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Stefan George, "The War" (1917)

Many of the poems included in The New Empire [Das neue Reich] were originally published between 1914 and 1919 in Blätter für die Kunst, the literary magazine founded by Stefan George in 1892. Circulated privately as an exclusive forum for poets and like-minded intellectuals who would later come to be known as the George Circle [George-Kreis], Blätter für die Kunst declared: “The name of this publication says in part what its intention is: to serve art – especially poetry and the written word, and to exclude everything pertaining to the state and society.” The last issue appeared in 1919.

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As jungle beasts, which slink away or snarl
At one another in their greed to rend,
Seek company and huddle in a flock
When forests are ablaze, or mountains quake,
So in our country, split to factions, foes
United at the cry of war. A breath
Not felt before, a breath of union floated
From rank to rank, and a confused divining
Of what was now to come. The people, seized
By tremors great as changing worlds, one instant
Forgot the glut and gauds of coward years
And saw themselves majestic in their need.

They journeyed to the hermit on the hill:
“Does this stupendous fate still leave you calm?”
He said: These shudders were your best response.
What grips you now—I knew it long ago!
Long have I sweated blood of anguish while
They played and played with fire. I exhausted
My tears before and I have none today.
The thing was almost done and no one saw,
The worst is yet to be and no one sees.
You yield to pressure goading from without ...
These are the beacons only, not the tidings.
The struggle, as you wage it, is not mine.

The seer is never thanked, he meets with scorn
And stones when he foretells disaster, fury
And stones when it arrives. The crimes unnumbered
Which all ascribe to force or luck, the hidden
Descent of man to larva call for penance!
What are the slaughtered multitudes to him,
If life itself is slain! He cannot splutter
Of native virtue and of Latin malice.
Here whining women, old and sated burghers
Are more at fault than bayonets and guns
Of adversaries, for our sons’ and grandsons’
Dismembered bodies, for their glassy eyes!

His charge is praise and blame, amends and prayer.
He loves and serves upon his way, with blessings
Dispatched the youngest of those dear to him.
They do not march for catchwords, but themselves.
They know what drives, what renders them immune!
His dread goes deeper, for he feels the powers
Are more than fable. Who can grasp his plea:
You, who on reeking corpses swing your scourges,
May you preserve us from too light an ending
And from the worst, the blood-betrayal! Races
Committing this will wholly be uprooted
Unless their best is used to halt the doom.

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