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Hölderlin’s Course of Life

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feuerbach-medea-ii

Größers wolltest auch du, aber die Liebe zwingt
All uns nieder, das Leid beuget gewaltiger,
Doch es kehret umsonst nicht
Unser Bogen, woher er kommt.

Aufwärts oder hinab! herrschet in heil’ger Nacht,
Wo die stumme Natur werdende Tage sinnt,
Herrscht im schiefesten Orkus
Nicht ein Grades, ein Recht noch auch?

Dies erfuhr ich. Denn nie, sterblichen Meistern gleich,
Habt ihr Himmlischen, ihr Alleserhaltenden,
Daß ich wüßte, mit Vorsicht
Mich des ebenen Pfads geführt.

Alles prüfe der Mensch, sagen die Himmlischen,
Daß er, kräftig genährt, danken für Alles lern’,
Und verstehe die Freiheit,
Aufzubrechen, wohin er will.


You wanted greater still, but love forces
All of us to the ground; suffering bends powerfully,
Still our arc does not for nothing
Bring us back to the starting point.

Whether up or downwards, does not prevail in the Holy Night
Where quietly Nature contemplates the days to come,
Does not prevail in the crookedest Orcus
One straightness, one Law?

This I experienced. For never, in the manner of mortal masters,
Have you Divine Ones, you who sustain our world,
Yet led me on the straight path,
Not with intent, not that I knew it.

A man must test all that comes his way, say the Divine Ones,
In order that he, powerfully nourished, give thanks for what he learns,
That he understand the freedom,
To move hence, where he wishes.

Friedrich Hölderlin, Lebenslauf (1800) in Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, vol. 1, p. 285 (G. Mieth ed. 1970)(S.H. transl.)


This poem of Hölderlin’s follows a typical theme of the reconciliation of thinking of classical antiquity and Christianity. The poem follows Heraclitus of Ephesus fairly clearly, and the phrase “up or downwards” and the concept of the “arc of life” are taken from his works. Orcus is a Roman god of the underworld, either cruel or gentle depending on the circumstances, but known as a wrathful punisher of those who swear false oaths. The last stanza is a paraphrasing of Thessalonians 5:21 (“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” in the King James text, though the first verb would be modernized as “proof” or “test”).

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