Friedrick Holderlin, like many Europeans of his day (his day being the late 1700s and early 1800s), geeked on Greek– mythology, that is– and his poetry is replete with a strange mixture of Christianity, paganism, and his own idiosyncratic form of ancestor-worship. He sings epic’ly of the Fatherland, but for Holderlin, the home-turf is less about politics or race and more about the natural environment… he waxes nostalgic about the welcoming, beautiful countryside of his youth, of rivers and mountains, and of the lush growth he associates with home and hearth, safety and happiness– sage ancestors and loving parents.
Holderlin also writes of the happy-sadness and fleeting nature of vigorous youth and of feminine beauty and of the ridiculousness of any vanity held by a creature fated to such an effervescent existence. In Holderlin’s mind, his respect for forebears, his love of nature, and his patriotism for the fatherland all blend together in one general and amorphous feeling of reverence, gratitude, pleasure, and fond memories of heritage and place. Familiar Nature is for him a refuge, and nothing (besides remembering his lost love, “Diotima”) seems to give him as much joy as the prospect of a home-coming.
Additionally, Holderlin– like many a poet– just happens to hold the vocation of the poet in very high regard, considering a true poet to be part prophet, part seer, and part deep-feeler. Lastly, though trivial, I could not help but notice Holderlin repeatedly brought up the Ether; he seems quite taken with the concept of some matrixy, quasi-spiritual, invisible something birthing objects and transmitting forces throughout the universe.
Holderlin continued to churn out a poem here and there throughout his long life, but the poetry of his last forty yes forty years… sucked.
A bona fide poetry critic would now tell you precisely how said later poetry puckered-up for vacuum service, but as I am not a bona fide poetry critic, I shall skip that particular waste of my time (reading those second-half-of-life poems was quite enough of a waste of time, thank you). Instead, I shall discuss, in the coming posts, the poetry of the six yes only six years of poetical flowering during which a young Holderlin actually wrote some good verse. But let us not lose our sense of perspective here… if Holderlin had produced world-class, timeless poetry for six DAYS– that would have been quite an achievement, so I think to say that Holderlin produced great poetry for six years and crap for forty is not as great of a disparagement as it might at first seem.
A word on the translation I used to read Holderlin: I do not know much German, but when I compare Holderlin’s original texts with Michael Hamburger’s translations, Hamburger appears to me to qualify as one of the best poem-translators of ANY language that I’ve ever had the privilege to read. He is able to walk that treacherous line between a literal translation and a conveyance of the “feel” of the poetry in its original language– the “feel” of a poem encompassing all the subtler aspects of poetry (like sound and rhythm and tone) which make (together with wordplay and language tricks) the translation of great poetry an essentially impossible task. Hamburger, as near as anyone, has made possible the impossible, and his work of translation is an art unto itself, and his esteem should glow as the halo of the original poet’s work.
A further note: I don’t usually get into the biographical in my discussions of poetry; I feel too much attention is slathered on the drama of the personality and on explaining a poem THROUGH the poet. I think the test for healthy poetry, like tests for determining the viability of any healthy offspring, is whether or not the little critter can survive on its own. How the parent HOPED the child would turn out is irrelevant in the consideration of the offspring’s traits and virtues.
That said… I found it interesting as well as era-orientating to discover, through Hamburger’s introduction, that Holderlin actually was school chums with HEGEL and SCHELLING, and that in adulthood, SCHILLER would become Holderlin’s patron for a time. Also, one may like to know that the “Diotama” of whom Holderlin sings, is (according to Hamburger) a banker’s wife (Susette Gontard) with whom a young Holderlin fell in love while tutoring the couple’s children. But again, if you need to know any biographical detail to make a poem meaningful, then that poem has failed.
Other posts from HAMMERING SHIELD on Holderlin…
On Nature, Homeland, and Forebears in the poetry of Holderlin…
Holderlin on The Poet…
Holderlin on the Human Condition…