Heidegger’s Hölderlin Lectures

William McNeill

DePaul University

I. Contexts

Heidegger scholarship generally has readily acknowledged that a decisive shift—the so-called “turning”—takes place in Heidegger's thought during the 1930s: a shift away from the hermeneutic phenomenological ontology of the Being and Time period (an ontology imbued with scientific and objectifying aspirations) and toward an overcoming of ontology (now viewed more historically as “metaphysics”) that entails a turning of thought toward art and poetizing as well as a sustained critique of science and technicity, themselves outgrowths of occidental metaphysics. This shift in Heidegger's thinking during the 1930s is to this day not well understood, and this is due not only to the sheer volume of Heidegger's work during this period, but also to its richness and complexity, not to mention the “politics” involved both before, during, and after Heidegger's notorious assumption of the Rectorship of Freiburg university in 1933 and his failed attempt to engage National Socialism for his own political ends.

If one surveys Heidegger's work of the 1930s with a view to the multiple dimensions at stake in this shift in his thinking, then it is readily apparent that Heidegger has two main interlocutors during this time: Hölderlin and Nietzsche. Of these two, it is Nietzsche who has received by far the greatest attention from scholars, and indeed for reasons that are quite understandable. Nietzsche's project of overcoming Platonism—that is, the fundamental structure of occidental metaphysics that institutes a difference between being and beings, between truth and appearances, positing a “true world” of ideas beyond and governing the realm of sensuous becoming—parallels Heidegger's own concern to overcome metaphysics and to recover an “other commencement” for Western-European thinking, one that might transform the human being's relation to being and to the Earth from a power-hungry relation of technological mastery to a more finite and responsive manner of dwelling with and upon the Earth, one mindful of the finitude of its own temporality and mortality. Heidegger's thoughtful yet critical encounters with Nietzsche in the mid- to late 1930s and early 1940s (essentially, up to 1941) indeed show a breadth and depth of engagement that appear second to none. That engagement begins with three major lecture courses: “The Will to Power as Art” (1936–37), “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same” (1937), and “The Will to Power as Knowledge” (1939), and continues with the essays and notes from 1939-41 (including the essay on “European Nihilism” from 1940) that are collected in volume II of the original German edition of Heidegger's Nietzsche.

Nevertheless, the significance of this sustained and critical encounter with Nietzsche notwithstanding, it needs to be recognized that this encounter occurs within the greater context of a dialogue with Hölderlin.1 The Nietzsche lectures are both preceded and followed by major lecture courses on Hölderlin, which also give rise to several published essays. In the winter semester of 1934–35, following his resignation from the Rectorship, Heidegger lectures on Hölderlin's hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine.” In winter semester 1941-42, directly following his sustained engagement with Nietzsche, Heidegger returns to Hölderlin's poetry, presenting a second lecture course, this one on the hymn “Remembrance.” In summer semester 1942 he gives the last of his lecture courses on Hölderlin, an interpretation (or more precisely, as he insists, a set of “remarks”) focusing on the hymn “The Ister.”2 This return to Hölderlin's poetry was, it seems, entirely anticipated by Heidegger toward the end of the first Hölderlin course. There, speaking of Hölderlin's famous 1801 letter to his friend Böhlendorff, he remarked that:

What Hölderlin here sees as the essence of historical Dasein, the conflictual intimacy of endowment and task, was discovered again by Nietzsche under the titles of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, but not with such purity and simplicity as in Hölderlin; for in the meantime Nietzsche had to make his way through all those fateful steps signaled by the names Schopenhauer, Darwin, Wagner, Gründerjahre.3 Not to mention the most fateful thing of all, namely, what subsequent and contemporary Nietzsche interpretation has made of this in all its orientations. (GA 39, 293-94)

Heidegger's Nietzsche lectures would thus not only face the task of liberating Nietzsche's thought from all of these fateful entanglements and misguided interpretations, exposing the fundamental significance of Nietzsche's thinking as lying in its relation to the first commencement of occidental metaphysics and the light it sheds upon “the essence of historical Dasein”; it would also free the path for a return to the “purity and simplicity” of Hölderlin's poetizing—a purity and simplicity that, admittedly, also demand the work of interpretation in order to be heard. In his lecture from the following semester, summer semester 1935, Heidegger again signals what, even prior to the Nietzsche lectures, appears to have already been decided: the superiority of Hölderlin over Nietzsche, the latter's greatness notwithstanding. Nietzsche's metaphysics, he remarks, “did not find its way to the decisive question, even though he understood the age of the great commencement of the entire Greek Dasein in a manner that was surpassed only by Hölderlin.”4

The importance of Heidegger's Hölderlin lectures (and especially of the first lecture course) for understanding Heidegger's work of the mid- to late 1930s, and indeed all of his subsequent thought, can hardly be overstated. Here, we may recall briefly just a few external indications of this (there are many more that could be cited):

1) The seminal essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art” was completed in its mature and final version in 1936. Yet Heidegger began to work on the initial drafts of the essay already in 1934-35, that is, during exactly the same period that he was delivering the first Hölderlin course. Not only does the essay conclude by recalling the “infallible sign” of “Hölderlin, the poet, whose work still confronts the Germans as a test to be stood,” and by citing lines from the hymn “The Journey” (“Reluctantly / that which dwells near the origin abandons the locale”); it should be apparent to anyone familiar with Heidegger's work of this period that both the monumental theme of the “Earth”—a motif clearly adopted from Hölderlin—and the claim that all art, and indeed language itself, is in essence “poetizing” (Dichtung) cannot be adequately understood without an appreciation of the first Hölderlin course.

2) The crucially important and roughly contemporaneous essay “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” first delivered as a lecture in Rome in 1936 and subsequently to become the first published essay of Heidegger's on Hölderlin, is in all essential respects excerpted from the 1934-35 course. The much longer essay “Remembrance,” published in 1943, is likewise essentially drawn from the 1941-42 lecture course on the same hymn. Both are contained in the volume of essays Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry.

3) The 1935 lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics, in which we find the remark noted above concerning the superiority of Hölderlin's understanding of the first commencement over that of Nietzsche, is also conducted under the shadow of the 1934-35 Hölderlin course. Here, Heidegger attempts to retrieve the “poetizing thinking” of Greek tragedy, recalling Hölderlin's characterization of Oedipus as having “an eye too many,” and venturing a first interpretation of the famous “ode to man” from Sophocles' Antigone—a choral ode that is absolutely central to Hölderlin's poetic thinking, and that Heidegger would return to in his later course on Hölderlin's “The Ister.” The 1935 course ends with a quotation from Hölderlin's fragments for “The Titans” concerning the question of the “right time,” the opportune moment (Augenblick) or καιρός, now seen from the historical perspective of being setting itself to work.

4) Heidegger's major manuscript of the 1930s, the Contributions to Philosophy: of Ereignis, is suffused with Hölderlinian motifs and resonances, most prominently the theme of the Earth mentioned above, but also the question of the divine, of the “flight of the gods” poetized in the hymn “Germania” and the motif of “the last god.” Hölderlin, Heidegger here announces, is the “most futural poet,” as the one who experiences the flight of the gods of old and awaits the arrival of the gods to come, the one who stands within the time-space of this transition that, as the site of the historical moment of being's disclosure, opens the possibility of an “other commencement.” The word Ereignis itself, referring to the appropriative event of being's happening, indeed may well be taken from Hölderlin.5

5) The seminal essay “The Age of the World Picture” from 1938, Heidegger's first systematic critique of science and representation, likewise ends by raising the question of the “historical moment” and by citing Hölderlin's poem “To the Germans,” concerning the untimely time into which the poet-thinker is transported.

6) Heidegger's last lecture course, What is Called Thinking?, from 1951-52, draws heavily on Hölderlin, particularly in its opening phase, where Heidegger recalls the lines from the hymn “Mnemosyne” concerning man as a “sign that is not read”; and also appeals to the lines from the poem “Socrates and Alcibiades” that run “He who has thought most deeply, loves what is most alive” in order to insist on thinking as a form of love.

7) Finally, the roughly contemporaneous essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” formulated between 1949 and 1953, notoriously ends with an appeal to Hölderlin's word “...where danger is, there / grows the saving power also,” and to Hölderlin's claim that “...poetically man dwells upon this Earth.”6

II. The First Hölderlin Lecture Course: The Hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine” (1934-35)

The first Hölderlin lecture course falls almost exactly into two halves, the first half devoted to articulating the initial approach to “Germania,” and the second to an interpretation of “The Rhine” that then, in its closing stages, returns to “Germania” in order to display the inner unity of the two hymns and expose what Heidegger calls the “metaphysical locale” of Hölderlin's poetizing.

The first half of the lecture course is especially important, for Heidegger here devotes considerable effort to gaining a preliminary understanding of what poetizing (Dichtung) is, its essence and its linguistic character. The essence being sought, however, is not some universal essence of poetizing in general, but the essence of this, Hölderlin's, poetizing: the essence that is poetized in and through this singular poetizing. It is thus not to be imposed from the outside, as it were, through the philosophical application of a concept of poetizing to this particular instance. Rather, it must be gleaned by experiencing the power of the poetizing itself that is in question, through a “thoughtful encounter” with the “manifestation of beyng” that is achieved in this poetizing. (GA 39, 6)7 Hölderlin is “the poet of poets” (30), one whose poetizing remains in proximity to thinking, to a supremely thoughtful saying of beyng in the poetic word. Thereby, thinking itself demands to be experienced differently, not as philosophical conceptuality, but as it is configured poetically, in and through the poetizing itself. Hölderlin is indeed, Heidegger insists, “our most futural thinker, because he is our greatest poet” (6), and by this formulation also signals that the issue of the manifestation of beyng in this poetizing will prove inseparable from the question of the “we,” of the German people—a question to which he will shortly turn more explicitly. This claim, furthermore, points to the proximity and belonging together (though not the identity) of thinking and poetizing, where “thinking” is something other than traditional philosophy and is implicitly attuned to the poetic.

The phenomenon of attunement, indeed of what Heidegger terms a fundamental attunement, will prove crucial here. Our task in experiencing Hölderlin's poetizing is not to distil from it some spiritual content or symbolic meaning, some abstract truth, but rather, in resisting our everyday and commonplace view of poetry, to experience the power of the poetic word in exposing ourselves to its “saying” or “telling” (Sagen), to the over-arching sweep and configuration of its resonance and oscillation, and to do so in letting ourselves be torn away by the poetic word in its very telling. For contrary to our everyday understanding, Heidegger explains, language is not reducible to a means of expression that articulates some spiritual meaning; it is not at all what it appears to be, something present at hand that we “have,” just as we would have some piece of property. Rather, as he forcefully puts it, “It is not we who have language, rather language has us.”


As Hölderlin's poetizing itself articulates it, poetizing is, first, a telling in the manner of a making manifest that points. In the poem “As When on Holiday…,” Hölderlin writes:

Yet us it behooves, under God's thunderstorms,
You poets! to stand with bared heads,
To grasp the Father's ray, itself
With our own hands and shrouded in the song
To pass on to the people the heavenly gift.

The poet, in Heidegger's words, thus “harnesses the lightning flashes of the god, compelling them into the word, and places this lightning-charged word into the language of his people.” (30) In exposing himself to “the overwhelming power of beyng,” the poet has the task of receiving the beckonings of the gods and passing them on to the people, and in so doing his poetizing is, in the words of the last line of the hymn “Remembrance,” a “founding” (Stiften) of that which remains, a “founding of beyng,” as Heidegger puts it, one that first grounds the historical Dasein of a people. Although from an everyday perspective it appears, in Hölderlin's words, to be “this most innocent of occupations” (33), poetizing is anything but one meritorious cultural activity among others. Rather, as Hölderlin elsewhere tells, it configures and founds the human being's dwelling upon this Earth:

Full of merit, yet poetically dwell
Human beings upon this Earth.

Following this initial situating of the language of Hölderlin's poetizing, Heidegger turns first to the question of the “we” of a historical people—a question he develops from the “turbulence” of the telling of the hymn “Germania” itself—with particular attentiveness to the time of this “we”; and second, to unfolding the “fundamental attunement” of the hymn “Germania,” which proves to be that of a “holy mourning 'with' the waters of the homeland.” The “homeland,” Heidegger insists, does not here mean a mere birthplace or geographical region, but rather “the power of the Earth” upon which the human being, in his or her historical Dasein, poetically dwells. (88) The mourning is “holy”: not just any mourning, but a mourning arising out of the experience of the “flight of the gods” enunciated in the opening lines of “Germania.” As such, however, this mourning, as a “plaint” and “distress” arising from the necessity of renouncing the gods of old, is not merely a preserving of the gods that have been, but simultaneously a readiness and awaiting of the future and of that which is to come. The poetic attunement unfolds precisely as this “power of temporality” in which we are “torn” in these two directions, and it is in inhabiting this “time that tears,” to use Hölderlin's words, that the time of a historical people is first temporalized in and as a poetic attunement. (109) This time of the “we,” of a historical people, is, however, uncertain and unknown; it remains concealed from us, Heidegger insists, and may at most be intimated by the poet whose soul, in the words of Hölderlin's poem “To the Germans,” is transported “beyond its own time.” Seeking the “true time” for his own time, remarks Heidegger, the poet is necessarily removed from the time of the present day (50); he must inhabit the “peaks of time” (52), and his dwelling on the peaks of time, as a creator, is “a persistent waiting and awaiting the event [Ereignis],” “a making ready for the true that shall once come to pass [sich ereignen].” (56) The word Ereignis, which becomes the keyword of Heidegger's thinking from the mid-1930s on, is here appropriated from Hölderlin's hymn “Mnemosyne,” which speaks of the sich ereignen, the “coming to pass,” of the true:

… Lang ist
Die Zeit, es ereignet sich aber
Das Wahre.

… Long is
The time, yet what is true
Comes to pass.

In the second half of the lecture course, Heidegger turns his attention to one of the aforementioned “waters” of the homeland, specifically the river poetized in Hölderlin's hymn “The Rhine.” Keeping in mind a remark from one of Hölderlin's fragments on Pindar, that the river is that which “violently creates paths and limits upon the originarily pathless Earth” (92-93), Heidegger identifies as the “pivot” of the entire hymn the first line of strophe X, “Demigods now I think.” The river Rhine itself is poetized as a demigod, that is, as something that is at once more than the human and yet less than the gods. It does not merely occupy an existing space between humans and gods, however, but first creates and opens up this very space in which the essence of both humans and gods can be asked about. The poet thinks the demigods when, as the opening line of the hymn puts it, he is sitting “at the door of the woods,” that is, at the threshold of the poet's homeland. The poet, Heidegger comments, “sits at the threshold of the Earth of the homeland, 'there' he thinks the demigods” (169-70); and this thinking is, according to the first strophe, an “unsuspecting” apprehending of a destiny: the poet is, “from out of his pondering that which is distant and has been, unsuspectingly torn out and around into the thinking of his own homeland.” (171) The “destiny” (Schicksal) that comes toward him in this pondering is indeed “the key word of his poetizing,” it is “the name for the beyng of the demigods.” (172)

In the poetizing of the Rhine as a destiny, “destiny” does not mean any kind of fatalism or predestination. It names, rather, the being and becoming of the river itself in its very flow. “The river Rhine is a destiny, and destiny comes to be only in the history of this river.” (196) This flowing of the river, however, is determined by its relation to its origin. In the remaining part of the course, Heidegger ponders above all what is at stake in the “enigma” of this relation, for it is that enigma that is poetized in and as the hymn itself, according to lines 46f.:

Enigma is that which has purely sprung forth. Even
The song may scarcely unveil it.

The poet dwells close to the origin (Ursprung). According to the second strophe, he hears the river in its origin, “in the coldest abyss,” as yet to spring forth; mere mortals, by contrast, have “fled from the locale.” Yet the task of this poetizing is not to unveil the origin as such, but the river in its “having purely sprung forth” (Entsprungensein), and to do so in a “veiled saying” that scarcely unveils the entire enigma. And this can be accomplished only through a poetic thinking of the entire course of the river, as determined by its relation to the origin, a relation that will prove to be intrinsically discordant. Whereas mortals flee from the origin and attend only to what has already sprung forth, without giving thought to its having sprung forth (or, if they think the origin, they think it only in terms of what has already sprung forth, that is metaphysically), the task of Hölderlin's poetizing is different:

Yet just as the origin that has merely sprung forth is not the origin, neither is the merely fettered origin. Rather, the entire essence of the origin is the fettered origin in its springing forth. Yet the springing forth itself first comes to be what it is as the river runs its entire course; it is not limited to the beginning of its course. The entire course of the river itself belongs to the origin. The origin is fully apprehended only as the fettered origin in its springing forth as having sprung forth. (202)

Yet something decisive happens in the course of the Rhine's flowing. Although originally driven toward Asia—which Heidegger, drawing on another hymn, takes to include Greece—this original directionality is suddenly broken off, and the river turns north, toward Germany, a turning indicative of a “counter-will” to the original will of the origin. We cannot here convey the entire detail and subtlety of Heidegger's ensuing analysis, and we shall have to come back to “The Rhine” in our remarks on “The Ister.” It must suffice here to indicate that Heidegger proceeds to interpret this counter-will as a strife and “blessed enmity” within beyng, a counter-turning that is still a unity (“blessedness”), and to unfold this enigma in terms of what Hölderlin names “intimacy,” Innigkeit. “Intimacy” does not, for Hölderlin, mean any kind of human relationship: it is his word for “that originary unity... to such beyng.” (250) Innigkeit is Hölderlin's word for the being of nature itself, a being that, in “As when on feast day...,” is said to be “intimative” (ahnend)—as are the poets themselves. The poetizing of this poet is thus nothing other than nature coming into being—telling of itself and founding its being in such telling:

Because the poets are not directed toward nature as an object, for instance; because, rather, “nature” as beyng founds itself in saying, the saying of the poets as the self-saying of nature is of the same essence as the latter. This is why it is said of the poets: they 'intimate always'. (258)

“Nature” here is thus not an entity, but a word for beyng itself. Yet the nature or beyng in question here is not indeterminate, for the poet's task is to found, through his poetizing, the historical dwelling of a people upon this Earth, to found “the land as land and as homeland of the people.” (259) The question of this people—of the “we” and of the historical time of the “we,” the historical moment—is, as we have indicated, central to Heidegger's concern here. The question of the “we” is the question of the Germans; Hölderlin is not only the “poet of poets and of poetizing,” he is “the poet of the Germans,” one who must become a power or force in “the history of our people.” The issue concerns “'politics' in the highest and authentic sense, so much so that whoever accomplishes something here has no need to talk about the 'political'.” (214) For the 'political' in the narrower sense of the affairs of state first arises from poetizing: “[...] the historical Dasein of the peoples…springs from poetizing, and from the latter springs authentic knowing in the sense of philosophy, and from both the effecting of the Dasein of a people as a people through the state—politics.” (51) Toward the end of the lectures on “The Rhine” Heidegger returns to this question of the historical moment, of the moment named in “Germania” as “the middle of time,” as “that historical Dasein in which and as which the essence of this land finds itself and completes itself.” (289) This middle of time, however, first arises from having-been (the flight of the gods) and future (to be founded in poetizing), and as such, is nothing given, but an identity that must first be attained in and through struggle. Heidegger here appeals, in closing, to Hölderlin's letter to Böhlendorff from 1801 (the same year as the two hymns were written), which insists that the struggle of historical existence is always to transform what is given one as an endowment (“one's own,” the “national”) into what is given one as a task (the “free use of the national”). For the Germans, endowed with the gift of conceptual clarity, ordering, and planning, this means learning “to be struck by beyng,” and this is the opposite of the situation faced by the Greeks, who were struck by the “fire from the heavens” (the “violence of beyng,” as Heidegger translates it) and had to harness this excess in bringing it to a stand in the work. This reversal of historical predicament is also, for Heidegger, indicative of the special relationship between the German and the Greek: “In fighting the battle of the Greeks, but on the reverse front, we become not Greeks, but Germans.” (293)8

III. Hölderlin Revisited: The Lectures on “Remembrance” (1941-42)

In the winter semester of 1941-42, following a seven year hiatus marked by his critical encounters with Nietzsche, Heidegger returned to lecture on Hölderlin. At the beginning of the lecture course he announced that the course would be concerned with five different poems: “Remembrance,” “The Ister,” “The Titans,” “Mnemosyne,” and “Ripe, bathed in fire…”; of these, however, only the first two received extensive attention: “Remembrance” in winter semester 1941-42, and “The Ister” the following semester.

The interpretation of “Remembrance” is remarkable with regard to a number of themes, which we can only indicate briefly here. First, the interpretation of “greeting,” which Heidegger at once links to the phenomenon of remembrance and, by way of anticipation, to the flow of the river poetized in “The Ister.” The hymn opens with the lines:

The Northeasterly blows,
Most beloved of the winds to me
For it promises fiery spirit
And good voyage to those at sea.
But go now, and greet
The beautiful Garonne,
And the gardens of Bordeaux

The single line “But go now and greet,” Heidegger insists, conceals the entire mystery of what is called remembrance. (GA 52, 49, 55) Remembrance, Andenken, is poetized as a greeting; as a greeting, it is a thoughtful turning toward that which is greeted. Heidegger unfolds the structure of greeting from a meditation on the opening lines that poetize the blowing of the wind, in an intricate analysis that we cannot reproduce here.9 Genuine greeting, as an address (Zuspruch) turned toward the one greeted, is recognition: the recognition that recognizes the one greeted in “the nobility of their essence” and through such recognition lets them be what they are. Greeting is thus “a letting be of things and of human beings.” (50) In the structure of greeting poetized in “Remembrance,” that which is to be greeted, however, itself inclines toward the poet, approaches him in his very thinking—something the poet poetizes in the striking line “Still it seems to think of me” (Noch denket das mir wohl), which opens the second strophe—and this mysterious turning or reversal of direction indeed characterizes the very structure of remembrance, and perhaps of thought itself. It is as though, Heidegger remarks, “a river that runs out and goes into the sea suddenly flowed backward in the opposite direction, toward the source,” here alluding already to the hymn “The Ister,” in which the river is said “almost” to flow backward. (54)

A second major theme of the 1941-42 course, one that takes up and develops the structure of greeting and that subsequently dominates the entire course, is the question of festival and festivity. While we must again forego a detailed interpretation here, we may simply note the striking claims made by Heidegger, first, that festival (which for Hölderlin means the “bridal festival” of humans and gods, poetized in “The Rhine”) comprises the “incipient greeting” in which humans and gods are greeted by “the holy,” and that this originary greeting is “the concealed essence of history.” It is,, says Heidegger, “the Ereignis, the commencement.” (70) Correspondingly, “the holy” comprises “an attunement more incipient and more originary” than every other human attunement.10

Third, Heidegger returns in this lecture course to the question of “the free use of one's own,” the question with which he had concluded the first Hölderlin course. The poet of “Remembrance,” composed after Hölderlin's return from Bordeaux in France, of course sends his greeting from his homeland, from “Germania.” Yet it is arguably the least convincing, most reductive move in Heidegger's entire interpretation when he essentially translates Bordeaux into Greece and the ancient Greek world: the “brown women” of the south of France (line 18) represent, he insists, “the Greek world” and the festival of humans and gods once celebrated there (80); the “golden dreams” (line 23) likewise refer to the Greeks and to the Greek world (113, 122); the land of southern France depicted in the poem “stands poetically for Greece” (184); indeed, the hymn “Remembrance,” ostensibly about France, is in fact, by virtue of its poetizing of the relation of Greece to Germany, claimed to be the “most German of all German poems.” (119) Heidegger's interpretive move here is aware of appearing arbitrary, but justifies itself by appeal, on the one hand, to a second letter of Hölderlin's to Böhlendorff, from 1802, following his return from Bordeaux, where the poet writes explicitly of experiencing “the fire from the heavens” there—attributed to the Greeks in the earlier, 1801 letter—and of being “struck by Apollo” (22-24; 184); and on the other hand, to the lines in “Remembrance” that read “But now to Indians / The men have gone,” that is, as Heidegger reads it, beyond France (which allegedly stands for Greece) and to Asia, to the Indus, from which, according to the poem “The Eagle,” the German ancestors once arrived. The sweep of Hölderlin's poetic vision would thus exceed the more proximate remembrance of Bordeaux in relating the origins of the Germania to the more distant and remote lands of Greece and Asia. Still, the sidelining of Bordeaux and the heavy emphasis on “the German” cannot but appear troubling.11

IV. The Last Hölderlin Lecture Course: “The Ister” (1942)

The course on “Remembrance,” in its concluding phase, already situated its interpretation of that hymn with a view to the hymn “The Ister” (the Greek name for the lower Danube12), which poetizes a return from the Indus to the homeland on the part of those in search of “what is fitting” (i.e., “one's own,” which Heidegger interprets as “the holy”). It thus explicitly anticipated and prepared the ground for the course of the following semester on “The Ister,” identifying the latter as “the authentic river of the homeland of this poet.” (GA 52, 185) The final Hölderlin lecture course is indeed entirely articulated around the question of the homeland, more precisely: of what it means to come to be “at home” or “homely” (heimisch) in “one's own.” The course is remarkable not only for the way in which it seeks to integrate these later courses on “Remembrance” and “The Ister” with the earlier interpretations of “Germania” and “The Rhine,” poems to which it returns in its concluding phase, but also for the extensive interpretation of the first choral ode from Sophocles's Antigone, an interpretation that—quite unexpectedly—occupies almost half the entire lecture course.13

The 1942 course falls into three parts: an initial, introductory part, rejecting a metaphysical or symbolic reading of Hölderlin's poetry and reflecting on the essence of the river hymns; the second, intermediary part containing the lengthy commentary on the Antigone chorus; and the third, concluding part, reflecting on the essence of the poet as sign, and on the divergent relation to the origin poetized in the “Ister” and “Rhine” hymns.

Antigone, admittedly, attunes the entire 1942 lecture course. Heidegger indeed opens the course by prefacing his reading of “The Ister” with some remarks on the meaning of “hymn,” in which he appeals to the words of Antigone at lines 806f. and interprets the meaning of ὕμνος as celebratory song that prepares for the festival—the festival that, in the case of Hölderlin's river hymns, will prove to be the bridal festival of humans and gods. Yet the course is no less attuned by the first line of the hymn, “Now come, fire!”, a call enunciated by those who are already called upon, who are of a calling, “eager… to see the day,” as the hymn continues. The emphatic “Now” with which the hymn opens, though seeming to speak from the present into a future to come, speaks in the first instance into what has already happened; as such, it “names an appropriative event [Ereignis]” (9), one that has appropriated those who have been called upon, brought them into this moment of poetic saying. This emphatic “Now,” Heidegger insists, “gives the entire poem its proper and singular tone.” (8) Yet the Ister, as a river, is not just a “Now,” a moment, but, as Hölderlin indicates in the poem “Voice of the People,” the rivers simultaneously intimate what is to come and vanish into what has been: they are “intimative” and “vanishing,” and as such, “are themselves time,” remarks Heidegger. While they do not take the path of human beings, according to the same poem, there is nevertheless a love of them, a belonging to them, a going along with the rivers on the part of human beings.

Yet the first strophe of “The Ister” names not only a “now,” but also a “here”: “Here, however, we wish to build” (line 15). Although in its flowing or “journeying” the river always occupies another “here,” it marks the site of dwelling for human beings, which Heidegger goes on to call the “locality” for human dwelling upon the Earth, the site where they can come into their own (das Eigene) and be “at home” (heimisch). Yet precisely this, dwelling within one's own, “is that which comes last, and is seldom successful, and always remains what is most difficult.” (24) Humans thus have the task of first coming to be at home, of coming to be at home in and through the poetizing that the river itself is, through the journeying of the locality of human dwelling, a journeying that is historical: “The river is the journeying of the coming to be at home of historical human beings upon this Earth.” (38-39)

That human beings must first come to be at home in what is their own, however, entails that they are “at first and for a long time, and sometimes forever, not at home”; coming to be at home thus entails “a passage through the foreign.” (60) For Hölderlin, “one's own” names the fatherland of the Germans; the finding of this “forbidden fruit”14 must entail a passing through and encounter with the foreign. Yet “the foreign” is not any arbitrary foreign, but one that is intrinsically related to one's own, “the foreign of one's own,” the foreign that is already within one's own: for the poet Hölderlin, the Greek poets Pindar and above all, Sophocles. The foreign in question thus belongs to one's own: it is “the provenance of the return home,” for the Germans, the Greek world. (67) Heidegger's claim that throughout Hölderlin's poetic telling of the human being's coming to be at home “there repeatedly resonates a singular poetic work of a singular poet,” namely the first choral ode of Sophocles's Antigone, now becomes the occasion for an extended interpretation of the ode. (63) This interpretation is not only much more extensive than that offered previously in Heidegger's 1935 course Introduction to Metaphysics; it also differs in significant respects. Heidegger now not only integrates his commentary into the context of Hölderlin's poetizing and the question of translation (both his own translation of the choral ode, and Hölderlin's translations of Pindar and Sophocles), but also largely retracts the entire discourse of violence (Gewalt and Gewalttätigkeit) in which the earlier interpretation was couched. The human being, in the word of the chorus, is τὸ δεινόν, which Heidegger again renders as “the uncanny” das Unheimliche, in the sense of not being at home among beings. Uncanniness marks the very being of the human being: it is not a state or predicament to be overcome, nor does it first arise as a consequence of human existence. Humankind, rather “emerges from uncanniness and remains within it—looms out of it and stirs within it.” (89) Far from being something to be overcome, such not being at home is something that has to be taken on, assumed as the very essence, the abode or dwelling place of the human being, an abode that prevails amid change and becoming, journeying and flowing. And precisely this, according to Heidegger's interpretation, is, in her own words, the essence of Antigone: παθεῖν τὸ δεινὸν τοῦτο, “to take up into my own essence the uncanny that here and now appears.” (127) Coming to be at home thus means, not overcoming our not being at home, but appropriating it as our essence, coming to dwell within it, “coming to be at home in not being at home.” Antigone herself, Heidegger writes, “is the poem of coming to be at home in not being at home.” (151)

When Heidegger returns to Hölderlin in the extremely rich and compressed closing part of the lecture course, it is on the one hand to contrast the different relation to the origin that is poetized in the “Ister” and Rhine” hymns. Whereas “The Rhine” tells of a violent relation to the origin, in which the river attempts to rush “with violence” to the heart of the mother, to the Earth of the homeland, and is rejected into an unknown destiny (201),15 “The Ister,” in its seeming “almost to flow backward,” comes from the encounter with the foreign back to a more intimative dwelling close to the source. Yet the foreign is not thereby abandoned or left behind, but remains determinative for the journeying and flow of the river. The Ister has invited the Greek demigod Hercules from the land of the heavenly fire as a guest, as “the presence of the unhomely in the homely”; the return to the home is never a simple appropriation of one's own, insists Heidegger: “The appropriation of one's own is only as the encounter and guest-like dialogue with the foreign. [...] The relation to the foreign is never a mere taking over of the Other.” (177, 179) The “source” that is poetized in Hölderlin's hymn is thus not a metaphysical source or pure origin, but must be thought in terms of the destining of a historical vocation that occurs as the unfolding of a dialogue with the foreign. “The Ister is that river in which the foreign is already present as a guest at its source, that river in whose flowing there constantly speaks the dialogue between one's own and the foreign.” (182) Heidegger's own remarks break off, not with an assured conclusion as to the historical vocation of the Germans in relation to the Greeks, but with an insistence on the need to think through the “as yet concealed law” at work in the relations between “The Rhine,” “The Ister,” and “Germania.” Indeed, the Ister hymn itself “breaks off,” as a sign that “makes manifest, yet in such a way that it simultaneously conceals” (202)—as a sign that, in the words of “Mnemosyne,” with which Heidegger concludes the course, “is not read,” of a “we” who “have almost lost our tongue in foreign parts.”

V. Concluding Remarks

One can readily make the case that Hölderlin is Heidegger's most important and persistent interlocutor from the mid-1930s on. Heidegger's encounters with Hölderlin are crucial for understanding the turn to language that characterizes his later work, as well as his meditations on art, technicity, and poetic dwelling. They are also crucially interwoven with issues of politics and history, interpretation and translation, attunement and memory. In particular, they offer rich resources for pursuing questions of national identity, linguistic identity, and the historical constitution of traditions, questions that today appear more pressing than ever.


1 Furthermore, Heidegger's dialogue with Hölderlin needs to be understood in the context of existing Hölderlin scholarship at the time. For an overview, with particular reference to the hymn “Remembrance,” see Robert Bernasconi, “Poets as Prophets and as Painters: Heidegger's Turn to Language and the Hölderlinian Turn in Context.” In Heidegger and Language, edited by Jeffrey Powell (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

2 In addition to the three major lecture courses on Hölderlin (published as GA 39, GA 52, and GA 53), and to the collection of essays published by Heidegger (GA 4), we also possess a substantial collections of notes and drafts (GA 75). Audio recordings of Heidegger reading Hölderlin are also available (Martin Heidegger Liest Hölderlin, ISBN-10: 3608910484), as is a recording of his 1960 lecture “Hölderlin's Earth and Heaven” (Hölderlins Erde und Himmel, ISBN-10: 3608910492). The present essay confines itself to providing an overview of the three lecture courses.

3 The term Gründerjahre, “founders' years,” refers to the period of rapid industrial expansion in Germany from 1871-1873, following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

4 Einführung in die Metaphysik (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1987), 97. On Nietzsche and Hölderlin, see also Heidegger's later remarks in the 1941-42 course on “Remembrance,” GA 52, 78-79.

5 See the remarks below on the first Hölderlin course.

6 See also Heidegger's essay of the same title, “…Poetically Man Dwells…,” delivered as a lecture in 1951 (GA 7, 189-208 / PLT, 211-29).

7 Heidegger in this lecture course generally uses the German Seyn, an archaic form of Sein (“being”) that was used by Hölderlin, although his appropriation of this archaic spelling is not completely consistent and Heidegger occasionally reverts to Sein. Seyn has here been rendered as beyng, which happens to be an archaic form of the English being.

8 It is on account of this special relationship that Heidegger earlier refers to “the Greek-German dispensation,” der griechisch-deutschen Sendung, out of which thinking must enter its originary dialogue with poetizing. (GA 39, 151) On the centrality of the Böhlendorff letter of December 4, 1801 for all three lecture courses on Hölderlin, see Julia A. Ireland, “Learning in Dialogue: The Letter to Böhlendorff and Hölderlin's Conception of History. Paper presented at the 2010 meeting of the Heidegger Circle, Stony Brook University, Manhattan, New York. Available to members in the conference Proceedings via www.heideggercircle.org.

9 For more details see my remarks in “Buried Treasure: Greeting and the Temporality of Remembrance in Heidegger's Lectures on 'Andenken'. Paper delivered at the 2010 meeting of the Heidegger Circle, Stony Brook University, Manhattan, New York. Available to members in the conference Proceedings via www.heideggercircle.org.

10 For more on this, see my remarks in “An Attunement More Primordial Than Every Other Human Attunement: Inaugural Time in Heidegger and Hölderlin. Paper delivered at the 2004 meeting of the Heidegger Circle, hosted by The University of New Orleans and Louisiana State University. Available to members in the conference Proceedings via www.heideggercircle.org.

11 Heidegger goes so far as to situate “the brown women” of “Remembrance” in relation to “the German women” referred to in Hölderlin's “Song to the Germans. (GA 52, 79-80) An outraged Adorno complains that Heidegger drags the German women in by the hair. For a commentary, see David Farrell Krell, “The Swaying Skiff of Sea: A Note on Heidegger's—and Hölderlin's—Andenken. Paper delivered at the 2010 meeting of the Heidegger Circle, Stony Brook University, Manhattan, New York. Available to members in the conference Proceedings via www.heideggercircle.org.

12 Heidegger notes that Hölderlin uses the Greco-Roman name for the lower Danube (in German, the Donau) to designate the upper course of the river, “as if the lower Donau had returned to the upper, and thus turned back to its source. (GA 53, 10)

13 Heidegger's course on “The Ister” has, moreover, inspired a film under the same title, produced and directed by David Barison and Daniel Ross. Details can be found at www.theister.com.

14 Hölderlin's words from a late fragment, cited by Heidegger at the outset of the first Hölderlin course. (GA 39, 4)

15 Heidegger here refers to lines 94ff. of the hymn “The Journey” (“Die Wanderung”).

William McNeill - Heidegger’s Hölderlin Lectures
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