Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

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In his tragic odes, especially “The Poet’s Courage,” Hölderlin’s pantheism, his desire to be at one with the cosmos, continually comes up against his awareness not only of the essential differences between humans and the rest of nature but also of the isolation into which individual people are precipitated by their consciousnesses. The poet who possesses the great gift of knowing, of being at one with nature, suffers alienation from the rest of humanity, those who do not have the courage or the vision to recognize and embrace this relationship. In the fifth stanza, the poem describes “One such brave man” who stands apart from the masses and who is mourned in his passing not by his fellow human beings but primarily by the forces of nature and the virgins who have been uncorrupted by the general human retreat from nature. This tragic poem, then, provides a metaphor of an intellectual point of view that can be none other than the awareness of being at one with all that lives and an assertion of the courage that is required to embrace that awareness. This representation of the tragic is mainly based on what is monstrous and terrible in the coupling of God and humanity, in the total fusion of the power of nature with the innermost depths of humankind. Hölderlin said, “There is only one quarrel in this world: which is more important, the whole or the individual part,” and, in “The Poet’s Courage,” his message is clear: Individuals who acknowledge their place in the whole of nature, who sing of the union with joy and trust, will eventually cease to exist as individuals, becoming one with the whole and surviving only in the message that they have fused with nature.

Hölderlin bases his vision on a belief that nature, history, and art are part of a larger scheme that transcends individual existence; he speaks as a poet-seer, looking forward to the possibility that opposites can be harmonized. In addition, Hölderlin, who believes that the poet’s mission is to educate through art, emphasizes the value of the poet’s work. This air of the heroic poet, this tone of noble idealism and exalted transcendence, permeate the poem. Ultimately, the poet must make the great sacrifice and cultivate this marvelous, mysterious knowledge even though these gifted individuals come to grief. They are heroes, these poets, who represent humanity’s honorable and hazardous attempts to ennoble itself, and their fate is shrouded in a heroic, tragic atmosphere.

The feeling in much nature poetry seems to derive from the conviction that something is to be found in nature that is absent from civilized urban life. In “The Poet’s Courage,” however, Hölderlin goes beyond the assertion of nature’s grandeur, release, beauty, and ability to inspire, into an emphatic representation of nature as a power asserting itself and expressing itself in manifold forms, a power at once material and spiritual, comprehending all creation. This power of nature is so all-encompassing that once poets reach this awareness they cease to exist, and it takes a special kind of courage, “The Poet’s Courage,” to seek that awareness.