The German symbolist poet Stefan George (1868-1933) strongly influenced a group of brilliant and idealistic disciples, thus manifesting his revolt against the materialism of his time.
Born in Rüdesheim near Bingen on the Rhine, Stefan George graduated from a gymnasium in Darmstadt and spent several years traveling throughout western Europe. While in Paris in 1889, he was admitted to Stéphane Mallarmé's soirées, where he met Paul Verlaine, Émile Verhaeren, and Auguste Rodin; and in Berlin, as a student of Romance languages, he came to know Carl August Klein, who was the first to recognize him as a poet. With Klein's help he founded and edited Blätter für die Kunst (1892-1919; Periodical for Art), the mouthpiece for the distinguished George circle of esthetes. This intellectual élite included not only poets and critics such as Friedrich Gundolf, Ernst Bertram, Max Kommerell, Karl Wolfskehl, and Norbert von Hellingrath but also men of action like Count Claus von Stauffenberg.
George's life may be divided conveniently into five major creative periods. During the first of these (1886-1889) he wrote verses which remained unpublished until 1901, when they appeared in his book Die Fibel. It was in his second period (1890-1896) that George emerged as a symbolist poet writing in strong contrast to the naturalistic trend then prevailing in German literature. His first work, a collection of 18 poems, Hymnen (1890; Hymns), was dedicated to his friend Klein. It was followed by Pilgerfahrten (1891) and Algabal (1892). Illustrated by Melchior Lechter, these books appeared only in limited private editions of less than 200 copies.
Solitude and lack of companionship characterize George's third creative period (1897-1902) as evidenced by his collections of melancholic poems full of despair, Das Jahr der Seele (1897; The Year of the Soul) and Teppich des Lebens (1899; The Carpet of Life). Like his earlier writings, they were unavailable to the general public. Only at the turn of the century, when the Berlin publisher Georg Bondi brought out a one-volume edition of Hymnen, Pilgerfahrten, and Algabal, did his books begin to appear through regular trade channels. His contemporaries, however, considered his poetry exclusive and artistocratic and marked by the flaws of fin-de-siècle literature. Thus he was, in general, alienated from his fellow poets in Germany and abroad.
George's fourth period (1903-1913), often called the classical one, comprises not only Der siebente Ring (1907; The Seventh Ring) and Der Stern des Bundes (1913; The Star of the Order) but also his only volume of prose, Tage und Taten (1903; Days and Deeds). At this time George finally found the companion whom he had been seeking—young Maximilian Kronenberger. Their relationship, however, was short-lived; just a year after their first meeting Maxim died, one day before his sixteenth birthday. Nevertheless, his role in the poet's life may be compared to that of Beatrice in the life of Dante.
The fifth and last phase (1914-1933) finds George in the role of a judge and seer. He deals explicitly with the problems of his age in a collection of poetry, Das neue Reich (1928; The New Reich). Very much against his will, he was acclaimed by the Nazis as their champion and forerunner. But no movement could have been more alien to him than theirs, and when they attempted to honor him, he left the country and settled in Switzerland, where he died, a voluntary exile, in Minusio outside Locarno. In addition to his achievements as a lyrical poet, George became known as a gifted and productive translator.
The best commentaries on George in English are Edwin Keppel Bennett, Stefan George (1954), and Ulrich K. Goldsmith, Stefan George: A Study of His Early Work (1959). □