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.

Hölderlin was born in 1770 in Lauffen on the Neckar into the respectable Bürgertum, which provided Swabia with its clerics and bureaucrats. His father, the steward of a monastic estate, died two years later, and his mother moved to Nürtingen, where she soon married the mayor. His childhood was marked by deaths – of his grandparents, four siblings, an aunt and his stepfather, who died in 1779, leaving Hölderlin to the mercies of his devoutly domineering mother. After an elementary education which gave him a firm classical foundation, Hölderlin entered the Protestant educational system that trained generations of Swabians, from Johannes Kepler to Hermann Hesse, ending up at the famous Stift in Tübingen, the Protestant theological faculty of the university, where he shared quarters with Hegel and the wunderkind Schelling. He produced high-flown Schillerian hymns ‘To Immortality’, ‘To Freedom’, ‘To Beauty’, and in 1791 published his first poems in a regional Musenalmanach. Along with other young idealists in the repressive Württemberg of Duke Karl Eugen, he had welcomed the Revolution in France and is said to have danced around a Liberty Tree with Hegel and Schelling on Bastille Day 1793, singing the Marseillaise.

After receiving his degree in 1793, Hölderlin refused to take a pastoral position despite his mother’s goading; and because she was unwilling to hand over his inheritance he became a tutor to the son of Schiller’s friend Charlotte von Kalb. In 1795, having had an illegitimate child by Charlotte’s companion, he left with his pupil for Jena, but within weeks he had resigned, exhausted by nightly vigils at his pupil’s bedside – the boy was addicted to masturbation. A generous grant from Frau von Kalb allowed him to continue his philosophical studies at the university of Jena. He translated Ovid’s episode of Phaethon for Schiller’s journal, and worked on an early version of his novel Hyperion, the story of a young Greek idealist caught up in his country’s revolt against the Turks.

In December 1795 Hölderlin became tut-or in the household of a wealthy banker in Frankfurt am Main and promptly fell in love with his employer’s wife, Susette Gontard, whom he eulogised in his poems and who figures in Hyperion as Diotima, the embodiment of classical beauty. The first volume of Hyperion was published in 1797; Hölderlin completed the second volume while preparing a drama based on the life of Empedocles. The poems of this period sound a mature note noticeably different from the early Schillerian hymns. The tensions resulting from his clandestine love affair and the social humiliations caused by his subservient position combined with his belief in a Hellenic ideal to inform the harsh attack on Germany’s cultural philistinism at the end of Hyperion.

In September 1798 Hölderlin left his job with the Gontard family and moved to nearby Homburg with his loyal Tübingen friend Isaac von Sinclair. During the next two years, while continuing to meet Susette secretly, he wrote some of his finest odes and revised three drafts of The Death of Empedocles. This unfinished drama, nominally about the Greek philosopher who sought death in the flames of Mount Etna, is based on the family life and professional misfortunes of Fichte, who had a house next door to Hölderlin in Jena and was now about to be dismissed from the university, having been wrongly accused of atheism. In the earliest draft Empedocles epitomises the tragic individual who has sacrificed divine grace to intellectual hubris, and intends to absolve this by killing himself. But gradually the symbolism is expanded: at first simply a victim of the old political order, by the final draft Empedocles chooses a destiny similar to the sacrificial death of Christ.

Hölderlin returned to Germany (and the indignity of living with his mother) in June 1802 after spending a few months in Bordeaux, only to learn of Susette’s death. Despite this news he managed to translate many of Pindar’s Olympian and Pythian odes and write his major elegies. The next two years produced his great hymns (no longer to vague ideals, but to ‘Germania’ or ‘The Rhine’), and his linguistically radical translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone. In 1804, Sinclair arranged a sinecure as court librarian in Homburg for his friend (whose mother still controlled his inheritance). Although his mental state had been steadily deteriorating since his return from France, Hölderlin was still working feverishly. In 1805, Sinclair was accused of plotting to assassinate the Elector of Württemberg. Hölderlin was suspected of complicity but was allowed to go when a doctor attested that his insanity had progressed to a state of ‘frenzy’. When the county of Hesse-Homburg was incorporated into the duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt in 1806, Hölderlin’s sinecure came to an end. He was moved to Tübingen and handed over to Professor Autenrieth, whose clinic was notorious for cruelly ingenious contrivances to control and ‘cure’ the insane. By May the following year, Autenrieth, having concluded that Hölderlin’s illness was incurable, and assuming that he had at most three years to live, released him into the care of Ernst Zimmer, a local carpenter.

Zimmer inhabited what had been part of the old city wall. Here in his tower room – now the home of the Hölderlin Society – Hölderlin played his piano and flute for hours on end and received visits from literary young men, among them Wilhelm Waiblinger, whose novel Phaethon (1823) is based on Hölderlin’s life and incorporates fragments of his work, and Ludwig Uhland, who co-edited the first edition of his poems. Until his death in 1843 he continued to accommodate visitors by turning out rhyming quatrains whose simplicity bore little resemblance to the odes, elegies and hymns of his middle years.

Michael Hamburger’s obsession with Hölderlin goes back more than sixty years. The first piece in his Collected Poems 1941-94 (1995), written when he was 17, is entitled ‘Hölderlin. Tübingen, December 1842’, and is typical of the poems dedicated by 20th-century admirers to the alienated poet in his tower. ‘Diotima is dead,’ it begins. ‘Where are the heroes/And my pulsing song?’ ‘And yet,’ Hamburger continues, with a glancing nod to Rilke,

no caged old panther I,
Pacing my madness. These muttered words
Are gates, not bars, where only I can pass.

The first edition of his translations appeared in 1943 when Hamburger was 19; in subsequent editions he has altered old translations, added new ones and repeatedly rewritten his introduction. The new edition, based principally on the texts in Friedrich Beissner’s standard Stuttgart Edition, begins with the odes and epigrams of Hölderlin’s Frankfurt years. It continues with a generous selection of the later odes, the hexameters and elegies from Homburg, and the last two drafts of Empedocles. The great hymns (‘vaterländische Gesänge’) and fragments are almost all included, and the volume concludes with Hölderlin’s translation of Pindar fragments and his commentary (but not his translations of Pindar’s odes) and a representative sample of the tower poems.

Hamburger makes it clear that his own preferences are implicit in his choices. He decided, for instance, to include the Pindar fragments, even though translations – as Walter Benjamin argued, using the example of Hölderlin – are by their nature untranslatable, because he believes those fragments, together with Hölderlin’s commentary, prove that the poet did not become insane as early as some critics have argued. For many of his contemporaries, however, Hölderlin’s translations of Sophocles had already demonstrated his madness, so disconcertingly non-idiomatic was his language in its endeavour to preserve the vocabulary and syntax of the Greek original. Hamburger’s entirely literal translation conveys the radical novelty of Hölderlin’s German, as in the Pindaric fragment ‘The Infinite’:

Ob ich des Rechtes Mauer
Die hohe oder krummer Täuschung
Ersteig’ und so mich selbst
Umschreibend, hinaus
Mich lebe, darüber
Hab ich zweideutig ein
Gemüth, genau es zu sagen.

Whether I climb the wall
Of justice, the high, or crooked
Deception’s and so,
Circumscribing myself, live
My way out, of that
Ambiguously I have a
Mind to say it exactly.

Hölderlin’s analysis of this fragment, which exposes the ambiguity of the connection between justice and prudence, demonstrates the philosophical acuity of his mind as late as 1805.

Hamburger admits in his preface that he has become weary of questions about the theory of poetic translation. In the past he has written of Dryden’s three categories of translation: the almost verbatim metaphrase, the looser approximation of paraphrase and the free imitation. Hölderlin’s own theory of translation approximates to Dryden’s metaphrase and expresses his conviction that poetry is based on a ‘calculable law’ that can be determined and imitated – what he termed the mechane of the ancients. Hamburger’s method, evident in his translation of ‘The Infinite’, is also close to metaphrase: he respects Hölderlin not just as a visionary but as a craftsman. Unlike many of Hölderlin’s admirers, he writes in his preface, he has ‘never shared Hölderlin’s religious allegiance to an idealised ancient Greece’, and was attracted less by his ideas than by ‘his way of breathing in verse’. This aerobic approach produces literal translations that retain the word-formation and word-order of the original, including such Graecisms as ‘fernhindämmernd’ (‘distantly glimmering’) or ‘hochherstürzend’ (‘far-flung down-rushing’). Hamburger describes his versions as ‘accessories to the originals’ or a ‘carrying-over’ (‘Hinübertragen’) of the text into a different linguistic world – a procedure that enriches one’s own linguistic possibilities through the naturalisation of alien matter.

Hamburger’s approach requires him to reproduce Hölderlin’s metrical and strophic forms: Alcaics, Asclepiads, Sapphics, hexameters, elegiac distichs, blank verse and Pindaric forms verging on (but never quite relaxing into) free verse. This is a gamble, because few readers of English nowadays feel comfortable with classical metrical forms. Hölderlin’s translators have made their various accommodations: J.B. Leishman rendered many of the odes into graceful Alcaics and Asclepiads; Christopher Middleton and David Constantine, in contrast, resorted to looser paraphrases. Hamburger takes the more challenging route – with considerable success. The opening lines of ‘Bread and Wine’ catch the rhythm and flow of Hölderlin’s distichs:

Round us the town is at rest; the street, in pale
lamplight, falls quiet
And, their torches ablaze, coaches rush
through and away.

‘The German’s Song’ provides a nice example of the natural pulse of Hamburger’s Alcaics:

You holy heart of peoples, my fatherland,
All-suffering in silence like Mother Earth
And all-unrecognised, though strangers
Draw from your depth their supreme
possessions.

On one occasion – the ode ‘Heidelberg’ – Hamburger admits dissatisfaction with his Asclepiads and adds a second version in Alcaics.

Every translation is at the same time an interpretation, requiring a continual choosing among various possibilities. The process can be traced in Hamburger’s translation of the first strophe of Hölderlin’s most famous poem, ‘Half of Life’ (‘Hälfte des Lebens’):

Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignüchtene Wasser.

He translates the first three lines with great literalness, down to the bold pre-positioning of the verb:

With yellow pears hangs down
And full of wild roses
The land into the lake.

Most translators – Leishman, Middleton, Constantine – go on to render the apostrophised swans as ‘You gracious swans’. Hamburger chooses the more daring yet etymologically justifiable rendition ‘You loving swans’, thus including the swans in the action of the poem rather than leaving them as part of the background. Their movement carries over into the concluding lines:

And drunk with kisses
You dip your heads
Into water, the holy-and-sober.

A comparison with the earlier editions of Hamburger’s translations shows how he has struggled with this poem, which in an earlier version was given the more Dantean title ‘The Middle of Life’; there, the verb was postponed and the swans called simply ‘lovely’.

A more complex issue is involved in the late hymn ‘Remembrance’ (‘Andenken’), the subject of one of Heidegger’s most celebrated essays. The 59-line poem begins with two strophes in which the poet recalls his time in Bordeaux; it turns in the last two strophes to adventurers who sail the seas to acquire the world’s wealth; and it ends with Hölderlin’s gnomic utterance ‘what is lasting the poets provide’ (‘Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter’). A middle strophe provides the transition through a meditation on memory as the poet asks for wine to make him dream.

But someone pass me
The fragrant cup
Full of the dark light,
So that I may rest now; for sweet
It would be to drowse amid shadows.

Before the strophe resumes with praise of human companionship and love, there are three problematic lines:

Nicht ist es gut,
Seellos von sterblichen
Gedanken zu seyn.

Heidegger sees this sentence as a pithy recapitulation: ‘The poet would be soulless if he simply lived alone stripped of mortal thoughts.’ Leishman reads it the same way: ‘It is not good/To have the soul unmoved/By mortal thoughts.’ Middleton, in contrast, translates the lines as a radical disjunction: ‘It is not good/To let mortal thoughts/ Empty the soul.’ Constantine echoes this interpretation: ‘It is not good to have our souls/Emptied by mortal thinking.’ Which is it? Should our souls be ‘filled with’ or ‘emptied of’ mortal thoughts? Hölderlin’s lines here, as so often, are equivocal. Hamburger leaves the enigmatic phrase in its ambiguity: ‘It is not good/To be soulless/ with mortal thoughts.’ Rather than steering us towards one reading or the other, Hamburger confronts us with the darkness of Hölderlin’s own words.