Hugo von Hofmannsthal was—besides poet, playwright, essayist, librettist, and fiction writer—a universally admired sensitive soul, the kind imperial Austria seemed to specialize in. It may be that empires, with their hierarchies, traditions, and social stability, contribute to this Feinfühligkeit (a wonderful German word for delicacy of feeling). Certainly growing up in a great European capital like Vienna encourages urbanity, culture, and cosmopolitanism, which were plentiful in Hofmannsthal (1872–1929).

That his poetry, aside from occasional pieces, was sparse and came early has also been accounted to his benefit as a man who knew when his youthful lyric gift was exhausted, and turned to prose. His plays, though translated into English, are seldom if ever produced hereabouts, but his librettos for Richard Strauss keep him in our purview.

In Europe, especially in the ...