Friday, November 19, 2010

Hölderlin and other poets

Poetry can be wonderful! It's metaphors can speak to us in the language of divinity. Poetry is something that I think I should like, but very few poets actually take root in my heart. Dante and William Blake were the first, but I seem to have wandered away from them. In college, I loved the biographies of the English Romantics-Keats, Shelley, Byron, Chatterton, Coleridge &c-but did not do so well with their actual works. Classes in Chaucer and Milton were enjoyable, until I wandered off with Robert Herrick.

Then a long time passed. I saw a movie in which a character bought the complete works of Baudelaire, so I tried a copy of Fleurs du mal. Aah! It was amazing, like the first time I heard the Sex Pistols at Terry Lancaster's house circa 1978--now THAT was MUSIC! Anyway, Fleurs is Dante for the modern age, where the supernatural world of the Commedia has collapsed into the streets of the modern city. Liking Baudelaire, I tried Verlaine, Rimbaud, Valery and Mallarme. Of them, all greats to be sure, I could only bond with Mallarme. He combines the desire for the mystical with the hidden fear that there is really nothing beyond life after all. But please try some Baudelaire--this is from my favorite, le jet d'eau--

So does your flashing soul ignite
In lightnings of voluptuous bliss
And rushes reckless up the height
As though the enchanted sky to kiss;
Then it relaxes, grows more fine,
And in sad languor falls apart
Down an invisible incline
Into the deep well of my heart.

The image is that of a fountain or fireworks. English cannot quite do it justice.

Which brings me around to Hölderlin. I knew he existed, but knew nothing about him until recently. Coming off a magical journey to Oz, I wandered into my ancestral homeland of Swabia, and decided to explore Hölderlin's world. Like me, he lost two fathers, and while pointed to the church, was undone from that path by a classical education. In exploring Hölderlin's life, I found the world of my ancestor Johann Martin Obermuller (1743-1803). The education at Tubingener Stift (Seminary) was free, but a graduate was under obligation to the State Church all the rest of his life. I believe my ancestor was enlightened, as Hölderlin was, by his education and as a result fled to America to escape the obligation. For Hölderlin, escape was not so simple. He had to register every lodging, have every employment approved, all the while struggling against the power of his mother and society to take his role in the State Church. In the end, he escaped into 36 years of madness. Johann Martin Obermuller spent 36 years as a farmer in York County, Pennsylvania, living in Rousseau's happy state of nature. Hölderlin's hope for his society vanished with Napoleon's betrayal of the ideals of the French Revolution, but my ancestor got to see the American Revolution close up and personal when the Continental Congress sat at York City in 1777-78.

Currently, I am reading Hölderlin's poems and letters. Amazingly, he is becoming, like Baudelaire, a part of me. So if you think that your heart loves poetry, yet you cannot seem to find the right poets, just keep looking and they will find you.

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