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The Poet in the Tower

After leaving the Gontards, Hölderlin took on two further tutoring jobs, and was dismissed from each for erratic behavior. He tried to win a lectureship in Greek at the University of Jena, but without success. A friend created for him at the court of Hessen-Homburg a position as librarian with the lightest of duties, a position that the friend secretly funded. But this happy solution to the problem of how the philosopher-poet might devote himself to what, in a letter to his mother, he called “the higher and purer activities for which God in his excellence has intended me” came to an abrupt end when the friend was arrested on charges of treason. For a while it seemed that Hölderlin himself might be charged as a co-conspirator; but after a medical examination he was declared of unsound mind (his speech was “half German, half Greek, half Latin,” said the doctor) and allowed to go home to his mother.

To these last years of precarious sanity belongs much of Hölderlin’s greatest work: the late hymns, the Sophocles and Pindar translations, the play The Death of Empedocles in its final version. He had hoped to use his time in Homburg to write an exposition of his philosophy of poetry, which had hitherto found only fragmentary expression in essays and letters; but perhaps because he was losing the capacity for extended thought the job was never done.

One of Hölderlin’s biographers has argued that Hölderlin only pretended to be mad to escape the law. But the weight of evidence suggests otherwise. Hölderlin had been dismissed from his last tutorships because fits of rage made him unfit to teach young children. His attention wandered; he alternated between bursts of activity and withdrawal; he was morbidly suspicious.

In 1806, after his condition had deteriorated further, Hölderlin was conveyed, kicking and struggling, to a clinic in Tübingen from which he was in due course discharged as incurable but harmless. A cabinetmaker with literary interests took him in and housed him in a tower attached to his home. His mother paid for his upkeep out of his inheritance, assisted by a state annuity. He spent much of his time in his host’s garden, walking about alone, gesticulating and talking to himself.

There was a trickle of visitors, who would usually be welcomed with courtly formality. A caller left a record of such a visit. From the elderly poet he requested a few lines “as a souvenir.” “Shall they be verses on Greece, Spring, or the Spirit of the Age?” he was asked. The Spirit of the Age, replied the visitor. Hölderlin took out a folio sheet and penned six lines of doggerel, signing them “Obediently, Sardanelli. 24 May 1748.” Under the name Sardanelli and other aliases, Hölderlin continued to write occasional verse until his death in 1843 at the age of seventy-three.

The poet in the tower was not forgotten by the reading public. Editions of his poems appeared in 1826 and 1846. During his lifetime Hölderlin was sentimentalized by romantics as a fragile soul driven to madness by his daimon. Later he fell into neglect, remembered only as an eccentric nostalgist for ancient Greece. Nietzsche had a deeper appreciation of him; but it was not until the first decade of the twentieth century, when he was taken up and promoted by the poet Stefan George, that Hölderlin’s star began to rise. With George commences the reading of Hölderlin as a specifically German prophet-poet that would later bedevil his image. “The great visionary for his people,” George called him in 1919: “The cornerstone of the approaching German future and the herald of the New God.”

On the centenary of Hölderlin’s death a project was launched to publish all of his writings, a task that would take forty years to complete. For this so-called Stuttgart Edition the principles of classical philology were applied to divide the surviving manuscript material into a core of texts and a secondary corpus of variants. This distinction between text and variant came to prove so contentious among Hölderlin scholars that in 1975 a rival and yet to be completed edition, the so-called Frankfurt Edition, was inaugurated on the principle that there can be no core Hölderlinian text, that we must learn to read the manuscripts as palimpsests of versions overlaying and underlying other versions. For the foreseeable future the notion of a definitive text of Hölderlin is thus in suspension.

One reason for this contest of editions is that in the ninety-two-page notebook at the heart of the problem Hölderlin went back and forth between new and old manuscript poems, using different pens and inks in an unsystematic way, dating nothing, allowing what one might naively call different versions of the same poem to stand side by side. A deeper reason is that in his last productive years Hölderlin seems to have abandoned the notion of the definitive and to have regarded each seemingly completed poem as merely a stopping place, a base from which to conduct further raids into the unsaid. Hence his habit of breaking open a perfectly good poem, not in order to improve it but to rebuild it from the ground up. In such a case, which is the definitive text, which the variant, particularly when the rebuilding is broken off and not resumed? Are apparently unfinished reworkings to be regarded as abandoned projects, or might Hölderlin have been feeling his way toward a new aesthetics of the fragmentary, and an accompanying poetic epistemology of the flashing insight or vision?

In Germany the Hölderlin centenary of 1943 was celebrated on a grand scale. Ceremonies took place across the country; hundreds of thousands of Hölderlin readers were printed and distributed to German soldiers. Why this philosopher-poet, elegist of the Greek past and foe of autocracy, should have been adopted as a mascot of the Third Reich is not obvious. Initially the line followed by the Nazi cultural office was that Hölderlin was a prophet of the newly arisen German giant. After the tide of the war turned at Stalingrad, that line was amended: Hölderlin now spoke for European values being defended by Germany against the advancing Asiatic, Bolshevist hordes.

All of this rested on a handful of patriotic poems interpreted in a slanted way, plus some tinkering with the texts. Conveniently forgotten was the fact that when Hölderlin wrote of a Vaterland he as often as not meant Swabia rather than a wider Deutschland (which in 1800 was a cultural term, not a political one). The Nazis certainly did not absorb his warning, in the poem “Voice of the People,” against the “mysterious yearning toward the chasm” that can overtake whole nations.

The fortunes of Hölderlin under the Nazis are intricately intertwined with his fortunes in the hands of his most influential interpreter, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s meditations on the place of Germany in history are carried out largely in the form of commentaries on Hölderlin. In the 1930s Heidegger saw Hölderlin as the prophet of a new dawn; when the Reich collapsed he saw him as the consoling poet for dark times when the gods withdraw. While in rough outline this account squares with the Nazi version, it does an injustice to the seriousness with which Heidegger reflects on each line of Hölderlin. To Heidegger in “the completely destitute time” of the present (he was writing in 1946), when the relevance of poetry is everywhere in doubt, Hölderlin is the one who articulates most clearly the essential calling of the poet, namely to speak the words that bring a new world into being. We read Hölderlin’s dark poetry, says Heidegger, not so much to understand him as to keep in contact with him until that future arrives when he will at last be understandable. He quotes Hölderlin:

The bold spirit, like an eagle
Before the tempests, flies prophesying
In the path of his advancing gods.

Among the liberal intelligentsia of Germany in Hölderlin’s day there prevailed not just an admiration for Athens as a model society where men devoted themselves to the quest for truth, beauty, and justice, but also a somewhat starry-eyed vision of a past when the divine was a living force in the world. “Where the gods were more like human beings/Human beings were more godlike,” wrote Schiller in “The Gods of Greece” (1788). This picture of Greece was based largely on a reading of Greek poetry, to a lesser extent on secondhand accounts of Greek sculpture. An elective affinity was claimed between Germany and Greece, between the German language and the Greek language. A new theory of literature was developed, based on Plato rather than Aristotle, in which key elements of modernist aesthetics are prefigured: the autonomy of the art object, organic form, the imagination as a demiurgic power.

Out of an idealized vision of Greece grew a movement whose agenda, as formulated by Kant, was to allow “the germs implanted by nature” in humankind to develop fully, so that “man’s destiny can be fulfilled here on earth.” Beginning with the reforms to the Prussian education system effected by Wilhelm von Humboldt, reforms that put the study of Greek language and literature at the core of the curriculum, philhellenic neohumanism rapidly came to dominate the education of the German middle classes.

The project of remodeling Germany along Athenian lines was to an extent the brainchild of young men with little social capital save a schooling in the classics (Winckelmann was the son of a shoemaker, Schiller the son of a soldier) but with ambitions to wrest control of cultural life from the Frenchified German courts and to give a new, nationalist meaning to German identity. Within a generation, however, the tincture of revolutionary idealism had been purged from the education system, as the career men and professionals took over. Though it continued to be associated with a lofty if vague liberalism, philhellenism in the academy had by the 1870s become part of a conservative establishment. The new radicals were the archaeologists and textual scholars, Nietzsche among them, to whom the neohumanist version of Greece—Winckelmann’s “noble simplicity and quiet greatness,” Humboldt’s “purity, totality, and harmony”—ignored too much of Greek reality, the violence and irrationalism of Greek religion, for instance.

At first glance, Hölderlin may seem a typical neohumanist of his generation: a déclassé intellectual alienated from church and state, aspiring toward a utopia in which poets and philosophers would be accorded their rightful due; more specifically, a poet constitutionally trapped in a backward-looking posture, mourning the passing of an age when gods mixed with men (“…My friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,/Over our heads they live, up in a different world./…Little they seem to care whether we live or do not”).

But such a reading underestimates the complexity of Hölderlin’s attitude toward Greece. To him the Greeks were not to be copied but confronted: “If one is not to be crushed by the accepted,…there seems little choice but with violent arrogance to pit oneself as a living force against everything learned, given.”

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