The Riddle of Hölderlin

Poems and Fragments

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

Friedrich Hölderlin
Friedrich Hölderlin; drawing by David Levine

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as a private tutor, shuttling back and forth between unsatisfactory posts and leaving most of the poetry he was writing unpublished.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…

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