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Saying Simply

Hölderlin, Shelley, and Romanticism


When a Mr. Nobody from Nowhere like myself (phrase courtesy of The Great Gatsby) is dismissive of a longish poem by a famous poet like Shelley [“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”], some amplification seems called for.


I was in a hurry last time. I wanted to get to those rich and lovely poems by Gautier and Rimbaud, and I think that positives are usually more valuable than negatives. At least, in the absence of some stated positives a negative may look like mere self-indulgence or a naive pseudo-determinism. One doesn’t “like” this or that poem, in the same way that one doesn’t like boiled spinach, and that’s that, end of discussion.

We should not, as serious students of literature, allow ourselves to rest content with saying that we (which is to say “I”) simply dislike something, as if that settled the matter. It seems to me that we should always, as serious students, be trying to clarify, to ourselves and if necessary others, what it is that we dislike—or like—about it.

I don’t mean that one isn’t entitled to say anything at all unless one can offer a full analysis. But one should at least be trying, over the long run, to clarify one’s responses to oneself. I am speaking here of professional or semi-professional readers, as graduate students and their professors are.


There is a well-known, or what at least used to be well-known, passage by F.R. Leavis in his essay “Literary Criticism and Philosophy” (1937) about “evaluation.” The whole essay is well worth reading, at least as a starting-point for focussed disagreements, and I may as well provide a copy for our files. But it is a particular passage, which I am appending, that interests me here, or rather, which I want to bring to your attention as a time-saver.

I hope that by now it is clear that we are not, in this seminar, working in terms of dichotomies and of what Stephen Dedalus, as I recall, called “all those big words that make us all so unhappy.” It is not a matter of determining, for example, whether something is “romantic” or “classical” or “realist” and then, that done, knowing what we can or must feel about it.

Such terms are broad-spectrum ones, and it seems to me, as to critics like Leavis and Winters, to be perfectly proper to like, perhaps very much, this or that or those works in some broad-spectrum group (including groups like the collected works of some writer) without feeling under any compulsion to like other works in it.

Leavis was virtually cast out into the academic wilderness for speaking, shall we say, less than enthusiastically about Shelley. (Well, actually it was his first essay on Milton that really caused the damage, Milton being to the then guardians of “tradition” in England what Racine evidently was in France.)

But he accorded high praise to a lot of individual poems or passages by Wordsworth, Keats, and, especially Blake. Was he “anti-Romantic”?


I am not going to say anything more about “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” here.

What I want to do is bring to your attention a handful of poems and passages by that great and lovely poet Friedrich Hölderlin.

His dates are 1770-1843, but he had a breakdown in his thirties, and another of his translators, Michael Hamburger, refers to “the mere six or eight years granted to him between his first mature poems and his mental collapse”(introd. to Hölderlin, Selected Verse, 1961,.xi). Hamburger also remarks that the development of his poetry during those years “in many ways prefigures the development of all European poetry in the next century and a half”(xxi).

Hegel, Beethoven, and Wordsworth were also born in 1770—not a bad year! Caspar David Friedrich was born four years later.


I’ve picked the texts here to illustrate certain points. If you have no German (I myself have very little), it may at least help to know that, in German, words that start with capital letters, I mean words other than those at the beginnings of lines, are nouns.

I will add that German syntax seems to permit of a lot of freedom in the interanimation of words, and that there is a flowingness to some of the series of lines in German here for which it would be hard, or perhaps impossible, to find equivalents in English. Christopher Middleton, himself a respected British poet, seems to me to have performed very creditably a difficult task. In what I now say, I shall be speaking largely of the English versions.


(a) “Hyperion’s Song of Fate.” A brief poem, and yet one that gives us energized equivalents both for the celestial beatitude and the earthly turbulence.

Those blissful spirits walk on floors like velvet, the winds shine, the touch of those winds is like that of a harpist, the calm of those spirits is the animated calm of sleeping babes or flowers harmoniously emerging from their buds, and the gaze of the blissful spirits is calm and clear.

The language of the third stanza is more abstract, but the syntax is straightforward and the lines move fast in German, so that the evoked rapids are themselves energized. The contrast between the calm but organic heavenly beatitude and the in fact, in terms of imagery, inorganic, or at least incoherent, state of our harried and unstable lives in this world down here is further dramatized.

The layout of the lines is particularly effective in the third stanza.

The poem would lose very little were its title removed. When Yeats revised The Wind Among the Reeds, as we know, he removed the proper names from most of the titles. What mattered was what was being said (and felt), not who was doing the saying.


(b) “On a Pale Yellow Leaf.” What we have here would take very little altering to turn it into two or three imagist poems—over a century before Imagism made its appearance.

Middleton’s alteration in the lineation reminds or shows us that the staggering of lines, as later in Pound’s free verse, permits of pauses but lighter pauses than would occur if the eye had to move all the way back to the left margin.


(c) “In Socrates’ Times.” The lineation here antedates that of Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” by some eighty years. I am sure that here it is a way of signalling the lengths of the pauses in the intervals between lines. and the relative speed with which each line moves. In Mallarmé’s famous piece, there seems to be a greater degree of visual miming.

I imagine one could find out whether it would have been possible for Mallarmé to have read this poem.

The lineation of it, to judge from a volume of Hölderlin’s collected works that I dipped into, is Hölderlin’s own. The piece is classified as a sketch or fragment, but it seems complete in its own right.

Hamburger speaks of “the impact of these [late] poems on writers of the Symbolist, Expressionist, and Imagist schools” (xxiv).


Since writing the foregoing I have done what a true scholar would have done straightaway and gone to my one-volume Pléiade edition of Mallarmé’s complete works and discovered that “Un coup”(first published in 1897) has a preface by Mallarmé himself.

I will not risk my own French on translating from it, and am not scholar enough to trudge through the snow in quest of someone else’s Englishing.

But Mallarmé in effect speaks of the printed text as a score for performance, I mean the performance of a reading aloud, which Valéry, as quoted in the same volume, recalls his doing “d’une voix basse, égale, sans le moindre ‘effet’ presque à soi-même” (1582).

The different type-faces, which he evidently chose very carefully, indicate degrees of emphasis, the spaces and word clusters have the effect of slowing down or speeding up how the words go, the hearer is assumed to have in his/her mind’s eye the look of the text (as with conventional verse), and the general effect is an ongoing thinking “Tout se passe...en hypothèse; on évite le récit.”(455)


Mallarmé must surely have seen Hölderlin’s lineations. To say that is not in the least to diminsh his own accomplishment.

It is only in a naive view of art that modernism is perceived as an unresting pursuit of total uniqueness, in which getting there second, as in medical research as viewed by would-be Nobel prizewinners, is scarcely better than not getting there at all.

As Hulme reminds us in his essay, a new form (he himself instances blank verse) can have a long life, because opening up new possibilities for a lot of other writers.

The kind of “broken” lineation that we are looking at here obviously took its place among the tools (not quite the right term perhaps, but let it pass) available to writers,


(d) “My Possession”. This is too long and too rich for me to comment on in any detail. But please note how real both worlds are made in the poem.

There is no dwindling of this one down to a handful of cartoon-like generalities in order magnify the asserted superiority of the other.

And because this world and the human doings in it are not reduced to caricatures but are allowed to have their own fullness and at times loveliness, the world beyond this one is accorded a greater fullness of being and is not just a matter of not-this, not-that negatings.

Moreover, the whole poem is a dramatic meditation in the present tense, and a directing of the set of the mind, in this case a religious set.

There is nothing self-pitying or self-dramatising about the poignant voiced acknowledgment of how some of the calmer joys of rooted human living can not be his. And the kind of calm to which he does aspire still, under a nurturing sun that is emblematic of a spiritual blessedness, is noble and utterly unegotistical.


(e) “The Half of Life.” It would take almost no work to change this into four separate Imagist poems.

But of course that would destroy the contrast between the “affirmative” first stanza and the bleaker second, and between the terse and concrete precision of the last three lines of the poem and the questionings in the four lines preceding it.


I said that I wouldn’t comment further on “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” but can’t let it go entirely, or at least certain matters connected with it.


If I myself have found nothing to admire in that poem, it is not because I disapprove of hymns (in the broader sense of the term), or am indifferent to beauty, or to the beauty (at times) of the life of the mind, or to the beauties at times of what we loosely call nature, or to the general sense, which some people have, of spiritual dimensions to our human world.

Hölderlin, for me, articulates beautifully and movingly what it is like to feel this world and the other (if there is an other) as a continuum.

Shelley on the other hand, with his generalized descriptions of natural phenomena, his cartoon-like phrases like “this dim vast vale of tears... vacant and desolate,” and his diminishment of all the rich complexity of our world to “life’s unquiet dream,” coupled with his to me unbelievable recollection of how “I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!”, his scarcely more believable description of his own currently “streaming eyes,” and his commending of himself for keeping his vow, seems to me to be cheapening both this world and whatever transcendent one there may be elsewhere, and elevating himself at their expense.


I am speaking, I must emphasize, of this poem here in front of us [“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”]. Obviously there are other and better poems by Shelley.

But qualities do not, that I can see, transfer from one poem to another, nor do terms like Beauty, Truth, Justice, Wisdom, and so forth, even when modified by adjectives, carry obvious and discussible meanings the way the rind of an orange carries (we hope) a refreshing system of sweetly juicy segments within it.

This is absolutely, totally, finally my last negativity for the year. I promise! From now on, sunbeams and roses all the way!


But note how the question of “truth” in poetry cannot be separated from that of the nature and function of verse.

It is natural to feel that because something is in verse, it is therefore essentially different from something in prose.

The British traditionalists who were enraged by modernist free verse in the early 1900’s, as distinct from that of poets like Whitman and Arnold, obviously felt that false, which is to say, unearned, claims to wisdom and insight were being made.

Poets, true poets, wrote in verse, regular verse. These upstart newcomers were charlatans seeking a free ride.

Since then, of course, “real” poets have come to be seen by many as writing in free verse. (In a book on James Wright that I’ve glanced at, the writer speaks diminishingly of Wright “constructing” the Swift poem.)

But either way there was, and is, an evident disposition to feel that certain questions can’t properly be asked of a text as soon as the sign “Verse” has been tacitly raised.


In this view of poetry, it is improper to ask “truth” questions about assertions in it, whether about the “outside” world or about the poet him/herself. The fact that it is said by a poet is its own validation.

Whereas if I were to say to you in prose, in the course of lamenting how True Teaching has vanished from the world, that one day, when I myself suddenly realized what True Teaching was, I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstasy, and vowed to dedicate my life to it, and have kept that vow, and am writing the present notes with beating heart and streaming eyes—well, I suspect that an eyebrow or two might be raised.


Part of the problem, of course, is that the term “prose” is in fact a wide-angle one, and that whereas the epithet “poetic” is almost always used honorifically, the term “prosaic” is generally not, or at least only in the sense that calling something sensible or commonsensical is a way of saying that it lacks certain vices.

I mean, would you like to be told that you had a sturdily prosaic mind?

Another part of the problem is that a poem on the page is a visual, a shaped object. Unlike prose, its lines do not go all the way to the right-hand margin.


But if one were to set to and do a cut-and-paste of specimens of all the different varieties of prose, both present and past, I suspect that, as with the famous section of Joyce’s Ulysses in which a hospital lying-in is narrated in a series of pastiches of English prose styles of different writers, beginning with Middle English ones—or, for that matter, in the far greater variousness of that novel as a whole— one would end up with an anthology as big as a comparable one of samples of versified writing, and that there would be a good deal of overlapping.

And my own increasing feeling , which has come upon me in force this year (though I haven’t done any shrieking), is that what we choose to call poems, which is to say things which, among other features, are written in verse, whether “regular” or “free,” are essentially not structures in space (setting aside concrete verse), they are, like prose, structures in time.

When Len read out that passage from A Farewell to Arms, he neatly illustrated this.

When they are read out well, and we are taking them in through the ear, unfamiliar pieces of writing are a matter of syntactical pausings (as signalled by punctuation marks), sentence clusterings (paragraphs/stanzas), varying sentence-lengths, syntactical interrelations (amplifyings, contrastings, etc), semantic /expressive emphasizings, and so on and so forth.

Pound, by the way, was one of Hemingway’s mentors in the early Twenties.


My conclusion for the day is that the lineation of verse, in conjunction with other features that exist in prose, is a mode of quasi-punctuation signalling, in conjunction with punctuation marks and syntax, how something should be read aloud.

(Yes yes, I know that there are exceptions, but exceptions do not automatically demolish a rule, they may merely indicate that it has been phrased loosely.)

After that, it is a matter of figuring out what is being said and felt.

Inferior free verse, like inferior blank verse or inferior readings aloud (in a “yearning” voice, a “tender” voice, etc), simply provides a kind of general ongoing buzz rather than being an affair of precise expressive/semantic effect.


If I have a reservation about the passage by Leavis, it is that it seems to be tacitly invoking the conventional poetry/verse distinction, which Leavis himself does indeed do elsewhere.

He seems in effect to be talking about what for him are good poems, or simply “poems” (as distinct from “mere verse”) tout court, and he seems to be implying that one must surrender oneself and “become” the poem.

But in fact it takes very little adjustment to accomodate what he says here to what Winters (for me at least) says and does.

One may indeed decide very rapidly, as when flipping TV channels or glancing at the openings of thrillers on the paperback rack, that one recognises on the basis of past experience what kind of thing is being offered, that the mode of expression is banal, and that if one were to persist one would rapidly become bored or irritated or both.

But one has noticed something stylistic, and if one had to offer some explanation of one’s reaction in formal terms, one could probably do some articulating, even though it’s harder explaining how something is banal than how it isn’t.


In the end, it’s surely how something’s done that matters where poems are concerned and the question of “truth” comes up.

Ideally, Leavis’s formulation suggests, one goes on constructing a mental anthology of works that in their differing ways, whether short or long, weighty or light, one can give oneself to during the act of reading them.

One can be temporarily more loving, or devout, or witty, or elegant, or alert to the particularity of the world around one than one normally is.

And from this perspective, it isn’t whether one endorses this or that major premise in a work (“I don’t believe there’s a God, so I don’t enjoy Dante”), but whether how things are said in the poem is of a sort—intelligent, sensitive, whatever—that one would like to emulate.


Yeats admired Shelley, I think throughout his life. (I do not have the time or energy to do the necessary revisiting of texts here.)

For Yeats too, during his earlier upgrowing, the later nineteenth century of (as he saw it) journalism, positivism , endlessly parroted phrases, confident solution-offering about social and personal problems, religious philistinism (Catholic as well as Protestanti), and an increasing coarsening and banalization of the imagination was a wasteland of the soul, especially when experienced amid the drabness of cities.

Joyce makes vivid for us that wasteland in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist.

Yeats was not a Christian, any more than Shelley was, but he obviously found appealing Shelley’s dichotomizings in terms of a banal “here” and a beautiful and/or dramatic (but not Christian) “beyond.”

In The Wind Among the Reeds we saw Yeats working in terms of such a dichotomy and trying to locate that “beyond,” or its values, in the heroic Irish past or the visionings of the Irish peasantry.

What made him come to matter so much to so many readers subsequently, in ways that contemporaries of his like Dowson, Johnson, and other Nineties poets did not, was that increasingly he came to embody beauty, valour, and, to use a favourite term of his, nobility, in flesh-and-blood beings and doings in this world, especially the world of “aristocratic” and imagination-charged Irish political strivings and achievings in the name of something greater than oneself, in contrast to (as he saw it) mere grubby money-making or vote-seeking political self-advancement.


He also was increasingly able to take cognizance of actual failures and defeats among the good guys, including the inevitability of aging and/or death, and the decline of the body’s powers, without feeling that all the values that he celebrated were undercut by them.

He became the great poet of aging. He also remained a great celebrator of the mind’s powers, both artistic and philosophical, a bold maker of generalizations (not all of them, in my opinion, equally sound), and a craftsman with an impressive variety of forms and tones at his command. He was an explorer to the end.


We will be looking at an important stage in his evolution in the poems assembled in The Wild Swans at Coole. As before, we will primarily be considering formal aspects of those poems, rather than Yeats’ “thought”.

Poems, even when there is philosophising in them, are not illustrations of thoughts or ideas.

They are not interconnected pools, large or small, into which the same set of ideas flow as from some underground source.

They are thinkings. They are speech acts.

If they weren’t, we might just as well go directly to philosophical, political, and other “prose” texts, where ideas can be stated, illustrated, interrogated, clarified, and defended at an appropriate length.


From: Friedrich Hölderlin [1770–1843]/Eduard Möricke, Selected Poems, trans. and introd. Christopher Middleton, U. of Chicago Press, 1972.

Hyperion’s Song of Fate

You walk up there in the light
   On floors like velvet, blissful spirits.
      Shining winds divine
         Touch you lightly
            As a harper touches holy
               Strings with her fingers.

Fateless as babies asleep
   They breathe, the celestials.
      Chastely kept
         In a simple bud,
            For them the spirit
               Flowers eternal,
                  And in bliss their eyes
                     Gaze in eternal
                        Calm clarity.

But to us it is given
   To find no resting place,
      We faint, we fall,
         Suffering, human,
            Blindly from one
               To the next moment
                  Like water flung
                  From rock to rock down
                        Long years into uncertainty.

(End of 1797?)


On a Pale Yellow Leaf

On a pale yellow leaf the grape
Cluster reposes
hope or wine
   thus on the cheek
The shadow of the gold
pendant hung
   from a girl’s ear.
And I must never marry,
But the little calf is
Easily caught
In the chain it has broken...



In Socrates’ Time

Time was when God judged.
                     but who judges now?

Does the united
      People judge? The holy fellowship?
      No! O no! but who judges now?
            a generation of vipers! Gutless and false
               the noble word no more
         Passing the lips
O in the name
                     I call
      You, demon of old, down

Or send
   a hero


(Ca. 1804-6)


My Possession

The autumn day rests in its fullness now
   Grapes gleam pure and the orchard is red
      With fruit, though to the earth a few
         Fair blossoms fell as a thanksgiving.

And out in the country, where I walk a peaceful
   Path, crops are ripe to the satisfaction
      Of men who won them; blithe toil,
         Plenteous too, this wealth is bringing.

From heaven the light looks mildly down and through
   Their trees upon the busy people, sharing
      Their joy, for the fruits ripened
         Not by handiwork of people only.

And do you shine also for me, O golden light?
   Breeze, do you blow my way again, blessing
      As once you did, a joy of mine,
         And flutter my heart as for the fortunate?

Fortune was mine once, yet that gentle life
   Was fleeting like the rose, ah! And the sweet
      Blossoming stars that remain to me
         Tell me of this, and all too often.

Fortune is his who, loving his gentle wife,
   Lives in his home at peace and in an honored land;
      That much the lovelier, for his safe being
         On sure terrain, his heaven shines.

For, like a plant, if it has sunk no root
   In ground of its own, the mortal soul must wither,
      Man being poor and daylight all
         That moves with him on the holy earth.

Too potent, ah! You haul me, heavenly altitudes,
   Upward, battering gales on a calm day—
      And I feel you chop and change, consuming
         Me in my depths, you powers divine!

But let me walk today the quiet familiar path
   To the orchard where leaves that are dying crown
      Every tree with gold; sweet memories,
         Weave for my brow a garland also.

And that, like others, I too may find a place
   To abide and save my mortal heart in, lest
      My soul, unhoused, clean gone
         Above what’s living, pine away,

Be you, O song, my welcoming refuge, bringer
   Of my felicity, the garden kept
      With careful love, where underneath
         Ageless blossoms I shall walk,

Living in sure simplicity, and hear the surge
   Of potent changeful time that roars far off
      With all its waves, and the calmer sun
         Helps everything I do to prosper.

O heavenly powers who bless, benign, above
   All mortal things, each mortal’s own possession,
      Bless also mine, and let not fate
         Bring too soon to the dream an ending.

(Autumn 1799)


The Half of Life

With yellow pears the country,
Brimming with wild roses,
Hangs into the lake,
You gracious swans,
And drunk with kisses
Your heads you dip
Into the holy lucid water.

Where, ah where shall I find,
When winter comes, the flowers,
And where the sunshine
And shadows of the earth?
Walls stand
Speechless and cold, in the wind
The weathervanes chatter.



Hälfte des Lebens

Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignüchterne Wasser.

Weh mir, wo nehm ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.


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