(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Known for his passionate evocations of ancient Greek heroes, myths, and values and remembered for his tragic madness during the last thirty-seven years of his life, Friedrich Hölderlin is a poet shrouded in remoteness and abstract language for most modern readers—German as well as English. Nevertheless, he has always exercised a great fascination for poets and serious readers because of his intense dedication to the art of language in philosophical fiction, poetic drama, and lyric verse in a variety of forms. He is an artist driven to pursue the secret of being, a truth that constantly eludes him but which he seems to believe may be captured by realizing the spirit of beauty through inspired recreations of Hellenic vision. This search for the “absent” endears him to those contemporary writers and literary theorists who have come to believe that literature’s main purpose is to deal with the loss or absence of meaning generated by its own activity.

Whereas modernism is characterized by alienation and linguistic dispersion, Hölderlin’s poetic search for meaning is centered in a strong religious belief that Spirit (what the Germans call Geist) can be recovered through a cultivation of what classical Greece had discovered to be essential to the perfection of human existence. To search for beauty in composure, balance, and a harmonious sense of oneness with the ultimately benign power of nature was the promise of Greek sensibility. The Good, in other words, was there for the having if only the self-destructive tendencies of mood and “benighted” temperament could be overcome. Hölderlin never really overcame his own benightedness, but this very failure to reach the Good that he always saw over the horizons of his poems lends his work a uniquely tragic air.

David Constantine speculates that the sense of loss in Hölderlin goes back to the coldness of his mother, who gave him little affection as a child and held back his patrimony when he matured. She wanted him to enter the church, but he had come to hate the dogma of his religious education. In his later youth, he kept his mother at a respectful distance. He fell in love with the beautiful wife of his employer, a businessman whose children he tutored. Susette Gontard gave him unbridled love and encouraged Hölderlin in the belief that in the enjoyment of their love he was actually bringing into perfection the promise of that higher Good his Hellenism had inspired. Susette herself became the inspiration for Diotima, the heroine of his novel Hyperion oder der Eremit in Griechenland (1797, 1799; Hyperion: Or, The Hermit in Greece, 1965), which he was seeing through several evolving versions. What she taught him was that life was finally greater than art. Paradoxically, this discovery strengthened his art, because it gave him a sense of limitations and enabled him to grasp the importance of accepting loss and imperfection as humanizing qualities—qualities without which a poet could...

(The entire section is 1221 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The Times Literary Supplement. October 7, 1988, p. 1106.