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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (1776–1822)

HOFFMANN’S character is one of the most singular and contradictory in all that eccentric group of German Romanticists. His sarcastic wit and flashes of humor made him popular with his companions, and his society was much sought after; but he inspired rather fear than love, for he was reckless in his indiscretions and ruthless in giving offense. Of all art he took a serious view,—“There is no art which is not sacred,” he said,—and yet he felt a repugnance to looking at things from their serious side: “These are odiosa” was one of his familiar phrases. In his character as in his work there is much that suggests Poe, and the quality of his weird and often delicate fancy reminds one of Hawthorne. The unquestioned mastery of language and description that he displays is weakened by his uncontrolled mannerisms, and his wayward imagination often injures his finest flights of fancy. He delighted to make his studies of men in the borderlands between reason and madness; for him the step was always a short one into the misty realm of ghosts and doubles and startling visions. This love of the marvelous increased as he grew older. And yet, as Professor Kuno Francke has said, “Hoffmann with all his somnambulism and madness was at the same time a master of realistic description and of psychological analysis.”

Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann was born at Königsberg on January 24th, 1776. The unpleasant relations subsisting between his parents led to their separation when he was still a child; and to the lack of happy home influences he attributed much of the misery which his habits brought upon him in later years. He adopted the legal profession, in which his father had distinguished himself, and he began his career under promising auspices. He served a term as assessor in Posen, in the then newly acquired Polish provinces; but in consequence of a thoughtless bit of folly he was transferred to the remote little town of Plozk, whither he went with his young Polish wife in 1802, and where he gave himself up to wild and extravagant gayety. Life seemed to open up brightly before him once more when he received an appointment to Warsaw; but his career in that “motley world” was brought to an abrupt end in 1806 by the troops of Napoleon.

The bit of folly which led to Hoffmann’s removal to Plozk reveals incidentally his remarkable versatility. He was an excellent draughtsman, and some of the best-remembered caricatures of Napoleon were made by him. It was a series of witty caricatures of prominent men in Posen that gave offense to certain high officials there, upon whose complaint he was removed. Throughout his life Hoffmann continued to practice this art: during his “martyr years” in Bamberg he eked out his scanty income by painting family portraits, and he acted as scene-painter for a theatrical company with which he subsequently became connected.

But his professional work in Bamberg was of quite a different character. In the period of penury and hardship that followed the loss of his government post, Hoffmann had gone to Berlin and cast about for any employment that would afford him support. He secured the position of musical director of the theatre at Bamberg. Hoffmann was a composer of no mean talent. His work had sufficient merit to win and hold the esteem of Weber, although in the strife between the Italian school and the new national German school, of which the ‘Freischütz’ was the symbol and example, Hoffmann sided with Spontini and the Italians. Nevertheless he was an ardent admirer of the genius of Beethoven, for whose work he made propaganda, and in his passionate admiration of Mozart he went so far as to adopt the name of Amadeus instead of his own Wilhelm. Indeed, to most of his readers, perhaps, he is known as E. T. A. rather than E. T. W. Hoffmann. His masterly analysis of ‘Don Giovanni’ is a choice piece of musical criticism, not without value to-day.

In his management of the Bamberg theatre Hoffmann was guided by high artistic ideals; through his influence several of Calderón’s plays were produced. But the incubus of the Napoleonic wars rested upon every enterprise, and the theatre had to be closed. Hoffmann still held the post of correspondent of the Musical Gazette of Leipzig, but had no adequate income. He led a wretched life as musical director of a troupe which played alternately in Leipzig and in Dresden. He was in Dresden during the siege, and while the bullets flew thick around him he wrote with enthusiastic exaltation one of his best tales, ‘Der Goldene Topf’ (The Golden Pot), which Carlyle translated for his collection of German romances. It was during this period also that he set Fouqué’s ‘Undine’ to music, and the opera was produced at the Berlin opera-house.

All this is aside from Hoffmann’s literary work, upon which his fame is solely founded. His early years, with their varied experiences in strange places and amid exciting scenes, supplied his pen with inexhaustible material. His first characteristic contribution to literature was the ‘Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier’ (Fantasy-pieces in the style of Callot). These were a collection of his articles that had been published in the Musical Gazette; striking pen sketches in the manner of the celebrated and eccentric French engraver of the early seventeenth century, Jacques Callot. In the following year, 1815, appeared ‘Die Elixire des Teufels’ (The Devil’s Elixir). This work made his literary reputation sure. Among the most widely known of his numerous books is the collection of tales bearing the general title of ‘Die Serapionsbrüder’ (The Serapion Brethren). The name was derived from an association of kindred spirits in Berlin, which happened to hold its first meeting on the night of the anniversary of St. Serapion. Among the occasional guests of this coterie was Oehlenschläger, who in introducing a young countryman of his wrote to Hoffmann: “Dip him also a little into the magic sea of your humor, respected friend, and teach him how a man can be a philosopher and seer of the world under the ironical mantle of the mad-house, and what is more, an amiable man as well.” These words admirably characterize the peculiar quality of Hoffmann’s strange blending of wit, wisdom, and madness. His amiability appears probably most conspicuously in the ‘Kater Murr’ (Tom-Cat Murr’s Views of Life). The satire is keen but genial, and of the author’s more ambitious works this is his most finished production. But it is in the shorter tales that the artist displays his highest excellence: the serious philosopher in the garb of a madman, and the tender-hearted poet telling quaint fairy tales. Spiritually he is related to Jean Paul, but missed his depth and greatness. The lyric swing, the wild imagination, the serious undercurrent beneath the sprightly wit, the biting satire, and the playful fancy, assure him generations of readers among his countrymen, and numerous translations attest his popularity in England and America.

The rest of the story of Hoffmann’s sad life is soon told. After the peace which concluded the Napoleonic wars he was restored to his official position in 1816, this time in the high tribunal of Berlin; and his seniority was acknowledged as if he had served without a break. Here he found himself in the midst of a choice and congenial circle: Hitzig his biographer, Fouqué, Chamisso. His dissolute ways, however, never completely abandoned, led finally to the disease which terminated in his death. He died literally inch by inch, though eager to live in what pitiable condition soever; and to the end, when his vital functions were almost suspended, his mind and imagination remained unimpaired. He died on June 25th, 1822.

Hoffmann’s writings, like himself, are full of strange contradictions. He was an epicurean to the point of weakness and a stoic to the point of heroic endurance. At the very portals of death he continued to write in his own fantastic vein; and at the same time was inspired to compose a tale, ‘Des Vetters Eckfenster’ (The Cousin’s Corner Window), which is so unlike his usual style that lovers of Émile Souvestre would take pleasure in its serene and grave philosophy. “He preferred to remain a riddle to himself, a riddle which he always dreaded to have solved,” wrote a friend; and he demanded that he should be regarded as a “sacred inexplicable hieroglyph.”