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‘Intense, eventful and tragic’: Friedrich Holderlin, the Syd Barrett of poetry

One of Germany's greatest lyric poets, Johann Christian Friedrich Holderlin (1771 - 1843). Although suffering from periods of mental illness, he managed to produce works such as 'An die Hoffnung' (On Hope) and the novel 'Hyperion'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

​He lived the archetypal life of a poet – intense, eventful and tragic. Yet Friedrich Hölderlin remains an obscure figure outside Germany. A newly-translated work, outlining a momentous existence, could change all that, says CHARLIE CONNELLY

What are the key ingredients that make up the classic poet’s life? Is it the wilful excess and general ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ existence of Lord Byron? The tragically early curtailments that befell Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sylvia Plath and Wilfred Owen? Or is it a life spent as a determined recluse à la Emily Dickinson and Fernando Pessoa? There’s even something beguiling about the outwardly conventional life led by librarian Philip Larkin.

Maybe if you combined all the above you’d come up with the archetypal poetic life. Trying to cram as much poet-style living into one go on this mortal coil might go something like this: Childhood blighted by tragedy. Intense religious education. Intense embrace of revolutionary politics. Intense unrequited love. Intense requited love thwarted by circumstance. Intense verse inspired by all that intensity. Penury. Itinerancy. Descent into madness. Obscurity. Death. Yes, that ought to cover it: feed the lives of the great poets into a machine that would distil them into one median lifespan and that’s probably what you’d end up with.

It also happens to be a neat summary of the life of pioneering German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. He was even a librarian for a while, too. The only idiosyncrasy is that he lived to an un-poetically ripe old age, but that can be offset by the entire second half of his life being spent diagnosed insane and living in a tower like some gothic version of Rapunzel.

Hölderlin isn’t quite a household name in Britain, but with the publication of Wilhelm Waiblinger’s Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness in a new translation by Will Stone perhaps the most tragic figure among a relentlessly tragic litany of German Romantics might become at least as well-known as contemporaries like Goethe and Schiller.

After all, Hölderlin remains one of the most influential and feted German poets of all time. The current Pope is a fan. So were Marx and Nietzsche. Brahms, Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten are among a host of composers who have set his poems to music and Schumann composed his piano suite Gesänge der Frühe in tribute. Hölderlin’s verse helped to launch Heidegger into philosophical contemplation while Germany’s 1968 generation embraced him as a revolutionary utopian, one whose expressions of religious doubt also appealed to their secular philosophy.

Why isn’t he better known here, then? The main problem is that Hölderlin is notoriously difficult to translate. His economy of language makes his verse almost impossible to render into English without adding words and losing the rhythm of his brevity, not to mention over-egging the ambiguity of meaning that makes Hölderlin one of the most highly-regarded poets in the German canon.

As Rainer Maria Rilke put it in his poem To Hölderlin, ‘How snugly the others live in their heated poems and stay, content, in their narrow similes’.

Born in 1770 in Lauffen am Neckar, southwestern Germany, Hölderlin lost his father when he was two, commencing a relentless stream of childhood bereavements that took in two grandparents, four siblings and an aunt by the time his mother moved what remained of the family to Nürtingen, where she married the mayor in the hope of a new start.

When Hölderlin was nine years old his stepfather promptly died, maintaining an extraordinary mortality rate even for the times.

‘When my second father died, whose love for me I shall never forget, when I felt with an incomprehensible pain my orphaned state and saw, each day, your grief and tears,’ he wrote to his mother in 1799, ‘it was then that my soul took on for the first time this heaviness that has never left and that could only grow more severe with the years.’

In the aftermath of all this grief the poet’s mother planned a religious life for her son, enrolling him at the age of 14 on the long road to a Lutheran ministry. At 16 while a student at the monastery in Maulbronn, Hölderlin fell hopelessly in love with the administrator’s daughter, feelings that were not returned, certainly not with the same intensity, but more than enough to nurture seeds of doubt that he wasn’t quite suited to the religious life.

He moved on to the famous Protestant seminary at Tübingen in order to complete his studies. Here he became a contemporary and friend of the philosophers Hegel and Schelling, bonding over an ardent admiration for the French Revolution (on Bastille Day in 1793 the three of them danced hand in hand around a Liberty Tree singing La Marseillaise). He graduated the same year but when he informed his mother that life as a clergyman wasn’t for him she cut all financial ties, leaving Hölderlin to fend for himself.

Through Schiller, who he had met during his studies and found a keen mutual poetic admiration, he secured a post as residential tutor to a small boy. The job proved to be short-lived: not only did Hölderlin manage to impregnate the housemaid, his pupil turned out to be an obsessive masturbator: Hölderlin was charged with sitting up on exhausting nocturnal vigils ensuring the lad’s hands were where he could see them.

A similar, if less onanism-dominated post in Frankfurt followed, one that proved to be the turning point of his life. The 25-year-old fell deeply in love with Susette Gontard, the wife of his employer, and this time the feelings were mutual. The pair conducted a passionate relationship, with Susette becoming immortalised in Hölderlin’s 1797 novel Hyperion, thinly disguised as Diotima, presented as the ideal of classical beauty. Inevitably the affair was discovered and Hölderlin was fired, moving to the nearby town of Homburg where the relationship with Susette limped on via occasional clandestine liaisons.

Early in 1802 and in need of cash, Hölderlin accepted a tutoring post in Bordeaux, a journey he made on foot. After four months in France he decided the job wasn’t for him and set off for home, again on foot, walking to from the south of France to southern Germany via Paris in order to see some ancient Greek statues he’d heard about (Hölderlin was obsessed with classical Greece, something that dominates his verse).

Arriving home after this extraordinary trek, Hölderlin was so gaunt and shabby his own family didn’t recognise him. It was slowly becoming clear that the poet’s mental health was in decline and when he learned on his return that Susette had died from influenza the situation only worsened.

In 1804 an old student friend, Isaac von Sinclair, who had become a diplomat for Hesse-Homburg at the Court of Wurttemberg, secured for Hölderlin the job of court librarian at Homburg, believing with some justification that spending his days in a quiet room full of books might soothe Hölderlin’s increasingly fragile psyche.

He may well have been right – for the rest of his life the poet preferred to be addressed as ‘Herr Bibliotekar’ – but within a year Sinclair and Hölderlin had been implicated in an alleged revolutionary plot to assassinate the Elector of Württemberg. Sinclair and a handful of his friends were subsequently cleared, by which time a doctor had already attested that Hölderlin was not fit to stand trial, his mind being in a state of ‘frenzy’.

Early in 1806 he was committed to an asylum at Tübingen under Professor Autenrieth, a well-known physician whose treatments were barbaric by today’s standards but considered
forward-thinking at the time. Hölderlin proved resistant to a grim regime of physical hardship and primitive medicine, however, and by the following spring his illness – most likely schizophrenia – was pronounced incurable. The poet was given a maximum of three years to live.

A local carpenter named Ernst Zimmer had recently moved into a 12th century tower nearby that had once been part of the Tübingen city wall. Zimmer had read and enjoyed Hyperion and when he learned of its author’s fate he offered to house the stricken poet, giving him an entire floor in which to see out his days. There Hölderlin would outlive the gloomy prognosis and remain for the next 36 years until his death in 1843, at the age of 73.

It’s conceivable that were it not for an idealistic young writer called Wilhelm Waiblinger, Hölderlin might have faded permanently into obscurity. Hyperion had achieved moderate success but his poetry had only appeared in a handful of periodicals. While Schiller praised 
his verse, Goethe was openly critical and Hölderlin’s mental illness attached a stigma to his name that could well have finished off his already brittle reputation.

Waiblinger was a Hölderlin fan before he arrived at the same Tübingen seminary in 1822 where Hölderlin had studied many years earlier. When he learned of the Zimmer tower’s illustrious resident, the 17-year-old Waiblinger began a regular routine of visiting his hero that would continue for four years until the young man, a poet more exclusively from the Byronic mould than Hölderlin, was expelled from the seminary for unspecified bad behaviour.

His Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness is an extraordinary work, a warm, admiring but unflinching chronicle of a vulnerable elderly man who was by then displaying symptoms consistent with dementia.

Waiblinger’s kindness would have been unfamiliar to its recipient, whose own family and friends had long abandoned him (in his three and a half decades in the tower no relatives visited and the only attendees at Hölderlin’s funeral were members of the Zimmer family).

The respect and affection Waiblinger had for Hölderlin oozes from every page of one of poetry’s most compelling biographical memoirs, sensitively translated by Will Stone. There’s no sense of exploitation or sensation in Waiblinger’s writing, just genuine tenderness and respect. He talks of Hölderlin’s ‘affable, friendly eyes, their fire gone but not their soul’ and notes ‘with compassion and sorrow the convulsive movement which breaks out from time to time upon his face, which causes him to raise his shoulders and a trembling to course through his hands and fingers’.

There’s the feel of a man fading into the twilight, something given extra poignancy by the fact that it was Waiblinger for whom death was imminent: he moved to Rome after his expulsion from the seminary where in 1830 he succumbed to a probable combination of malaria and syphilis at the age of 25.

In addition to his recollection of Hölderlin, Waiblinger left behind a 
novel, Phaeton, whose protagonist is based on the man he described as his ‘best friend’ and he lobbied hard for the production of a collected edition of Hölderlin’s poetry.

This appeared in 1826 although it 
was a slimmer volume than Waiblinger would have liked, its editors omitting anything they felt was ‘touched by insanity’.

A full collection of Hölderlin’s poetical works didn’t appear until 1913 but it led to a long-overdue critical resurgence for a man whose verse was challenging and unconventional in its day but which is unquestionably a key aspect of European Romanticism.

It’s Hölderlin’s life story that holds the most fascination for the non-native reader, however, this Swabian Syd Barrett who packed so much talented intensity into the first half of his life that Ernst Zimmer would later say, ‘it was the too much he had inside him that caused his mind to give way’. Fortunately for posterity he found the perfect chronicler of his benign semi-incarceration and a passionate advocate for the poetry that seems to grow more popular with each passing generation.

Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness by Wilhelm Waiblinger, translated by Will Stone, is published by Hesperus Press, price £5.99

Five great books about poets
MISS EMILY Nuala O’Connor (Sandstone Press, £8.99)

Many novelists have been attracted by the blank fictional canvas provided by the American poet Emily Dickinson. A noted recluse – for most of her life she would speak to visitors only from behind a closed door – whose poetry wasn’t widely disseminated until after her death, Dickinson’s enigma is a natural draw for novelists. The Irish writer Nuala O’Connor has produced the best of these, a beautifully-constructed novel that charts the relationship between Dickinson and an Irish maid, Amy Concannon. As compelling as it is lyrical.

Anthony Burgess (Vintage, £8.99)

Not his best-known work by any stretch, but Burgess’s 1993 re-imagining of the life of another enigmatic poet, Christopher Marlowe, is a funny, evocative and full-blooded interpretation of the world of one of literature’s most deliciously mysterious figures. This was the last of Burgess’s novels to be published in his lifetime and is an underrated aspect of his output.

Peter Parker (Abacus, £12.99)

This original approach to writing about poetry and poets effectively combines three books into one. Opening with an absorbing biographical portrait of the English poet A.E. Housman, the book progresses into a lucid and enlightening examination of where his work fits in to the English narrative and cultural context before serving up the full version of Housman’s classic cycle A Shropshire Lad. Ideal for Housman fans and beginners alike.

Penelope Fitzgerald (4th Estate, £8.99)

An under-appreciated novel by a writer criminally underrated, even allowing for the recent film adaptation of her The Bookshop, this is a vivid evocation of the early years of the German Romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Its opening passage, in which protagonist student Fritz arrives home seeking permission to marry his sweetheart and is engulfed by the workings of a great house on laundry day, is almost worth the nine quid on its own.

Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

Published not long before Hughes’ death in 1998, of the 88 poems included all but two deal with the life and 1963 suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath. Written 
over 25 years, the poems are 
among the most heartbreaking 
and uplifting poetic accounts of love and loss, certainly of the modern era.

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