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Hölderlin is a poet of the lost, and at times, the reader reaches into the same darkness for the same answers. And if the poet doesn’t provide any, well, I don’t have them either.

As with so many of the Romantics, it is tempting to read his life as embodying his poetic vocation, but I think we would do so at our peril. For the reader of good intellectual conscience, it is simply embarrassing to read overheated nineteenth-century claims that his mental collapse tells us that he was “too fine of feeling for the world”. Let us stick with what we know.

In Hölderlin’s case this is made all the more difficult by the increasing obscurity of his poetic matter as he moved toward the breakdown that would leave him a ward of caretakers for the second half of his life. One cannot help but be deeply touched imagining him gazing out of his solitary tower toward the river for these many years.

There is almost too much that can be said about this towering figure and his short career. He was hardly the first German to take the literature and mythology of the ancient Greeks as his primary concern, but he was, I think, the first to take it seriously in its own terms as a religious idiom, and to find himself under the spell of the Greek divinities, especially Dionysus (or Bacchus, as Hölderlin himself always referred to him).

And he was certainly one of the first to see ancient Greek culture as a meeting place of opposed, powerful energies striving toward disorder and release as much as toward harmony and balance – this reading surely caught the attention of the young Nietzsche, who read and admired the poet. And perhaps we should take it as cautionary that these two great writers both took Dionysus for their patron, and both ended their lives in complete psychological disorder.

So there is that to be said for Hölderlin, and on top of it we have his close friendship with Hegel and Schelling, his classmates at a protestant seminary. The thorough research of Manfred Frank has given us an extensive record of their work together in collectively formulating post-Kantian early Romantic idealism. What reader of Hölderlin could fail to be fascinated by this?

But to return to the demands of critical appraisal, I will admit that if any trace of Hölderlin’s intense philosophical exploration are to be found in his poems, they are invisible to me, except perhaps insofar as he struggled to find a new language for his new mythology, and this new language is often exceedingly obscure.

Despite being a poet who took Pindar and Sophocles as models, Hölderlin nevertheless sounds uniquely modern to my ears, as far ahead of his Zeitgeist as Büchner was to his. I was reminded of this recently reading Robert Musil’s novel Die Verwirrungen des Zögling Törleß, which, I think, owes a great debt to Hölderlin’s image of the night of the Gods for its modernist characterization of a breakdown of values.

In addition to Hölderlin the classicist, Hölderlin the philosopher, and Hölderlin the modernist, there is Hölderlin the craftsman, who is perhaps my favorite Hölderlin of all. This is the wordsmith who could periodically convey poetic images of enormous force when he wasn’t too busy groping in the darkness, the Hölderlin of “Die Eichbäume”:

Keiner von euch ist noch in die Schule der Menschen gegangen,
Und ihr drängt euch fröhlich und frei, aus der kräftigen Wurzel,
Unter einander herauf und ergreift, wie der Adler die Beute,
Mit gewaltigem Arme den Raum, und gegen die Wolken
Ist euch heiter und groß die sonnige Krone gerichtet.
Eine Welt ist jeder von euch, wie die Sterne des Himmels
Lebt ihr, jeder ein Gott, in freiem Bunde zusammen.

Or “Heidelberg”:

Wie der Vogel des Walds über die Gipfel fliegt,
Schwingt sich über den Strom, wo er vorbei dir glänzt,
Leicht und kräftig die Brücke,
Die von Wagen und Menschen tönt.

Or “Der Gang aufs Land”:

Aber schön ist der Ort, wenn in Feiertagen des Frühlings
Aufgegangen das Tal, wenn mit dem Neckar herab
Weiden grünend und Wald und all die grünenden Bäume
Zahllos, blühend weiß, wallen in wiegender Luft,
Aber mit Wölkchen bedeckt an Bergen herunter der Weinstock
Dämmert und wächst und erwarmt unter dem sonnigen Duft.

We even see this gift for dazzling concrete imagery in the first verse of “Brot und Wein”, which was initially published as a standalone poem:

Rings um ruhet die Stadt; still wird die erleuchtete Gasse,
Und, mit Fackeln geschmückt, rauschen die Wagen hinweg.
Satt gehn heim von Freuden des Tags zu ruhen die Menschen,
Und Gewinn und Verlust wäget ein sinniges Haupt
Wohlzufrieden zu Haus; leer steht von Trauben und Blumen,
Und von Werken der Hand ruht der geschäftige Markt.

This is perhaps the pivot-point of his development, and following that elegy his spiritual concerns would increasingly eclipse his interest in concrete expression. But great work was still to come, and while I wouldn’t particularly defend Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, I agree with his very high assessment of poems like “Der Ister”. Some of it is shear magic:

Man nennet aber diesen den Ister.
Schön wohnt er. Es brennet der Säulen Laub,
Und reget sich.

Or take his conception of the river, which reflects the light of the sun and the moon, as reconciling these opposing energies within itself:

Ein Zeichen braucht es,
Nichts anderes, schlecht und recht, damit es Sonn
Und Mond trag im Gemüt, untrennbar,
Und fortgeh, Tag und Nacht auch, und
Die Himmlischen warm sich fühlen aneinander.

Hölderlin is one of those towering figures I cannot get away from, as all roads lead back to them. Fortunately for me, I wouldn’t want to, and his beautiful and haunting poems will be my companions for the rest of my life.

Written by Mesocosm

April 11, 2023 at 3:30 am

Posted in Poetry

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