Dark Themes of Later Years
To a large extent, the significant poetic works that were written prior to Hölderlin’s hasty departure from Frankfurt in 1798, and even those created shortly thereafter in Homburg, served as preliminary studies in language, form, and theme for the magnificent odes, elegies, and hymns that he wrote after 1800. It is somewhat ironic that his most sublime and deeply profound poems are the darkly mythological, prophetically intuitive visions of a mind on the brink of insanity. The ever-increasing emotional strain and existential pressure of his life without Susette Gontard served as a catalyst for the final refinement of ideas and structures that are the very essence of the night ode “Chiron,” the wonderful elegy “Brot und Wein” (“Bread and Wine”), and the richly mysterious hymn “Patmos.” In these and other masterworks of his final productive years, Hölderlin revealed more than ever before his quiet sensitivity, his pure and free view of nature, his precise sense of landscape saturated with the spirit of creative life force.
Despite their diversity, the mature poems are linked together in a fusion of classical and Christian traditions that places the gods of ancient Greece and Christ on nearly equal footing. The twofold experience of the proximity of the divine and man’s difficulty in understanding it forms the core of a poetry that is remarkable for its combination of tangible and ethereal elements. Important aspects of the integral system that is perfected and presented in these late writings include a hierarchical chain of genius-beings who govern absolute existence—Christ, the gods of Olympus, biblical prophets and patriarchs, apostles, Greek Titans, heroes, philosophers, great contemporary figures, spirits of nature and love; stress on the relationship of man to Mother Earth; a poetic landscape that is saturated with powers that point toward the divine origins of life; and constant awareness of the prophetic task of the singer’s art and of the conflict between suffering and joy. All these are expressed in language and rhythms that are pregnant with expectation, careful preparation, and unspoken faith. In many respects, it is not so much the imparted vision as the clarity, musicality, and exactness of diction and the expressive perfection and beauty of form that elevate the lyric works of Hölderlin’s last creative surge to the level of true greatness.
A mélange of the revolutionary spirit of the times and interpretation of the basic Christian humanist tradition as mediated by Klopstock and Schiller, Hölderlin’s Tübingen hymns are all variations on the same feeling: an endless willingness of heart to accept eternal values. The celebration of inalienable human rights—freedom, equality, friendship, honor—is filled with the youthful impetuousness of the poet’s faith blended with a certain naïve tenderness and grace. Although not especially original in vocabulary, meter, and imagery, clearly influenced by models such as Schiller’s “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”), these early poems convey the charm of their creator’s exuberant enthusiasm, the animating tension that is central to his later works, and the love-oriented metaphysical basis of his worldview.
While the hymns do not belong to the poetry of experience, they can be described only loosely as idea poems. To be sure, they are thematically abstract, but their focus is not thought and allegory,...
(The entire section is 1412 words.)