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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 filmic 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.

Der Rhein                       An Isaak von Sinclair

The Rhine                     To Isaak von Sinclair

Im dunklen Efeu saß ich, an der Pforte
Des Waldes, eben, da der goldene Mittag,
Den Quell besuchend, herunterkam
Von Treppen des Alpengebirgs,
Das mir die göttlichgebaute,
Die Burg der Himmlischen heißt
Nach alter Meinung, wo aber
Geheim noch manches entschieden
Zu Menschen gelanget; von da
Vernahm ich ohne Vermuten
Ein Schicksal, denn noch kaum
War mir im warmen Schatten
Sich manches beredend, die Seele
Italia zu geschweift
Und fernhin an die Küsten Moreas.

In the dark ivy at the forest’s gate
I sat, as golden noon, visiting
The spring, descended from Alpine stair-flights,
Those that I think of as built
By heavenly hands and name as
The stronghold of the gods,
As ancient opinion has it,
Yet where much they determine in secret
Still reaches men; and so
I learned, but without suspecting,
A destiny, for by then
My soul freely debating
In warm shadows had barely
Drifted to Italy
And the far-away coasts of Morea.

Jetzt aber drin im Gebirg,
Tief unter den silbernen Gipfeln
Und unter fröhlichem Grün,
Wo die Wälder schauernd zu ihm
Und der Felsen Häupter übereinander
Hinabschaun, taglang, dort
Im kältesten Abgrund hört’
Ich um Erlösung jammern
Den Jüngling, es hörten ihn, wie er tobt’,
Und die Mutter Erd’ anklagt’,
Und den Donnerer, der ihn gezeuget,
Erbarmend die Eltern, doch
Die Sterblichen flohn von dem Ort,
Denn furchtbar war, da lichtlos er
In den Fesseln sich wälzte,
Das Rasen des Halbgotts.

But now, here in the mountains,
Deep below silver crags
And the rejoicing green,
Where the shuddering forests daylong
And the heads of the rocks, one over another,
Peer down towards him, there
In the coldest cleft I heard
Him yammer to be set free,
The stripling; his parents would hear him rage,
Accuse Earth his mother
And his begetter the Thunderer,
And pity his raging, yet
All human souls fled from the place
For it was terrible, the chained
Lightless demi-god’s
Twisting and raving.

Die Stimme wars des edelsten der Ströme,
Des freigeborenen Rheins,
Und anderes hoffte der, als droben von den Brüdern,
Dem Tessin und dem Rhodanus,
Er schied und wandern wollt', und ungeduldig ihn
Nach Asia trieb die königliche Seele.
Doch unverständig ist
Das Wünschen vor dem Schicksal.
Die Blindesten aber
Sind Göttersöhne. Denn es kennet der Mensch
Sein Haus und dem Tier ward, wo
Es bauen solle, doch jenen ist
Der Fehl, daß sie nicht wissen wohin?
In die unerfahrne Seele gegeben.

It was the voice of the noblest of all rivers,
The free-born Rhine,
And his hopes changed when, parting from his brothers
Higher up, Ticino, Rhône,
He inclined to wandering, and his royal soul
Drove him impatiently on towards Asia.
But it is less than wise to choose
Wishes before destiny;
The blindest, however,
Are the sons of gods. For a man will recognize
His home, and the animal where
To build, but to those other
Inexperienced souls is given the failing
Of not knowing which is their direction.

Ein Rätsel ist Reinentsprungenes. Auch
Der Gesang kaum darf es enthullen. Denn
Wie du anfingst, wirst du bleiben,
So viel auch wirket die Not,
Und die Zucht, das meiste nämlich
Vermag die Geburt,
Und der Lichtstrahl, der
Dem Neugebornen begegnet.
Wo aber ist einer,
Um frei zu bleiben
Sein Leben lang, und des Herzens Wunsch
Allein zu erfüllen, so
Aus günstigen Höhn, wie der Rhein,
Und so aus heiligem Schoße
Glücklich geboren, wie jener?

Pure source is a riddle. Poems even
May hardly show the solutions. For as
You started, you will continue,
Whatever the workings of discipline
Or necessity; for most is
Achieved by birth
And the ray of light
That meets the new-born infant.
But where is there anyone
Who may remain free
Lifelong and fulfil solely the heart’s wish,
In heights that will favour him, like the Rhine,
So born, out of holy womb,
Fortunate as this river?

Drum ist ein Jauchzen sein Wort.
Nicht liebt er, wie andere Kinder,
In Wickelbanden zu weinen;
Denn wo die Ufer zuerst
An die Seit ihm schleichen, die krummen,
Und durstig umwindend ihn,
Den Unbedachten, zu ziehn
Und wohl zu behüten begehren
Im eigenen Zahne, lachend
Zerreißt er die Schlangen und stürzt
Mit der Beut und wenn in der Eil’
Ein Größerer ihn nicht zähmt,
Ihn wachsen läßt, wie der Blitz, muß er
Die Erde spalten, und wie Bezauberte fliehn
Die Wälder ihm nach und zusammensinkend die Berge.

His voice is therefore jubilant.
He has not the infant’s fondness
For grizzling in swaddling-bands;
When the banks first creep zigzag
Alongside, thirstily winding
Around him to draw him, heedless,
With them and perhaps desiring
To protect him fast in their teeth: laughing
And tearing the snakes apart
He plunges away with the spoil;
And if not controlled by a force
Greater than he is that leaves him
The space to grow, like lightning strike he must
Split the earth open; and as if enchanted the woods
Flee after him, and the hills, sinking about him.

Ein Gott will aber sparen den Söhnen
Das eilende Leben und lächelt,
Wenn unenthaltsam, aber gehemmt
Von heiligen Alpen, ihm
In der Tiefe, wie jener, zürnen die Ströme.
In solcher Esse wird dann
Auch alles Lautre geschmiedet,
Und schön ists, wie er drauf,
Nachdem er die Berge verlassen,
Stillwandelnd sich im deutschen Lande
Begnüget und das Sehnen stillt
Im guten Geschäfte, wenn er das Land baut
Der Vater Rhein und liebe Kinder nährt
In Städten, die er gegründet.

But a god would wish to spare his sons
Too rushed a life, and smiles
On hearing intemperate rivers, obstructed
By sacred alps, boil
Like this one to their depths. And then
In such a forge everything
That is pure is hammered out,
And it is beautiful,
Leaving the mountains behind,
That he should slip through Germany’s landscapes
In silent delight, stilling his longing
With useful labour working the land
As Father Rhine, and nourishing children
In towns that he has founded.

Doch nimmer, nimmer vergißt ers.
Denn eher muß die Wohnung vergehn,
Und die Satzung und zum Unbild werden
Der Tag der Menschen, ehe vergessen
Ein solcher dürfte den Ursprung
Und die reine Stimme der Jugend.
Wer war es, der zuerst
Die Liebesbande verderbt
Und Stricke von ihnen gemacht hat?
Dann haben des eigenen Rechts
Und gewiß des himmlischen Feuers
Gespottet die Trotzigen, dann erst
Die sterblichen Pfade verachtend
Verwegnes erwählt
Und den Göttern gleich zu werden getrachtet.

But never will he forget.
For sooner must law and home hearth crumble,
And mankind’s day turn ugly, before
One such as this could think to
Forget his origin
And the distilled voice of his youth.
Who was it first
Distorted the ties of love
And made them into ropes?
Then defiant they took to mocking
Their own justice and doubtless even
The fire of heaven; then at last,
Despising our human paths,
Chose temerity,
And strove to become the equal of the gods.

Es haben aber an eigner
Unsterblichkeit die Götter genug, und bedürfen
Die Himmlischen eines Dings,
So sinds Heroen und Menschen
Und Sterbliche sonst. Denn weil
Die Seligsten nichts fühlen von selbst,
Muß wohl, wenn solches zu sagen
Erlaubt ist, in der Götter Namen
Teilnehmend fühlen ein andrer,
Den brauchen sie; jedoch ihr Gericht
Ist, daß sein eigenes Haus
Zerbreche der und das Liebste
Wie den Feind schelt’ und sich Vater und Kind
Begrabe unter den Trümmern,
Wenn einer, wie sie, sein will und nicht
Ungleiches dulden, der Schwärmer.

But they have already enough
With their own immortality, the gods; if they need
One thing, these heavenly beings,
It is heroes and men and other
Such creatures of ours. For since
The most highly blessed themselves feel nothing,  
Clearly – if we may so put it –
Another must do this in sympathy
And in their names, and him 
They need; yet by their law a man
Must break up his house and shout at
Those dearest to him like enemies
And in the ruins bury
His father and child, if he
Aspires to be like them and will not
Allow a distinction, poor dreamer.

Drum wohl ihm, welcher fand
Ein wohlbeschiedenes Schicksal,
Wo noch der Wanderungen
Und süß der Leiden Erinnerung
Aufrauscht am sichern Gestade,
Daß da und dorthin gern
Er sehn mag bis an die Grenzen
Die bei der Geburt ihm Gott
Zum Aufenthalte gezeichnet.
Dann ruht er, seligbescheiden,
Denn alles, was er gewollt,
Das Himmlische, von selber umfängt
Es unbezwungen, lächelnd
Jetzt, da er ruhet, den Kühnen.

He is fortunate, anyone who has found
A destiny suited to him
On a safe shore, where the memory still
Ripples up to him of his wanderings
And sweetly his sufferings,
So that here and there, contented,
He may look as far as the limits
Delineated for him
At birth by God, for his life-course.
He is at peace, blessed, modest,
For all that he wished for, the heavenly,
Unforced and of itself
And smiling, embraces him,
Bold river, now that he rests.

Halbgötter denk’ ich jetzt
Und kennen muß ich die Teuern,
Weil oft ihr Leben so
Die sehnende Brust mir beweget.
Wem aber, wie, Rousseau, dir,
Unüberwindlich die Seele
Die starkausdauernde ward
Und sicherer Sinn
Und süße Gabe zu hören,
Zu reden so, daß er aus heiliger Fülle
Wie der Weingott, törig göttlich
Und gesetzlos sie die Sprache der Reinesten gibt
Verständlich den Guten, aber mit Recht
Die Achtungslosen mit Blindheit schlägt
Die entweihenden Knechte, wie nenn ich den Fremden?

My thoughts are on the demi-gods,
Dear beings inevitably familiar
For often their lives transport
My ever-longing heart;
But the man such as you, Rousseau,
Whose soul invincibly
Came to be long-enduring,
Who by sure sense
And sweet gifts of hearing and speech
Bestows out of divine abundance,
Like the wine-god, foolish, holy,
Beyond our laws the language of the purest,
Clear to the good but striking blind
The heedless and the blaspheming serving-man,
And justly: what do I call this stranger?

Die Söhne der Erde sind, wie die Mutter,
Alliebend, so empfangen sie auch
Mühlos, die Glücklichen, alles.
Drum überraschet es auch
Und schröckt den sterblichen Mann,
Wenn er den Himmel, den
Er mit den liebenden Armen
Sich auf die Schultern gehäuft
Und die Last der Freude bedenket;
Dann scheint ihm oft das Beste
Fast ganz vergessen da,
Wo der Strahl nicht brennt,
Im Schatten des Walds
Am Bielersee in frischer Grüne zu sein,
Und sorglosarm an Tönen
Anfängern gleich, bei Nachtigallen zu lernen.

The sons of the earth are, like the mother,
All-loving and so receive all things
With the effortlessness of serene fortune.
So it astonishes
And frightens a mortal man
To think of the heaven
He has heaped with loving arms
Onto his shoulders
And the burden of joy. 
Then often it seems to him best
To be almost forgotten
In the fresh green
By the lake at Biel,
In the shade of woods where the sun’s rays do not burn,
And carefree, destitute of notes,
To learn as beginners do, from nightingales.

Und herrlich ists, aus heiligem Schlafe dann
Erstehen und aus Waldes Kühle
Erwachend, abends nun
Dem milderen Licht entgegenzugehn,
Wenn, der die Berge gebaut
Und den Pfad der Ströme gezeichnet,
Nachdem er lächelnd auch
Der Menschen geschäftiges Leben
Das othemarme, wie Segel
Mit seinen Lüften gelenkt hat,
Auch ruht und zu der Schülerin jetzt
Versöhnend zu der Braut
Der Bildner sich
Der Tagsgott zu unserer Erde sich neiget.

And then it is magnificent to rise
From a sleep sanctified, to wake
From coolness of woods and walk
At evening towards the milder light,
When he who built the mountains
And drew the paths of the rivers
Has also, smiling, steered
With propelling breezes
Our busy, inadequately
Breathing lives like sails;
When he too rests, and reconciled
Now to his pupil, his bride,
The maker who is
The god of day inclines to our earth.

Dann feiern das Brautfest Menschen und Götter
Es feiern die Lebenden all,
Und ausgeglichen
Ist eine Weile das Schicksal.
Und die Flüchtlinge suchen die Herberg,
Und süßen Schlummer die Tapfern,
Die Liebenden aber
Sind, was sie waren, sie sind
Zu Hause, wo die Blume sich freuet
Unschädlicher Glut und die finsteren Bäume
Der Geist umsäuselt, aber die Unversöhnten
Sind umgewandelt und eilen
Die Hände sich ehe zu reichen,
Bevor das freundliche Licht
Hinuntergeht und die Nacht kommt.

Then gods and men and all living things
Will celebrate their bridal feast,
And fate is held
For that while in balance,
And fugitives seek shelter
And the brave their sweet sleep.
But lovers are
As they always were; they are
At home where flowers delight in flame
That does no harm and the spirit whispers
Round tenebrous trees, but the unreconciled
Are utterly changed and hasten
To offer their hands in the time
Before the friendly light
Sinks under and the night comes.

Doch einigen eilt
Dies schnell vorüber, andere
Behalten es länger.
Die ewigen Götter sind
Voll Lebens allzeit; bis in den Tod
Kann aber ein Mensch auch
Im Gedächtnis doch das Beste behalten,
Und dann erlebt er das Höchste.
Nur hat ein jeder sein Maß.
Denn schwer ist zu tragen
Das Unglück, aber schwerer das Glück.
Ein Weiser aber vermocht es
Vom Mittag bis in die Mitternacht,
Und bis der Morgen erglänzte
Beim Gastmahl helle zu bleiben.

For some this flies
At rapid speed, while others
Detain it longer.
The eternal gods live
Fully for ever, but even a man
Can hold the best
In his memory until his death
As the high point of his life,
Except that everyone has his measure.
It is hard to bear trouble,
Yet good fortune is harder to take.
But one wise man there has been
Who from noon to midnight and until
The radiant morning was able
To keep a clear head at the banquet.

Dir mag auf heißem Pfade unter Tannen oder
Im Dunkel des Eichwalds gehüllt
In Stahl, mein Sinclair! Gott erscheinen oder
In Wolken, du kennst ihn, da du kennest
Des Guten Kraft, und nimmer ist dir
Verborgen das Lächeln des Herrschers
Bei Tage, wenn
Es fieberhaft und angekettet das
Lebendige scheinet oder auch
Bei Nacht, wenn alles gemischt
Ist ordnungslos und wiederkehrt
Uralte Verwirrung.


On some hot path under the pines, dear Sinclair,
Or in the dark of the oakwoods
God may appear to you, sheathed in steel
Or cloud-wrapped, and you will know him because
You know the power of the Good, and never
Is the Lord’s smile hidden from you,
Whether by day,
When it seems to be the very essence of life,
Fevered and chained, or by night either,
When everything churns,
Disordered, and primeval chaos