German-language poetry from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century produced three superstars: Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Stefan George. Among them, they accomplished almost everything modern German lyric poetry could do; the rest was filled in later by Bertolt Brecht and Paul Celan. By way of a somewhat simplistic analogy, one could say that Rilke was a Mozart, although less merry; Hofmannsthal a Schubert, although less prolific; George an amalgam of Beethoven and Wagner. The marvel is that they were contemporaries, offering simultaneously their near-infinite variety.

For Anglophone readers, Rilke has been translated almost to death—though, of course, no translation of lyric poetry ever quite does the trick. Hofmannsthal, whose lyrical output was far from copious, is not well known hereabouts for his lyrical poetry or his plays, only for his librettos for...


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