Among German poets, one of the most well-known in the English speaking world is Rainer Maria Rilke, followed closely by Heinrich Heine. Rilke, who was active in the first part of the 20th century, is widely translated and read in English, and contemporary poetry audiences seem to identify with his candor and expressions of suffering and isolation.
Heine, on the other hand, belonged to a literary and intellectual movement called Romanticism or German Romanticism, which flourished in Germany around the end of the 18th century. German Romantic poetry is characterized by lofty images, often taken from ancient mythology or Renaissance expression.
Heine is a typical example of a German Romantic poet for adhering to these tendencies, but although he is the best known in English speaking countries, his poetry is, according to some, eclipsed by that of the lesser-known Friedrich Holderlin.
Holderlin, whose full name was Johann Christian Friedrich Holderlin, was an important figure of German Romanticism for reasons that stretch beyond his poetry.
According to many scholars, it would be difficult to overestimate Holderlin's impact on the intellectual movement, particularly with regard to the influence he had on the philosophical ideas of G.F.W. Hegel and F.W.J. Schelling. Hegel and Schelling were two of the biggest figures in early German Romantic thought.
The friendship between them and Holderlin represents one of the movement's principal developments and heralded the transition between Romanticism and Idealism. Although Holderlin himself was primarily a poet and did not write much in the way of philosophy, he influenced the philosophy of the other two greatly.
As far as Holderlin's poetry is concerned, he fits the mold of typical German Romantic poetry. His interest in ancient Greek mythology and culture is reflected in the imagery of his poems, and he also frequently included detailed images and scenes from the natural world in his work.
This is another characteristic of Romanticism; the Romantics placed a high value on nature and natural beauty, believing that there was a connection between art, nature, and the divine. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Holderlin did not adhere very strictly to poetic form, especially later in his career.
He preferred to experiment with structure and by the end of his life had largely abandoned rhyme. Another difference between Holderlin and the earlier Romantic poets is that Holderlin's poetry is often more introspective than that of others. This is what makes Holderlin's poetry so much more moving and intense than poetry written about more objective topics.
During his lifetime, Holderlin's poetry remained in obscurity, unappreciated by his contemporaries. In fact, whereas today he is primarily known for his poetry, the greatest success he achieved while alive was the publication of his only novel, Hyperion.
However, his posthumous influence on poets and other thinkers has been enormous. Rilke himself was very strongly influenced by Holderlin, as were German poets of the later 20th century. In addition, Holderlin's poetry has had a considerable impact on philosophy after his death.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger gave a number of lectures and wrote several essays on Holderlin's poetry, and many other European philosophers have championed his work, providing challenging philosophical interpretations of it.
Thanks to the efforts made by more recent philosophers and theorists, Holderlin's work is becoming better known in the Anglophone world. Still, he remains more obscure than the quality of his work merits. Anyone interested in exploring Holderlin's work in English would do well to seek out Michael Hamburger's translation.
Hamburger was a poet himself and a noted translator of German who had a genuine interest in preserving the spirit of the works in English. Additionally, Holderlin's daily life holds much insight into his poetry, and several biographies and accounts of his life can be found in English.
Like many of the greatest artists, Holderlin was underappreciated in his time, and a full recognition of the merit of his work is still on the horizon. His increasing popularity in the English speaking world is well deserved.