Friedrich Hölderlin Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The deep love for Greek culture that marked Friedrich Hölderlin’s lyric poetry also had a profound impact on his other literary endeavors. Aside from his verse, he is most remembered for the epistolary novel Hyperion: Oder, Der Eremit in Griechenland (1797, 1799; Hyperion: Or, The Hermit in Greece, 1965). In the story of a disillusioned Greek freedom fighter, the author captured in rhythmic prose much of his own inner world. The novel is especially notable for its vivid imagery and its power of thought and language. Fascination with the legend of Empedocles’ death on Mount Etna moved him to attempt to re-create the spirit of the surrounding events in the drama Der Tod des Empedokles (pb. 1826; The Death of Empedocles, 1966), which exists in three fragmentary versions. After 1800 he began translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (c. 429 b.c.e.) and Antigone (441 b.c.e.); his highly successful renderings were published in 1804. Among various essays on philosophy, aesthetics, and literature written throughout his career, his treatises on the fine arts in ancient Greece, Achilles, Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), and the plays of Sophocles are especially significant. Only a small portion of his correspondence has been preserved.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Unlike the great German lyricists with whom he is compared, Friedrich Hölderlin did not attain substantial literary recognition in his own time. This lack of recognition was in part a result of his own misperception of his audience. While he directed his poems to the broad following of the spiritual and intellectual renewal engendered by the French Revolution, his contemporaries, excepting a special few, did not penetrate beyond the surface of his particular revelation of the rebirth of idealism’s golden age.

Friedrich Schiller’s early patronage gave Hölderlin access to influential editors and other promoters of mainstream literature, enabling him to publish in important journals and popular collections of the time. His work appeared in Gotthold Stäudlin’s Schwäbisches Musenalmanach auf das Jahr 1792 (1792) and Poetische Blumenlese (1793), as well as Schiller’s Thalia and other periodicals. Neither Schiller nor Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, however, fully recognized Hölderlin’s true gifts as a writer. Eventually, they distanced themselves from him, and Hölderlin fell into obscurity.

After his death, Hölderlin remained forgotten until his work was rediscovered by Stefan George and his circle. George acclaimed him as one of the great masters of the age, pointing especially to the uniqueness of his language and the expressiveness of his style. In the modern poets whose works reflect a keen inner struggle with the meaning of existence, he at last found a receptive audience, capable of appreciating his contribution to the evolution of the German lyric. Among those whose writings give strong evidence of his productive influence are Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

For his special mastery of form, his naturalization of classical Greek meters and rhythms in the German language, and his unique ability to clothe prophetic vision in verse, Hölderlin now stands alongside Goethe as one of the great poets of German idealism.

Introspective Moods

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Hölderlin’s Alcaic and Asclepiadean odes on nature, landscape, and love, written in Denkendorf and Maulbronn, are strongly subjective and self-oriented, weighed down by an almost oppressive intensity of reflection. The moods of Sturm und Drang are clearly visible, as is Klopstock’s basic tone, in which personal experience is raised into a suprapersonal religious sphere. Amid trivial occasional verse, sentimentally broad discourses on life, and curiously sad love poems written to Luise Nast, there are already glimmerings of the elements that eventually informed Hölderlin’s more characteristic lyrics. For example, “Die Unsterblichkeit der Seele” (“The Immortality of the Soul”), an ode that bears all the marks of Klopstock’s manner, anticipates in direction and perception the later “Hymne an die Unsterblichkeit” (“Hymn to Immortality”), which was written in Tübingen. In the long hexameter poem “Die Teck” (“The Teck”), a glorification of a local mountain area, important themes of the late hymns appear: the Dionysian festival of the grape harvest, the sublime nature of dead heroes, the magnificence of the forested landscape saturated with the traditions of the fatherland, and the celebration of friendship.

A Poetic Calling

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

An important focus of the works created in Tübingen is Hölderlin’s growing preoccupation with the awareness of a personal poetic mission. From the rejection of seminary life’s inhibiting restrictions in “Zornige Sehnsucht” (“Angry Longing”) to the magnification and praise of Greece, the Muses, and his personal gods in a first formal cycle of hymns, Hölderlin’s formulations stress his belief in a calling to reinterpret Christian and classical ideals within the framework of his own era. He saw himself as a kind of prophet in a time of special revelation that needed poetic amplification. Accordingly, he presented in the hymns aspects of a holy message based on the eternal example of antiquity. A pantheistic view of nature as a complex of ethical and emotional forces unified by a grand, divine essence charges the poems with living, vital myth in the creation of an ideal, harmonious realm that is the final goal of the poet’s longing, both for himself and for all humankind.

Ancient Greece

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The evocation of Greece as Hölderlin’s spiritual homeland, which begins in earnest in the Tübingen hymns, is fleshed out, solidified, and given its ultimate direction in the verse that emerged alongside Hyperion in Frankfurt. Peculiarly combined with the reincarnation of the ancient Greek spirit in Diotima (Susette Gontard), the poet’s priestess of love and embodiment of eternal beauty, is a new, no longer effulgent picture of Hellas that contains sorrow, suffering, and tragic elements. Intense passion is intertwined with philosophical thoughtfulness in poetry characterized by its hearty enthusiasm, expression that is still youthfully immature, and fantastic, sensitive landscapes that are painted with fine feeling. Special emphasis is placed on quiet loveliness and the constancy of nature in a worldview that perceives life as originating in and striving toward childlike harmony. The most representative poems of this period are “Diotima,” the first lyric fruit of a newly gained perception of love as a power that can suspend the continuity of time and bring to pass the rebirth of man, and “Hyperions Schicksalslied” (“Hyperion’s Song of Destiny”), a penetrating treatment of the fathomlessness of existence that calls to mind Plato’s separation of the realm of ideas from the world of phenomena.

Mournful Elegies

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Hölderlin’s most pronounced merging of classical Greek and Christian elements occurs in mournful elegies that combine lament for the passing of the golden age with deeply felt disappointment at the hollowness of contemporary reality. Overwhelming resignation is only partially offset by hope for the spiritual regeneration of man. In tone, these poems are closely related to the mature odes, especially in their emphasis on night as the bridge between past and future. Their main thrust is to justify the poetic act in a dark age that destroys the very foundation of lyric art. Employing various approaches to the problem, Hölderlin examines the violent spiritual conflicts that characterize the situation of the modern lyricist. He is presented as being kept from fulfilling his divinely appointed mission by a cold era that needs his uplifting mediation more than ever. Notable is the acute awareness of the poet’s homelessness in his own time; this condition is caused at least in part by his inability to forsake the Greek tradition in favor of pure belief in Christ as the only redeeming force in the world.

Two elegies stand out as representative examples of Hölderlin’s mastery of this particular verse form. The most famous is “Menons Klagen um Diotima” (“Menon’s Laments for Diotima”), a creation that is dominated by the experience of the author’s separation from Susette Gontard. Equally powerful is the intensely mysterious “Bread and Wine,”...

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Emphasis on Christ

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Especially significant in the late hymns is a more pronounced emphasis on Christ as the center of metaphysical contemplation. At this point in his life, Hölderlin’s attitude toward the Messiah was extremely complex. The Savior figure of his poetic visions is therefore something of a composite of Germanic hero, Greek Titan, and embodiment of the eternal principle of love in which the everlasting presence of God is manifest anew. Particularly noticeable characteristics of the Christ who triumphs over suffering are a sensitive look of naïve piety, peaceful radiance of bearing, and a sense of mythic uniqueness.

In one of the crowning achievements of his artistic career, the profoundly beautiful hymn “Patmos,” Hölderlin embarks on a haunting journey to the scene of St. John’s revelation in search of lingering evidence of the living Christ. The poem focuses on the stark tragedy of the Crucifixion as a symbol for the terror of divine absence which is overcome only in a process of sharing. The key concept is that of community, of the impossibility of grasping God alone. Musical cadences, forceful individual words, and rhythmic presentation of ideas are among the structural features that illuminate the landscape of the poet’s spiritual universe.

Despite the victorious tone of most of the hymns, none of them documents total resolution of the dilemma generated by the poet’s continuing allegiance to both the Greek gods and Christ. This fact is hammered home most dramatically in “Der Einzige” (“The Only One”), in which Christ’s position of unique godhood clashes with the singer-prophet’s desire to glorify all the gods because he cannot reconcile successfully their conflicting claims. By proclaiming Christ the brother of Bacchus and Hercules, Hölderlin attempts to make visible the painful conflict that arises from the very essence of the dual European heritage of his own origins. In so doing, he also creates a deeply personal symbol for a worldview that stands at the center of a lyric oeuvre which is matched in importance for the history of German poetry by the creations of few other writers.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Constantine, David. Hölderlin. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988. Substantial introduction to Hölderlin’s life and work. The author seeks to write about Hölderlin chronologically and in an accessible way and to explore his life as a resource in the explication of his writing. Emphasizes Hölderlin as a poet of religious longing.

Fioretos, Arts, ed. The Solid Letter: Readings of Friedrich Hölderlin. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. Includes essays on philosophical and theological aspects of Hölderlin’s work, his theory and practice of translation, and his poetry, ranging from early poems to uncompleted late hymns.

Heidegger, Martin. Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry. Translated by Keith Hoeller. Amherst, Mass.: Humanity Books, 2000. Six essays on Hölderlin by the major twentieth century philosopher Heidegger, with an introduction by the translator. The goal is to be of use to the public as well as the scholar and includes the German as well as the English versions of the four poems to which Heidegger has devoted his essays. Emphasis is on the relationship of Hölderlin’s poetry to modern European philosophy.

Henrich, Dieter, ed. The Course of Remembrance, and Other Essays on Hölderlin. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. A collection of essays on the ideas and the works of Hölderlin offering a glimpse of the early formation of German idealism. Contains a translation of Henrich’s book devoted to Hölderlin’s poem, “Remembrance.” A vital resource for specialists and enthusiasts of the German Enlightenment and Romantic traditions.

Lernout, Geert. The Poet as Thinker: Hölderlin in France. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. A comprehensive historical survey of the reception of the poet’s work by French critics and writers. Includes chapters on Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, the French Revolution in Hölderlin’s thought, and psychoanalytic theories about Hölderlin’s illness. Also includes a chapter on the influence of Hölderlin on such important French authors as Albert Camus, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Sollers.

Ungar, Richard. Friedrich Hölderlin. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A basic and useful introduction to Hölderlin. Includes summaries and paraphrases of Hölderlin’s poetry together with interpretations. Intended to assist readers who are encountering Hölderlin for the first time and to provide an understanding of the texts at the most elementary level. Includes chronology and annotated bibliography.