Saturday, May 31, 2014

Friedrich Hölderlin

Germany Friedrich Hölderlin

Amazingly enough there was no thread for the German poet Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (20 March 1770 – 7 June 1843). The usual Wikipedia search will give you the facts of his life, spent like Proserpine's existence, half in the daylight and half in the shadows (of madness).

I'd like to just point out that the reason for his madness was the fear he felt for the oppressive nature of the State where he lived. If there ever was a reason to dislike prying and monitoring rulers it's this, we lost decades of Hölderlin's mature poetry to a repressive and surveying system. Having that kind of snitches, spies and similar scum State is something that too many Germans experienced in the past (Stasi anyone?).

I'd also like to remark how Hölderlin draw much of his inspiration from the idea of Greece and Classical Greek Poetry. And, despite the fact that Goethe and Schiller laughed at his translations of Sophocles, nobody has better reflected a true renaissance of the spirit of Classic Greece in modern times than Hölderlin.

I'm on the record somewhere else on the WLF as saying that the only poet who can match the intensity and power of the best poems of Neruda's Residence on Earth is Hölderlin. Let me extend that praise even further, Hölderlin is also the deepest poet I have read in any language (no, not even Yosa Buson and his meditations on time or Wang Wei and his Zen insights or Mirza Ghalib and his complex ghazals about God and Love or the Bhakti poets and their holy human poems can top him). This mixture of intensity and depth is what makes Hölderlin arguably the greatest German poet (despite competition from the likes of Goethe, Rilke, Brecht and Huchel!).

There is already an excellent WLF thread on his 'Half of Life' poem. I'd like to start this thread with its twin poem:

Ages of Life

You cities of the Euphrates!
You streets of Palmyra!
You forests of columns in the desert plains,
What are you now?
Your crowns
Because you crossed
The bounds of those breathing,
Were taken away
By Heaven's vapor of smoke and flame;
Now though I sit under clouds (each one
Of which has its own peace) amidst
The ordered oaks, upon
The heath where deer gather, and strange
They appear, dead to me,
The spirits of the blest.

There was something about the nature of time that brought out the best in Hölderlin. When Hölderlin was already mad he continued to write poetry at the request of visitors. One of those visitors, J. G. Fischer recorded that, upon asking Hölderlin for a poem, he replied: 'shall they be verses about Greece, Spring or the Nature of Time?'. The poem written to answer that request, In Lieblicher Blaue (In Lovely Blue) made William H. Gass gasp and go all 'Oh My God':

In Lovely Blue

In lovely blue the steeple blossoms
With its metal roof. Around which
Drift swallow cries, around which
Lies most loving blue. The sun,
High overhead, tints the roof tin,
But up in the wind, silent,
The weathercock crows. When someone
Takes the stairs down from the belfry,
It is a still life, with the figure
Thus detached, the sculpted shape
Of man comes forth. The windows
The bells ring through
Are as gates to beauty. Because gates
Still take after nature,
They resemble the forest trees.
But purity is also beauty.
A grave spirit arises from within,
Out of manyfold things. Yet so simple
These images, so very holy,
One fears to describe them. But the gods,
Ever kind in all things,
Are rich in virtue and joy.
Which man may imitate them?
May a man look up
From the utter hardship of his life
And say: Let me also be
Like these? Yes. As long as kindness lasts,
Pure, within his heart, he may gladly measure himself
Against the divine. Is God unknown?
Is he manifest as the sky? This I tend
To believe. Such is man’s measure.
Well deserving, yet poetically
Man dwells on this earth. But the shadow
Of the starry night is no more pure, if I may say so,
Than man, said to be the image of God.
Is there measure on earth? There is
None. No created world ever hindered
The course of thunder. A flower
Is likewise lovely, blooming as it does
Under the sun. The eye often discovers
Creatures in life it would be yet lovelier
To name than flowers. O, this I know!
For to bleed both in body and heart, and cease
To be whole, is this pleasing to God?
But the soul, I believe, must
Remain pure, lest the eagle wing
Its way up to the Almighty with songs
Of praise and the voice of so many birds.
It is substance, and is form.
Lovely little brook, how moving you seem
As you roll so clear, like the eye of God,
Through the Milky Way. I know you well,
But tears pour from the eye.
I see gaiety of life blossom
About me in all creation’s forms,
I do not compare it cheaply
To the graveyard’s solitary doves. People’s
Laughter seems to grieve me,
After all, I have a heart.
Would I like to be a comet? I think so.
They are swift as birds, they flower
With fire, childlike in purity. To desire
More than this is beyond human measure.
The gaiety of virtue also deserves praise
From the grave spirit adrift
Between the garden’s three columns.
A beautiful virgin should wreathe her hair
With myrtle, being simple by nature and heart.
But myrtles are found in Greece.
If a man look into a mirror
And see his image therein, as if painted,
It is his likeness. Man’s image has eyes,
But the moon has light.
King Oedipus may have an eye too many.
The sufferings of this man seem indescribable,
Inexpressible, unspeakable. Which comes
When drama represents such things.
But what do I feel, now thinking of you?
Like brooks, I am carried away by the end of something
That expands like Asia. Of course,
Oedipus suffers the same? For a reason,
Of course. Did Hercules suffer as well?
Indeed. In their friendship
Did not the Dioscuri also suffer?
Yes, to battle God as Hercules did
Is to suffer. And to half share immortality
With the envy of this life,
This too is pain. But this also
Is suffering, when a man is covered with summer freckles,
All bespattered with spots. This is the work
Of the gun, it draws everything out.
It leads young men along their course,
Charmed by rays like roses.
The sufferings of Oedipus seem like a poor man
Lamenting what he lacks.
Son of Laios, poor stranger in Greece.
Life is death, and death a life.

J. G. Fischer, of course, dismissed this poem as the ravings of a lunatic, and quoted it IN PROSE to prove this point. Nick Hoff on the introduction to his translation of the Odes and Elegies (from where I took the Ages of Life translation) says that Holderlin was the first modern poet, which would explain why most readers at the time Holderlin was alive would not be prepared for this new kind of poetry. Lines like 'Man’s form has eyes/But the moon has light' are particularly good meditation points even for Buddhists and Advaita Vedanta practitioners. This is part of the reason why later German philosophers and thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Rilke, Heidegger, etc. were so impressed by Hölderlin.

But the depth of the thought is not all that Holderlin has going on, the sheer beauty and mystery of sentences like: 'Under The ordered oaks, and upon The deer's heath, and strange They appear, dead to me, The spirits of the blest /Unter Wohleingerichteten Eichen, auf Der Heide des Rehs, und fremd Erscheinen und gestorben mir Der Seligen Geister' or like 'Ah, where in the winter will I come upon flowers, and where The sun's light And shadows of the earth?/Weh mir, wo nehm ich, wenn Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo Den Sonnenschein, Und Schatten der Erde? ' is almost overwhelming.

For this year's (2012) Cervantes Prize the runner ups were the usual suspects, the Goytisolo brothers, Munoz Molina, Eduardo Mendoza, the scholar Fernando Savater and the poet and blogger Felix de Azua. Well, Felix de Azua on his blog has stated that the greatest poet he knows of in any language is Hölderlin, and to him the greatest poem of all is Hölderlin's Archipelago. Sadly, the Archipelago poem is several pages long, and thus too long to quote in full, so let me just give you a taste of it, on David Constantine version:

The Archipelago

Are the cranes coming home to you? Are the ships
Resuming their course to your shores? Do breaths of the breezes
We longed for move on your quietened waves? Does the dolphin,
Lured from the depths, sun his back in the daylight again?
Is Ionia in flower? Is it time? In spring
When the living take heart and their first love
Revives and the memory of golden times then always
You draw me. I come. I salute you: age-old and silent
You live as you were, unlessened, the mountains lend you
Shade to lie in, you embrace with the arms of a youth still
A beautiful land, and of all your daughters, father,
Of all the flowering islands, not one has been lost.
Crete stands and grassy Salamis and Delos lifts from among
Dark laurels spiked with light at every dawn
Her ecstatic head and Tenos has and Chios
Purple fruits in abundance, on drunken hills
The Cyprian drink wells up and from off Calauria silver
Streams fall, as they always did, into the sea, their father.
All live still, all the mothers of heroes, the islands,
Flowering from year to year, and though the abyss let loose
Sometimes a flame in the dark, a nether tempest, and seized
One hold and she died and sank in your cherishing lap,
You lasted, for much has gone down and
Risen in your depths and your darkness, sea-god.
Also the gods who inhabit the heights and the stillness
Far off, and who bring with the largesse of power
Sleep and the cheerful daylight and dreaming thoughts
Over the heads of sentient men, they are what they were:
Your companions, and often when evening falls
And over the mountains of Asia the holy moonlight
Lifts and the stars encounter themselves in your waves
You shine as if it were Heaven lighting you
Under the traveling stars and your waters switch and your brothers'
Lullaby above echoes from your loving heart.
Then when the light comes, star of the east, the wonderworker
When the daystar comes and illuminates all things
And the living begin their lives in the golden dream
That the sun, like a poet, presents them with daily
For you in your grief, his magic is kinder still,
Kinder than his light, even more beautiful is the wreath
that he still wears, as he always did, for a token,
Remembering you, winds in your wintry hair...
Last edited by Cleanthess; 05-Dec-2012 at 17:18

Friedrich Hölderlin - Hälfte des Lebens

I would like to make a survey concerning different translations of this famous Hölderlin poem into English. Please tell me which translation you prefer and possibly why.

Original poem:

Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Kässen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilign?chterne Wasser.

Weh mir, wo nehm ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.

Literal translation (by me):

Half of Life

With yellow pears hangs
And full with wild roses
The land into the lake,
You graceful swans,
And drunk with kisses
You dip the head
Into the holy-sober water.

Woe is me, where do I take, when
It is winter, the flowers, and where
The sunshine
And the shadow of the earth?
The walls stand
Speechless and cold, in the wind
The banners clink.

1) Translation by Michael Hamburger

The Middle of Life

With yellow pears the land
And full of wild roses
Hangs down into the lake,
You lovely swans,
And drunk with kisses
You dip your heads
Into the hallowed, the sober water.

But oh, where shall I find
When winter comes, the flowers, and where
The sunshine
And shade of the earth?
The walls loom
Speechless and cold, in the wind
weathercocks clatter.

2) Translation by Richard Sieburth

Half of Life

With its yellow pears
And wild roses everywhere
The shore hangs in the lake,
O gracious swans,
And drunk with kisses
You dip your heads
In the sobering holy water.

Ah, where will I find
Flowers, come winter,
And where the sunshine
And shade of the earth?
Walls stand cold
And speechless, in the wind
The weathervanes creak.

3) Translation by David Constantine

Half of Life

The land with yellow pears
And full of wild roses
Hangs into the lake
O gracious swans
And drunk with kisses
You plunge your heads
Into the holy, the sober water.

Alas, for where in winter
Shall I come by flowers and where
The sunlight and
The shade of the earth?
The walls stand
Speechless and cold, the wind
Clatters the weathervanes.