[This page by Susan Ranson]
For anyone who has an injury that is all but untreatable, that isolates and frustrates and replaces most freedoms with extremes of hope and despair, these lines extend Shakespeareanly into the furthest reaches of understanding. Hölderlin knew great mental pain. In this poem he writes it from the inside with astonishing accuracy of detail, yet expresses it classically with balance and final synthesis that enhance its immediacy.
He takes us in stanza 1 straight into the darkness that symbolizes for him the loss of the divine and the meaning of life, then we share the wrenching backward look at free earlier years; in stanza 5, the shock of his altered life; in stanzas 6–9, and throughout, exhausting conflicts of emotions; and in stanza 10 onwards the glimpse of release – which in the legend was simply (but dazzlingly, to the son of a god), a promise that he would be mortal. In the last stanza, the return of Heracles (Hercules) is translated by Michael Hamburger as a Second Coming, for elsewhere (‘The Only One’) Hölderlin has named Christ as the brother of Heracles. Hamburger interprets this to mean the successor of the ancient Greek gods (Hölderlin: His Poems Translated, London, 1952, p. 65).
‘Chiron’ is a later version of a poem entitled ‘The Blind Minstrel’, which is similar in structure, subject and even wording but lacks insight into the extremes of mental pain. The singer of the poem grieves for youth and sight/light but the imagery is brighter; the night holds him in a sacred spell rather than a fierce grip; the landscapes are those of daylight in summer. The singer follows the Thunderer (in this earlier poem there is no mention of Heracles) as if he were indeed the sun, down below the horizon and up to release, because that way his song will live, but there is no bitter relationship to be purged by the return of a god, more a final sunburst of light and colour and, as for Chiron, a glorious knowledge that the singer will be able to buy healing with his life.
‘Chiron’ is one of a group of nine poems published as ‘Night Songs’; please see the notes for ‘Tears’.