Mnemosyne, by Friedrich Hölderlin
Completed around 1803, Hölderlin’s “Mnemosyne” anticipates many of the themes of Modernism by over a century. I’ve given my translation below, but as with all translations of great poems, much is lost. Hölderlin possessed an acute sensitivity to nuance, and many of his wonderful devices can’t be duplicated in English.
For example, the key line “Zweifellos / Ist aber Einer,” literally means “Undoubtedly / Though, there is one”. Zwei, the root of Zweifellos, means two, and the contrast between multiplicity and unity echoes the movement of the mind from a condition of primordial unity into the diversity of the phenomenal world, which constitutes one of the primary themes of the poem.
Also lost is the repetition of nemlich, which highlights various images in the poem in the sense of “that is” or “for example.” But it literally means “namely,” and carries the suggestion of naming or reference, enhancing the sense that objects of experience are signs or names of a sort, meaningful in themselves, and our world is saturated with an intertextual significance.
The title of the poem refers to the Greek goddess of memory, mother of the Nine Muses who inspire and exemplify the great arts of music, history, tragic poetry, astronomy, and so forth. Mnemosyne was an important figure in the mystical traditions of Orpheus, in which she stood as a counterpart to Lethe, goddess of forgetfulness. In this esoteric sense, the memory exemplified by Mnemosyne is the act of bringing forth eternal truths.
This idea is closely related to Plato’s theory of anamnesis or recollection, discussed in his dialogs Meno and Phaedo. Plato argued that our knowledge of subjects such as math and metaphysics is a kind of remembering. The soul can relate the particular objects that it perceives to universal truths, and in so doing the soul makes contact with the timeless realm of abstract relationships from which it came.
The Orphic mystics believed that the soul’s condition in life is one of forgetting its divine origins. Through mystical practice or contemplation, it is possible to recollect and reconnect with the timeless realm.
Hölderlin represents the world in an Orphic light – as a flux made sensible by the mind’s power to relate objects of experience to ideas, memories, or stories. This process is symbolically depicted as the actions of the gods. Memory serves as an image of mystical union with an object out of reach, a vanished memory or lost age.
Perhaps he had the story of Orpheus and Euridyce in mind when he wrote “…mortals almost / Reach into the abyss. Thus it turns, the echo, / With them.” Orpheus, you may recall, pursued his dead love into the underworld, and tried to bring her back into the light of day. But when he reached the mouth of Hades, he turned around to look at her, and she vanished. Perhaps with memory, in a similar fashion, the sought-after object disappears in the dark underworld when we try to grasp it.
Depending on your perspective, Hölderlin’s immortals are metaphors for workings of the mind, or vice versa. The poem is filled with images of signs and reference, but the sign and its object stand in an ambiguous relationship. The poet wavers between two reference points; either the mind knows its object, or the mind and its object are one.
Which is primary – the myth of the flower, or the narcissus that I see? The history or the land? The word or the flesh? Is there a Greece without Achilles? Is the world brought forth by mind, as Buddha taught in The Sutra of the Ten Grounds? Are we ourselves ideas in the Universal Mind?
Now the poem.
We are a sign, meaningless
We are painless and have almost
Forgotten speech in exile.
But if there is strife in heaven over mankind
And the moon travels in force, so the sea
Will speak and the rivers must
Find their way. Undoubtedly, though,
There is one, who
Can bring forth change daily. He scarcely needs
The law. And it sounds the leaves and rings the oak trees
By the glaciers. As not everything is possible for
The heavenly ones. That is, mortals almost
Reach into the abyss. Thus it turns, the echo,
With them. Time is
Long, but the truth
Will come to pass.
But what of love? We see
Sunshine on the ground and burnished dust.
And deep with the forest shadow and it blooms
Smoke from the rooftops, in the old crowns
Of towers, peaceful – the signs of day are good, that is,
If an immortal wounds
The soul in answer.
For snow, the abundant,
like flowers, stands signified where
It may, glistening off the green
Alpine meadow, half
There, speaking of crosses, the
Law is the dead at one stage
Along the way, on higher paths
A wanderer moves in wrath,
Knowing from a distance with
The other one, but what is this?
At the fig tree my
Achilles died to me,
And Ajax lies
In the grottoes of the sea,
At the brooks bordering Skamander.
Following the fixed, constant tradition of
Salamis, Ajax died of the temple’s fury
in strange lands.
Yet Patroclus in the king’s armor. And
Many others also died. At Kithairon
Lay Eleutherae, the city of Mnemosyne. There, too, when
God’s mantel was cast off, the one like night then parted
Her locks. Celestials, that is, are
Unwilling, if one had not gathered
His soul together in healing, but he must; in the same way
Suffers the mourner.