The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

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.

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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 a “glad” state, open and “friendly to every man.” Additionally, the idea of trust is introduced and carried into the fifth stanza, in which the poet, the “brave mantrusting,makes his way” only to be dragged below the waves at times; thus submerged and overwhelmed by the forces of nature, he falls mute.

After the poet’s death, as the sixth stanza explains, his “lonely” groves lament the loss of “Him whom they most had loved” even though he died with joy and gladness. His message has not been lost, though, since a virgin, an appropriately uncorrupted listener, often still hears his “kindly song” in the “distant boughs.” Ironically, the song of nature sung by the poet is now echoed by nature after the poet’s loss. The last stanza presents a final image of “a man like him,” another poet who passes the place where the forces of nature submerged the first poet and who contemplates this “site and the warning.” As the poem concludes, however, this warning does not deter the other poet from his task since the final line explains that the poet, “more armed,” walks on. “The Poet’s Courage” provides a cautionary example for the reader and for those poets who trust all and speak for nature: While nature may overwhelm and silence a single voice, other voices will draw on that courage and continue the refrain.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

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 further reinforces Hölderlin’s notion of the poet’s union with nature, especially since his song can be heard “in the distant boughs.” The poem describes all of nature as “our kin,” and by recognizing, developing, and trusting this close relationship with nature, the poet is able to sing for “Each of themhis god.” Even the trees echo the poet’s song, and the site of his passing carries a warning.

In addition, the poem’s structure reveals Hölderlin’s admiration for classical Greek poetry since his experimental verse forms are adapted from the fifth century Greek poet Pindar. Even in translation, his lyric rhythms pull the reader like a forceful current guided by laws of the form but flowing with an energy of their own. Hölderlin’s use of inversions, too, creates the illusion of antiquity (“Glad he died there”), as does the creation of the lost poet as the vanished classical tragic hero whose fatal flaw (his trusting union with the very nature with which he is one and of which he sings) is also his priceless gift.

The inversions also serve to create a sense of suspension since Hölderlin often builds a series of clauses and phrases preceding a concise, emphatic, main statement. For example, the third stanza’s construction defies sequential syntax, opening with three prepositional phrases that increase the intensity of the eventual subject, which is further suspended in the inversion “travels the flimsy/ Swimmer.” These radical departures can lead to ambiguity, but Hölderlin himself asserted that “much greater effects can be obtained” via the use of these devices.

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Themes