Tränen; Tears

[This page by Susan Ranson]

Tränen; Tears

The poem is one of a small group (which also includes ‘Chiron’, ‘Times of Life’, ‘Life at Mid-point’) written in or soon before 1803 and published as ‘Night Songs’ (night or darkness: separation from the divine and from meaningful life). They show us different intensities of the fear and depression that take over Hölderlin’s mind as he faces dementia.

Only just past his first youth, Hölderlin knows that recovery from his illness is beyond possibility; he writes this personal experience constantly and directly into his work. For this reason we would expect much of it at this time to be dark in tone, but it is still in part radiant with lyricism, warmth of heart and the imagery of light. For all his own troubles, Hölderlin conjures up in us, along with our natural fellow-feeling, a psychological ‘high’ with each poem: even the darkest few cannot be read without glimpsing his serene hope for humanity.

However, ‘Tears’, in which he expresses fear that he will forget even the Greek islands, stands as an exception. More unrelievedly even than ‘Chiron’ it shows Hölderlin for a while losing touch with his resources of courage and his wide-ranging optimism, both of which have helped him to look through and past his terrors.

An apparent contradiction in this poem needs to be resolved, in that unremitting despair seems foreign to Hölderlin and is not always something a reader can watch with admiration – yet the poem strongly attracts. Why is this? The clear voice speaking from the lines below seems a manifestation of courage in itself, lifting the spirit of the reader despite the poet’s state of mind and the desperation in his words. To this strength Hölderlin’s idiosyncratic style adds more force, particularly in this painful poem: the rhythms, constructed as always with an unerring musical ear, are made from highly fragmented sentences. Due to his skill with word-order (always more flexible in German than in English) and the priority he accords to metre, these eccentric constructions both light up the meaning and create music.

The tension and thus attraction that arise between these three aspects of the poem, its lucid expression, its broken-up yet perfect syntax and its flowing Greek metres, perhaps unconsciously strike the reader as an unusual and admirable coalescence of strengths, so that, despite the subject matter, our attention holds. Hölderlin’s situation must be one of the most debilitating a great poet has gone through, yet readers still feel his pull.

The resignation in the last stanza recalls that in the last verse of the great Psalm 39: ‘O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen.’ Hölderlin was closely familiar with the Bible.