Friedrich Hölderlin

Start Free Trial

Biography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 717

The untimely deaths of both his father and his stepfather determined the course of Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin’s childhood and youth. His mother, a devoutly religious Lutheran, insisted that he prepare for a career in the clergy. While attending monastery schools at Denkendorf and Maulbronn, he began writing poetry that reflected the suffering of a sensitive spirit under the rigors of traditional discipline and an inability to reconcile the demands of practical reality with his inner sense of artistic calling. Youthful love affairs with Luise Nast (the “Stella” of his early poems) and Elise Lebret exacerbated the tension between the two poles of his existence.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In 1788, Hölderlin entered the theological seminary at the University of Tübingen. Although he completed his studies and received a master’s degree that titled him to ordination, the years spent in Tübingen eased him away from any desire to become a pastor. With his friends Christian Ludwig Neuffer and Rudolf Magenau, he founded a poetry club patterned after the Göttinger Hain. He also joined a secret political organization with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Schelling and openly advocated social reforms inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution. The true key to his rejection of a life of service in the church, however, was neither purely artistic inclination nor political commitment but rather deep spiritual conflict within himself. Concentrated exposure to the literature, art, and philosophy of classical antiquity caused him to develop a worldview that placed the ancient Greek gods, as vital natural forces, next to Christ in importance for the dawning of a new, humane era of enlightenment and harmony. The tension between the old pantheon and Christian dogma made it impossible for him to feel comfortable in total dedication to institutionalized religion.

Among his contemporaries, Hölderlin’s most important role model was Schiller, whose poetry had a strong impact on both his early Tübingen hymns and his later classicistic creations. In 1793, Hölderlin met Schiller for the first time. Their friendship remained rather one-sided; Schiller did not reciprocate the warmth and devotion of his awestruck protégé. Through Schiller’s mediation, Hölderlin obtained the first of a long series of positions as a private tutor. These situations, despite their repeated failure, enabled him to avoid the necessity of accepting an appointment as a pastor.

Hölderlin’s most significant assignment as a tutor began in 1795, when he entered the service of a wealthy banker in Frankfurt. A love affair with his employer’s wife, Susette Gontard, provided the stimulus for a newfound sophistication in his poetry. Much of the substance that he treated in verse while in Frankfurt was later refined and presented in more perfect form in the exquisite odes, elegies, and hymns of his late period. Susette herself became the model for Diotima in his novel Hyperion and the poems related to it.

After an unpleasant scene with Susette’s husband in 1798, Hölderlin fled to Homburg, where he remained until 1800 with his friend Isaak von Sinclair. Hölderlin continued to see and correspond secretly with Susette, but he was unsuccessful in establishing himself in a permanently meaningful way of life. An endeavor to edit a new journal and make his living as a free-lance writer foundered. Plagued by an increasing inner isolation, he was compelled to return home to his mother.

From an artistic point of view, the years immediately after 1800 were the most important of Hölderlin’s career; emotionally and spiritually, they were years of progressive devastation. New tutorial positions in Switzerland and France collapsed rapidly. In 1802, Hölderlin left Bordeaux and traveled home on foot. He arrived in Nürtingen mentally and emotionally disturbed after learning of Susette Gontard’s death. In 1804, temporarily recovered from his nervous breakdown, he returned to Homburg, where Sinclair arranged for him to work as a librarian. When Sinclair was arrested for subversive political activities, Hölderlin’s mental condition deteriorated drastically, and he was placed in a sanatorium. In 1806, he was declared incurably ill and given into the care of a carpenter and his wife. He spent the remainder of his life living in a tower room overlooking the Neckar, where he wrote occasional, strangely simple lyrics, played the flute and the piano, and received curious visitors.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Next

Themes