Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin

The German poet Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) sought to express a religious vision in which man would be reconciled to the world of nature and to all the forms through which God had revealed Himself.

Friedrich Hölderlin was born in Lauffen am Neckar on March 20, 1770. After his father's death the family moved to Nürtingen in Württemberg, where Hölderlin spent his childhood. In 1784 he went away to school at Denkendorf and later at Maulbronn. In 1788 he entered the Lutheran Seminary at Tübingen to prepare for the ministry. However, his attention soon turned to philosophy and poetry, and he became friends with the future philosophers G. W. F. Hegel and F. W. J. von Schelling. He at first wrote verses in the style of local Swabian poets and the older poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. He later began a series of philosophical hymns under the influence of Friedrich von Schiller.

Hölderlin soon met Schiller himself, who helped him get a position as private tutor after leaving the seminary in 1794. After several months as tutor, he went to Jena, where he studied the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and was introduced to the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Meanwhile, he continued to write poetry and worked on a novel, Hyperion, which he had begun while still in Tübingen.

In 1796 Hölderlin obtained his second position as tutor, with the family of the banker Gontard in Frankfurt am Main. He soon fell in love with Gontard's wife, Suzette, to whom, as "Diotima, " he addressed poems. He saw her as the personification of the ideals he had celebrated in his earlier poetry. However, their relationship was discovered, and he was forced to resign in 1798.

Hölderlin then moved to Homburg, near Frankfurt, where he devoted himself to literary work. His poetry began to show more spontaneity of feeling and a greater richness of natural detail. He also wrote theoretical essays on poetic form and three versions of an uncompleted tragedy, Empedokles, about a Greek philosopher and religious prophet who is rejected by society and by his gods and who decides to commit suicide by jumping into a volcano. In 1799 Hölderlin finished Hyperion. In its final form the novel tells of a young Greek who, inspired by the same religious and philosophical ideals as Hölderlin himself, falls in love with a girl, Diotima, and later joins a Greek war of independence against the Turks. The revolt fails, and Diotima dies. In the end, Hyperion can only reconcile himself with the powers he feels are present in the natural world.

After leaving Homburg, Hölderlin lived for a while with friends in Stuttgart. About this time he perfected the style of his elegiac poetry. His most famous elegy, Brot und Wein (Bread and Wine), commemorates the religious happiness of the ancient Greek world and concludes with a decision for the poet to commit himself as a priest of Dionysus, who is here identified with Christ.

In 1801 Hölderlin began to develop his final religious vision in irregular hymns modeled after the Greek poet Pindar. One of the greatest of these, Der Rhein, turns from a meditation on the course of the Rhine to speculation on the reconciliation of mankind with all the gods ever worshiped.

In 1802 Hölderlin received his last appointment as tutor with a German family in Bordeaux, France. While there he suffered a mental illness and later returned home. After partial recovery he wrote the hymn Patmos, but for the next 2 years he suffered from occasional recurrences of insanity. After attempts at rehabilitation, Hölderlin was committed to an asylum and finally, in 1808, to the care of a carpenter in Tübingen. His condition remained virtually unchanged until his death on June 7, 1843.


Further Reading on Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin

The best study in English of Hölderlin is Ronald Peacock, Hölderlin (1938), which provides the literary and philosophical background necessary for an understanding of his poetry. Perhaps the best brief introduction to Hölderlin's poetry and thought is in Michael Hamburger, Reason and Energy: Studies in German Literature (1957). Walter Silz, Early German Romanticism (1929), considers Hölderlin's place in the German romantic movement. The question of Hölderlin's attitude toward Greek religion and culture is treated in E. M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (1935), and in Henry Hatfield, Aesthetic Paganism in German Literature: From Winckelmann to the Death of Goethe (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Constantine, David, Hölderlin, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

George, Emery Edward, Hölderlin and the golden chain of Homer: including an unknown source, Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1992.