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.
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...
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