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Copyright © 2006-2013 Scientific Research Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.
Advances in Literary Study
2014. Vol.2, No.1, 12-18
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/als) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/als.2014.21004
Cyclic Vitalism: The Dialectics of Life and Death in German
Poetry around 1900*
Sven Hals e
Dept. of Aesthetics and Communication, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
Received November 17th, 2013; revised December 20th, 2013; accepted January 4th, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Sven Halse. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, pr ovided the origina l
work is properly cited. In ac cordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copyrights © 2014 are
reserved for SCIRP an d the own er of the intellectu al p rop erty Sven Halse. All Copyright © 2014 are guarded b y
law and by SCIRP as a guardian.
Over the past decade, Scandinavian and German scholars have been active in the redefinition of the terms
“Vitalism” and “Vitalist” as descriptive categories for analytical purposes in the fields of literary and cul-
tural history. In this context, “Vitalism” has primarily been used to describe an enthusiastic worshipping
of life, one that holds youth, health, strength and beauty as its primary attributes, which was prevalent in
all aspects of cultural life around 1900. But even the post war founders of the Vitalist re-conceptualisation
of this era, Wolfdietrich Rasch and Gunter Martens, w arned of taking such a unilateral view of what con-
stituted a Vitalist concept of life. It could lead to a misunderstanding of Vitalist way of thinking, Rasch
said, if the focus was only set upon the enthusiastic surplus, the worshipping of youth and health. To Vi-
talists, life is more th an that. It is a totality that also encompasses notions of destruction, decay and death.
“All life symbols in literature around 1900 are at the same time symbols of death” (Rasch, 1967: 24).
Through the analyses of three poems, this article aims to show concrete examples of how cyclic Vitalist
thinking is embedded in poetry of the era. The analyses include a further sub-categorisation to capture the
different types of Life Force dealt with in the texts. By way of an introduction, Vitalism is discussed
within the context of the scientific and social developments of the 19th Century.
Keywords: Vitalism; German Literature; German Poetry; Life Reform M ovem ent; Life Force
Life as a New Formu la for
Mankind around 1900
Between 1890-1930 the word life took on almost religious
connotations. The literary index and our examples are primarily
taken from the German speaking area, and they are abound with
life-related titles: Triumph des Lebens [Triumph of Life]1,
Eslebe das Leben [Long Live Life]2, Lobgesang des Lebens
[Hymn on Life]3, Der Ruf des Lebens [Call of Life]4, Hymnen
an das Leben [Hymns to Life]5, DerSieg des Lebens [Victory of
Life]6. This phenomenon is not, however, limited to the Ger-
man speaking region, and can be observed in the whole of
Europe and USA as well.
Not only arts and philosophy, but also to a very large extent
natural science, in this period dealt with the enigma of life; in
fact, the term Vitalism is used primarily within the paradigm of
natural science—or natural philosophy, as opponents of Vital-
ism would tend to say. In a search for the innermost mecha-
nisms of life, a group of scientists proposed the theory of a Life
Force. The Vitalists or “Neo-Vitalists”, who had been phi-
losophers with similar beliefs before—were convinced that life
could be ascribed to this specific force of nature, a force that
encompassed information of life forms and ensured the optimal
reproduction and formation of the individuals. The best-known
representative of this school was Hans Driesch (1867-1941),
Professor at the University of Cologne. He named this universal
life force “Entelechy”, borrowing this appellation from Aris-
totle, whom he regarded the true originator of Vitalism (Driesch,
1922). The concept of life as a self-directed, indivisible natural
force like gravity and electricity emerged in Hans Driesch’s
laboratories in the years 1896-1900. These were also the years,
when Henri Bequerel and Marie Curie established the existence
of radioactivity, a discovery, which confirmed Driesch’s belief
that there were still natural forces that had not yet been proven
Opposite to the theory of a Life Force, “Mechanists” claimed
that life was to be understood as an isolated chemical function
within the physical substance7. This was—as we now know—
to be the prevailing position in modern science, even though
This paper is a revised and abridged version of a formerly published co
tribution i n Germa n
, see bibliography: Halse, S. (2013).
Hart, Julius: Triumph des Lebens. Florenz und Leipzig: Eugen Diederichs
Sudermann, Hermann: Es lebe das Leben. Drama in fünf Akten. Stut
Schmidtbonn,Wilhelm:, Lobgesang des Lebens. Rhapsodien
. Berlin: Egon
Schnitzl er, Arthur: Der Ruf des Lebens . Drama in 5 Akten. Berlin:
Verhaeren, Emile: Hymnen an das Leben
(Überset zung von Stefan Zweig).
6Bölsche, Wilhelm: Der Sieg des Lebens. Stuttgart: Kosm os, 1905.
7See for instance Hein, H. (1972).
many new realisations have been added since then, not the least
the existence and function of DNA and the genome.
But the conception of an autonomous Life Force was in good
harmony with the thinking of the era, whether this thinking
derived from the paradigm of natural science or from the phi-
losophical sphere. Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, had re-
flected upon life in new and provocative ways since the 1870s.
Through his deliberations he came to place the concept of life
in opposition to the idea of civilisation: “life” for Nietzsche
meant candid, natural, biological, animalistic, instinctive. Prais-
ing “life itself” meant recognizing man’s biological destiny
“beyond good and evil”, his dependence on evolution and rules
of nature—and taking pride in it. A prominent symbol of this
“natural turn” was the naked body: the human creature stripped
of its civilizational symbols and loads; a sublime animal set free
to seek a new beginning for mankind.
Neo-Vitalism may be understood as an attempt by western
culture to overcome the perceived loss of human dignity asso-
ciated with the biological turn of 19th Century science, Darwin-
ism being its paradigmatic representative. The specific Vitalis-
tresponse was a canonisation of life as an autonomous force of
a pseudo-divine status.
Natural science of the late 19th Century had demonstrated
man to be an animal among other animals. Though he distin-
guished himself through his intelligence and culture, he was
exposed to the very same evolutionary and biological laws, as
were all other creatures on earth. It therefore was not easy to
uphold the image of man as created in the likeness of God. Fur-
thermore, Darwin’s maxim on the survival of the fittest was by
some re-phrased into a doctrine of “the right of the strongest”,
and Darwinism thus to some became a threat to Christian ethics
of charity and to humanistic ethics in general. Although Darwin
had talked about “the fittest” and not “the strongest”, the latter
interpretation often dominated the messages of popular science.
This can be seen in the instance of German “völkische” ideol-
ogy (an expansive nationalist ideology based on a conception of
the supremacy of the “Aryan race”), whose proponents tried to
substantiat e r acial theories with “scientific” evidence.
The general understanding of nature as a battle, in which
some species had to succumb, to some degree found its parallel
and verification in the social development of the western coun-
tries. The poor social conditions of the lowest classes in the
wake of industrialisation and the concentration of physical and
moral d ecay in big cities, to some people seemed to expose the
“fact” that the human race might not be fit for survival in this
modern civilisation. Against the backdrop of this threat tohu-
mankind, new visions for humanity’s future arose, visions that
lent towards a more natural and vital base. This eulogising of
life alongside predictions of humankind’s death and decay, the
cult of décadence, is notable in that these two reactions,
décadence and Vitalism, are often represented together in art.
The Life Reform Movement, in its many guises, indicat es th e
contemporary culture’s desire for a new vision of human dig-
nity. Health, beauty and strength became keywords in this new
vision, but their close neighbours, not to say their twins, were
decay, degeneration and death.
Vitalism as a Cycli c Concept
The term “lif e ” became as significant and essential to this era,
as were th e terms “sense” or “r ati o ” to the era of Enlightenment;
according to German literary critic and authority in this field,
Wolfdietrich Rasch (Rasch, 1967: 17). In the 1960s, Rasch
suggested that this life-enthusiastic trend in literature and cul-
ture should be emphasised in literary historiography, and be
given its own appellation. Vitalism was already used in natural
science and thus considered too “narrow”, instead he suggest-
ed the term “Lebenspathos” (Life Pathos), however the term
never gained support in the tradition of German literary histo-
riography (Ras c h , 1967: 20).
Four years after Rasch had pointed out the need for a way to
express the cultural interest in “life” (and death) at the turn of
the twentieth century, Gunter Martens in his dissertation Vital-
ismus und Expressionismus (Martens, 1971) insisted on the
usability of the term Vitalism for describing this phenomenon.
In so doing he prepared the ground forthe rediscovery of Vital-
ism by scholars and for the re-definition of the use of the term
within cultural analysis. A further wave of interest in this work
has arisen over the past ten years or so8.
In recent years scholars within the field of cultural history
have made an effort to identify, describe and synthesise the
increased significance of life as a problem and a subject of
adoration in the arts, philosophy and everyday culture in the
period 1890 until approximately 1930, or in some cases even
later. Such studies have tended to use a re-definition of the
concept of Vitalism that goes beyond the term as conceived by
“Vitalism” and “Vitalist” in a cultural analytic context are
thus to be understood as defining a category that describes
phenomenon in art, literature and other artistic expressions, but
also in other cultural forms like organisational programs, po-
litical programs etc. In earlier articles (Halse, 2007, 2009), a
typology pointing out four domains of Vitalist expression has
been suggested: artistic, philosophical, scientific and pragmatic
Vitalism. Sports historian Hans Bonde has suggested the fol-
lowing definition of Vitalism in a broader sense: “Vitalism is a
cultural current, that manifests itself in philosophy, arts and
everyday life through an emphasis on the active sides of life,
the forward striving youth, the dynamic personality and the
potentials of the body, and with a sting against rationalism,
intellectualism and unilateral worshipping of the mind” (Bonde,
2005: 9, translated by SH).
Hans Bonde’s definition resonates with many recent discus-
sions of Vitalist features in cultural life in the early 20th Century.
Such discussions have to a large degree focussed on the “posi-
tive” aspect of the life-theme, i. e. on he alth, strength and beauty;
what one might call the affirmation of life. Youth and love of
life have often been accentuated as characteristics of the Vital-
ist way of thinking. And for a sports historian this is very natu-
ral. But also within other parts of cultural history, Vitalism has
been seen in opposition to the decadent fin de siècle-cult, in
which diseases and bad spirits are understood as prerequisites
for sublime art.
By unilaterally stressing the life-affirmative aspect of Vital-
ism, however, there is a risk of trivialising and vulgarising what
Vitalism is actually about, and thus providing a platform for
those who want to portray Vitalism as nothing but kitsch and
Many articles and some books have contributed to the re-
discovering of the
vitalist current in primarily Scandinavian and German Arts. They cannot all
be mentioned here; a recent selection of titles in English and German (in
alphabet ical o rder) co uld includ e: And ersen
, L.P. (2011); Bühler,
, A.E. (2011); Halse, S. (2011); Hvidberg-Hansen, G. (2011), Munch
A.V. (2011); Nørlyng
, O. (2011); Oelsner, G. (2011); Riedel,
The number and importance of the contributions in Danish and other Scan-
dinavian languages by far outweigh those in German and English.
OPEN ACCESS 13
Excurse: Vitalism and Fascism
One or two words should be said about the relation between
Vitalism and fascism. They have many motifs in common: the
preference for youth, health, beauty, strong bodies, sports and
physical activities, and so forth. This can partly be ascribed to
the fact that all popular movements, be it the scout movement,
the hiking-societies (Wandervogel-Bewegung), associations for
sports of any kind, for healthier living (vegetarianism, nudism
etc.) were ideologically aligned with the Nazi-programme in
the 1930s, or else forbidden (Gleichschaltung, “Unification”);
their message of a healthier mankind was steered into the Nazi
racial ideology with the optimization of the “Aryan” r ace as its
main goal. Not all members and sections of the early Life Re-
form Movement were unfamiliar to this kind of racial thinking.
“Völkische” ideology had found some foothold in the German
Kaiserreich from the late 19th Century onwards. The Nazis in
the 1920s did not invent “Aryan” racial thinking, but like most
other things that came into their horizon of interest, they inten-
sified, systematised and de-humanised, and in some cases dis-
torted it. Anti-Semites and racists we find in the early Lebens-
reform as well as in other parts of German society around 1900.
Some of these reformers like the early Garden City creator
Theodor Fritsch or the well-known artist Fidus (Hugo Hoep-
pener) later put themselves at the disposal of the Nazi regime,
without reservation. Others tried as long as possible to stay on
an alternative path, and then disappeared in one way, or the
There is no reason to try to white-wash theVita list move ment ,
as there is no such thing as a “clean” sphere free of racist, an-
tisemitic, “völkisch” ideology in the first half of the 20th Cen-
tury. Whether the density of those with racist beliefs was higher
in the Life Reform Sphere than average, has not—to my
knowledge—been studied. In general we can state that a great
fascination for the life-question and interest in what was under-
stood as the Life Force can be noticed right across the cultural
and political scene, from Frank Wedekind to Hermann Hesse,
from the young Bertolt Brecht to Ernst Jünger.
The Concept of “Cyclic Vitalism”
We will now turn back to the concept of Vitalism as a tool of
analysis. An elaboration of the until now relatively one-dime n -
sional term Vitalism (cf. Hans Bonde’s definition) will be nec-
essary in order to reach a more nuanced understanding of the
life-complex, or more precisely, the connection between life
and death. As already noted, a unilateral focus on the life-af-
firmative side of Vitalism means an important dialectic dimen-
sion is ignored, i.e. the dialectics of life and death. Vitalism
understands this relation as a cyclic one: Life, or the “Life
Force”, does not cease to exist with death, but merely changes
its form and its “residence”. Unlike Christian beliefs, Vitalist
life does not return to any kind of Heaven, but stays connected
to physical matter, without which it cannot exist: Life Force is
seen as a completely earthly phenomenon, there is no dualistic
transcendence into a sphere beyond the material or substantial
one, according to Vitalist thinking. Because the Life Force is
thought of as indivisible, it is the same force that is active eve-
ry where and every time a new organism comes into life. Death
and the processes connected to it therefore also are seen as parts
of the total cyclic course of the Life Force.
Using this concept of Cyclic Vitalism, in the following
analyses we will try to show how a few poets of this era Con-
ceive the cyclic connection of life and death.
As mentioned above, the cyclic aspect of Vitalism has been
pointed out by earlier scholars in this field, first and foremost
Wolfdietrich Rasch (Rasch, 1967: 20f.) and Gunter Martens
(Martens, 1971). Recently, Anders Ehlers Dam in his disser-
tation on Vitalism in Danish poetry (Dam, 2010) used the terms
“positive” and “negative” Vita lism, by which he mea ns a Vital-
ism that finds its solution of the life question in a “life ecstasy”
or in a longing for death, respectively in death itself. Such val-
orising of concepts, however, seems less appropriate in the
context of Vitalism, because life and death here are dialec- ticly
connected, as already mentioned. Thus, “positive” and “negative”
are valuating terms that do not do full justice to the cyclic na-
ture of Vitalism.
The term Cyclic Vitalism, which is introduced in this article,
wishes to capture exactly this matter: that Vitalist literature
depicts life—in a broader sense of the word—on the one hand
as growth, strength, youth and health, and on the other as its
cyclic opposition, stasis, rigidity, decline, even death and disin-
Seen from an individual lyrical point of view, this totality of
life seldom is encapsulated. Rather the totality of life will be
dissolved into parts of individual life and individual death, in-
dividual excitement and individual decadence. The Vitalist text
may accentuate one or another aspect of the total life cycle,
without letting the dialectically corresponding aspects fall out
of sight. Moments and segments of life symbolically represent
highlights of a course, a cycle. The individual life or segment of
life refers to the totality and achieves universality through this
In some cases, however, the text surpasses the individual
perspective and thematises the universal totality itself, either as
a principle or as an individual experience of transcendence of
the individual self (what you might call a kind of “Nir-
vana”-experience). Such poems are often motivated by the wish
to convey a “momentary experience of the great coherence”
(“Momenteeines Innewerdens des großen Zusammenhangs”)
(Rasch, 1967: 22). In such cases, one might say that the text
accentuates the whole circle of life, from which other texts
thematise only limited sections.
The following examples are chosen with an eye to this dif-
ference: the segment and the totality. Another differentiation
that wil l be clarified alo ng the way, has to do with the status of
the Life Force in the universe: In some cases the Life Force is
presented in extremely palpable, physi cal co ntexts, in others we
find it hovering above the world. It is the same Life Force, only
the conceptualisation and realisation of it can take very differ-
ent forms. And form, or literary expression, of course, is of
primary interest for the purposes of this discussion.
Three Poems of Life and Death
Julie Virginie Scheuermann (with the nom de plume Julia
Virginia, (1878-1936) is quite unknown to the literary world of
today. In most histories of literature one will look in vain for
her name. In her contemporary time, however, she was promis-
ing enough to be selected for the Reclam-volume Moderne
deutsche Lyrik . This book, which was edited by Hans
Benzmann, a poet himself, contained around 650 poems and
can be considered representative of the era under study (Benz-
In her youth, Julia Scheuermann published two volumes of
her own poetry and edited a volume Frauenlyrikunserer Zeit
(1907); furthermore, she edited a collection of poems by An-
nette von Droste-Hülshoff (1910). Droste’s well-known eman-
cipatory poem “Am Turme” ( “On the Tower”) seems to have
inspired the poem “Leben!” which isto be analysed here “Le-
ben!”, was published in 1903 as part of her Primitien collection.
For the purpose of this analysis only the first and last of four
stanzas need to be quoted (and translated) to give the reader a
sufficient impression of the style and content of the text:
Leben, du purpurner, quellender Sprudel,
ich möchte mit beiden Händen dich fassen,
möchte mich stürmisch umtosen lassen
von deiner Brandung bacchantischem Strudel!
Möchte mich stürzen in deinen Schlund
Jauchzend, mit gierig geöffnetem Mund!—
Möcht sie entlodern lassen die Gluten,
die scheu mich durchziehen, die der Erden entstammen,
in deines Taumels Champagnerfluten
zu blühenden, glühenden Flammen!
Und so stürz ich denn tollkühn, mit lachenden Lippen,
mit all meiner Jugend entfesselten Gluten,
Leben! In deinen purpurnen Fluten
durchstarrt von tausend zackigen Klippen,
in deines Malstroms Wirbelgetos,
in seiner Fluten hölltiefen Schoß;
ob er zum Lichte mich möge erheben,
ob ich im Strudel werde versinken—
Ihr Götter! nur leben, nur leben,
[Life, you purple, gushing spring,
I wish to grasp you with both hands,
Wish to be enclosed by the stormy roar
From the bacchantic whirl of your breakers!
Wish to throw myself in your deep abyss
Rejoicing, with my mouth desirously opened!—
Wish to let the glows flare up,
That timidly run through me, they come from the Earth,
In the champagne-floods of your turmoil
Into flowering, red hot flames!
And so I foolhardy with laughing lips,
Plunge with all the relieved flames of my youth,
Life! Into your purple floods,
Thousand jagged cliffs everywhere towering up
In the whirling noise of your maelstrom,
Into the hell-deep womb of its floods;
Whether it proudly may lift me to the light,
Or I may sink to the bottom of the whirl—
Ye Gods! Just live, just live,
Here, the lyrical I hasbut one wish: to throw herself into this
whirl of life without any long-term considerations of the con-
sequences. This surrender to life means for one thing that the I
turns into an object: she lets life do to her, what it wants
(“möchtemichumtosenlassen”/“Wish to be enclosed by the
stormy roar”); secondly it means that the I herself—like the
maelstrom—is turned into an all engulfing subject, (“mitgierig-
geöffnetemMund”/“with my mouth desirously opened”). She
wants an immediate physical unification with life, i.e. to con-
sume it into her body as a liquid: “nurtrinken!”/“Just drink!”,
she continues immediately after the twice uttered “nurleben”/
“just live”; living in this case thus means “drinking life”, taking
life into her body.
The fusion and dissolving of the relation between subject and
object is orchestrated as an erotic encounter: the “I” wants to
“grasp life with both hands”, to let it “roar all over her” (“um-
tosen”), she with her mouth desirously opened (not just “open”).
The glowing in her, at the beginning just “timid”—through the
encounter with life will grow to flames, so she expects. Other
erotic references are “the glow of youth”, “lips” and the womb
of the stream (“in seiner FlutenhölltiefenSchoß”/“Into the
hell-deep womb of its floods”).
Special attention should be drawn to the quality of the inner
fire of the subject. This fire of life stems from the Earth (“en-
stammen der Erden”) and thus surpasses the level of individual
longing. It is a force that connects the individual to its universal
origin. It would not be too daring to claim that the poem by
assigning a cosmic quality to the individual’s inner fire of life
thereby refers to the conception of a Vitalist Life Force. As an
individual taking part in this cosmic force, the Iinscribes herself
into the universal community of life as such. Establishing and
emphasising the community of all life is one of the main topics
of Vitalism as Wolfdietrich Rasch points out:
“Diese Zugehörigkeit jeglicher Einzelerscheinung, auch des
Ich, zum Gesamtleben ist der Kern jener Vorstellung, die das
emphatisch gesprochene Wort Leben bezeichnet […]. Leben ist
für die An schauun gsweise de r Zeit imme r mehr als Einzelleben”.
[This belonging of all singularities, also the “I” of the totality of
life, is the kernel of that conception, that defines the emphati-
cally spoken word “life” […]. Life from this perspective is al-
ways more than the individual life” (Rasch, 1967: 21).
But the Iof this poem is not yet fully part of this totality; and
that’s where the drama of the poem lies. She has not yet been
able to experience the unification with life. But an inborn glow
and longing lies within her and tells her that she very soon must
take a leap in order to reach this experience. This longing, and
the tension between the “now” and an anticipated very near
future, structures the dramatic curve of this poem.
By thematising the life-death-spectrum, this poem empha-
sises most strongly the life-affirming aspect, although death is
mentioned as a possible consequence of complete surrender to
life: “Whether it may lift me to the light, Or I may sink to the
bottom of the whirl”. Both destinies to her are equally accept-
able results of her necessary decision.
A quite different kind of “life” is shown in Julius Hart’s
(1859-1930) poem “In den Frostverglasten Scheiben” (“In the
frosty window panes”) from his programmatic Vitalist collec-
tion Triumph des Lebens, (Triumph of Life 1898), in which a
section—titled Todestanz, (Dance of Death)—has been dedi-
cated to death and decay. The fact alone that a Dance of
Deathoccurs within a Triumph of Life may be seen as a re - fer-
ence to the dialectic connection b et w een the two asp ects.
Julius Hart belonged, together with his brother Heinrich
(1855-1906), to the inner circle of the Friedrichshagener poets,
who during the 1890s settled in the south-eastern suburb of
Berlin. They became a source of inspiration for a new, wide
OPEN ACCESS 15
ranging poetry influenced by Darwinism, Monism, Vitalism
and Oriental mysticism (deBruyn, 1992).
The poem “In den frostverglasten Scheiben” is a vision of
death. The lyrical Ilies on his deathbed; above him moon and
stars are shining coldly down to him. Through the frosty win-
dow the Universe is talking to him about immortality:
Deine Flügel sind entfaltet
über Raum und alle Zeiten,
Tod und Leben sind nur Formen,
Träume dumpfer Sinnlichkeiten.
Alle Räume, alle Tiefen
sind von meinem Blut durchflossen,
über allen Welten lieg ich
zeugend, keimend ausgegossen.
Und ich trinke, und ich trinke
alles Sein und alles Scheinen
aus der Welten grünen Schalen,
duftend von gewürzten Weinen.
Alles Sein fließt in mich nieder,
und ich selber bin nur Fließen,
bin Erzeuger und Erzeugtes,
ewig Schaffen und Genießen.
Still im Mondeslichte schwebend
trink ich und entström in Gluten,
überall spürst du den Atem
[Your Wings are spread,
Over space an all times
Death and life are but forms,
Dreams of blunt sensory perceptions.
All spaces, all depths
Are being percolated by my blood,
Over all worlds I lie
Conceiving, poured out sprouting.
And I drink, and I drink
All being and all appearance
From the green bowls of the worlds[!]
With the scent of spiced Wines
All being flows into me
And I myself am only floating
I am conceiver and conceived
Eternal creatin g and enjoying
Quietly soaring in the moonlight
I drink and flow out in glowing
Everywhere you feel the breath
Of my floods of silvery rain.]
Here, like in Julia Scheuermann’s “Leben!”, a pivotal motif
is the dissolving of the subject into the totality of the surround-
ings. In Scheuermann, this happens on the threshold to adult
life; here, in Hart’s poem, the next station will be death. But
nevertheless, in this process the Istays an active subject, and, at
the same time, he turns into an object for the same process of
change: “I am conceiver and conceived”. The traditional rela-
tion between subject and object has turned into a mixed, dia le c -
tic one. And, to some degree similar to Scheuermann’s text, the
subject has a fantasy of drinking up the universe, letting all ex-
istence flow into him. At the same time his subject widens out
to cover the whole universe: “And [I] emerge in glowing, eve-
rywhere you feel the breath of my floods of silvery rain”. A
simultaneous implosion of the universe and explosion of the
subject here characterises Julius Hart’s vision of his return to
the original totality of life. Again, Rasch’s statement of life as a
concept surpassing individual life, always seeking the totality
of life” become relevant.
Hedwig Dransfeld’s (1871-1925) poem “Kirchhofsommer”
(“Graveyard-Summer”) shows a far more earth-bound variety
of cyclic Vitalism than the one presented in Julie Scheuer-
mann’s and Julius Hart’s poems. Hed wig Dransfeld—like Julie
Scheuermann—belongs to the “Forgotten Poets’ Society ”, and
like Scheuermann, Dransfeld had (four) poems elected pub-
lished for the volume Moderne deutsche Lyrik (1907-edition).
The poem quoted here was first published in her Erwachen
collection (Awakening), 1903.
The title of the poem contains both the motifs of graveyard
and summer and as such suggests the unification of death and
life. The first two stanzas elaborate these contrasting mo-
tifsvividly. The first stanza starts with a wondering:
So hoch das Gras, die Luft so golden…
Ich träume in den Sommerwind,
warum so üppig hier die Dolden,
So honigschwer die Blüten sind.
Die Knospen bergen kaum den Segen,
Die Rose schwillt im Sonnenkuß…
Ein stürmisch Wachen an den Wegen,
Ein wilder Lebensüberfluß!
[So tall the grass, the air so golden
I dream in the summer wind,
why the umbels so abundant here,
The blossoms so heavy from honey.
The buds can hardly hide the blessing
The rose bulges in the kiss of the sun…
A stormy awakening at the roads,
A wild plethora of life!]
The paradoxical wild growth in this place of death forms the
initial theme of the poem. Motifs of life are lined up: Grass,
summer, u mbe ls, blossoms, buds, all characterised by their
bulging and abundance. All in all: “A wild plethora of life”.
In contrast, the second stanza lets the motifs of death emerge:
Und in der Tiefe ruhn die Stillen
So kühl und starr im dunkeln Grab,
Und weiche Sommerregen quillen
als Gruß in ihr Verlies hinab.
Sie ruhn im Schoß der braunen Wände
Und fragen nicht nach Lust und Schmerz,
Und tausend feine Wurzelhände
umklammern jetzt ihr totes Herz
[And in the depths the silent rest
So cool and stiff in the dark grave,
And soft summer rain runs slowly
As a greeting down into their enclosure.
They rest in the womb of the brown walls
And don’t ask about joy or pain,
And thousand fine root-hands
now clasp their dead heart.]
Here we find quite opposite qualities: quietude, coolness,
darkness, rigidity, characteristics of the earth, the bodies and
The central theme of these two stanzas, however, is not the
contrast in quality between life and death, but what combines
the two, which is the water, another symbol of life. It slowly
soaks though the soil to the dead bodies. The summer rain is a
mild, mediating force between the two worlds, between the
spheres of life and death. The rain is “soft” and arrives as a
“greeting” from above. The whole has a reassuring and friendly
quality and certainly no spooky graveyard-atmosphere to it.
Besides the rain, nature builds another “bridge” between the
two spheres. The plants have already, before the rain comes,
sent down their fine threads into the ground. “And thousand
fine root-hands/now clasp their dead heart”.
These two connections between above and below the surface
are continued in the third stanza as an on-going bio-chemical
Sie ruhn in blauer Nacht verloren,
Ermattet nach dem heißen Lauf—
und in die keimgeschwellten Poren
saugt sie die durst’ge Erde auf.
Sie trinkt der Kinder rinnend Leben,
sie schlürft die letzte Faser ein,
um aus der toten Kraft zu weben
In ihrem Schoß ein neues Sein.
[They rest, as lost in the blue night
Exhausted after the warm course—
And the thirsty soil sucks them up
In its pores swellin g wi t h seeds.
It drinks the children’s running life,
it laps up the last fiber,
to weave from the force of the dead
In her womb a new being.]
In almost shocking, tangible terms the poem here describes
the putrefication process. Dransfeld thematises, in a quite new
way, physical and anatomical facts that might lead the reader’s
thoughts to the better known, poems of Gottfried Benn, pub-
lished eight years earlier in his horrifying and cynical collection
In Dransfeld’s poem, the motif of life and death in an
on-going, biological circuit, is elevated to represent the auto-
nomous Life Force that explains the luxuriant flowering. The
last stanza reads:
Das ist die wilde Kraft der Toten,
die Licht und Dunkel überbrückt
und ihre scheuen Blumenboten
mit tausend heißen Farben schmückt!
Die in den schwanken Stielen schauert
und lodernd aus den Kelchen bricht—
die selbst das Sterben überdauert
und in der Tiefe weint nach Licht.
[That is the wild force of the dead
which bridges light and darkness
and adorn their timid, flowery messengers
With thousand passionate colours!
Which shivers in the swaying stalks
and burning bursts from the calyx—
Which overcomes even death
And in the deep mourns for light.
The conception of a force of life that lingers even in the dead
bodies brings the poem to its conclusion. This force connects
life and death, “bridges light and darkness”, and can be found
everywhere in live organisms: “That shivers in the swaying
stalks/and burning bursts from flowers’ deep”. It overcomes
even death and strives for new light, i.e. new life, thus con-
cluding the universal cycle, just to start it all over.
In Dransfeld’s poem, neither the mortal nor the vital aspect
dominate. The two aspects hold each other in a state of equilib-
rium, and thus the poem is a fine example of how cyclic Vitalist
texts sometimes omit valorising in favour of life or death, but
accentuate the dialectics of the two as a totality; that given, in
“Kirchhofsommer” we have a paradigmatic example of cyclic
Two Sub-Concepts to Vitalism
Within the concept of Cyclic Vitalism, we have observed at
least two very different notions of the Life Force, for which I
will suggest the terms C osmic and Biological Vitalism. In po-
ems with a universal or cosmic perspective like “In the frosty
window pane” by Julius Hart, the dialectics of life and death
have an entirely abstract, almost spiritual character. The fusion
of life and death is depicted as a cosmic process, taking place
far out in the Universe. Julia Scheuermann also imagines life as
an omnipresent, universal force, but not of such cosmic charac-
ter. Life on the one hand is an abstract totality, and on the other
a concrete glow inside her and a tangible, roaring stream before
her. Her concept of life nevertheless can be seen as a cosmic
one, c ompared to the poem by Hedwig Dransfeld, in wh ich the
cyclic processes connected to life are much more down to earth,
one could truly say. With “Graveyard-Summer”, we move into
the sphere of biology and physiology. Life here is closely con-
nected to the processes of growth, decay , decomposition and
By means of differentiation of concepts—in this case the dis-
tinction between Cosmic and Biological Vitalism—our inter-
pretations can bring us somewhat further in our understanding
of the variations in Vitalist thinking, variations that cannot nec-
essarily be noticed by means of traditional categories of inter-
pretation and categorisation. Neither here nor in any other con-
texts, should interpreters be content with only one central stock
phrase to cover what previously has been described as “a cur-
rent”. Vitalism as a concept and its differentiations “cyclic”,
“cosmic” and “biological” suggest how to deconstruct and in a
new way throw light on hitherto marginalised or underestima-
ted aspects of poetry—and other cultural expressions—from
1890 until 1930, although some believe that its relevance ex-
tends until 1940, or even to the present day.
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dien in Preußen. Berlin: Verlag Morgenbuch.
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sches Wissen bei Rilke, Döblin und Jünger. Dissertation, Würzburg.
Dam, A. E. (2010). Den Vitalistiske strømning i dansk litteratur omkr-
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