on Selected Poems of Friederich Hölderlin, translated by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover (Omnidawn)

Friederich Hölderlin wrote almost all of his complete work between 1796 and 1803 including odes, elegies, hymns, the epistolary novel Hyperion, the verse tragedy Empedokles, and translations of Pindar. Over the following four years as his mental stability collapsed he wrote several poetic fragments. One begins:

Once I asked the muse, and she
In the end you’ll find it.
Those born to die can’t grasp it.
About the highest mysteries, I’m speechless.
One’s true native land, like the laurel,
Is forbidden fruit, the last thing
We all taste

holderlin2.jpgUnable to find his “native land,” Hölderlin felt spurned by Germany – but also, he was rarely at ease, the condition of human life defeated him at the source, and he had only scanty means of commerce with the world. Born in 1770 near Tübingen, Hölderlin lost his father at age two and his step-father at age nine. His mother nudged him toward the Lutheran ministry, sending him to a monastery school and then the seminary where his fellow students included Hegel and Schelling. He published his first poem in 1791. Abandoning the ministry, he made his living as a tutor. In 1796 he fell in love with Susette Gontard, the wife of his employer (transmuted into the “Diotima” of his poems). For four years they met secretly and corresponded. The first volume of Hyperion was published in 1797 while Hölderlin envisioned the coming of a “revolution in attitudes and conceptions which will make everything that has gone before turn red with shame.”

In 1801 he traveled to Bordeaux for a tutoring job, returned to Germany four months later in wretched condition (he had walked all or most of the way), and was informed that Susette had died. He wrote productively for the next three years but received only meager support from his literary friends and mother. Implicated with radicals in Stuttgart for alleged subversive discussions, Hölderlin was virtually unemployable as a tutor. After spending eight months in a sanatorium, he was pronounced incurable in 1807 and lived for the next 36 years in a small “tower” in Tübingen under the care of an admirer, Ernst Zimmer, a carpenter.

The poetry of estrangement, agitation and dread arrives with Hölderlin – along with the most modern habit of taking shelter and finding solace within it (“one’s true native land” is both the heartless homeland and the heartsick mind). Wary of interiority because it feels imposed, inexplicable, inevitable, the poet demands the impossible from the clenched enclosure. Paul Hoover guesses that Hölderlin “was probably schizophrenic.” Ross Benjamin says he “suffered from severe hypochondria.” Isaak von Sinclair, a close friend, implied Hölderlin faked dementia to avoid prosecution for treason. The young poet Wilhelm Waiblinger, looking in on Hölderlin in 1825, wrote at length on the madman’s behavior, even then a cause célèbre (“If he leaves the house, he must first be reminded to wash and tidy himself, as his hands are usually dirty from having spent half of the day tearing grass from the ground.”) But Richard Sieburth, who provided excellent translations of Holderlin’s Hymns and Fragments (Princeton, 1984), steers us back to Hölderlin’s struggle as a poet:

“As Michel Foucault has pointed out … it is specious to assume that these texts can be explained away as the effects of a discrete series of biographical causes; if anything, they serve to illuminate the very discontinuities that define the problematic relation of life to work, madness to poetry, events to words.” But also, this is how Hölderlin himself experienced his situation – outside history. The collapse of his generation’s political dreams hastened his withdrawal.

These are the first three segments of the fragment called “To the Madonna”:

I have suffered much
O Madonna for your sake
And your son’s,
Since I heard of him
In my tender youth;
For the seer is not alone
But stands under a fate
Of those who serve. For while I

And many songs, that I
Thought to sing to the Father
Most High, were stolen from me
And devoured by sadness.

Yet, Heavenly One, I will
Celebrate you and never should
Anyone reproach the beauty
Of my local speech,
As I go alone
To the fields, where
The lily grows wild, fearless,
Into the impenetrable
Primordial vault
Of the forest.

holderlin.jpg The seer who is "not alone / But stands under a fate / Of those who serve” is the stricken intermediary between a god and the people. Hölderlin went to the seminary and took what he learned more seriously than his mother intended. (Singing to the Father was entirely out of the question.) The third segment is the self mythologized into the impersonal, the transpersonal. If the forest is “impenetrable,” so is the self who speaks, wild and fearless. A daunting match to his frightening world. The reference to “my local speech” reminds us how attuned the poet was to his diction, revolutionary and disturbing at the time. As Sieburth says, “Hölderlin’s sense of cadence is perhaps only equaled by Wordsworth among his contemporaries.” The abiding presence of deities in Hölderlin found a partner in William Blake and inspired the angels in Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.” Sieburth continues, “Hölderlin’s entire oeuvre pursues a precarious dialogue with the Other – whether this take the form of madness, revolution, or those gods of ancient Greece whose vanished immediacies are celebrated in his early elegies and odes.”

Too much harshness in the world, too much static in the mind: Could there be a third way? Could it be not only represented but invoked, given life, through poetry? In “On the Process of the Poetic Mind,” Hölderlin wrote:

“Man seeks to articulate his purpose both in an overly subjective and an overly objective state … Yet this purpose can be attained only in a sacred, divine feeling, one that is beautiful because it is neither simply agreeable and fortunate, neither simply sublime and strong, nor simply unified and tranquil, but which is all of these simultaneously – a feeling which is transcendental and where a pure, formal mood has been distilled from it that encompasses life in its entirety.”

He tells us what poetry is by telling us what it isn’t, neither simply this nor that, but a more inclusive “purpose.” It is “beautiful” but not merely agreeable, strong, peaceful. It is also beautiful for its trouble, passivity, turbulence. These are the final stanzas of the ode “Vulcan”:

Man is more pious than all other living
Things; yet, angry with the world outside,
He becomes more himself, free-born,
And, safe in his cottage, rests and wonders.

And there’s always at least one friendly spirit
Who gladly blesses him, and even when
The fierce, uneducated spirit-powers
Are angry, love still loves.

Paul Hoover’s penetrating introduction to the translations points out the importance of Hölderlin’s concept of “coming-to-be through a going away (ein Entstehen durch ein Vergehen) – a way of seeing, I think, in which the poet “becomes more himself.” Hoover says, “Dissolution and union are continual and universal, in Hölderlin’s view, at all levels of experience … It is not a world empty of meaning that speaks in Hölderlin but rather the precariousness of consciousness.” The deity withdraws and leaves the man at the crossroads – but the poet’s embrace of dissolution (in the world, in his mind) empowers his freedom. No wonder Hölderlin was Nietzsche’s favorite poet. From “The Poet’s Vocation”:

But if he must, the man remains fearless.
Alone before god, simplicity keeps him safe.
He needs no weapons and no cunning,
As long as God’s absence comes to his aid.

Chernoff and Hoover follow Sieburth in electing to capture the avidity of Hölderlin’s delivery, rather than attempt a mimetic version of his “German measures, some of which are themselves patterned after ancient Greek alcaics.” In this bilingual edition, they adroitly amplify Hölderlin’s use of parataxis – the paring of syntax to allow a phrase to leap towards a new association.

Michael Hamburger, who has translated both Hölderlin and Celan, says “Celan can be seen as continuing a line of development in German poetry that runs from Klopstock and Hölderlin in the eighteenth century to the later Rilke and Georg Trakl.” All along that line, the poets tried to draw a bead on the unspeakable through parataxis, aerating the language, accommodating silence. Celan’s poem about Hölderlin,“Tübingen, January,” concludes:

should a man,
should a man come into the world, today, with
the shining beard of the
patriarchs: he could,
if he spoke of this
time, he
only babble and babble
over, over

[Published September 1, 2008, 496 pages, $24.95 paperback]