“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.)