"The Life Path" by Friedrich Hölderlin



You too sought greater things, but the weight of love pulls
All of us down, and grief drives us even lower.
Yet the arc of our lives back
Where they came from is not in vain.

High or low! Does a hand not rule silent Nature
In holy night where all the days to come are planned,
And even Hell’s fractured maze--
Ruled by degree, and judged by law?

This much I have learned: unlike mortal masters, you
Heavenly, all-sustaining powers have never
Led me, as far as I know,
Along any level pathway.

A person tries all that life brings, say the heavens,
So that, well nourished, they will cherish their knowledge
And understand the freedom
To set forth, wherever they wish.

“Lebenslauf,” Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843)
Summer 1800
Translated by Frank Beck 2018

Many poets revise their poems after their initial publication. Usually the purpose is to bring the poem closer to the writer's original intent. With "Lebenslauf," Friedrich Hölderlin did something unusual: he took a poem about sorrow written two years earlier and rewrote it as a longer poem that expresses a nearly opposite point-of-view. 

The original four-line poem was one of 17 short poems Hölderlin sent to his friend, Christian Ludwig Neuffer, in the summer of 1798 for use in an anthology called Pocket Book for Educated Ladies. At the time, Hölderlin was a 28-year-old former seminary student working as a private tutor for the Gontard family in Frankfurt. He had fallen in love with his student's mother, Susette Gontard, and the relationship had grown tense. The poem, however, expresses not anguish but resignation:

            High was my spirit's aim, but love has already
            Drawn it lower, and grief weighs it down even more.
            So I am making my way
            Through life's arc, back to where I began.

The two years between that poem and the longer one were pivotal ones in Hölderlin's life. He left the Gontard household and moved to nearby Homburg, remaining in touch with Susette. In 1799 he published the second volume of his epistolary novel, Hyperion, set against the backdrop of Greece's fight for independence.

Paradoxically, the suffering caused by parting with Susette made Hölderlin less self-centered. His previous poetry emphasized life's tragedies; now he wrote with greater freedom, often in a prophetic vein. Rather than lamenting the problems of his existence, he celebrated what he thought life could be, in its highest and most satisfying form. 

During those two years, as Michael Hamburger has shown, Hölderlin learned from the Greeks how to make his poetry more sensuous and concrete. In the case of  "Lebenslauf," the quiet resignation of the earlier poem gave way to heroic self-assertion that seeks to speak for his readers, as well as for himself.

During the following seven years, Hölderlin wrote "Bread and Wine" and the other extended poems for which he is best known. In 1807, however, he suffered a severe mental collapse. He spent the remaining 36 years living in seclusion, cared for by the family of Ernst Zimmer, a poetry-loving carpenter in Tübingen, a town near Stuttgart. The photo above shows the view of the River Neckar from an upper floor of the Zimmer's home.


The first two stanzas of the 1800 poem in Hölderlin's hand
(Württembergische Landesbibliothek)


             Top photograph by Bettina Johl; all rights reserved.

"Winter Night" by Boris Pasternak

Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak in 1958

It snowed and snowed throughout the land,
A ceaseless snowing.
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Like a swarm of gnats in summer

That flock to a light,
Snowflakes flew to the windowpane,
Afloat in the night.

The storm drew arrows on the glass
And circles, growing.
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Up on the ceiling, shadows stirred,

Vivid and fleeting,
But where hands met and then legs met
Two fates were meeting.

And, knocked to the floor with a thud,

Two shoes came to rest;
And wax fell as lightly as tears
On folds of a dress.

All disappeared in snowy haze,

Blinding and blowing;
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

The candle shook in a draft, caught

In the chill one brings;
Temptation's heat, like an angel,
Raised its cross-shaped wings.

All February long it snowed,

And time and again
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Змияя ночь by Boris Pasternak

Translated by Frank Beck

When a poet writes about a snowstorm, we seldom know which storm he or she had in mind. In this case, we do. 
On the evening of February 6, 1947, Moscow pianist Maria Yudina invited a group of friends to hear her play and Boris Pasternak read. Rumor had it that the 57-year-old poet was working on a book of fiction, and there was great curiosity about it.

It snowed so heavily that day that Pasternak worried people wouldn't come; in fact, the car carrying him and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, got lost repeatedly on the way to Yudina's apartment. Finally, as the car stood idling in the street, Pasternak looked up and saw a lamp flickering in a window. That must be the house, he said, and, strangely enough, he was right. 

The symbolism of a single candle guiding the way, through spiritual darkness as well as through a night in winter, resonated with Pasternak. The following morning, he wrote 'Winter Night', which weaves the imagery of that February evening into the love story that was at the core of his new work. For a time he considered calling it, 'A Candle Burned.' By the time the book was published, a decade later, he had named it Doctor Zhivago.

'Winter Night' eventually took its place as one of the 25 poems that form the final section of the novel, and it is now among the most frequently translated of all 20th-century poems. Anna Pasternak, the writer's grand-niece, describes its genesis in detail in her 2017 book, Lara: The Untold Love Story and The Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago; see the fifth link below.

"Autumn Day" by Rainer Maria Rilke


Lord, it is time. The summer was so great.
Now lay your shadow across the sundials,
And let the winds of the field run free.

Tell the last of the grapes to ripen:
give them two more days of southern warmth,
urge them to completion, and then chase
one final sweetness into the heavy vines.

He who has no home now will never have one.
He who is alone will be that way a long time.
He’ll lie awake and read and write long letters,
and, up and down along the avenues,
will wander anxiously, when brown leaves scatter.

Rainer Maria Rilke; translated by Frank Beck

At the end of August 1902, Rilke left his wife Clara Westhoff and their infant daughter Ruth in Munich and went to Paris to work on a monograph about Rodin. He found a room in a small hotel in the rue Toullier, two blocks from the Jardin du Luxembourg, which seemed to promise "thinking, rest, solitude, everything I longed for."

Rilke spent his days wondering through Rodin's studio, taking notes and talking with the artist. At 27, Rilke had doubts about his writing, and it thrilled him to see the 62-year-old sculptor so confidently and diligently at work. The nights, however, were lonely (Clara didn't join her husband until early October), and out of that loneliness, on September 21, he wrote "Herbsttag" ("Autumn Day").

I've tried to reproduce Rilke's economical German, which contains few adjectives, uses only two metaphors ("let the winds of the fields run free" and "chase/one final sweetness") and moves briskly, presenting three separate scenes in just 12 lines. "Herbsttag" first appeared in the second edition of The Book of Images (Das Buch der Bilder) in 1906. It has become one of Rilke's most widely anthologized and translated poems.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her