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Hölderlin was born in Lauffen am Neckar, in Swabia, and studied Theology at the Seminary of Tübingen, where he was friends with the future philosophers Georg Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. They mutually influenced one another, and it has been pointed by some that it was probably Hölderlin who brought to Hegel's attention the ideas of Heraclitus about the union of opposites, which the philosopher would develop into his concept of dialectics.
Being from a family of limited means (his mother was twice a widow), and having little inclination for an ecclesiastical career, Hölderlin had to earn his living as a tutor of children of well-to-do families. It was as tutor of the sons of Gontard, a Frankfurt banker, that he met Susette, his master's wife, who would become his great love. Susette Gontard is the model for the Diotima of his epistolary novel Hyperion.
Having been publicly insulted by Gontard, Hölderlin felt forced to quit his job in the banker's household and found himself again in a difficult financial situation (even as some of his poems were already being published through the influence of his occasional protector, the poet Schiller), having to accept a small allowance from his mother.
Already at this time he was diagnosed as suffering from a severe "hypochondria", a condition that would worsen after his last meeting with Susette Gontard in 1800. In early 1802 he found a job as tutor of the children of the Hamburg consul in Bordeaux, France, and traveled by foot to that city. His travel and stay there are celebrated in Andenken (Remembrance), one of his greatest poems. In a few months, however, he would be back in Germany showing signs of mental disorder, which the news of Susette's death that same year would only aggravate.
In 1807, having become largely insane, he was brought into the home of Ernst Zimmer, a Tübingen carpenter with literary leanings, who was an admirer of his Hyperion. For the next 36 years, Hölderlin would live in Zimmer's house, in a tower room overlooking the beautiful Neckar valley, being cared for by the Zimmer family until his death in 1843. Wilhelm Waiblinger, a young poet and admirer, has left a poignant account of Hölderlin's day-to-day life during these long, empty years.
The poetry of Hölderlin, widely recognized today as one of the highest points of German and Western literature, was quite forgotten very soon - 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, Hölderlin being classified as a mere imitator of Schiller, a romantic and melancholy youth. (He would be rediscovered, by Norbert von Hellingrath, only in the 20th 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 (it should be noted that his exact contemporary Beethoven also initially dedicated his Eroica to the Corsican general).
Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich 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 and his followers would recognize in him the poet who first acknowledged the orphic and dyonisiac 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 and elegies - among these, 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 (Middle of life). In his years of madness, he would occasionally pen ingenuous rhymed quatrains, sometimes of a childlike beauty, which he would sign with fantastic names.
Though Hölderlin's hymnic style - dependent as it is on a genuine belief in the divinity - can hardly be transposed without sounding parodistic, his shorter and more fragmentary lyric has exerted its influence in German poetry, from Georg Trakl onwards, and his elegiac mode has found an apt successor in Rainer Maria Rilke.
Hölderlin earned some negative notoriety during his lifetime by his translations of Sophocles, which were considered awkward and contrived. In the 20th century, theorists of translation like Walter Benjamin have vindicated them, showing their importance as a new - and greatly influential - model of poetic translation.
Hölderlin was a poet-thinker who wrote, fragmentarily, on poetic theory and philosophical matters. And, though his poetry was never "theory-driven", the interpretation and exegesis of some of his more difficult poems has given rise to profound philosophical speculation by such divergent thinkers as Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno.