The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

“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.

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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 unknowing, and by looking at the ground and into a cave, involved in earthly things, away from the god above. He calls the god “the all-shattering,” he who shakes and convulses everything.

By the third stanza, there is a sudden reconciliation of opposites and a resignation to the rule of this god. Twice the god of time is called not “the shatterer” but, simply and naïvely, “Father.” No longer wishing to avoid seeing him, the narrator now asks for his own eyes to be opened. By accepting the god, the narrator becomes truly innocent, not through ignorance, but through open-eyed, knowledgeable faith.

In the fourth stanza, where the rhythm varies slightly from that of the rest of the poem, there is a shift to natural imagery; the maturation of the narrator is compared to the ripening of grapes to make wine, and the movement of the god is compared to a “mild spring air” in which “[mortal] men” are “wandering/ In orchards calmly.” This stanza flows directly into the fifth stanza without a sentence break, but there is nevertheless another sudden shift here: The mood returns to that of the beginning of the poem, but with an important difference. Now the “Shaker” is seen as a teacher of the young, as one who teaches the old to be wise, representing a threat only to those who are “evil” or “bad.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

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 for the epode. This structure still exists (if only abstractly) in “The Spirit of the Age”: The first two stanzas manifest strife and conflict; the third and fourth stanzas show a growth and change in attitude, and then a vision of one’s being within the universal context of the natural world; and the final stanza returns to the original conception of the god, but with a vision that looks toward the future and an understanding of the significance of the threatening god.

Several sets of opposites work within the poem to show the original lack of unity of the poetic voice. The god in the clouds “above my head” is contrasted with the “ground” and the “deep cave” on which the narrator at first wishes to concentrate. Such a contrast of the spiritual and religious with the physical and earthly is common in Western poetry. Another contrast is that of original blindness with open-eyed recognition.

This leads to a slightly more confusing contrast in the poem: that between youth and age. At first, boyhood seems to represent ignorance, for the narrator wishes, wrongly, one may assume, to return to boyish naïveté. Shortly thereafter, he refers to himself as “stupid” (“Poor craven”) in this context. Yet the reader then sees that youth can also be viewed as a time of potentiality, of grapes not yet ripe, of wisdom not yet attained. Since the poet now addresses the god as “father,” one can see that it is not childlikeness that is criticized here, but willful ignorance. Like William Wordsworth in his famous poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807), Hölderlin calls for a return to youthful innocence insofar as this means a turning away from worldly concerns and from what Wordsworth termed “the light of common day”—human reason and reasonableness, the petty mundane things that make one forget one’s immortality and divine nature. Neither Romantic poet desires an abdication of responsibility or a return to childish dependence, but rather a movement toward a new, more highly developed state in which childlike (not childish) awareness is mingled with adult consciousness to create a better world.

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