The earlier odes

[This page by Susan Ranson]

The poems below are in Greek ode form, all written before 1802. They present the full development of Hölderlin's exquisite metrical technique, married with what must have been, in his day, a shockingly modern absence of rhyme and frequency of enjambment, giving the most flowing rhythms (‘Sunset’); contrast the styles of German poetry as they had developed up to then.

The exactitude of the metre and the simple, purified vocabulary that express with utmost clarity the depth and width of Hölderlin’s reflections; the poetic equilibrium and antithetical structure of even a four-line poem (‘Firm Faith’, ‘Then and Now’); and within this same structure the strong upward/downward, light/dark, ecstatic/melancholic contrasts (‘Brevity’, ‘The Course of Life’): all these are part of his signature. Rainer Maria Rilke, who stood in awe of Hölderlin, was drawn like him to the symbolism of upward and downward forces (see the last lines, for example, of the Tenth Duino Elegy).

‘To the Young Poets’ reveals how Hölderlin already looks towards a golden mean of unity that binds actuality to a higher, longed-for reality.


Wo bist du? trunken dämmert die Seele mir

Von aller deiner Wonne; denn eben ists,

Daß ich gelauscht, wie, goldner Töne

Voll, der entzückende Sonnenjüngling

Sein Abendlied auf himmlischer Leier spielt’;

Es tönten rings die Wälder und Hügel nach,

Doch fern ist er zu frommen Völkern,

Die ihn noch ehren, hinweggegangen.


Where are you? My drunk soul is the coming dusk

of all your ecstasy. For it was now that

I heard him, brimful with his golden

tones, the entrancing young sun-god playing

his evening song upon a celestial lyre.

The woods and hills about him re-echoed it,

but far from us, for pious peoples –

those who still honour him – he has left us.

Der gute Glauben

Schönes Leben! du liegst krank und das Herz ist mir

Müd vom Weinen, und schon dämmert die Furcht in mir,

Doch, doch kann ich nicht glauben,

Daß du sterbest, solang du liebst.

Firm Faith

Lovely being! You are sick, and my weeping heart

weary, and already this dawn of fear in me.

Yet, I cannot believe that

you can die if you still love.

Ehmals und jetzt

In jüngern Tagen war ich des Morgens froh,

Des Abends weint ich; jetzt, da ich älter bin,

Beginn ich zweifelnd meinen Tag, doch

Heilig und heiter ist mir sein Ende.

Then and Now

In younger days mornings were times of joy,

my evenings tearful; now I have gained in years,

the day begins with doubting, yet is

tranquil and sanctified at its ending.

Die Kürze

“Warum bist du so kurz? liebst du, wie vormals, denn

Nun nicht mehr den Gesang? fandst du, als Jüngling, doch

In den Tagen der Hoffnung,

Wenn du sangest, das Ende nie!”

Wie mein Glück, ist mein Lied.—Willst du im Abendrot

Froh dich baden? hinweg ists, und die Erd ist kalt,

Und der Vogel der Nacht schwirrt

Unbequem vor das Auge dir.


Why are you brief, so brief? Do you no longer, then,

love your song as you did? When as a youth you sang,

in those days of your hope, was

not that end that you sought achieved?

Like my joy is my song.—Would you in evening’s red

bathe glad-hearted? Gone, that glow, and the Earth is cold,

and the bird of the night whirs

down, discomfiting to your eyes.

An die jungen Dichter

Lieben Brüder! es reift unsere Kunst vielleicht

Da, wie ein Jüngling, sie lange genug gegärt,

Bald zur Stille der Schönheit;

Seid nur fromm, wie der Grieche war!

Liebt die Götter und denkt freundlich der Sterblichen!

Haßt den Rausch, wie den Frost! lehrt und beschreibst nichts!

Wenn der Meister euch ängstigt,

Fragt die große Natur um Rat.

To the Young Poets

My dear brothers! Our art slowly matures perhaps:

like a youth’s, its fermentation has taken long,

nearing the stillness of beauty.

Be but pious as were the Greeks!

Love the gods and think well, too, of the mortal race!

Be not drunken nor cold! Neither describe nor teach!

When the master disquiets you,

ask great Nature for her advice!


Hochauf strebte mein Geist, aber die Liebe zog

Bald ihn nieder; das Leid beugt’ ihn gewaltiger;

So durchlauf ich des Lebens

Bogen und kehre, woher ich kam.

The Course of Life

High my spirit aspired, only to see love soon

draw it downwards; sorrow bowed it more forcibly.

So I follow the curve of

life, to the start-point from which I came.