The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Bread and Wine” is a nine-stanza poem written in an elegiac form based on Greek and Roman elegies—a form used to express a sense of tragedy. Written by Friedrich Hölderlin in 1800, it is often cited by critics as a poem that marks the culmination of his younger period. That is, it is the work of a poet who is reaching the peak of his powers.

The nine stanzas that constitute the poem divide easily into three sections of three stanzas apiece. The first section begins in contemporary times (that is, Hölderlin’s times) by looking at a town at night. As people head home from their work, night is presented as a time of rest, a time of quiet reflection when one can think of love and of distant friends. When the moon and the stars come out, however, night becomes “Night, the fantastical,” “Night, the astonishing,the stranger to all that is human.”

The second stanza develops the view of night as “astonishing.” “No one,” the poet says, “Knows what it is,” and not even the wisest understand what the purpose of night is; the reason of day is better suited to humankind. Nevertheless, people find the darkness of night attractive. To the mad and the dead, night is sacred, but even to other people night offers a hint of “holy drunkenness” and “frenzied oblivion,” of “a life more intense and more daring” than the life of day. It should be noted that the original dedication of this poem was to the “Wine god”—traditionally, Dionysus. Associating night with the idea of holy drunkenness is thus also a way of associating it with Dionysus, who will become an important figure as the poem progresses.

In the third stanza, the narrator associates the attraction of night with a divine fire that, day and night, urges people to be gone. “Let us go then!” he says, and later adds, “Off to the Isthmus,” referring to the Isthmus of Corinth where the ancient Olympic games were held, and “Off to Olympian regions.” He will guide the reader to ancient Greece, because “back there points the god who’s to come.”

The middle section, stanzas 4 through 6, describe an imaginary journey to ancient Greece, a journey that begins when the narrator laments the loss of ancient...

(The entire section is 917 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The form of the elegy came to Hölderlin ultimately from Classical literature but was in fact being invigorated in German literature at the time Hölderlin was writing by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Traditionally, an elegy entails a poet looking at the tragic aspects of life but finding consolation in some principle. As the critic Richard Unger notes in his remarks on “Bread and Wine” in Friedrich Hölderlin (1984), Hölderlin also follows Schiller’s lead in using the form to express a longing for an absent ideal—in this case, to lament the absence of divine presence.

In Hölderlin’s hands, however, the elegy also becomes a prophecy. In this regard, Michael Hamburger, a critic and translator of Hölderlin, notes that a fruitful comparison can be drawn to Hölderlin’s English contemporary, William Blake. Like Blake in such prophecies as “America,” Hölderlin in “Bread and Wine” foresees a time when humankind will be able to see the divine world directly. Unlike Blake, though, who created an enormous system of his own in his poetry, Hölderlin worked closely with existing religious systems in “Bread and Wine”—primarily the ancient worship of Dionysus but also the modern worship of Christ, which he presents as similar.

Images of light and darkness play a key role in the prophetic aims of this poem. The description in the opening stanza of night falling in a contemporary village plays a...

(The entire section is 485 words.)