“But what is lasting the poets provide.”
Friedrich Holderlin has long been recognized as one of the greatest poets of the German language, but little recognition of his achievements dignified Holderlin’s lifetime. Only his epistolary novel, ‘Hyperion’, and a handful of his poems received recognition during his life. He discovered his own poetic voice in the years between 1796 and 1800 and in the relatively short period of stability that remained to him- the later six years until insanity overwhelmed him in 1806- he produced some of the most intense and beautiful lyric poems ever written not only in the German language but in the history of poetry. Unlike many of his friends and peers, Holderlin never enjoyed the economic and emotional security connected with a university position or a position in government- the fact we have to understand is that his aspiration to become a poet only grew stronger as his failures in the “business” world accumulated. The growing determination to be a poet is a decisive factor in Holderlin’s poetry, and ‘determination’ is meant here not only as the human act of volition but the ontic event of one coming into one’s own.
The poetry of Holderlin exerts an influence like the pull of a giant wayward star; so strong has been its allure that one feels compelled to ask why Holderlin’s work captivate to this day so many major poets and philosophers…what is it about this poet that speaks with such tremendous force to us today? The answer, I think, lies in Holderlin’s experience of modernity. As he wrote in “The poet’s calling”, we live in a world in which “everything divine” has been “utilized” for too long, and “all the heavenly powers…thrown away.” We think we can grasp the world, that we can “name all the stars in heaven”, but we have lost our way to the divine. This absence, this deep sense of loss that underlies the unease of modern Western culture, is the basis of Holderlin’s work and power.
The years of his writings, roughly 1795- 1803, saw the blossoming of early German romanticism through the writings of Novalis, Schelling, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Tieck and others; building on the eighteenth century contributions of Herder and Goethe, this generation of thinkers held enormous faith in “the word”, in the medium of language, and never tired of exploring the connection between what Germans call ‘Dichtung’ (the creative writing) and the search for a level of atmosphere of culture that might suggest in the present that cultural unity that moderns have ascribed to the ancient Greeks. But unlike the proponents of romanticism who came to be known as the Jena school, Holderlin’s explorations were conducted on his own, since neither Schiller nor Goethe nor anyone else has much to do with the direction taken by him in the practice of the poet’s vocation. He insisted greatly also on the divinity of poetry because his faith could not allow that poetry is a closed, singularly mortal act: so the precondition for poetry is the receptive, pious soul, which is given inspiration from the very Gods.
The poet’s interest in the remote past, in this case ancient Greece, is not academic: though he shared with academics an interest in learning from and about the past, he went beyond the norm and addressed the issue of ancient culture’s preconditions as the preconditions of all culture. This poet’s motivation in going back to the ancients were more in the nature of approaching what he called “the source”, than longing for a golden age.
A basic attitude of faith is the prerequisite for poetry, in the sense that the poet must acknowledge the existence of something higher than man. “To the Fates” is one of Holderlin’s most widely known poems; even the title suggests the necessity of faith, for the poet is addressing the Fates as deities who are capable of governing the world.
So, remembrance of the divine is perhaps the key theme in Holderlin’s work. And, whether manifest in a memory of the sun gone down, or of childhood or the homeland, or of the poet’s song or of ancient Greece, it is always accompanied by the acute consciousness that we- as individuals and a community- are not in armony with the Gods: for only through remembrance can we recognize what we lack in the present and how to get it back.
Holderlin’s sense of loss and destitution was not simply due to a personal predilection for suffering, but was a part of a larger cultural phenomenon that arose from powerful currents seething under the Enlightenment- an increasing alienation from nature and a growing sense of disenchantment in the face of a triumphant rationality and waning traditions and values. Schiller described modern human beings as “stunted plants that show only a feeble vestige of their nature.” Holderlin, for his part, reacted to these currents with an almost overwhelming longing for lost wholeness.
Finally, instead of simply longing for fullness as in his early poetry, Holderlin’s final poetry acts as a mediator between the Gods, who seem to have the power to grant us finally wholeness, and human beings. For although we may long for complete union with the Gods and nature, we could not bear their intensity- the heavenly fire of this union would obliterate us as individual men. But we only know this because the poets have brought their “suitable hands” to “interpret the holy lore” and sing us traces of the Gods: so, the poet’s song reminds us of the wholeness we have lost.
And, in apprehension of beauty we get an inkling of what that unity might be like as the “supersensible” ground of both nature and freedom, and such apprehension of beauty prompt us to take an interest in matters to which we might otherwise be blind. The apprehension of beauty, best mediated by the poet, unites that would otherwise be only fragmented pieces of nature or our temporally extended lives and, as he put in the final line of his poem ‘Remembrance’: “But what is lasting the poets provide.”
His philosophical importance has only surfaced more recently; although Schelling and Hegel acknowledged him early as their equal, for a long time Holderlin’s philosophical position remained unknown outside the small circle of his friends even if, for Holderlin, there was no separation of poetry from truth and, therefore, no essential difference between poetry and philosophy. However, it was a philosopher who set the stage for the Holderlin renaissance in our century: when Friedrich Nietzsche, in his ‘Untimely Meditations’, launched a scathing attack on German philistine culture, he presented the “glorious Holderlin” as an antidote to the prevalent burgeois values. Holderlin had in fact felt deeply the modern crisis of values and had been filled with longing for a cultural and religious renewal. Nietzsche saw Holderlin as a kindred spirit who had, however, been crushed by the adversity of his own time. Holderlinean themes reverbrated in Nietzsche’s writings and seemed to point to deep affinities between their thoughts and lives that found a resonance with his readers: “Holderlin’s work was more understandable after being illustrated by Nietzsche.”
Moreover, inspired by Nietzsche’s diagnosis of European culture, the Stefan George circle aimed at cultural renewal through the formation of a “new league” of spiritual aristocracy that would function as the germ cell of a new mythologic- aesthetic culture. Through an aesthetics modeled on French Symbolism, George intended to elevate art once again on a sacred level. After the turn of century, Holderlin rapidly became the exemplary prophet of George’s aesthetic utopianism.
Finally, Heidegger’s reception of Holderlin is perhaps unique. Beginning with his lecture course on the hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine”, Heidegger entered into a dialogue with the poet that continued throughouth his life: “My thinking stands in an unavoidable relationship to the poetry of Holderlin.” More specifically, after the attempt in ‘Being and Time’ to elucidate the meaning of “being” through recourse to the implicit understanding of being that characterizes human existence, Heidegger turned away from the language of philosophy and assigned to art, and to poetry in particular, the role of bringing us into proximity with being. Heidegger’s theory of language, in particular in his interpretation of this poet, has brought so the poetry to the forefront of philosophical thought after more than two millenia of nearly unanimous, but also highly problematic, philosophical ejection of poetry from the realm of knowledge and truth. Then, in his subsequent writings, Heidegger interpretated the history of metaphisic from Plato to Hegel as the history of the forgetting of being and saw Holderlin’s hymns as marking the advent of another history: he interpreted Holderlin’s lament of the absence of the Gods in the light of this forgetfulness and Holderlin’s call for the Gods’ return as a readiness for a new thinking in the nearness of being. In their writings the ancients dealt with the question of being on manifold levels, with conception of Nature and Gods that modern man has abandoned. “The historical destination of philosophy culminates in the recognition of the necessity of gaining a hearing for Holderlin’s word.”
Furthermore, Heidegger claims that the Gods are still present, despite their absence: “man who, even with his most exulted thought could hardly penetrate to their Being, even though, with the same grandeur as at all time, they were somehow there.”