About Albert Steffen
Albert Steffen’s biography, including his poetry and drama, is exemplary of the path of the therapeutic artist, writing to heal. For more texts and translations, please email email@example.com or call Katherine Rudolph on 0061 413 770 020.
A Glimpse at Steffen’s Life and Work:
The Source and Force of His Ideas (Part 1)
Albert Steffen was born on December 10, 1884 in Murgenthal, Canton Bern, Switzerland. His father was the village doctor. At an early age his senses were especially attuned to the herbs and flowers. He was already perceiving the world of nature in poetic imagery: “As a child it always seemed to me as though a human countenance peeped forth from every blossom. From the tulip, that of a Turkish maiden; from the chrysanthemum, that of a Japanese dancer; from the sunflower of Inca King; from the geranium a Moorish boy.”2
By age 14 he had intuitively ‘understood’ that the human soul goes through the process of reincarnation.3
After he finished high school Steffen went to Lausanne to study natural sciences. In 1906 at age 21 he moved to Berlin, and two years later, to Munich. There he became a freelance writer and published his first novel, ‘Ott, Alois and Werelsche’ in 1907.
In Berlin, 1906, Steffen first heard a lecture by Rudolf Steiner. He writes: “I recognized immediately the leader of humanity: the wisdom on his brow, the love pervading his eye, the conscience in his word.”4 “This experience created such an impression that he gave up his studies and only resumed them later, he says, when he saw the possibility of fructifying school knowledge through spiritual science.”5
In 1914, the beginning of World War I, Steffen was 29. At that time he was making frequent visits to Dornach. Of his experience there, he wrote: “Harmony reigned through a single man’s God-founded spirit,”6 and “Carving the Goetheanum capitals and architraves furthered me as a shaper of words.”…”Content should be consumed by form, whether in the vault of the cupola or writing a verse, through shaping the vowels and consonants.”7 In 1920, at the age of 35 Steffen moved to Dornach. In 1921 he was asked by Rudolf Steiner to be editor of the newly founded ‘Das Goetheanum’ weekly periodical. Writers contributed from the realms of art and spiritual science. About his aims for it Steffen wrote, “We must characterize the spiritual forces at work in Europe and demonstrate that ‘Das Goetheanum’ can bring about, in spiritual freedom, a synthesis of the form that prevails in the West and the life that streams in the East.”8
At New Year’s 1923 Steffen witnessed the destruction by fire of the First Goetheanum, despite all efforts to save it. Here, an attitude was developed which might sustain his later striving – whatever the odds – against the forces of destruction and chaos. To the question: It is not pointless to make efforts to fight a fire that is obviously out of control? – Rudolf Steiner replied: “Even if the effort is fruitless, one still dwells in the midst of helping forces, and these may perchance prevent a future misfortune even if it is no longer possible here.”9
At the Christmas Conference of 1923 Rudolf Steiner named Steffen to head the Section for Belles Lettres in the newly constituted Anthroposophical Society and named him Deputy Chairman. Of Albert Steffen he said: “ The members of Vorstand are, I believe, chosen in the right way. Albert Steffen has already been an anthroposophist before his was born; this must be recognized with regard to him” (p. 47 of Die Weihnachtstagung – The Christmas Conference). In an article which appeared in Das Goetheanum of February 22nd, 1923, he wrote about Steffen: “Within the Anthroposophical Movement, he spirit of such a poet, if rightly felt, should be experienced as the bringer of a message from the spiritual sphere.” “That he wishes to work in this Movement, should be felt as a good destiny.”10 F W Zeylmans van Emmichoven, a Dutch Anthroposophist, wrote that Rudolf Steiner wanted the members of the Vorstand (the directing body of the Anthroposophical Society) to recognize themselves and each other against the background of the spiritual streams to which they belonged, “to cultivate fraternal feeling even between strongly contrasting personalities.”11
Rudolf Steiner died in 1925; Steffen was with him in his last days. He expressed his reverence and thankfulness for this man’s being and gift to humanity, recreating a ‘memory picture’ for the reader – ‘In Memoriam, Rudolf Steiner’. After Steiner’s death, in accordance with his wishes, Albert Steffen became Chairman of the Society. Although he never sought this task, its importance in shaping his life was undeniable. Indeed he must have grown to understand the experience “Know thyself in striving for balance”12, which stands symbolically behind Steiner’s sculpture of the Representative of Man. As Chairman he found himself serving to keep a centre point of balance amidst contrasting personalities and divergent streams.
The universality of his aims can be experienced in the lines at the end of Adonis Spiel / Eine Herbstfeier, published in 1935:
Let this be for us our cosmic goal: –
To paint a living picture for the soul
which the claws of death cannot despoil,
which lights the darkest dungeon deep below –
take a new earth with us when we go,
which no evil shadow e’er can soil,
no tide nor flood can ever wash away,
no wind that blows can ever bleach or blight,
will never yield to acid’s poisoned bite,
will never melt in fire’s burning ray,
that’s brighter than the sun’s own visage is –
but only Christ himself can give us this!
– (Translated by A M E)
The trials involved in serving as Chairman after Rudolf Steiner’s death are difficult to imagine: the practice of ‘moral technique’. On the subject of his conduct as to ethical and spiritual responsibility he is described as being “straightforward and not to be put off”.13 Particularly concerning his leadership of the Society a quality of ‘reticent, protective watchfulness and artistry”14 is spoken of.
In 1946, writes Henry Barnes, “the Swiss Federal Parliament accepted Steffen’s proposal that Switzerland offer herself as a pilot oasis of humanity and declare herself ready to accept refugees from all nations, under international guarantee.”15 This act affected the destiny of numbers of people.
Indeed, Steffen strove to be alive to the turns of destiny in many ways. He was writing and presenting his works continuously during the years in Dornach. In dramas such as Lin or Voyage to Another Land it becomes apparent that Steffen “called on mankind to awaken to its dangers and take its destiny in hand.”16
In contrast to Steffen’s public and artistic roles, one can picture his family and the kind of care and responsibility he took on in this sphere. He married Frau Elizabeth Stückgold, the widow of the Parisian painter. She had felt a strong commitment to Anthroposophy, met Rudolf Steiner through Albert Steffen, and moved to Dornach, with her child Felicitas.
Elizabeth and Albert Steffen were both devoted to the child. As Dr Hermann Poppelbaum says: “Felicitas became for Albert Steffen what the pupil and student in Vienna (mentioned in ‘The Story of my Life’) became for Rudolf Steiner! An occasion to listen to one of destiny’s requirements and to unfold active help.”17 Felicitas had been incapacitated since birth and suffered from epileptic attacks. She was especially gifted in music. Frau Steffen virtually dedicated her life to help and care for Felicitas. The child in fact lived longer than was ever expected. There is a volume of poetry, ‘Passiflora, A Requiem’, which Steffen dedicated to Felicitas and published in 1939. Elizabeth Steffen was, as I understand, a steadfast partner and inspiration to her husband. She died on her birthday, on March 3rd, 1961, after a painful illness.
Two years later, on July 13th, 1963, after having foretold his departure on the day before, Albert Steffen passed over. As Friedrich Hiebel describes, his last words “Now I wish to be alone” were uttered in the noblest sense, as a monachos, an ego-man, who had gained the certainty that luminous light shines out of earthly death.18
About reading a seer’s work (when speaking of Rudolf Steiner), Steffen says that readers must take into account not only what he says but “how he says it”.19 This kind of approach might be attempted here, in trying to perceive how the subject of this biography describes himself.
Steffen wrote a short autobiographical sketch for the spring 1943 issue of ‘The Forerunner’. The way he wrote indicated certain qualities of his character and themes living in his consciousness. The universality of his ideas might appeal to and be understood by people of diverse experience, because he himself understands and speaks of his experience truthfully and simply, with a sense for artistic unity. (Steffen was about 60 at the time of this writing):
“The greater part of my boyhood I passed on the banks of the Aare, swimming, boating and catching perch, between times eating crab-apples which I and my comrades fished out of the river. Trees I experienced with the knees of a climber, the grass and the earth with bare feet. When we rose out of the waves, the violet colours of the Jura Mountains seemed to be most beautiful. The elements loved us. We felt in dreamy bliss the joy of growth with which they formed our bodies. Therefore we danced up and down on the river bank.”
A kind of joyous wisdom pervades him here; Steffen looks back and relives in consciousness the feelings of his early childhood, vividly, so that the reader can experience them along with him. The joy he felt growing up in those idyllic surroundings, was a shaping force in his destiny; indeed, the beginning of a connection with nature which would grow and reveal its depths later in his poetry. Steffen speaks often of taking spiritual nourishment from nature.
“If you take a morning swim in the stream, you go about the whole day breathing more deeply and standing straighter with a greater scope in your thoughts and deeds, for you took up something of the river’s mighty sweep and flow as you broke through its waves.”20
“If you feel melancholy and dejected you need only look at the sky, and as soon as you conceive this immensity again, the primal force within the soul reappears. This cheerful serenity is the most enduring and deepest thing in me. It is the background of all my thoughts and feelings, as the blue of the sky is the background of all the happenings in nature.”21
Nature, we can see, was healing for Steffen. In contrast to the harmonious beginning of the 1943 sketch of his life, he speaks directly of how the forces of death came to meet him early, in the experience of the sick people who came to his father for medical care. His mother must indeed have had insight herself, when she explained to him how the various ailments of the townspeople were connected with their occupations. His initial disgust at the physical symptoms was transformed to reflection, which brought understanding. To study occupations later became a matter of interest to Steffen.
He next speaks of the painful experience of his high school examination. (He was later to express the intensity of this early soul trial in his autobiographical novel, ‘From George Archibald’s Life Story and Post-Humous Papers’). In the 1943 sketch he relates how “being taciturn, rough, hardly capable of expressing himself except in dialect, he failed”. At this time he had to leave his family home and be placed in the lowest class in the school of Bern. Here again was an experience which was initially contrary to his will.
However, alongside this, interest began to awaken in him for the stream of people which he watched from his gable room in the hotel. He describes “the view from my garret grew wider.” Observation was to become an indispensable tool for Steffen, laying the foundation for all the realms of his artistic work and life circumstances.
In the loneliness of his adolescent years Steffen turned for comfort to the poet-philosophers. He was for a time an advocate of direct experience, in that he tries to carry out the ‘Return to Nature’ of Rosseau, “becoming a brother to the elements, spending the night on the bare earth, etc.” before realising that his urge was forward into self-development, not return to the primal state.
Then, his decision to devote himself to the study of Nietzsche and Dostoyevski “because none had suffered as they” is an indication of a deep perceptive quality. He knew he could learn from those who had suffered. But he says, “Both make one squander oneself – Nietzsche, on the form; Dostoyevski, on life.” Because Steffen understands fully the effects of these two philosophies when applied to life experience, he can direct his own path independently.
After having immersed himself in the elements of Nature, Steffen was drawn to life, like his beloved poets, in the strife of a large city. His inclination was to investigate the polarities of a given subject, to view both sides of the coin. Later he was to learn from spiritual science: “In life one should never rest before finding the polarity of any given process. Only then is balance achieved.”22 He says (when further describing his experiences) that having investigated the slums of Berlin he was interested in studying the wealthy quarters. From there he goes on to describe insightful discoveries that he observed there, read from people’s gestures.
But it was back in the Berlin slums, I believe, that Steffen had an experience of deepest significance for his destiny: his room looked on a dirty court into which the doors of the dismal taverns opened. Night after night the howls of revelry “as though a beast were crying out” robbed him of sleep. He writes:
One night, in waking consciousness, I had an experience which shows me that there is another vision besides the one which eyes give us. What was going on in the depths came to meet my imagination. A being rose up out of the abyss compounded of lust, the passion for destruction, and impotency. It rose threateningly before me. I shrank back, horror-struck. It disappeared. The memory remained, dark enough to rob me of all the joy of living. I had seen how death works in man, and believed I would go to pieces under the weight of this insight.”
He had seen not only an appalling, nightmarish, deathly image, but, in his words, “a cry for help”. In its deathly sigh Steffen recognized a desperate plea. The intensity of this event certainly played a part in calling forth the impulse for healing which lived in Steffen. In various other places he writes expressly of this experience. And consider what Steffen relates in ‘Meetings with Rudolf Steiner’, that after telling a friend of this experience, he was first directed to Rudolf Steiner. The unexpressed question which presented itself in that first meeting was “How can I serve mankind better?”
One can see his search for ways to surmount the suffering in the midst of which he finds himself. This is the poet who will learn to wield an antidote from the wellsprings of the Word. In the 1943 sketch Steffen goes on to describe three men that he met, and how they represented for him the archetypes of goodness, beauty and truth. In the preceding paragraph of the sketch the fallen aspect of humanity had been experienced. Now the highest ideals which can be expressed are spoken of. Again a balance is brought about.
As Steffen tells of nature “taking on a changed aspect for him” in Munich 1908, one senses that nature was now able to speak to his consciousness and provide an answer, to his earlier strivings to comprehend her. Before, he had become “a brother of the elements”, now he was meeting the spiritual realities behind natural phenomena.
He writes: “When I saw a tree, an incorruptible strength, untouched by the perishable, permeated me through and through. I could live outside the mortal, in a realm of the eternal.” This thought-filled observation through sense consciousness reveals the ideal reality of tree! Steffen interprets Nature – “The moment is at hand-“, says he, “when the things themselves will be man’s teachers, when a colour may reveal as much to him as a fine, responsive feeling. He will measure the transparency and depth of his feelings by the colours of the sunset, and so become more aware of his inner development and of his progress in the appreciation of Nature.”23
In the last paragraph of the 1943 sketch Steffen writes of Rudolf Steiner:
“As a characteristic of the way of thinking of this extraordinary man, to whom I am indebted beyond all others, I found that in regard to the knowledge which he revels, in every instance he indicated the way in which it can be found; that is to say, he demands that the truth be tested, not merely accepted on faith. He disavows dogma. What I had sensed, I found proved. Thus I was doubly able to affirm my experience of the eternal. As I experienced the victory of the forces of becoming over the forces of death, I returned again to the beginning, to childhood, to the cosmic wholeness of life, but now consciously, no longer dreaming as formerly. I know now that these forces of growth spring from a state that was before birth and will be after death. The circle is completed – it is necessary to say this, for it determines my whole art as a poet.”
One can notice he speaks almost triumphantly of Steiner’s disavowal of dogma. Undue searching for authority does indeed deaden creative faculties. In a strong poetic statement, Steffen says: “No mandate has been given me, not by Gods nor my men; no doctrine – no matter whose – has been laid upon me.” At the end of this poem he reveals a self-chosen task, “sanctioned by the free and the loving”, conveyed to the soul through the stars. “Know yourself, destined for freedom, working as one in communion with all.”24
Albert Steffen is concerned with how the forces of growth and becoming are to be victorious. He writes:
“Everywhere Christ emerges from the elements. With the lifting power with which he rolled the stone from the grave, support your body, with the light forces with which he permeates the plants, renew your life! With the air of heaven with which he sends you thoughts, like butterflies, fill your words. Guide your ego from rock to forest to the clouds, right up to the sun, by shaping, condensing, transforming and purifying it. Gaze upon your destiny from above, with starry eyes.”25
Steffen’s work is grounded in a living experience of the eternal. Thus it conveys a quality which helps transform our consciousness of the earth, helping to redeem and heal.
‘Friend’ – (from the Anglo-Saxon root: freon – to love) is defined as ‘one disposed to promote the good of another’. – Steffen describes how he aspires to view others: “The developed person does not judge others and thus set them back, but lets them stand and understands them.”26 “When I notice that a simple flower all at once leaves me unmoved, I shall always find, among the people about me, someone whom I have disdained.”27 He fell asleep with the question of how he could help a man and woke up with a longing to deepen his friendship. “This meant, however”, he said, “to correct my own faults.” Many people will, I believe, understand this attitude as the impulse which Steffen brought for the social sphere.
One of Steffen’s friends was the American poet-dramatist Percy MacKaye. Although they used different tongues, they spoke a similar inner language and conversed together through poetry. Arvia MacKaye Ege, once related to me how she sat at the table with the two poets and helped to convey meaning to an inter-translated volume of poetry they published in 1937, entitled ‘In Another Land’. (Only a small part of Steffen’s more than 70 published works of poetry, drama, essay, sketch and novel have been translated.) Percy MacKaye in an essay, ‘The Excellence of Albert Steffen’, seeks to describe his friend. “How shall I sketch his portrait for the reader? The solemnity of Savonarola, illumined by the radiance of Shelly, the staunch piety of William Penn (in black quakerish hat), all twinkled over and merrified by the arch smile and skipping gait of the marble faun himself – on a holiday, the athleticism of an alpine skier, subdued to the tender solitude of St Francis feeding the birds.” He sees these paradoxical qualities…”Naiveté imbued with subtlety; modesty with tough courage; executiveness with sensitive human feeling; lyricism with epic grandeur.”28
His autobiographical novel From George Archibald’s Life Story and Post-humous Papers (published in 1950; Steffen was 65) might be called a tremendously open hearted and sensitive account of spiritual growth and aspiration. In the novel George, a poet, appeals to a literary historian friend of his, who believes in reincarnation, to help set his life account in order before he dies. This enables Steffen to look at himself from the vantage point of a ‘stranger’. The professor speaks of George with compassion and insight which reveal to the reader the wisdom which George gleans from his experiences.
In Pilgrimage to the Tree of Life Steffen speaks, in the words of a poet and a priest, of his experience of himself in relation to the world of nature. A devotional understanding of nature is evoked. One feels that he delivers a sermon in the true sense. But, as he asks elsewhere: “Wherein does the angel of the poet differ from that of the theologian? Therein that he not only possesses pinions upon his shoulders, but also wings on his feet.”29 Poems appear in his Pilgrimage. He writes: “A gardener takes pleasure in his calling only when he feels, present and active within himself, the same life force through which all grows and becomes; when he strives to enhance it. This can only be done by increase of loving care. He must feel deeply within himself that he helps to carry out the Creator’s will. With the poet it is the same, he praises nature when an inner experience has enlarged his vision and made him better.”30 This attitude of poetic consciousness offers a service to the impulse of Spiritual Science in the present age of Michael. Rudolf Steiner writes in his review of Pilgrimage to the Tree of Life: “Anthroposophy searches for all aspects of the Tree of Life; the poetic genius of Albert Steffen searches for the same. It is no doubt for this reason that both have found one another.”31
Composing verse is for Steffen the most intensive kind of living. In From a Notebook, he writes “Every incarnation is a poem of the higher ego in accordance with the experience of former earthly lives.” He plunges deeply into the heart and expresses the wisdom gleaned, with profound simplicity. The succinctness of his thinking is often curative in effect. Experiences become transformed into insightful imagery. He researches for spiritual cognition of cosmic and karmic law; he seeks to bring to consciousness what is living reality in man and nature. This effort must have constantly developed and purified his faculties.
Arvia MacKaye Ege calls Steffen “dramatist of cosmic deeds”.32 In mystery dramas such as Hiram and Salomon, Christ or Barrabas and The Death Experience of Manes, Steffen focuses his imaginative faculties on scenes from human history which are particularly significant for the spiritual growth of the Earth.
Friedrich Hiebel writes that Steffen often affirmed his innermost striving was to restore the long-lost myth to humanity. In mythology deep themes of human truth can be symbolically understood, often in the form of perilous battles.
In Steffen’s dramas one can discover interweaving themes. One is that of the victory of the spirit reborn in Christ over physical death and the forces of destruction and chaos. This is an aspect of the struggle for transformation of evil into good, a teaching of Manes who lived in the third century after Christ.33 Strength is called forth to release worn-out thought forms in order to grasp a deeper clarity; this leads to acts of sacrifice, inspired through love. Their example has a transforming effect, both on the people within the play and in the audience.
The concepts that Steffen chooses to present live in his dialogues, in his stage directions and sets. The stage is related not only to material space but also to inner space, representing perceptions of a spiritual nature, for which eurhythmy sometimes appears.
One experiences catharsis and human transformation through the Christ impulse. In several instances the feminine role carries a spiritualising quality which helps this transformation.
Many aspects of human striving for progress and transformation, despite all adversity, are to be traced throughout Steffen’s work as a poet. Arvia MacKaye Ege has created a living picture of him in the following verse:
“Quiet Giant of the Word,
Gentle tender of the herd,
Minstrel of the God forsaken
Wielding cadences of light
To fashion evil into seeing
Sculpture beauty out of night.
Toiling on the brink of being
You mould destiny through art,
Revealing where the dead awaken
‘Til hell itself is warmed and shaken
And freedom steals into man’s stricken heart.”34
– Katherine Rudolph, Arlesheim
23. Pilgrimage p. 23
24. Translation of the Poem from: ‘From a Round Table Conversation,’ by Albert Steffen, Anthroposophic News Sheet, 7th July, 1957.
25. Meetings…p. 170
26. do. P.65
27. Pilgrimage… p.15
28. The Forerunner, Spring 1943. ‘The Excellence of Albert Steffen; p. 9-10
29. From A Notebook 1937
31. Das Goetheanum 8th March 1925. Rudolf Steiner on Steffen’s Pilgrimage…
32. Anthroposophic News Sheet 25th Aug. 1963 p. 138. Arvia MacKaye Ege ‘For Albert Steffen’
33. Journal for Anthroposophy Autumn, 1971 ‘Albert Steffen Retrospect’, Henry and Christy Barnes p. 53
34. cf. 32.