Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Hölderlin’s background in the Pietistic religion of the eighteenth century, which stressed a personal, mystical, self-observing religious experience, is very evident in his poetry. Yet he was later to adopt the pantheistic beliefs of the followers of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and his poetry cannot be understood fully without reference to this theory.

Hölderlin felt that God manifested himself in all natural phenomena, a system of belief that did not necessarily contradict orthodox Christianity but did alter some of its doctrines. In “The Spirit of the Age,” the god that is invoked is not really the Christian God, but something more like the Greek divinities that inhabited all of nature. Thus the poem under discussion mingles a pantheistic conception with traditional Christian imagery.

The god in the clouds of stanza 1 clearly evokes the brooding spirit who moves over the waters in Genesis. This god, like the Christian God, is a “father” who teaches (stanza 4) and who puts the spirit of life into mortal man (stanza 3). The image of ripening grapes recalls the wine of the Christian Last Supper; for Hölderlin, however, wine meant more than this. In his poem “Bread and Wine” (1807), a clear reference to the Last Supper, Hölderlin mixes in imagery of the Dionysian “drunkenness” (Dionysus was the Greco-Roman god of the grape harvest and wine) that he associated with the “drunkenness” or loss of purely rational...

(The entire section is 483 words.)