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by Bamber Gascoigne

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843)


One of the greatest German lyric poets melding classical and Christian themes in his works. Among Hölderlin's major works is the epistolary novel Hyperion oder Der Eremit in Griechenland (1797-99; Hyperion, or the Hermit in Greece ), in which he expressed his longing for ancient Greece. His actual career as a writer lasted only about a decade. Hölderlin's life was never settled or happy: he lacked both money and recognition and his socially suspect love affair with a married woman finally drove him insane. Once he wrote: "I am mortal, born to love and to suffer." He rejected the commonly accepted ideal of happiness, for him pleasure was but "tepid water on the tongue".

Nur einen Sommer gönnt, ihr Gewaltigen! / Und einen Herbst zu reifem Gesange mir, / Dass williger mein Herz, vom süssen / Spiele gesättiget, dann mir sterbe. (from 'An die Parzen')

Friedrich Hölderin was born in Lauffen am Neckar, Württemberg. He was the first son of Heinrich Friedrich Hölderlin and Johanna Christiana Heyn. His father, who worked as an executive at the local monastery, died of a brain stroke in 1772. A few years later his mother married Johann Christian Gock. a wine merchant, who became the mayor of Nürtingen.  With his stepfather, Hölderlin formed  a warm relationship, referring to his as his "second father". He died in 1779, after contracting pneumonia.

At the age of 14 Hölderlin already had started to write poems, which were read by his friends from school and teachers. In 1788 he entered the university of Tübingen, where he studied theology and obtained a master's degree. Financially he was still supported by his mother, who never relinquished her control over his inheritance. During this period he became friends with Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) and shared with him a great admiration of the French Revolution.

Under the oppressive regime in Württenberg, Hölderlin expressed his opposition more or less in abstract tems but basically poetry served as a vehicle of revolt: "And if the rabble, a thousand strong, droned their warnings and tried / To throttle us with their thousand tongues of priestly rage / Banning all that's new, we'd laugh them off the stage / We sons of the dsaughter of god, Justice." After knocking the hat off a schoolteacher's head because the teacher refused to greet him properly in the street, Hölderlin is sentenced to six hours in the university prison.

Hölderlin was introduced in 1793 to Friedrich von Schiller, who published some of his poems, such as 'The Oaks'. Later Hölderlin copied the published version of this poem in a notebook and began to rework its ending. "The poet has a clear view of nature, but he only seems to have come to it through tradition," said Goethe of Hölderlin's early pieces. In 1793 Hölderlin worked as a private tutor in Waltershausen, but the turning point in his life was, when he took post in a house of a wealthy Frankfurt banker Jakob Gontard on the estate White Hart. Hölderlin had a painful but platonic love affair with his employee's wife Susette Gontard, whom he called 'Diotima' in his poems. He had been working on Hyperion before first meeting Susette.

Hyperion was set around the time of the Orlov Revolt of 1770. The novel is comprised of letters between the title character, his friends, and his great love, Diotima. "Forgive me that Diotima dies," Hölderlin wrote to Susette in 1799. "You'll remember that back then we couldn't come to a perfect agreement about it. I believed that it was necessary for the sake of the work viewed as a whole. Dearest! take everything that is said here and there about her and about us, about the life of our life, as a sign of thanks, a gratitude that is often all the more true as the expression of it is artless." (The Recalcitrant Art: Diotima's Letters to Holderlin and Related Missives, edited and translated by Douglas F. Kenney and Sabine Menner-Bettscheid, 2000) Their happiness was short-lived and ended by the husband. However, they were in correspondence and met secretly. None of Hölderlin's letters to her have survived, but there are some drafts of them. The last time they saw each other was 1800.

Susette's letters to the poet have survived. Hölderlin's longing for the lost world of the Greeks, his second fatherland (the "holy heart of the peoples") parallels with his love for Susette, both are unattainable. She was "die Athenerin," the center of his Greek mythology, before he named her "Diotima." Germany was for Hölderlin a fragmented homeland: "Craftsmen you see, but no humans, thinkers, but no humans, priests, but no humans, lords and servants, boys and established people but no humans – is this not like a battle field, where hands and arms and all limbs lie chaotically in pieces, while the spilled blood if life runs into the sand?" (from Hyperion) 

"The greatest lyric poets, for instance Hölderlin or Keats, are men in whom the mythic power of insight breaks forth again in its full intensity and objectifying power..." (Ernst Cassirer in Language and Myth, 1946)

Hölderlin left Frankfurt in 1798; he was fired from his job at White Hart. He settled at the nearby town of Bad Homburg, where his friend Isaak von Sinclair, a politically engaged Jacobin resided. Separated from Susette and having a lot of free time for his art, he went through a period of intense creativity, producing his great elegies,philosophical texts, and the second volume of Hyperion. He also began to write a tragedy, Der Tod des Empedokles, which was left unfinished. When he visited his friends in Stuttgart, they were struck by his evident ill health.

In the conclusion to his great hymn 'Patmos,' the poet named the "cultivation of the firm letter and the interpretation of what is" as the proper office of poetry. Shortly before his departure for France, Hölderlin said: " Now I can rejoice over a new truth, a better view of what is above us and around us, though I fear that things may eventually go with me as for ancient Tantalus, who received more from the gods than he could digest."

After working for a short time as a tutor at Bordeaux, Hölderin returned in 1802 to Germany, walking the disastrous journey in an advanced stage of schizophrenia. At one point of his journey through France, he spent a night in a castle near Blois. To their surprise, his hosts found him in the small hours of the morning sitting in the stairs wrapped in a white bed sheet, holding a lantern in one hand, and a dagger in the other. In a previous conversation with them he had said, "My thoughts are no longer beautiful. But the I that was mine nine years ago, that is immortal certainly." Hölderlin never revealed his identity.

Back in Stuttgart he received the news that Susette had died. Disheveled and disoriented, Hölderlin returned to his mother's house in Nürtingen, where he took many long walks alone. Hölderlin returned with Sinclair to Bad Homburg in 1804. The next year his mental health collapsed totally; Sinclair complained that he was playing the piano "night an day." During the periods, when regained sanity enough to write, he translated among others Sophocles's tragedies. In the Autenrieth Clinic he was forced to wear a face mask designed to keep patients silent.

The last 36 years of his life Hölderin spent under the shadow of insanity, living his last years in a carpenter's house in Tübingen. His pricipal occupation was music though he continued to write verses. Hölderlin died from pleurisy  on June 7, 1843. Shortly before his death, Hölderlin was presented a new edition of his poems but it was known that he refused to accept gifts of books, including editions of his own works. Moreover, he did not use any more his own name. After leafing through the pages, he said allegedly: "Yes, the poems are genuine, they are from me, but the title is false; never in my life was I called Hölderlin, but rather Scardanelli or Salvator Rosa or the like."

Among Hölderlin's finest lyrics are 'Brod und Wein,' an elegy celebrating both Jesus and Dionysus, 'Der Archipelagus', an ode in which it is hoped that modern Germany will tend toward the character of ancient Greece, 'Heidelberg' and 'Der Rhein,' odes on the city and the river, and the patriotic ode 'Germanien'. In 1861 Friedrich Nietzsche, who died insane, wrote an enthusiastic essay on his "favorite poet," Hölderlin, mostly forgotten at that time.

Friedrich Nietzsche declared Hölderlin as his favorite poet in 1861 when he was still a student at the Pforta boarding school. Hölderlin's books had no place in the curriculum: Nietzsche was advised by his teacher to "stick to poets who are healthier, more lucid and more German." (I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux, 2019, p. 32) A collection of Hölderlin's works, Ausgewählte Werke, came out in 1874. It was not until the early 20th century, when he started to gain recognition as Germany's greatest poet after Goethe.

Ist nicht heilig mein Herz, schöneren Lebens voll,
seit ich liebe? warum achtetet ihr mich mehr,
da ich stolzer und wilder,
wortereicher und leerer war?
Ach! der Menge gefällt, was auf den Marktplatz taugt,
und es ehret der Knecht nur den Gewaltsamen;
an das Göttliche glauben
die allein, die es selber sind.

Hölderlin was not directly affiliated with either of the two major literary movements of his time, Weimar Classicism or Romanticism, but his thought has elements in common with both. A central image in his poems is the night – it is the time when creation is done, the natural elements of the gods, and the symbol of transformation: "But the night comes! let us hurry to observe the autumn feast / Yet today! full is the heart, but life is short." In his use of classical verse forms and syntax, Hölderlin was follower of Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803), who attempted to develop for the German language a classical perfection of its own that would place it on a par with Greek and Latin. Hölderlin shared the classicists' love of "edlen Einfalt und stillen Grösse" (noble simplicity and calm greatness), formulated by Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), and added to it his mystical sense of nature with elements of pantheism and Christian images. Like William Blake and W.B. Yeats, he explored cosmology and history to find a meaning in uncertain world. Hölderlin also played an important role in the development of philosophy from Kant to Hegel, and hence in the formation of German Idealism.

The poetry of Hölderlin fascinated the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who wrote: "Poetry is the establishment of Being by means of the word." Heidegger's essays on Hölderlin (1936) are translated in Existence and Being by W. Brock (1949). Although Nietzsche had been interested in Hölderlin, it was not until the post-World War I decades in Germany, when his work received wide attention, partly due to the enthusiasm of Norbert von Hellingrath. In his lectures in the 1930s Heidegger regarded Hölderlin as a poet the national awakening, a prophet of the future Being [Seyn] of a nation. Ironically, Hölderlin's hero in Hyperion sees his ideals collapse and he is forced to leave his home country because of its despotic rule. "Poets have mostly arisen at the beginning or at the end of a world period," Hölderlin himself once said. Though he was widely celebrated in the Third Reich in 1943 and his collected works were published in four volumes, new translations of his poems were published also in London and in the United States.

For further reading: Struck by Apollo: Hölderlin's Journeys to Bordeaux and Back and Beyond by David Farrell Krell (2023); Hölderlin: Zwei Vortäge: Hölderlin und die Deutschen; Hölderlin's Wahnsinn by Norbert von Hellingrath (1922); Der Kampf mit dem Dämon by Stefan Zweig (1925); Holderlin's Hyperion: A Critical Reading by Walter Silz (1969); Reading After Freud: Essays on Goethe, Holderlin, Habermas, Nietzsche, Brecht, Celan, and Freud by Rainer Nagele (1987); Holderlin's Silence by Thomas Eldon Ryan (1988); Holderlin by David Constantine (1988); Die Kunst Der Differenz by Eric Bolle (1988); Holderlin: The Poetics of Being by Adrian Del Caro (1990); Literature & Religion by Walter Jens, Hans Kung (1991); Holderlin and the Golden Chain of Homer by Emery E. George (1992); The Poet As Thinker: Holderlin in France by Geert Lernout (1994); Finding Time: Reading for Temporality in Holderlin and Heidegger by Timothy Torno (1995); Leaves of Mourning: Holderlin's Late Work, With an Essay on Keats and Melancholy by Anselm Haverkamp (1995); Studies in Poetic Discourse: Mallarme, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Holderlin by Hans-Jost Frey (1996); Holderlin's Hymn 'the Ister' by Martin Heidegger, et al. (1996); The Course of Remembrance and Other Essays on Holderlin, ed. by Eckart Forster (1997); The Solid Letter: Readings of Friedrich Holderlin, ed. by Aris Fioretos (1999); Hölderlin-Handbuch: Leben, Werk, Wirkung, ed. by Johann Kreuzer (2002); The Abyss Above: Philosophy and Poetic Madness in Plato, Hölderlin, and Nietzsche by Silke-Maria Weineck (2002); Hölderlin's Hymns "Germania" and "The Rhine" by Martin Heidegger; translated by William McNeill and Julia Ireland (2014); Mortal Thought: Hölderlin and Philosophy by James Luchte (2016); Friedrich Hölderlin 1770-1843: Chronik: Leben, Werke, Dokumente by Hans-Dieter Mück 2 vols.; 2020); Hölderlin's Philosophy of Nature, edited by Rochelle Tobias (2020) - Note: Goethe's house in the Duchy of Weimar attracted writers: Friedrich Hölderlin was received well but the dramatist and storywriter Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1843) never recovered from the depression resulting from his rejection by Goethe. However, neither Goethe nor Schiller recognized Hölderlin's greatness. - Trivia: American writer Dan Simmon's took the title Hyperion for his science fiction saga (Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, sequels: Endymion, The Rise of Endymion, the title Endymion referring to John Keats's unfinished long poem about the displacement of old gods.). The first volume was structured after Chaucer's The Cantebury Tales: seven pilgrims have been called to the planet Hyperion and en route they tell tales contributing to the mosaic of the overall story. The first two parts were later published together, under the title Hyperion Cantos. - Suom.: Kirjailijalta on suomeksi julkaistu valikoima Vaeltaja (1945) sekä suomennoksia teoksessa Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1974). Vuonna 1996 julkaistiin Teivas Oksalan kääntämänä Leipä ja viini ja Huomautuksia Sofokleen kääntämisestä, toim. ja suom. Esa Kirkkopelto, ilmestyi 2001. Lisäksi mainittakoon suomenruotsalaisen Mikael Enckellin tutkimus Hölderlin (1975).

Selected works:

  • Hyperion; oder, der Eremit in Griechenland, 1797-99 (2 vols.)
    - Hyperion; or, The Hermit in Greece (translated by Willard R. Trask, 1965) /  Hyperion, Thalia fragment, 1794 (translated by Karl W. Maurer, 1968) / Hyperion and Selected Poems (edited by Eric L. Santner, 1990) / Hyperion, or, The Hermit in Greece (translated by Ross Benjamin, 2008)
  •  Der Tod des Empedokles, 1798 (unfinished)
    - The Death of Empedocles (translated by David Farrell Krell, 2009)
  • Poems: 'Menons Klagen um Diotima'; Brot und Wein', 1797-1801
    - 'Menon's Lament and Diotima' (translated by Michael Hamburger, Poems and Fragments, 1994);  'Bread and  Wine' (translated by Michael Hamburger, Poems and Fragments, 1994; David Constantine, Selected  Poems, 2nd expanded edition, 1996)
    - 'Menonin valitus Diotiman vuoksi' (suom. Johan L. Pii, Teokset, 2012); 'Leipä ja viini (suom. Johan L. Pii, Teokset, 2012)
  • Poems: 'Friedensfeir'; 'Der Einzige'; 'Patmos', 1802-06
    - 'Celebration of Peace' (translated by Michael Hamburger, Poems and Fragments, 1994); 'The Only One' (translated by Michael Hamburger, Poems and Fragments, 1994): 'Patmos (translated by Michael Hamburger, Poems and Fragments, 1994)
    - 'Rauhanjuhla' (suom. Johan L. Pii, Teokset, 2012); 'Ainoalle' (suom. Johan L. Pii, Teokset, 2012); 'Patmos' (suom. Johan L. Pii, Teokset, 2012)
  • Die Trauerspiele des Sophokles, 1804 (translator, see also Bertolt Brecht)
    - Hölderlin’s Sophocles: Oedipus & Antigone  (translated by David Constantine, 2001)
  • Gedichte von Friedrich Hölderlin, 1826 (edited by Ludwig Uhland and Gustav Schwab)
  • Sämtliche Werke, 1846 (2 vols., edited by C.T. Schwab)
  • Ausgewählte Werke, 1874
  • Hölderlins gesammelte Dichtungen, 1898 (2 vols.)
  • Gesammelte werke, 1909-11 (3 vols., edited by Wilhelm Böhm)
  • Sämtliche werke: historisch-kritische ausgabe, 1913-23 (6 vols., edited by Friedrich Seebass et al.)
  • Gebot und Erfülung: Aussprüche, Gedanken, Weisheiten, 1942 (edited by Hartfrid Voss)
  • Gedichte, 1942 (selected and edited by A. Closs)
  • Sämtliche Werke, 1943-1977 (edited by Friedrich Beißner)
  • Poems of Hölderlin, 1943 (translated by Michael Hamburger)
  • Sämtliche Werke, 1943-1961 (6 vols., edoted by Friedrich Beissner)
  • Some Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, 1943 (translated by Frederic Prokosch)
  • Selected Poems, 1944 (translated by J.B. Leishman)
  • Briefe, 1944 (edited by Friedrich Seebass)
  • Hölderlin aus seinen Dichtungen und Briefen, 1947 (foreword Horst Böning)
  • Alcaic Poems, 1962 (translated by Elizabeth Henderson)
  • Poems and Fragments, 1966 (translated by Michael Hamburger)
  • Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, 1970 (4 vols., edited by G. Mieth)
  • Selected Poems, 1972 (translated by Christopher Middleton; with Selected Poems by Mörike)
  • Sämtliche Werke, 1975-2006 (20 vols., edited by D.E. Sattler)
  • Dokumente seines Lebens: Briefe, Tagebuchblätter, Aufzeichnungen, 1976 (edited by Hermann Hesse and Karl Isenberg)
  • Hyperion and Selected Poems, 1990 (edited by Eric L. Santner)
  • Poems and Fragments, 1994 (translated by Michael Hamburger)
  • Selected Poems, 1996 (2nd expanded edition, translated by David Constantine)
  • Theoretische Schriften, 1998 (edited by Johann Kreuzer)
  • Friedrich Hölderlin: Essays and Letters on Theory, 1988 (translated by Thomas Pfau)
  • Hymns and Fragments, 1984 (translated by Richard Sieburth)
  • Selected Poems, 1996 (translated by David Constantine)
  • Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, 2004 (selected and translated by James Mitchell)
  • Odes and Elegies, 2008 (translated and edited by Nick Hoff)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 2008 (edited by Hans Jürgen Balmes)
    - Teokset (suom. Johan L. Pii, 2012)
  • Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, 2008 (translated by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover)
  • Selected Poems, 2012 (edited and translated with a preface, introduction and notes by Emery George)
  • Neun "Nachtgesänge": Interpretationen, 2020 (herausgegeben von Roland Reuss; in Zusammenarbeit mit Marit Müller)
  • Hölderlin's Elegies: A Facing German to English Translation, 2022 (by Claude Neuman)

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