Hölderlin’s Errancy

February 8, 2022   •   By Robert S. Huddleston

To wander is the Romantic condition; one yields to it enraptured […] or is driven and plagued by the terror of finding no way out. […] More often than not, happiness is but the surface of despair.

— Alfred Brendel, “Schubert’s Last Sonatas”


IN DECEMBER 1801, at the age of 31, the poet Friedrich Hölderlin set out on a journey of over 600 miles from his hometown of Nürtingen, Germany, near Stuttgart, to Bordeaux, France. He planned to take up a position as a private tutor in the marble abode of the German consul-in-residence, Daniel Christoph Meyer, a wealthy wine merchant. After receiving clearance at the border in Strasbourg, he may have gone by coach through Alsace-Lorraine to Lyon. From there, he continued on foot, covering up to 20 miles each day, heading west-southwest, crossing the Loire and the snowy crags of the Auvergne in fierce midwinter storms before reaching the milder lowlands of the Dordogne. On January 28, 1802, Consul Meyer welcomed the poet to his new home: the stately neoclassical mansion that still stands at one end of the Allée de Tourny, saying: “You will be happy here.”

It was not to be. Hölderlin left in May, just three months later. His return route remains unknown; in early June, he crossed the border from France into Germany, once again at Strasbourg, reappearing a few weeks later in Stuttgart, by all accounts severely distraught. His half-brother, Karl Gok, described him as apparently suffering from acute physical and mental exhaustion, and evincing clear signs of mental derangement. His condition, usually diagnosed as schizophrenia, would grow progressively worse with periods of remission until in 1806 he was forcibly confined to a clinic in Tübingen (established by Johann von Autenrieth, a pioneer in forensic medicine whose methods of treating psychiatric illness were seen as innovative and controversial), remaining there for several months until discharged as incurable into the care of the family of a local carpenter, Ernst Zimmer. Though the medical authorities gave him three years to live, Hölderlin would remain in Zimmer’s care for another 35. He died in 1843, having outlived his former friends Hegel and Schiller, as well as Autenrieth himself.

Hölderlin even survived his first biographer, Wilhelm Waiblinger, who set down these facts — still most of what is known about the poet’s life — between 1825 and 1830. Like many others, Waiblinger was drawn to Hölderlin more by what he called “the melancholy riddle” of the poet’s existence than by his work. Hölderlin’s destiny fascinated Waiblinger — perhaps because it presaged his own to some extent. Waiblinger’s literary ambitions remained unfulfilled. He died a pauper in Rome, and was buried there in the Protestant Cemetery (where Keats and Shelley were laid to rest). Hölderlin’s journey to Bordeaux marks, as Richard Sieburth observes in his translator’s introduction to a 1984 edition of Hölderlin’s Hymns and Fragments, “a kind of caesura […] an enigmatic gap that surviving letters and documents only partially serve to fill.” Compounding the enigma is a form of biographical doubleness. On either side of the gap stand mirror images of the poet, both the same and yet not. Biographers and critics must continually reckon with this doubling and division in Hölderlin’s existence, which is itself a kind of border whose crossing requires complex epistemological negotiations.

There are in fact fewer than a dozen extant documents from the period of the journey. Of the seven or so items from Hölderlin’s hand that indisputably offer direct accounts or reminiscences, four are poems and the remainder are letters. These differ noticeably in character from his earlier correspondence. Up to his departure for France, the letters are engaging and often exuberant, abounding in personal disclosures as well as literary and philosophical reflections. The first letter home following his arrival in Bordeaux strikes a similar note, his candor and warmth still evident. By the second, dated April 6 (Good Friday), a coldness has crept in. He displays no emotion in response to the recent news of his grandmother’s death and reveals little about his circumstances. Following his return to Germany, the correspondence grows ever sparser, eventually dying down, during the time of his residence with Zimmer, to a trickle of awkwardly formal and perfunctory missives to his now-estranged family. The letters from the fall of 1802 up to his confinement at the clinic are largely taken up with business relating to the publication of the remaining works he managed to see into print. With few exceptions, these are terse and unrevealing. The poet’s personality has been almost entirely extinguished. His social circle dwindled to a handful of still-loyal friends, and even they commented on his reticence and volatility. During one episode shortly following his return, he drove his mother and sister out of their house in a violent rage. This unstable recluse had once counted Hegel and Schelling as close confidants; Schiller had been a patron and mentor; even Goethe had briefly deigned to notice him. All had now deserted him.

Of the poems Hölderlin wrote after the journey, only one, fittingly called “Remembrance,” was published during his lifetime. It appeared in truncated form in 1808. The final strophe survived in manuscript along with two unpublished fragments that clearly refer to his time in France and a late poem in Alcaic stanzas that alludes once to sighting the sea, the nearby Atlantic Ocean, possibly from the heights of the Dune du Pilat. The remainder were found in a morass of papers Hölderlin left behind when he was sent to the clinic. Two travel documents, which along with the letters provide a glimpse of his itinerary, were also preserved. As a result, much about this period remains conjectural and speculative. What is known serves only to deepen the mystery.

What has long been clear is the dramatic deterioration of the poet’s mental and physical condition. During the journey, Hölderlin first exhibited symptoms of the illness that would shatter him. Some scholars, most notably Jean Laplanche, believe that symptoms of mental instability long predated his return from Bordeaux, but there is little evidence of this. In any case, the journey marks an acute worsening of his condition, tantamount to a crisis, although it is unclear what provoked it. Was he still mourning Susette Gontard, from whom he had separated two years earlier? A stubborn minority among Hölderlin scholars maintains that he received word of her worsening health while in France. A thin shred of circumstantial evidence suggests this. Karl Gok believed a surreptitious connection existed between the lovers that endured in Hölderlin’s absence. Recent research has turned up connections between Susette’s Hamburg relatives and the Protestant community in Bordeaux. But her final illness was also sudden; her death in June 1802, shortly after Hölderlin’s return, happened with little warning and apparently took the family by surprise. Fearing smallpox, her husband Jakob Gontard reportedly fled the family home.

Another possibility is that Hölderlin could no longer endure what W. G. Sebald has called his “social disadvantage”: the contingent, precarious living eked out as a tutor in wealthy households like the Gontards’, where he was treated like one of the servants and subjected to routine humiliations. Then as now, the well-off burghers found satisfaction in degrading less fortunate members of their own class whom they happened to employ. His brief stint in the Meyer household was the last such position he would hold. Hölderlin stood out among his peers at the Tübinger Stift, a prepossessing, brilliant student seemingly destined for a shining career. But his pious mother insisted on the ministry, a course he persistently rejected. His classmates Hegel and Schelling, following a similar path, later achieved success in academia. Hölderlin died almost forgotten.

A letter to Casimir Böhlendorff from November 1802 contains a tantalizing clue that links Hölderlin’s illness to the journey itself:

My dear friend,

I have not written you for a long time, have since been in France. I saw the sad, solitary earth and the shepherds of southern France and individual beauties, men and women, who have grown up in the fear of political uncertainty and of hunger. The mighty element, the fire of heaven, and the silence of the inhabitants, their life amid nature, their narrow existence and contentment, moved me no end, and as one says of heroes, I can well say I was struck by Apollo.

The cryptic but characteristic wording has prompted much speculation. One would not want to discount the insights of psychoanalytic critics such as Laplanche into the childhood roots of Hölderlin’s illness. But, as the poet himself tells it, France drove him mad. Family and friends agreed. Writing to Hegel in July 1803, Schelling observed:

Since his fatal trip, his mind has become entirely unhinged. […] [H]e has completely lost his wits. I was shocked by his aspect: he neglects his appearance in the most disgusting fashion and, although his conversation shows fewer signs of derangement, he has taken on the outward mannerisms of those in this condition.

The riddle of the poet’s madness is not the only mystery connected with his journey to France. After 1802, his writing changed dramatically as well. The stark free verse “hymns” composed following his return break from the lyrical classicism of his earlier work. Many of the drafts and fragments associated with this later period are evidently meant to stand alone as finished poems; others exist as complex, evolving performances. A new idea of poetry was emerging in these furiously worked-over, multilayered palimpsests, which bear a resemblance to handwritten musical scores. These texts elude attempts at definite organization or conventional publication. Moreover, as Sieburth has noted, Hölderlin appears to have been fully aware of “the essential modernity of his poetic project.” The radicalism of what little became known at the time — mainly translations of Pindar and Sophocles — shocked and bewildered most of his contemporaries, including Goethe and Schiller, who took them as conclusive evidence of derangement. Goethe reportedly fell into fits of laughter while listening to Schiller read aloud from Hölderlin’s versions of Sophocles. Yet the imagistic density of the later writings and their startling use of juxtaposition and parataxis are now understood to be deliberate, consciously wrought effects. Hölderlin’s disruption of classical form represents a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, leap forward in poetic technique, anticipating modernism by over a century. A range of influential authors from Nietzsche, Rilke, and Celan to Heidegger would fall under the spell of this uncanny, hypnotic body of work, with its prophetic intensity and ardor. The fire burned only briefly, but Hölderlin owes his reputation as the greatest lyric poet of the age to what followed from the journey.

The journey is what decides his fate, the hinge between the rising action of the early career and the later flight into failure and madness. It is here that, in Stefan Zweig’s phrase, “the struggle with the daemon” occurs, and with it the emergence of an aesthetics of the fragment. It is both a literal and symbolic Wendung, made under duress — both a personal and a professional crisis, yet also a romantic quest for a living ideal that would underwrite his visionary evocations of antiquity. Before setting out, he wrote that he looked forward “to seeing the sea, and the sun of Provence.” Yet he also experienced his impending departure as a mournful exodus: “I am now full of parting. It’s a long time since I have cried. My decision to leave my native land, perhaps forever, has cost me bitter tears, for there is nothing dearer to me in the world.” The journey to Bordeaux sets in motion Hölderlin’s radical trajectory, and his wanderings are themselves a form of mediation and self-disclosure.

And yet, entangled as it is with the biographical mystery of the poet’s art and madness, the journey confronts us with what Rosella Mamoli Zorzi has called, in a very different context, “an aesthetics of darkness,” coterminous in a certain sense with the problem of historical knowledge itself. [1] Just as the intrusions of technology began to illuminate spaces to which hitherto shadows had always clung, modernity has also made possible the accumulation of previously unimaginable quantities of archival data. Our movements are no longer as mysterious as those of our forebears. Hölderlin, one might say, lived in the last age of darkness before artificial light and the more detailed “seeing” it made possible. Because of this necessary, indeed inevitable, darkness, investigating the connection between the journey as lived experience and the phenomenon of the work has challenged academic conventions of scholarship and biography. Even experts have frequently resorted to conjecture and fantasy to fill in gaps in the record, while the efforts of amateurs have furnished illuminating insights.

In his 2012 book Hölderlin: Eine Winterreise [Hölderlin: A Winter Journey], Thomas Knubben — not a literary scholar but a professor of arts management at the University of Ludwigsburg — recounts his step-by-step retracing and reenactment of Hölderlin’s journey to Bordeaux. The allusion to Schubert’s Winterreise isn’t accidental; Knubben is a romantic traveler, using period maps to determine a plausible route. Like Hölderlin, he traveled in December and January, on foot, across Germany and France. Descriptions of inclement winter weather, dreary, desolate landscapes, and the physical hardships of walking necessarily take up much of the book. Yet Knubben also engages in active literary sleuthing, attempting to resolve one of the enduring debates surrounding the journey: could the poet have walked all or most of the 600-mile distance? In fact, Knubben demonstrates that he undoubtedly could have. And given the circumstances, it’s likely that he did. Hölderlin was young and fit, accustomed to the rigors of traveling long distances on foot, and unfamiliar with modern conveniences: better prepared, in short, for such a journey than many would be nowadays (including Knubben, who, in his 40s at the time of his sojourn, admits to being somewhat out of shape). He also lists the various obstacles: cold, hunger, exhaustion, poor roads, meager lodgings, and even occasional dysentery, not to mention the sometimes-inhospitable locals and their dogs.

As Frédéric Gros observes in A Philosophy of Walking (2009), traveling long distances on foot involves much forbearance, even a kind of fatalistic “renunciation.” The regions through which Hölderlin traveled included the Auvergne, still a desolate wilderness. Roads were often rudimentary dirt tracks or planks, while the dense forests were frequented by bandits. Even travel by coach carried evident risks. France had only recently emerged from more than a decade of political turmoil. In the countryside especially, many were destitute. A solitary walker might present a less enticing target for potential assailants since, then as now, walking was the recourse of the poor. Yet such a traveler was also more vulnerable. Shortly after arriving in Bordeaux, Hölderlin wrote a letter home to his mother that alludes to a harrowing experience:

I have gone through so much that I can barely speak of it now. For the past few days I have been wandering through a beautiful springtime [down the valleys of the Périgord], but just prior to this, on the fearsome snow-covered heights of the Auvergne, amid storms and wilderness, during ice-cold nights with my loaded pistol by my side in my rough bed — it was then that I said the finest prayer of my life, a prayer I shall never forget. [tr. Richard Sieburth]

Sensibly, Knubben does not seek to rival Hölderlin’s adventurousness and mostly shelters at reasonably comfortable hotels.

But while demonstrating that Hölderlin could have gone the distance on foot, Knubben leaves other significant puzzles unresolved. Foremost is the near absence of traces of the journey itself in the poetry. While references to Bordeaux, Gascony, and the Charente do appear, there is no suggestion (apart from the letter home) of the roads that brought him there, and little more than a passing suggestion of the scenery he encountered. This is surprising for several reasons. The lyric elegies “Bread and Wine” and “Homecoming,” written only slightly earlier, are richly descriptive of landscape and travel. The absence of detailed impressions of the trip calls to mind Walker Percy’s anecdote, in his essay “The Man on the Train,” about the commuter who passes through Metuchen, New Jersey, every day yet is never really there. Was Hölderlin present bodily but absent psychically? Long journeys are often dull from one moment to the next. The forms of “liberation” Gros attributes to walking in the open may become their own kind of repetitive subjection. In any case, the journey itself apparently elicited little echo in his work and has required much conjecture to reconstruct.

This is not as true, fortunately, of the time in Bordeaux itself. “Remembrance,” as Adrian Del Caro writes in his 1991 book, Hölderlin: The Poetics of Being, offers one of the poet’s “near-perfect meditations”: “In a panoramic sweep Hölderlin passes the Garonne, the gardens of Bordeaux, a plunging brook, and a pair of oaks and silver poplars looking on.” The date of these observations too is given precisely (“in March when day and night are equal”) — in other words, the equinox: March 21, 1802. During the period of the Consulate that followed the Terror, the revolutionary calendar remained in effect. Observance of religious holidays had been abolished, along with the traditional names of the months in the Gregorian calendar. On the day of the equinox, at the beginning of Germinal, there were festivals. “Remembrance” describes such a gathering. Hölderlin could have joined the revelers or looked on over a cup of wine at a long communal table like those still often found at fairs and weddings in France. That this recounts a real event seems indisputable. We can be almost equally sure where it took place. The festival described in “Remembrance” occurred on the right bank of the Garonne, in one of the villages downriver from Bordeaux itself.

“Remembrance” is one of Hölderlin’s most remarkable achievements in the hymnic mode. Its delicacy of cadence, its fluidity, and what Del Caro calls its “exquisite lyrical balance” evoke the sinuous lines of the river and of the holiday dancers. Difficult qualities to convey in translation, they appear to survive each rendering, confirming Emerson’s observation that “the idioms of all languages approach each other in passages of the greatest eloquence and power.” But the poem has also attracted its share of controversy. In a celebrated commentary, Heidegger disputes the notion that “Remembrance” or any other transcendent act of “poetizing” could be anchored in direct experience — particularly, in the case of a German poet, in an experience of the foreign; “this remembrance does not look back to his ‘personal experience,’” Heidegger insists. [2]

Yet surely it does. As Del Caro and others have remarked, the poem evokes an expansive riverside view of Bordeaux. [3] The viewpoint is a hillside village, either Lormont or Cenon. From either spot, Bordeaux is visible to the southeast on the opposite bank of the Garonne. On a clear day, so is the Bec d’Ambès in the opposite direction, that “breezy point” where:

The Dordogne comes in
And together with the majestic
Garonne, sea-wide
The waters flow out.

Hölderlin might have been able to contemplate the same hillside prospect from another vantage point. He briefly took lodgings in the rue Saint-Rémi, off the Place de la Bourse. A magnificent oil painting by Pierre Lacour, in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux, displays a panoramic view of the city and harbor in 1804 from the riverbank at this spot. In the distance, on the far-right-hand side of the painting — directly above a three-masted schooner, lying at anchor in mid-river and flying the Stars and Stripes — is a tiny detail, scarcely more than a fleck of paint. It is a windmill glinting in the sunlight on a bluff above the Garonne’s steep right bank at Lormont, as the museum’s research curator, Serge Fernandez, confirmed to me. That windmill appears in the poem, as do the elms and silver poplars still growing in and around the Parc de l’Ermitage Sainte-Catherine, though the grange hall where the festival was probably held has since vanished along with the windmill.

Leaving Bordeaux several weeks later, Hölderlin probably boarded a ship like the one in Lacour’s painting and went downriver to Soulac or Royan at the mouth of the vast Gironde estuary. From there, he crossed the meadows of Charente on the way back toward Germany. A letter mentions unspecified “antiquities” he saw in France. The context has been taken to suggest ancient Greek statuary at the Louvre in Paris. Many sculptures looted by revolutionary tribunes and Napoleon’s armies remain in the Louvre today, bearing the label Saisie révolutionnaire. Could they be the works Hölderlin alludes to? In a subsequent letter, he writes: “The antiquities in Paris in particular have given me a genuine interest in art, so that I should like to study it more.” But again, there is no definite autobiographical disclosure or corroborating information about the journey; these antiquities might well have been encountered in printed reproductions.

Following his return, Hölderlin worked as court librarian in Homburg, a plum procured for him by his friend Isaac von Sinclair. Nothing that happened between his leaving Bordeaux and arriving in Stuttgart in July can be known for certain — except the date of the border crossing, provided by a document that has survived. Beyond that, the shadows gather.


Robert S. Huddleston is a poet, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in various publications, including Boston Review, Narrative, and Tupelo Quarterly. He teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.


[1] Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, “John Ruskin and Henry James in the Enchanting Darkness of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco,” in From Darkness to Light: Writers in Museums, 1798–1898 (OpenBook Publishers, 2019), 62. I am indebted for this reference to Colm Tóibín’s remarkable essay “Alone in Venice.”

[2] Martin Heidegger, “‘Remembrance,’” in Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 2000), 111.

[3] See also Dieter Henrich, The Course of Remembrance and Other Essays on Hölderlin, ed. Eckhart Förster (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997) and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, “Rhône et Garonne (La France de Hölderlin),” in Bordeaux au Temps de Hölderlin, ed. Gilbert Merlio and Nicole Pelletier (Bern: Peter Lang, 1997), 203–227.