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a private tutor, shuttling back and forth between unsatisfactory posts and leaving most of the poetry he was writing unpublished.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

The new reader of Hölderlin’s poetry does not encounter these questions in their philosophical or theological form, for he has the task first of making sense out of poems that are difficult in syntax and thought. He is likely to respond first of all to the suggestiveness of the landscapes and the descriptions. The mastery of these passages, in which the movement of the verse-line matches exactly that of the scene or the object that is being described, should convince him, if need be, that he is dealing with a poetic mind that, as far as control over language is concerned, is anything but arbitrary or unstable.

On the other hand, next to the landscapes, he will encounter compressed and enigmatic statements, highly quotable and suggestive of profundity but so general that they call for more specific interpretation within the context of the poems—lines such as “Was bleibet aber stiften die Dichter” (translated by Mr. Hamburger as “But what is lasting the poets provide”), “Wie du anfiengst wirst du bleiben” (“…as you began, so you will remain”), “Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?” (“Who wants poets at all in the lean years?”), or the famous opening lines of the hymn “Patmos”: “Nah ist/ Und schwer zu fassen der Gott.” (“Near is/ And difficult to grasp, the God.”) Although not in themselves obscure, these pronouncements are like riddles whose answers can only be found in other parts of the poems in which they appear.

Between the concrete descriptions and the abstract maxims appear passages of great dramatic intensity, often relating directly or allusively to historical events of the past or the present—the wars of Troy, the battle of Salamis, as well as such contemporary events as the Napoleonic wars or the Peace of Lunéville—or, with equal frequency and dramatic immediacy, to events from mythology or from the Bible: the wars of the Titans, the birth of Dionysus, the Last Supper, etc. The three levels or, as Hölderlin calls them, “tonalities”—the descriptive, the purely abstract, and the dramatic—are very closely related. They do not alternate at random but are controlled in their order and function by a general design that gives the poetry an unmistakably unified voice (Hölderlin speaks of “Grundton“). This voice remains recognizable in its three different registers, although it is extremely difficult to capture its meaning, i.e., to make explicit the relationship between the descriptive, the philosophical, and the dramatic parts of Hölderlin’s poetry.

Whether the readers of Mr. Hamburger’s translation will be able to perceive this unifying voice and to interpret its statement remains somewhat doubtful. The edition unquestionably is considerably better than earlier scattered attempts to introduce Hölderlin to English-speaking readers, including Mr. Hamburger’s own earlier collection of Hölderlin translations published in 1943. For the first time, we are given a comprehensive selection of the poetry, including two later versions of the unfinished Empedokles tragedy.

The French reader is still more fortunate in having in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade a new edition, edited by Philippe Jaccottet, which includes, besides the poems and the novel Hyperion (which is also available in a good English translation by Willard Trask), the important philosophical essays and the letters, not yet available in English. In its typography and appearance Mr. Hamburger’s volume resembles Friedrich Beissner’s authoritative critical edition of Hölderlin’s works published in Stuttgart. The resemblance is somewhat misleading, however, since Mr. Hamburger’s is not a scholarly publication but a comprehensive selection of Hölderlin’s mature work, without critical apparatus and offering only a few sparse notes that might well have been dispensed with—for if one starts annotating Hölderlin, a great deal more is needed than these few pages. Fortunately, the edition is bilingual and benefits from the care and talent of a translator who knows Hölderlin’s work well and makes a valiant effort to master some of the considerable difficulties of his task.

Whether Mr. Hamburger succeeds is difficult to assess. In his Preface, he addresses himself to the problem in a modest and sensible way, proclaiming his wish to remain as faithful as possible to the original, respecting the poet’s intention wherever he can while still maintaining a diction that is not more unusual in English than Hölderlin’s is in German. Mr. Hamburger’s mildly polemical remarks aimed at “free” translators who write their own poem about a poem, indicate his moderate stand on the ever-disputed question of the ethics and aesthetics of translation. He rejects absolute literalness as well as the audacity of radical recasting.

The result is a rather colorless copy of the original, which is rarely felicitous but does not introduce major distortions. The opening passage from “Bread and Wine” which I have quoted is a typical example of Mr. Hamburger’s craft: clear English, slightly awkward when it tends to pile prepositions on prepositions (“rush through and away…” “There to weigh up…”), and sometimes padded to keep the hexameter filled out (the pale lamplight, not in the original, or the watchman who “calls out mindful, no less, of the hour”). There is one error (“Werken der Hand” translated as “hand-made goods” when Hölderlin means human labor in a general way).

A graver shortcoming is the near total loss of Hölderlin’s syntactical constructions, which allow him to convey, in an imitative pattern that links the syntax with the described action, the drama of his scenes. In the opening passage of “Bread and Wine,” for example, the German text aims entirely at the climactic effect achieved when the moon and the allegorized Night appear on the scene. A succession of constructions beginning not with the grammatical subject, but with an adverb, take the attention away from a series of diurnal things, put in third place behind adverb and verb: still wird…(die Gasse), satt gehn…(die Menschen), von Werken der Hand ruht…(die Markt), still ertönen…(die Gloken), der Stunden gedenk rufet…(ein Wächter).

In contrast, the sound of the violin and of the fountains, both prefiguring night, by being placed at the head of a sentence is given the emphasis of a subject. When the moon finally appears, heralded by a breeze itself introduced by the key-verb “comes,” it is as a prominent active subject of the sentence that stretches almost over an entire line, in sharp contrast to the subdued subjects of the earlier lines. Its dynamic presence (which so struck Rilke that, in his poem “To Hölderlin,” he likens the poet himself to an ever-wandering moon) is conveyed by the verb “come,” thrice repeated.

Practically nothing of all this remains in translation. The adverbial constructions have disappeared, with one exception (“… quiet the market stalls lie…”) which, standing alone, fulfills no function; by not repeating the verb, the translator loses the sudden and parallel “coming” of moon and night, and he spoils the dramatic moment by padding with the word “slowly” which is not in the original.

Nor is the translator always successful in the compressed formulations of the more philosophical passages. Such faults are more disquieting, not only because they reveal misconceptions in the understanding of Hölderlin’s meaning, but because they cut the thread that ties together the different tonalities. If the philosophical passages are misconstrued, loosened from the descriptive and dramatic context, the entire structure, all the more fragile for being so intricately interconnected, collapses into incoherence.

A brief passage from the hymn “The Rhine” can serve as an example. The fourth strophe of the poem begins, “Ein Rätsel ist Reinentsprungenes,” a passage that Mr. Hamburger translates as “A mystery are those of pure origin.” The term “Reinentsprungenes” can indeed be considered as a focal point around which a large part of the poem gravitates. The poet himself, introduced in the opening lines of the poem, is seen meditating on the word “Reinentsprungenes,” or, literally, on the source of the river whose name indeed suggests “rein“—pure:

Im dunkeln Efeu sasz ich, an der Pforte
Des Waldes, eben, da der goldene Mittag,
Den Quell besuchend, herunterkam
Von Treppen des Alpengebirgs,…

Jetzt aber, drinn im Gebirg,
Tief unter den silbernen Gipfeln
Und unter fröhlichem Grün,
Wo die Wälder schauernd zu ihm,
Und der Felsen Häupter übereinan- der
Hinabschaun, taglang, dort
Im kältesten Abgrund hört’
Ich um Erlösung jammern
Den Jüngling,…

Die Stimme wars des edelsten der Ströme,
Des freigeborenen Rheins,…

In Mr. Hamburger’s translation:

Amid dark ivy I was sitting, at
The forest’s gate, just as golden noon,
To visit the wellspring there, came down
From steps of the Alpine ranges…

But now, within the mountains
Deep down below the silvery sum- mits
And in the midst of gay verdure,
Where shuddering the forests
And the heads of rocks overlapping
Look down at him, all day
There in the coldest chasm
I heard the youth implore

The voice it was of the noblest of rivers,
Of free-born Rhine,…

The first meaning that readers may associate with the term “Reinentsprungenes” could very possibly be that of the virgin birth, and Mr. Hamburger strengthens a tendency in this direction by his use of the word “mystery”—as one speaks of the “mystery” of the Immaculate Conception or as Yeats, for example, also in reference to the Incarnation, speaks of “the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.” Some of the allusive passages later in the hymn can indeed be construed with Christian references, although several other divine or semi-divine figures are being alluded to: a single, unnamed god at the beginning of the sixth strophe, Prometheus in strophe 7, Herakles in strophes 5 and 11, Dionysus in strophe 10, etc. On the whole, there are fewer allusions to Christ in this poem than in many others of the same period, whereas a great deal of emphasis falls on natural entities, such as the river Rhine, or on historical figures, such as Rousseau.

Nor does Hölderlin speak of “mystery” but of “riddle” (“Rätsel“). If the “pure origin” were a mystery, it would be vain to search for its precise meaning anywhere: the poem would have to be read as a prayer or incantation, a hymn of praise that calls the gods down among mortals and invites them to speak, like the incense burned at the altar, the ritual that surrounds the sacrifice. But if “pure origin” is a “riddle,” then the poem has a very different function. A riddle is not, in itself, out of the reach of knowledge, but is temporarily hidden from knowledge by a device of language that can, in turn, be deciphered only by another operation of language. The word “riddle” directs our attention to the need to find the meaning of the word “Reinentsprungenes” in the various devices of the poem’s own language. The poem is not ritual, mystery, or prayer, but a text to be interpreted and inviting the reader’s answer, as all riddles do.

That the poem provides such an answer is something on which nearly all recent Hölderlin interpreters would agree, although their answers would vary. The question itself is complicated by the contrasting tension between God-as-a-mystery and God-as-a-riddle which is itself part of this poem. For if we attempt to decipher the meaning of “The Rhine,” the first answer the poem yields seems to lead us away from the investigation itself. If we ask, for example, why the river Rhine can be said to originate “purely,” we find instead that the river does not remain at a prudent, questioning distance from the “riddle” of its own origin, but boldly takes the place of the powers by which it has been put on earth. And this boldness is first treated positively: it sets the Rhine apart from other rivers that spring up in the same region but flow passively, by the shortest and straightest road, toward the ocean. By contrast, the Eastern course of the Rhine near the source reveals the river’s impatient wish to act as freely and independently as the powers that engendered it:

Die Stimme wars des edelsten der Ströme,
Des freigeborenen Rheins,
Und anderes hoffte der, als droben von den Brüdern,
Dem Tessin und dem Rhodanus,
Er schied und wandern wollt’, und ungeduldig ihn
Nach Asia trieb die königliche Seele.

The voice it was of the noblest of rivers,
Of free-born Rhine,
And different were his hopes when up there from his brothers
Ticino and Rhodanus
He parted and longed to roam, and impatiently
His regal soul drove him on towards Asia.

At first reading, the purity of the Rhine seems to derive from its willingness to lose itself in the mystery of its origin, and to reject any interference, whether by language or anything else. The river prefers an “Eastern” abandon in the silent depth of mystery to a “Western” rationality, and its superiority seems to be the result of this choice.

The subsequent development of the poem—much too intricate for summary—qualifies this statement to the point of near-reversal. The movement of the river toward the East turns out to be a necessary moment in the Rhine’s destiny, but also a moment of extreme danger and temptation, which has to be checked if the river is to fulfill its historical function as a founder of cities and of an earth-bound civilization:

…wenn in der Eil’
Ein Gröszerer ihn nicht zähmt,
Ihn wachsen läszt, wie der Blitz, musz er
Die Erde spalten, und wie Bezau- berte fliehn
Die Wälder ihm nach und zusam- mensinkend die Berge.

Ein Gott will aber sparen die Söhnen
Das eilende Leben und lächelt,
Wenn unenthaltsam, aber gehemmt
Von heiligen Alpen, ihm
In der Tiefe, wie jener, zürnen die Ströme.
In solcher Esse wird dann
Auch alles Lautre geschmiedet,
Und schön ists, wie er drauf,
Nachdem er die Berge verlassen,
Stillwandelnd sich im deutschen Lande
Begnüget und das Sehnen stillt
Im guten Geschäffte, wenn er das Land baut
Der Vater Rhein und liebe Kinder nährt
In Städten, die er gegründet.

…if in his haste
A greater one does not tame him,
But lets him grow, like lightning he
Must rend the earth and like things enchanted
The forests join his flight and, col- lapsing, the mountains.

A god, however, wishes to spare his sons
A life so fleeting and smiles
When, thus intemperate but re- strained
By holy Alps, the rivers
Like this one rage at him in the depth.
In such a forge, then, all
That’s pure is given shape
And it is good to see
How then, after leaving the moun- tains,
Content with German lands he calmly
Moves on and stills his longing
In useful industry, when he tills the land,
Now Father Rhine, and supports dear children
In cities which he has founded.

We move further from mystery and toward a more conscious use of language in the remaining part of the poem, as we go from a natural object devoid of self-awareness like the river, toward increasingly self-conscious entities: first, an unnamed Promethean figure whom the commentators have had difficulty in identifying, but who appears in a setting which suggests the greatness and decline Hölderlin associates with the historical destiny of Greece; then Rousseau, a near-contemporary who represents for Hölderlin the essence of the post-Hellenic Western mind in its concentration on self-knowledge, on language, and on historical understanding as steps away from natural and original conditions. The destinies of these two apparitions follow the same pattern as that of the river: a violent moment of youthful hybris is followed by a return to a reflective mood, whereby the earlier impulse is recollected in tranquillity, in a mood which suggests the Wordsworthian definition of the language of poetry.

Drum wohl ihm, welcher fand
Ein wohlbeschiedenes Schiksaal,
Wo noch der Wanderungen
Und süsz der Leiden Erinnerung
Aufrauscht am sichern Gestade,
Dasz da und dorthin gern
Er sehn mag bis an die Grenzen
Die bei der Geburt ihm Gott
Zum Aufenthalte gezeichnet.
Dann ruht er, seeligbescheiden,
Denn alles, was er gewollt,
Das Himmlische, von selber um- fängt
Es unbezwungen, lächelnd
Jetzt, da er ruhet, den Kühnen.

So happy he who has found
A well-allotted fate
Where still of his wanderings
And sweetly of his afflictions
The memory murmurs on banks that are sure,
So that this way, that way with pleasure
He looks as far as the bounds
Which God at birth assigned
To him for his term and site.
Then, blissfully humble, he rests,
For all that he has wanted,
Though heavenly, of itself sur- rounds
Him uncompelled, and smiles
Upon the bold one now that he’s quiet.

The text establishes that the purity in the term “Reinentsprungenes” designates a proper balance between desire and reflection, between instinct and consciousness, between action and interpretation; and that this balance can only be achieved by means of language. The figure that is finally held up as closest to the poet is not a figure of mystery and of Dionysian fervor, in the Nietzschian sense, but that of the riddle-posing and riddle-solving Socrates:

Denn schwer ist zu tragen
Das Unglük, aber schwerer das Glük.
Ein Weiser aber vermocht es
Vom Mittag bis in die Mitternacht,
Und bis der Morgen erglänzte,
Bein Gastmahl helle zu bleiben.

For hard to bear
Is misfortune, but good fortune harder.
A wise man though, was able
From noon to midnight, and on
Till morning lit up the sky
To keep wide awake at the ban- quet.

The sentence “Ein Rätsel ist Reinentsprungenes” is now seen to mean not only that “pure” origins are enigmatic but also that the quality of pure origins which gave both the Rhine and Rousseau such historical strength and the poet a subject for infinite meditation belongs to the riddle as a paradigmatic form of language. Subject and predicate are reversible: the sentence means not only that “pure origin” is a riddle but that the riddle itself is one of the entities which can lay claim to pure origin. Translating “riddle” as “mystery,” and introducing the restrictive “those” in “those of pure origin” (thus making it seem as if only persons or personifications could be “Reinentsprungen,” whereas the quality extends to entities as impersonal as language itself), Mr. Hamburger suppresses the all-important link between origin and language. He makes it seem as if Hölderlin was asserting the existence of a transcendental experience that lies beyond the reach of language, when the entire drift of the poem moves in the opposite direction. A single word-change makes an assertion of controlled lucidity into an incomprehensible plea for incomprehensibility. In his 1942 edition of Hölderlin translations Hamburger had translated the same passage “An enigma are things of pure source,” which is, in all respects, better and more accurate than his more recent version.*

Dramatic passages, especially in the Empedokles tragedy, are much more successfully rendered. The iambic meter is more congenial to English prosody than the hexameter of the elegies and the Pindaric free verse of the hymns, and the pathos of the speeches seems to suit Mr. Hamburger better than the descriptive or meditative language of the later poems. He manages to sustain the tone of tragedy throughout the play, an achievement that unfortunately cannot be illustrated by isolated passages. In the translation of the earlier odes, he misrepresents only when a misplaced fear of abstraction, falsely assumed to be unpoetic, leads him to introduce non-existent metaphors where Hölderlin deliberately avoids them.

Thus the line in the ode “Rousseau,” “Kennt er im ersten Zeichen Vollendetes schon” (literally: “In the earliest sign he can already read fulfillment”) is translated, “In seed grains he can measure the full-grown plant,” a metaphor of Mr. Hamburger’s own invention and out of place at this point in the poem. Hölderlin may not have found his ideal translator yet, but this first responsible English edition of his work nevertheless is a great step forward toward breaking the artificial national isolation in which his work has been held until now.

The successful rendering of the dramatic passages, in contrast to the descriptive and philosophical parts, will focus the attention of Mr. Hamburger’s readers on the historical themes. This may well encourage a misrepresentation that recurs all too frequently in Hölderlin studies. There has been a persistent tendency to treat Hölderlin as a prophetic and eschatological poet, the precursor of a new historical era that his work helps to prepare. The trend goes back to Stefan George and his circle, who were closely associated with the rediscovery of Hölderlin shortly before World War I. It prevails, in a subtler form, in some of Heidegger’s commentaries on Hölderlin’s poetry during the Thirties, whose ideological and nationalist overtones others, at the same time, were stating much less obliquely. But even when it appears in a non-political or politically acceptable form, the messianic scheme that one tends to associate with Hölderlin’s view of history distorts his actual statement.

Hölderlin was indeed a fervent admirer of Ancient Greece, which he celebrates, in many poems, as a great historical achievement. On the other hand, he can write negatively about his own times as, for example, near the end of Hyperion, or, later, in rare allusions to the solitude and suffering involved in his radical separation from his contemporaries. This suggests a conception of history in which the Hellenic past was a time of fulfillment as compared to the misery in the European present of 1800. History would then consist of alternating periods of light and dark, characterized, in Hölderlin’s vocabulary, by the presence or absence of entities referred to as the “gods.”

This combination of historical with theocentric references is highly suggestive, since it allows the reader to interpret events according to a grand scheme, while conferring on these events an aura of dramatic or poetic urgency that would be lacking in a technical philosophy of history. Thus the transposition of Hölderlin’s philo-Hellenism into a literal historical scheme yields an interpretation of the present that is, to some critics, reassuring; during a period of history that is part of our civilization, men could think of the gods as actual presences from which they were not separated by transcendental distances. If this was possible for a consciousness not essentially different from our own, it follows that the absence of gods, painfully experienced as everyday reality, may be only a passing dark phase between two stages of unity, one past but another still to come.

The harshness of the present can then be seen as, in Matthew Arnold’s words, a “wandering between two worlds”; if one of these worlds is indeed dead, then this death was not of our doing, and if the other is “powerless to be born,” then the strength necessary for its rebirth may arise at any moment through the will of powers that we do not control. Interpreted in such a literal and historical way, Hölderlin’s much-quoted phrase about a barren, empty time (“dürftiger Zeit“), uncritically assumed to mean the post-Hellenic world, satisfies our self-pity and impatience, while reaffirming the faith that “…the gods are living,/ Over our heads…in a different world,” and that “the Heavenly who once were/ Here…shall come again, come when their advent is due.” (“Bread and Wine.”) Secularized by a crude transposition to the historical world, Hölderlin’s eschatological themes, taken out of context, turn into reassuring myths about the certainty of a better future.

In its entirety, however, Hölderlin’s work disproves the simplified relationship between poetry and history that is so often attributed to him. The contrast between the German present and the Hellenic past was not for Hölderlin a contrast between divine presence and absence, between unity and division, but a dialogue between two successive modes of consciousness. History plays a prominent part in a poetry that involves the destiny of nations and of eras rather than of particular persons. But the poetry is never positively oriented toward a future historical rebirth prefigured and prepared in the poet’s language.

The certainties that Hölderlin’s work asserts with ever-increasing control are certainties about the complex and primarily negative relationship prevailing between any kind of reflective language (including that of poetry) and the more immediate experience of reality that is a necessary part of history. History appears to him as the starting point of a reflection, not as an incentive to action. This inner understanding does not alleviate our present predicament, nor does it imply any knowledge or control over what will happen in the future. True wisdom begins in the knowledge of its own historical ineffectiveness. When Hölderlin evokes the possibility of future moments of historical splendor, comparable to what Greece used to be in the past, such evocations are accompanied by the foreknowledge that people will be conscious of the achievement of these periods when they have ceased to be and have become in turn parts of the past. Nothing could be more remote from schemes that conceive of history as either apocalyptic failure or salvation.

The truth of such negative insights is highly repellent to a period like our own, frustrated at finding itself at the same time so advanced in self-awareness and so powerless in its control over events. Hence the alacrity with which Hölderlin’s work has been scrutinized for tokens of historical prophecy. Only gradually does it begin to appear that he was saying something more demanding about the transitory nature of all historical achievement, about the difficulty for the mind to maintain its balance in view of the ceaseless erosion of the historical world, and about poetry as a medium in which some degree of lucidity can prevail.

Hölderlin’s language, when one can hear and understand the unifying voice that binds the different tonalities together, is not a symbolical or allegorical representation of historical events, but the autonomous movement of a mind that establishes its own domain, at a level which, in its effectiveness, lies well below history but well above it in its wisdom. For a long time, Hölderlin’s readers preferred to ignore him; then they glorified him in a manner that his own thought decries, or reduced him to the banality of a psychological case. The new translations and the rigor of some recent studies indicate that the austere task of understanding his real meaning progresses, albeit at the cost of lost illusions that accompanies any increased insight.

This Issue

November 19, 1970