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The Riddle of Hölderlin

Poems and Fragments

by Friedrich Hölderlin. (bilingual edition), translations by Michael Hamburger
University of Michigan, 642 pp., $10.00

When Hölderlin’s first works began to circulate in Germany in the 1790s, they met with limited response. Hölderlin was known to be a man of considerable poetic and intellectual power: both Hegel and Schelling, who had been his fellow-students at the theological seminary in Tübingen, had been struck by his genius, and Schiller had taken it upon himself to sponsor the literary beginnings of the younger poet who, like himself, was of Swabian birth. But, from the very beginning, something unsettling in his personality and in his poetry, a combination of tense abstraction and exalted fervor, created a barrier between Hölderlin and his contemporaries, and forced him into isolation. Goethe, dismissing some of his earlier poetic attempts as lacking in humanity and concreteness, paid little attention to him; even Schiller, who had sponsored the publication of the early novel Hyperion, lost sight of the man he had considered his most promising disciple.

After a short-lived attempt to launch his own literary review, Hölderlin found himself more and more thrown back upon his own resources. He lived a difficult and unsettled life as a private tutor, shuttling back and forth between unsatisfactory posts and leaving most of the poetry he was writing unpublished. By the time he was thirty-five, symptoms of schizophrenia became so obvious that he was unable to lead a normal life. Finally confined in the care of a Tübingen carpenter, he remained there until his death at seventy-three. Thus the creative period of his life lasted hardly more than ten years, of which only six, from 1800 to 1806, can be considered of full poetic maturity.

Throughout the nineteenth century some interest in Hölderlin persisted, based on the semi-mythical figure of a “mad” poet of exceptional talent, rather than on a knowledge of the work. Nietzsche, one of the few to sense Hölderlin’s full importance, rightly complained, in a letter dated October 19, 1861, that his “favorite poet” is “hardly known by the majority of his people.” For more than a century, one of the most extraordinary achievements of German poetry was little known and might have become forever forgotten had it not happened that shortly before the First World War a young German scholar, Norbert von Hellingrath, began to work on Hölderlin’s manuscripts and brought out the first volumes of a complete critical edition.

Since then Hölderlin’s reputation has steadily grown, and he has become one of the main figures in Western poetry. His complex and demanding work has been the focus of unprecedented efforts at exegesis, producing one of the most rapidly increasing bibliographies in German literary studies. From a shadowy and eccentric minor poet Hölderlin has grown, during the last thirty years, into something like an academic institution. Methodological and ideological battles are being fought in his name; ideologists of the left and of the right claim him as one of their precursors. Such is the authority that emanates from his work that it seemed for a while that every German literary critic or historian had to prove himself by demonstrating his ability to cope with Hölderlin. The resulting literature has reached such a degree of inbred polemical and technical intricacy that it has tended to bury the freshly rediscovered work under a heap of glosses. One moved quickly from books on Hölderlin to volumes surveying the secondary literature; and it could rightly be said that the development of German criticism of the last fifty years could best be traced in Hölderlin studies.

A reaction was bound to occur and now, when new translations are making Hölderlin’s work available to French-and English-speaking readers, German interest in him has—quantitatively speaking—passed its peak. This is just as well, for what is most needed at this point is a well-informed and thoughtful interpretation of specific texts rather than large generalizations about a poet who remains, in spite of so much analytical effort, enigmatic and little understood. The estrangement that existed between Hölderlin and his contemporaries persists in fact today, in spite of the admiration that now surrounds him. Indeed, when he was little known, his work was sheltered from misinterpretation, but now that all of Hölderlin’s writings are studied so closely, they are often admired for the wrong reasons and made to mean something quite different from what they actually do.

One feels almost envious of the American and English reader who, thanks to the recent bilingual edition by Michael Hamburger, will encounter Hölderlin’s poetry for the first time, and feel its power as literature and not as a problem of literary interpretation. He may well be put off by its difficulty and obscurity. The difficulty is not due to arcane knowledge or to anomalies of form, for Hölderlin’s erudition derives from classical and biblical sources, while his poetic form uses the neoclassical conventions reintroduced into German literature by Klopstock. Rather, the obscurity stems from the fact that the poetry seems to contain little that is personal or familiar, and does not describe experiences that are easy to share. The light that hangs over Hölderlin’s world is not quite the light of common day.

Goethe missed the presence of a “portrayal of human beings” (Menschenmalerei) and found the descriptions of nature which occur often in the poet’s work over-stylized and over-general, not rooted enough in actual observation. Had he read some of the poems written after 1799, instead of the still awkward earlier samples that Schiller sent him, he probably would not have complained about the descriptive passages in Hölderlin’s poetry. For these are the passages to which the new reader is most likely to respond, the easiest introduction to Hölderlin’s universe. Almost all of Hölderlin’s poems contain descriptive sections that are quite specific, not only because they are given precise geographical names—the source of the Danube, the Rhine, various Swabian cities, glimpses of the Alps or of the vineyards near Bordeaux—but because they appear as concrete visual images, representations of reality.

There is a great deal of both suggestive and precise detail in a scene like this description of a nightfall over a city, at the beginning of the poem “Bread and Wine”; I quote the passage in German as well as Mr. Hamburger’s translation, for his is not perhaps the ideal rendering for a first encounter:

Rings um ruhet die Stadt; still wird die erleuchtete Gasse, Und, mit Fakeln geschmükt, 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 geschäfftige Markt.
Aber das Saitenspiel tönt fern aus Gärten; vieleicht, dass Dort ein Liebender spielt oder ein einsamer Mann
Ferner Freunde gedenkt und der Jugendzeit; und die Brunnen Immerquillend und frisch rausch- en an duftenden Beet.
Still in dämmriger Luft ertönen ge- läutete Gloken, Und der Stunden gedenk rufet ein Wächter die Zahl.
Jetzt auch kommet ein Wehn und regt die Gipfel des Hains auf, Sieh! und das Schattenbild unser- er Erde, der Mond
Kommet geheim nun auch; die Schwärmerische, die Nacht kommt, Voll mit Sternen und wohl wenig bekümmert um uns,
Glänzt die Erstaunende dort, die Fremdlingin unter den Men- schen Über Gebirgeshöhn traurig und prächtig herauf.

In Mr. Hamburger’s version:

Round us the town is at rest; the street, in pale lamplight, grows quiet And, their torches ablaze, coaches rush through and away.
People go home to rest, replete with the day and its pleas- ures, There to weigh up in their heads, pensive, the gain and the loss,
Finding the balance good; stripped bare now of grapes and of flowers, As of their hand-made goods, quiet the market stalls lie.
But faint music of strings comes drifting from gardens; it could be Someone in love who plays there, could be a man all alone
Thinking of distant friends, the days of his youth; and the fountains, Ever welling and new, plash amid fragrance from beds.
Church-bells ring; every stroke hangs still in the quivering half-light And the watchman calls out, mindful, no less, of the hour.
Now a breeze rises too and ruffles the crest of the coppice, Look, and in secret our globe’s shadowy image, the moon,
Slowly is rising too; and Night, the fantastical, comes now Full of stars and, I think, little concerned about us,
Night, the astonishing, there, the stranger to all that is human, Over the mountain-tops mourn- ful and gleaming draws on.

The same precise observation is still present, although in much more compressed form, in later poems such as “Andenken” (“Remembrance”).

Geh aber nun und grüsse
Die schöne Garonne,
Und die Gärten von Bourdeaux
Dort, wo am scharfen Ufer
Hingehet der Steg und in den Strom
Tief fällt der Bach, darüber aber
Hinschauet ein edel Paar
Von Eichen und Silberpappeln;…

But go now, go and greet
The beautiful Garonne
And the gardens of Bordeaux,
To where on the rugged bank
The path runs and into the river
Deep falls the brook, but above them
A noble pair of oaks
And white poplars looks out;…

This is not descriptive poetry as we would find in Wordsworth or in Coleridge, nor is it the kind of reverie associated with a Rousseauistic response to natural settings. The landscapes are made up of an intricate network of forces whose relations are strongly dramatized. As a result, despite the absence of explicit symbolism or allegory, one feels behind these landscapes a working principle that encompasses mind and nature within a larger element. Like landscapes in a dream, every detail seems to have a meaning, to refer back to a will, to a purpose, even if this purpose remains hidden. Hölderlin modulates almost without transition from nature descriptions to dramatic scenes describing the actions of entities endowed with more than human or natural status. The course of the river Rhine becomes the bearing of a demigod; the fall of night over a city the way in which a god ambiguously manifests his presence in withdrawal; a sunrise in the Alps suggests the proper distance between god and man.

In a late eighteenth-century work, such sudden and apparently effortless transitions from nature to divine presences are by no means easy to understand. The word “god” in Hölderlin, in the singular or in the plural, does not have behind it the weight of doctrinal and literary tradition that gives it an anagogic level of meaning as in Dante or in Milton. Nor are we dealing with a humanized and secularized version of Hellenic or Christian symbolism, as when Shelley or Keats represents the historical destiny of mankind in mythological form. It would also be false to think of Hölderlin’s poetry as a form of pantheism. He does not reach what he calls “the gods” through the mediation of nature; nature, in his work, is not closer to god than the thoughts and the deeds of man. Least of all does the theocentric vocabulary designate a religious experience in the traditional sense of the term: it refers to no dogma or act of faith. How the more-than-human point of view throughout the poetry is to be interpreted will remain the burden of Hölderlin criticism for many years to come.

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