Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

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“To the Fates” is a poem about the fondest hope of the person called to the task of creating poetry—that he may live long enough to finish it. He already possesses the talent, which Hölderlin terms a “god-given right” because it is a gift rather than a craft which is acquired by diligence. The poet’s prayer to the powers who control length of life recalls how fragile a hold humans have on the external forces that determine success and failure. Talent alone does not assure success; there must also be time to allow talent to ripen.

The poet suggests that he is willing to barter with the Fates. If they agree to allow him the short seasons that he needs to accomplish his divinely appointed task, then he agrees to go willingly to a death described as grimly in this poem as the ancients viewed the afterlife. The word “once,” however, written in italics and reinforcing the repeated “one” and “only” of the first stanza, is the reward that he will reap in the bargain. He has been godlike once, he has reached the height of achievement.

The fear of dying before completing the artist’s task is a recurring theme in poetry, such as in the poems of the young John Keats. While Hölderlin repeats a familiar theme, however, the force of his feeling and his grace of expression are noteworthy. Hölderlin’s years of poetic productivity were briefer than the date of his death may attest because he was plagued by mental illness for the last thirty-eight years of his life. Most critics agree that his last poems of value were produced in 1805. This fact adds poignancy to the request in this poem, a plea which was surely granted, because Hölderlin would write scores of great poems, including “Diotima,” “Hyperion’s Song of Fate,” and “Half of Life,” in the next few years.

Ironically, therefore, poets, including Hölderlin himself, are never condemned to “silence” or to be “songless,” as the word has sometimes been translated into English. The granting of a season of perfect poetry confers immortality that is almost equal to that of the gods on Hölderlin and, by extension, on every excellent poet. This reward is compensation indeed for a brief but brilliant life, an idea with which the ancients would have agreed. Thus, the classical Alcaic form and the classical themes that are stated simply but passionately in this poem are in consonance with one another. They glorify the brief but creative life.