Friedrich Hölderlin was born on March 20, 1770. This year, we celebrate his 250th birthday. He died on June 7, 1843. At the time of his birth, the “Golden Age” of German Classicism was rising; he died one of the last classical greats.
Where do we find truth? In Religion? Philosophy? Art? Or only in the “naked life”? Do we, in order to find truth about an artist, have to search the biographies? Or their opus? Let’s take a closer look.
What do we know about him?
He grows up in the small, rural town of Nürtingen on the banks of the river Neckar, in a happily dreamy childhood, deeply immersed into the plentiful beauty of nature: I was raised by the whispering grove’s harmony, and to love I learned among the flowers. In the Gods’ arms I grew up. Years of stern austerity follow at the convent school of Maulbronn, along with studies of protestant theology at the Tübingen church academy. He breaks free, becomes a pastor, as his mother expects of him, he cannot. His own religiousness, nurtured by deep, inner sources, irreconcilable with the restrictiveness of protestant dogma, doesn’t allow it.
Restless years of travel ensue, with changing tutor employments. In the house of banker Jakobus Gontard in Frankfurt, whose son he teaches and raises, he meets Gontard’s wife and, in her person, the personified fulfilment of his yearning for a perfect complement. Susette: gracious and holy like a priestess of love, like woven from light and air, so spiritual and delicate. Soon the two are connected by heartfelt, high-spirited love. Fate grants them two years, then betrayal; Hölderlin is forced to leave. At first, he remains close by, infrequent, fleeting meetings, quick exchange of dolorous letters. Eventually, Hölderlin tears himself away. Again, he moves about unsteadily, living with close friends. He senses a beginning change within himself: Woe, loving familiar spirit, far from you, tearing, all the spirits of death play the heart’s chords for me.
Eventually his friends realize it, too. With his own, wide-awake mind watching, Hölderlin descends into delusion. And yet he keeps writing, determined, without regard for himself. He creates long, multi-versed elegies and hymns, his greatest and deepest works – the ode Padmos, Celebration of Peace, his great vision of Christ’s second coming – and, eventually, the brief poem, Half of Life.
Upon learning that Susette has died, the shock drives him even deeper into madness. At the age of 36, he is institutionalized in the Tübingen psychiatric hospital and, the following year, given into the care of a master carpenter named Zimmer. For another 36 years, he inhabits a small turret room above the river Neckar, in a state of mental derangement, occasionally interrupted by moments of light-filled clarity. Then, at last, death finds him.
Artist of the portrait: Franz Karl Hiemer
Half of Life
The poem hardly requires any interpretation, so close is it to the truth of Hölderlin’s life. But let’s look at the artistic shaping. There is no “I” in this lyrical autobiography – the author remains veiled, everything becomes sound (or resounding) in symbol:
With its yellow pears
And wild roses everywhere
The shore hangs into the lake,
Hölderlin conjures up the opulence of nature and the beauty of its gifts – the shore is “hanging” into the lake, heaven and earth touch.
O gracious swans,
It is the poet who speaks, the “singing swan”.
And drunk with kisses
He is drunken with kisses, the blessings of life, the hunches of the transcendental.
You dip your heads
In the sobering holy water.
He submerges into the floods of heavenly, purifying, divine ether. But then:
Woe to me,
An outcry! Fate comes crashing down, the bard is threatened by speechlessness, the swan, he, who bathed in heavenly floods –
where will I find
Flowers, come winter,
… when madness overcomes him …
And where the sunshine
And shade of the earth?
Where is he supposed to go without the plethora of life, the gracious interplay of events?
Walls stand cold
And speechless, in the wind
Where can he go, bereft of the intimate dialogue with the heavenly? And the wall? It is not yet the end.
The weathervanes creak.
Beyond the wall, madness awaits.
What a poem, what a concentration of a life of 73 years into 14 lines! The truth of this life is completely contained therein – and yet it doesn’t say anything about the personality of the one who lived this life and wrote this poem. And thus we have an example of how truth can very well be found in art, if transmuted, elevated into the impersonal – and thus into the imperishable.
Hölderlin: Yet what remains, the poets found (In: Memento)
Translation: Thomas Schmidt
Poem translation: Richard Sieburth