Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

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.

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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 capabilities of poetic inspiration. This poem, too, is an appeal to the gods of poetic, not religious, inspiration.

All this is not to say that Hölderlin was completely abstract and cut off from the historical occurrences of his times. The poem’s final stanza reworks the Christian parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats, making it clear that the gods punish only those who are “evil” and therefore deserving of punishment. For Hölderlin, this had a very real significance. In a time when his country was under the rule of people he thought were tyrants (the nobility) and was threatened by attack from abroad (by Napoleon), political right-mindedness was of extreme importance. Hölderlin wanted a democratic government, which he thought could be effected through poetry. By achieving a unity with nature, such as can be seen in this poem, a new level of consciousness could be reached. By contemplating the divinity with open eyes instead of concentrating on worldly affairs, humans could return to a natural state, a “Oneness” with the universe, from which they have “fallen” (again, the concept is Christian) as a result of limited knowledge and vision. Although this attitude must certainly seem very naïve and even ignorant in the twentieth century, for the Romantics it represented a radically new way of perceiving man’s place in the universe. It is in part because of their vision that humanity now has the luxury of considering it outmoded and wrong.

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