Brod und Wein; Bread and Wine

[This page by Susan Ranson]

‘Brod und Wein’; ‘Bread and Wine’

With his last elegy, Bread and Wine, written in 1801, Hölderlin is at a psychological and poetic pivot. He already stands in the shadow of illness, and his mother’s anxiety for him to return to a more Christian standpoint is gaining a greater hold over him. In parallel, poetically, his former attachment to Greek arts and values loosens: recent travels across to France and Switzerland have opened his eyes to grand natural landscapes and brought him to visualize a national poetry that could have a serenity quite different from flambent Greek inspiration. In this elegy, night is the symbol of a time of preparation for a new era. Resting, poets must now find the strength and discipline they will need to be worthy not only of the ancient writers but of restored divine revelation. Expressing what is still a vague, semi-internalized Christianity, Hölderlin sees Christ as the last of the old gods and the first of the new, bringing gifts of bread and wine to symbolize his fusing of the two in an age when ‘eyes thaw out in the light’.

The scansion of the original is more regular than in this translation but not rigorously so. Line 3 below illustrates the basic metre, but Hölderlin uses a dozen variations at least and builds stanzas of powerful elegance. Rilke’s elegies come inescapably to mind, moving, even taller, in the wake of Hölderlin’s.

Further Reading

Stephen Fennell, ‘Friedrich Hölderlin, “Brod und Wein”’, in Landmarks in German Poetry, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000), pp. 97-120