Johann Christian Friedrich Holderlin was a German poet and philosopher of the Romantic era. He played a major role in the development of German idealism. He was very much influenced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.
His life was a series of highs and lows, his childhood was much scarred owing to his father’s death, and he suffered mentally and emotionally and was never financially stable, entered into poetry and survived for a decade, worked as a tutor and in later stages of life suffered psychosis. Meanwhile, he also experienced love, wrote some famous poems, melded Greek and German forms, and is now ranked amongst renowned German poets.
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Friedrich Holderlin was born in Lauffen am Neckar, Württemberg, Germany on March 20, 1770. His father, Heinrich Friedrich Hölderlin, died 2 years after Holderlin’s birth, in 1772. His mother, Johanna Christiana Heyn, with Holderlin, and his younger sister Heinrike moved to Nürtingen after she married Johann Christoph Gok.
He was a burgomaster of Nürtingen. They gave birth to a child, Karl Christoph Friedrich Gok, in 1776. Holderlin was grief-struck when his stepfather died in 1779, who loved him profoundly. At the early age of nine, he was twice bereaved and his mother was twice widowed. His childhood was burdened with grief and sorrow of losing both of his supports at an early age. His mother alone took care of Holderlin, his young sister, and his half-brother.
Friedrich’s mother wanted him to join Lutheran’s church. People competing to join the ministry received free education therefore he first joined the lower Monastery School at Denkendorf in 1784 in preparation for which he learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and rhetoric. During this time, he befriended a boy five years junior to him, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling who later became a prominent figure in the development of German idealism.
Here he was acquainted with the poetry of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Friedrich Schiller which influenced him to compose his own verses. He started writing poetry at the age of 14.
Later, he moved to the higher Monastery at Maulbronn in 1786, for further studies where he fell in love with Luise Nast, daughter of the Monastery’s administrator. On her recommendation, he read Schiller’s Don Carlos and later wrote to the writer about it. He was going to get engaged to Luise Nast in 1789, which he broke off, wishing her a better life partner.
In 1788, he began theological seminary at Tübingen Stift, with his fellow students being Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, William Joseph Schelling and Issac von Sinclair. Owing to this early association and philosophical influence on them, Holderlin was a significant thinker of German idealism.
He graduated in 1793 and obtained his master’s degree but he couldn’t get himself to join the ministry. He was not convinced by the Christian dogma, he was rather an admirer of Greek mythology. He believed the Gods of Greek mythology manifested in nature. His writing showed shades of Greek literature in German literature.
While Holderlin found no spiritual support in the prevailing Protestant theology, he finally began working as a tutor rather than serving the Church. Some of his tutoring jobs came from the recommendation of Friedrich Schiller. In 1794, he again met Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which largely influenced his epistolatory novel Hyperion.
Schiller acclaimed the acquaintance by publishing some of Holderlin’s poems in his own work. The poems by Holderlin praised and supported the cause and results of the French Revolution; they reflected the concept of humanity, friendship, and nature.
In 1795, Holderlin joined the University of Jena where he met Novalis and Johann Gottlieb Fichte.
Literary Work of Friedrich Holderlin
The poetry for which Friedrich Holderlin is recognized now was obscure during his lifetime and throughout the 19th century. As a consequence of his mental breakdown and seclusion, he was unsung among his contemporaries. He was inclined towards Greek mythology and considered the Greek gods as real entities and not just sculptures. The odes, the elegies, and the syntax were a distinctive collaboration of Greek and German languages. The concept was uniquely formed by intermingling Graeco-Roman ideas.
He translated the work of a notable Greek poet Pinder, word by word. In that way, he created a language of his own. His work was difficult to translate as he wrote really long unrhymed verses, incomplete fragments, and layered the same manuscript several times leaping across stanzas. These included the poems like Bread and Wine and The Archipelago. Not all of his work reflected this pattern; some were very concise and well-structured.
Some of his famous work includes:-
Hyperion: or, The Hermit in Greece is an epistolary novel that was started by Holderlin when he was in Tübinger Stift and was finished with the lessons by Gottlieb Fichte at the University of Jena. It was published in two volumes in the year 1797 and 1799 respectively. This novel is based in Greece and deals with the idea of love, hope, solitude, nature, and travel.
The Death of Empedocles is an unfinished drama, posthumously published in the year 1846, and was written from 1797 to 1800 in three versions, the first being the most completed version. The play is about a Greek philosopher who threw himself into an active volcano, Mount Etna.
The Turning point in Hölderlin’s life
In late 1795, Holderlin began working as a private tutor in a wealthy banker’s house in Frankfurt am Main. He worked there for 2 years and fell in love with Susette Gontard, wife of the wealthy banker, Jakob Gontard. His love was reciprocated and this platonic love became the most important thing in Holderlin’s life.
He described her in his novel Hyperion as ‘Diotima’- a priestess and philosopher of love. This love affair had a painful ending after Susette’s husband discovered it. Gontard dismissed Holderlin after which he started living in Homburg. There he met her once a month and wrote poems and novels. From 1797 to 1799, he wrote three versions of The Death of Empedocles, all unfinished. This separation and financial instability deeply affected the poet’s work and he suffered a mental breakdown.
Holderlin was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in the late 1790s. His condition worsened with advancing years and was contributed by his separation from Susette Gontard. From then on, he worked on his translations of Pinder, he went to Switzerland for further employment, then to Bordeaux, France as a consul. He finally returned home on foot, in Nurtingen, in the year 1802. On his way back home, he learned about the death of Susette, which left him devastated.
Nevertheless, the period from 1797 to 1806, was a period of intense creativity for the poet. He wrote The Death of Empedocles, Bread and Wine, Patmos, Remembrance, The Only One, and much more amazing work. Sinclair, a close friend of Holderlin obtained a sinecure post of a librarian for Holderlin but soon he was falsely accused of treason and put to trial along with Holderlin.
However, the poet was considered mentally unfit for the trial and sent to a clinic at Tubingen in 1806. His condition was getting worse and he was discharged as incurable.
A carpenter named Ernst Zimmer took care of Holderlin and gave him a room in his house in Tubingen across the Neckar river. It was a tower in the old city which later came to be known as Holderlinturm, where Holderlin spent 36 years of his life. He wrote The Lines of Life considering his keeper and worked on some poems and other fragments. However, his later life was largely confined to giving autographs, playing the piano, and writing short verses.
Holderlin’s family neither supported him financially nor comforted him emotionally in the later years of his life. Except for his half-brother, none of his family members came to visit him instead, they quarrelled for the patrimony left for him which accrued a huge amount of interest. He died in 1843, and the carpenter’s family members were the only ones to lament his death at the funeral.
What drew Friedrich Holderlin to Greek mythology?
Although Holderlin was born into a Christian family and had a religious vocation, the Christian dogma was incapable of providing him with the spiritual anchorage he needed. Therefore, he was drawn to Greek mythology which intensely influenced his thought. It was a more personalized approach toward religion for him. His devotion saw the Greek gods as real living forces that manifest in nature.
Holderlin was diagnosed with which disease?
Holderlin was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in the late 1790s, a mental disorder with great mental irritability which alarmed his family and friends. His condition deteriorated after his separation from the love of his life Susette Gontard. However, he survived for another 36 years in the care of a carpenter, Ernst Zimmer.
What remained the central idea of the work of Friedrich Holderlin?
Holderlin came to be known for the creation of a unique language. He succeeded in combining classical Greek and the German language. His works reflected the reconciliation of beliefs of ancient Greece with the Christian faith.