The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

“To the Fates” is an Alcaic ode, its twelve unrhymed lines divided into three four-line stanzas. The unstressed and stressed syllables of each line are adapted from a classical Greek pattern; Friedrich Hölderlin was Germany’s most accomplished poet at using these challenging forms. The poem is written in the first person. Its title is a call to the three Fates—a group of three grotesque old women who spun, measured, and finally cut the thread of life for each human being, according to myth. Hölderlin uses the Roman word Parcae to refer to them here.

The first stanza consists of two thoughts: First, the poet requests time to bring forth mature poetry, and second, the poet explains that the seasons that the Fates grant will make him more accepting of death. He will be sated by the intense sweetness of producing poetry, but he needs the intervention of the Fates to assure himself of sufficient time for this autumn harvest.

In the second stanza, the poet uses the simple dichotomy between life and death to say that, if he is not permitted to complete his poetry, then he will find no peace in death. Using the roman name “Orcus,” Hölderlin refers to the underworld, the realm of the dead in the ancient worldview. Hölderlin believes that writing is both special and sanctified. Therefore, if his poetry is finished and he has written it well, then he will welcome death. He says that death is the “still world of the shades” because, in the ancient classical view, humans became pale, flitting shadows when they died. Their once-warm bodies are also “cold,” and in some English versions, the translator has generalized this quality of the dead to include the place in which they reside.

At the end of the final stanza, with special emphasis on the word “once,” the poet explains that, even though his stringed instrument will not accompany him into death, the act of creating poetry will have made his life like that of the gods. This former glory will compensate for his death; he needs nothing more than the experience of poetic fruition that he has requested from the Fates.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

An Alcaic ode is a refined type of poem, meant originally for the Greek language, which has a different set of rhythms from those poems found in English and German. The reader encounters a complex series of syllables. The first line of a stanza consists of five alternating unstressed and stressed syllables, a pause, and then a pattern of one stressed syllable, two unstressed syllables, one stressed, one unstressed, and one stressed. The second line duplicates the first, and the third line has nine syllables that alternate between unstressed and stressed. The fourth line of a stanza is an elaboration of the last parts of the first and second lines. Its pattern is composed of one stressed syllable, two unstressed syllables, one stressed, two unstressed, one stressed, one unstressed, one stressed, and one unstressed. Each four-line stanza repeats this formula.

The metaphors in Hölderlin’s poem are connected to the timeless world of the seasons, death, and immortality. In the first stanza, the most striking comparison is between the ripeness that results from summer and autumn and the poet’s development of his craft. These seasons are traditionally the times of fullness of growth, thus the use of the adjective “mellow” to describe the poet’s “song.” Autumn is also a time for the celebration of harvest, a standard theme in poetry. Michael Hamburger, his translator, states that Hölderlin’s “images are extremely obvious, general and elemental, never far-fetched or complex.”

References to Orcus and the “cold world of the shades” describe the death of the poet after he completes his work. Both of these metaphors are frightening in the sound of the words (in English and German) and in their connotations of dark emptiness. Furthermore, when these metaphors are contrasted with the positive images of the first verse, with its song, sweetness, and ripeness, they take on an even more forbidding aspect.

The poet uses one more metaphor, that of playing on a stringed instrument, before giving final emphasis to the theme of immortality. Playing on a stringed instrument, (Saitenspiel), like references to harvest, the underworld, and shades, is both a classical and a standard poetic image. Because classical figures such as Orpheus, Hermes, and Apollo are associated with stringed instruments, such objects have come to represent poetry composed in imitation of the absolute excellence of Orpheus or Apollo. In “To the Fates,” the poet knows that the “music of his strings” will not accompany him on his downward journey. Death means the end of poetry.

The final triumphant pronouncement of the poem is that the poet has been like the gods, or almost a god himself, because he has brought forth perfected art. The reason for his elation is that the poem remains forever perfect, no matter how ephemeral the poet’s season of harvest. Karl Viëtor states that most of Hölderlin’s odes and elegies are composed of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis which is beyond sadness and conflicting emotions. These elements are seen in the metaphors of harvest, with sweetness (thesis), quiet death (antithesis), and immortality (synthesis).

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