childhood friend Carl Rouge:

 'Bildest Du Dir ein, dass man ... den Körper weniger als die Seele liebt ... ihre geistigen Eigenschaften? ... Ich denke zuerst an den Körper ... sie allein (körperliche Schönheit) ist es, die Dich entflammen kann.' Unbewußt verrät George hier das Griechische seines ganzen Lebens. [6]

Nonetheless, the critics have remained remarkably silent, avoiding almost all direct discussion of George's sexuality. One interpreter comes close to such a description in remarking upon George's physical figure, which he described as "hermaphroditic in appearance," [7] but any discussion of George's own attractions remained unvoiced. Recently, of course, critics have been more open in regards to George's homoeroticism, although even now it is viewed by many with a sense of irrelevance. One modern writer prefers - rather surprisingly and in opposition to contemporary biographers' claims - to regard George's long acquaintance with Ida Coblenz as a romantic friendship, and thus concludes: "his sexual orientation was bisexual rather than exclusively homosexual." [8] This is an unlikely proposition, however, not least because of George's aestheticized view of human sexuality. As he often expressed to members of his circle, George regarded open displays of sexual affection as something unbefitting to one of his stature: he even refers, at one point, to the act of (heterosexual) sex as "das grässliche." [9] In addition, one must consider George's open dislike and even hostility towards women. Boehringer describes it fittingly when he explains:

 George hat das Zölibat nicht förmlich gefordert - so etwas tat er nie - aber die Freunde wußten, daß er die Frau nicht in seinem Staate haben wollte und die Bindung der Familie als Hindernis empfand ... [10]

George even went so far, report some of his followers, as to sever all links with his disciples if they were to marry, as indeed, happened in the case of Friedrich Gundolf. [11]

Instead, then, of searching for partners and physical fulfillment, George spent much of his life in search of spiritual companionship. His love for these friends - and it is indeed `Liebe' to which he refers - was expressed in physical embraces and `brotherly' kisses, both in person as well as in verse. Rieckmann is one of the few critics to claim that George's search was not merely for another poet, but for a homosexual companion: in discussing the issue of Hofmannsthal, he maintains that "George hoped to have found in the seventeen-year old poet his double, both in his artistic endeavors and in his sexual orientation." [12] George himself called this capacity an "übergeschlechtliche Liebe," [13] and insisted that his true desire was for a friend who could join him in spiritual and intellectual consideration. As he wrote to Hofmannsthal:

 schon lange im Leben sehnte ich mich nach jenem wesen von einer verachtenden durchdringenden und überfeinen verstandeskraft die alles verzeiht begreift würdigt und die mit mir über die dinge und die erscheinungen hinflöge ... [14]

This ideal friend, whom he believed to have found in Hofmannsthal, and later in Maximin, would fulfill the requirements which George had already set out to the members of his Kreis: intellectual fortitude combined with physical beauty, as well as an aesthetic sense of restraint and dignity. In short, perfection was what George sought, but such a friend was, indeed an impossibility, and he must have sensed this:

 The urge of the senses is not the same as the desire for a companion. Yet George's attempts to find companionships were often disappointing because George wanted companionship also to reach into the identical world of near-priestly discipline. The failure to find this kind of companionship often filled George with anger and contempt. [15]

Even the casual reader can sense in George's poetry the longing for someone to understand him, to share his own emotional distress. Witness the dedication - to Hofmannsthal, no less - to the second edition of George's Pilgerfahrten:


It comes as a surprise, then, to read the words of the misinformed critic, Klieneberger, who had earlier asserted George's bisexuality: now he rejects the importance of George's search for a single, exclusive lifelong companion, insisting instead that George "eschewed binding relationships, based on reciprocity, and remained essentially promiscuous" although his "liaisons ... were not physically consummated." [16] This interpretation, although published in 1991, falls prey to a rather narrow-minded view of George's homoeroticism, in general, and seems to want to sublimate all same-sex eros under the category of "narcissism." Klieneberger boldly states at one point that George's "orientation" is a "complicating factor" when attempting to interpret the poet's recurring theme of renunciation in love. Calling on the austerity ascribed to George's mother, Klieneberger then cites Freud's claims that narcissism originates when "a child's love for its mother has in some way been frustrated or disappointed and is then turned back on itself." Since "homosexuality is regarded by Freud as a form of narcissism," [17] we are left with the conclusion that George's homoeroticism is expressed quite plainly by "narcissized self-projections" in the poet's works. I take issue with such an interpretation of George's homoeroticism, as would, I think, many other critics. Keilson-Lauritz' denunciation of an earlier such offense seem to apply equally well to the case of Klieneberger. She states:

 Grundsätzlich will mir scheinen, daß die Reduzierung der homoerotischen Neigung auf `Narzißmus' eine unzulässige Simplifikation bedeutet und sich angesichts der pathologisch-moralischen Konnotationen einstweilen von selbst verbietet. [18]

Be that as it may, there can be no debate about the explicit nature of physical expression in George's poetry, and, indeed, about the predominance of same-sex eros. Keilson-Lauritz even expresses this in numerical terms: the ratio of male-to-female eroticism in the whole of the George poems, she claims, is 5:1; for the poems in Teppich des Lebens it is an astounding 33:1. [19] Sadly, this fact has been overlooked by all but the most recent interpreters. As perhaps the first, and certainly a groundbreaking researcher in this area, Keilson-Lauritz is correct in observing that, for many years, any insinuation as to homosexual or homoerotic tendencies in George's work has been nearly taboo to the canonical works: "viele Freunde Stefan Georges und seiner Dichtung [empfinden] bereits die Formulierung eines solchen Themas als verdächtigend." [20]

It must be noted, of course, that the general aura of superiority which has long surrounded George has set him on such a pedestal as to make any serious critical discussion difficult, at times even impossible. An American critic writes that it is rare to find realistic assessments of George's work among Germans, because the great majority of published criticisms stem from the members of the Kreis, and are thus more than a little biased: "they write of the master with such admiration, devotion, and respect that their commentaries seem testimonials rather than critical appraisals." [21] Recent German critics, too, have encountered this problem. As one humorously points out, the image of George in Germany today is a highly stylized one, reinforced by George's own apologists:

 Die Überschätzung seiner Gestalt läßt die Apologeten jeden Maßstab verlieren. Platon, Dante, Goethe, Hölderlin und Nietzsche sind so nach Meinung dieser Interpreten nur Vorläufer Stefan Georges, Vertreter von Möglichkeiten, die erst der in Superlativen gepriesene `Meister' erfüllt habe. [22]

Thus, if actual occurrences of the word "homosexuality" in relation to George and his poetry are rare, it should come as no surprise. How much more remarkable it is, then, to find suggestive phrases and even open affirmations of George's attraction to other men, as, indeed, in the case of his fateful encounter with Hofmannsthal.

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 Heute wird man sagen dürfen, daß Hofmannsthal die stärkste dichterische Begabung deutscher Sprache war, der George begegnete. Mit dieser Begabung schien sich alles zu erfüllen, was er vom Leben forderte. In dem jungen, klugen, anmutigen und begeisterungsfähigen Wiener glaubte er den Dichter, den Gefährten im geistigen Streit und den Freund gefunden zu haben, den zu suchen er aufgebrochen war zu seinen Fahrten. [23]

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in 1891 still a student at the Akademisches Gymnasium in Vienna, did indeed seem to fulfill so many of the young George's ideals. Born in 1874 into a prosperous family of Jewish, Italian, and Austrian heritage, the young Hofmannsthal was, quite literally, a prodigy. Like George, he was adept in languages, especially French, Greek, and Italian, and his early poetry shows much of the same sensual aestheticism and symbolistic melancholy. His approach to life was, however, very nearly the opposite from that of George. Hofmannsthal was quite obsessed with living, and even with the public sphere: after studying law at the University of Vienna, Hofmannsthal enlisted and served as a Dragonier, then returned to the university and received his doctorate in Romance literature. By 1901, when his Chandos-Brief was written, Hofmannsthal had abandoned his early lyrical poetry and had begun instead to concentrate on the popular media of drama and libretti - an interest which only served to deepen his rift with the elitist George.

But in 1891, these tendencies had not yet made themselves apparent. George, still only 23 years old and returning from France, stopped in Vienna in order to further his study of Romanticism. On one of his first evenings in town, he and several acquaintances visited the Café Griensteidl, the local gathering-place for many of the young Vienna poets. There, he chanced upon the 18-year old Hofmannsthal, and introduced himself. Immediately seized by the sheer presence of the great poet, and yet frightened by the intensity inherent in George's every expression, the young Hofmannsthal responded with guarded enthusiasm. Their correspondence shows pronounced traces of their emotions at the time, as do Hofmannsthal's own writings. After that first evening, upon which the two engaged in literary discussion, Hofmannsthal began a new entry in his diary, entitled "DER PROPHET (EINE EPISODE)." Under this he recorded the events of the following weeks, in a sense, as critics have noted, encapsulating and thus controlling the intensity of the otherwise overwhelming experience.

Their friendship was, from the start, marked by an unusual tension. George would accompany Hofmannsthal to and from the Gymnasium, on occasion, and the two would carry on academic conversations, which, as Hofmannsthal remarked, were stimulating and enjoyable. At the same time, though, George was obviously requesting more than the young boy was willing to give, although commentators are loathe to express this in any but the most vague terms. Boehringer, the primary biographer, has only this to say:

 Unheimlich war ihm [Hofmannsthal] das Andringen des fordernden Mächtigen ... schließlich flüchtete er sich, der noch nicht Achtzehnjährige, hinter den Vater. Dieser griff ein und bat George, den Verkehr mit dem Sohne nicht erzwingen zu wollen. [24]

He goes on to report, with palpable sympathy for the young Hofmannsthal, of how George

 ... unablässig in Hofmannsthal drang, sich ganz an seine Seite zu stellen. Vor dieser geforderten Ausschließlichkeit graute dem Bestürmten, der - fast scheint es - im Grunde nicht einsah, was man von ihm wollte. [25]

Expressed in such terms, one can easily read over it, but it seems clear that, whatever the causes may have been, the tension between the two men was of an unusual nature.

Clearly, much of this can be attributed simply to George's nearly impossible demands for submission. As discussed above, George's "dream of a friendship grounded in the absolute forced rather extreme demands on the young Hofmannsthal." [26] Indeed: Hofmannsthal, already established and self-aware, was unable, from the very start, to provide the type of companionship that George sought, and thus the relationship was doomed to fail. Since George was "psychologically so constituted that he needed to reject others unless he could totally dominate them and draw them over into his own sphere," [27] there was really never any other possible outcome. The issue of homosexual demands, although not overt, is called into question by Rieckmann: "Did Hofmannsthal intuitively understand the George saw more in him, and wanted more of him, than agreement in artistic matters?" [28] It seems, from letters and from Hofmannsthal's own ambivalent reaction, that he did indeed perceive the truth, and was torn between submission and denial.

But what, precisely, occurred between the two men to cause such intense reactions? One biographer claims that, even while George was still in Vienna, the conflict had become so marked with strife that "es war beinahe zu einer Duellforderung gekommen." [29] Further details, though, are lacking. Much of the conflict was, in fact, ideological: as mentioned, Hofmannsthal believed very strongly in a worldly poetic, and aimed his writings at an audience diametrically opposed to George's elite. Even in 1891, these differences must have been sensed, and it is certain that George did not take kindly to Hofmannsthal's seeming defiance. After the first of their arguments, even, Boehringer notes that "der kaum erblühte Freundschaft war gestört und blieb gestört ... jedesmal widerstrebte der Jüngere einer solchen bedingungslosen Hingabe." [30]

Nonetheless, the relationship continued: George and Hofmannsthal maintained a lively correspondence throughout the year 1892, and in further years, with momentary interruptions, until their final break in 1906. There was, it seems, primarily a sense of need between the two poets, an idea that they were two against the tide, and must stand together. George expressed this sentiment strongest, but Hofmannsthal, too, pleaded with his friend for reconciliation: "wie vereinsamt wir in Deutschland sind und wie im tiefsten auf einander hingewiesen ..." [31] Recollection of this fact caused George to continue seeking consolation and affection from Hofmannsthal, although these demands were consistently answered with a polite, even warm, offer of gratitude, but an ultimate rejection. Hofmannsthal spurned George the most, it seems, when the latter's advances became too aggressive. Indeed, the younger poet seems to have felt the need to protect himself from the forceful insistence of the older: a critic reports that "when Hofmannsthal visited George in Vienna and Berlin he took friends with him in order to avoid having to face George alone." [32]

By no means did Hofmannsthal intend to inflict pain upon his mentor, and often apologized for his blunt refusals and tactless remarks. At one point, in 1897, he apparently wanted to start things off on a better foot, and begged forgiveness from George: "Ich war, glaub ich, zu jung früher, zu unreif und unsicher. Es muß Sie fast verdrießen, sich meiner zu erinnern." [33] But George suffered at Hofmannsthal's hand, having put too much faith into the young poet from the very beginning. Boehringer reports of the energy and devotion which George spent on their correspondence, and laments: "unter welchen Qualen damals George die Tage in seinem Atelier zubrachte, Briefe an Hofmannsthal entwerfend und wieder verwerfend." [34]

In the end, the arguments became petty. For one period of nearly six months, George refused to write to Hofmannsthal, and instead commanded that all of the necessary correspondence - for the two were in collaboration, working on the Blätter für die Kunst - must be directed through the publisher, Carl August Klein. Later, after vehement arguments in regards to the usefulness of the theater, the two poets lost all contact, and did not write to one another for three years, between 1899 and 1902. Once again, there was a reconciliation - the two met, coincidentally, at a funeral and reestablished a tentative connection, and later Hofmannsthal came to stay with George in Berlin for a week. The final rupture, though, was fast approaching. After several more meetings, the poets began to argue about their works, and quite specifically about Hofmannsthal's dramas, which George fiercely denounced. Then, in 1906, in the midst of legal problems with the printer Otto von Holten, Hofmannsthal requested that George intercede in the matter; he also added a short note about George's critique of the drama Das gerettete Venedig. In no uncertain terms, George expressed his outrage and offense at being used for business purposes, and terminated their relationship with the words: "Sie stellen in Ihrem Brief Behauptungen auf die jede persönliche Erörterung meinerseits ausschliessen. Manchmal scheinen die Dinge gänzlich Ihrem Sinn entfallen." [35] This was in March 1906; the two never saw each other again.

It is remarkable, though, to examine the language used, both by the correspondents themselves, and by later biographers, in describing their friendship. In these description it becomes clear that the relationship, although grounded in literary and ideological similarities, took on unmistakable homoerotic undertones. Boehringer's summation of the friends' need for each other reads:

 So fühlten beide, wie sie in einer trostlosen Umwelt doch zueinander gehörten; darum konnte die Liebe des einen so lange nicht und die Dankbarkeit des andern niemals sterben. [36]

It was, indeed, love, from George's point of view. His letters to the young Hofmannsthal resound with images of outstretched arms, reaching for consolation from a friend. A common closing for his early letters reads: "ich reiche Ihnen herzlich die hand." But how did Hofmannsthal regard the relationship? His own letters remain detached, businesslike, and relatively platonic, with the exception of this early confession, written during the first encounters in Vienna:

 Was soll ich Ihnen sagen? was darf ich Ihnen erwidern? der Ihr halbverschleiertes Bekenntnis, ein Bekennen vor sich hin und für sich selbst, vernommen hat, ein zufällig aufgefangenes mehr denn Gabe und Geschenk.
Und ich? ich kann nur mich selbst geben .. ich kann nicht anders, mein Wesen gießt den Wein seines jungen Lebens aus .. wer nehmen kann, nimmt.

Ich glaube daß ein Mensch dem anderen sehr viel sein kann: Leuchte, Schlüssel, Saat, Gift .. aber ich sehe keinen Schuld und kein Verdienst und keinen Willen der helfen kann, wo Tyche rätselhaft wirkt. Die große Krise will enden, denn sie will es.

will mich Ihr Sinn, der selbst die Wege weiter weiß, mit den Zügen des Heilenden schmücken: er darf wenn er muß und er muß wenn er kann ich möchte Sie gerne halten können, Ihnen zu danken daß Sie mir Tiefen gezeigt haben aber Sie stehen gerne, wo Ihnen schwindelt, und lieben stolz den Abgrund den wenige sehen können
ich kann auch das lieben, was mich ängstet.

The erotic undertones here are unmistakable: the youth pouring out the wine of his life to whomever is able receive it, the surprising reference to a companion as "Schlüssel, Saat, Gift," and above all the desperate confession "ich möchte Sie gerne halten können, Ihnen zu danken" -- all of these provide strong proof of Hofmannsthal's pronounced physical and emotional response to the encounter. The puzzling description of George as standing at the edge of an abyss "wo Ihnen schwindelt" can be a sign of the fact that Hofmannsthal was aware of the dangers involved in submitting to George: a loss of self, clearly, and submission to the older poet's will, but also a societal liability, a rejection of the "wenige" by those who cannot perceive the abyss. Hofmannsthal consciously admits, then, his similarity to George: he, too, can love the dangers and the fear in such a relationship. In view of this earnest expression of fondness for George, it is all the more surprising to read the next letters from Hofmannsthal, which become cool and stiff. Almost as if resisting his own immediate impulse, the poet controls himself, and, in his next letter, blames many of his responses on his "Nerven." Indeed, resistance, not only to George's advances, but to the young man's own impulses, seems here to be the key. A telling remark from the biographer Boehringer: "der Österreicher sträubte sich dagegen, von den aus dem Reich herübergestreckten Armen liebevoll gewaltsam umschlungen zu werden." [38]

I do not mean to suggest, here, that Hofmannsthal was repressing homosexual or homoerotic desires, nor to question his insistence that the friendship was, first and foremost, a literary one. Nonetheless, the homoerotic tendencies which are reflected throughout Hofmannsthal's later work - much of which is based on this very encounter with George - do imply a certain openness on his part. Leopold von Andrian, a longtime friend of Hofmannsthal's and also an early admirer of George, did, upon several occasions, insist that Hofmannsthal was bisexual. One critic reports this discussion:

 Andrian claimed ... that Hofmannsthal shared his own bisexual disposition but had, through an effort of self-discipline, achieved a balance between his commitment to marriage - for both men a condition of social maturity - and a `Freundesliebe' that was `sublimiert und vergeistigt.' [39]

The importance of marriage to Hofmannsthal should not be ignored: not only did he believe quite strongly in the institution of marriage as a societal good, but as a personal fulfillment as well. In 1901 he married Gerty Schlesinger, the daughter of a Vienna banker, and their marriage was, by all accounts, a happy one. But his relationship with his wife, and with women in general, did leave something to be desired; intellectual stimulation and spiritual companionship were found to be lacking. As one critic explains, Hofmannsthal "was forced to the realization that he could not share everything with his wife." [40] With other men, however, Hofmannsthal seems to have had much closer and more rewarding friendships. As he himself explained:

 Freundschaft zwischen Männern kann nicht den Inhalt des Lebens bilden, aber sie ist, glaube ich, das reinste und stärkste, was das Leben enthält; für mich ist sie, neben meinem mir eingeborenen Beruf wohl das einzige, was ich mir aus dem Dasein nicht wegdenken könnte, und ich glaube, ich hätte sie gesucht, in welchem Stande ich immer geboren wäre. [41]

Thus it is not surprising to see how he reacted to George's offer of friendship, and attached to it such importance. Hofmannsthal's male friendships were, in fact, "ein zweites Hauptelement seines Gefühlslebens," [42] and he felt no qualms about revealing this. The exclusivity, though, of George's demands, and the absolute subjugation that the older man required, pushed Hofmannsthal away from a lasting commitment. That Hofmannsthal was able to alternate so quickly between the polarities of acceptance and rejection can be seen as a reflection of his own feelings about homosexuality, which he seemed to regard as harmless, even attractive, as long as it remained a `game.' Rieckmann elucidates and analyses this behavior:

 In a later conversation with his homosexual friend and fellow poet Leopold von Andrian, [Hofmannsthal] voiced his own sexual ambivalence when he told him, clearly alluding to his encounter with George: "Die Perversion ist reizend so lang es eine Spielerei ist -- grauslich mit schäumenden Lippen, gebieterisch eine Krankheit." Thus he could acknowledge his homoerotic feeling as long as it remained a "Spielerei," that is, as long as it was not acted on. To admit it into his identity did not threaten his idea of himself as creative, as poet. On the contrary, it was legitimized, given the precedents on Goethe, George, and others. [43]

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Although their friendship was terminated only shortly after it began, reflections of the tensions and attractions between both men can be found throughout their works. Hofmannsthal was, of course, normally averse to allowing real-life events intrusion into his writings: one critic claims that "direkte Umsetzungen von Erfahrungen oder Erlebnissen sucht man vergebens." [44] But in the case of his encounter with George, the manifestations are abundant.

Hofmannsthal made use of George's traits, both physical and intellectual, as a model for his characters on several occasions. Many critics have commented that the 1905 drama Das gerettete Venedig not only has "homosexual undertones," [45] but that the relationship of Pierre and Jaffier, the two main characters, is in fact a direct mirroring of the poets' conflict: "das Verhältnis der beiden Männer [soll] Zeugnis davon ablegen, ... wie Hofmannsthal sich gegenüber George sah." [46] Indeed, George was well aware of this fact. After receiving a copy of the first edition - which Hofmannsthal dedicated to DEM DICHTER STEFAN GEORGE IN BEWUNDERUNG UND FREUNDSCHAFT - George penned a letter criticizing the portrayal of the two figures as unconvincing. "Ihre beiden hauptgestalten können mich nicht überzeugen. Jaffier der am meisten zu reden hat haben Sie nur mit unleidlichen zügen ausgestattet." [47] George also figures prominently in the character of Andreas, in the fragmentary and posthumously published novel of the same name, but to a lesser extent. [48]

Perhaps more important is the early lyric drama Der Tod des Tizian, which Hofmannsthal completed in 1892, "unter dem Eindruck der Begegnung mit Stefan George." [49] The play's prologue presents the most obvious evidence of motivation for the character of the Poet, and even takes literal quotes from the early letters of George, for example:

 Da schreckt mich auf eine leises, leichtes Gehen,
Und aus dem Erker tritt mein Freund, der Dichter.
Und küßt mich seltsam lächelnd auf die Stirn
Und sagt, und beinah ernst ist seine Stimme:
»Schauspieler deiner selbstgeschaffenen Träume,
Ich weiß, mein Freund, daß sie dich Lügner nennen
Und dich verachten, die dich nicht verstehen,
Doch ich versteh dich, o mein Zwillingsbruder.«
Und seltsam lächelnd ging er leise fort,
Und später hat er mir sein Stück geschenkt.

Here we see not only the terms of affection which George had bestowed upon Hofmannsthal, but glimpses of the homoerotic nature of their relationship as well: the kiss on the forehead and the "seltsames Lächeln" are indeed, quite suggestive.

The physical and erotic side of the poets' relationship is even more clearly portrayed, though, in the two poems which Hofmannsthal wrote at the time of the very first meeting with George. The first poem was sent to George only few days after their evening in the Café:

 Herrn Stefan George
Einem, der vorübergeht.

du hast mich an dinge gemahnet
die heimlich in mir sind
du warst für die saiten der seele
der nächtige flüsternde wind
und wie das rätselhafte
das rufen der athmenden nacht
wenn draussen die wolken gleiten
und man aus dem traum erwacht
zu weicher blauer weite
die enge nähe schwillt
durch pappeln vor dem monde
ein leises zittern quillt

The veiled images here are, I believe, signs of Hofmannsthal's very physical and emotional ambivalence to George: the things which remain "heimlich" and "rätselhaft" in Hofmannsthal are mirrored openly in George's own person. Rieckmann questions, too, whether, in addition to an interpretive strategy that only brings out the artistic and aesthetic sensibilities of the two men, it is not "also possible to read the erotically charged verses of the last stanza ... as an encoded sexual message." [50] Indeed, it is: the constant references to erotic themes throughout the poem -- the night, the breathing wind, whispering, the moon, and of course the "leises zittern" -- only intensify the sense of palpable desire. After presenting this poem to George, Hofmannsthal received a response, a poem that was later to be published in the Jahr der Seele, which reads:

 Soll nun der mund der von des eises bruch
Zum neuen reife längst erstarkt im wehe
Sich klagend öffnen und nach welchem spruch
Dem kinde - unterbrich mich nicht · ich flehe!
Du reichst die hand · die segel wehen im porte
Es geht in tollen winden auf ein riff
Bedenke dich und sage sanfte worte
Zum fremdling den dein weiter blick ergriff.

Enigmatic as ever, George nonetheless seems to imply certain erotic sentiments in his response. The "sanfte worte" and, above all, the master-child relationship portrayed in the poem are clear manifestations of the poets' friendship, which from its very start involved harsh arguments and strife. George's premonition that the ship waiting in the harbor will be driven onto a reef is haunting, since indeed the two never enjoyed a smooth and pleasant journey.

In searching for further indications of homoerotic desire in the poem, though, the reader falters. Here it is useful to regard Keilson-Lauritz' detailed examination of the exemplary homoerotic images in George's writings. Her analysis explains that, in part:

 • Liebe bedeutet Suche, auch - aber nicht nur - nach der einen Traumliebe ...

• Liebe bedeutet (auch) Körperlichkeit, wobei eine gewisse Prävalenz von Schmerz, Qual, Brennen, Wunden, Stoß, und Stöhnen auffällt.

• Liebe bedeutet Unterwerfung und "Dienst"; viel weniger deutlich ist, ob Liebe auch Herrschaft ist.

• Liebe ist ... so gut wie ausschließlich eine Angelegenheit von Männern und Knaben.

According to her paradigm, then, George's image of the mouth opening "im wehe" could be seen as a symbol of homoerotic desire, as could the very setting of a man and a child embarking upon a journey to an unknown destination. A clearer expression of George's attraction is lacking, unfortunately; in his letters he does indeed depict his affection and wish for companionship, but even these are sadly bereft of direct homoerotic pronouncements.

Hofmannsthal, having received this poem from George, was strongly affected. He began a new entry in his diary, and wrote the second poem ("Der Prophet") there. He never gave the poem to George; as such, it can be seen as a much more private and direct formulation of his feeling about the older man, since it was not intended to impress or provoke a reaction. Interestingly, Hofmannsthal inscribed above the poem the remark: "inzwischen wachsende Angst, das Bedürfnis, den Abwesenden zu schmähen." This feeling is echoed in the ambivalent sentiments of the poem's narrator:


In einer Halle hat er mich empfangen
Die rätselhaft mich ängstet mit Gewalt
Von süssen Düften widerlich durchwallt,
Da hängen fremde Vögel, bunte Schlangen,

Das Tor fällt zu, des Lebens Laut verhallt
Der Seele Athmen hemmt ein dumpfes Bangen
Ein Zaubertrunk hält jeden Sinn befangen
Und alles flüchtet, hilflos, ohne Halt.
Er aber ist nicht wie er immer war.

Sein Auge bannt und fremd ist Stirn und Haar.
Von seinen Worten, den unscheinbar leisen
Geht eine Herrschaft aus und ein Verführen
Er macht die leere Luft beengend kreisen
Und er kann töten, ohne zu berühren.

Again the words "rätselhaft," "ängstet," "Gewalt," "Bangen" and "fremd" seem to depict the fear, on Hofmannsthal's part, of taking the entire 'game' too seriously. So too, the realization that "er ist nicht wie er immer war" -- George was known for his moodiness, and this had certainly already become apparent and disturbing to the rather even-tempered Hofmannsthal. On the other hand, the attraction of the "süssen Düften," the colorful snakes and rare birds, and the "Zaubertrunk" seem to captivate Hofmannsthal and lead him to the final strophe's admission. George exudes a seductive and enchanting power, which is at the same time frightful and terribly compelling. The danger, though, is real, for "er kann töten, ohne zu berühren" -- any ties to George have in them an element of subjugation, of loss of one's self, and it is this threat that kept the poets' friendship on such uneven and rocky ground.

There are few documents from the middle years of the poets' friendship which take up the issue of the trouble between the two, nor of their emotional commitments; letters are sparse and often discuss only business and literary endeavors. A few years after the painful break-up, however, Hofmannsthal made a gesture of reconciliation to George, as noted above; George responded by sending his friend this poem in May of 1897. It was published soon after, with slight changes, in the Jahr der Seele, with the caption "H. v. H." Noticeably, the eroticism of George's attraction to Hofmannsthal seems to have lessened in force, and we are left with a melancholy call for truce:

 Heut lass uns frieden schliessen · ich vergebe
Den tropfen gift in edlem blute - Finder
Des flüssig rollenden gesangs und sprühend
Gewandter zwiegespräche. frist und trennung
Erlaubt dass ich auf meine dächtnistafel
Den alten hasser grabe. thu desgleichen!
Denn auf des rausches und der regung leiter
Sind beide wir im sinken · nie mehr werden
Der knaben preis und jubel so mir schmeicheln
Nie wieder strofen SO im ohr dir donnern

George seems to have come to terms with the fact that he will never enjoy the intimacy he so desired from his friend; the time of boyhood praise and flattery is over, and the two adults must simply settle their differences and move on. All the more surprising, then, is the poem that appeared two years later in the Teppich des Lebens. Although not dedicated to Hofmannsthal, several members of George's circle claimed that the poem was written with the younger man in mind; Hofmannsthal, too, recognized the implied references and asked George if he was the motivation for the poem, which reads:


Du nahmest alles vor: die schönheit grösse
Den ruhm die liebe früh-erhitzen sinns
Im spiel · und als du sie im leben trafest
Erschienen sie verblasst dir nur und schal.
Du horchtest ängstlich aus am weg am markte
Dass keine dir verborgne regung sei . .
In alle seelen einzuschlüpfen gierig
Blieb deine eigne unbebaut und öd.
Du fandest seltne farben schellen scherben
Und warfest sie ins wirre blinde volk
Das überschwoll von preis der dich berauschte . .
Doch heimlich weinst du - in dir saugt ein gram:
Beschämt und unstät blickst du vor den Reinen
Als ob sie in dir läsen . . unwert dir
So kamst du wol geschmückt doch nicht geheiligt
Und ohne kranz zum grossen lebensfest.

This certainly provides an interesting expression of George's sentiments towards his young friend. Naturally, George was severely disappointed by Hofmannsthal's refusal to join the circle of admirers, but here, it seems, something even deeper is at work. Instead of a mere falling-out, the younger poet is described as the "Verworfener," and reference is made to the "spiel," which, as we have seen, was Hofmannsthal's own term for his dealings with homosexual attraction. The wreath at the end of the poem is a further example of George's symbolist expressivity, for Keilson-Lauritz claims that flowers, plants, and their derivatives are often seen as signs of homoerotic tendencies. [52] The fact that the young poet is here devoid of a wreath, then, would lead us to believe that Hofmannsthal had rejected, specifically, George's sexual advances in an effort to retain his heterosexual stance. Another interpreter sees the wreath as a sign of "Integrität," [53] which would then call to mind the image of Hofmannsthal as two-sided, not wishing to commit himself totally to George, but also not willing to stand up for himself and form his own identity. Keilson-Lauritz notes, too, that George is expressing not only a disappointment in the behavior of the "Verworfener," but an unfulfilled desire for the pure, untouched boy that he could have been, She elaborates on the ties to George's own sexual and emotional preferences for young, untouched men:

 Das sich hier äußernde Verlangen nach dem Unberührten stimmt mit Morwitz' gelegentlicher Bemerkung überein, George habe Männer meist `in einer Jugendstufe, in der sie noch nicht über eignes Liebesempfinden klar geworden oder zumindest noch nicht von Liebeserlebnissen berührt waren, dargestellt. [54]

In fact, then, the combination of Hofmannsthal's rejection of his mentor and George's longing for a young man unsullied by other love affairs can be seen as the underlying principle for much of the strife in their relationship. Hofmannsthal refused to succumb to George's desire for a homosexual relationship in which the older man would have been the dominant figure, and sought instead to establish a heterosexual, artistic friendship on equal footing. In view of this discrepancy and the many reflections of it in both poets' works, I would like to question the attitude of the many critics who claim that George's poetry is founded in a realm of absolute symbolism, and instead suggest that, although highly aestheticized and symbolically charged, the poetry of both men explicitly reveals the actuality and complexity of their relationship. In doing so, it also gives voice to a homoeroticism and ideal of male friendship which has long been neglected in critical discussion, but which was, for both men, very real. After all, as George himself once admitted: "die verse sind immer noch viel wörtlicher zu nehmen als man denkt." [55]

divider line


(1)  Underwood, Von Erward. A History that Includes the Self: Essays on the Poetry of Stefan George, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. New York, London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988, p. 60. [return to text]
(2)  Underwood, p. 62. [return to text]
(3)  Underwood, p. 61. [return to text]
(4)  Underwood, p. 141. [return to text]
(5)  Boehringer, Robert. Mein Bild von Stefan George. München, Düsseldorf: Helmut Küpper vormals Georg Bondi Verlag, 1967, p. 14. [return to text]
(6)  Boehringer, p. 27. [return to text]
(7)  Klieneberger, H.R. George, Rilke, Hofmannsthal and the Romantic Tradition. Stuttgart: Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, Akademischer Verlag, 1991, p. 21. [return to text]
(8)  Klieneberger, p. 13. [return to text]
(9)  Keilson-Lauritz, Marita. Von der Liebe die Freundschaft heißt: Zur Homoerotik im Werk Stefan Georges. Berlin: Verlag Rosa Winkel, 1987, p. 95; also Boehringer, p. 62. [return to text]
(10)  Boehringer, p. 126-127. [return to text]
(11)  Klieneberger, p. 14. [return to text]
(12)  Rieckmann, Jens. "(Anti-)Semitism and Homoeroticism: Hofmannsthal's Reading of Bahr's Novel Die Rotte Kohras." In: The German Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 2, p. 218. [return to text]
(13)  Klieneberger, p. 17. [return to text]
(14)  Boehringer, p. 42. [return to text]
(15)  Underwood, p. 72-73. [return to text]
(16)  Klieneberger, p. 117. [return to text]
(17)  Klieneberger, p. 12. [return to text]
(18)  Keilson-Lauritz, p. 24. [return to text]
(19)  Keilson-Lauritz, p. 28. [return to text]
(20)  Keilson-Lauritz, p. 13. [return to text]
(21)  Underwood, p. 39. [return to text]
(22)  Linke, Hansjürgen. Das Kultische in der Dichtung Stefan Georges und seiner Schule. München, Düsseldorf: Helmut Küpper vormals Georg Bondi Verlag, 1960, p. 11. [return to text]
(23)  Boehringer, p. 41-42. [return to text]
(24)  Boehringer, p. 44. [return to text]
(25)  Boehringer, p. 46-47. [return to text]
(26)  Underwood, P. 146. [return to text]
(27)  Klieneberger, p. 30. [return to text]
(28)  Rieckmann, p. 219. [return to text]
(29)  Mayer, Mathias. Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Stuttgart, Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 1993, p. 4. [return to text]
(30)  Boehringer, p. 45. [return to text]
(31)  George, Stefan. Briefwechsel zwischen George und Hofmannsthal. Berlin: Georg Bondi, 1938, p. 114. [return to text]
(32)  Bangerter, Lowell A. Hugo von Hofmannsthal. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977, p. 5. [return to text]
(33)  Briefwechsel, p. 114. [return to text]
(34)  Boehringer, p. 48. [return to text]
(35)  Briefwechsel, p. 228. [return to text]
(36)  Boehringer, p. 46. [return to text]
(37)  Briefwechsel. p. 14. [return to text]
(38)  Boehringer, p. 47. [return to text]
(39)  Klieneberger, p. 97. [return to text]
(40)  Bangerter, p. 8. [return to text]
(41)  Klieneberger, p. 97. [return to text]
(42)  Klieneberger, p. 117. [return to text]
(43)  Rieckmann, p. 219. [return to text]
(44)  Mayer, p. 1. [return to text]
(45)  Klieneberger, p. 105. [return to text]
(46)  Mayer, p. 62. [return to text]
(47)  Boehringer, p. 49. [return to text]
(48)  Mayer, p. 139. [return to text]
(49)  Mayer, p. 34-35. [return to text]
(50)  Rieckmann, p. 218. [return to text]
(51)  Keilson-Lauritz, p. 60-61. [return to text]
(52)  Keilson-Lauritz, p. 83. [return to text]
(53)  Linke, p. 90. [return to text]
(54)  Keilson-Lauritz, p. 45. [return to text]
(55)  Linke, p. 16. [return to text]

Works Consulted:

Bangerter, Lowell A. Hugo von Hofmannsthal. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.
Benrath, Henry. Die Stimme Delphis: Sappho · Platen · George. Zürich: Scientia A.G., 1939.
Boehringer, Robert. Mein Bild von Stefan George. München, Düsseldorf: Helmut Küpper vormals Georg Bondi Verlag, 1967.
Burckhardt, Carl J. Erinnerungen an Hofmannsthal. München: Verlag Georg D.W. Callwey, 1964.
George, Stefan. Werke. Ausgabe in Zwei Bänden. München, Düsseldorf: Helmut Küpper vormals Georg Bondi Verlag, 1968.
George, Stefan. Briefwechsel zwischen George und Hofmannsthal. Berlin: Georg Bondi, 1938.
Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. Der Tod des Tizian; Idylle. Leipzig: Insel Verlag, undatiert.
Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. Der Tor und der Tod. Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1989.
Keilson-Lauritz, Marita. Von der Liebe die Freundschaft heißt: Zur Homoerotik im Werk Stefan Georges. Berlin: Verlag Rosa Winkel, 1987.
Klieneberger, H.R. George, Rilke, Hofmannsthal and the Romantic Tradition. Stuttgart: Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, Akademischer Verlag, 1991.
Linke, Hansjürgen. Das Kultische in der Dichtung Stefan Georges und seiner Schule. München, Düsseldorf: Helmut Küpper vormals Georg Bondi Verlag, 1960.
Mayer, Mathias. Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Stuttgart, Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 1993.
Morwitz, Ernst. Die Dichtung Stefan Georges. Berlin: Georg Bondi, 1934.
Rieckmann, Jens. "(Anti-)Semitism and Homoeroticism: Hofmannsthal's Reading of Bahr's Novel Die Rotte Kohras." In: The German Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 2, pp. 212-221.
Sommerfeld, Martin, Ed. George, Hofmannsthal, Rilke. New York : W. W. Norton, 1938.
Underwood, Von Edward. A History that Includes the Self: Essays on the Poetry of Stefan George, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. New York, London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1995 for German 711 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Dichterstreit: Homoeroticism in the Conflict between Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal." Website Article. 17 May 1995. <>.