Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich

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Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich (1770-1843): German Poet.

Friedrich Hölderlin is widely recognized as one of Germany’s most important poets. He was also an accomplished novelist, dramatist, and philosopher. Hölderlin’s work at the intersection of philosophy and poetry has had an important impact on Twentieth Century Continental philosophy and literary criticism.

Hölderlin was born in Lauffen, Wurttenberg (Germany). His father died at an early age. His mother hoped he would become a priest, and began to prepare him for such a vocation. In 1788 Hölderlin entered the seminary at Tübingen. Here, his friendship with fellow students Hegel and Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph would have a profound impact on his intellectual development. Together these three read and discussed figures like Plato, Spinoza, and Kant, Immanuel, and enthusiastically embraced the ideals of the French Revolution.

Hölderlin’s earliest published poetry emulated the Romantic poet Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von. Like Schiller’s work, Hölderlin’s publication Hymen an die Ideale der Menschheit (1792), would celebrate freedom, love and friendship. Hölderlin’s interest in Schiller, Fichte, Johann Gotlieb, and Romanticism in general, led him to seek a tutoring job in Jena in 1794. Ultimately, however, his attempt to successfully integrate himself into the Jena circle of Romantics failed. He left Jena in 1795. In 1796 Hölderlin found a tutoring post in Frankfurt. His employer’s wife, Susette Gontard, would be his inspiration for the classical Greek figure of Diotima that would appear in his poetry. In the next several years while tutoring and traveling throughout Europe, Hölderlin would write “Hyperion,” “The Death of Empedocles,” and many of his theoretical-philosophical essays, like “Judgment and Being”. In 1804, although Hölderlin would publish his translations of “Oedipus” and “Antigone,” his mental illness was already apparent. Nevertheless, some of his most powerful poetry (like “Patamos,” “Die Einzige,” and “In lieblicher Blaue,”) was composed between 1803-1806. After 1806, at age 36, Hölderlin’s illness became so severe he would spend the remaining days of his life confined in a tower in Tübingen.

Hölderlin’s poetic and theoretical writings would press the limits of philosophic discourse. He realized that the conceptual apparatus of philosophy was a finite mechanism that could not adequately present the ineffability of the absolute. Thus, in a letter to Schiller in 1795, he likens the project of philosophy as an attempt to square a circle. To forget the glaring inadequacy of the philosophic project, and its role as a mere approximation, would be to substitute a system for reality. Thus, for Hölderlin, it is only with the dynamic creative capacity of the artist that one has the chance of remaining faithful to the infinite. As a poet then, one’s ultimate task is to stand as mediator between the finitude of humanity and the infinite of the divine, and it is here, and here alone, that anything meaningful takes place.

Further Reading:

Peter Szondi, “Hölderlin’s Overcoming of Classicism,” trns., Timothy Bahti, Comparative Criticism 5 (1983): 251-270.

F. Scott Scribner