There is an intriguing text, ‘The Lord Chandos Letter’, by the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), that he presents as a document presumed to be a letter written in 1602 by a 26-year-old English writer named Lord Chandos to his older contemporary, the philosopher Francis Bacon. The fact that we know Bacon to have been a real person leads us to assume that so must have been Chandos but, by the end of the text, it is clear that Hofmannsthal has successfully manipulated that deception and that the letter before us is a fiction.
However, before we come to that realisation, we are persuaded that young Chandos has been a prodigy whose plays — written when he was a teenager — were highly acclaimed by the Elizabethan aristocracy, but he has stopped writing and his letter is an answer to Bacon who has asked him what induced this “mental stagnation.”
Chandos replies that he’s unsure if he is the same person who, when younger, had written with such enthusiasm, believing with each new work that he was about to access “that deep, deep inner form”, which for the writer is the heart of literature, and to create work that so “penetrates” and “dissolves” the subject matter that the resulting text beams out as “at once both dream and reality, an interplay of eternal forces, something as marvellous as music or algebra.” His was the artist’s dream that “conceived the whole of existence as one great unit”, the spiritual and physical worlds entirely absorbed in each other. His ultimate realisation, that he could never achieve this perfection, has induced in him a paralysing depression: the fruit-laden branch flings back when he reaches for it, the stream’s thirst-quenching water dries up when he advances his lips to it.
The shock that then jolts the reader is the substitution in the reader’s mind of the rats by people and the writer’s rat imagery translates into the idea that it is humanity’s inescapable destiny to be trapped within a poisonous atmosphere from where death is the only release.
Nature’s distant vision appears as a paradise, but vanishes into a polluted gloom when approached. Chandos is depressed, too, by the banality of existence, having to listen to trivial gossip when the “wonderful interplay” of the ideas of the Ancients is available to human minds. It makes him feel like “someone locked in a garden surrounded by eyeless statues.”
Chandos finds some relief from his depression by riding out in the country and being soothed by glimpses of natural beauty. But riding out one day, after he has ordered rat poison to be scattered in the milk cellar of his farm which is riddled with rats, just as he regains his spiritual calm in the middle of beautiful nature, he is suddenly filled with a vision of what must be happening in that cellar at that very moment: it must be filled by the “pungent reek of poison, and the yelling of the death-cries” of the rats and “the vain convulsions of those convoluted bodies as they tear about in confusion and despair.” Hofmannsthal presents a harrowing picture of the rats’ suffering, concluding with an unbearable image of a mother rat surrounded by “her young in their agony of death”: in her helpless terror, she is staring “into the void, or through the void into Infinity.”
The shock that then jolts the reader is the substitution in the reader’s mind of the rats by people and the writer’s rat imagery translates into the idea that it is humanity’s inescapable destiny to be trapped within a poisonous atmosphere from where death is the only release. One is reminded of the image in Albert Camus’s The Plague, of the quarantined plague victims packed into a football stadium who are heard to scream, whose long collective cry rises to the sky from the open mouth of the stadium, imprinting upon the reader’s mind the image of the stadium as a metaphor for the open mouth of all of humanity screaming with one voice at a merciless heaven.
The fine prose in which the Chandos Letter is written so captures its writer’s voice that the reader remains convinced to the end that Chandos is as real as his correspondent. But the imagery, with its sharply juxtaposed pictures of an earthly paradise and the earth become an ugly compound where humans are trapped victims with no recourse to escape from death, has long been a major theme in literature. Hofmannsthal’s rendering of it in a form in which the author is absent, or present only as a postman making a special delivery, gives the presentation of that imagery the essential objectivity that transforms a familiar idea into a memorable work of fiction. Also, as with Camus’s stadium metaphor, Hofmannsthal’s imagery immerses the reader into a profoundly painful knowledge of the self without the author making a direct statement. This is what distinguishes a writer of literary excellence from one who merely offers a distraction which ends when we have turned the last page.
While ‘The Lord Chandos Letter’ has a special place in Hofmannsthal’s work, a reader new to him will be astonished to find how consistently brilliant and wide-ranging his work is, and surprised that he should remain largely neglected in the English-language world. Some opera-goers will recall his name as the librettist of such renowned operas as Der Rosenkavalier and The Woman without a Shadow by Richard Strauss. But few readers know that, as a writer, Hofmannsthal was no less of a prodigy than his Lord Chandos; that he wrote poetry that made him famous when he was a teenager and that he went on to create a range of literature that ought to give him the sort of world recognition as was accorded to such 20th century German writers as Thomas Mann and Günter Grass.
The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 20th, 2018