The Letter of Lord Chandos

by Aaron Steiner

“The Letter of Lord Chandos” is a fictional letter written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.  The work was published under the title “Ein Brief” (“A Letter”) in the Berlin newspaper Der Tag in October of 1902.  Regarded by critics as one of the first primary texts of the modern era, prominent German literary critic Walter Jens has called the work the first text of the German literary revolution of the early 20th century.[1]

The author of the letter is the fictional Lord Chandos, who writes to Sir Francis Bacon about a crisis of language.  In the letter, Lord Chandos claims that he is experiencing a crisis of language that has rendered him unable to write as he has written in the past.  A great deal of the analysis of the work has focused on the apparent paradox that, despite claiming to be unable to write, the author composes a letter of considerable length and never fully explains the source of the crisis of language.[2]   The questions of how he can write despite his condition and why this condition has developed remain unanswered.

Plot Summary

Chandos Explains His State

The work begins with a single introductory sentence, most likely the work of an editor, explaining that the letter, written by Lord Philip Chandos, son of the Earl of Bath, and addressed to Sir Francis Bacon, will apologize for a lack of literary activity.

Lord Chandos acknowledges a letter that Bacon has sent him expressing concerns about Chandos’s mental state. Chandos, age 26, claims that he has been silent for two years, having previously established himself as a writer as early as age 19.  The author describes his early literary fame, which stemmed from two successful works.  He writes to Bacon, however, that he is unsure if he is “still the same person to whom your precious letter is addressed,” based on the fact that he is no longer writing as he previously did.[3]

Chandos then proceeds to speak about the “various little projects I entertained during those days of rare enthusiasm,” which he has apparently shared with Bacon.  Discussing the plans and desires he had for future works, Chandos dismisses those ideas as having been conceived “in a state of continuous intoxication” (132).  He then bluntly describes his current state: “I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently” (133).

It is apparent to the reader, however, that Chandos’s inabilities are ultimately only literary; he is able to describe his condition coherently, and he indicates later in the essay that, even if he is no longer able to write as he used to, he continues to converse with his family and others.

The Development of a Crisis

Chandos describes the stages that have led to his current state, beginning with an inability to speak on matters of philosophy or morality.  Then, he writes, he became unable to express opinions or judgments in regular conversation.  He states that he experienced a heightened consciousness in regular conversation: “My mind compelled me to view all things occurring in such conversations from an uncanny closeness. … I no longer succeeded in comprehending them with the simplifying eye of habit. For me everything disintegrated into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea” (134).

Chandos writes that he finally turned to the works of Seneca and Cicero for refuge — and perhaps therapy — in an attempt to end his crisis, but was unable to make complete sense of those works.  In the end, he abandoned the endeavor, and reached his current state of being.

Chandos laments that his current existence is “lacking in spirit and thought [even though it] differs little from that of my neighbors, my relations, and most of the land-owning nobility of this kingdom” (135). In short, he lacks the mental capabilities he professes to have previously had and is now just one person among many.

Epiphanies and Chandos’s Conclusion

Despite his current state, Chandos explains that he does experience moments of heightened sensation or stimulation, which provide epiphanies of a higher being that overwhelm him.  In his own words, the feeling is like a “rising flood of divine sensation” (136).  He describes these instances as the highlight of his existence (one example is a detailed, sensory description of the death of cellar rats).  But he also writes that these moments are confusing and do no good to help his language crisis:

As soon, however, as this strange enchantment falls from me, I find myself confused; wherein this harmony transcending me and the entire world consisted, and how it made itself known to me, I could present in sensible words as little as I could say anything precise about the inner movements of my intestines or a congestion of my blood (138).

Confusion plagues Chandos despite moments of heightened stimulation or transcendence, and he is still unable to write.

Chandos concludes that “neither in the coming year nor in the following nor in all the years of this my life shall I write a book, whether in English or in Latin” (140).  This conclusion is notable because Chandos details the common languages which he can no longer use, but leaves open the possibility that he could write or employ a new and different language.

Autobiographical Elements

“The Letter of Lord Chandos” is occasionally mistaken for a nonfiction work of Hofmannsthal’s. While it is fiction, many critics view the letter as a partly autobiographical document.[4]

The letter’s composition marks Hofmannsthal’s departure from poetry and his entrance into other literary genres.  Having achieved fame throughout Germany by age 25 for his poetry, “Hofmannsthal the lyric poet ‘fell silent,’ just as did Chandos,” critic Thomas Kovach points out, noting the personal literary crisis Hofmannsthal experienced during this time (Kovach 86).

Hofmannsthal’s early works were primarily lyric poems, some of which he published as early as age 16.  He was counted among the Young Vienna literary circle from early on, joining the ranks of Arthur Schnitzler and Gerhard Hauptmann, among others.  His lyrical dramas “Der Tod des Tizian” (1893) and “Der Thor und der Tod” (1893), heavily influenced by Stefan George, the older German poet, were among Hofmannsthal’s more prominent works.  Hofmannsthal was considered an aesthete — all of his early works were predominantly aesthetic in concern.  Hermann Broch, among others, marks the publication of “The Letter of Lord Chandos” as Hofmannsthal’s break with aestheticism, and the start of a new phase in Hofmannsthal’s writing.[5]

It is clear that Hofmannsthal experienced a turning point in his career around the turn of the century — prior to “The Letter of Lord Chandos” he had not published for three years — and much of the crisis Chandos describes is seen in Hofmannsthal’s letters and other personal documents.  Stefan Schultz writes: “Hofmannsthal’s own convictions and reflections are present in Lord Chandos’ words, while at the same time Stefan George’s shadow rises behind the recipient of the letter, Francis Bacon” (Schultz 2).  In fact, there are striking similarities between Chandos’s letter and concurrent letters from Hofmannsthal to Stefan George (Schultz 2).

Hofmannsthal — in contradiction to Lord Chandos’s proclamation that he will never write again — continued to publish after “The Letter of Lord Chandos,” although this later work is markedly different from his work prior to “The Letter of Lord Chandos.”

Influences and Concurrent Work on Crises of Language 

“The Letter of Lord Chandos” was influenced by works of many of Hofmannsthal’s contemporaries, including those of Ernst Mach and Sigmund Freud, and the piece also mirrors the work of his contemporary Ludwig Wittgenstein, who similarly worked on a crisis of language.

The impact of Ernst Mach’s “Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen” (1886) on Hofmannsthal is most evident. Thomas Kovach writes: “Mach’s systematic dissolution of the boundary between inside and outside, the self and the world, in favor of a mass of elements and perception, … is reflected in this [“The Letter of Lord Chandos”] and other writings by Hofmannsthal” (Kovach 89).  Indeed, Lord Chandos’ confusion about self and the outside world — seen in his moments of transcendence and heightened awareness — demonstrates the concepts Mach describes.

Freud’s “Traumdeutung” (“The Interpretation of Dreams”) (1900), which Hofmannsthal was familiar with, “was the first major statement of a view of the human psyche that proved to be far more wide-reaching in its impact” (Kovach 89).  Freud’s investigations of human mental processes can be seen reflected in Chandos’s descriptions of the epiphanies he experiences, and also in his description of the development of his current mental state.

Lastly, the most prominent parallels are seen between “The Letter of Lord Chandos” and the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially his “Tractatus” (1921), viewed as the culmination of Wittgenstein’s investigations on language.  Hofmannsthal’s writing would be echoed by the work of Wittgenstein, whose work on the critique of language was foremost in the discussion on language during the period.

  1. ↑ Walter Jens, “Der Mensch und die Dinge,” Die Revolution der deutschen Prosa, in Akzente 4 (1957): 319.
  2. ↑ Michael Morton, “Chandos and His Plans,” Deutsche Vierteljahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 62.3 (1988): 514.
  3. ↑ Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Selected Prose, trans. Marry Hottinger (NY:Pantheon Books, 1952), 129. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  4. ↑ Thomas A. Kovach, A Companion to the Works of Hugo Von Hofmannsthal (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002), 86; H. Stefan. Schultz, “Hofmannsthal and Bacon: The Sources of The Lord Chandos Letter,” Comparative Literature 13.1 (1961): 2. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  5. ↑ Hermann Broch, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time: The European Imagination, 1820-1920, trans. Michael Steinberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 124.