Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin

Portrait of Friedrich Holderlin

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin was a German poet and philosopher and a key figure in German Romanticism. He was born on 20 March 1770 in Lauffen am Neckar, Wurttemberg, Germany and died on 7 June 1843 in Tubingen, Wurttemberg, Germany aged 73.

Major Works

“The Death of Empedocles” (1797)
“Hyperion” (1797)
“Menons Klagen um Diotima” (1798)
Andenken” (Remembrance) (1802)
Der Rhein” (1808)

Biography

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin was born on 20th March 1770 in Lauffen am Neckar in Germany. His father was Heinrich Friedrich Hölderlin, the manager of a church estate. His mother was Johanna Christiana Heyn, a parson’s daughter.

1772: His father dies.

1774: His mother Johanna remarries, to Johann Christoph Gok in Nurtingen. 

1776: Johann Gok becomes the Burgomeister of Nürtingen and Hölderlin’s half-brother, Karl Christoph Friedrich Gok, is born. Holderlin begins his schooling in Nurtingen and his mother wants him to eventually join the ministry.

1779: Johann Gok dies aged 30 and Holderlin’s mother is left to bring up the family.

1782: In preparation for entrance examinations to join a monastery, he receives additional tuition in Greek, Hebrew, Latin and rhetoric. 

1784: He enters the Lower Monastery in Denkendorf and starts his formal training for joining the church where candidates receive free education. He reads the poetry of Friedrich von Schilller and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and begins to write his own verse.

1786: He moves on to the Higher Monastery at Maulbronn where he falls in love with the daughter of the the monastery’s administrator, Luise Nast. His desire to join the ministry begins to wane.

1787: He writes “Mein Vorsatz”, in which he records his intention to reach “Pindar’s Light”, a reference to his new great passion of the Ancient Greek world.

1788 Luise Nast recommends he read Schiller’s “Don Carlos” and later writes to Schiller saying “It won’t be easy to study “Carlos” in a rational way, since he was for so many years the magic cloud in which the good god of my youth enveloped me so that I would not see too soon the pettiness and barbarity of the world.” In October he begins his theological studies at the Tubinger Stift. Fellow students include George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. The latter becomes a friend and he protects him from bullying by the older students. He also begins to learn the piano.

1789: He ends his engagement with Luise Nast as he believes he is too morose for her. He says he will never enter the clergy and wants to convert to the law. Along with many of the students of the time he is a supporter of the French Revolution but is later appalled by “The Reign of Terror”.

1793: He gains his magister degree and Schiller recommends him for a post as a private tutor.

1794: He leaves his tutor’s post and moves to Jena in Germany where he sees Schiller and his friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He begins writing his novel “Hyperion”.

1795: He enrols at the university of Jena and attends classes held by Johnann Gottlieb Fichte. There he meets the poet Novalis. In December he accepts a post in Frankfurt as tutor for J.F. Gontard’s family. Gontard is a wealthy banker and Holderlin then falls in love with Gontard’s beautiful wife Susette.

1796: Susette returns Holderlin’s love and they start an affair.

1797: A manuscript, dated 1797, now known as the “Das Alteste Systemprogramm des Deutschen Idealismus” (The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism) has been attributed to Hegel, Schelling and Holderlin as well as an unknown fourth person. Holderlin works on his first version of his Greek tragedy “The Death of Empedocles”. Although he produces three versions they are never finally completed. His Novel “Hyperion” is published.

1798: Jakob Gontard finds out about the affair with his with and dismisses Holderlin and he is forced to leave Frankfurt in September. Bitterly upset he moves to Bad Homburg but still manages to finish the second volume of “Hyperion”. There he meets Susette in secret. He begins writing his great elegies “Menons Klagen um Diotima” (Menon’s Lament for Diotima) and “Brod und Wein” (“Bread and Wine”). He is now without funds and accepts a small allowance from his mother.

1799: The second volume of “Hyperion” is published (under the Greek name of “Diotima”) and Susette appears in this work as well as in some of his other poems. The poems do not reach a wide audience. He begins writing a periodical “Iduna”.

1800: By now he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia which was then called hypochondrias which gets worse after his final meeting with Susette. He moves to Stuttgart where he works on his translations of the Ancient Greek poet Pindar. 

1801: In January he finds employment with a family in Hauptwyl, Switzerland. 

1802: He then moves of Bordeaux where he works in the household of the Hamburg Consul. This period is recorded in his poem “Andenken” (Remembrance). After a few months he returns to Nürtingen via Paris on foot arriving in the early winter. He hears that Susette had died of influenza in Frankfurt.

1804: He becomes Court Librarian in Bad Homburg. There he translates Sophocles’ dramas but the critics are not impressed with his attempts at trying to translate Greek Idioms into German. Later critics have reviewed this and now realise their importance.

1805: His boss, von Sinclair, is denounced as a conspirator and tried for treason. Hölderlin is also in danger of being tried but is declared mentally unfit to stand trial. 

1806: On 11th September he is sent to Dr Johann Heinrich Ferdinand von Autenrieth’s clinic which is attached to the University of Tubingen. A student, the poet Justinus Kernet, is assigned to look after him.

1807: He is discharged as incurable and given three years to live. He goes to live with Ernst Zimmer, a carpenter and admirer of “Hyperion”, in Tubingen. His room had been a tower in the old city wall with views across river Neckar (now named Holderlinturm) and he is to live there for the next 36 years. He continues to write poetry and tourists come to see him and ask for his autograph. His mother and sister never visit him but receive money from the state for his upkeep.

1808: The hymns “Der Rhein” and “Patmos” are published.

1822: Wilhelm Waiblinger visits Holderlin in his tower and includes him in his novel “Phaëthon”.

1826: At Waiblinger’s suggestion the first collection of his poetry is published by Ludwig Uhland and Christoph Theodor Schwabin. A copy of this is given to Hölderlin, but is later stolen by an autograph-hunter.

1828: His mother dies.

1842: A second, enlarged edition of the poems with a biographical essay is published.

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin died on 7th June 1843 in Tubingen, Germany and only the Zimmer family attended his funeral in the town’s cemetery. (Unbeknownst to him his inheritance from his father had been kept by his mother and he died rich without even realising it). He became more famous after his death with Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms setting some of his poems to music and he is now considered one of Germany’s finest poets.