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Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin
(1770 - 1847) Germany


Poet, writer


Friedrich HoelderlinJohann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin was born on March 20, 1770, in Lauffen-am-Neckar, a village in the southwestern part of Germany in an area called Swabia.

After the death of his father, his mother remarried in 1772, and the family moved to Nürtingen.

He attended Lutheran grammar schools and studied in the Theological Seminary at the University of Tübingen from 1788 to 1793, where he became friends with fellow students G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. He did not become a clergyman, however, choosing instead to teach and write.

After leaving Tübingen, Hölderlin worked as a tutor in various private homes in Germany and Switzerland.


In 1802 he became a private tutor in Bordeaux, but returned to Swabia a few months later in a schizophrenic state. From 1802 until his death, Hölderlin was subject to periods of severe mental illness, and he produced virtually no poetry after 1805. He improved to the extent that he could continue his literary activities intermittently until 1806. After treatment in a clinic in Tübingen he was given to the custody of a carpenter's family named Zimmer with whom he remained six years until his death in 1843.

Many of his works were inspired by the lofty spirit and style of ancient Greek poetry. Most of Hölderlin's poetry was published in various German periodicals and almanacs, so to speak in the small press publications of his day.

Hölderlin's poetry is characterized by intense subjectivity, but at the same time its expressive quality is tempered by the restraint and balance of elements of Greek classicism. In his early writings he carefully followed the poetic conventions of such forms as the ode and the elegy. Later, he used no rhyme, writing instead in a flexible poetic form that became known at the end of the 19th century as free verse. Hölderlin is famous principally for his lyrics (short poems conveying intense feeling) and for longer works such as the novel Hyperion (2 volumes, 1797-1799), a story of a fighter for Greek freedom; and the unfinished tragedy The Death of Empedocles (1798-1799).

Gaining little popularity as a writer, he did not live to see an edition of his collected poems. His work passed into obscurity, until its gradual rediscovery in the early decades of the 20th century, and he is now regarded as one of the greatest German lyric poets.


            TO THE SUN GOD

   Where are you? Drunk, my mind becomes
      Twilight after all your ecstasy. For I just saw
         How the enrapturing young god,
            Tired from his journey,

   Bathed his youthful hair in the golden clouds.
      And now my eyes follow after him,
         But he is gone away to reverent
            Nations which still honor him.

   I love the earth, which mourns with me.
      Like children when they are upset, our grief
         Changes to sleep. And as rustling winds
            Whisper over harp strings

   Until the fingers of a master entice
      A prettier music, thus mist and dreams
         Play around us, until the beloved returns,
             And charges us with life and spirit.


According to Greek legend, the Sun God Apollo stays during the dark hours with the Hyperboreans, a happy people resident at the end of the world who still honor him. The poem is homoerotic, and this would have pleased Apollo. That Hölderlin was not unclear on the concept is shown in his short poem that follows, which may or may not end with a bad pun:


          "Why do you, holy Socrates, worship 
             this beautiful youth instead of higher things? 
                Why does your eye look lovingly upon him, 
                   as if he were a god?" 

           Who thinks deepest, loves what is most vital. 
             A person who looks into the world knows 
                all about youth, and those who are wise 
                   often choose what is beautiful in the end. 



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