Bread and Wine Themes (Friedrich Hölderlin)

Friedrich Hölderlin

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 633 words.)