Bread and Wine

by Friedrich Hölderlin

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Themes and Meanings

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Much of this poem’s meaning can be found in the title. The bread and wine mentioned are important not only to the Hellenistic feasts of Dionysus but also to the Christian ceremony of Communion. This is merely one of several hints throughout the poem of a subtle but crucial aim of this poem—to reconcile the ancient worship of Dionysus with the modern worship of Christ.

Toward this end, the view of Dionysus that this poem presents is not the view that Friedrich Nietzsche (who was nevertheless much influenced by Hölderlin) was to present later in the nineteenth century in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, 1909), a work that in the twentieth century did much to shape views of Dionysus. As Richard Unger points out, Nietzsche’s Dionysus is a god of orgiastic violence; Hölderlin’s is a god of drunken inspiration. Both writers present gods who are associated with the uncanny, but (as is shown in Hölderlin’s description of the night, in which he associates the “inhuman night” not only with madness, death, and inspiration but also with rest and reflection) Hölderlin’s view of an encounter with this god—while not devoid of the fearsome—is gentler, reconcilable with views of Christ as a bringer of comfort.

The eighth and ninth stanzas of the poem especially call attention to this comparison. The identity of the “Genius” who in stanza 8 dispenses divine comfort and then leaves is left deliberately vague; it could be either Christ or Dionysus. The bread and wine, which are all that remain to contemporary humanity of divine grace, also promise that the “Heavenly who once were/ Hereshall come again,” another reference that seems to have been deliberately constructed to invoke Christian promises of a divine return.

Similarly, in the final stanza, the poet promises that the “Son of the Highest” is already among humanity, bringing his torch to dispel the gloom of people living in an age devoid of the gods. The “Son of the Highest” could be Dionysus, a son of “Father Aether,” or Christ.

It is important to recognize, however, that while Hölderlin takes pains to present a Christlike view of Dionysus, the fundamental sensibility underlying the poem is not particularly Christian, and Hölderlin was not, when he wrote this poem, a conventional Christian. As Richard Unger points out, what the taste of bread and wine remind one of today is that all the gods—Hellenistic as well as Christian—were once here, and all shall return. Furthermore, the time of this return, as Hölderlin conceives it, will be marked by a society based on the ancient Greek model, a society that—when humankind is once again able to endure the direct presence of the divine—will live among and for the gods.

Finally, a related theme in “Bread and Wine” (which remains important in Hölderlin’s later poetry) concerns the relationship between man and language. While the visitation of the gods to the Greeks is not presented as the origin of language, that time is presented as a time when language lived most fully, “like flowers leaping alive” to name the gods. For Hölderlin, the most vital task for language—and poetry especially—is to name the gods; however, as he acknowledges when he asks “who wants poets?” in a time when the gods are absent, all a poet can do is trace the potential presence of these gods. By performing this role, this poem can serve the same purpose as the bread and wine of its title. It cannot bring the gods back, but it can provide a taste of the divine presence that is absent from the world.

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