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.1

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 he changed abode or employment, under penalty of having to repay the cost of his education.

In the seminary Hölderlin wrote enthusiastic, rather strident poems of a pantheistic bent celebrating the universe as a living whole infused with divinity. Their immediate model was Friedrich Schiller, but their philosophical underpinning was ultimately Neoplatonic. As his motto Hölderlin adopted the Greek phrase en kai pan, one and all: life is a harmonious unity, our goal must be to merge with the All.

Then burst the bomb of the French Revolution. At the two centers of learning in the duchy, the university and the seminary, revolutionary societies were founded, French newspapers pored over, revolutionary songs sung. Students joyfully endorsed the Declaration of the Rights of Man. When in 1792 the European autocracies launched attacks on France, it was the French armies for which they cheered. The Duke of Württemberg deplored their support for “French anarchy and regicide,” and tightened his control. Rather than fomenting anarchy, the young philosophical radicals in fact hoped for the creation of a republic of Württemberg, or of a wider Swabia, under the protection of French arms, and were disconcerted when the Terror began to gather momentum in France.

There is no doubting Hölderlin’s revolutionary sympathies—“Pray for the French, the champions of human rights,” he instructed his younger sister—but his poems say nothing direct about politics. To a degree this was because he had no models for political poetry; but it was also because of a strong tradition among Germany’s intellectual class of not involving itself in political affairs.

The writer with the strongest following among young idealists was Schiller, and Schiller’s political line after 1793 was that the consciousness of the people needed to be changed before true political change could occur. In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind of 1794–1795 Schiller proposed that the human spirit could best be enlightened, liberated, and refined by participating in aesthetic play. For proof, one need look no further than ancient Athens, a democratic society that prized the life of the mind.


Hölderlin approved the leading role that Schiller gave the artist, but was disappointed by Schiller’s antirevolutionary stance, as he was dissatisfied with the skeptical divide between politics and ethics maintained by Immanuel Kant: political reform might be desirable, said Kant, but only as an aid to the more important goal of individual moral growth. For a while Hölderlin found in Johann Fichte a guide more to his liking; but in the end even Fichte was not strongly enough committed to a utopian future.

The issue was human freedom and what freedom consisted in. The idealism of Hölderlin, Hegel, and Schelling in their revolutionary phase rested on a conviction that ideas could change the world, that the inner freedom envisaged by Kant, Schiller, and Fichte could be extended, that there could again emerge such a thing as a free society along Athenian lines. If Schiller, following on Johann Winckelmann, represented a second generation of German philhellenism, Hölderlin, Hegel, and Schelling formed a third wave: young men who saw in Greece a model to be emulated and even surpassed, not just in art and philosophy but in democratic practice too.

Similarly with the French Revolution in its glory days. The Revolution, said Hölderlin, gave an intimation of how the gap could be bridged between ideas and reality, between the realm of the divine and the world. En kai pan: what had once been whole and good, and had then fallen apart, could be put together again. To search out traces of lost unity in the chaos of appearance we have only the aesthetic sense to rely on; to philosophy and poetry falls the task of healing what was broken.

Nevertheless, the self-betrayal and defeat of the Revolution left its mark on Hölderlin as on many other disappointed young Europeans of his generation. “It would make terrible reading,” wrote his younger contemporary Achim von Arnim in 1815, the year when the autocracies of Europe reasserted their sway, “to count off all the beautiful German souls who surrendered to madness or suicide or to careers they detested.”


Graduating from the seminary with the degree of Magister, and resisting pressure from his mother to look for a parish, Hölderlin established a toehold in literary Jena. An extract from his novel in progress, Hyperion, was published in a magazine Schiller edited; with Schiller himself Hölderlin established a quasi-filial relationship. At first Schiller accepted the role genially enough, giving Hölderlin advice about his verse-writing—notably to avoid large philosophical subjects—which Hölderlin ignored. What Hölderlin was really after was a more complicated and indeed Oedipal relationship than the older man cared for—“I am at times in a secret struggle with your genius, to protect my freedom against it,” he confided—and in the end Schiller stopped answering his letters.

Needing an income, Hölderlin took on the first of a series of appointments as resident tutor in the homes of well-to-do families. None of these lasted long—Hölderlin had no particular rapport with children—but the second, with a prominent Frankfurt family, affected his life decisively. He fell in love with his employer’s wife, Susette Gontard, and she with him. Forced to resign, he for a while continued to meet her clandestinely. But in 1802, at the age of thirty-four, she contracted tuberculosis and died.

Love affairs between ambitious but penniless young intellectuals and the neglected wives of businessmen are a staple of nineteenth-century romantic fiction. Hölderlin’s first biographer, Wilhelm Waiblinger, did his best to assimilate Hölderlin and Susette to the genre: Susette, “a young woman… of enthusiastic soul and fiery, vivacious disposition,” was “inflamed to the highest degree” by Hölderlin’s “gallant, distinguished person, his fine eyes, his youth, his uncommon understanding and eminent talent,” as well as his skill in music-making and conversation. The reality transcended the clichés of fiction. Susette’s letters to Hölderlin have survived, along with a few of his to her. As one reads them, writes David Constantine, “one’s sympathy is continually moved towards that peculiar sadness and outrage which comes when one witnesses an irremediable harm being done.” “The thwarted relation of Hölderlin and Susette Gontard can properly be called a tragedy.”2

In a sense Susette made Hölderlin as a poet. She gave him back the confidence that Schiller had undermined. She persuaded him to look to earlier German poets, Klopstock in particular, as models. But most importantly she incarnated in his eyes the union of earthly beauty with pure mind to which his more mystical, pantheistic intuitions had pointed him—en kai pan—but in which he had lost confidence reading Kant and Fichte. Susette appears in the two-volume Hyperion(1797, 1799) as Diotima, a sage and beautiful woman who guides the steps of Hyperion, a philhellene who has voyaged from his soulless German homeland—where, as he bitterly remarks, poets live like strangers in their own house—to help the Greeks in their struggle against the Ottomans.


Fichte had taught that consciousness is not part of nature but stands outside nature observing it. To Hölderlin the evolution of consciousness had seemed to foster only a dispiriting sense of alienation. Diotima-Susette brings Hyperion-Hölderlin to realize that consciousness can be an agency of spiritual growth, that it is possible to share at a fully conscious level in the divinity of the All. Specifically, the experience of beauty leads to the divine. Thus in his late twenties Hölderlin began to develop a philosophy with Platonic undertones and a strongly aesthetic orientation, coupled with a perspective on history in which the modern world is continually measured against the standard of the ancient.

Hölderlin worked up the Greece of Hyperion out of travel books, thereby joining a line of distinguished German philhellenes who never visited Greece, a line that included Goethe and Winckelmann, author of the little book, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755), that had sparked off the philhellenic craze. In Hyperion and in poems from the same period Hölderlin adopted Winckelmann’s Greece of “noble simplicity and quiet greatness” as the theater in which he would thenceforth play out his ideas. If in bygone times men had been free to pursue personal excellence and the life of the mind, then they might be able to do so again in some liberated Germany of the future.

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.”

Ramifications of this stance are explored in a letter of 1801. To the Greeks, says Hölderlin, “holy pathos” and the Apollonian “fire from heaven” came naturally. Intrinsic (eigen) to Western thought, on the other hand, are “Junonian sobriety” and “clarity of representation.” “Nothing is more difficult for us to learn than free use of our national traits…. This sounds like paradox. But I repeat…: in the advancement of culture [Bildung] the intrinsically national will always prove to be of lesser benefit.” The most striking achievement of Greek art was to master sobriety and clarity. Out of admiration for the Greeks, the Western poet may try to recreate Greek pathos and fire; but the profounder task is to master what comes naturally to him. This is why the Greeks are “indispensable” to us: we study them not in order to imitate them but to understand how unlike them we are.

Not only does this letter belie the picture of Hölderlin as a dreamer lost in the past, it also underlines the originality and rigor of his thinking about art. What the modern poet most clearly lacks, he writes, is technical training (in his own case, long apprenticeship to Greek masters fitted him to domesticate Greek meters more fluently than any of his European contemporaries). We arrive at poetic truth not by giving utterance to our personal feelings but by carrying our individual sensibility [Gemüth] and individual experience across into “analogical material of a different [fremd] kind.”

The most intensely inward feeling becomes vulnerable to passing away to the extent that it is not prepared to disown its actual [wahren] temporal and sensory connections…. Precisely for this reason the tragic poet, because he expresses the deepest inward intensity, wholly disowns his own person, his subjectivity, as well as the object present to him, and carries them over [instead] into alien [fremde] personality, into alien objectivity.

The great subject of Hölderlin’s poetry is the retreat of God or the gods, and the role of the poet in the benighted or destitute times that follow their retreat.

The most Blessed in themselves feel nothing
Another, if to say such a thing is
Permitted, must, I suppose,
Vicariously feel in the name of the gods,
And him they need,

he writes, with palpable diffidence, in the late hymn “The Rhine.” But what can it be that the gods in their remoteness look to us to feel? We do not know; all we can do is put in words our most intense yearning for their return, and hope that, touched perchance by fire from heaven, our words may to some extent incarnate the Word and thus transform yearning into epiphany. (In his fitful faith in a Word that will use human agency to express itself, Hölderlin comes closest to his friend Hegel’s historical idealism.)

The Greeks, observed Goethe, did not pine for the infinite but felt at home in the world. A hankering for a lost “classic” wholeness is the trademark of the Romantic. Hölderlin’s Romantic longing to be reunited with the divine comes to him not just from his early Neoplatonism—en kai pan—but also from his Christian roots. In the overarching mythological-historical scheme he constructed, Christ counts as simply the last of the gods to tread the earth before night closes in; but the late hymns suggest the beginnings of a rapprochement, a new intimacy with Christ if not with the Christian religion:

…And yet, and yet,
You ancient gods and all
You valiant sons of the gods,
One other I look for whom
Within your ranks I love…
My Master and Lord!
O you, my teacher!
Why did you keep

Where Hölderlin’s explorations would have taken him had the light not gone out in his thirty-sixth year is anyone’s guess. There is one text from his afterlife in the tower that may suggest the direction of his thought. In 1823 his friend and biographer Waiblinger published a seven-hundred-word fragment of prose that he claimed to have extracted from the poet’s papers. If we accept its authenticity, it suggests that, in times more destitute than he could ever have foreseen, Hölderlin’s fundamental hopefulness remained undimmed—his faith that our creative, meaning-making faculty will see us through. I quote from Richard Sieburth’s translation:

…Is God unknown?
Is he manifest as the sky? This I tend
To believe. Such is man’s measure.
Well deserving, yet poetically
Man dwells on this earth. But the shadow
Of the starry night is not more pure, if I may say so,
Than man, said to be in the image of God.


Michael Hamburger was born in Germany in 1924. In 1933 the Hamburger family emigrated to Britain, where they integrated smoothly into the upper-middle-class intelligentsia. Hamburger was a precocious student, winning a scholarship to Oxford at the age of seventeen to study French and German. His first book of translations, Hölderlin: Poems and Fragments, appeared from a small press in 1943.

These early versions were later more or less disowned. In 1952 a new, expanded set of Hölderlin translations appeared, followed in 1966 by what was intended to be a “definitive selection and rendering.” Though in 1990 some poems were added, most of the latest edition (2004) dates from the 1960s.

Michael Hamburger is very much the doyen of translators of modern German poetry. Yet in his memoirs he admits to some exasperation at being best known as a translator. As a young man he clearly had creative ambitions, and for a while his poems were to be found in anthologies of modern British verse. Read as a whole, his Collected Poems tells a story of a writer of some gifts who never quite found his true subject and who, sometime in early middle age, gave up the quest and settled for occasional verse.

There is a passage in one of Hölderlin’s letters that Hamburger quotes with clear reference to himself:

For this is tragic among us, that we leave the realm of the living quite calmly, packed into a container, not that devoured by flames we atone for the flame which we could not master.

For Hamburger the sacred flame he could not master went out early; the life of atonement as translator and scholar he regards as a sad second best. (There is some irony here in the fact that Hölderlin himself reached audacious poetic heights as a translator.)

In a succession of prefaces and essays Hamburger has spelled out his aims as a translator. What he did wrong in 1943, he says, was to privilege literal accuracy over Hölderlin’s “beautifully singular” way of writing:

No translation of Hölderlin’s odes and elegies can be close to the originals without rendering their metres or at least their cadences, and conveying something of their peculiar dynamism, their peculiar stillness, brought about by the tension between a strict form and an impulse beating against it.

He has striven therefore for “the best possible translation of a certain kind,” in which word-for-word accuracy is weighed against the need to reproduce Hölderlin’s music. He dismisses the kind of free translation practiced by Ezra Pound and fashionable in the 1960s under the name of “imitation”: “occupational therapy for poets partly or temporarily disabled,” he calls it.

We get an idea of Hamburger’s “best possible” in his version of the ode “The Poet’s Courage,” composed around 1800, substantially rewritten a year or two later, and then even more radically reworked under the title “Timidness.” Hamburger selects the first version.

For, as quiet near shores, or in the silvery
Flood resounding afar, or over silent deep
Water travels the flimsy
Swimmer, likewise we love to be
Where around us there breathe, teem those alive, our kin,
We, their poets; and glad, friendly to every man,
Trusting all. And how else for
Each of them could we sing his god?
Though the wave will at times, flattering, drag below
One such brave man where, true, trusting he makes his way,
And the voice of that singer
Now falls mute as the hall turns blue;
Glad he died there, and still lonely his groves lament
Him whom most they had loved, lost, though with joy he drowned;
Often a virgin will bear his
Kindly song in the distant boughs.

The meter is asclepiadic, an intricate pattern of iambs and dactyls broken by caesurae in the longer first two lines of each four-line strophe. Hamburger renders Hölderlin’s versification faithfully, and although one might quibble with certain word choices (“flimsy” might be replaced with “light-bodied,” for instance, and “grows dim” would be better than “turns blue”), the musical effect he achieves in English is ravishing, capturing exactly the tone of hope, tentative yet vibrant, with which Hölderlin confronts defeat, a tone that characterizes both his grasp of his vocation and his vision of history.

“If I had not…found it necessary to imitate Hölderlin’s meters…then many of my translations would have become smoother and more acceptable to English ears,” writes Hamburger. He is scathing about what he sees as the unadventurousness of English prosody—its prejudice against classical meters and its unthinking preference for the iamb. At the risk of seeming “pedestrian and pedantic” he takes it upon himself “to reproduce even those peculiarities of [Hölderlin’s] diction, form and way of thinking which are alien both to myself and to English conventions obtaining either in his time or in ours.” His method works, he believes, as long as the English reader is prepared to approach his renderings “as poems necessarily different from any written in [the reader’s] own language, in his own time.”

The peculiarities of diction and form that Hamburger alludes to are not just Hölderlin’s use of Greek meters but his practice of varying poetic diction in accord with a system of “tonal modulation” that he developed from hints in Schiller and outlined in a cryptic essay entitled “Wechsel der Töne.” Hamburger is one of only two translators of Hölderlin who, to my knowledge, have taken the system to heart seriously enough to embody it in their own versions (Cyrus Hamlin is the other). Its presence beneath the surface of his English texts, together with the exigencies of the metrical scheme, may go some way toward explaining, here and there, lapses into archaism (“Silence often hehoves [sic] us” for “Schweigen müssen wir oft,” often we must be silent) and incongruous colloquialism (“Too greatly,/O Christ, I’m attached to you”).

The sternest test comes in Hölderlin’s late poems, where the music becomes more impetuous and the poetic logic—hinging on conjunctions (denn, aber, nemlich) used as if they were Greek rather than German—more enigmatic, and where lines of verse are interspersed with what read like memos from the poet to himself (“This river seems/ to travel backwards and/I think it must come from the East,” he writes of the Danube. “Much could/Be said about this”). Here Hamburger’s determination to avoid building his own interpretation into the poem issues sometimes in a lifeless literalism. Compare the following two translations of a passage from Hölderlin’s poem on the Danube, “Der Ister.” The first is by Hamburger:

But here we wish to build.
For rivers make arable
The land. For when herbs are growing
And to the same in summer
The animals go to drink,
There too will human kind go.
This one, however, is called the Ister.
Beautifully he dwells. The pillars’ foliage burns,
And stirs. Wildly they stand
Supporting one another; above,
A second measure, juts out
The roof of rocks.

The second is by Richard Sieburth:

For the rivers make the land
Arable. If there be vegetation
And animals come to water
At the banks in summer,
Here men will also go.
And they call this the Ister.
Beautiful his dwelling. Leaves on columns
Burn and quiver. They stand in the wild,
Rising among each other; above which
Surges a second mass,
The roofing of rock.

The words “build,” “herbs,” “dwells” in Hamburger’s version literally translate the wording of the original. “Beautifully he dwells” sounds as odd in German as in English (it is in fact a Graecism). Sieburth, on the other hand, sees no harm in nudging words until they sit more comfortably in English or clarify the logic of the passage. Thus “herbs” becomes “foliage,” “build” becomes “settle.”

The divergence of approach between the two translators becomes more pointed in the image with which the passage closes. The last three lines clearly refer to rocky crags above the tree level of the valley floor. Sieburth feels free to write “a second mass,/The roofing of rock,” even though Hölderlin’s word Maß (“Ein zweites Maß…/ Von Felsen das Dach“) means “measure” rather than “mass.” Hamburger, perhaps because Maß is such a key term in Hölderlin (not only the measure of verse but the Greeks as a measure of ourselves), cautiously retains the sense of measure, plane, dimension, and thus comes up with a less vivid rendering.

It is an open question whether the project that Hamburger embarked on half a century ago was wisely planned—the project of translating into English a body of work whose textual foundation would grow less and less steady over the years, reproducing as far as possible its metrical patterning and play of levels of language. Hamburger seems not to have doubted himself, though the prefaces to succeeding editions betray an increasing defensiveness. There are signs that he does not welcome criticism: errors identified by Paul de Man in his versions of “Bread and Wine” and “The Rhine” have been left untouched. Perhaps with the Nazi appropriation of Hölderlin at the back of his mind, he tends to treat words like Vaterland and Volk more gingerly than is necessary, in places translating Volk as “kin” and Vaterland as “my country” or “our country.”

His achievement is nevertheless considerable. The 2004 edition of Hölderlin: Poems and Fragments contains about 170 poems, some in alternative versions, plus The Death of Empedocles in its second and third drafts, plus the so-called Pindar fragments—in other words, the bulk of Hölderlin’s surviving verse, including all the major poems of the years between 1800 and 1806. Empedocles is particularly well rendered; as for the poems, though Hamburger’s versions prove only intermittently to be touched with divine fire, they are a reliable guide to Hölderlin’s German and give an echo of his outlandish music.

This Issue

October 19, 2006