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Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin [‘jo: han’ kʁɪstjan ‘fʁi: dʁɪç’ hœldɐlɪn] (Lauffen am Neckar, Duchy of Württemberg, March 20, 1770 – Tübingen, Württemberg Kingdom, 7 June 1843) was a German lyric poet. His poetry embraces the classical tradition and fuses it with the new romanticism.
Hölderlin was born in Lauffen am Neckar (Württemberg) into a bourgeois family. His father (administrator of the Lauffen Protestant Seminary) dies when he was two years old. His mother remarried with Johann Christoph Gock, municipal councilor of Nürtingen, where Hölderlin was raised along with his sister and stepbrother.
His stepfather died when Hölderlin was nine and of his six brothers only two would survive his childhood: his sister Rike, older than him, and Karl, six years younger.
As his maternal grandfather was a pietist, his mother destined him to follow the family tradition and in 1784 he entered a preparatory school for the seminary, in Denkendorf; in 1788 he entered as a scholar to study Theology at the Tübinger Stift (seminary of the Protestant Church in the city of Tübingen, in Württemberg), where he was a friend and companion of the future philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. In those companies he felt a great interest in philosophy and read Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant. Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin influenced each other and it has been speculated that it was probably Hölderlin who presented to Hegel Heraclitus’ ideas about the union of opposites, which the philosopher would develop in his concept of dialectics. The fact is that from this period came his “pantheistic idea of the unity or harmony of being broken by the social progress of alienation of the human being with respect to nature”. In classical Greece I saw a distant image of the original harmony between being human, society and nature.
He also studied classical literature and philosophy, translated some Greek tragedies into German and wrote poetry. Heavily influenced by Plato and by Hellenic mythology and culture, he departed sensibly from the Protestant faith. In addition, «the ideals of the French Revolution, the vindication of freedom, equality and fraternity, awakened in him the hope of the beginning of a new golden age for humanity». At that time, the famous anecdote that depicted Hegel, Scheling and Hölderlin celebrated the cult of the goddess Reason in France, planting a tree of freedom in the Göttingen market square and dancing around it.
In 1793 he left the seminary with the license that allowed him to exercise the evangelical ministry, but decided not to dedicate himself to his career and during the following years he dedicated himself to educate children of noblemen and rich merchants and, fleeing from the desires that his mother harbored for him, he got the playwright and poet of romanticism Friedrich Schiller to provide him with a position as preceptor of the son of Charlotte von Kalb, in Waltershausen, although he soon left his post, given the limited influence he exerted over his pupil. He then settled in Jena, which was then one of the main intellectual centers of the country and where he had meetings with Goethe, Herder, Novalis and, above all, Schiller. He attended classes taught by Fichte, and Schiller published him a fragment of the Hyperion, or The Hermit in Greece in his magazine Thalia.
Lacking resources, he returned to Nürtingen in 1795 and in 1796 worked at the home of Jakob Gontard, a merchant and banker from Frankfurt am Main, and fell in love with Susette, Jakob’s wife. To her he dedicated several writings, among them the Hyperion, referring to it with the name of Diotima (as the character of Plato’s banquet that taught the philosophy of love to Socrates). Despite his work and the trips he had to make with the Gontard family because of the war, it was a time of intense literary activity, and in 1799 he finally concluded his epistolary novel Hyperion, or The Hermit in Greece.
The Tower of Hölderlin in Tübingen, where he stayed until his death.
In September 1798 he had to leave the Gontard house, after living a painful scene with Susette’s husband, with whom he would subsequently maintain the relationship for almost two years clandestinely. He secretly met with her several times until he moved to Homburg on the advice of his friend the diplomat Isaak von Sinclair, a convinced Republican. An interesting correspondence has survived from this love relationship
He then undertook the writing of his tragedy The Death of Empédocles and tried to launch an intellectual and literary magazine that failed. In 1800 he was invited to Stuttgart, where he had time to devote himself to poetry and translate the ancient Greek poet Pindar, who would exert a great influence on his hymns. At the end of the year he accepted another post as tutor in Hauptwil, Switzerland.
It is not known why he left his job in April 1801 and returned with his mother to Nürtingen. According to a letter of March 1801 to his friend Christian Landauer, Hölderlin was increasingly aware of his mental problems, which had already appeared in the form of periodic depressions since his student days. In winter of that year it had a strong crisis.
Until January 1802, when he obtained a position at the home of the consul of Hamburg in Bordeaux, he worked uninterruptedly in his poetic work. When the first symptoms of his mental illness appeared in April, he once again abandoned his post. Sinclair communicated by letter the death of Susette Gontard, on June 22, 1803, in Frankfurt am Main.
After a period of great violence, his mental disorder seemed to subside. Sinclair took him on a trip to Regensburg and Ulm and, on his return, wrote The One and Patmos, two of his masterpieces. Thanks to the influence of his friend Sinclair, he obtained in 1804 a librarian’s post (which Sinclair himself paid with his fortune) in the landgrave palace of the Homburg.
As his mental crises became more and more frequent (he cursed like a maniac and walked aimlessly while talking to himself), Sinclair decided to admit him in 1806 in a psychiatric clinic in Tübingen. After four days of travel, he was received by Ferdinand Autenrieth (1772-1835), medical manager of a clinic that had achieved fame since its opening by the new therapeutic methods used.
Hölderlin entered the clinic on 14 or 15 September 1806 and was hospitalized for 231 days with symptoms of great motor agitation, long walks without direction, scarce space-time orientation, frequent fits of anger and, above all, an uncontrollable and unintelligible verbiage, all data that seem to indicate a catatonic schizophrenia.
After being declared an incurable patient, he was placed in May 1807 under the care of a cabinetmaker of the same city, Zimmer, an enthusiastic reader of the Hyperion, who welcomed him into his house; the mother of the poet took care of the expenses of maintenance. There he remained until his death in conditions of peaceful madness that lasted thirty-six years.
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