The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.