"Bread and Wine"

Portrait of Hölderlin in 1792 by his friend, Franz Karl Heimer

Town rests now, all around, the lit streets quietening;
  Carriages leave in a flare of lamps with a rush.

Full of a whole day's happiness, people go home to their rest;
  Shrewd men weigh profit and losses,

Pleased at home; empty the bustling market stands
  Of grapes and flowers, and rests from works of the hand.

Distantly though, there is music from gardens; perhaps
  Someone in love is playing or a lonely man

Thinking of distant friends or his young days; the unfailing
  Fountains come with a rush through greenery, sweet.

Softly the rung bells ring on the dusky air and the watchman,
  Mindful of time, calls out the counted hours.

Now comes a stir through the air and troubles the treetops,
  And see, our earth's shadower, the moon

Comes too now, stealing in; the night comes, passionate night
  Full of stars and not much concerned about us:

The astonishing night, the foreigner among humans, lifts
  Over mountains, sadly, in glory, shining.

"Brot und Wein," Friedrich Hölderlin, 1800-01

Translation by David Constantine
(Bloodaxe Books, 1996)

When I first read Rilke, I thought his poetic voice was totally original. That was because I didn't know Hölderlin. Now I see that Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) is one of the great European poets, as thrilling for the depth of his feeling as for the beauty of his imagery--and a visionary on whose work Rilke and other writers have built.

Because he trained for the clergy, Hölderlin learned Classical Greek, the language of the New Testament. He soon came to see Greek culture as the remedy for everything life-denying in the society of his day and developed that idea in a novel entitled Hyperion. Set against the backdrop of Greece's modern struggle for independence, it appeared in two volumes--one in 1797, the other two years later. Then, in poems like "Bread and Wine," Hölderlin used the flowing meters of Classical Greek verse to create a voice of aspiration that he hoped would awaken and enlighten his readers.

But Hölderlin's time for the work he envisioned for himself was tragically brief.  At 35 he suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for six months the following year. Believing he had just a short time to live, the hospital released him into the care of Ernst Zimmer, a carpenter who lived in Tübingen.

Zimmer and his family gave the poet lodgings in a tower-shaped structure that adjoined their home along the River Neckar. Hölderlin lived there for 36 years, receiving guests, as his writing slowly became better known; playing the piano an admirer had given him; and even writing occasionally, during brief periods of lucidity. 

During his own day, Hölderlin was best known for
Hyperion, not for his poems. 
The lines above are the only portion of "Bread and Wine" published during his lifetime; the other eight strophes did not appear until 1894. 

Twenty years later, Rilke's friend Norbert Hellingrath published a collection of Hölderlin's verse that the poet read with great interest, and I believe Rilke must have had the long, sonorous lines of "Bread and Wine" and other Hölderlin elegies in mind as he worked on the Duino Elegies from 1912 to 1922.

The elegies are difficult to translate into English; their meters are unfamiliar to us and Hölderlin deploys them with virtuosic skill. The best English translations I know are by British poet David Constantine, and I recommend them for anyone who wants to explore this unique and life-affirming poet.

The tower in Tübingen where Hölderlin spent the last decades of his life

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