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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 Ludwig Lewisohn (1882–1955)

By Richard Dehmel (1863–1920)

THE EXTRAORDINARILY high esteem in which the poet Richard Dehmel is held by his contemporaries is not wholly due to the æsthetic power and charm of his lyrics. It is due, in an even higher degree, to the fact that these lyrics reveal, both consciously and unconsciously, the struggle and development of a type of personality supremely interesting to the German mind.

As the aim of all his struggle Dehmel sees a condition which he calls world-happiness. This he describes as the state in which the human personality would find itself in undisturbed harmony with its own self and also with the general life of man and of the world. This ideal, which is the Goethean one too, cannot of course be realized. And it is harder of realization, perhaps, by so tumultuous and subtle a soul as Dehmel’s, than by some simpler and plainer one. For Dehmel will give up no portion of his large human heritage and explains his poetic activity as being identical with the “rhythmic taming” of all human passions. The whole matter can be made plain by a single illustration. The poet is, obviously, a man of powerful instincts. As a cure for this disharmony he rejects at once suppression, flight, or any ascetic method. The instincts must be disciplined by noble use and must be transmuted, through life and activity, into timeless and spiritual values. For thus only, Dehmel believes, will there come about that “steady, fundamental impulse to heighten all the creative powers” in which he sees man’s will toward propagating a true humanity and not simply more meaningless life.

Such is, put in terms of critical interpretation, the spirit of Dehmel’s poetry. It must not be supposed, however, that he very often expresses this spirit explicitly. In his poetry he rarely writes about his struggles and his ideals: he lives them—lives them on the concretest and therefore on the most poetical terms. The poems, to use his own words, “are not treatises, they are changes of the soul. In short, I have lived my poems.” This statement at once gives one a clue to Dehmel’s strength—the remarkable “thickness” (to use William James’s famous term) of the world in which he lives. And this world, it must be remembered, is that modern world in which we all live—not an idealized, not a poeticized world at all. The protagonists in his great story in verse ‘Two Souls’ communicate by telephone, they ride bicycles, they walk the ordinary city streets; the woman in one of his most tragic lyrics plays the piano and the poet hears her from the next room and the scene is an apartment in Berlin. Yet Dehmel is perhaps nothing so little as a doctrinasire of naturalism. It is simply his immense sincerity that forces him to embody his spiritual struggles in terms of actuality. The burning experiences came first and only later the reflection that it is wrong and stupid to brand any aspects of our modern life as “unnatural” or unfit for artistic treatment. Since our souls are in travail amid this complex civilization and since we do, as a matter of fact, instinctively accept it in experience as natural and necessary, it is a barren affectation to exclude that civilization from our art.

It must now be clear why Dehmel has come to seem so important a poet to his countrymen and why they regard his work as having such significant and tonic qualities. For in it he portrays, in all its moods and phases, that striving for freedom of personality which is their highest ideal, and he portrays it amid the scenes and the things which are the immediate realities of their lives. All these virtues of his would be futile, of course, were it not for the poet’s art. But Dehmel is a very notable master of language and an even more notable master of the music of verse. His diction is extraordinarily concrete, but the richness and energy of his rhythms give the majority of his poems a touch of the sumptuous and splendid. He has constantly invented his own stanzaic forms and thus, through their modulations, expresses in the most intimate way the spirit of his moods and aspirations. Yet it must not be imagined that this poet, so modern, so complex, and so troubled, is wholly alienated from the traditional notes of his people’s verse. In such a poem as ‘The Silent City’ he has caught the haunting imagery, the grave and wondering vision, the strange simplicity of the folk-song. Nor has he ever expressed more completely all that seems to him the deepest meaning of his life and art than in the utterly plain and unadorned verses called ‘A Song of Freedom.’

  • “This is the way o’ the world,
  • As all men born shall find;
  • The flowers blossom wild and gay,
  • But we build walls of mortar
  • Against the wind.
  • Thus it will ever be,
  • As we in death shall find;
  • Then blossom the flowers as of old,
  • While over our chill mortar
  • Laughs the wind.”