The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Friedrich Hölderlin’s “The Poet’s Courage” consists of seven four-line classical hexameter stanzas that examine the relationship of the poet to nature, lament the loss of the poet to natural forces beyond the poet’s control, and exhort the reader to take both courage and caution from the poet’s costly struggle. The poem begins by posing a rhetorical question to the reader, asking if the reader understands that human beings are kin to all that is alive and asserting that humans exist ultimately to serve “Fate.” Based on these assertions, the poem directs the reader to travel without fear though life.

This idea of accepting “all that happens there” continues into the second stanza as the reader is once again provided with affirmations that neither harm nor offense should be found in the progression of that which must be. The images of the third stanza support this representation of human existence in service to nature’s larger forces, in the “quiet near shores” or over “silent deep/ Water” through which the “flimsy/ Swimmer” travels. The fragile poet loves to be among these living, teeming creatures, and it is this union that makes possible the poet’s song. Moving from the general human condition to that of the poet in particular, the fourth stanza establishes the relationship of the poet to all “those alive, our kin” for whom “we sing his god.” The poet is developed as nature’s spokesperson, one who exists in...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Hölderlin’s modernity lies in his reliance on particulars, on the invocation of a person or thing, while more conventional poets have felt obliged to present a sequence of arguments or metaphors. Hölderlin’s poem “The Poet’s Courage” proceeds by flashes of perception or allusion, true not to the laws of argument but to expressions of feeling and thought. From the first two stanzas’ spirited illumination of the human traveler who ought to vanquish fear and thoughts of defense in the light of Fate’s directing hand, the poem moves into the particular images of powerful nature in contrast to the precarious position of the poet who is at one with nature yet is overwhelmed by the magnificent forces to which he gravitates. This extraordinary combination of concrete imagery and visionary breadth, this fusion of spiritual intensity and sensory details, gives the poem its impact. Hölderlin provides glimpses of water images (quiet shores, silvery floods, the silent deep, overwhelming waves, and teeming sea life) then carries the trusting poet under, swallowed up by the very object of his devotion. The reader is thrust into the company, then, of the virgins and the other poets who observe the first poet’s passing and learn from his song.

“The Poet’s Courage” relies on the personification of nature: The wave is “flattering” when it draws the poet below, and his “lonely” groves “lament” his loss. This representation of nature...

(The entire section is 510 words.)