Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Goethe and Hölderlin

Goethe's views on world literature are "cutting edge," as seen in the connection he made between free trade in goods and in ideas. World literature was a preoccupation of the last decade of his life, the 1820s, when the different regions of the earth were being linked with one another through trade and colonization. He welcomed these links, especially as they brought people like himself into contact with like-minded individuals in other lands, but it was a turbulent time, and Goethe was aware of the disquieting effect that these material changes had on one's spiritual condition: "The world is in such a turbulent state that every individual is in danger of being sucked into its vortex." (See Manfred Osten's essay on "'Alles veloziferisch' oder Goethes Entdeckung der Langsamkeit.")

Earlier, however, in the 1790s, Goethe had been less "progressive" in his judgments, especially concerning literature and the arts. In my recent readings on Herder I came across a letter from Goethe to Meyer (20 June 1796) in which he criticizes an aspect of the "Humanitätsbriefe," namely, Herder's "unbelievable toleration for the mediocre, his rhetorical mixing together of the good with the insignificant, his admiration for the dead and decayed, an indifference to what is alive and aspiring" (eine unglaubliche Duldung gegen das Mittelmäßige, eine rednerische Vermischung des Guten und des Unbedeutenden, eine Verehrung des Abgestorbenen und Vermoderten, eine Gleichgültigkeit gegen das Lebendige und Strebende).

These words are somewhat ironic in light of Goethe's own reputation for seeming lack of critical judgment concerning certain contemporary writers, including Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). I was reminded of this on reading a review of the publication of volume 20 of the Frankfurt edition of Hölderlin's "Complete Works" and of English translations of the play The Death of Empedocles and of Hölderlin's odes and elegies. The review, by Charlie Louth, appears in the August 7 issue of the TLS.

Louth surveys the textual history of Hölderlin's works, an issue of concern perhaps only to specialists: Beissner and Beck of the Stuttgart edition, versus D.E. Sattler's Frankfurt edition. He makes a point that I found of interest. The Frankfurt edition reproduces Hölderlin's major manuscripts in color facsimiles "whose clarity of definition perhaps exceeds the originals and [which] show how much care Hölderlin bestowed on the fair copies of his poems: they are things of beauty, their balance and proportion intrinsic to their meaning."

As Christoph Jamme writers in Goethe-Handbuch (4/1, 489), "In contrast to the complicated, tragically overshadowed problematic of his relationship with Schiller, Goethe's relations with Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin are characterized by a great reserve." Goethe reported to Schiller of his meetings with Hölderlin in Frankfurt in July 1797, turning the younger poet's name into a diminutive: "Yesterday young Hölderlin visited me. I especially recommended that he write small poems and to choose for each an interesting human subject" (Gestern ist auch Hölterlein by mir gewesen. ... Ich habe ihm besonders gerathen kleine Gedichte zu machen und sich zu jedem einen menschlich interessanten Gegenstand zu wählen). In light of Hölderlin's subsequent great elegies and hymns, Jamme characterizes Goethe's words as "one of the greatest misunderstandings of German literary history."

Part of the difference between the two poets may have been what Ludwig Achim von Arnim characterized as their "totally contrary conceptions of "antiken Mythos." As von Arnim writes: Hölderlin does not lose himself in theorizing about antiquity ... Instead, the gods of the ancients surround him like approaching planets [nahende Sterne], with whose inhabitants he is able to converse." Very well put.

I notice that the German Hölderlin Society is offering a "Hyperion-Reise" in September. For those who prefer to read Hölderlin in English, this site offers a nice selection.

Credits: Hölderlin-Archiv der Württembergischen-Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart

1 comment:

Zentrist said...

I've read that Goethe himself was not above using "doggerel" or a traditional German form of it in his masterpiece. (I've read recently Wayne Phillips's Introduction (1949) to Faust.) Anyhow, not knowing Herder, I'd have to side with him and that particular Goethe that sided with him...I happen to like T.S. Eliot--who also incorporates "the vulgar" (I guess he learned from Shakespeare!) into his poetry. But then, I agree, the vulgar and unseemly are one thing; the out and out "mediocre" in terms of art itself...that's quite another. Somehow, perhaps, the "vortex" that Goethe warned about plays a role here. There is, in the context of World Lit, a dizzying amount of influence, knowledge, experience, unconventionality. Nietzche seems to have felt this keenly, or even more keenly in the context of even more science, more knowledge, more history, etc. The thinker-artist, therefore, has to set some boundaries. Otherwise, that "vortex" that Goethe talked about looms in the offing. In the end, it may have gotten to both Holderlin and Nietzsche.

By the way, the line the young Nietzsche, say fourteen, may have read, and I mean really read, in Holderlin's "Bread and Wine," may have been this one: "And to this day no one's strong enough for the highest joys, although some gratitude survives quietly."

And then there's the young--or old--Heidegger. He seems to have ruminated on this line from Bread and Wine: "We remember the gods thereby, those who were once/ With us, and who'll return when the time is right."

Thank you for the translations of Holderlin! I've gotten out a dusty old book, "Holderlin's Major Poetry" (Richard Unger, 1975).