Goethe and Hölderlin don’t meet at a party —from Durs Grünbein

“The revolution is raging in Paris when a German youth writes a letter telling his friend about an audience he was granted: not long ago he had been received in Jena by Friedrich Schiller, the literary ringleader of an entire generation, whom the young people worship like an older brother. The letter’s author, however, has an unhappy hour to report. Something embarrassing, something hardly to be redeemed had happened to him. One scarcely believes it, reading about the budding young poet’s encounter with a stranger at the Schiller House, whose identity was supposedly revealed to him only afterwards. The stranger, as it turns out, was none other than Goethe. In the letter, he appears as someone who stays rather uncannily in the background, like a figure in some ghost story, or like the Stony Guest. And then we read, ‘Schiller introduced me to him, and him to me, but I didn’t understand his name.’

“Among the famous anecdotes of literary history, this is truly one of the strangest, perhaps even a bit over-the-top. In a moment of extraordinary absent-mindedness, Friedrich Hölderlin passes by the man of whom all of Germany considered the greatest living poet. Should we believe this, or is it only a remarkably cunning legend, minted and brought into circulation by the youthful poet himself? The incident exemplifies what is known among psychoanalysts as a primal scene with all of its characteristics, it reveals the direction of the unconscious. ‘I greeted him coldly, almost without looking at him, and was concerned, both inwardly and outwardly, with Schiller alone; for a long time the stranger spoke not a word.’ The impression arises that a dream is being narrated here. The stranger remains nameless because his name is unpronounceable, like the name of a god. He must not be recognized, on pain of one’s own destruction. ‘Had I only known what I know now, I would have turned white as a corpse.’ Twice the dreamer excuses himself with the words, ‘But I suspected nothing.’ Should we really give credence to this?

“Hölderlin is twenty-four as this apparent mishap befalls him. He has been a pupil at the Maulbronn Cloister, has studied Theology in the Tübingen Seminary with fellows like Hegel and Schelling, the future philosophical elite of the country, and has been infected there with the enthusiasm for the French business; for ten years he has been regularly writing poems. Now he has his first job as private tutor to a certain Charlotte von Kalb, who brings him into the vicinity of Schiller, himself the younger man’s long-time role model and now his first editor as well. So much for cursory biography: it is quickly told, hardly exciting, and in fact rather typical for a pastor’s son of his time and with his particular interests. And it tells us nothing of the soaring inner life of this young man, his daring projects and plans, his well-developed self-awareness. Here we have someone trembling with a sense of mission, to whom his homeland will soon become, on his own testimony, too narrow, a poet of the most radical extremity in both thinking and feeling and, by the way, the most modern poet of all. What Hölderlin offers is the highest standard for poetry. Does Goethe have any idea whom he has before him? …


“A primal scene from two hundred years ago, quoted here because it touches on certain questions that still concern our trade today. Two poets, each imagining himself closer to the origin, and wanting to reach farther into the future. Each in his own way aspired to the greatness of Homer. And so different were their temperaments, and the views on art that followed from them, that it’s worthwhile to take them seriously. In musical terms, the differences separating the two men are as grave as those between, say, Mozart and Beethoven. Heroic passion, sensibility, and the power of the imagination will soon part company, and there will appear something far more explosive than mere lyric poetry—the harsh realities of morality, religion, and the myth of the nation. Goethe and Hölderlin embody the history of a split, the division of poetry into the confessional/private and the liturgical/ public, a duality that from this moment on and for all time will remain tense. Hölderlin’s lack of interest in folk songs and, in general, in every short, intimate form of lyric, which Goethe understood as the daily declaration of love to life itself, is well known. On the one hand, a poetics of experience, or better, poetry of occasion, as the elder poet himself defined his activity—and on the other, oracular speech in confederation with the forces of nature. Or in the words of the vitriolic Bertolt Brecht: ‘the beautiful contradictory unity fell to pieces immediately after Goethe, and HEINE took the completely profane, HÖLDERLIN the completely pontifical line.’

“No, what happened there in Jena was no mere faux pas. This misrecognition was methodical, it was a consciously executed evasive maneuver. As far as Goethe is concerned, one would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to his Olympian myopia, his affable mildness toward all phenomena. As far as Hölderlin is concerned, however, it was, clearly, an arrogant attempt to encounter the elder at eye-level. … Three years later, Hölderlin embodies the highest standard of poetry in his time. After reading the ‘Wanderer’ hymns, Goethe advises the now fully-matured Hölderlin to give the idylls another try. He urges him in all seriousness to switch genres, and to choose the human instead of the divine perspective. But too late; Hölderlin has already been writing lines like: ‘Meanwhile I am grown old, the ice-pole blanched me, / And in the southern fire my curls fell out.’ In Paris, guillotine and terror hold sway, and thus speaks the hysteric. But Goethe’s advice covers up something more fundamental: his disconcertment about the power of negation within the younger man, his revulsion before the other’s oddly barbaric figurativeness. So unexpectedly does the wanderer in Hölderlin’s poem walk out into the African plains, and so unexpectedly does he then stand all of a sudden at the North Pole that the listener is seized by a feeling of dizziness, as if time and space had been unhinged, the earth forevermore a raving globe. Here the world is truly out of joint, and it cannot be restored in any idyll; it quakes under the giant strides of the Revolution, of which Hölderlin, helplessly fascinated, once writes, and we suspect he had in mind not only the revolution in France. We are reminded here of Schlemihl’s seven-league boots, and in general of all the high-flyers and eternal wanderers of incipient Romanticism; and from here it was only a short step to Rimbaud’s self-imposed silence in Africa and to the surrealists of our day. What provoked Goethe’s deepest mistrust, however, was something else. Behind the Hölderlinian longing for the return of the Greek gods lurks already, in an Apollonian light, the shadow of Nihilism. Nothing and no and bare and empty are the most-used ciphers in this spellbinding language. ‘Life sleeps in chains here, dead in the husk of snow, / And the iron sleep awaits the day in vain.’ We can hardly imagine with what uneasiness Goethe, in 1797, took note of such metaphorics. That he finally swallowed them is to his credit. upon his recommendation, the deadly-serious ‘Wanderer’ was accepted in the journal Horen, in which his own frivolous Roman Elegies first appeared. And yet, what tragic diplomacy in the war of generations: Hölderlin’s elegy appears without the author’s name.”

From “The Stroke of Apollo,” by Durs Grünbein
Translated by John Crutchfield

Read more in Little Star #1!

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