The poetry of Holderlin exerts an influence like the pull of a giant wayward star; so strong has been its allure that one feels compelled to ask why Holderlin’s work captivate to this day so many major poets and philosophers…what is it about this poet that speaks with such tremendous force to us today? The answer, I think, lies in Holderlin’s experience of modernity. As he wrote in “The poet’s calling”, we live in a world in which “everything divine” has been “utilized” for too long, and “all the heavenly powers…thrown away.” We think we can grasp the world, that we can “name all the stars in heaven”, but we have lost our way to the divine. This absence, this deep sense of loss that underlies the unease of modern Western culture, is the basis of Holderlin’s work and power.
So, remembrance of the divine is perhaps the key theme in Holderlin’s work. And, whether manifest in a memory of the sun gone down, or of childhood or the homeland, or of the poet’s song or of ancient Greece, it is always accompanied by the acute consciousness that we- as individuals and a community- are not in armony with the Gods: for only through remembrance can we recognize what we lack in the present and how to get it back.
Holderlin’s sense of loss and destitution was not simply due to a personal predilection for suffering, but was a part of a larger cultural phenomenon that arose from powerful currents seething under the Enlightenment- an increasing alienation from nature and a growing sense of disenchantment in the face of a triumphant rationality and waning traditions and values. Schiller described modern human beings as “stunted plants that show only a feeble vestige of their nature.” Holderlin, for his part, reacted to these currents with an almost overwhelming longing for lost wholeness.
Finally, instead of simply longing for fullness as in his early poetry, Holderlin’s final poetry acts as a mediator between the Gods, who seem to have the power to grant us finally wholeness, and human beings. For although we may long for complete union with the Gods and nature, we could not bear their intensity- the heavenly fire of this union would obliterate us as individual men. But we only know this because the poets have brought their “suitable hands” to “interpret the holy lore” and sing us traces of the Gods: so, the poet’s song reminds us of the wholeness we have lost.
And, in apprehension of beauty we get an inkling of what that unity might be like as the “supersensible” ground of both nature and freedom, and such apprehension of beauty prompt us to take an interest in matters to which we might otherwise be blind. The apprehension of beauty, best mediated by the poet, unites that would otherwise be only fragmented pieces of nature or our temporally extended lives and, as he put in the final line of his poem ‘Remembrance’: “But what is lasting the poets provide.”
Moreover, inspired by Nietzsche’s diagnosis of European culture, the Stefan George circle aimed at cultural renewal through the formation of a “new league” of spiritual aristocracy that would function as the germ cell of a new mythologic- aesthetic culture. Through an aesthetics modeled on French Symbolism, George intended to elevate art once again on a sacred level. After the turn of century, Holderlin rapidly became the exemplary prophet of George’s aesthetic utopianism.
Finally, Heidegger’s reception of Holderlin is perhaps unique. Beginning with his lecture course on the hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine”, Heidegger entered into a dialogue with the poet that continued throughouth his life: “My thinking stands in an unavoidable relationship to the poetry of Holderlin.” More specifically, after the attempt in ‘Being and Time’ to elucidate the meaning of “being” through recourse to the implicit understanding of being that characterizes human existence, Heidegger turned away from the language of philosophy and assigned to art, and to poetry in particular, the role of bringing us into proximity with being. Heidegger’s theory of language, in particular in his interpretation of this poet, has brought so the poetry to the forefront of philosophical thought after more than two millenia of nearly unanimous, but also highly problematic, philosophical ejection of poetry from the realm of knowledge and truth. Then, in his subsequent writings, Heidegger interpretated the history of metaphisic from Plato to Hegel as the history of the forgetting of being and saw Holderlin’s hymns as marking the advent of another history: he interpreted Holderlin’s lament of the absence of the Gods in the light of this forgetfulness and Holderlin’s call for the Gods’ return as a readiness for a new thinking in the nearness of being. In their writings the ancients dealt with the question of being on manifold levels, with conception of Nature and Gods that modern man has abandoned. “The historical destination of philosophy culminates in the recognition of the necessity of gaining a hearing for Holderlin’s word.”
Furthermore, Heidegger claims that the Gods are still present, despite their absence: “man who, even with his most exulted thought could hardly penetrate to their Being, even though, with the same grandeur as at all time, they were somehow there.”