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Anthony Stephens

Cutting Poets to Size – Heidegger, Hölderlin, Rilke

This piece is about 12 printed pages long.

From the outset I must make it clear that I am writing here not as a philosopher, but as a scholar of German literature. This implies that all the texts I treat will be seen as having literary status, regardless of any claims implicit in them or claims made for them. My method impinges on Heidegger’s tendency to accord a special privilege to certain poetic texts, especially the late poems of Hölderlin. Few scholars writing in English on Heidegger show any awareness that this corpus of poetry did not become accessible to the general reader until the publication of the fourth volume of Norbert von Hellingrath’s edition in 1916 and that Heidegger was making a radical – eminently contestable – departure from the customary reading of Hölderlin’s late work by taking a hagiographical approach to precisely this phase of his creativity. The philosopher gave this a theoretical basis in numerous places, notably in the essay Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks (The Origin of the Work of Art) of 1935–1936. From a literary perspective, however, this often results in his lifting segments of text from their origins, in effect: de-contextualising them. A great deal of writing on Heidegger in English simply accepts this practice without enquiring into what implications this change of status may have. It has resulted in the reception of Hölderlin by Heidegger and Heideggerians constituting a separate preserve, isolated from the mainstream of scholarship on the poet both in Germany and elsewhere. My intention in the following is to restore something of the literary perspective. For the sake of consistency and accuracy, all translations into English in this essay are my own. References to Heidegger and other authors are to texts in the original language.

An address to German students by Heidegger, published on 8 November 1933, calling for commitment to Nazism and proclaiming Hitler himself to be «the present and future German reality and its law».

An address to German students by Heidegger, published on 8 November 1933, calling for commitment to Nazism and proclaiming Hitler himself to be ‘the present and future German reality and its law’.


This means suspending the special privilege Heidegger accords to certain poems. Hence all such texts as may be seen as having a claim to other than fictional status, including philosophical writing, will be discussed as fictions. To cite one example of this approach, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative contains a chapter called “Sacred History and the Beginnings of Prose Fiction” in which texts, which many regard as non-fiction, are analysed precisely as fiction (Alter, 1981: 23-47). This approach also means that no one fictional genre will be privileged above others. Historically, there have been attempts to regard, say, poetry or tragic drama as qualitatively superior literary expressions to novels or comedies, but the outcome of much theorising has been that it is a matter of how such texts are received, rather than of how they are constituted.

If one comes to the authors Hölderlin and Rilke from the background of German culture and scholarship, then they tend to appear quite differently from their guise in contexts where Heidegger discusses them. The window onto Hölderlin’s work opened by Heidegger’s texts is a very narrow one. Hölderlin was publishing poems from 1791 onwards, and also wrote a novel Hyperion oder der Eremit in Griechenland (Hyperion or The Hermit in Greece), but Heidegger cites very little from before 1800. After 1806, mental illness prevented Hölderlin from continuing to write at all in his late hymnic mode, and 1803 is usually accepted as the date of the last hymn he was able to complete, Mnemosyne. To read what are termed the “hymnic fragments”, the often rambling drafts of late poems Hölderlin could not finish, is a very moving experience, since occasional jewels of vivid imagery or coherent statement are found among the incomplete sentences, disordered syntax, large gaps in the text and other signs of mental breakdown.

Heidegger is not averse to lifting such “jewels”, such terse, obscure statements from their quite disunified contexts without revealing their origin. In like manner, he quotes lines the poet ultimately rejected in the final version of a poem as if they were independent sayings. The likely reason for this practice is that such quotes tend to sound very like the preserved fragments of the Pre-Socratics. Running through Heidegger’s texts is the quite explicit thesis that Hölderlin’s language and thought have an especial affinity with the Pre-Socratics. In this sense, in his commentary on Hölderlin’s hymn Der Rhein, first delivered as a lecture in early 1935, Heidegger states:

With this eighth strophe, the poet’s thought attains one of the highest and most solitary peaks in Western thought, and this means at the same time: of Being. [… ] On the mountain-peak he has now reached, Hölderlin dwells in proximity with the thinkers of the inception of our occidental history, not because Hölderlin is dependent on them but because he is inceptively an inceptor – an inceptor of that inception, which has been awaiting vainly both today and through the ages its coming to power. (Heidegger 1980, 269)

An echo of the times is audible in the word Heidegger uses for “coming to power”, Ermächtigung, since the law giving Hitler dictatorial powers was the Ermächtigungsgesetz of 23 March 1933. Here Heidegger also touches on the enigma of the “history of Being”, and I shall return to this puzzle later. What Heidegger’s focus on a small number of texts from about five years of Hölderlin’s productive life achieves is to make Hölderlin appear much less typical of his own age than is the case. Hölderlin’s artistic development is steeped in German Hellenism and German Idealism, with all that implies in terms of metaphysics. It was no coincidence that Hölderlin received his higher education in the Tübinger Stift, a protestant seminary, in the company of Hegel and Schelling and that they together composed a text, since called Das Älteste Systemprogramm [des deutschen Idealismus] (The First Systematic Program [of German Idealism]) (Hölderlin, 1969: 2, 647-49). The draft manifesto, a fragment of which is preserved in Hegel’s handwriting, was composed in the years 1795-97 (Kreuzer ed., 2002: 38f.).

Heidegger was more willing to admit Hölderlin’s congruity with the metaphysics of his age in 1934-35 than he was later:

But history is always the unique history of the people in question, in this case of the people to which this poet belongs, the history of Germania. Now and to the extent we know who this man is in his essence, we have attained that which we were seeking: the metaphysical locus of Hölderlinic poetry. That is the centre of Being itself, the Being of the demigods, the Being of the man, of our poet. We recall what the latter says of himself [… ]: “But now day breaks! I waited, saw its coming,/And let what I saw, the Holy, be my word” (Heidegger, 1980: 288).

Certainly, there is a movement in Heidegger’s texts away from this position and towards seeing selected passages from Hölderlin as the very antithesis of metaphysics – notably in Wozu Dichter? (To What End Poets?) of 1946 – but the lectures and essays of the mid-thirties, when Heidegger turned to Hölderlin with a vengeance, should not simply be ignored. The point is that the more Hölderlin is isolated from the context of his whole work and the context of his own age, the easier it becomes to present him as an honorary Pre-Socratic, knowingly “belonging to Heraclitus’ understanding of Being” (Heidegger, 1980: 123).

The problems raised by Heidegger’s treatment of those few texts by Rilke he cites are quite different. In section 8e of his lectures on Parmenides in early 1943, Heidegger castigates Rilke severely for misunderstanding – in the eighth Duineser Elegie – the concept of “the Open”:

What Rilke terms “the Open”, principally in the eighth of his Duino Elegies, has nothing but the sound of the same words in common with what the thinking of the essence of αλήθεια [Alétheia: Truth] comprehends in the term “the Open”. A brief explanation of what Rilke means by “the Open” can assist us to form a more stable concept and to be ready for a more clarified contemplation of what is thought in the essential realm of αλήθεια by means of a resolute differentiation from the Rilkean word. [… ] It is necessary only to point out unambiguously, that Rilke’s naming of “the Open” is different in every respect from what is conceived concerning “the Open” in its essential relation to αλήθεια and from what is to be conceived in terms of a conceptual question (Heidegger 1982: 227).

This is a topic to which he will return in his essay of 1946 on Rilke, Wozu Dichter?, in the essay collection Holzwege – an essay that allegedly set out to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Rilke’s death – but, by and large, recurs to the strictures of the lectures on Parmenides. In point of fact, what Heidegger claims as his ‘discoveries’ with regard to the relation of poetic language to the world of objects and common experience had already been anticipated in print by Rilke in his essays on aesthetics between 1898 and 1903 (Stephens 1976: 94–114), and Rilke, essentially, had done no more than draw his own original conclusions from the questions already posed by French Symbolism. Heidegger appears to have been blissfully ignorant of them – a sine qua non of his denigration of Rilke. Had Heidegger taken the trouble to read Mallarmé, then he could have scarcely presented his essentially old-fashioned poetics with the panache he does. But then, he had, quite arbitrarily, selected Hölderlin’s latest poetry as the apogee of Western poetic achievement, and in this template there was no room for what European poetry had accomplished since Baudelaire. The hagiography that has attached itself to Heidegger’s poetics has no defence but wilful ignorance.

I have retranslated the poem by Rilke, Wie die Natur die Wesen überläßt… , that Heidegger discusses at length in Wozu Dichter?, since the translation by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes in Off the Beaten Track makes the German syntax of the closing lines very ambiguous, and quite unnecessarily so:

As Nature leaves its creatures to the daring
of their blunt drive to pleasure, chooses none
to protect among earth-clods or boughs: so we
are no more cherished by the primal
ground of our being; it dares us. Only we
go with this daring, further than plants or beasts,
and will it; sometimes we dare even more
(and not because we’re drawn by selfishness)
than life itself dares, just a breath’s span more daring…
This gains us, in our unprotectedness,
a safe place there, just where the gravity
of pure forces takes effect; in the end, what
shelters us is our exposure, and, when we saw it turn
threatening, that we faced it towards the Open,
so that we might affirm it somewhere in
the furtherst round, where law impinges on us (Rilke 1996, 2: 324).

In Off the Beaten Track the “it” which ends the translation of this poem offers a choice of antecedents: “law”, “the open”, “our defenselessness” (Young and Haynes eds., 2002: 207). The real antecedent in the original text is “Schutzlossein”, which I have rendered at that point as “exposure” to avoid a repetition of the more literal, close synonym “unprotectedness” earlier in the text. This is an untitled poem written on 4.6.1924, and not published in Rilke’s lifetime, as a dedication in a copy of Rilke’s novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (begun 1904, published 1910). The copy was sent on behalf of Rilke’s wife Clara to Hellmuth Freiherr Lucius von Stoedner. In this poem, written more than two years after the eighth Duineser Elegie, there is nothing to say that Rilke is working with the same understanding of “the Open” that he develops there, where it is used as a conjectural foil to bring out the limitations of human perception of the world, which is evoked – in opposition to what animals may experience – as being “closed” in various senses (Stephens, 1972: 178f.; Engel ed., 2004: 380f.). Indeed, the third last line suggests human consciousness may here have some access to “the Open”, which the text of the eighth Duineser Elegie emphatically denies. However that be, underlying all Heidegger’s strictures on Rilke is the assumption that Rilke, like Hölderlin, strove to reflect in his work one unified world-view. In the tradition of German Idealism, Hölderlin did for as long as he was able. Rilke did not, and this is one of the oldest conundrums of scholarship on Rilke.

Three years before Heidegger’s lectures on Parmenides, a British scholar, Eudo C. Mason, had published in German, indeed in Weimar, a very lucid monograph showing that not only did Rilke’s work not offer a coherent vision of life, but that he did not even make the effort to fake one (Mason, 1939). Mason’s book is carried by a tone of sustained indignation, since he is writing from a Christian point of view and sees Rilke’s works as mimicking Christianity, but with a lack of religious commitment. Mason was addressing a problem that was already endemic in Rilke-criticism, namely that it was easy to represent Rilke as espousing virtually any world-view current at the time – so long as one did not demand absolute consistency. Rilke is a kind of intellectual chameleon, taking on the conceptual structures of many discourses of his times, but using them purely for aesthetic purposes. Within the individual poem, Rilke’s consistency of thought is perfect. One must, however, exercise extreme caution in assuming that the same word or semantic cluster has a meaning that is transferable out of one context and into another. Rilke’s poems are entirely lacking in warning signals to the reader. One perceptive critic summed up the resulting dilemmas by stating that “Rilke’s poetry is so constituted as to be able to respond to philosophical questions”, with the disconcerting implication that it does not matter greatly which questions one asks (Hamburger, 1966: 179). In a previous study on Rilke, I glossed what Rilke had termed – at the age of twenty-four – his quest “to find images for my own transformations” by stating: “here it is important to realise that [… ] intellectual structures may function precisely as images” (Stephens, 1972: 193).

The key to this unusual quality of Rilke’s work was available to the general reader as early as 1931, when his letters and diaries from the years 1899–1902 were published. In a diary entry from 1900, Rilke boldly set forth his lack of esteem for the law of contradiction: “I fear within myself only those contradictions that have a tendency towards resolution… . “ (Rilke, 1931: 203). He was to sustain and exemplify this attitude through every phase of his work.

How all this relates to Heidegger’s attacks on Rilke in the lectures on Parmenides and the essay of 1946, when Rilke had been dead since 1926, is best summed up by the fact that – in terms of Rilke’s poetic practice – Heidegger was tilting at windmills. Rilke simply had not aspired to have a stable concept of “the Open”. In his one attempt to explain what he may have meant by it in the eighth Duineser Elegie, he is extremely tentative and speaks of the concept he has “attempted to suggest” (“vorzuschlagen versucht habe”) – thus claiming no ultimate conceptual validity for it (Betz, 1938: 291). Rilke came relatively late to discover and admire intensely the work of Hölderlin, and set forth in a poem entitled An Hölderlin (To Hölderlin), written in 1914 when Rilke was 38 and first published in 1934, eight years after his death, his understanding of Hölderlin’s imperative towards a wholeness of vision and his own quite opposite situation. The poem reads in part:

To linger, even at what is most familiar,
is not given to us; from fulfilled
images the mind plummets to ones waiting for sudden fulfilment; lakes
exist only in the eternal. Falling is here
what we achieve best. From the feeling we’ve mastered
to plunge down into that we anticipate, further.
But to you, you splendid one, to you, you conjurer, a whole life was given
to feel as an urgent image, when you spoke it out,
each line closed like destiny, death was
even in the gentlest, and you entered it; but
the god who preceded you led you out and above it (Rilke 2, 1996: 123).

Since this poem was published in the same volume as the dedicatory poem, Wie die Natur die Wesen überläßt [… ], on which Heidegger did comment in detail, the fundamental difference between the two poets had been clearly spelled out by one of them in a book Heidegger read, but Heidegger simply chose to ignore the fact. Why?

I suggest that it stems from a fiction Heidegger terms “the history of Being”, whose strong agenda makes it necessary for Rilke’s poetry to “remain back behind that of Hölderlin on the course of the history of Being as far as rank and position are concerned” (Heidegger, 1950: 276) The word Heidegger uses for course, Bahn, implies linear movement, in time since it occurs in the German words for race-track, ghost-train, tram-line and, of course, Autobahn. Does this “history of Being” run backwards in time? It appears so in Heidegger’s essay on Rilke, Wozu Dichter? Here Hölderlin is called the “precursor” whom “no poet of our age can overtake”. Why? “The precursor does not [… ] disappear into a future, but he arrives from the future in such a manner that it is only in the arrival of his word that the future achieves presence” (Heidegger 1950: 320).

My answer to this puzzle is that Heidegger posits two different “histories of Being”, and that one of them does reverse time-sequences. For Heidegger pulls the same trick on Nietzsche in 1935, as he does on Rilke in 1946. At the conclusion of his lectures on Der Rhein in 1935, Heidegger states:

What Hölderlin here sees as the essence of historical being, the emotional intensities in conflict between what is an endowment and what is a task, was rediscovered by Nietzsche and termed the Dionysian and Apollonian, but not in such simplicity and purity as Hölderlin; for in the intervening time Nietzsche had had to traverse all those fatal circumstances that are denoted by the names Schopenhauer, Darwin, Wagner, and the term “founding years” [of the German Empire]. [… ] The hour of our history has now struck. [… ] The force of Being must now once more and in reality become a question for our powers of comprehension (Heidegger, 1980: 294).

Coming later in time, Nietzsche’s “discovery” has to be inferior. As Heidegger reiterated in his interview with Der Spiegel in 1966: “I do not consider Hölderlin to be just any poet, whose work literary historians also treat together with many others’. Hölderlin is for me the poet, who points into the future, who awaits the god” (Thomä ed., 2003: 214; Wolin ed., 1993: 112). Thus we have one qualitative “history of Being” proceeding backwards in leaps from the future god, to Hölderlin, to the Pre-Socratics and – conceivably – to the mythic age posited in Hölderlin’s later poems, when gods and humans mingled.

Michel Haar, in his work La fracture de l’Histoire (The Breaking of History) refers to the present-day disjunction in historical thinking, which he characterises as a:

[… ] breaking apart, or being cast loose from one another, of two Histories, previously distinct from but strictly coordinated with one another [… ]: on the one hand empirical history, the entanglement of facts; on the other, epochal History, the development of the principles of intelligibility, “Universal history” in Hegelian terms, “the History of Being” according to Heidegger (Haar, 1994: 10).

But I suggest we must see Heidegger’s “history of Being” as having two different versions which are placed in no clear relationship to one another.

There is the one philosophers prefer that does no violence to chronology. As Emil Angehrn sets it out in the Heidegger-Handbuch, one of a series of recent and authoritative compendia on major German authors and thinkers:

In this sense metaphysics is to be regarded as a basic historical process – not as a misguided manner of thought and doctrine – and nihilism as its essential form deriving from the “fate of Being itself” [… ] What is demanded of humankind is not to invent new forms of thought, but an openness to that which comes towards it, and to let itself be spoken to by what [… ] reveals itself. [… ] The processuality of the history of Being does not mean that it takes place anywhere else than in the medium of human creations – in science, technology, art, politics. [… ] Only that openness to being addressed, which includes the “courage to feel essential anxiety” (as the locus of the experience of nothingness, and thus also of Being), is what is required of humankind” (Thomä ed., 2003: 274ff.).

In such a scenario, Hölderlin’s poetry as a revelation of truth, interrupting the progressive descent into complete nihilism, plays no part at all, and, indeed, the American scholar Jeffrey A. Barash published in 2003 the second edition of an informed and detailed study called Martin Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning without mentioning Hölderlin in the context of a rearranging of history at all: for Barash the chronological process moves with its wonted linearity and with no reversals.

Why does Heidegger need the other version? In the final sections of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) Heidegger first sees Dasein as being potentially integrated in a positive sense into a community (Wolin, 1990: 54-58). Heidegger’s enthusiasm for National Socialism in the years 1931–1934 has two consequences: firstly, there appears that subordination of the present to a glowing future he articulates in his letter to Elisabeth Blochmann a week after Hitler’s Ermächtigungsgesetz was passed: “We shall find it [the new ground] and, at the same time, the vocation of the German in Occidental history only when we expose ourselves to Being itself in a new mode of experiencing and assimilating it. Thus I experience the present purely in terms of the future.” Heidegger 1990: 60). Secondly, in the same letter to her, the German Volk can be named as the best of all possible communities: “Present events have for me [… ] an enormous concentrating power. To be active in the service of a great mission enhances the will and the certainty of helping to construct a world that is based in the people [volklich]” (ibid; Thomä ed., 2003: 525). As James Phillips rightly states: “In 1933, Heidegger attempts to lead the masses of National Socialism to the confrontation with classical ontology from which the Volk might have been born” (Phillips, 2005: 131).

Heidegger, in his capacity as Rektor of the University of Freiburg, sits fourth from the right at a public demonstration of support for Nazism by German professors on 11 November 1933 in Leipzig.

Heidegger, in his capacity as Rektor of the University of Freiburg, sits fourth from the right at a public demonstration of support for Nazism by German professors on 11 November 1933 in Leipzig.


Heidegger’s failure as a Nazi politician is immediately followed by the celebration of Hölderlin in his lectures (Risser ed., 1995: 5f.). Hölderlin’s poems after 1800 abound in visions of ideal, future communities. Hence there is a clear element of displacement from the grubby arena of party politics to the pristine spaces of the poetic word. Heidegger denies in 1934 that lecturing on Hölderlin was a personal choice at all, rather: “This choice is no capricious selection from among the poets available. This choice is an historical decision”. Why? Because Hölderlin, he says, is not only the greatest poet of the German nation, but also because his light is still hidden, and: “for this reason he has not yet become the power in the history of our people. Because he is not it yet, he must become it. To participate in this process is ‘politics’ in the highest and genuine sense […]” (Heidegger, 1980: 214).

The celebration of Hölderlin is thus proclaimed to be “political” activity in a more exalted sphere than the one in which Heidegger has just signally failed. Since Hölderlin envisages the future return of the gods, the dominance of a radiant future over present and past does not have to be abandoned. His installation of Hitler as the authority that guarantees the future in the letter to Elisabeth Blochmann of March 30 1933 – “So I experience the present wholly in terms of the future” (Heidegger 1990: 60) – stands in clear parallel to his subjection of the present to Hölderlin’s poetry in the introduction to his lectures on Germanien and Der Rhein: “We do not wish to make Hölderlin accord with our own age, but, on the contrary: we wish to subject ourselves and those to come to the measure of the poet” (Heidegger, 1980: 4). The only problem is that, between Heidegger’s own era and the few years at the start of the 19th century when Hölderlin wrote the poems Heidegger refers to endlessly, there is a kind of temporal trough of about 140 years into which the achievements of Nietzsche and Rilke fall. Both have to fail in comparison with Hölderlin, because Hölderlin’s only true peers are the Pre-Socratics. Thus, from 1934 onwards, Heidegger becomes more and more critical of Nietzsche, and, in 1946, Rilke, whose prestige in Germany as a poet in the 40s rivalled that of Hölderlin, has to be again put down and presented as a Hölderlin manqué, although Heidegger had access to all that was needful for him to avoid this distortion of Rilke’s work – most of all the poem quoted above in which Rilke himself is both unstinting in his admiration of Hölderlin and perfectly clear as to the fundamental difference between their two poetic projects. Instead, he still quibbles as to the right understanding of the concept of “the Open”, so as to show Rilke as being helplessly entangled in “present-day metaphysics”, hence lagging behind Hölderlin.

I suggest therefore that Heidegger’s portrayal of Hölderlin and Rilke is dictated by the fictional structure of that alternative “history of Being” that is subordinated to a vision of future salvation. The poets are thereby cut to size in the sense that they are shaped to fit a pattern that has its origins outside the work of either of them. At its most basic, Heidegger’s doubling of the “history of Being” can be seen as an oscillation within his apocalyptics. When he wishes to accent the positive, soteric aspect, Hölderlin’s poetry is necessary as an anticipation of the world to come, and this means that time has to be rearranged so that Hölderlin is “the precursor” who “arrives from the future” (Heidegger 1950: 320), thus assigning to the poet the same role Hölderlin himself had assigned to Christ in his great elegy Brod und Wein (Bread and Wine). What this might have to do with philosophy in the 20th century eludes me, but it is a standard pattern in German Romantic visions of an ideal futurity, which, in turn, revive early Christian eschatology. When Heidegger’s apocalyptics lack the soteric dimension and are weighed down by his pessimism as to the increasing dominance of technology in history, then they rather follow the Old Norse pattern of history degenerating into the Fimbulwinter, the Great Winter presaging the end of the world, with no redemption and no prospect but catastrophe. This variant leaves chronology unscathed.

The soteric history of Being has staying power. In the interview with Der Spiegel in 1966 Heidegger insists: “only a god can save us”. We can see this “history of Being” as a sublimation of the hopes he had initially placed in Hitler’s regime. When he states late in his life: “Hölderlin is for me the poet who points into the future, who awaits the god” (Thomä ed., 2003: 214), then Hölderlin has had transferred onto him the whole burden of futurity – but at what cost?

Ultimately none, since most recent writing on Heidegger seems to live happily with two different “histories of Being”. As for the poets, only those readers who approach them solely through Heidegger’s texts will face grossly selective, exaggerated or distorted versions of their work. The question is rather: what does it say about a philosophy that it depends on dual versions of the same “history” and that one of them is anchored by an irrational conception of part of the achievement of one poet?

Heidegger’s impact on the reception of both poets in Germany was greatest in the 50’s and early 60s of the 20th century and diminished sharply with the swing to the left of the “1968 generation”. Once the short-lived Marxist dominance in German literary scholarship was over, there was no return to Heideggerian positions and terminology. Recent German scholarship on the topic of Heidegger and Hölderlin tends to cast a cold eye on Heidegger’s glorification of the poet. Thus Kathleen Wright states in the recent Heidegger-Handbuch:

Heidegger explicitly makes a hero of Hölderlin – indeed both during and after the Hitler-era, by assigning the leading role to Hölderlin and poetry (and only to Hölderlin’s poetry) in the drama in which the destinies and the future of Germany and Europe unfold. At the same time he magnifies himself since he gives his own thought (and only his own thought) the only important minor role in the same unfolding drama (Thomä ed., 2003: 214).

In the corresponding Hölderlin-Handbuch of 2002, Iris Buchheim notes that it is no surprise that many influential German literary scholars can find only Heidegger and no Hölderlin in the former’s writings, given “the persistent rejection of all scholarship, the isolation of Hölderlin from his Idealist, indeed ‘metaphysical context’, which is accompanied by an increasing conflation of Hölderlin’s poetry with his own thinking on the ‘history of Being’” (Kreuzer ed., 2002: 437).

The renaissance Heidegger is currently experiencing in the English-speaking world does not seem to have caught on in Germany. The most significant recent essay in Heideggerian aesthetics, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey (Gumbrecht, 2004) is the work of a scholar trained in Germany, but teaching at Stanford. It was written in English and addresses an English-speaking readership. The question of whether a Heidegger renaissance is possible in Germany is in part a linguistic issue. Heidegger’s German style is so excessively idiosyncratic that it polarises readers. The ‘50s of the last century saw a good deal of literary criticism written in what was effectively a Heideggerian dialect, and it is difficult to write with the current of Heidegger’s thought without lapsing into some such mode of discourse. It sits very oddly with contemporary German usage.

Translations of Heidegger into English perforce normalise his style to a great extent, because his etymological word-plays and range of neologising have no direct equivalents in English. Translation must needs sacrifice some of the resonances of Heidegger’s German for the sake of intelligibility, and this disguises a lot that is quintessentially Heideggerian.

Rilke scholarship in Germany underwent the same phase of a strong Heideggerian influence in the 50s and 60s, of which Else Buddeberg’s book Denken und Dichten des Seins (Thought and Poetry of Being) is a characteristic example (Buddeberg, 1956). It is written in a Heideggerian style, and is so much of its times that it does not rate even a mention in the brief bibliography on Rilke and Heidegger in the Rilke-Handbuch of 2004 (Engel ed., 2004: 164) Even studies such as Buddeberg’s have an ambivalent approach to Heidegger’s relegation of Rilke to a lowly status in Wozu Dichter? While writing in a Heideggerian mode, the impulse is tacitly to contradict Heidegger’s evaluation of Rilke by showing that he was, after all, a true “poet of Being”. It was with a certain sense of relief that Rilke scholars greeted the change in the intellectual climate of Germany around 1968, since, while Marxist criticism had little time for Rilke, it had even less for Heidegger and thus broke the hagiographical nexus once and for all.

Rilke has survived as the major poet writing in German in the 20th century, and the issues raised by Heidegger in his lectures on Parmenides and his interpretation of Wie die Natur die Wesen überläßt [… ] have no presence in Rilke-scholarship today. This leads to the conclusion that Heidegger’s treatment of both poets ultimately reveals more about Heidegger than it does about them – indeed it offers an external point of view on Heidegger’s modes of thought at a time when writing on him in English is by no means free of hagiography. The agenda of the “history of Being” that exalts the late Hölderlin and denigrates Rilke is very revealing of Heidegger’s compulsive behaviour. Taking advantage of the twentieth anniversary of Rilke’s death in 1946 to resolve a spurious debate on the true nature of “the Open” at Rilke’s expense and in Hölderlin’s (and thus implicitly his own) favour is, in one sense, a reversed reenactment of the political battles he lost in 1933-34.

In the decades following on the collapse of Nazism, Heidegger’s voice was heard loud and clear in Germany. Indeed, he had very little competition. The displacement that had attended his withdrawal from Nazi politics and subsequent celebration of the late Hölderlin can be seen as an escapist strategy that was to have its own appeal in a country devastated by war. One reason for the popularity of the poetry of both Hölderlin and Rilke during and after the second World War – irrespective of what Heidegger thought of either – was that both their poetic worlds, as different as they are, offered a refuge from grim realities. This appeal was not lessened in the two post-war decades, and it is an interesting phenomenon that the turning of young West Germans to Marxism did not occur until the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) had been accomplished.

That Giorgio Agamben should revive the difference of viewpoint between Heidegger and Rilke on the concept of “the Open” in his work of 2002 challenges us to speculate whether this is a sign of things to come or mere nostalgia. In any event, Agamben gets his philology wrong. The term does not originate in Rilke’s eighth Duineser Elegie, as he claims (Agamben, 2004: 57), but was likely taken over from one of Hölderlin’s best known poems Brod und Wein: “So komm! daß wir das Offene schauen/Daß ein Eigenes wir suchen, so weit es auch ist” (“So come! that we may look upon the Open/That we seek something of our own, far distant though it may be”) (Hölderlin, 1969: 1, 115). In its original setting the term connotes a realm of freedom for the imagination and correlates later in the same stanza with the fantasy of a voyage of the spirit back to Ancient Greece: “Drum an den Isthmos komm! dorthin, wo das offene Meer rauscht/Am Parnaß und der Schnee delphische Felsen umglänzt [… ]” (“Therefore come to the Isthmus! there, where the open sea surges/By Parnassus and snow shines about the Delphic cliffs [… ]” (ibid.). Both Rilke and Heidegger would have been aware of this.

Rilke had made the acquaintance of Norbert von Hellingrath, the editor of the pioneering Hölderlin edition, in 1910 and was in contact with his editorial project from 1911 onwards. It may thus be the case that lines in a poem finished by Rilke in 1912, Perlen entrollen (Pearls are spilled) is an early reminiscence of Brod und Wein with none of the later connotations of the concept in the eighth Duineser Elegie at all: “O wie ein Golf hofft ins Offne/und vom gestreckten Leuchtturm/scheinende Räume wirft [… ]” (“Oh, as a gulf hopes towards the Open/and from its stretched lighthouse/throws luminous spaces [… ]” (Rilke 1996: 2, 38). The sea-imagery and the evocation of vast spaces seem to establish a connection to Hölderlin, but one looks in vain for the epistemological concerns of the eighth Duineser Elegie. This illustrates how careful one must be in dealing with Rilkean concepts from poem to poem.

Heidegger was not careful at all, and so, as Agamben must acknowledge (Agamben 2004, 57f.), he comes to represent Rilke, in his lectures on Parmenides, as an ignoramus: “Rilke knows and suspects nothing of αλήθεια; he knows and suspects as little as does Nietzsche. Accordingly Rilke is entirely confined within the borders of the traditional metaphysical definition of human and animal” (Heidegger, 1982: 231). But Rilke continues to be read and esteemed – as does Heidegger, for all that he knew and suspected nothing of the nature of poetic fictions.


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[3] In Old Old Norse, Fimbulvintr (Denmark and Sweden) or Fimbulvetr (Iceland and Norway).