Friedrich Holderlin | Selected Poetry, trans. David Constantine | Bloodaxe: £14.99

Holderlin was born at an extraordinary time, in 1770, the same year as Hegel, Wordsworth and Beethoven. He attended a Lutheran seminary with Hegel and Schelling, and at university he met Fichte and Novalis, and knew Schiller and Goethe. It is suggested that Holderlin influenced Hegel’s notion of dialectic because of Holderlin’s study of Heraclitus’ ‘unity of opposites’. Holderlin also became part of the school of German idealism, which holds, and here I’m paraphrasing badly, that reality is mentally constructed, that we can only know the world through our mental activities. After university he became a private tutor in a number of households in Germany. The most important of these households was that of Jakob Gontard, with whose wife Susette, Holderlin fell in love. David Constantine, in his introduction to this volume, sums up their situation as, ‘They were severed, she died, his mind collapsed.’ It is speculated that Holderlin succumbed to schizophrenia, and he spent time in a clinic in Tubingen, from which he was discharged as incurable, and given ‘at most three years to live’. Holderlin was discharged into the care of a carpenter, Ernst Zimmer, who knew Holderlin’s epistolatory novel ‘Hyperion’. He lived on in Zimmer’s house for the last thirty-six years of his life.

That is a bald summary of the life. However, after a dip in his reputation, Holderlin’s writing has affected a range of German writers from Rilke to Trakl and Celan, and has inspired a huge variety of composers from Brahms to Benjamin Britten, though Luigi Nono, and Ligeti, to Wolfgang Reim. And philosophers from Heidegger to Derrida and Foucault have written about the poetry and essays. Holderlin is clearly a writer whose writing has resonated from his own time through to ours, if, possibly, more with German artists than English language artists, with some of the exceptions noted. And not just with German artists, ‘During the First World War Holderlin’s hymns were packed in the soldier’s knapsack together with cleaning gear’ (Heidegger).

David Constantine’s Selected offers over 350 pages of poems and Constantine’s translations of Holderlin’s own translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Constantine comments in his introduction that he has tried to stick ‘close, but not so close’ to the metres and rhythms of Holderlin’s original forms. That was obviously tricky, and there is a comment from the Oxford Professor of German and translator, Karen Leeder, that Constantine has gone ‘for an “equivalence of spirit” in a more familiar idiom’ in his translations. That is followed by praise for Constantine’s translation, but, at the same time, it might offer a little nudge to the reader that his ‘familiar idiom’ does not reproduce what are obviously difficult areas of Holderlin’s diction and address. This is particularly true in the translations of Oedipus and Antigone, where sometimes the language seems to flirt with, to be entirely bathetic, a kind of ‘Yoda’ speak. Constantine’s comment here is, ‘I kept close to his strange German, in the hope of arriving at an analogous strangeness in English. But his language is beautiful and trouble too, and in the carrying over much of that will have been lost like precious water from a leaky vessel.’ One way to look at this might be to view these ‘plays’ as plays to read rather than perform, in the way that Ibsen wrote a play such as ‘Emperor and Galilean’, though Constantine again comments that the plays ‘are generally recognised and admired nowadays.’ For Constantine, Holderlin wrote these translations to ‘quicken hearts and minds in the torpid present [of Holderlin’s Germany]’.

Holderlin’s own importance to the poets such as Rilke and Trakl who looked to him was that he was preoccupied almost from the beginning with the idea of poetic truth. Holderlin was preoccupied with what might constitute the limits of sayability and meaning, ‘the problem of the relation between thought or consciousness – having or being of language – and world’. Thus Holderlin appealed to a thinker like Heidegger for the sense in Holderlin of his ‘letting-be of things as a letting-go of representational consciousness’ or ‘attendance to things in their own elusive self-unfolding’; what Heidegger called Gelassenheit, sometimes translated as ‘meditative thinking’; an aspiration for a lot of poetry, perhaps. These latter seem somewhat different to Heidegger’s espousal of Nazism, as Derrida later pointed out calling Heidegger’s interpretations of Holderlin ‘a catastrophe’. So Holderlin, like many great artists, before and since, has been held hostage to his interpreters’ various agendas.

In addition, in a letter, Holderlin asked what room was left in the rationalism of philosophy and politics for human harmony, by which he means joy in life, wonderment at nature and other more communal celebrations of life. In his preface to Hyperion, he comments,

We have fallen out with nature, and what was once one … is now in conflict with itself, and each side alternates between mastery and servitude. Often it appears to us as though the world were everything and we nothing, but also often as though we were everything and the world nothing… To end that eternal conflict between our self and the world, to restore that peace that passeth all understanding, to unite ourselves with nature so as to form one endless whole, that is the goal of all our striving … although one that is achievable only in infinite approximation.

      This is a three stage process; outlined by Abrams as ‘a self-educative journey, both       of the lyric speaker and of the human race, moving from a natural and happy unity,       though progressive division, estrangement, and conflict, to a crisis which eventuates       in a new and complex integrity.’ This is also a theory of history which resembles a       spiral.

Such a context might point towards the nature of Holderlin’s lyricism; that Holderlin’s greatest poetry resembles most closely Eliot’s definition of the lyric as the voice of the poet talking to himself, or to nobody. The early ‘The Oak Trees’ begins, in Constantine’s translation ‘Out of the gardens I come to you, sons of the mountain’ with it’s clear echoes of Psalm 130 ‘Out of the depths I have cried unto thee; Lord hear my voice.’ Here, Holderlin apostrophises the oak trees and see them as ‘belonging only to yourselves and the heavens/ Who nourished and raised you and to the earth, your mother.’ Holderlin sees the trees as exemplifying ‘a free confederacy.’ In contrast to himself, ‘If I could bear my servitude never would I envy these trees / But to the social world I would fit myself gladly / Were I no longer shackled to the social world by my heart / That cannot stop loving, how gladly I’d live among you!’ Holderlin’s truth here appears to be that the trees are ‘each one a god’, but that his loving heart shackles him to the social world, as much as he resents it. In this poem, Holderlin describes the ‘unity of opposites’ he ascribes to Heraclitus, albeit a unity which exacts a toll.

These contradictions are more than present in the poems he writes to ‘Diotima’ his name for Susette Gontard. At the same time as she ‘reconciled the elements’ and ‘quieten[ed] for me the chaos of the times’, ‘she too seeks after the sun’ which ‘the sun of the spirit, the lovelier world, has gone under / And in the chilling night there is only the hurricane’s strife.’ The quietening and the strife are, perhaps, natural elements in a love affair; the beloved is both the source of peace and also the source of conflict. In terms of Holderlin’s three part schema, it is the beloved who reconciles being with the natural world; it is the rupture with the beloved, which wrests the self, with its ‘the sun of the spirit’ and its perfect context, ‘the lovelier world’.

Although much of this does sound schematic even where that schema clearly organises the structure of the poem, Holderlin’s cleaving to the ‘real world’ means that the poetry is beautiful and absorbing. An instance of this is in the so-called ‘late elegy ‘Bread and Wine’. The poem is organised in nine numbered verses, each three roughly equating the three stages of unity, disruption and reconciliation. The first three begin with a loving evocation of a town at the end of the working day, ‘Town rests now, all around, the lit streets quietening / Carriages leave in a flare of lamps with a rush. … empty the bustling market stands / of grapes and flowers and rests from the works of the hand.’ This feels like Holderlin absorbed in the market at the end of the day. From this moment of rest, Holderlin moves to the sense of night which ‘mov[es] the earth and the hopeful soul in people.’ And yet, out of this emerges an urgency, a ‘jubilant madness’ even, which finds its outlet in the paradise of classical Greece, ‘where the coming god comes.’ This slightly odd locution points the reader to the one god, the mono-theistic Christ figure who is also, for Holderlin, representative of the absconded God, but is also at one with the Greek gods, Dionysus and Herakles, and who in the final stanza ‘even in the darkness fetches / Down to the godless a trace of the vanished gods.’ At the same time it is ‘we [who] are the shades, heartless, till our / Father of light is known and belongs to all.’ Such complicated mythologies may not sit well in the twenty-first century. But they were part of Holderlin’s search for poetic truth, the melding of being and world.

David Constantine’s elegant and moving translations are accompanied by a very useful set of annotations for most of the poems, and a glossary of the Greek names for those of us with post-classical educations. Holderlin has inspired a range of translators from Michael Hamburger, whom Constantine generously acknowledges at various times in the book, to Edwin Muir, John Riley and Daniel Bosch. This Selected clearly shows why. Holderlin’s endless search for the nature of that poetic truth seems as relevant to the baffled twenty-first century as it would have been to the young German at the end of the eighteenth century bathing in the heady waters of nascent German romanticism.

by Ian Pople

Comments are closed.