Hölderlin is classified as a German Romanticist, but in most of his poems he praises the ideals of Greek mythology. Born in 1770, he was educated in a secularized Protestant monastery school. His father died two years after his birth, and his mother, who had a very strict conception of Protestantism, became the major influence in his life. Neither the study of theology nor his mother’s efforts to transfer her religious ideas to her son made him a theologian. Hölderlin was not able to find in his mother’s strict disciplinarian idea of Christianity the vehicle for his soaring idealism. However, reflections about God are woven into most of his poems (“Man is God when he dreams, a beggar when he reflects”), but for most of his life the personalized gods of Greece were to him a welcome contrast to his imagined remoteness of Christianity. At the age of fifteen he began to write poetry. His only other interest was music, and he displayed great skill with the flute, the violin, and the piano. This musicality, combined with his extreme lyrical sensitivity, gives Hölderlin’s poetry an almost musical flow, which in the opinion of some admirers surpasses the poetry of Goethe. His idealistic dreams about Greece separated him from his great contemporaries (Schiller, who tried to help in his early years; Goethe, who rejected most of his efforts; Hegel, who was his schoolfriend). The preoccupation with Greece made him also a strong critic of Germany.
He was always conscious of his eccentricity, and he broke an engagement to his first love, Luise Nast because he considered himself temperamentally too unstable for marriage. At the end his extreme isolation drove him into an imaginary world; he suffered a complete mental breakdown and was insane during the last forty years of his life.
The writing of poetry was a sacred task for him. In one of his youthful poems, which he classified as “eccentric enthusiasm,” he stated:
Holy vessels are the poets,In which the wine of life,The spirit of heroes is preserved. . . .
His poems are usually constructed on the “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” basis, and never are witty. He objects to novelty: “On no account do I wish that it were original. For originality is novelty to us; and nothing is dearer to me than the things which are as old as the world itself.” His strength lies in the power to evoke visions without striving for originality. One of his most widely used symbols is the flower representing birth and death.
In 1795 he found a position as tutor in a banker’s house in Frankfort, a post which permitted him to devote most of his time to writing. Here he also had the most important encounter of his life, when he met Susette Gontard, the wife of his employer. She fulfilled his dream of Greek perfection, and he renamed her Diotima. In the same year he wrote his first poem about Diotima. Many more were to follow:
. . . When Time’s burden lay uponme,And my life was cold and pale,And already, bowing downwards,Yearned for the still shadows’realm . . .You appeared in all your radiance,Godly image, in my night . . .
Most romanticists deal with the subject of love in the light of rebellion against the age of reason. Hölderlin uses love as the great unifying factor of material and spiritual forces. In Frankfort he also wrote his only major prose work, HYPERION. Subtitled “The Hermit in Greece,” the work reflects his love for Diotima and his struggle for a renaissance of the golden age of Greece. In “Hyperion’s Song of Fate” his...
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