The tortured verse and tragic life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) are the inspiration for Nathaniel Tarn’s latest work, The Hölderliniae. For Tarn, Hölderlin is a poet who was “slowly murdered,” who “lived and died among the dying,” while suffering from debilitating mental illness during the final, tragic decades of his life. As Tarn recounts, Hölderlin fell into a deep depression after the death of his beloved, Suzette Gontard, in 1802. He was forced by his mother to live briefly in an insane asylum in Tübingen, as no one in his family was willing to care for him while he was ill.
After his release, Hölderlin passed the final decades of his life in the home of a carpenter who respected his literary genius. By this point, however, Hölderlin had ceased composing poetry, or indeed communicating at all. He lived in almost total isolation from the word, in a tower facing the river Neckar.
It is not difficult to understand why a poet such as Tarn would be attracted to a figure like Hölderlin. Both poets preferred a life at odds with the world, neither at home in academic or in conventional literary circles. While Tarn, who was born in Paris in 1928 and now lives in New Mexico, led a much happier existence than Hölderlin, he too was trained for a career that did not match the life he chose.
Trained as an anthropologist, Tarn quit his teaching job in 1967 to become an editor and full-time poet. Although he later returned to teaching, Tarn has effectively kept out of the limelight, preferring to become a recluse immersed in New Mexico’s topography than to seek literary fame.
Through Tarn’s hybrid epic, which incorporates Tarn’s own translations of Hölderlin’s poems, the poet invites readers to find ecstasy in the loneliness of the human condition and to reexamine our thinking about language, mortality, space, and time.
The book opens with a prose introduction to Hölderlin, whom Tarn calls “the First Modern Poet to many cultures in the twentieth century and beyond” (11).
Like Hölderlin’s famously challenging hymns, which pushed German in new directions while speaking from another time, Tarn disrupts English prosody and inverts syntax to evoke a world that is at once distant and hauntingly familiar. The thirty Hölderliniae that comprise the book oscillate between poetry and prose as they channel Hölderlin’s voice from beyond the grave.
This work reveals to us Tarn, who taught anthropology and then literature until his early retirement in 1985, an ethnographer of the past whose fieldwork is located in the realm of the imagination. With Hölderlin as his guide, yet speaking in an idiom reminiscent of Walt Whitman, Tarn pursues the
meeting place between yourself and the attempted tasks
that must be done right there and nowhere else
Tarn’s bibliography attests to the work that went into crafting this recasting of German Romanticism’s most abstruse poet in contemporary English. This small miracle of verse obsesses over the singularity of the moment, which is also the singularity of human existence. Every stanza insists — and ultimately persuades us — that “Death has a thousand cards to play. Life only one” (16).
If you’d like to learn more about Tarn, who has done more to connect poetry and anthropology than possibly any other living poet writing in English, you might want to begin with this interview Tarn conducted in 2012:
And here is my video review of this book.
To learn more about Hölderlin’s revolutionary approach to poetry and language see:
And here is another in my series of reviews of recent poetry books:
How to belong to others without losing oneself
Threa Almontaser’s The Wild Fox of Yemen (2021)
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A shorter version of this review first appeared here.