Lebensalter; Times of Life

[This page by Susan Ranson]

Lebensalter; Times of Life

Another poem in the group from late 1803 that includes ‘Mnemosyne’ and ‘Life at Mid-point’. Here, to my mind, Hölderlin’s classical balance of moods is so fine that the reader can understand the poem in two ways. It may be read either as a bleak lament for times lost, in which the poet sees even the clouds and trees as more fortunate than he is, in their own settled, peaceful places, or as the resolution of loss in the serenity of a natural landscape. The ghosts of the blessed, which used to accompany the poet so closely, may be a further cause of grief to him, in the former mood, or they may be unlamented where he now is. Perhaps some fusion of the two moods, or swings between them, are what Hölderlin is experiencing in his already unstable state of mind. In 1803 he has not yet been taken to the clinic at Tübingen, where gentle pastoral scenes play a large part in what he writes, but Michael Hamburger sees them prefigured in this poem.

Heavenly figures appear in various guises in many poems; to Hölderlin they are no mere figures of speech but stand for real forces in both ancient and present-day worlds.

Rilke must have known this poem well. Does he have it in mind when writing the first stanza of his ‘Transience’ (Vergänglichkeit)? His eyes see desert pillars as lacking connection – their lintels – rather than crowns: perhaps their links to humanity rather than their human glory.

Palmyra: a ruined city in the Syrian desert.


Ihr Städte des Euphrats!

Ihr Gassen von Palmyra!

Ihr Säulenwälder in der Eb’ne der Wüste,

Was seid ihr?

Euch hat die Kronen,

Dieweil ihr über die Grenze

Der Otmenden seid gegangen,

Von Himmlischen der Rauchdampf und

Hinweg das Feuer genommen;

Jetzt aber sitz’ ich unter Wolken (deren

Ein jedes eine Ruh’ hat eigen) unter

Wohleingerichteten Eichen, auf

Der Heide des Rehs, und fremd

Erscheinen und gestorben mir

Der Seligen Geister.

Times of Life

Cities of the Euphrates,

And you, Palmyra’s streets,

You pillar-forests on the plane of the desert,

What are you now?

Taken, your crowns,

Because you are said to have passed

The boundaries of the breathing;

In the vapour-smoke of the heavenly they are

Taken away, and in their fire.

Now, I sit under clouds (and each one

Has a peace particular to it) among

Well-ordered oaks, and on

The heath of the deer, and strange

And dead they appear to me,

The ghosts of the blessed.