The Poet in the Tower

Poems and Fragments

by Friedrich Hölderlin, translated from the German by Michael Hamburger
London: Anvil, 823 pp., $29.95 (paper)

In the depths of the Second World War, in a London battered by German bombs, a young Jew named Michael Hamburger penned a lament in the voice of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin:

Diotima is dead, and silent
The island’s singing bird.
The temple I raised from ruin
Fallen again.

Where is the flame I stoked from ashes
Of the mind? Where are the heroes
And my pulsing song?
Nothing stirs on the lakes of time.

A volume of Hölderlin translations from Hamburger’s hand appeared in 1943. Meanwhile, in German classrooms, children were chanting verses from Hölderlin too:

O take me, take me up into the ranks,
so that I do not one day die a common death!
I do not want to die in vain, what
I want is to fall on the sacrificial mound

For the Fatherland, to pour out the heart’s blood
For the Fatherland.

Who was Hölderlin, who could be made to speak for both a lost past and a National Socialist future?

Friedrich Hölderlin was born in 1770 in the tiny independent duchy of Württemberg in southwestern Germany. His father—who died when the boy was two—was an ecclesiastical employee; his mother, the daughter of a clergyman, intended him for the church. He was sent to church schools and then to the prestigious theological seminary in Tübingen.

Württemberg was unusual among German statelets of the late eighteenth century: whereas most were ruled by absolute princes, in Württemberg the powers of the duke were constitutionally constrained by an assembly of non-noble families, the Ehrbarkeit, to which the Hölderlins belonged. This body, which included the clergy and upper bureaucracy, ran the cultural and intellectual life of the duchy.

Young men who passed the seminary’s stiff entrance examination were given a free education on condition they would thereafter serve in Württemberg parishes. Hölderlin was a reluctant seminarian: without success, he tried to persuade his mother to let him study law instead. She controlled his not inconsiderable inheritance: he remained dependent, until her death in 1828, on the meager allowances she doled out.

Though the seminary offered a first-class training in classical languages, theology, and divinity, there was also a stress on obedience to church and state that students found irksome. Hölderlin spent five restless years (1788–1793) there. Intellectual stimulus came not from his teachers—whom he looked down on for their obsequiousness in the face of authority—but from fellow students, who in his cohort included G.F.W. Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. He himself stood out: “It was as if Apollo was striding through the hall,” a classmate recalled.

In practice the seminary produced more graduates than there were clerical openings, and disaffection with the system was rife. Hölderlin was not alone in dreaming of an alternative career as a man of letters. But the Consistorium, the board in charge of the seminary, was hostile to such ambitions. For the rest of his life he had to request permission before …

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