Why choose Hölderlin's work if our purpose is to show the essence of poetry? Why not Homer or Sophocles, why not Virgil or Dante, why not Shakespeare or Goethe? Surely the essence of poetry has come to rich expression in the works of these poets, more so indeed than in Hölderlin's creation, which broke off so prematurely and so abruptly.
That may be so. And yet I choose Hölderlin, and him alone. The question can arise whether it is possible in any case to read off the general nature of poetry from the work of just one poet. We can only obtain what is universal, that is, what is valid for many, by a comparative study. And for that we would need to present the greatest possible diversity, both of poems and of kinds of poetry. For such a study, Hölderlin's poetry could count at best as one among many. In no way would it suffice as our sole measure for determining the essence of poetry. Consequently, our project would be doomed from the start. Certainly that is true—if we understand by "essence of poetry" whatever is drawn together into a universal concept, one that would be valid for every kind of poetry. But a universal like that, equally valid for every particular instance, always proves to be something neutral or indifferent. An "essence" of that kind always misses what is truly essential.
We, however, are searching for something truly essential, something that will force us to decide whether we shall take poetry at all seriously in the future, and whether the presuppositions that we bring along with us will enable us ever to stand within poetry's sphere of influence.
I did not choose Hölderlin because his work, as one among many, realizes the universal essence of poetry, but rather because Hölderlin's poetry is sustained by his whole poetic mission: to make poems solely about the essence of poetry. Hölderlin is for us in a preeminent sense the poet's poet. And for that reason he forces a decision upon us.
But—to make poems about the role of the poet—is that not to betray a misguided self-contemplation, and at the same time to confess one's lack of worldly content? Poems about poetry—wouldn't that be something weak and overly refined, something decadent, a dead end?
The answer may be given by what follows. Admittedly, we shall only approach this answer by adopting an expedient. Properly, one ought to