Holderlin On The Vocation And Sad Plight Of The Poet


Holderlin doesn’t give much advice on the writing of poetry, but in To The Young Poets he does offer a few versified tips.  First, he states that a poet should be a friend to Man and a respecter of Divinity.  Also, he advises going –not to the bottle– but to Nature for inspiration.  And he cautions that a poet should not attempt to instruct, or even to describe, in his poetry…

“Of mortal men think kindly, but love the gods! / Loathe drunkenness like frost! Don’t describe or teach!/ And if you fear your master’s bluntness, / go to great Nature, let her advise you!”

In The Poet’s Vocation, Holderlin adds that, although solitude and reflection are important to a poet’s craft, he also benefits by association with his fellow Man… “Yet never gladly the poet keeps / his lore unshared, but likes to join with /others who help him to understand it.” Alas, every artist craves an audience.

In the poem, Traveler, Holderlin speaks of how, if you are a possessor of an aware and sympathetic soul, you can “like the living seed-grain, burst out of the husk that constricts you.”


In Human Applause, Holderlin remarks on what has painfully struck many an artist over the millennia– the chasm between art that is great and art that sells… “Has love not hallowed, filled with new life my heart/ with lovelier life? Then why did you prize me more / when I was proud and wild and frantic, / lavish of words, yet in substance empty? // The crowd likes best what sells in the market-place, / and loud-mouthed force alone wins a slave’s respect.”

Of course, Holderlin comforts himself by asserting that, obviously, those worthy of his poetry will recognize the divinity working through him since… “In gods and godhead only he can / truly believe who himself is godlike.”

In the second poem called To The Germans, a powerful work written sometime before 1804, Holderlin speaks of the loneliness of the poet/seer, who is both of his time and beyond it, both a part of his community and outside of it– and he acknowledges the very real possibility that the poet, even at the end of his life, when he has given all and when his powers have begun to fade, will remain completely unrecognized in his own time…

“Though your soul roams away, winged with its yearning soars/ far beyond your own time, mournful you linger here, / cold on desolate shores, with/ your own kind, but estranged from them; / /

and those others to come, those for whose advent we wait, / where, o where can you see them, that once more you’ll be/ warmed by one hand that’s friendly, / audible to one living soul? / /

Without resonance, long empty for you it’s been / in your hall, poor seer, now; yearning your eye grows dim, / and you drowse away, vanish/ never noticed, unnamed, unwept.”

And though his is speaking of someone else in the poem Rousseau, I feel Holderlin could just as easily be speaking of his own plight when he laments that… “The hall yields no response to your voice, poor man;/ and like the unburied dead you must roam about/ unquiet, seeking rest, and no one / to the allotted way can direct you.” […] “Be content! The tree outgrows / its native soil.”

And, in Bread And Wine, Holderlin complains of the poet’s lonely and unappreciated plight…

“…meanwhile too often I think it’s/ better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,/ always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime/ I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years?”

And from Traveler

Though as before I come and address by love’s names, by the old ones,

all that I see, and adjure heartbeats that once would respond,

Utter silence will meet me. For so it is: much is bound by,

much is severed by time. I to them will seem dead, they to me;

and I’m left all alone.”

—   —   —   —   —

Other posts from HAMMERING SHIELD on Holderlin…

On Nature, Homeland, and Forebears in the poetry of Holderlin:

Respect For Forebears

Home-Coming And Nature’s Welcoming Opens

Keeping Faith With The Fatherland

Holderlin on The Poet:

The Poet As Hero

Holderlin on the Human Condition:

Life’s Swift Passage

The Downside Of Love

The Noble And The Good


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