Form and bolt first had to burst,
World had to press through opened valves:
Form is ecstasy, peace, heavenly contentment,
But something urges me to plough up the clods of the field.
Form wants to lace and constrict me,
But I want to force my being into all distances—
Form is pure hardness without mercy,
But something drives me to the dull, to the poor,
And in the boundless giving of myself
Life wants to saturate me with fulfillment.
“Form Is Ecstasy” (trans. Joanna M. Raytich, Ralph Ley and Robert C. Conard)
Ernst Stadler is an excellent example of just how interconnected the world of arts and letters was prior to August 1914. This German-language poet was born in Colmar, Alsace-Lorraine, formerly a province of France, in 1883. In 1906 he won a scholarship to study at Magdalen College at Oxford, ground zero of the British intellectual world. When war was declared, Stadler, then living Strasbourg, was preparing to leave Germany to take up a teaching post at the University of Toronto, but as a reserve lieutenant he had no choice but to respond to his country’s call. There is some debate as to how enthusiastically Stadler reached for his Luger—but then can not the same of Wilfred Owen or Edward Thomas? How enthusiastically did they reach for their Webleys? If Stadler had been an American, and known veterans of the War Between the States, he might have had some inkling or just how heart-breaking, how dirty war can be. But Europe still thought of war in terms of Waterloo, not the Battle of the Crater.
Stadler’s early poems were influenced by the classically-inclined, polished and very conservative Stefan George and free-wheeling French Catholic and Socialist poet Charles Peguy. By the time Stadler hit his stride with a collection published in 1914 entitled Der Aufbruch (The Awakening) he had found a new poetic style and a new mentor in the long, free-verse lines of the American Walt Whitman. For a young poet to change so radically from the marmoreal lines of George to the rangy slangy lines of Whitman suggest that an internal overhaul was underway. Stadler, just thirty-one years old was heaving and growing as a poet and as a man. We’ll never know what Stadler might have become. He died on October 30 in battle at a place called Zandvoorde in Belgium, near to Ypres.