[This page by Susan Ranson] 

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843)

Hölderlin has been likened to a comet; certainly his poetic career was short and leaves a brilliant aura. He is joyous and intense, embracing a non-abstract Hellenic idealism bound up with realistic social and aesthetic awareness; although he followed an intellectual path his language is simple, concise and arresting, his imagination unfanciful and his thoughts clear; in the same way his imagery, pared back to the general and classical, remains in the mind. His greatest achievement is his flowing, spare lyricism, clothed in complex Greek metres to powerful effect.

Hölderlin studied theology at Tübingen, where he influenced his friends Hegel and Schelling and wrote poems under the influence of Schiller. Already Hellenism was drawing him: see notes on Hyperion. However, he was no dreaming escapist: ancient Greece and its gods were life forces and personifiers of human qualities as real to him as though he lived in that time, but he also thought deeply about conditions around him. From these sources of inspiration he slowly developed, from 1800, the desire to encourage improved social and literary milieux, more serene and more founded in the ways of the natural world, better suited to his country than its industrial values, and, in its poetry, than the abstractions and contrived folksong styles it had fostered. He even took his independence from his peers so far as to adopt an individual, somewhat simplified, spelling system.

An early impetus was meeting Susette Gontard in 1795, whom he called by the Greek name Diotima (stressed as Díotíma). Through her beauty and intellect she enabled him to experience personally the unifying of his Greek ideals with the less noble realities of humankind. However, their enforced parting caused him to doubt himself and his art; he already wished to find a way to change German culture but did not have the influence he needed; in an unfinished drama, The Death of Empedocles (1798) he works through feelings of despairing isolation towards these new ideas. Empedocles claims that ‘great Nature, full of high purpose, surrounds the conjecturing mind of Man, so that he can transform the world’. In the middle years of his creative life, around and after 1800, Hölderlin gradually brought this ideal into his own poetry; in 1797 he was already writing exquisite short odes in the manner of the ancient Greeks Alcaeus and Asclepiades, in which his personal style reaches a fine equilibrium, and by 1799 was abandoning the more abstract, more purely conceptual subjects of his early work.

After five years in Frankfurt and Homburg, Hölderlin returned in 1800 to his mother’s house in Nürtingen. He began to write the great elegies, such as ‘The Archipelago’, and  ‘Brod und Wein’; ‘Bread and Wine’, and incorporate into them his new themes of uniting ancient values with modern life, religion with the day-to-day, a weakening Hellenism with a (still personal and unorthodox) Christianity. In ‘Brod und Wein’; ‘Bread and Wine’, Christ is seen as following directly in the line of the Greek gods, bringing bread from the earth and wine from Dionysus. Hölderlin’s Christianity gradually deepened through his last four or five years as a creative poet. He was living with his mother, a Christian, and feared the future more vividly. Episodes of raving became more frequent, and in 1802 Susette Gontard died, which may also have speeded the breakdown of his health.

Yet even in his last productive stage, 1802–05, Hölderlin again developed his poetic style with his late and longer odes, what are called his late hymns in free verse, and other important mature poems (e.g. ‘Hälfte des Lebens’; ‘Life at Mid-point’), in which he continues to unify his thinking, to merge Greek into European culture, find a closer relationship with his environment and mingle and overlay the personal with the impersonal. ‘Germania’, ‘Der Rhein’; ‘The Rhine’, ‘Der Einzige’; ‘The Only One’, ‘Patmos’, ‘Ganymed’, are among Hölderlin’s greatest achievements.

Writing cost him a great deal, and the concentration he needed to write his final poems may have helped to burn him out. By 1805 he became permanently ill and the schizophrenia finally overwhelmed his intellect. From August 1806 and for the next thirty-six years he lived in a private house in Tübingen, where he was looked after, left to do as he wished and treated understandingly; his emotional equilibrium, at least, improved; he played the piano, wrote simple poems, made literary plans that could not materialize, received occasional visitors.

It was not until the onset of this last period of his life that Hölderlin’s work began to be known among the group of Romantics that included Achim von Arnim, the Schlegels, Tieck, and Brentano. Bettina von Arnim considered him ‘the greatest of elegiac poets’. Hölderlin's work greatly influenced German-language modernist poets including Stefan George, Rilke and Trakl. Friedrich Nietzsche, though not a follower, owed him more than he acknowledged. Today Hölderlin’s reputation is such that he can stand alongside Goethe and Rilke, for instance, as one of Germany’s supreme masters of lyrical form.

Hölderlin was also the first person to coin the word ‘communism’. The word appears in the early 1790s, in a short fragmentary text called Communismus der Geister [Communism of Spirits] (on this point, see Joseph Albernaz, reading list below).

Hölderlin's works include:

The earlier odes

Hyperion (published 1797-99)

‘Brod und Wein’; ‘Bread and Wine’ (written 1801)

‘Der Rhein’; ‘The Rhine’ (written 1801-02)

‘Mnemosyne’ (written 1803)

‘Lebensalter’; ‘Times of Life’ (written 1803)

‘Hälfte des Lebens’; ‘Life at Mid-point’ (written 1803)

‘Tränen’; ‘Tears’ (written 1803)

‘Chiron’ (written 1803)

Letter to Casimir Böhlendorf, written 2 December 1802 

Please click on the above links for further information.


English translations

Jeremy Adler and Charlie Louth (eds. and trans.), Friedrich Hölderlin, Essays and Letters (London: Penguin, 2009)

David Constantine (trans.), Friedrich Hölderlin. Selected Poems, 2nd edn (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1996)

David Constantine (trans.), Hölderlin’s Sophocles: Oedipus and Antigone (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 2001)

Michael Hamburger (trans.), Hölderlin: His Poems Translated, with a Critical Study of the Poet, 2nd edn (London: Harvill Press, 1952)

[I have followed this invaluable and extensive edition in the above notes – SR]

Michael Hamburger (trans.), Friedrich Hölderlin, Selected Poems and Fragments, ed. by Jeremy Adler (London: Penguin, 1998)

Claude Neuman (trans.), Friedrich Hölderlin, Odes éoliennes / Aeolic Odes, trilingual edition: German, French and English (Cœuvres-et-Valsery: Ressouvenances, 2019)

Many of Hölderlin's English-language translators are important poets in their own right: Jeremy Adler, David Constantine, Michael Hamburger, Christopher Middleton, Edwin Morgan.

The British-American poet Geoffrey Hill published a poem on Hölderlin entitled 'Little Apocalypse' in his collection For the Unfallen.

Further Reading in English

Joseph Albernaz, ‘The Missing Word of History: Hölderlin and “Communism”’, 97:1 (2022), 7-29

C. M. Bowra, Inspiration and Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1955). Chapter on Hölderlin's later hymns

E. M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935). Chapter on Hölderlin

D. J. Constantine, ‘Journeying and Homecoming in the Life and Poetry of Hölderlin’, Oxford German Studies 5 (1970), 28-47

David Constantine, ‘The Meaning of a Hölderlin Poem’, Oxford German Studies 9 (1978), 45-67

David Constantine, The Significance of Locality in the Poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin (Leeds: Maney/MHRA, 1979)

David Constantine, ‘Translation and Exegesis in Hölderlin’, Modern Language Review 81:2 (1986), 388-97

David Constantine, Hölderlin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988)

David Constantine, ‘Saying and Not-Saying in Hölderlin’s Work’, in Taboos in German Literature, ed. by David Jackson (Oxford and Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1996), pp. 43-58

David Constantine, Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Hannah Vandegrift Eldridge, ‘Poetology as Symptom in Friedrich Hölderlin’, The German Quarterly 86:4 (2013), 444-63

Hannah Vandegrift Eldridge, Lyric Orientations: Hölderlin, Rilke, and the Poetics of Community (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016)

Michael Hamburger, Reason and Energy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), Chapter on Hölderlin's later poetry

Martin Heidegger, Elucidations of Hölderlin's poetry, trans. by Keith Hoeller (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000)

Alice A. Kuzniar, Delayed Endings: Nonclosure in Novalis and Hölderlin (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987)

Jean Laplanche, Hölderlin and the Question of the Father, trans. by Luke Carson, intro. by Rainer Nägele, English Literary Studies 97 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2007)

Charlie Louth, Hölderlin and the Dynamics of Translation (Oxford: Legenda, 1998)

Charlie Louth, 'The Question of Influence: Hölderlin’s Dealings with Pindar and Schiller', Modern Language Review, 95:4 (2000), 1038-52

Charlie Louth, ‘The Frankfurt Edition of Hölderlin’s Hymns: A Review Article’, Modern Language Review 98:4 (2003), 898-907

Charlie Louth, ‘Hölderlin’s Augury: Birds and Bird-Flight in his Ancient-Modern World’, in The Reception of Classical Antiquity in German Literature, ed. by Anne Simon and Katie Fleming, London German Studies XIV (Munich: Iudicium, 2013), pp. 82-103

Paul de Man, ‘Hölderlin and the Romantic Tradition’, in Paul de Man, Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and Other Papers (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), pp. 123-36

Mark Ogden, The Problem of Christ in the Work of Friedrich Hölderlin (London: MHRA / IGS, 1991)

Mark William Roche, Dynamic stillness: philosophical concepts of Ruhe in Schiller, Hölderlin, Büchner, and Heine (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1987)

Karin Schutjer, Narrating Community after Kant: Schiller, Goethe, and Hölderlin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001)

Martin Simon, Friedrich Hölderlin: The Theory and Practice of Religious Poetry (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1988)

Tom Spencer, ‘Divine Difference: On the Theological Divide Between Hölderlin and Hegel’, The German Quarterly 84 (2011), 437-56

E. L. Stahl, Hölderlin's Symbolism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1945)

E. L. Stahl, ‘Hölderlin’s “Friedensfeier” and the Structure of Mythic Poetry’, Oxford German Studies 2 (1967), 55-74

Gabriel Trop, Poetry as a Way of Life: Aesthetics and Askesis in the German Eighteenth Century (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015)

Further Reading in German

Sabine Doering, Aber was ist diß? Formen und Funktionen der Frage in Hölderlins dichterischem Werk, Palaestra 294 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992)

Rüdiger Görner, Hölderlins Mitte. Zur Ästhetik eines Ideals (Munich: Iudicium, 1993)

Éva Kocziszky, Hölderlins Orient (Würzburg: Könishausen & Neumann, 2009)

Otto Lorenz, Schweigen in der Dichtung: Hölderlin-Rilke-Celan. Studien zur Poetik deiktisch-elliptischer Schreibweisen, Palaestra 284 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989)

Thomas Roberg (ed.), Friedrich Hölderlin: neue Wege der Forschung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2003)

Web Links in English


Mid-life, a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. Translated by Daniel Bosch


Hypocritical Poets, a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. Translated by Daniel Bosch

Web Links in German


German radio broadcast about Hölderlin on the 175th anniversary of his death, 7 June 2018


German radio broadcast about Hölderlin in Tübingen, 7 June 2018