"They That Alone Are Left": Holderlin's Poetry of Solitude

German poet Friedrich Holderlin (1779-1843) hovers between the poles of the essential human predicament: frailty and folly on the one hand, and the inaccessibility of God on the other. This tension throws the poet back into nature as inspiration and solitude as the context of life.

The core issue for Holderlin, anticipating philosophy, is the identification of God. Holderlin offers the example of two classical Greek figures to highlight the dilemma of faith, the attainment of certainty, and the fate of the solitary.

The suicide of the Greek philosopher Empedocles (which is the subject of Holderlin's drama "Death of Empedocles") warns Holderlin of the dangerous desire to plumb the sacred to its hidden core.

According to the account of Diogenes Laertius and elaborated with judicious license by Holderlin, Empedocles declared himself to be a god, out of arrogance or madness. But given Empedocles' insatiable interest in science and philosophy, perhaps it was an ironic statement or an absurdist jest: "I, an immortal God, no longer mortal, Now live among you." The statement underscores the point that Empedocles had not found God on earth. His suicide consists in his hurling himself into a volcano with the expectation that his disappearance would prove that he was an ascended one. Except with another absurdist detail, Empedocles had lost a sandal on the way up, easily identified as his. Death took him as madness or arrogance.

Likewise Antigone, the protagonist of Sophocles' play, who places ethics before authority and power, shows that the absolute quest for identification with God is a confrontation with death.

Antigone insists on the religious burial of her brother against the command of the tyrant Creon, who condemns her to death for her disobedience to his command and to the state. Of her inevitable fate for insisting on ethics above power, Antigone can only say, "Death, so met, were honor."

And the chorus concludes that "Great blows teach us wisdom in age, at least," commenting on the tragic fate of Creon's son and wife slain by their own hand due to Creon's headstrong insistence on might. Death is not wisdom, or knowledge, and Sophocles hedges with his qualifier, "at least." Holderlin is still right, that the insistence on revealing God ends in death.

Solitary quest for God

"No one by himself can grasp God," Holderlin writes in the poem "Patmos," conjuring an ancient Greek voice. Instead of a direct search for God, the poet seeks an indirect route through nature. The poet encounters rivers, seas, meadows and mountains, gardens and orchards, heroes and fine sentiments, always depicted in an evocative voice, tinged with the wistful sense of being unable to fathom the divine in the world, as in "Mnemosyne":

By the fig tree
My Achilles died,
And Ajax lies
By the grottoes of the sea ...

For the realization that one must proceed through nature is an insight of solitude. The insight is not the product of Holderlin's personal life. Holderlin himself was fully engaged with the social and political vicissitudes of his times.

Once, writes the poet, he was among the "happy mortals" of this world:

I too was one, but brief as the full-blown rose
My good life passed, and they that alone are left
in flower for me, the constellations,
often , too often, remind me of it.

Now, as the poet adds, he is "forever homeless." Such a sentiment rings of standard romantic pathos, but Holderlin can place his personal feelings into a larger context, and this rescues his verse from traces of the maudlin. Holderlin can focus unrelentingly on the sole issue that dominates him: the dangerous quest for God. As one critic notes:

A condition of material and spiritual desolation can make one vulnerable to the self-destructive impulse to seek unmediated contact with the gods.

What a tantalizing notion that some go mad trying to plumb the nature of the divine and the universe.  The very enterprise is a solitary act, like Prometheus challenging the decree of the gods that what is constituted is an intractable and necessary order. We do not need to know the myths in order to anticipate the fate of Prometheus -- that he would fail and suffer for his hubris.

Is it the fault of the self that god is concealed, or is a mind and soul disposed to nature and beauty trembling on the edge of knowledge of god? Holderlin discerns this insight and explores its every vantage-point. The disposition for indirect insight may account for why some will never know and others may think they are on to something, as Holderlin hints in "Human Applause."

The crowd likes
whatever sells in the marketplace,
and no one but a slave
appreciates violent men.
Only those who are themselves godlike
believe in the gods.

At times, Holderlin seems disposed to accept that the gods are projections of what a person takes for philosophy or the semblance of good or bad humors and moods, as in "Looking Outward."

The inner being of the world often appears clouded and hidden,
and people's minds are full of doubts and irritation,
but splendid nature cheers up their days,
and doubt's dark questions stay distant.

Thus summer brings Holderlin confidence and insight, and winter brings gloom and sorrow. "At the Middle of Life" offers a charming, romantic first half to spring and summer, concluding, however:

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.

Nature is a reliable teacher of the complex patterns of not only the seasons but the mind itself. And here the image of winter is the insight of the cycle embedded in life itself: winter is old age and death. But again, where is God in all of these patterns except in death and beyond it?


In Holderlin we see the intersection of the poet and creative solitude. The insight and sentiment of the tragic sense of the search for God makes a philosophical solitude, a philosophy of solitude. The expression of this insight becomes the core of poetry itself for Holderlin, as he writes in "The Poet's Vocation":

Fearless yet, if he must, man stands, and lonely
Before God, simplicity protects him,
No weapon does he need nor subterfuge
Until God's being "not there" helps him.



Friedrich Holderlin: Hyperion and Selected Poems, edited by Eric L. Santner. New York: Continuum, 1990.