Gedichte, 1826 (Poems, 1943)
Selected Poems, 1944
Poems and Fragments, 1966
Hyperion: Oder, Der Eremit in Griechenland, 1797, 1799 (Hyperion: Or, The Hermit in Greece, 1965)
Antigone, pb. 1804 (translation of Sophocles)
Oedipus Tyrannus, pb. 1804 (translation of Sophocles)
Der Tod des Empedokles, pb. 1826 (The Death of Empedocles, 1966)
Sämtliche Werke, 1846 (2 volumes)
Sämtliche Werke: Grosse Stuttgarter Ausgabe, 1943-1977 (8 volumes)
Friedrich Hölderlin (HURL-dur-leen), a German Romantic poet who used Greek mythology to express his dreams of a perfect world order, was born in 1770. Two years after his birth his father died, and his mother became the major influence in his life, an influence which was relentlessly used by her until the very end. His mother’s wish to make a theologian out of her son was not fulfilled. Hölderlin studied theology, but he could not find satisfaction in the strict disciplinarian concept of his mother’s brand of Christianity. He found it much easier to imagine the personalized gods of ancient Greece.
Poetry was his major interest, but he was also a talented musician on the flute, the violin, and the piano. It is not surprising, therefore, that most critics agree that the musicality of his lyric is unsurpassed. At fifteen, Hölderlin was already a remarkable poet, but his great German contemporaries (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) were not quite in agreement with his priestly ideas of poetry and his preference for everything Greek. Hölderlin was well aware of how eccentric his point of view was, and for this reason he broke off an engagement to his first love, Luise Nast.
In 1796 he had the most decisive encounter of his life. When he took a position in a bank in Frankfurt, he met the banker’s wife, Suzette Gondard, who represented the fulfillment of all his dreams of Greek perfection and soaring idealism. Under the name Diotima he glorified Gondard in many poems. It is not known to what degree she responded to his admiration, but some of her letters to Hölderlin leave no doubt that a strong spiritual relationship existed. After two years, in 1798, he left Frankfurt suddenly, a move obviously dictated by the increased tension in the banker’s house. His relationship with Gondard remained the major factor in Hölderlin’s life. When she died, he suffered a partial stroke from which he recovered, but it is doubtful that he ever mastered the emotional shock of this separation.
At the same time his lyrical sensitivity reached new heights. Gradually, however, he developed concern about the possible consequences of his hypersensitivity. In an 1801 letter he states, “I fear that in the end it will be with me as with old Tantalus who got more of the Gods than he could digest.” In 1802 he found employment as a tutor in France, but without explanation he returned home. Reports of his mental breakdowns multiplied. His creativity was not yet impaired, and many of his finest poems were written during this period. Nevertheless, in 1805 his mental illness became serious. A doctor noted, “Now he is so far gone, that his insanity has developed into raving, and that one can simply no longer understand his speech, which seems to be composed partly of German, partly of Greek, and partly of Latin sounds.”
From then on Hölderlin lived in obscurity, at first in a sanatorium and then in the house of a carpenter where he spent the last thirty-eight years of his life. There is evidence that even in the advanced stage of his illness he was able to write meaningful poetry. Unfortunately, most of the writings of this period were destroyed as the scribblings of a lunatic. In 1843, the seventy-three-year-old poet died without pain and in prayer. His mother never succeeded in converting him to her religious point of view, but Hölderlin had expressed great interest in Roman Catholicism during his last years. The first editions of his works ignored all poems written during his illness, and it was not until 1923 that a first complete edition of his writings became available. The interest and admiration shown by the poets Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke were the main reasons for the revival of Hölderlin appreciation in the twentieth century.