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Observations placeholder

Holderlin, Johann - Patmos



Type of Spiritual Experience


Hölderlin’s major publication in his lifetime was his novel Hyperion, which was issued in two parts (1797 and 1799). Various individual poems were published but attracted little attention and in 1799 he also attempted to produce a literary-philosophical periodical, Iduna. His translations of the dramas of Sophocles were published in 1804 but were generally met with derision over their apparent artificiality and difficulty caused by transposing Greek idioms into German. In the 20th century, theorists of translation such as Walter Benjamin have vindicated them, showing their importance as a new – and greatly influential – model of poetic translation. Der Rhein and Patmos, two of the longest and most densely charged of the hymns, appeared in a poetic calendar in 1808.

A description of the experience

The god
Is near, and hard to grasp.
But where there is danger,
A rescuing element grows as well.
Eagles live in the darkness,
And the sons of the Alps
Cross over the abyss without fear
On lightly-built bridges.
Therefore, since the summits
Of Time are heaped about,
And dear friends live near,
Growing weak on the separate mountains —
Then give us calm waters;
Give us wings, and loyal minds
To cross over and return.

Thus I spoke, when faster
Than I could imagine a spirit
Led me forth from my own home
To a place I thought I'd never go.
The shaded forests and yearning
Brooks of my native country
Were glowing in the twilight.
I couldn't recognize the lands
I passed through, but then suddenly
In fresh splendor, mysterious
In the golden haze, quickly emerging
In the steps of the sun,
Fragrant with a thousand peaks,
Asia rose before me.

Dazzled I searched for something
Familiar, since the broad streets
Were unknown to me: where the gold-bejeweled
Patoklos comes rushing down from Tmolus,
Where Taurus and Messogis stand,
And the gardens are full of flowers,
Like a quiet fire. Up above
In the light the silver snow
Thrives, and ivy grows from ancient
Times on the inaccessible walls,
Like a witness to immortal life,
While the solemn god-built palaces
Are borne by living columns
Of cypress and laurel.

But around Asia's gates
Unshaded sea-paths rush
About the unpredictable sea,
Though sailors know where
The islands are. When I heard
that one of these close by
Was Patmos, I wanted very much
To put in there, to enter
The dark sea-cave. For unlike
Cyprus, rich with springs,
Or any of the others, Patmos
Isn't splendidly situated,

But it's nevertheless hospitable
In a more modest home. And if
A stranger should come to her,
Shipwrecked or homesick
Or grieving for a departed friend,
She'll gladly listen, and her
Offspring as well, the voices
In the hot grove, so that where sands blow
and heat cracks the tops of the fields,
They hear him, these voices,
And echo the man's grief.
Thus she once looked after
The prophet that was loved by God,
Who in his holy youth

Had walked together inseparably
With the Son of the Highest,
Because the Storm-Bearer loved
The simplicity of his disciple.
Thus that attentive man observed
The countenance of the god directly,
There at the mystery of the wine,
Where they sat together at the hour
Of the banquet, when the Lord with
His great spirit quietly foresaw his
Own death, and forespoke it and also
His final act of love, for he always
Had words of kindness to speak,
Even then in his prescience,
To soften the raging of the world.
For all is good. Then he died. Much
Could be said about it. At the end
His friends recognized how joyous
He appeared, and how victorious.

And yet the men grieved, now that evening
Had come, and were taken by surprise,
Since they were full of great intentions,
And loved living in the light,
And didn't want to leave the countenance
Of the Lord, which had become their home.
It penetrated them like fire into hot iron,
And the one they love walked beside them
Like a shadow. Therefore he sent
The Spirit upon them, and the house
Shook and God's thunder rolled
Over their expectant heads, while
They were gathered with heavy hearts,
Like heroes under sentence of death,

When he again appeared to them
At his departure. For now
The majestic day of the sun
Was extinguished, as he cast
The shining scepter from himself,
Suffering like a god, but knowing
He would come again at the right time.
It would have been wrong
To cut off disloyally his work
With humans, since now it pleased
Him to live on in loving night,
And keep his innocent eyes
Fixed upon depths of wisdom.
Living images flourish deep
In the mountains as well,

Yet it is fearful how God randomly
Scatters the living, and how very far.
And how fearsome it was to leave
The sight of dear friends and walk off
Alone far over the mountains, where
The divine spirit was twice
Recognized, in unity.
It hadn't been prophesied to them:
In fact it seized them right by the hair
Just at the moment when the fugitive
God looked back, and they called out to him
To stop, and they reached their hands to
One another as if bound by a golden rope,
And called it bad —

But when he dies —he whom beauty
Loved most of all, so that a miracle
Surrounded him, and he became
Chosen by the gods —
And when those who lived together
Thereafter in his memory, became
Perplexed and no longer understood
One another; and when floods carry off
The sand and willows and temples,
And when the fame of the demi-god
And his disciples is blown away
And even the Highest turns aside his
Countenance, so that nothing
Immortal can be seen either
In heaven or upon the green earth —
What does all this mean?

It is the action of the winnower,
When he shovels the wheat
And casts it up into the clear air
And swings it across the threshing floor.
The chaff falls to his feet, but
The grain emerges finally.
It's not bad if some of it gets lost,
Or if the sounds of his living speech
Fade away. For the work
Of the gods resembles our own:
The Highest doesn't want it
Accomplished all at once.
As mineshafts yield iron,
And Etna its glowing resins,
Then I'd have sufficient resources
To shape a picture of him and see
What the Christ was like.

But if somebody spurred himself on
Along the road and, speaking sadly,
Fell upon me and surprised me, so that
Like a servant I'd make an image of the god —
Once I saw the lords
Of heaven visibly angered, not
That I wanted to become something different,
But that I wanted to learn something more.
The lords are kind, but while they reign
They hate falsehood most, when humans become
Inhuman. For not they, but undying Fate
It is that rules, and their activity
Spins itself out and quickly reaches an end.
When the heavenly procession proceeds higher
Then the joyful Son of the Highest
Is called like the sun by the strong,

As a watchword, like a staff of song
That points downwards,
For nothing is ordinary. It awakens
The dead, who aren't yet corrupted.
And many are waiting whose eyes are
Still too shy to see the light directly.
They wouldn't do well in the sharp
Radiance: a golden bridle
Holds back their courage.
But when quiet radiance falls
From the holy scripture, with
The world forgotten and their eyes
Wide open, then they may enjoy that grace,
And study the light in stillness.

And if the gods love me,
As I now believe,
Then how much more
Do they love yourself.
For I know that the will
Of the eternal Father
Concerns you greatly.
Under a thundering sky
His sign is silent.
And there is one who stands
Beneath it all his life.
For Christ still lives.
But the heroes, all his sons
Have come, and the holy scriptures
Concerning him,
While earth's deeds clarify
The lightning, like a footrace
That can't be stopped.
And he is there too,
Aware of his own works
From the very beginning.

For far too long
The honor of the gods
Has been invisible.
They practically have to
Guide our fingers as we write,
And with embarrassment the energy
Is torn from our hearts.
For every heavenly being
Expects a sacrifice,
And when this is neglected,
Nothing good can come of it.
Without awareness we've worshipped
Our Mother the Earth, and the Light
Of the Sun as well, but what our Father
Who reigns over everything wants most
Is that the established word be
Carefully attended, and that
Which endures be interpreted well.
German song must accord with this.

The source of the experience

Holderlin, Johann

Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Nervous breakdown