Sunday, September 27, 2020

HÖLDERLIN - Essay / Memoir

[ * There are 16 pieces of writing on the mystical path
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Text and Images 
(except FH and tower home)
© Copyright 2020 by Neall Calvert

Friedrich Hölderlin

"The fire of the gods drives us to set forth by day 
And by night"

A POET CAN ARRIVE IN ONES LIFE in an unexpected way. For me it happened one calm day in 1992, a year after I had returned from a long journey to Europe with a German-born girlfriend. A voice suddenly whispered in the centre of my head, “I got it all from Hölderlin.” Till then, I hadn’t consciously known I was seeking something in the German spirit or the German language—the language I spoke exclusively (in Canada) till I was four years old.
A few months later, riding home after a convivial evening of singing, unbidden the phrase came again, this time with emphasis: “I got it all from Hölderlin.” It seemed necessary to get to know the man considered by philosopher Martin Heidegger the “poet of poets,” and by others in Germany their greatest poet after Goethe. I soon discovered the source of a phrase long carried in my head:

. . . where the danger is, grows also
that which saves.

They are among the first lines of “Patmos,” one of Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin’s great hymn-poems, completed in 1802.[i]
             To ones small, stay-at-home self there seems to be danger in stepping forward to become known as a writer speaking about poets and poetry and mystical experiences. However, there is soul-saving grace in discovering one’s true vocation—after twenty-five different jobs over several decades. But from what part of my mind had the voices and lines of poetry come? I had never studied German literature.
Hölderlin (1770–1843), also known as “the poet of the gods,” was a contemporary of the English poet William Wordsworth and part of the German Romantic movement. Like Wordsworth, Rousseau, Goethe, Emerson and other Romantics he carried the conviction that the deepest truths can be found within. When he graduated from the Lutheran seminary in Tübingen in 1793 in the turbulence following the 1789 French Revolution, Hölderlin was able to discuss philosophers like Leibniz, Spinoza and Kant, and he was aware that he was on a path to God. (Those wanting to imagine the social and creative upheavals occurring at the time of the French Revolution can look to the tumultuous 1960s in our era; the astrological patterns are the same.)

Minter Gardens
Agassiz, BC, Canada
Hölderlin sought to live the lofty ideas of the revolution (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”) before it went wrong, ideals that had caught the interest of many German intellectuals. On the fourth Bastille Day, July 14, 1793, along with two fellow students—friends who would become the philosophers Hegel and Schelling—he planted a “liberty tree” in a meadow near the seminary, arousing the ire of the authorities. Schelling had just translated into German “The Marseillaise,” written the year before and which had become the rallying call of the French Revolution.[iv] 
          Instead of taking up the Lutheran ministry, Hölderlin followed a rich tradition of poetry in his native province of Swabia and chose writing. His income, such as it was, came from generous friends and through the tutoring of children of wealthy families, considered a lowly position at that time, almost like a servant. He was likely a socially awkward person. His nickname at university is said to have been “Holz,” which means “wood, and the following poem, written when he was twenty-eight, indicates he would have had a traumatized childhood. In it he explains his flight to the gods

             WHEN I WAS A BOY 

            When I was a boy
            a god would often rescue me
            from the shouting and violence of humans.
            Then, safe and well, I would play
            with the meadow flowers,
            and heaven's breezes

            would play with me. 

            And as you delight the heart
            of plants, stretching their tender
            arms toward you, Father Helios,
            so you delighted my heart,
            and I was your beloved,
            holy Luna, just like Endymion!*

            All you faithful
            friendly gods!
            I wish you knew
            how my soul loved you!

            Naturally I couldn't call you
            by name then, nor did you use
            mine, as humans do, as if
            they really knew each other.

            But I was better acquainted with you
            than I ever was with humans.
            I knew the stillness of the Aether**: 

            I have never understood the words of men.

            The euphony of the rustling
            meadow was my education;
           among flowers I learned to love. 

            I grew up
            in the arms of the gods.

         *In one version of the Greek myth, Zeus offers Endymion, shepherd prince and lover of the Moon goddess, Selene, a choice of destinies. He chooses immortality and youth in eternal slumber. He was laid in a cave atop a mountain, where Selene would visit him each night. 
           **Aether: “Light, or fiery air. The upper stratum of bright air where the gods live. Aether generates life on earth,” according to classical Greek thought.(vi) 

          Although in his childhood Hölderlin had been moody, hyper-sensitive and subject to waves of extreme depression or elation,(vii) by the time he graduated from the seminary he was an excellent pianist and flautist who could also play the mandolin and sing with a fine tenor voice, and he was fluent in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Enthralled by the gods and the culture of classical Greece, he claimed in his writing that the German people, separated at that time into various provinces, could find a similar creative spark (“fire from heaven”) and demonstrate greatness—and he admonished them to do so.
           The Greeks had the fire and then had found their form, he said. The Parthenon and the Riace bronzes, for example, are today considered representations of the highest level of human creativity [see Footnote viii for live links]. The Germans had form but needed to find their fire. In Bread and Wine, an elegy celebrating both Jesus and Dionysus that is considered one of his finest poemsThe fire of the gods drives us to set forth by day / And by night(ix)Hölderlin contrasts the divine presence known to the ancient Greeks and the divine absence experienced by ourselves,” says author Richard Unger. 
[Hölderlin] depicts Greek civilization at its height as a world in which men and gods were united in constant, festive celebration. In contrast, he depicts the modern world, specifically the Europe of his day, as devoid of all qualities that made ancient Greece a place of beatitude. Whatever gods exist are hidden from us and wholly inaccessible to our feelings, minds, and senses. Because our world is without the light of divine presence, it is a place of deep night. . . . In this darkness we live in ignorance, confusion and strife, for there is no illumination enabling us to establish authentic community.[x]

The poet’s task, then, as Hölderlin saw it, was similar to the minister’s: to prepare the ground for the return of God or the gods. In “As On a Holiday” (“Wie Wenn am Feiertage”) he writes:   

      Thus the sons of earth now drink in
      The fire of heaven without danger.
      And it is our duty, poets, to stand
      Bare-headed under the storms of God,
      Grasping with our own hand
      The Father's beam itself,
      And to offer the gift of heaven,
      Wrapped in song, to the people.[xi]

Song (Gesang in German) can also mean poetry. James Mitchell, translator of the above lines, describes the writer of these words as “a heroic seer and perhaps a shamanic intermediary, a kind of spiritual lightning rod placed between the worlds of higher beings and humans,” someone in an “obviously dangerous, yet exalted occupation.Michael Harner, a leading figure in the neo-shamanic movement, describes in his essay What Is a Shaman? this exalted reality:

Shamanism is a disciplined way of getting knowledge and help which is based on the premise that we do not have to restrict ourselves to working in one reality, one dimension, when we need assistance. There is a whole other reality to help us in our lives—a reality full of beauty and harmony that is ready to provide us with the same kind of wisdom that we read about in the writings of the great mystics and prophets. We need only to keep an open mind and to make the effort to follow the shaman’s path.[xii]

Familiar through personal experience with the Greek notion of being struck by lightning as a manifestation of divine presence, Hölderlin wondered at times whether he hadn’t gotten too much of it:

Nevertheless, O all you heavenly gods
And all you streams and shores, hilltops and woods,
Where first, when by the hair one of you
Seized us and the unhoped-for spirit
Unforgettably came, astonishing, down
Upon us, godlike and creative, dumbfounding
The mind, every bone shook
As if struck by lightning . . .
—from “The Poet’s Vocation” 

                                                                       (“Dichterberuf”) [xiii]

A stroke of lightning followed by a thunderclap is an apt description of some of Hölderlin’s stanzas. Twentieth-century American poet and critic Randall Jarrell describes a poet as one who spends a lifetime standing out in thunderstorms, / waiting to be hit by lightning.[xiv]

Burnaby Lake Park
Burnaby, BC, Canada

        With his gift for mystical communion with Nature, Hölderlin saw evidence of the divine everywhere in his native province, and wanted his poetry to “be lifted from nature purely and simply, so that nothing extraneous or uncharacteristic be included on either side and earth hold itself in good balance with the sky . . .” [xv] Like the early Greek philosopher Empedocles, he considered human culture, religions and institutions useless unless sustained by the vivifying power of Nature.
 “Hölderlin’s greatest poetry of praise . . . is devoted to Nature,” says another translator and editor, Richard Sieburth, “for it is in the immediate features of landscape that he discerns the most compelling evidence of divine process.”[xvi]
Perhaps more so than any other poet, Hölderlin also strove in his poems to find a word to describe the experience of the unity of all of life (the One and All—Eins und Alles). He considered it the ultimate goal of poetry. True holy names were lacking, he stated, but he didn’t want an intellectual, conceptual name, rather one that involves man’s total being (“the experience of deific infinitude by the soul, rapt in ecstatic union with Godhead”[xvii]). The divine force could not be named by any word not in itself holy. James Mitchell states that Hölderlin is “the last poet in European literature to have thematicized ecstatic religious experience, or the loss thereof, convincingly.”[xviii]  Hölderlin's spiritual search resembles the journeys of other metaphysical poets, including William Blake, and Hölderlin has been called “the Blake of Germany.” 
Adrian del Caro, in his insightful and often profound Hölderlin: The Poetics of Being, presents Hölderlin as “an instrument of conviviality binding mortal to mortal and mortal to divine.”[xix] In other words he was a priest or holy man.
Hölderlin’s writings, at first merely full of youthful enthusiasm, matured as he gained life experience. He appeared in several small journals during his lifetime, and a novel in letter form received small attention. Otherwise his work was largely ignored, and only started being appreciated over a hundred years later, when collections began to appear. To those of his contemporaries who considered his writing difficult (and some of his later hymns indeed were), Hölderlin uttered this wonderful defence of poetry:

All I ask is that the reader be kindly disposed towards these pages. In that case he will certainly not find them incomprehensible, far less objectionable. But if, nonetheless, some should think such a language too unconventional, I must confess to them: I cannot help it. On a fine day—they should consider—almost every possible mode of song makes itself heard; and Nature, whence it originates, also receives it again.[xx]

At Lower Myra Falls, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada
Hölderlin was in touch with the great thinkers of his time. Friedrich von Schiller published some of Hölderlin’s poems, and while visiting Schiller in Jena in 1794 Hölderlin was unaware that one of the other guests—who happened to be perusing his recently published Fragment from Hyperion—was Goethe. They were finally introduced in January 1795, and Hölderlin later described him in a letter to his friend Neuffer as follows: 

Quiet, a great deal of majesty in his glance, and love too. . . . You often believe that a downright good-hearted father were standing in front of you.[xxii]

(Our poet had by the age of nine already lost two fathers.)

 Hölderlin was also a playwright who created three versions of The Death of Empedocles on the great pre-Socratic philosopher, originator of the theory of the four classical elements earth, air, fire, water that remained current for centuries, and also democratic political leader, orator, healer and magician with penetrating insight into Nature. Myths were passed down about his death, among them that, rejected by the conservative authorities in his community, his integrity required him to end his life, which he did by leaping into the volcano of Mt. Etna. The parallels with Hölderlins own life are what made it impossible for him to complete the work, states Michael Hamburger, his first English translator.
Hölderlin authored a novel in letter form called Hyperion or The Hermit in Greece (Hyperion oder Der Eremit in Griechenland) (written between 1792 and 1799) in which the idea of a fundamental unity of Being is raised. “It is first grasped as belonging to the past (childhood/ancient Greece), then the future (liberated Greece [a revolution against Turkish Ottoman rule that began in 1770 had failed]), and finally the present (immediacy of aesthetic beauty).”[xxiii]. It was his longest work to be published in his time, and it drew admirers to him. 
           Hölderlin translated into German the odes of the classical Greek lyric poet Pindar (ca. 522-443 BC), whose rhythms he adopted for his own poetry. Pindar’s victory odes had been read at the podium for winners of events in the Pan-Hellenic Games—the forerunner of today’s Olympic Games. 
          Pindars influence on Hölderlin can be seen in the closing lines of one of these odes: 

                    Creatures of a day, what is anyone? 
                    What is he not? Man is but a dream of a shadow.
                    Yet when there comes as a gift of heaven
                    a gleam of sunshine, there rests upon men
                    a radiant light and aye, a gentle life. [Pythia VIII] 

          Our poet comes vividly to life in a unique book published in 2000 titled The Recalcitrant Art: Diotima’s Letters to Hölderlin and Related Missives.[xxiv] “Diotima” (Plato’s teacher of the philosophy of love in his Symposium) is the name Hölderlin gave to Susette Gontard, the wife of a wealthy Frankfurt banker to whose son he was for several years a favoured live-in tutor. Their secret love affair inspired the poet’s best writing. “In Frankfurt he found his true voice as a poet . . .” writes Hamburger. “The diffuse rhetoric of generalized enthusiasm had begun to crystallize.”[xxv] Susette became the beloved Diotima of Hyperion and of several poems. She epitomized the beauty he saw in ancient Greek culture, made it seem real in his own day. 
“Dear friend!” the often melancholy poet writes to his pal Neuffer, “there is a being in the world on which my spirit can and will dwell for millennia . . . Loveliness and loftiness, tranquillity and vitality, spirit and heart and form—they are all blessedly one in this one being. . . . Could I have become what I am now, as happy as an eagle, had this one, this very one, not appeared and transformed a life that had become pointless to me, rejuvenating, encouraging, cheering and glorifying it in her vernal light? . . . It is actually often impossible for me to think the thoughts of mortals when she is in front of me.”[xxvi]
In an early version of Hyperion, Hölderlin prophetically speaks of a “priestess of love . . . above her smile, so full of serenity and heavenly goodness, her large, inspired eyes were enthroned with the majesty of a god, and like fleecy clouds in the light of morning her golden locks, tossed by vernal winds, kissed her brow”[xxvii] [florid, enthusiastic writing was more common in those times].
Susette writes, after their closeness has been discovered and Hölderlin is banished from the household: “If only you would come!—the entire region is lifeless and vacant without you! And I am so full of anxiety: how will I enclose and preserve in my breast once again the overwhelming feelings that rush out toward you?”[xxviii] Hegel sometimes acted as go-between to arrange meetings; letters were left in hedges.
The Recalcitrant Art—(“this recalcitrant art of loving,” Diotima states in one of her letters [recalcitrant: not subject to control or authority])—includes fictionalized letters by Hölderlin’s devout mother and Susette’s calculating husband. After reading Susette’s letters to Hölderlin that she finds in a trunk, Hölderlin’s mother complains: 

He never stayed about the house, but took his Klopstock [German poet of Hölderlin’s time who sought to raise the German language to a level of perfection with classical Greek and Latin] out into the fields. He sat on stone walls or lay in the tall grass before hay harvest from morning till night. . . . Yet the farmers never scolded him, out of deference to me. Everyone left him alone. All his life he has been alone, drifting on by . . . as though he were a shadow of cloud on those fields.”[xxix]

. . . My boy has such grandiose dreams and expectations, he mixes up the heroes he reads about in books with real people [see details below], confuses the dreamy characters of his own stories and poems with flesh and blood. No one in the real world is like his made-up people, and so he is constantly disappointed.[xxx]

In January 1802, having been embarrassingly dismissed from the Gontard household and in a mood of failure and isolation, Hölderlin left his native southwestern German province of Swabia to take up yet another tutoring post, this time in Bordeaux, France, a thousand kilometres away. He is believed to have journeyed on foot, crossing the Auvergne Mountains in winter (some say already suffering from schizophrenia). On returning from this abbreviated stint in France in May of 1802, again mostly on foot, not completely coherent and looking emaciated, Hölderlin was still able to write:

The more I study nature here around home, the more I am moved by it. The thunderstorm, perceived not only in its most extreme manifestation but precisely as a power and figure among the various other forms of the sky, the light, active as a principle and resembling fate, . . . the urgency of its comings and goings, the particular character of the forests, and the way in which the diversities of nature all converge in one area, so that all the holy places of the earth come together in a single place, and the philosophical light around my window—all this is now my joy.[xxxi]

Sieburth says, “The exact physiognomy [face] of the sky, the workings of the light, the intuition of locality as a field of convergences, as a place where differences are gathered—all these are the lessons of travel. Hölderlin had gone abroad to discover his native ground. He learned in the process that . . . to be truly here is to be everywhere.” [xxxii]

                            *     *     *


(c) Copyright 2017 by Neall Calvert 

The poet acts as priest,
step-down transformer,
translator of divine energies
into human language, mediator 
between gods and men. 

Clouds perform equivalent rites,
balancing between heaven and earth,
but few know what holds up
all that weight of water— 
or whether in fact it is being held down— 
or that, for the earthbound, 
communicating with a cumulus or two
leads to a life with altitude. 

                           *     *     * 

The eccentric Hölderlin’s estrangement from life could have many causes. There was the chaos of the disordered times following the French Revolution, with Napoleon’s armies on the march across Europe. There was the loss of both a father and a stepfather by the age of nine, constant poverty (his family did not pass on his inheritance to him) and thus possibly malnutrition, a family history of brain illness, and many personal disappointments. There was the inability to find his place in society. The community he hoped would form around his ideas of the poet as “instrument of conviviality” failed to materialize—there was no audience for his writing at that time in the German provinces. The magazine he hoped to start didn’t get the support it needed. He had no spiritual community, and he spent a lot of time alone. And then, in 1802, his muse, Susette Gontard, died from a measles infection (Diotima had already prophetically died in Hyperion.) The intense relationship and then its end may have pushed him over the edge.
Disillusioned, finally realizing that his poetic work would likely not be widely accepted in his own time, Hölderlin stated in letters to friends that he was writing for future generations. He hinted that he was aware of his own fate. In a letter before leaving for Bordeaux he had stated: “Now I can rejoice over a new truth, a better view of what is above us and around us, though I fear that things may eventually go with me as for ancient Tantalus [a king in Greek mythology], who received more from the gods than he could digest.[xxxiii] Acquainted with the notion of the tragic fall familiar to the ancient Greeks, he had earlier written, in “Hyperion’s Song of Fate” (“Hyperions Schicksalslied”), a poem now popular in Germany: 

A place to rest
isn’t given to us.
Suffering humans
decline and blindly fall
from one hour to the next,
like water thrown
from cliff to cliff, year after year,
down into the Unknown. . . .

David Constantine, another of his translators, writes: “Hölderlin is a poet we can read with our own atrocious times in mind”:

He is a deeply religious poet whose fundamental tenet is absence and the threat of meaninglessness. He confronted hopelessness as few writers have, he was what Rilke called ‘exposed’; but there is no poetry like his for the constant engendering of hope, for the expression, in the body and breath of poems, of the best and most passionate aspirations. [xxxiv]

In 1805 when Hölderlin’s friend Sinclair was arrested in Württemburg for revolutionary subversion, Hölderlin was detained as an accessory. After Sinclair—who had participated in the crowning of Napoleon in Paris on December 2, 1804—was taken away, Hölderlin became agitated and over the next few months was heard shouting in the streets, “I don’t want to be a Jacobin! [holder of revolutionary opinions] Away with all Jacobins!” He was released due to his mental illness, but in 1806, at thirty-six—the age at which his first father died of a stroke—Hölderlin was forcibly taken by coach to Autenrieth Clinic in Tübingen. After a year there, Hölderlin was declared incurable.
. . . In early 2008 I awoke from a dream in which Hölderlin had excitedly exclaimed: “I am a Jacobin! I am a Jacobin! I am a Jacobin, and I’ve always been a Jacobin!” He seems to be feeling a little better these days. . . .
But even in his most famous poem, “At the Middle of Life” (“Hälfte des Lebens”), written several years before the onset of his mental illness, he foreshadows a fall. 

          With yellow pears
          And full of wild roses
          The land hangs down into the lake,
          Beloved swans,
And drunk with kisses 
          You dip your heads
          Into sobering holy waters.
          But alas, where shall I,
          Come winter, find flowers,
          And where sunshine
          And shade of earth? 
          Stone walls loom
          Speechless and cold, in the wind
          Flags go on flapping.     
(N.C., with assistance from 
M.  Ostermann and versions by 
Michael Hamburger and James Mitchell)

          Some quote the many losses and disappointments in Hölderlin’s life for his deterioration; others say he simply got too much “fire from heaven.” He remained ill, answering to another name, writing very little that was intelligible, for the next thirty-seven years. The poet lived in Tübingen, in a tower room with a view over the Neckar River, in the care of a carpenter and his family sympathetic to his work, until his death in 1843.[xxxv] He went for walks with the family, received occasional visits from writers, talked to himself a lot, was easily agitated, and often played flute and piano and sang. The writer Wilhelm Waiblinger became his friend, and a moving account of Waiblinger’s visits to Hölderlin, written in 1830, can be found in the 2015 book by the University of Victoria's Eric Miller titled We Are Like Fire: Waiblinger and Hesse on Hölderlin [xxxv(a)]. An excerpt appears on the Internet at[xxxvi] Waiblinger states that Hölderlin’s real condition was spiritual and corporeal exhaustion -- a condition I am familiar with as well. [xxxvi(a)]

The tower (centre) on the Neckar River
where Hölderlin spent the last decades of his life.

           Novelist, poet and essayist Hermann Hesse concurs that Hölderlin’s tragic end was caused by too much fire from heaven. In a discerning short essay written in 1924 Hesse quotes the following from Hölderlin’s writing: “What is most important is that superior people should not cut themselves off too completely from what is inferior, nor the beautiful from the barbaric . . . If they isolate themselves too completely, their effectiveness is lost and they perish in their loneliness.”[xxxvii] Hölderlin, “who truly belonged among ‘the beautiful,’” has stated a profound truth, says Hesse, if the above sentence is understood “from the inside as a demand that the noble person know how to recognize and tolerate not only what is common and naturally naïve in the outside world but also in his own soul.” Hölderlin was aware of his problem all his life and knew he was in danger from his one-sidedness, his loneliness, yet he could not stop subjecting his instinctual nature to the demands of the instinct-hating spirit. 
“This was Hölderlin’s personal problem,” Hesse writes, “and he succumbed to it.” (The poet may have gotten such notions from Schiller, who in his essays on aesthetics suggests that human freedom can be fostered through denying of the animal instincts such as self-preservation, in favour of dying for a beautiful idea.[!!] [xxxviii]) . . . Hesse continues: “He cultivated in himself a spirituality that did violence to his nature; his ideal was to put everything vulgar behind him. . . . Hölderlin wore himself out with the demands he put upon himself; he struggled to be an example of spiritualization, and the attempt miscarried.” In other words, he got too much fire from heaven.
. . . This was the information that, in my own life journey, I had for years unsuccessfully sought! I had been getting nowhere in solving my own personal issues through spirituality because in my seeking I was making the same mistake Hölderlin had made—denying my instinctual nature. I had somehow lost the ability to protect myself from the predators of this world and the ability to assure my own survival via the summoning of animal strength when needed, with its moment-to-moment responsiveness to life (rather than the numb stance of the terrified child, even decades after the original trauma). Without an inner instinctual nature I lacked the energy to stand up to the demands of life. Like Hölderlin, I was at the whim of every passing wind—just like the clouds. . . .
Later in the essay Hesse remarks that his thoughts about Hölderlin’s psychology don’t fully explain the problem. “His fate is above all a hero’s fate, and such fates are supra-individual. This is the reason we often see greatly gifted individuals come to grief from obstacles that lesser persons surmount with ease . . .” 
          Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung, one of the great explorers of the human mind, was a fan of the ‘poet of the gods.’ Jung read poetry “with passion and pleasure,” states Deirdre Bair in her 2004 biography, and “Among his favorite poets [was] Hölderlin, from whose ‘Patmos’ he quoted long passages when an old man.” [xxxix] Jung devotes several pages of his book Symbols of Transformation to Hölderlin, his poetry and his mental illness. He takes the poet to task for trying to navigate through life by recreating blissful moments from childhood.[xl]
With his customary straightforwardness, Jung states that Hölderlin, who took up writing an ambitious series of hymns exploring history and cosmology that included heroic figures such as Rousseau and Columbus, Luther, the Virgin Mary and Shakespeare, had “neither the will nor the power to make good his aversion from this world by fishing up another from the primeval ocean of the unconscious, which would truly have been an heroic act. Such a sacrifice [sacrifice: to make sacred] can only be accomplished through wholehearted dedication to life.”[xli] Jung claims the poet was striving to live the heroic life, when at heart he longed to be ordinary.
There is corroboration for Jung’s statement. One day in 2003 the cracked voice of Hölderlin, filled with seemingly centuries of longing, uttered inside my ear: “I . . . wanted . . . to . . . be . . . a . . . father.” It was the voice of a man who had known little of being normal—as he himself well knew:
          “I am too shy of what is common and ordinary in actual life,” Hölderlin states in a 1798 letter to his friend Neuffer, and traces the problem to the traumas of his early life. “O the world has scared my mind back into itself ever since my youth, and I am still suffering from this,” he says in the same letter, quoted in Jean Laplanche’s 1961 book Hölderlin and the Question of the Father (translated in 2007 by Luke Carson of the University of Victoria).[liv]
 Laplanche’s is the only book about Friedrich Hölderlin (in English, anyway) that raises the issue of childhood trauma as a precursor of mental illness. This despite the opening lines of Hölderlin’s poem “When I Was A Boy” declaring: When I was a boy / a god would often rescue me / from the shouting and violence of humans. Children abandoned through cruelty by trusted caregivers, or from parental absence, become filled with rage that, unexpressed, can turn into physical and /or mental illness. The poet Robert Bly in his bestselling book Iron John: A Book About Men states that a man without a father fills up his life with demons.
Upon Hölderlin’s return from Bordeaux in July of 1802, he appeared at his mother’s house in Nürtingen and “drove out all its occupants with his furious raving, and was only calmed by his copy of Homer,” writes Michael Hamburger.[xlii] One can’t help thinking of the expression “I’m not mad, I’m angry.”[xliii] . . . People don’t go crazy alone; they are driven crazy by the actions of other humans. Hölderlin’s childhood trauma and lack of fathering left him dependent on his mother, from whom he never broke free, and to whom he had always to exhibit the most dishonest, pious obedience, even well into adulthood. His tendency toward isolation, not to mention melancholy / depression / raging / sadness / flight into the clouds / chronic insecurity and the inability to settle down, are the characteristics of someone deeply hurt early in life.
Regardless of his personal tragedy, Hölderlin’s reputation as a writer and philosopher continues to grow. Critics and other writers and philosophers now accord him a central role in the history of European philosophy, politics and literature. “Within a mere decade Hölderlin produced a poetic work so various, so rich in potentialities and possibilities for the ‘future ages’ in which he placed his hope, that regrets about it are out of place, as well as futile,” writes Hamburger.[xliv] . . .

"Tulip Secrets": Parksville, BC, Canada

Hölderlin’s work had a profound influence on the life of controversial philosopher Martin Heidegger, author of Being and Time (“poetry is the establishment of Being by means of the word,” and authentic poetry “brings new truth into the world”[xlv]). To Heidegger, Hölderlin was a unique force in the history of being and the history of Germany “as a herald whose thought is yet to be ‘heard’.”[xlvi]
         Heidegger delivered a 1942 lecture course on Hölderlin’s hymn-poem “The Ister” (“Der Ister”) (the ancient Greek name for the Danube River) that speaks to the unknowable nature of nature. The poem was also the inspiration for a 2004 Australian film by the same name, in which a journey by boat up the 2,872-km length of the Danube from the Black Sea to its source in Germany encompasses ruminations on nature, history, technology, philosophy and politics. It won awards in Marseilles and Montreal,[xlvii] and the New York Times reviewer, who gave it a Critics’ Pick commendation, writes: “‘The Ister’ asks you not to think, but to think hard. Your reward, given in proportion to your level of attention, commitment and participation, is to see the simplest things in a new light, possessed of vast new dimensions.” . . . The epilogue of the movie consists of Heidegger reading the poem The Ister” in German (English translation on screen); it has been posted on YouTube:

          In twentieth-century Germany, Hölderlin’s efforts to create a national poetry, as expressed in his late poetic hymns—originally titled “Vaterländische Gesänge” (literally “Hymns to the Fatherland,” but more realistically “Patriotic Chants”)—would suit the views of the National Socialists and he became the “idol of Germanicism.”[xlviii] In 1939 these long poems were read to the Führer on his fiftieth birthday.

           In her 2014 book Heidegger and Theology, in a chapter titled Heidegger Between Hitler and Hölderlin, Judith Wolfe writes:

Under National Socialist rule, Hölderlin was officially presented as a proto-fascist and ‘cultural prophet’ of the Volksgemeinschaft [national community], preparing the people for struggle. Numerous academics at the time sought to substantiate this connection, among them Max Kommerell, Paul Böckmann and Kurt Hildebrand. Werner Bartscher’s 1942 study Hölderlin und die Deutsche Nation praises Böckmann’s and Hildebrandt’s works in particular, in vocabulary characteristic of the newly slanted Hölderlin interpretation: ‘Hildebrandt’s inspiring work . . . offers a grandiose and often new picture of this heroic poet as an ingenious leader [Führender], a spearhead for the German world view.’ Hildebrandt’s work, he concludes, can therefore be called a ‘political-scholarly deed, because it demonstrates the fertile relationship between the ingenious German poet and his people’.

Popular editions and biographies of Hölderlin were produced by leading publishing houses. For the youth, the Reichsjugendführung [national youth leadership] distributed 16,000 copies of a collection entitled Command and Fulfilment among their branches. The Hitler Youth recited Hölderlin’s poetry at their celebrations. A number of ‘Hölderlin Breviaries’ were published and distributed to members of the Wehrmacht [armed forces]. 1943 was proclaimed a ‘Hölderlin Year’, celebrating the poet ‘as one whose spirit would lead the fatherland to victory’. On 7 June of that year, Josef Goebbels as guest of honour attended the founding of the Hölderlin-Gesellschaft (Hölderlin Society).[xlviii(a)]
Nazi occupation troops wore both uniforms and books of Hölderlin in their knapsacks [Günter Grass poem Europes Shame] [xlviii(b)], but for at least a few combatants, the high-minded stanzas had the opposite of the intended effect. Having read them, the soldiers dropped their guns and refused to fight any longer [source unfortunately lost]. Hölderlin’s poetry (as well as that of Rainer Maria Rilke [see link to my essay on Rilke in the Postscript below]) is said to have also received a welcome from German citizens in the grim years that followed the war.

Little Qualicum Falls
Vancouver Island, Canada

          During the 1960s, left-wing German intellectuals took an interest in the Hölderlin legacy, transforming his image from its Nazi stain and promoting him as a revolutionary not unlike Che Guevara. In Peter Weiss’s Hölderlin, considered the most important play of the 1971–72 German theatre season, Hölderlin meets Karl Marx.[xlix] 
          English translations of Hölderlin’s poems by the distinguished English poet Hamburger, whose family were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, had begun to appear in 1943, with subsequent volumes appearing in succeeding decades. 
Musicians have long been drawn to Hölderlin’s creative output. In 1829 the Swiss composer Theodor Fröhlich set to music two Hölderlin poems, “Rückkehr in die Heimat” [“Return to the Native Land”] and “Hyperion’s Schicksalslied” [“Hyperion’s Song of Fate”]. Among German composer Johannes Brahms’ well-known works is also Schicksalslied Op. 54, written in 1871, a musical setting for chorus and orchestra of Hölderlin’s poem that speaks of a tragic fall. One reviewer finds the opening notes so noble and hopeful “you cannot hide your tears.” [l] Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith and Benjamin Britten were also inspired to turn Hölderlin texts into music,[li] [Peter Pears sings Six Hölderlin Fragments by Britten at] and between 1964 and 1982 modern German composers turned to Hölderlin as well. (See Web Links below for a discography of Hölderlin compositions turned into classical music.) 
In the 1970s the leading German folk-rock band, called Hoelderlin, released music influenced by Hölderlin’s poetry [pronunciation is the same whether spelled with oe or ö]. The group produced a “legendary” debut album of progressive music (“Hölderlins Traum” [“Hölderlin’s Dream”]) that was voted one of the best German albums of 1972 and has been reissued in the twenty-first century on CD. A review says the music aptly lives up to its title, with a “trippy cosmic feel . . . full of rich textures, psychedelic, medieval and classical touches. The multiple strings: violins, cellos, acoustic guitars, along with the flutes, piano and rock instruments including mellotron, make for a rich diversity, all topped off by Nanny’s delicate singing.”[lii] The album falls into the independent music genre known as “kraut rock.” [Go to to listen to it.] The band reunited for successful concerts in 2005–07 and a new album in 2007.
Today a new book on Hölderlin appears every few years, and academic conferences are assembled to discuss his views and his work. The University of Michigan held a Hölderlin Bicentennial Symposium in 1970. The Hölderlin Archive in Stuttgart adds hundreds of Hölderlin-related items every year. Music, poetry readings and lectures are appearing on YouTube.

Scholar Geert Lernout writes: 

Both in Germany and elsewhere, poets and novelists have seen in Hölderlin an example of the power of literature. Hölderlin’s own phrase: “Why poets in a time of distress?” has served as motif . . . and his very name was turned into a shorthand formula for the condition of poetry in an increasingly unpoetic world. . . .

[Hölderlin’s] final concept of art and literature transcends all modernist notions. As a thinker he was one of the greatest, if not the greatest of this period, in itself the most important period in European history since the Greeks. Hölderlin’s significance results from the fact that he saw better than anybody else that art is religion, that art concerns what Hölderlin has described as the retreat of the gods . . . [emphasis added] [liii]

*     *     *

                         TURN CROSSES INTO ART
                   © 2017 by Neall Calvert

                                          Some say turn swords into ploughshares
                        I say turn crosses into artworks.

                        Gather a few old ones. Dismantle
                              the weighty timbers; plane off
                                  the rough edges, the weathering
                            of centuries, the sombreness,
          the grime and pain.
                   Don’t do the work yourself
                                  you’re weary from lugging them.
                              In the electric age, Dear Jesus,
                               we give such jobs to machines.
                When fresh wood gleams, 
                     splash with varnish. Atop
              a swaying skyscraper,
                            creatively arrange the beams
                just so, and so—open 
                     to their home elements: 
         wind, rain, sun . . .

                     For the next twenty centuries,
                                 let this lumber carry a happier form.

*     *     *

IN 2012 I COMPLETED FOUR YEARS OF SEARCHING for a smaller place to live, away from Metro Vancouver and its one million inhabitants. Campbell River, a city of 35,000 on the east coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbiathree hours plus a two-hour ferry ride to the northwestwas my first conscious choice of a home town. A deep inner sense of knowing told me one day this was the place for me; the experience almost drove me to my knees in gratitude. The first house I occupied was about two kilometres from downtown and, for fresh air and exercise, I would often walk the distance, mostly along Dogwood Street.
          At Dogwood and Westmere Road stands a 35-metre communications tower; it supports various disks and antennas that exchange microwave and radio signals with other parts of the world. I was the only one interested in it, and I told myself I would get a good shot when the light was right.
          A week later I had accomplished my goal . . .

Day and night, night and day,
            the signals fly and never stray.

          The following month I had a dream about Hölderlin in which his 18th-century tower home morphed into this tall steel structuresymbol of the 21st-century world. At the same time, visits to this blog began increasingdoubling and then more than tripling to spike at over 1,100 per month. . . . The poet of the gods, the German writer / minister / shaman / poet who despaired for his own times and claimed future generations would understand his message, has been vindicated. His messageof liberty, equality and fraternity through acknowledgment of mans inner essence, of creativity as the real task of religion, of Nature as divinitynow goes effortlessly out into the world.

          In early 2019, I dreamed once more of Hölderlin; in this dream, he was healthy (I am tempted to addat last). In March, I was accepted into the League of Canadian Poets as an associate member, based on my completed poetry and my commitment to literary matters, and during this year was published five times. 

          May the timeless connection I experience with Friedrich Hölderlin continue to nourish my path as a poet of the eternal spirit in nature and in man.

                                                                    *     *     *

FRIEDRICH HÖLDERLIN, POET FROM THE PAST, enters my life in unusual and meaningful ways. And through the living art of his poetry, as well as others’ responses to his unusual life, I discover the doorway I have long been seeking—a doorway to the animated, life-affirming world of creativity, writing and spiritual truth. Like him, I am a survivor of an unhappy religious-minded family; and, like him, I have been overcoming hopelessness and despair through getting to know the gods and goddesses of justice, compassion, wisdom and love.

*     *     *


Whats In A Name?

FRIEDRICH HÖLDERLIN’S first father’s name, Heinrich (Henry), was the given name of my paternal grandfather, and, following Eastern Slavic naming customs, it became the middle name of my father (a carpenter) and of his four siblings (two of them female; one uncle is named Heinrich Heinrich). Hölderlin’s mother’s name was Johanna, the name of my maternal grandmother and two of my aunts. His step-brother was named Karl, my own birth name before I changed it to Neall. . . . 

          Karl was also one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s six given names, and an essay on this German-speaking poet, which includes an excerpt from his 1914 poem of praise “To Hölderlin” [“An Hölderlin”] and other poems by, and comments on, Hölderlin, is found at:

                                                                         *      *      *

IF YOU HAVE RECEIVED some benefit from reading this essay, please consider making a donation to the author in celebration of bringing people to the divine through writing. A secure PayPal Donation Button is located below, at the bottom of the Endnotes. Thank you. [For PCs, use Ctrl + End keys]

*      *      * 


1. A list of books by or on Hölderlin:
Not on the list, the 2015 volume We Are Like Fire: Waiblinger & Hesse on Hölderlin contains four pieces of writing, including Waiblinger’s essential “Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness.”

2. Twenty of Hölderlin’s poems, translated by James Mitchell, are found here: These poems “are most representative of his visionary force at its greatest intensity . . . which deal[s] explicitly with man’s relationship to the gods.” [Mitchell]

3. The Hölderlin Society, formed in 1943 in Tübingen, Germany was reconstituted in 1946 “with the goal of deepening an understanding of the work of Friedrich Hölderlin and promoting the research and exhibition of his work, his person, and his time. It has members among enthusiasts and scholars both in Germany and abroad.” (German only at present.)

4. The Hölderlin Archives, located in Stuttgart, Germany (German only).

5. Hölderlin’s recognition as a philosopher who contributed to German Idealism is discussed here:

6. Review of classical music based on the poems of Hölderlin:ölderlin

*      *      *

The Life of Trees

To read Neall's 500-page book 
on his healing journey:

A Dialogue with Higher Self:

Overcoming Hopelessness and Despair
through Unconditional Love

Go to:

*     *     *


[i] James Mitchell translation   

[ii] The Globe and Mail, Books section, page D13, May 10, 2008.

[iii] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche (New York: Viking, 2006), 30.

[iv] Scott J. Thompson. “Friedrich Hölderlin: (1770–1843) A Chronology of His Life” -- no longer available.

[v] James Mitchell translation.   

[vi] James Mitchell  

[vii] Hamburger, Michael. Transl. and Introduction, Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poems and Fragments. Jeremy Adler, Editor. (London: Penguin, 1998), xix.

[viii] The Parthenon, one of the greatest cultural achievements of mankind, was built in eight years; it has been under restoration for the past thirty at a cost of $100 million. See PBS television’s Nova series “Secrets of the Parthenon” at The Riace bronzes, larger-than-life representations of either two warriors or gods from the fifth century BC, discovered in waters off southern Italy in 1974, have never been equalled by modern sculptors. The much-celebrated figures are displayed at the museum in Reggio Calabria. See

[x] Richard Unger, Friedrich Hölderlin (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984).

[xi] James Mitchell translation 

[xii] “What Is A Shaman?” by Michael Harner, in Gary Doore, compiler and editor, Shaman’s Path: Healing, Personal Growth and Empowerment (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1988), 14. 

Writes Kevin Turner in Sky Shamans of Mongolia: Meetings with Remarkable Healers (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2016): 
Lineages, traditions, even whole cultures are fed by the depths of outstanding individuals. All great shamans, as they come and go, add their power to the cumulative trajectory of human spirituality -- a trajectory of awakening from trance, from limitations to freedom, and from fear, and moving toward greater caring for others.
[xiii] Adrian del Caro, Hölderlin: The Poetics of Being (Bloomington: Wayne State University Press, 1991).

[xiv] Susan Musgrave, “Poetry” column, BC Bookworld, Autumn 2001, 39. The ancient Maya also sought such experiences: 
First Lord and the third brother, K’awil, were often depicted with cleft heads, the result of being struck with “ch’ulel” (life energy)-charged lightning, which the Maya believed was present everywhere. Lightning would penetrate a mirror worn on the forehead—the third eye? This was the process by which the Divine Being imparted wisdom. This also opened a portal to the soul that allowed the transmission of energy from the Otherworld, and thus the Maya overcame death and won resurrection for their souls and for the universe as a whole. (George J. Haas and William R. Saunders, The Cydonia Codex: Reflections from Mars (CD) (Vancouver: Granville Island Publishing, 2003).
For modern-day, first-person accounts of being hit by a bolt of lightning (twice), surviving, and having to rebuild a nervous system and a life, see the bestselling books of Dannion Brinkley: At Peace in the Light and Saved by the Light.

[xv] Richard Sieburth, transl. and Introduction, Hymns and Fragments by Friedrich Hölderlin (Princeton University Press, 1984), 40. Emphasis added.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Unger, Richard, Hölderlin’s Major Poetry: The Dialectics of Unity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), 10.

[xviii] No longer posted.

[xix] del Caro, Adrian, ibid., front flap.

[xx] From an introduction to the hymn poem “Celebration of Peace (Friedensfeier).” Hamburger, Michael. Transl. and Introduction, Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poems and Fragments. Jeremy Adler, Editor. (London: Penguin, 1998), 209.

[xxi] Henry Alphern, An Outline History of Philosophy (Forum House, 1969), pp. 162–3. 

[xxii] Scott J. Thompson. “Friedrich Hölderlin: (1770–1843) A Chronology of His Life” -- no longer available.

[xxiv] David Farrell Krell. Editors and translators Douglas F. Kenney and Sabine Menner-Bettscheid (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). There appears to be some doubt about the existence of the two editors and translators, about whom a strange story of their accidental deaths is included; perhaps the entire, highly original, work is the creation of Krell.

[xxv] Hamburger, Michael. Transl. and Introduction, Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poems and Fragments. Jeremy Adler, Editor (London: Penguin, 1998), xxi.

[xxvi] Krell, p. 16

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 206.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 196

[xxix] Ibid., p. 71.

[xxx] Ibid., pp. 180–181.

[xxxi] Sieburth, ibid., 39.

[xxxii] Sieburth, ibid.

[xxxiii] No longer available.

[xxxiv] Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poetry, by David Constantine. (Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2018).

[xxxv] “Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness,” an excerpt from an 1830 essay by Wilhelm Waiblinger:

[xxxv(a)] Eric Miller, trans. and introd. (Victoria, Canada: University of Victoria, ELS Editions, 2015).


[xxxvi(a)] Miller, ibid. p. 143: His is a condition not of lunacy so much as weakness, and everything with the appearance of unreason that he manifests is a consequence of spiritual and corporeal exhaustion.

[xxxvii] “On Hölderlin: 1924” in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, by Hermann Hesse. Edited, and with an Introduction by, Theodore Ziolkowski, transl. by Denver Lindley (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974).

[xxxix] Jung: A Biography, by Deirdre Bair (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004), 35.

[xl] James Mitchell website:

[xli] The Collected Works of Carl G. Jung, Vol. 5, Symbols of Transformation, chap. VIII “The Sacrifice.”(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956), 404.

[xlii] Hölderlin: His Poems translated by Michael Hamburger with a critical study. Michael Hamburger (New York: Pantheon, 1952), 57.

[xliii] Women Look at Psychiatry: I’m Not Mad, I’m Angry. (Vancouver: Press Gang, 1975). A collection of papers representing a feminist critique of psychiatry.

[xliv] Hamburger, Michael. Transl. and Introduction, Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poems and Fragments. Jeremy Adler, Editor. (London: Penguin, 1998), xliii.

[xlv] See Martin Heidegger. Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, Keith Hoeller, transl. (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000).

[xlviii] Ibid, Heidegger, Elucidations.

[xlviii(a)] Wolfe, Judith. Heidegger and Theology (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), 117.

[xlviii(b)] Nest of the Sleeping Owl website [scroll down six Page Down strikes]:

[xlix] Ibid., 246.

[l] Brahms: Symphony No. 4, Tragic Overture, Schicksalslied, conducted by Bruno Walter; Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classics, reissued). Writes one reviewer: “The Song of Destiny may be the most beautiful and famous choral work [along] with Ein Deutsches Requiem. But it is not religious. It was inspired from a romantic German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, and it is [a] more personal work. But in [the] very opening passages of the orchestra, it is so noble, so hopeful, you cannot hide your tears when you listen to that opening. Especially with that sensitive reading of Bruno Walter. It is so impressive, spine-chilling . . .”

[li] “Quiet Revolutions: Hölderlin Fragments by Luigi Nono and Wolfgang Rihm,” Carola Nielinger-Vakil, Music & Letters, Vol. 81, No. 2 (May, 2000), 245.

[liii] Lernout, Geert. The Poet as Thinker: Hölderlin in France (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994), 51.

[liv] Originally published in France as Hölderlin et la question du père, copyright 1961 Presses Universitaires de France. English version, translation by Luke Carson, introduction by Rainer Nägele, published 2007 by ELS Editions, Department of English, University of Victoria, BC, Canada. Described in a University of Chicago review as “the single most important study of the relationship between the poet's literary production and the profound psychic distress to which he eventually succumbed.” See


1 comment:

  1. An excellent essay, Neall – your research, knowledge and evident passion for Hölderlin's work is impressive.

    I was fortunate enough to have been 'taught' Hölderlin at university by the poet, academic, translator and Hölderlin scholar, David Constantine (who's referenced in your end notes). Constantine's lectures and seminars (on Hölderlin and also on English and German Romantic poetry in general, on Kleist, on Büchner and on Brecht) became some of the most important influences in my life.