Earlier this week my German teacher was genuinely shocked when I confessed that I had never even heard of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. As a result, I remembered his name. I have a rule of life which I noticed at the age of 6 because I always stumbled across new pieces with some new bit of musical notation a few days after my piano teacher had told me about them. It did occur to me even then that this could have been a clever pedagogical plot – but it was a cool existential hypothesis, so I began to observe; it proved true in other situations without any cunning teachers in them, so I kept it. As it often happens, Hölderlin’s name suddenly jumped out at me while I was absent-mindedly leafing through a German poetry collection I’d bought back in October. It is one of those popular collections of love poems, perfect for teenagers and clueless foreigners – but the poems were a bit steep for my German so I’d forgotten about this book until now. Long story short, in the book there is a fragment by Hölderlin called “Lebenslauf“. As I may have mentioned, my institute studies, among other things (work and history) also the human life course. Eurica! I googled for a translation and discovered the full poem. Oddly, it was a bit different from the book version (no more difficult, though, so I don’t know why the book editors put in this version). It turns out, Hölderlin wrote two versions of that poem, both called “lifecourse”.
Before the prolixity of this introduction reveals my total lack of poetic skills (sociology logorrhea messing up my writing again!), I shall shut up and let you read the second version of the poem – in German and then in the four English translations I found.
At the bottom there is also a youtube recording of the longer poem read by the very amazing (and the very amazing) Bruno Ganz (he is everywhere! but that’s ok, my respect for the man goes up every time I find more of his work).
Lebenslauf I (which is a nice short fragment – probably an early draft)
Hoch auf strebte mein Geist, aber die Liebe zog
Schön ihn nieder; das Laid beugt ihn gewaltiger;
So durchlauf ich des Lebens
Bogen und kehre, woher ich kam.
–Friedrich Hölderlin, Lebenslauf (1800) in Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, vol. 1, p. 285 (G. Mieth ed. 1970)
Größers wolltest auch du, aber die Liebe zwingt
All uns nieder, das Leid beuget gewaltiger,
Doch es kehret umsonst nicht
Unser Bogen, woher er kommt.
Aufwärts oder hinab! herrschet in heil’ger Nacht,
Wo die stumme Natur werdende Tage sinnt,
Herrscht im schiefesten Orkus
Nicht ein Grades, ein Recht noch auch?
Dies erfuhr ich. Denn nie, sterblichen Meistern gleich,e
Habt ihr Himmlischen, ihr Alleserhaltenden,
Daß ich wüßte, mit Vorsicht
Mich des ebenen Pfads geführt.
Alles prüfe der Mensch, sagen die Himmlischen,
Daß er, kräftig genährt, danken für Alles lern’,
Und verstehe die Freiheit,
Aufzubrechen, wohin er will.
Translation 1 The Course of Life (Transl. by British poet, critic and translator Michael Hamburger, here as googlebook)
More you also desired, but every one of us
Love draws earthward, and grief bends with still greater power;
Yet our arc not for nothing
Brings us back to our starting place.
Whether upward or down – does not in holy night
Where mute Nature thinks out days that are still to come,
Though in crookedest Orcus,
Yet a straightness, a law prevail?
This I learned. For not once, as mortal masters do,
Did you heavenly ones, wise preservers of all,
To my knowledge, with foresight
Lead me on by a level path.
All a man shall try out, thus say the heavenly,
So that strongly sustained he shall give thanks for all,
Learn to grasp his own freedom
To be gone where he’s moved to go
Translation 2 Course of Life (transl. by Scott Horton – published in Harper Magazine May 17, 2008)
You wanted greater still, but love forces
All of us to the ground; suffering bends powerfully,
Still our arc does not for nothing
Bring us back to the starting point.
Whether up or downwards, does not prevail in the Holy Night
Where quietly Nature contemplates the days to come,
Does not prevail in the crookedest Orcus
One straightness, one Law?
This I experienced. For never, in the manner of mortal masters,
Have you Divine Ones, you who sustain our world,
Yet led me on the straight path,
Not with intent, not that I knew it.
A man must test all that comes his way, say the Divine Ones,
In order that he, powerfully nourished, give thanks for what he learns,
That he understand the freedom,
To move hence, where he wishes.
Translation 3 The course of a life (published by Poemhunter but it is not clear who are the authors of individual translations)
You also wanted better things, but love
Forces all of us down. Sorrow bends us more
forcefully, but the arc doesn’t return to its
point of origin without a reason.
Upwards or downwars! In holy Night,
where mute Nature plans the coming days,
doesn’t there reign in the most twisted Orcus
something straight and direct?
This I have learned. Never to my knowledge
did you, all preserving gods, like mortal
masters, lead me providentially
along a straight path.
The gods say that I man should test
everything, and that strongly nourished
he be thankful for everything, and understand
the freedom to set forth wherever he will.
Translation 4 The Course of a Life (I like the elegant simplicity and unassuming contemporary language of this translation by Jim Hanson – see his blog)
You also want something greater, but love
Overpowers us all, suffering bends us more forcibly
Though our arch does not vainly
Return from where it comes
Upward or downward! Don’t they reign at the holy solstice
Where silent nature reflects on the lengthening days?
They rule in the crookedest underworld
Not a degree, nor have they even a right.
This I found out. This I knew, with foresight,
That never, unlike mortal masters,
Have they, the gods, the all-conserving
Guided me away from the even paths
Check everything, man, say the gods,
And I was grateful to learn everything, to become strong
And to understand the freedom
To break away, whenever I might