Hugo von Hofmannsthal

A few poems in English translation by Johannes Beilharz



Hofmannsthal, approx. 1924



Prose poems

Notes and links


The Gardener's Daughters

One fills the large Delft jugs,
Painted with blue dragons and birds,
With a loose sheaf of bright flowers:
Among them jasmine, ripe roses unfolding,
Dahlias, carnations and narcissus...

Tall daisies, lilac umbels and snowball
Dance above them, and
Stalks, silvery down and panicles sway...
A fragrant bacchanal...
The other with pale thin fingers picks
Long-stemmed rigid orchids,
Two or three for a narrow vase...
Rising up with fading colors,
With long styles, strange and winding,
With purple threads and garish dots,
With violet brown panther spots
And lurking, seductive chalices
Wanting to kill...


Die Töchter der Gärtnerin, 1891


»Works« are Dead Rock

»Works« are dead rock, sprung from resounding chisel,
When the master is at work, chipping away at his living self.
»Works« announce the mind as pupas announce the butterfly:
»Look, it left me behind – lifeless – and fluttered away.«
»Works« are like reeds, Midas' whispering reeds,
Spreading secrets long after having ceased to be true.


»Werke sind totes Gestein«, 1892


Written in a Copy of 'Yesterday'

Thoughts are apples on the tree,
Not meant for anyone in particular,
But they end up belonging
To the one who takes them.


In ein Exemplar von 'Gestern', 1892


Canticum Canticorum IV, 12-16

You are the garden locked,
Your childlike hands are waiting,
Your lips are without violence.
You are the fountain sealed,
Life's frozen threshold,
Tart and cold in ignorance.


Take wings, north wind,
Come, south wind, across the hills,
And blow through this grove!
Let all fragrances come awake,
Let life free itself

From sleep's frozen depth.


Canticum Canticorum IV. 12-16, 1893




Prose poems


The Rose and the Desk

I know that flowers never fall out of open windows by themselves. Especially not at night. But that's beside the point. Anyway, the red rose suddenly lay before my black patent leather shoes in the white snow covering the street. The rose was very dark, like velvet, still slender, not yet unfolded, and without fragrance because of the cold. I took it with me, put it in a small Japanese vase on my desk and went to bed.

I woke up soon afterwards. There was a dim light in the room, not from the moon but from the stars. Inhaling, I felt the perfume of the now warm rose drift over and overheard a whispered conversation. The china rose on the old Viennese ink set was dropping remarks about something. »He doesn't have any taste, any style left,« it said, »not a trace of taste.« Meaning me. »Or else he couldn't possibly have put something like that next to me.« Meaning the live rose.


Die Rose und der Schreibtisch, 1892


King Cophetua

The crown falls out of his indolent hand; the crown that is his beautiful city of Arles with its high walls and ponds and square paved dams, with the large Roman arena and a great number of black bulls, with the church of St. Trophime and the Alyscams, with the little yellow houses at night with whores pale as candle wax behind small windows in narrow back streets, with the street corners and river banks attached to the intimations of his childhood, and his favorite diseases: fever and the shivers, and the rivers, once so precious to him, in the distance between rocky mountains under a black and yellow evening sky, and all the statues he loved for no reason, and distant views from the arena tower, and a dim idea of the pains of others, all that drops out of his hand and leaves him entirely alone.


König Cophetua, 1895


Creature of the Flood
Poem of the Mussels

We are alone in the dark. You up there have lips, rolled-up leaves, hands entwined with rosy blood and bluish veins, we are alone and cannot touch. We live our life fully, our fate is to resist the waves, that is what we become, and triumph and pain color us as the reflection of fall and of the sun colors the waves there near the surface.


Geschöpf der Flut / Gedicht der Muscheln, 1899

Creatures of Flame

We are all creatures of flame. The butterfly: the intensity of a short life and fragility become color. My death is like shadow, my life aquiver, a pulse in the light; I am so close to death it makes me proud, cruel and demonic.

Unmoved, I flutter from Helen's lips to Adonis' wound. I love my death, the flame, more than anything.


Geschöpfe der Flamme, 1899


These translations are based on Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gesammelte Werke, Gedichte · Dramen I (poems) and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gesammelte Werke, Erzählungen · Erfundene Gespräche und Briefe · Reisen (prose poems), edited by Bernd Schoeller and Rudolf Hirsch, Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 1979.


About the poems

The poems translated here are not among Hofmannsthal's widely known poems, such as Reiselied, Die Beiden, Ballade des äußeren Lebens and Vorfrühling, which remain popular in the German-speaking countries, can be found in many anthologies and made their precocious author – less than 20 years of age – famous under the pseudonym Loris.

Despite their astounding formal perfection, many of Hofmannsthal's best-known poems appear somewhat dated mood pieces because of their fin-de-siècle preoccupation with morbid topics. To me, they seem to be very recognizably the work of a serious, extremely well-read youngster with a great dosis of ideals and imagination – and the limited real experience of a kid.

I should also add that an adequate translation of Hofmannsthal's rhymed poems into English would be a daunting task I have no desire to undertake at this point in time. That such translations are possible is demonstrated by some excellent English renderings of a German language poet who greatly surpasses Hofmannsthal in fame outside the German-speaking countries – Rainer Maria Rilke. It is interesting to note that their life spans practically coincide: Hofmannsthal lived from 1874 to 1929, Rilke from 1875 to 1926. Rilke's early poems were written at about the same time as Hofmannsthal's. However, Hofmannsthal quit writing poetry altogether at about the turn of the century, turning mainly to drama, while Rilke's major poetic works all date from the time after 1900.

The Gardener's Daughters: Despite the title, this poem is almost all flowers. A touch of morbidity at the end...

»Works« are Dead Rock: First published in 1930. 

Written in a Copy of 'Yesterday': Refers to Gestern (Yesterday), Hofmannsthal's poetic drama of 1891.

Canticum Canticorum IV, 12-16: A variant of The Song of Songs (Canticum Canticorum in Latin) 4, verses 12-16:


12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.
Quoted from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Cokesbury, 1952


About the prose poems

All of Hofmannsthal's prose poems are from his posthumous work, i.e. they were not published during his lifetime. The first great prose poems to appear in German literature were Novalis' Hymns to the Night of 1800 (English translation 1949). Hofmannsthal's prose poems were influenced by Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, who had elevated the genre to an important art form in the 2nd half of the 19th century, and by Turgenev's Poems in Prose (1882).

The Rose and the Desk: First published in 1971. An esthetic piece with a tinge of Hans Christian Andersen.

King Cophetua: First published in 1959. King Cophetua was an ancient African king of great wealth who disdained women and was immune to love. However, one day he saw a beggar girl, and, falling instantly in love with her, vowed to make her his queen. This is told in an Elizabethan ballad by Richard Johnson, A Song of a Beggar and a King (1612), and in Tennyson's poem The Beggar Maid (1842). Other references to King Cophetua can be found in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. The story is also the subject of the painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884) by pre-raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. The beggar maid theme is absent in this prose poem, and I do not know what made Hofmannsthal tie this African king in with the city of Arles in south-eastern France. The Roman arena dates to the 1st century B.C. The church of St. Trophime, named after the saint who founded the Arles bishopric in the 1st century A.D., was founded in the 7th century. The church is the youngest building mentioned by Hofmannsthal, which would date this poem to some time after the 7th century.

Creature of the Flood / Poem of the Mussels and Creatures of Flame: Both were first published in 1957.


Johannes Beilharz, November 2019


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