Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin


The Ister

    Now come, Fire!
We want to look during the day,
And after we’ve studied
It thoroughly, then we'll listen
To the sounds of the forest.
But we come singing from the Indus
And the Alphaios afar, having
Searched long for that which
Is befitting. No one can grasp
Straight at what's closest
Without wings, and then
Arrive at the other side.
Here is where we’ll settle.
Streams make the land arable.
When plants grow and animals
Come to drink in the summer,
There humans follow.

    It’s named the Ister,
Beautifully situated. Leaves
Flame and move in columns.
They stand heaped on one another
In wild disorder; a second level
Overhead juts like a roof from the cliffs.
I’m not surprised that the Ister
Welcomed Hercules as a guest,
Shining in the distance down
On Olympus, where he came
From the hot Isthmus seeking shade.
For the gods were full of courage,
Yet they too needed cooling off,
To placate the spirits.
Thus the beloved hero proceeded
To the sources of springs
And to the yellow banks, the dark
Spruce forest fragrant above,
In whose depths hunters
Like to roam in the afternoons,
And the resinous trees of the Ister
Make audible sounds where they grow.

   It seems almost
To run backwards:
I'd think it should flow
From the East.
Much could be said
About that. And why does it
Hang straight along the mountains?
The other river, the Rhine,
Moved off to the side. Streams don’t
Cross the dry land without a purpose.
But how? There has to be a sign,
Nothing else, plain and true,
So that sun and moon, day and night,
Inseparable, stay mindful and continue on,
And the heavenly ones feel warmth
In each other’s company:

    Thus they please the Highest One.
But how would he come down?
Green like Hertha, they are
Children of Heaven. But to me
He seems all too patient, not more free,
Almost mocking. For if day begins
During youth and starts to grow, another is
Already there to spread the brilliance.
He chafes at the bit
like a foal, and distant breezes hear
the goings-on if he’s satisfied.
But the cliffs need clefts, just as
The earth needs furrows—otherwise
All would be unmanageable and unenduring.
But what the river’s doing—
Nobody knows.

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Ister (Istros, Ἴστρος) is the classical Greek name for the Danube River, which flows east across German lands from the Black Forest to Vienna, and on to the Iron Gates in modern Romania to the Black Sea Delta, the part of the river most familiar to the Greeks.

Hölderlin's enigmatic and fragmentary poem gained much attention from Martin Heideggerʼs Hölderlins Hymne ‘Der Ister’, a lecture series published in 1942. The poem hovers over questions concerning the first human settlements along the river, the Western course of civilization as if the Danube flowed backwards, the origins of the Germans, if the Greek gods or heroes were their forebears or witnesses, and if somehow the Ister itself was the mysterious source of it all.

Alphaios (Alphaeus) is the longest river in the Peloponnese, and was also a river god linked to Hercules, who appears in the next strophe. Hertha may be the Swabian name for an earth mother figure called ‘Nerthus’ by Tacitus in Germania, 98 CE.



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