The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Spirit of the Age” is a short ode of twenty lines. An ode is a poetic form derived from a Greek model (ode means “song” in Greek); it was often used by the Romantic poets for lyric poetry of high seriousness. Friedrich Hölderlin called this poem a “tragic ode,” meaning that it combined the lyricism (or personal tone) of the ode with the heroic or fateful tone of the tragedy.

The title of this poem might be better translated as “The God of Time,” for “Zeitgeist”—literally, “time-god” or “time-spirit”—means here both the élan (mood or spirit) of a time period, such as William Hazlitt was later to describe in a work by that title (1824), and a sort of divinity that Hölderlin invokes.

The poem contains five stanzas of four lines each, with no rhyme scheme. The meter is irregular (a mixture of iambs and dactyls) but somewhat consistent: In each stanza but one (the fourth), the first two lines have five feet and end with a stressed, “masculine” syllable, and the last two lines have four feet and end with an unstressed, “feminine” syllable.

The first stanza is an invocation of the god of time, who is, the poet says, “above my head.” This god seems rather frightening and threatening, like the “dark clouds” in which he dwells. The same mood is continued in the second stanza, where the poet describes being tempted to ignore this god by pretending to be still a boy, innocent and...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although the poem is written in the first person, there is an aesthetic distance between the poet Hölderlin and the narrator of the poem. This means that the poem has an impersonal, universal quality to it rather than the ambience of a highly personal experience. Even in the first line, there is an air of generality or of repeated, lasting experience, not of a one-time occurrence: “Too long above my head you have governed there.”

In fact, the narrator does not appear in the last two stanzas, where the god who is addressed is described in terms of his effect on “us,” “youths,” and “older men”—generalized terms—not on the “I” of the beginning. Throughout the poem, there is more emphasis on the “you” to whom the poem or invocation is addressed than on the “I” who relates or prays. This structure is appropriate to both the form of the poem as a “tragic ode” and the meanings of the poem. A tragic mood must have universal—not merely individual—validity, and the meanings of this poem, as will be demonstrated, have to do with the significance of the self in terms of the whole society.

The original Greek ode (the Pindaric ode), upon which this poem is loosely based, consisted of three sections: a strophe, an antistrophe, and an epode. Since music, poetry, and dance were united in Greek art, these poems were chanted and danced by a chorus, which moved up one side of the stage for the strophe, down the other side for the antistrophe, and remained standing...

(The entire section is 618 words.)