Der Rhein; The Rhine

[This page by Susan Ranson]

Der Rhein; The Rhine (written 1801-02)

In the background of many of Hölderlin’s poems there are hints of idealized landscapes; like those of J. M. W. Turner, an almost exact contemporary, they are barely discernible through washes of light and colour. Idealization was fashionable at the time, but these two men of genius made luminous use of it on a scale far removed from the norm.

Hölderlin’s landscapes, especially the earlier ones, are peopled with the gods of Greece (to him, personifications of essential human values), rather than their real communities, and until the poems of 1801–02 are non-specific, classical Mediterranean and symbolic backdrops, rather than foregrounds, to the poems.

It is hard for us to imagine how inaccessible the knowledge of wider landscapes was to most people before the camera. In these two years of 1801 and 1802, at the time of writing ‘The Rhine’, Hölderlin was travelling frequently, often on foot, between Homburg, the Alps, his home town of Nürtingen, Stuttgart, the Auvergne and Bordeaux. He found that experiencing the natural world was restorative and began to think deeply about the beneficial effect of creating a national poetry that carried within it, as simply and immediately expressed as possible, these grand and beautiful nearer landscapes (‘At the Source of the Danube’ (Am Quell der Donau); ‘The Journey’ (Die Wanderung); ‘The Ister’; ‘The Rhine’). The final two lines of ‘Patmos’ directly state that German poetry is the interpretive bulwark of present-day literary and physical reality.

Landscapes he has actually walked through now appear in Hölderlin’s poems. In ‘The Rhine’ they are as clear as paintings, or in fact as a film, since they stir and thrash with movement. No longer a backdrop, and in the action of the poems taking the place that the gods have formerly taken, landscapes are now players of spiritual power that interact with human beings to strengthen them in the struggles of their creative and everyday lives. The divine is manifested directly in the natural world, working locally through it to support and improve the communities of Hölderlin’s own land. He had always placed mythological heroes in his classical landscapes as mediators between gods and men, that is, as examples of the highest values; his new interpreters are contemporary cultural figures moving in their personal landscapes.

In taking this new direction, a further development of his concept of unity linking all levels of life (stanza 13), Hölderlin does not wish to demolish the memories and influence of Greece but to extend them into an influence more closely relevant to building a national poetry. Until this time, and for some time afterwards also, there was no established tradition of German poetry except that modelled (often unimaginatively) on the Volkslied, or that which was as much philosophy as poetry. Even Eichendorff, for instance, eighteen years Hölderlin’s junior, can write over-conventionally. Hölderlin, perhaps alone with Goethe, broke all moulds.

This is still too early in the nineteenth century for us to find close-up detail quite like Matthew Arnold’s ‘frail-leafed white anemone, | Dark bluebells drenched with dews of summer eves’, but Hölderlin introduces us to the Rhine (stanza 2) at its source with a cinematic description of the towering layers of mountain rock and vegetation above it, at once achieving his stated ambition of accurate natural depiction. Even the sound of the young river roars in our ears. Then we follow its still rebellious course in the open, between its restraining banks, and watch it gain discipline, calm and breadth enough to create landscapes in which productive energy can flourish (to stanza 6).

In stanzas 7–9, in parallel with the river, the poem broadens out into a meditation on subjects arising from the river’s trajectory: the first importance to us of following the ‘pure source’, the distilled inner conviction of youth, with restraint and modesty so that we can live to work and create without the need for restrictive surroundings. Rousseau appeared to Hölderlin to exemplify the complete, creative, useful life, one that flowed powerfully with words that inspired others (stanza 10).

In the next two stanzas the poem follows Rousseau (representing the artist in need of rest) to Lake Biel in the Swiss Alps; in 1765 he had stayed on St Peter’s Island in the lake and reported that he had never been happier. Hölderlin meditates on ecstatic relief, ‘the burden of joy’ (see ‘Bread and Wine’, stanza VIII, lines 10–12, where he laments the lack of minds strong enough to endure divine revelation) and on the supreme value of recreation in natural surroundings for obtaining rest and relief.

Stanzas 13 and 14 offer a scene of spiritual equilibrium, reconciliation and peace and the last addresses Hölderlin’s close friend Sinclair, from whom in the following few years of swiftly increasing illness he would obtain invaluable practical help. Night, mentioned in these final stanzas, may mean what it does in ‘Bread and Wine’, a positive time of preparation for improvement.

Following the downward flow of the river there is a parallel flow from the hints of the old gods (stanzas 1 and 2) to the demi-god, the river, gradually maturing, to human heroes (stanza 10), to the figure of Rousseau as a modern hero, to Sinclair the good man and friend, whose mind is open to a divinity closer to the Christian God. This is a poem composed of movement, restrained in its banks by its metre yet free in length of line. Its pace, due to short lines, and its uninterrupted flow in the first stanzas (1, 2, 5), which are written as single sentences, innovatively increase its power. Here the influence on Rilke seems to send us to such poems as ‘The Ball’ (New Poems, Part II) and Sonnets to Orpheus 1.XXIII, which are both poems of flight and both written in one sentence. Rilke, who deeply admired Hölderlin, at times uses similar metres and extended sentences to enhance his meaning; one wonders whether he would have been the same poet without Hölderlin in his mind.

Pindar’s ‘Victory Odes’, the only poems of his that have come down to us, are Hölderlin’s model for the metres and verse forms of ‘The Rhine’ and later hymns. As do Hölderlin’s, their stanzas and lines vary in length, to no apparent pattern. In ‘The Rhine’, Hölderlin writes in lines of 3 feet overwhelmingly, with 4 feet being much less frequent and 2 or 5 feet unusual. The lines of 5 feet tend to appear at or near the beginning or end of stanzas, as if to anchor them.

Further Reading in English

David Kenosian, ‘Voices of Rousseau and Temporality in Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Der Rhein”’, Comparative Literature Studies 54:3 (2017), 561-80