Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin


 

Mnemosyne

The fruits are ripe, dipped in fire,
Cooked and sampled on earth. And there’s a law,
That things penetrate in the manner of snakes,
Prophetically, dreaming on the hills of heaven.
And there is much that needs to be retained,
Like a load of wood on the shoulders.
But the pathways are dangerous.
The captured elements
And ancient laws of earth
Run astray like horses.
There is a constant yearning
For all that is unconfined.
But much needs to be retained.
And loyalty is required.
Yet we mustn’t look forwards or backwards.
We should let ourselves be cradled
As if on a boat rocking on a lake.

But what about things that we love?
We see sun shining on the ground, and the dry dust,
And at home the forests deep with shadows,
And smoke flowering from the rooftops,
Peacefully, near the ancient crowning towers.
These signs of daily life are good,
Even when by contrast something divine
Has injured the soul.
For snow sparkles on an alpine meadow,
Half-covered with green,
Signifying generosity of spirit in all situations,
Like flowers in May—
A wanderer walks up above on a high trail
And speaks irritably to a friend about a cross
He sees in the distance, set for someone
Who died on the path...
What does this mean?

My Achilles
Died near a fig tree,
And Ajax lies in the caves of the sea
Near the streams of Skamandros—
Great Ajax died abroad
Following Salamis’ inflexible customs,
A rushing sound at his temples—
But Patroclus died in the King’s armor.
Many others died as well.
But Eleutherai, the city
Of Mnemosyne, once stood upon
Mount Kithaeron. Evening
Loosened her hair, after the god
Had removed his coat.
For the gods are displeased
If one doesn’t compose and spare oneself.
But a person has to do it,
Or their grieving is misguided.

 

Next poem          Home         All poems 

 



Notes

 

This third version of Hölderlin’s poem demonstrates the semantic complexity often characteristic of his late writing, and his ability to develop thoughts in a succession of metaphors and images—a process of metaphorical thinking in poetic narrative.

The question Hölderlin presents here is whether and how it is possible to retain historical memory of past events, exemplified by the deaths of the Greek heroes. Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory. She slept with Zeus and gave birth to the nine Muses, whose activities are also by nature historicizing.

Hesiod writes of Mnemosyne:

Them [the Muses] in Pieria did Mnemosyne, who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Kronos [Zeus], a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, she bore nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. [Theogony 53-63, trans. Evelyn-White.]

And again, he [Zeus] loved Mnemosyne with the beautiful hair: and of her the nine gold-crowned Muses were born. [Theogony 915-917.]

Pindar also writes about Mnemosyne:

If success crowns a man’s venture, sweeter then than honey the libations he pours into the Mousai’s [Muses’] stream. But lacking the songs to praise them, the mightiest feats of valour can but find a sorry grave a deep darkness. But for fine deeds a mirror to establish, one way alone we know if Mnamosyna’s [Memory’s] shining diadem will grant recompense for their labours, in the glory of music on the tongues of men. [Nemean 7 ant 1, trans. Conway.]

In the poem’s first strophe, the “fruits” are simply the deeds or events of history. Their memory disappears from us the same way that snakes crawl away into cracks in the floor, or run between rocks. We need to remember things, but our memory is often faulty and can lead us astray like horses on crooked paths. Also there exists a tendency and a willingness to let things slide into oblivion. We should stay nested in the present and not run away to the future or the past.

But what about the experiences of daily life, the common things we treasure, even after we make contact with something that transcends earthly life? It is like a cross planted in an alpine meadow, an act of generosity and a reminder, animating wayfarers to speculate from a distance about what happened there.

The last strophe places us in the mythic environment of Greece. The heroes at Troy died in various ways, and we owe our knowledge of them to the circumstance that Zeus slept with Mnemosyne on Mt. Kithaeron—“loosening her hair” is a common sexual metaphor in older literatures.

Thus historical memory itself is ordained by the gods. When friends or heroes die, we need to pull ourselves together and conquer sorrow by creating a record of what happened.

 

Website and Translations Copyright © 2020 by James Mitchell