For a poet who claimed that the uncanny perfection of his youthful lyrics reflected a sort of timeless Platonic “pre-existence,” Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929) was much obsessed by the fleeting moment. The theme was hardly novel; it had dominated German poetry since the Baroque. But to the astonished habitués of Vienna’s Café Griensteidl, where the adolescent Hofmannsthal first appeared in 1891—still in short pants and chaperoned by his father—the effect of these consummately polished, world-weary verses on schoolboy lips was electrifying. Arthur Schnitzler, hardly given to swooning enthusiasm, later wrote of this startling apparition, then known only under the precious nom de plume “Loris,”

We had never heard verses of such perfection, such faultless plasticity, such musical feeling, from any living being, nor had we thought them possible since Goethe....


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