TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

American and Austrian Literature and Film: Influences, Interactions and Intersections
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Donald G. Daviau (University of California at Riverside)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Influence of Walt Whitman and Emile Verhaeren
in Stefan Zweig’s Pre-1914 Conception of Cultural Modernism

Nikolaus Unger (University of Warwick) [BIO]



Between 1904 and 1914, Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) undertook a distinctly supranational cultural communication project as a substitute for the production of his own literary output.  In addition to translating and publishing Émile Verhaeren’s (1855-1916) work, he served as a literary and theatrical publicist, working intensively to introduce the Belgian author to a German-speaking audience to which he had been virtually unknown.  Zweig’s affection for Verhaeren and the impetus behind his activities are an expression of his direct engagement with cultural modernism, which the work of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) also influenced.  This paper explores Zweig’s attitude towards both authors while gauging the influence of their individual national and humanist perspectives on his own understanding of a cultural modernism concurrently national and supranational in scope.
Statt seinem eigenen literarischen Hervortreten hatte Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) zwischen 1904 und 1914 ein merkwürdiges übernationales kulturelles Projekt unternommen.  Während dieser Zeit funktionierte er als deutschsprachiger Übersetzer und Verleger des Belgischem Dichters Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916).  Zweigs Zuneigung zu Verhaeren und seinen Werken und seinem Versuch der Belgier in die moderner deutsche und österreichische Literatur einzuführen sind ein Ausdruck von Zweigs Auseinandersetzungen mit dem kulturellen Modernismus des Fin de siècle.  Der Amerikanische Dichter Walt Whitman (1819-1892) spielte auch eine Rolle hier.  Dieses Referat untersucht die Haltung Zweigs gegenüber den aesthetischen Aussichten von beiden Dichtern.  Es interessiert sich primär in den nationalen und humanistischen Einflussen von Verhaeren und Whitman binnen Zweigs Konzeption von einem kulturellen Milieu welches gleichzeitig national und übernational war.


Between 1904 and 1914, Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) undertook a distinctly supranational cultural communication project as a substitute for the production of his own literary output.  During this period, he chose to concentrate most on translating and publishing the work of Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916).  Serving as a literary and theatrical publicist, Zweig worked intensively to introduce the Belgian poet to a German-speaking audience that knew almost nothing of his popularity in Western Europe.  On the whole, this affectionate interest in Verhaeren’s work and the impetus behind Zweig’s activities during this period can best be understood as an expression of his conception of cultural modernism, which the work of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) also influenced.  For as Zweig explained in 1910:

Just as Walt Whitman was the exultation of America in its new strength, Verhaeren is the triumph of the Belgian race, and of the European race too.  For this glad confession of life is so strong, so glowing, so virile that it cannot be thought of as breaking forth from the heart of one individual, but is evidently the delight of a fresh young nation in its beautiful and yet unfathomed power.(1)    

With these sentiments functioning as an intellectual point of departure, this piece will briefly explore Zweig’s pre-1914 aesthetic engagement with Verhaeren and its connection to Whitman in order to understand better the national-humanist dimensions of his activities during this period.(2)


The relationship between politics and culture; Bildungsbürger responses to the crisis of Austrian German liberalism

A brief reconsideration of educated bourgeois responses to the crisis of Austrian German liberalism helps provide important context for an exploration of Zweig’s attitudes and actions between 1904 and 1914.  Unsuccessful in its attempt to assume fully the position of the aristocracy, facing parliamentary frustration after 1879, increasingly threatened electorally by emergent mass political movements and confronted by an ideological impasse, the liberal educated bourgeoisie responded to these crises by transforming the aesthetic, as the renowned cultural historian Carl Schorske maintains, “from an ornament to an essence, from an expression of value to a source of value”.(3)  According to this famous interpretation, the social group to which Zweig belonged looked to culture as an escapist refuge from the unfavorable realities of political society, thus setting the scene for the intellectual renaissance in Vienna around 1900.  Scott Spector reconsiders the importance of Schorske’s work in light of the important scholarly criticism it has received; he contests the notion that this core hypothesis need necessarily be understood as conclusive and argues that its importance actually lies in its ability to function as a valuable point of departure for further inquiry into the Austrian fin de siècle.(4)  In the spirit of this reading of Schorske, let us review the relationship between politics and culture among several loosely-defined generational groupings simultaneously confronted by the decline of their parent’s movement. 

After the economic crash of 1873, dissatisfaction with the liberal movement markedly increased among large segments of the Austrian German population that its focus had failed to take into account.  Tired of a liberal vision of rational progress from which they felt excluded, new political actors, such as the emergent proletariat and the economically besieged petit bourgeoisie, turned their attention to two issues that the movement neglected: emotive national, religious, etatist, corporative and/or class-based forms of Gemeinschaft and direct social intervention on the part of the government.(5)  As William J. McGrath’s work on the Pernerstorfer Circle illustrates, an evolving generational tension also developed among the younger educated bourgeoisie during liberalism’s heyday.(6)  Interested in overcoming the shortcomings that they saw in their parent’s movement through a combination of nationalism and social reform, which sought to reunite the spirit of the German Volk in the aftermath of 1866 and 1871 while also creating a more cohesive and just social order, young men like Engelbert Pernerstorfer (1850-1918), Viktor Adler (1852-1918) and Heinrich Friedjung (1851-1920) created a dynamic forum at the University of Vienna for the exploration and expression of their discontentment with the atmosphere of 1870’s Austria.  In their search for intellectual substantiation beyond the liberal Gedankengut, they embraced the emotive messages of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), thus cultivating a distinctive post-liberal educated bourgeois Weltanschauung featuring overlapping cultural and socio-political interests.(7)  With liberal parliamentary frustration and Slavic national gains under Taaffe further stimulating national concerns among the Austrian German bourgeoisie in the 1880’s, increasing numbers of moderates abandoned the liberal movement in favor of the radical national and social activism that these angry young men had long espoused. 

The emergence of cultural modernism also played a significant role in this changing environment.  As a European-wide phenomenon, modernism was an expression of discomfort rather than a harmonious reflection of fin-de-siècle modernity; as Spector maintains, it embodied a protest by artists and intellectuals against what was happening around them.(8)  In this context, Nietzsche’s early philosophy notoriously expressed both his unease with contemporary Germany and concern for the revaluation of values.  Considered in this sense, its reception by the Pernerstorfer Circle at the University of Vienna in the 1870’s presents an important perspective through which we can begin to access a broader generational response to the breakdown of liberal bourgeois cultural values around the fin de siècle.(9)  For these young activists (and their educated bourgeois successors), Nietzsche’s damning analysis of the present coincided with their dissatisfaction with liberalism and, as McGrath points out, the philosopher’s “call for authenticity, freedom and self-expression spoke directly to the psychological needs of those members of the younger generation who were seeking a new sense of identity and a new set of values to replace those they had rejected”.(10)  Overall, this reception of Nietzsche’s ideas in Vienna warrants differentiation from the wider Central European German response to his ideas after 1890 because it marks the beginning of a distinctly Austrian German intellectual trend within the Bildungsbürgertum that directly links those involved with the Pernerstorfer Circle with members of two subsequent groupings also confronted by the crises accompanying the decline of the liberal movement: those of the 1890’s and 1905. 

H. Stuart Hughes identifies the generation of the 1890’s as those intellectuals who, born in the 1850’s and 1860’s, reached maturity at about thirty years of age during this decade.(11)  In contrast to the young bourgeois activists of the 1870’s, their formative years coincided with the rise of mass political movements that directly undermined liberalism’s hegemonic position and marginalized the social group to which they belonged.   Uninterested in German nationalism and political activism despite sharing the cultural preoccupations of their predecessors, authors of this generation challenged the liberal traditionalism that they saw breaking down by establishing a distinctly modern and specifically Austrian German literature and art that better reflected the time and situation in which they lived.  Their cultural achievements significantly influenced the subsequent generation: born between the 1870’s and 1890’s, these intellectuals were old enough to share in the cultural transformations of the fin de siècle and yet young enough to experience the disintegration and collapse of this environment during the First World War.  Raised in the legacy of the generation of the 1890’s and living in a socially and nationally polarized environment after liberalism’s political decline, members of this third grouping regarded the aesthetic accomplishments of their predecessors as their intellectual starting point while sharing a cosmopolitan and distinctly apolitical concern for the Gesamtwesen of a Central European German culture in which they, as modern Austrian Germans, played as significant a role as their intellectual contemporaries in the German nation-state. 

These responses warrant a closer look.  As Schorske argues, their liberal bourgeois fathers’ attempt to imitate aristocratic aesthetic values and assimilate their political position failed because of their inability to exercise real political change from above; this led their social group to regard the aesthetic as an escapist refuge from the unfavorable realities of a changing political society.(12)  Those involved with the Pernerstorfer Circle played an important role in this process; by the 1890’s, the völkisch outlook that they had espoused as a highly relevant cultural tool for introducing socio-political change through the revival of instinctual forces that liberalism ignored had transformed into a powerful yet unstable political instrument that furthered the very polarization it was originally meant to remedy.  Considering the high proportion of assimilated Jewry and new wealth within this social class, it is unsurprising that the emergence of populist parties featuring anti-Semitic and anti-capitalistic political ideals in the 1880’s and 1890’s, in conjunction with the fragmentation of Austrian German bourgeois politics in the face of the nationalities conflict, left aesthetically-oriented intellectuals from all three groupings disillusioned with activism.  Accordingly, they found succor in the arts; held in high regard on account of the classical education that they and their parents received in liberal grammar schools, it offered young bourgeois intellectuals an appealing and noble alternative career path to politics.(13) 

In the face of this environment, members of the generation of the 1890’s sought to replace the observably defunct belief system that they had inherited from their parents with the pursuit of “the truth” as they understood it – in aesthetic terms(14).  Collectively, they cultivated a nervous romanticism capable of expressing their deep preoccupation with the instinctual and the psychological aspects of their surroundings.  In drafting this response, these literati encountered the wider European phenomenon of cultural modernism, especially in its French and German varieties, and a distinct Austrian German element emerged within their own cultural movement that stood in marked contrast to the pan-German attitude of their generational predecessors.  For example, Hermann Bahr (1863-1934) explicitly differentiates Jung Wien from wider Central European Deutschtum in “Das Junge Österreich” (1893); as he points out, their intellectual movement,

will vielmehr, da nun einmal unser Leben aus der deutschen Entwicklung geschieden und heute der deutsche Kultur nicht näher als irgend einer anderen ist, den Anhang der deutschen Literatur verlassen und nun aus der eigenen Art auch eine eigene Kunst gestalten.  Es…möchte recht österreichisch sein, österreichisch von 1890, was dann freilich jeder wieder auf seine Weise versteht.(15)  

Indeed, the cultural modernity that Bahr and his contemporaries sought to engender in the 1890’s encompassed a separate Austrian German reaction to the national and modernist transformations occurring throughout Europe around the fin de siècle.(16) 

As the successors of this generation, intellectuals like Zweig present the third phase of this three-fold phenomenon.  Raised in the liberal tradition and exposed to the cultural modernism championed by their predecessors, these authors recognized a noteworthy compatibility between all national varieties of cultural modernism in the period before 1914.  This, however, would change with the First World War and the breakup of the multi-national state that they called home.  In light of a turbulent inter-war environment that made cross-cultural engagement with other European peoples increasingly difficult, these intellectuals shifted their focus; the existential problem of humanity, the stability of a High German culture transcendent of political boundaries and the predicament of liberal intellectual thought became their main concern after 1918.(17)  

Sharing liberal educated bourgeois backgrounds, thinkers from all three generational groupings developed interconnected intellectual responses to a common problem while operating concurrently around the fin de siècle.  When looked at together, an important aspect of Austrian German literary culture during this period emerges: namely, a necessary overlap of socio-political and cultural elements inherent to their responses to the decline of their parents’ movement.  That the cultural engagement of the latter two generational groupings featured national and European dimensions at the heart of their perspectives is especially important to our interest in Zweig’s cross cultural activities between 1904 and 1914. 


The “good Europeanism” of a Jewish Austrian German intellectual

Stefan Zweig grew up in a liberal bourgeois environment that prized the aesthetic as an important means of maintaining an assimilated Jewish family’s recently acquired social standing.(18)  He first experienced the mismatch between the liberal values of his parents and the socio-political and cultural transformations of the 1880’s and 1890’s while at the Gymnasium.  Zweig reflects upon his generational dissatisfaction during this period in his autobiography, maintaining that he and his contemporaries,

found the new because we desired the new, because we hungered for something that belonged to us alone, and not to the world of our fathers, to the world around us…and so our generation sensed, before our teachers and our universities knew it, that in the realm of the arts something had come to an end with the old century, and that a revolution, or at least a change of values, was in the offing.(19)

Uninterested in the liberal Bildung that they received at school and searching for a more appropriate intellectual forum through which they could engage the modernist cultural values heralded by their predecessors, these young men turned to the Kaffeehaus, where they could easily keep abreast of the latest cultural happenings and discuss the work of avant-garde authors absent from the literary canon to which their parents and teachers subscribed.  For example, Zweig specifically mentions encountering the work of Nietzsche, August Strindberg (1849-1912), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Walt Whitman during this formative period.(20)  It was in the Viennese café that he and his fellow classmates enthusiastically engaged the modernist cultural renaissance happening around them and these young men focused wholeheartedly on finding a place for themselves within this newly reoriented aesthetic landscape.

While this generational response left Zweig and his contemporaries in step with the values of Jung Wien (“in whom the specific Austrian culture, through a refinement of all artistic means, had for the first time found European expression”)(21), it led them to overlook further the changing realities of late-Habsburg political society.  With his older brother Alfred foreordained to take over their father’s business and his parents deciding that he would pursue a doctorate in order to enhance the family’s honor, Zweig, as he was later forced to recognize, operated within a relatively isolated and privileged stratum of Austrian German bourgeois society.(22)  Accordingly, his parents’ high liberal Weltanschauung, which failed to acknowledge fully the threat posed by rising anti-liberal mass political movements to the social group to which his family belonged, combined with his own generational commitment to the aesthetic to prompt only a marginal awareness of the important socio-political transformations happening around him.(23) 

However, it would be erroneous to understand Zweig’s response to this environment as seamlessly in line with Schorske’s famous hypothesis.  As his activities between 1904 and 1914 reveal, Zweig recognized a noteworthy compatibility, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s “good European” ideal(24), between the aesthetic pursuit of a transnational European cultural modernity and his own national identity as a Jewish Austrian German.  Zweig’s professional decision to focus more on translating works from other languages into German rather than producing original poetry, which followed on a suggestion made by the German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) and a personal encounter with Verhaeren in 1902, is important in this respect.  Still only a young decadent Austrian German poet limited in his area of activity, Zweig felt that translation afforded him an invaluable opportunity to gain a deeper and more creative grasp of the spirit of his own language.(25)  With this in mind, the task of organizing, editing, publicizing and stimulating other writers with his criticism and advice became his new artistic modus operandi after the completion of his doctorate in 1904.  In feeling that he could best serve greater German and European culture by functioning as a translator and cultural mediator, Zweig responded not only to Nietzsche, but also the Austrian German and European cultural modernism that generational predecessors like Bahr had worked to introduce in Vienna.

Nowhere did this attitude towards aesthetic engagement find more pronounced expression than in Zweig’s close personal and professional relationship with Émile Verhaeren, whom he considered the first of the French-language poets to “give Europe what Walt Whitman had given America: a profession of faith in the times, in the future.  He had begun to love the modern world and wished to conquer it for poetry”.(26)  Indeed, the poet played an important role in Zweig’s own personal artistic development:

[E]r war der erste große Dichter, den ich menschlich erlebte.  In mir selbst war damals schon der Anbeginn dichterischen Werkes, aber unsicher noch wie Wetterleuchten auf dem Himmel der Seele; noch war ich nicht gewiß, ob ich selbst ein Berufener des Wortes sei oder bloß es zu werden begehrte, und meine tiefste Sehnsucht verlangte, einem jener wirklichen Dichter endlich zu begegnen, Angesicht zu Angesicht, Seele zu Seele, der mir Beispiel sein könnte und Entscheidung.(27)

Zweig first contacted Verhaeren during his final year at the Gymnasium in 1899/1900 seeking permission to publish several German translations that he had made of Verhaeren’s early poetry (the Belgian responded positively).  For a young pupil bored at school, it was an epoch of renewal when the “Duft und Anhnung fremder großer Kunst, die Botschaft ungesehener Länder in unsere altväterische Stadt einbrach”; through exhibitions at the Secession, Zweig encountered the work of Belgian artists and sculptors, which led to a growing fascination with “das Kleine Land zwischen den Sprachen” and its literature.(28)  Afforded the opportunity to seek out many of the artists and intellectuals that he had only been able to admire from afar, Zweig traveled to Belgium for the first time in 1902.  During this visit, the poet Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913) introduced him to the painter and sculptor Constantin Meunier (1831–1905) and the sculptor Charles van der Stappen (1843-1910) and his time with the latter led to his first personal encounter with Verhaeren, whom he initially failed to find during this journey.  Unbeknownst to Zweig, the poet happened to be calling around van der Stappen’s house for dinner that evening and, in a further surprise, the sculptor asked Zweig to stay on after their meal together and assist him by keeping Verhaeren entertained while he finished sculpting a bust of the poet.(29)  Zweig later recognized the importance of this experience:

Zum erstenmal fühlte ich hier eine hellere, freiere Menschlichkeit, als ich sie vordem zwischen Künstlern gekannt, die ich alle nur immer in Besorgtheit und eifernder Geschäftigkeit gesehen, und geheimnisvoll flog mich Sehensucht an, diese Sicherheit und Freiheit des Lebens inmitten der Kunst mir selbst für mein Leben zu gewinnen.(30)

Upon his return home, Zweig remained committed to this goal despite having to work especially hard in order to complete the doctoral work he had heavily neglected hitherto.  Both before and after the success of Silberne Saiten (1901), a volume of poetry in the impressionist style of Jung Wien, Zweig spent his time among the literary circles of the Café Beethoven, Café Rathaus and the Café Reyl – Viennese coffeehouses that had replaced the now demolished Café Griensteidl as public spaces where those engaged with cultural modernism could gather.(31)  Interestingly however, Zweig did not characterize his own commitment to the aesthetic as synonymous with that of his more prominent generational predecessors.  As a letter to Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) in March 1903 reveals:

Ich glaube – so sah ich’s wenigstens in Berlin – man denkt sich die Wiener Literatur im Ausland als einen großen Caféhaustisch, um den wir alle herumsitzen tag [!] für Tag.  Nun – ich zum Beispiel, kenne weder Schnitzler, noch Bahr, Hofmannsthal, Altenberg intim, die ersten drei überhaupt nicht.  Ich gehe meine Wege mit ein paar Stillen im Lande.(32)

Zweig’s doctoral dissertation, on which he was working at this time, reveals insight into what this entailed.

Focused on Hippolyte Taine’s (1828-1893) socio-historical scientific approach to literature and his conception of the aesthetic as a product of la race, le milieu et le moment, the work illustrates Zweig’s own post-liberal generational response as well as his affinity for Nietzsche.(33)  Indeed, he identifies an important idea at the heart of Taine’s work that had only recently come to bloom: namely, a “Culturgedanke” corresponding to all national varieties of cultural modernism.  For Zweig, Taine’s belief that the aesthetic need not only be considered as the product of elites and geniuses and in fact could also include everyday contemporary cultural expression presupposed the mission underlying the changing cultural values of the fin de siècle.  Furthermore, he makes an important generational distinction between Taine’s time and his own while elaborating on this point:

Taine litt unter jenem furchtbaren Dualismus des Lebens, der einen Menschen, welcher alle Schönheit einer Welt erträumt mitten zwischen Alltäglichkeiten mit einem steifen Kragen, einem gebügelten Salonrock und eventueller Ordensrosette gehen lässt, jenem Zwiespalt, der heute zwischen Kunst und modernem Leben klafft.  Ihn erfüllte, wie seinen Freund und Jünger Nietzsche der Traum jener Griechentage, da Kunst und Leben Harmonie war und ein schreitender nackter Jüngling ein so erhabenes Werk, wie eine Statue des Phidias oder ein Gesang des Homeros.  Ausleben in solcher Schönheit, oder selbst in der brutalen aber hinreissenden Gewalt der Renaissance schien ihm das einzige, denn Museumkunst achtete er gering neben dem Leben.(34)

For Zweig, these ideas on the relationship between art and life anticipate the cultural modernism in which he himself is operating.

With his dissertation complete, Zweig placed renewed emphasis on building a working relationship with Verhaeren.  After publishing an authorized translation of a selection of the Belgian’s poetry and an essay about Verhaeren in a Berlin literary journal, he traveled to Paris to spend time with him.(35)  The simplicity of Verhaeren’s suburban workspace and his austere habits left a strong and lasting impression on the young Austrian German, who had only recently abandoned the decadent lifestyle of his student days in Vienna in favor of a more earnest dedication to establishing a literary career for himself.(36)  As he would later recognize, the time spent with Verhaeren in 1904 proved important in terms of his own evolving attitude towards the aesthetic. 

As Zweig recalls, he once happened upon Verhaeren while walking along the quay of the Seine and instead of greeting the poet outright, he decided to observe him from afar for a while.  Verhaeren stopped at a floating landing stage where workers unloaded a tug boat heavily laden with fruit and vegetables and stood observing their activities for a half an hour, taking in every detail and speaking to the workers as if he were one of them.  When Zweig approached him and admitted to the Belgian that he had been watching him the entire time, the poet merely laughed and enthusiastically began telling Zweig about all that he had seen on his walk that day.  Their conversation continued as they stopped to dine together at a small local wine merchant; there, it expanded to include Verhaeren’s deep fascination with the ships, canals and rivers of France.  By the time they parted company, Zweig recalls, Verhaeren glowed with inspiration and had a strong desire to go back to his flat and work.  Reflecting on this encounter afterwards, Zweig realized the aesthetic importance of such individual experiences for Verhaeren, and how they came to fructify the “wunderbar breite Vision der einheitlichen Welt” of his poetry.(37)

While Verhaeren explored the contemporary and cosmopolitan European dimensions of cultural modernism during his annual residence in Paris from mid-autumn to mid-spring, he spent the other half of the year in his tiny Flemish Heimat of Caillou qui Bique, a hamlet of four or five houses near the border between Belgium and France.  Zweig visited him there for five consecutive summers, spending a considerable amount of time with the poet while exploring deeper the principles of his aesthetic humanism.  Verhaeren’s ability to interact socially with the local lawyer, priest, brewer, printer and smith and his penchant for discussing the political and agricultural issues of the day without having to speak about literature left a strong impression on Zweig, who undoubtedly recognized a parallel with Whitman’s own belief in the genius of the common people.(38)  Furthermore, he came to understand this trait as emblematic of the poet’s enthusiastic Weltanschauung. 

For Zweig, Verhaeren’s poetry encompassed an unremitting affirmation of his love of life in both its attention to detail and its appreciation of the entirety.(39)  This found root in the Belgian’s personality.  For example, Zweig recounts telling Verhaeren of his experience of the public enthusiasm in Strasbourg about one of the inaugural zeppelin airship flights, presumably in 1908.  While describing the atmosphere in the city and the communal feeling of amazement at this technological feat, Zweig witnessed Verhaeren glowingly identify with his own sense of astonishment because each human achievement enraptured him.  Importantly, this transcended national boundaries.  Verhaeren, who had been inspired by Zweig’s account to believe that the dream of new age for humanity had dawned because of the success of human flight, burst into Zweig’s room the following morning in tears with newspaper in hand after reading about the airship tragedy of Echterdingen – he had perceived the disaster as a personal defeat for all mankind.  However, as Zweig continues, Verhaeren’s enthusiasm was by no means limited to great achievements; indeed, the mechanism of a watch, the verse of a poem, an image or even a landscape could all, and often did, send the poet into ecstasy.  Because the Belgian always saw and wanted to see the positive and the creative in all things, Zweig felt that an infinite richness and beauty always characterized his life and work:

Er liebte über seine Heimat hinaus Europa und die Welt, liebte die Zukunft mehr als die Vergangenheit, weil in ihr noch neue Möglichkeiten des Neuen waren, ungeahnte Möglichkeiten der Ekstase und des Enthusiasmus, und ohne den Tod zu fürchten, liebte er unendlich das Leben, weil es tagtäglich voll so vieler heiliger Überraschungen war.(40)

Whereas Verhaeren’s verse began as a personal passion, its scope increased alongside his rising fame and reputation around 1905 to become something of an apostolic mission and gradually, a certain national pathos grew into his work.  However, instead of speaking as a person from Flanders, Verhaeren spoke for Flanders itself; through his poetry, he not only announced the message of the age but also the reputation of his Volk in a similar fashion to Whitman.(41)  Interestingly, Zweig’s view of Verhaeren here conveys an interest in Nietzsche’s poetics, and the national and European dimensions of his own efforts to introduce Verhaeren’s work to a German-speaking audience.  As Nietzsche points out in “The poet as the signpost to the future” in Human, All Too Human (1886): 

That poetic power available to men of today which is not used up in the depiction of life ought to be dedicated, not so much to the representation of the contemporary world or to the reanimation or the imaginative reconstruction of the past, but to signposting the future…What he will do…is emulate the artists of earlier times who imaginatively developed the existing images of the gods and imaginatively develop a fair image of man; he will scent out those cases in which, in the midst of our modern world and reality without any artificial withdrawal from or warding off of this world, the great and beautiful soul is still possible…knowledge and art blended to a new unity…the spirit dwelling together with…the soul…the ever increasing elevation of man.(42)

Zweig’s reception of these particular ideas appears quite clearly in his own discussion of the importance of Verhaeren’s poetry in his 1910 biography of the Belgian.

As Zweig argues, the primitive poem, that of classical antiquity, was both the product and the producer of passion in that the individual, in the poet, engaged the group in a dialogue through his poetry.  Consequently, lyrical verse was something in the process of creation, something newly growing at that particular moment.  With the invention of writing, poets lost this intimate and inspiring rapport with their audience; mass print culture took away the face-to-face interaction inherent to this older process.  For Zweig, this element remains of utmost importance to art itself and he sees important changes occurring in the early twentieth century:

Nevertheless in our own days there seem to be signs of a return to this primitive close contact between the poet and his audience; a new pathos is at its birth…the time of isolation of the poet from the crowd, which was formerly rendered necessary by the great distances between nation and nation, seems now to be overcome by the shortening of space and by the industrialisation of cities.  To-day, poets once again recite their verse in lecture-halls, in the popular universities of America; nay in churches Walt Whitman’s lines ring out into the American consciousness…Now, again as of old, the lyric poet seems entitled to be, if not the intellectual leader of the time, at least he who must excite and quell the passions of the time.(43)

Furthermore, there is a necessary generational component to what Zweig discusses in Émile Verhaeren (1910):

Certainly, the poem which would speak to the multitude must be different to the kind of poem that pleased our fathers.  Above all, it must itself be a will, an aim, an energy, an evocation…It is not written for gentle moods, but for loud, resonant words.  He who would quell the crowd must have the rhythm of their own new and restless life in him; he who speaks to the crowd must be inspired by the new pathos.  And this new pathos, this ‘pathos which most of all accepts the world as it is’ (in Nietzsche’s sense), is…the strength and the will to create ecstasy…to fire to a deed.(44)

Accordingly, Zweig maintains that this new poetry cannot be created by feeble, passive types whose mood can be changed at any minute by the world around them, but only by fighting natures who elevate their inspiration to the inspiration of the whole world.  He sees this new pathos in Verhaeren’s work, which he feels compelled to read aloud in the zest and glow of passion because it communicates the ecstasies of the modern experience.  As passionate analyses that act like discoveries, Verhaeren’s pieces are moving, not harmonious, because the Belgian is both a poet and a rhetorical orator; everything strives forwards, forwards, dragging the register along with ecstatic power.  However, as Zweig concedes, there are dangers inherent to this new pathos: in these poems, there is the will to unceasing ecstasy. 

A brief example from Verhaeren’s La Multiple Splendeur (1906), which Zweig translated and published in S. Fischer’s Die Neue Rundschau in 1908 as part of his effort to introduce the Belgian’s work to a German-speaking audience, illustrates this point.(45)  As the final stanza of Verhaeren’s “Die Freude” concludes:

O Schauer und Glut, aufzuckender Schwall, / Als höbe dich eine unfaßbare Schwinge / Aufwärts ins All! / Und fühlst du dich teilhaft der ewigen Dinge, / Dann darfst du in böser Zeit nicht mehr klagen; / Wie gierig die Qual auch in dich einwühlt, / Mußt du dir sagen: / Ich habe in jener letzten Sekunde / die große, die einzige Freude gefühlt, / Das wunderbare Traumbild war mein, / Mein Herz in das Pulsen der Dinge zu tragen, / Sie ließ mich es ahnen, die eine Stunde, / Gottgleich zu sein.(46)

According to Zweig, Verhaeren found this new pathos in the course of his own artistic development.  Instead of feeling that the voice of the crowd, the cities and the new were a hindrance to his lyrical poetry, he came to understand them as a challenge for the poet to take up through rhetorical exhortation: “the more that the world around us becomes ponderous, grandiose and passionate – the more it becomes heroic in the concentration of its strength – so much the more too, must lyric poetry in the new sense, perhaps in Verhaeren’s sense, be pathetic”.(47)  As Zweig concludes, a loud appeal necessitates a loud answer and, echoing his doctoral work on Taine, all art is more dependent than we are aware on its epoch.

Now, in terms of what Zweig understands as Verhaeren’s broader European importance, he once again returns to the issue of the poet.  That Verhaeren’s work attempts to express the contemporary in its entirety is for Zweig evidence of the Belgian’s feeling of responsibility to the future.(48)  This reveals strong echoes of Zweig’s perspective on Whitman, which was heavily influenced by Léon Bazalgette (1873-1928).  Bazalgette was a close personal and professional friend to both Zweig and Verhaeren and his 1908 biography of Whitman heavily influenced the way that Zweig and his Austrian German contemporaries understood the American poet.(49)  For Bazalgette, Whitman’s importance to modernist European intellectuals can be found in the way that his poetry speaks “to the whole world” and expresses “everything belonging to young humanity, everything directed to the future”; equally important to both Americans and Europeans, Whitman represents “a big elder brother who clears our way after having breathed our atmosphere, traveled our roads, experienced our appetites”.(50)  Zweig wholeheartedly adopted this perspective on Whitman and articulated analogous sentiments in his biography of Verhaeren.  While most contemporary poets show little concern for the realities of their environment, Zweig maintains that Verhaeren, headless of the approval or disapproval of his time, turns attention to future generations while expressing the torment and the trouble of the broader psychic transition from old to new and the painful discovery of the new beauty in new things so characteristic of fin-de-siècle modernism.(51)  As such, Verhaeren’s verse represents Europe at the turn of the century and provides a lyrical encyclopedia of the intellectual atmosphere of the time.  For Zweig, Whitman’s exclamation that “The greatest poet forms the consistence of what has been and is…he places himself where the future becomes present” expresses the precise quality that lends Verhaeren’s verse such contemporary importance.(52)   

As Zweig maintains, “to say that Verhaeren was the first of lyric poets to feel as consciously European as Walt Whitman felt American, is to establish his rank among the most considerable men of our time”.(53)  For him, the whole of Europe speaks with Verhaeren’s voice, which reaches beyond the fin de siècle into the future.  Indeed, the Belgian’s European-wide appeal demonstrates his contemporary importance: although he is the national poet of Belgium, he is perhaps most appreciated by a minority of Frenchmen looking abroad for cultural innovation and in places facing deep-rooted social and ethical crises, such as Russia and Germany, he is embraced most.(54)  As Zweig concludes,

Wherever people are tired of pessimism, tired of confused mysticism, and tired of monistic shallowness; wherever a longing stirs…for a new reconciliation between our new realities and the old reverence for eternal secrets…Verhaeren’s name shall stand foremost.  An answer comes from every direction because it was in itself an answer to the unconscious demand for a new community, a demand being made by men of all nations, everywhere today…already, a ring of men of all nations are joining hands, a ring of men who perceive a new centre of spirituality in Verhaeren, who embodies a new vital doctrine of enthusiasm.(55) 

In an effort to engage this audience, Zweig and Verhaeren would undertake a joint speaking tour throughout Germany and Austria in 1912. 

Zweig’s professional relationship with Hermann Bahr during this period sheds further light on the linked Austrian and European dimensions of Zweig’s conception of cultural modernism.  As Zweig’s letter to Hesse indicates, he did not personally know Bahr in 1903; however, this soon changed on account of Zweig’s work introducing Verhaeren to the German-speaking cultural sphere.  As the surviving correspondence reveals, Zweig first contacted Bahr in 1904, sending him a copy of a selection of Verhaeren’s poetry that he had recently translated and published.  The two authors, who both lived in Vienna, established a professional relationship that grew somewhat closer over the next few years.  At the end of November 1909, Zweig brought Bahr a copy of a new Verhaeren drama that he had recently published in a small run and in April 1910, Zweig sent Bahr a copy of his Verhaeren monograph.(56)  Bahr expressed his feelings towards Zweig’s biography and his work introducing the Belgian that summer:

Nehmen Sie meinen herzlichsten Dank für die freundliche Sendung Verhaerens! Ich habe inzwischen die französische Ausgabe Ihrer Biographie(57) mit der allergrössten Freude gelesen, ich finde es wunderschön, wie Sie darin den ganzen Geist der Epoche verdichten; und dass sich Ihre Wünsche mit meinen eigenen Lieblingswünschen begegnen, macht mir das Buch natürlich noch lieber.  Ich hatte jetzt Lust bei meiner nächsten Tournée im Herbst aus Ihren Übersetzungen Verhaerens vorzulesen, ich weiss nur noch nicht, ob ich unter meinen Tönen einen für ihn finde.  Nur müssten Sie aber eigentlich doch auch das Buch über Whitman schreiben, das deutsche Buch über Whitman, das ich seit Jahren erwarte.  Sie könnens.(58)

Yet despite an enduring appreciation of Whitman and the poetic similarities that he shared with Verhaeren, Zweig would never find the time to write this book; by late 1914, he would break with both Verhaeren and Bahr over their wartime jingoism and be forced to suspend his cross-cultural activities in the face of an escalating European conflict. 



In the period before the First World War, Zweig’s conception of cultural modernism matured to contain a noteworthy combination of national and supranational elements.  Outside of the sphere of practical political participation because of his family background, education and generational placement while at home in Vienna, Zweig concentrated the bulk of his activities on the cultivation of an apolitical transnational European aesthetic ideal based on a departure from the liberal tradition in which he was raised and the cultural legacy of the generation of the 1890’s.  As a Jewish Austrian German intellectual, he saw no problem with the fact that his publishers and a sizable portion of his audience lay outside the boarders of the Habsburg Monarchy.  Indeed, his working relationship with Verhaeren can best be understood as the product of a distinctive European understanding of his own cultural identity that was completely at home in and in step with other national varieties of cultural modernism finding public expression around this time.  That Zweig choose to mediate between different national cultures by highlighting the European-wide interconnectivity of changing cultural values around the turn of the century proves particularly interesting, especially in terms of the broader scholarly reconsideration of the relationship between politics and culture among the Austrian German Bildungsbürgertum around the turn of the century. 


(1) Stefan Zweig, Émile Verhaeren (Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1910); Stefan Zweig, Jethro Bithel (trans.), Émile Verhaeren (London: Constable & Co., Ltd., 1915), p. 24.
(2) This brief study is part of a larger project on modern Austrian history; entitled: “Today, Tomorrow…and Yesterday? Modern Austrian Identity and the Case of Hermann Bahr and Stefan Zweig” (PhD Dissertation, University of Warwick, 2008), it investigates the relevance of these early twentieth-century Austrian German authors to the country’s broader national development.
(3) Carl E. Schorske, Fin-De-Siècle Vienna (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979), pp. 8-10.
(4) For example, see: Dominick Lacapra, “Is Everyone a Mentalité Case? Transference and the ‘Culture’ Concept”, History and Theory, 23:3 (Oct., 1984), pp. 296-311; Michael P. Steinberg, “Jewish Identity and Intellectuality in Fin-de-Siècle Austria: Suggestions for a Historical Discourse”, New German Critique, 43 (Winter, 1988), pp. 3-33; Michael S. Roth, “Performing History: Modernist Contextualism in Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna”, The American Historical Review, 99:3 (June 1994), pp. 729-45; Steven Beller (ed.), Rethinking Vienna 1900 (Oxford: Berghahn, 2001).  Scott Spector, “Beyond the Aesthetic Garden: Politics and Culture on the Margins of ‘Fin-de-Siècle Vienna’”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 59:4 (1998), pp. 691-710.
(5) Adam Wandruszka, Österreichs politische Struktur. Die Entwicklung der Parteien und politischen Bewegungen (Sonderausdruck, Habilitationsarbeit, Wien, Verlag für Geschichte und Politik, 1954), p. 294.
(6) William J. McGrath, Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974); William J. McGrath, “Student Radicalism in Vienna”, Journal of Contemporary History, 2:3 (1967), pp. 183-201; William J. McGrath, “‘Volksseelenpolitik’ and Psychological Rebirth: Mahler and Hofmannsthal”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 4:1 (Summer, 1973), pp. 53-72; William J. McGrath, “Dionysian Art: Crisis and Creativity in Turn-of-the-Century Vienna”, in Jacob Golomb (ed.), Nietzsche and the Austrian Culture (Wien: WUV, 2004), pp. 23-41.
(7) William J. McGrath, Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria, p. 53.
(8) Scott Spector, “Introduction: Uneven Cultural Development? Modernism and Modernity in the ‘Other’ Central Europe”, Austrian History Yearbook, 33 (2002), p. 146.
(9) For a comprehensive account of this Austrian Nietzsche reception, see: Hans Gerald Hödl, “Die Nietzsche-Rezeption in Österreich im frühen 20. Jahrhundert” in Rüdiger Görner and Duncan Large (eds), Ecce Opus, Nietzsche-Revisionen im 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003), pp. 139-64; Jacob Golomb (ed.), Nietzsche and the Austrian Culture (Wien: WUV, 2004).
(10) William J. McGrath, “Dionysian Art: Crisis and Creativity in Turn-of-the-Century Vienna”, pp. 24-5.
(11)  H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (Brighton: Harvester Press Limited, 1979), pp. 18-19.
(12) Carl E. Schorske, Fin-De-Siècle Vienna, p. 8.
(13) Donald G. Daviau, “The ‘Austropäer’ Hermann Bahr as Catalyst and Mediator of Modernity in a European Context”, in Understanding Hermann Bahr (St. Ingbert: Röhrig Universitätsverlag, 2002), pp. 473-4.
(14) For example, see: Hermann Bahr, “Die Moderne” (1890), reprinted in Gotthard Wunberg, Die Wiener Moderne. Literature, Kunst und Musik zwischen 1890 und 1910 (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981), p. 191.
(15) Hermann Bahr, “Das Junge Österreich” (1893), reprinted in Gotthart Wunberg, Die Wiener Moderne, p. 294.
(16) Andrew W. Barker, “‘Der grosse Überwinder’: Hermann Bahr and the Rejection of Naturalism”, Modern Language Review, 78 (July, 1983), p. 625.
(17) Carl E. Schorske, Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 152-3.
(18) Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (3rd edition, London: Cassell and Company, 1944), p. 27.
(19) Ibid, p. 44.
(20) Ibid, p. 40.
(21) Ibid, p. 45.
(22) Ibid, p. 81.
(23) Ibid, pp. 55-6.
(24) As most explicitly expressed in: Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Erster Band (1878), Aph. 475, “Der europäische Mensch und die Vernichtung der Nationen” in Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (eds), Nietzsches Werke; kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abt.4 Bnd. 2 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1967), p. 319.
(25) Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, p. 98.
(26) Ibid, p. 99.
(27) Stefan Zweig, “Errinerungen an Émile Verhaeren” (1917), in Stefan Zweig, Begegnungen mit Menschen, Büchern, Städten (Wien, Leipzig, Zürich: Herbert Reichner Verlag, 1937), p. 10.
(28) Ibid, pp. 12-13.
(29) Ibid, pp. 16-17.
(30) Ibid, p. 19.
(31) Joseph Strelka, Stefan Zweig, Freier Geist der Menschlichkeit (Wien: Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1981), p. 15.
(32) “Zweig an Hermann Hesse, Wien 2. März 1903”, in Stefan Zweig, Briefe 1897-1914, Knut Beck and Jeffrey B. Berlin (eds), (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1995), p. 57.
(33) Stefan Zweig, “Die Philosophie des Hippolyte Taine” (PhD dissertation, University of Vienna, 1904).
(34) Ibid, pp. 106-7.
(35) Émile Verhaeren, Stefan Zweig (ed., trans.), Ausgewählte Gedichte (Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1904); Stefan Zweig, “Émile Verhaeren”, in Das literarische Echo (Berlin), 15 April 1904, pp. 972-8, reprinted in Stefan Zweig, Knut Beck (ed.), Émile Verhaeren (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1984), pp. 7-22.
(36) Stefan Zweig, “Errinerungen an Émile Verhaeren”, pp. 22-3.
(37) Ibid, p. 25.
(38) Ibid, p. 33; Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855) in Justin Kaplan (ed.), Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (New York: Viking Press, 1982), pp. 5-6.
(39) Stefan Zweig, “Errinerungen an Émile Verhaeren”, p. 43.
(40) Ibid, p. 44.
(41) Ibid, p. 51.
(42) Friedrich Nietzsche, R.J. Hollingdale (trans.), Human, All Too Human. A Book for Free Spirits (London: CUP, 1986), pp. 235-6.
(43) Stefan Zweig, Jethro Bithel (trans.), Émile Verhaeren, pp. 131-2.
(44) Ibid, pp. 132-3.
(45) Émile Verhaeren, Stefan Zweig (trans.), “Die Freude”, Die Neue Rundschau, Band 3, 1908 (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1908), pp. 1371-2.
(46) Ibid, p. 1372.
(47) Stefan Zweig, Jethro Bithel (trans.), Émile Verhaeren, p. 140.
(48) Ibid, p. 253.
(49) Léon Bazalgette, Walt Whitman. L’homme et son œuvre (Paris, 1908).
(50) Léon Bazalgette, Ellen Fitzgerald (trans.), Walt Whitman, The man and his work (New York: Cooper Square, 1970), p. xvi
(51) Stefan Zweig, Jethro Bithel (trans.), Émile Verhaeren, p. 256.
(52) Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855) in Justin Kaplan (ed.), Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, p. 13.
(53) Stefan Zweig, Jethro Bithel (trans.), Émile Verhaeren, p. 115.
(54) Ibid, p. 257.
(55) Ibid, pp. 258-9.
(56) “Zweig an Bahr, Ende November 1909” and “Bahr an Zweig, 29 April 1910”, in Stefan Zweig, Briefwechsel mit Hermann Bahr, Sigmund Freud, Rainer Maria Rilke und Arthur Schnitzler, Jeffrey B. Berlin, Hans-Ulrich Lindken and Donald A. Prater (eds), (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1987), p. 21.
(57) Zweig’s biography of Verhaeren was published simultaneously in German and French in 1910.
(58) “Bahr an Zweig, 27 July 1910”, in Stefan Zweig, Briefwechsel mit Hermann Bahr, Sigmund Freud, Rainer Maria Rilke und Arthur Schnitzler, pp. 21-2.

1.11. American and Austrian Literature and Film: Influences, Interactions and Intersections

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For quotation purposes:
Nikolaus Unger: lThe Influence of Walt Whitman and Emile Verhaeren in Stefan Zweig’s Pre-1914 Conception of Cultural Modernism In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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