* Holderlin, details, and making time stop

“Poetry is the establishment of Being by means of the word” (Heidegger)


Now there is a definition and defense of the lyric poem if there ever was one.

Heidegger said the above statement in an essay on the work of Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1842).  This week, at the insistence of a new acquaintance, I have been delving into the poems of this great German poet.  Here are two I’d like to share:


At the Middle of Life    (trans. James Mitchell) *

The earth hangs down
to the lake, full of yellow
pears and wild roses.
Lovely swans, drunk with
kisses you dip your heads
into the holy, sobering waters.

But when winter comes,
where will I find
the flowers, the sunshine,
the shadows of the earth?
The walls stand
speechless and cold,
the weathervanes
rattle in the wind.

— There is a duality played out in the two stanzas here, between seasons in nature and in life, that is lovely.  But more than anything, it is the inclusion of “weathervanes/rattle in the wind” that moves me the most.  It is the kind of detail that makes lyric poems powerful.  Someone heard this rattle years ago, and someone can hear it now.  The rattle of years and change.  Cool.

Here’s another:


Ages of Life      (trans. David Constantine) **

Euphrates’ cities and
Palmyra’s streets and you
Forests of columns in the level desert
What are you now?
Your crowns, because
You crossed the boundary
Of breath,
Were taken off
In Heaven’s smoke and flame;
But I sit under clouds (each one
Of which has peace) among
The ordered oaks, upon
The deer’s heath, and strange
And dead the ghosts of the blessed ones
Appear to me.

— There’s a lot here.  The first half has that “Ozymandias *** ” feel, assessing past glory and putting it into context.  “Forest of columns in the level desert” has the feel of Shelley’s “lone and level sands”.  But what got me on the first read and sunk me into the poem occurred at these lines:

“But I sit under clouds (each one
Of which has peace) among
The ordered oaks…”

The work that those parentheses do is astounding!  First you have ‘clouds’, and then time kinda stops as you take in something about the clouds, their ‘peace’, all this before being brought back to the speaker’s train of thought.

I am not sure whether the parentheses are there in the original or if it is tricky maneuvering on the part of the translator – either way, those lines got me thinking of what it is poetry can do: evoke a certain kind of stillness and timelessness in an, as Holderlin points out, everchanging world.


* found here: http://allpoetry.com/poem/8523007-At_The_Middle_Of_Life-by-Friedrich_Holderlin

** found here: http://www.jbeilharz.de/hoelderlin/fh.html

*** for those unfamiliar with the sonnet, here is “Ozymandias”: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175903

One response to “* Holderlin, details, and making time stop”

  1. […] p.s. I wrote about Holderlin a ways back – check it out here. […]

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