Hölderlin Fragments of Hymns 1800~1805

These four strange and beautiful fragments were written not long before his mental collapse and are virtually the last poetry of any quality that he wrote.

Translated by Steven J. Willett

Plaque at Hölderlinturm am Neckarufer in Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg

„1807–1843.
Hier lebte u. entschlief Hölderlin“

Note: The last line of Poem No. 4 ends with a comma because the poet never completed it. In the translation I have chosen to reproduce the German compound words like goldenklingend. They are not part of normal English, but our language is quite capable of using them and that use would be a distinct advantage both in writing and translating poetry.

1.

And no one knows

But meanwhile let me wander

And pick the wild berries

To quench my love of you

Along your paths, O earth

Here where — — —

                                                         and roses’ thorns

And sweet lime-trees shed scent beside

The beeches, at noon, when in yellow wheatfields

Growth rustles, on the upright stalk,

And the ear bends its drooping neck aside

Like autumn, but now beneath the high

Vault of oaks, as I ponder

And question upward, the clock bell

I know so well

Rings distantly, goldenchiming, at the hour, when

The bird awakes again.  So all goes well.

2.

Like slowly flying birds,

He looks ahead

The Prince and coolly all

Occasions blow against his breast when

The silence rings him, high

In the air, but richly gleaming below

Lies his dominions’ wealth, and with him are

His young in their first conquest-seeking flight.

But he restrains them with

The wingbeat’s blow.

3.

Like seacoasts, when celestials

Begin to build and into them

Sails ceaselessly, a splendor, the work

Of waves, one after another, and the earth

Apparels herself, one of the Happiest Ones then

Setting aright all things in highest spirits, thus breaks 

Amid song—with the winegod, auspicious to the interpreter,

And with the darling

Of Greece’s lands

The foamborn, glancing decorously—

The magnificent gift on shore. 

4.

When namely the juice of the vine,

The gentle vintage

                                               searches for shade

And clustered grapes are swelling in the cool

Vault of leaves,

For men a strength,

But breathing perfume for girls,

And bees, 

Drowsed drunk with all the fragrance

Of spring, when the spirit, like a nursling

Of the sun, touches them, wander after it

Possessed, but when

A sunbeam burns, swerve round

With humming, divining much

                                                    on that account

                                 the oak rustles,





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6 Responses to Hölderlin Fragments of Hymns 1800~1805

  1. Deap says:

    I shall now look at my own budding, but scrappy, backyard grape arbor with more poetic eyes.

    ……….”The gentle vintage …….searches for shade
    And clustered grapes are swelling in the cool
    Vault of leaves,………….”

  2. José L. Campos says:

    I was struck by those very words. There is something to the Platonic ideas and the objectivity of beauty.

  3. Tom67 says:

    I am German but grew up partly in North America. I must say your translation is very, very good. Congratulations!

  4. Rhonda says:

    “the oak rustles,”

    That is the best ending ever! Especially for Holderlin!

    Your postings have inspired me to learn more about Holderlin and about the Classical Greek poets and philosophers that were his grounding and foundation.

    Holderlin’s biography is tragic but also inspiring, not least because of his later long relationship with Ernst Zimmer. I couldn’t find a good tome on Holderlin’s life; I really wanted to know more about his 30 years living in the tower in the care of Zimmer, after he’d been declared ‘incurably insane’. What a story! Someone should write that. The Wiki entry is poor. I offer this link, for those that may be interested in a brief summary of Holderlin’s life: http://solitary-walker.blogspot.com/2012/01/holderlins-tower.html

    I wish I had received a classical education and learned Latin and Greek as did our forebears. We are a poorer culture for this loss.

    • Steven+J.+Willett says:

      If you know German, you might try

      Rüdiger Safranski, Hölderlin: Komm! ins Offene, Freund!

      I don’t know any good English biography. Unfortunately he is not at all read in America and would certainly be despised in the poet foundering MFA

    • Deap says:

      They still taught Latin in public high school in the 1960s’, not sure when it passed out of the general US curriculum.

      When in college also at that time we were required to have “breadth requirements”, well outside our majors, in order to qualify for a BA. Those also went by the wayside after the 1960’s and the student revolts demanding more relevant educations addressing their present “real needs”.

      The irony being is every single course I was required to take for “breadth”, which I had no use for at the time, ended up being a critical part of my own evolving critical awareness of the real world outside of the ivory tower. I felt blessed, but only in retrospect, that my higher education required this classical broad based exposure if one was to claim at that time they were “college educated”.

      Yes it was a lot of dead white guys, but so far they have not been replaced in the soundness of much of their underlying observations. Just the opposite. Only reinforced, as I made my way through the subsequent decades of my own life. Can one really find a more profound sweep of human insights than already set out in Greek mythology? Or ancient Sanskrit texts.

      Our local community college recently changed the “Foreign Language Department” to “The School of Modern Languages”. That bespeaks volumes right there.

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