Breathing in Verse

Theodore Ziolkowski

Friedrich Hölderlin was rescued from oblivion by a young German scholar called Norbert von Hellingrath, who wrote a dissertation on Hölderlin’s translations of Pindar and began the first historical-critical edition of his works. In 1915, a year before he died at Verdun, Hellingrath delivered a lecture describing Hölderlin as ‘the most German of Germans’, whose luminous hymns confide their message ‘only to the select few’ and remain ‘perhaps never penetrable to non-Germans’. In June 1943, on the centenary of his death, a TLS Commentary celebrated Hölderlin as ‘A Non-Nazi German’ and claimed that his fatherland had turned its back on the poet’s vision of a humanistic Germany synthesising Hellas and Christianity. ‘All the more reason,’ the article continued, ‘why Hölderlin, no longer at home among his compatriots, should be saluted in those countries which can freely and dispassionately appraise his genius.’ It wasn’t true that Hölderlin was no longer revered in Germany – a 1943 field anthology of his poems was one of the most popular Nazi publications – but it was certainly true that his poetry was saluted elsewhere. According to the 2002 Hölderlin-Handbuch, he is the most frequently translated German poet, the most frequently cited after Goethe, and was the first German writer after Goethe to merit a Pléiade edition.

Hölderlin’s work has always intrigued philosophers. Heidegger used his poems as texts for existential ruminations. Ernst Bloch speculated about his political radicalism. Adorno, seeking to redeem Hölderlin from Heidegger’s nationalistic mystifications as well as Bloch’s left-Hegelianism, emphasised his alienation. Derrida and his disciples embraced the poems as objects for deconstructionist ingenuities. Dieter Henrich published an enormous phenomenology of Hölderlin’s thought under the title Der Grund im Bewußtsein (1992). The visionary magic that entranced Stefan George’s circle was denounced by Walter Benjamin and exploited by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. Hölderlin’s mental problems have attracted considerable attention in France, from Jean Laplanche’s psychoanalytical probings to Foucault’s refusal to reduce his alienation to a curable ‘unreason’.

Taking up Pierre Bertaux’s ‘thesis of the noble simulant’, which explained Hölderlin’s ‘madness’ as a Hamlet-like subterfuge designed to shield him from political persecution, German writers and film-makers of the ‘68 generation pronounced Hölderlin a utopian revolutionary. His theological despair – ‘Ah, but our kind walks in darkness, it dwells as in Orcus,/Severed from all that’s divine,’ he wrote in ‘The Archipelago’ – speaks to a secular age adrift in a godless universe. His alienation, too, now seems attractive, as is clear from the many poems depicting him in his tower-room in Tübingen. Dozens of sculptors and graphic artists have portrayed scenes from his life and work, while composers from Hindemith and Carl Orff to Britten, Henze, Holliger and Nono have set not only his poems, including the ‘Scardanelli’ poems from the years of madness, but also his translations of Pindar and Sophocles.

The chief reason, however, for Hölderlin’s continuing resonance is the astonishing modernity of his language. In 1933 Gottfried Benn observed that the jagged lyrics of his late work were ‘purely expressionistic’. The hymnic fragments, as in ‘Columbo’, sometimes dissolve into lists reminiscent of the Cantos or The Waste Land:

But if you name them
Anson and Gama, Aeneas
And Jason, Chiron’s
Pupil in Megara’s caves in the rocks, and
In tremulous rain of the grotto a man’simage is formed
From the forest’s impressions, and the Templars who travelled
To Jerusalem Bouillon, Rinaldo,
Bougainville

The discontinuities, the acceptance of incoherence, the paratactic style, the striking images, the drastic line breaks, the depersonalisation: all these characteristics of his poetry, misunderstood and ridiculed by Hölderlin’s contemporaries, strike us as congenially modern. Hölderlin’s recourse to ‘signs’ – the Zeichen that figure prominently in his poems – has proved irresistible to semioticians. The constant revisions, which layer his manuscripts into virtual palimpsests, provide endless material for the hermeneutical industry that has grown up around his work. Dieter Sattler’s Frankfurt Edition includes reproductions of the manuscripts accompanied by a diplomatic decoding, and makes no attempt to produce an authoritative final version.

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