The themes Friedrich Holderlin wrote about
Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin was a major German lyric poet, commonly associated with the artistic movement known as Romanticism.
The poetry of Hölderlin, widely recognized today as one of the highest points of German literature, was little known or understood during his lifetime and slipped into obscurity shortly after his death; his illness and reclusion made him fade from his contemporaries' consciousness – and, even though selections of his work were being published by his friends already during his lifetime, it was largely ignored for the rest of the 19th century.
In fact, Hölderlin was a man of his time, an early supporter of the French Revolution – in his youth at the Seminary of Tübingen, he and some colleagues from a "republican club" planted a "Tree of Freedom" in the market square, prompting the Grand-Duke himself to admonish the students at the seminary. He was at first carried away by Napoleon, whom he honors in one of his couplets.
Like Goethe and Schiller, his older contemporaries, Hölderlin was a fervent admirer of ancient Greek culture, but had a very personal understanding of it. Much later, Friedrich Nietzsche would recognize in him the poet who first acknowledged the Orphic and Dionysian Greece of the mysteries, which he would fuse with the Pietism of his native Swabia in a highly original religious experience. For Hölderlin, the Greek gods were not the plaster figures of conventional classicism, but living, actual presences, wonderfully life-giving and, at the same time, terrifying. He understood and sympathized with the Greek idea of the tragic fall, which he expressed movingly in the last stanza of his "Hyperions Schicksalslied" ("Hyperion's Song of Destiny").
In the great poems of his maturity, Hölderlin would generally adopt a large-scale, expansive and unrhymed style. Together with these long hymns, odes and elegies – which included "Der Archipelagus" ("The Archipelago"), "Brot und Wein" ("Bread and Wine") and "Patmos" – he also cultivated a crisper, more concise manner in epigrams and couplets, and in short poems like the famous "Hälfte des Lebens" ("The Middle of Life"). In the years after his return from Bordeaux he completed some of his greatest poems but also, once they were finished, returned to them repeatedly, creating new and stranger versions sometimes in several layers on the same manuscript, which makes the editing of his works problematic. Some of these later versions (and some later poems) are fragmentary, but have astonishing intensity. He seems also to have considered fragments, even with gaps and unfinished lines and unfinished sentence-structure, sometimes as poems in themselves. Both these tendencies (the obsessive revisions, the stand-alone fragments) used to be taken as proof of his mental disorder, but they were to prove very influential on later poets such as Paul Celan. In his years of madness, Hölderlin would occasionally pen ingenuous rhymed quatrains, sometimes of a childlike beauty, which he would sign with fantastic names (most often "Scardanelli") and give fictitious dates from the previous or future centuries.
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