In lovely blueness

The good thing about brain injuries, and associated forms of mental illness, is that they are painless. The victim does not know that anything could be seriously wrong. There are moments of awkwardness, but we all have them, and perhaps there are fewer when half your brain is missing. Even those who are, as it were, intact, form the habit of blaming everything on “the others”; it is just another step to giving up. Some become violent when the world tries to stop them, or may at unpredictable moments, but most are freed of the anxieties that a man with more than half a brain is bound to feel, during his progress through life.

Madness comes in many kinds; I have my preferences.

Through the years I have admired the extraordinary poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. We are lucky in English to have had so fine a translator as Michael Hamburger, and the successive editions of the collected Poems and Fragments have been among my most treasured possessions. Hölderlin’s German and Hamburger’s English are on facing pages. As someone who has been struggling with German (and losing) for a long time, I compare them and spot little miracles all over.

In lieblicher Bläue blühet mit dem metallenen Dache der Kirchthurm. …

“In lovely blueness with its metal roof the steeple blossoms.”

This, among my favourite lines on earth, is from the far end of the book. It describes, I suppose, the view from an attic window in a pretty German town — Tübingen, two centuries ago. Hölderlin had gone completely mad when he wrote it. He was being kept as a boarder and discreetly minded by a kindly carpenter named Zimmer. Or by an angel, I’ve forgotten which.

Details, details: gentle reader may find Hölderlin’s biography elsewhere. I prefer poetry to life, and am happy with only the most skeletal outline of an author’s background. Academics commonly believe, that things can be explained that have no explanation. Why did Hölderlin go mad? He had reason enough to go out of his mind. We all do.

Even as a child he was moody and over-sensitive: now there’s a clue. He was tense. He had a unique understanding of Pindar, and of the inner structure of the Greek ode, and of ideals that underlay Greek tragedy. These may have been wrong, but they were brilliantly so. He is consistently lucid, always to the point, especially when incomprehensible to the modern reader.

From the (later) poems of his madness, his talent never parts. Only his tensions go away. For if there is no point, there is no tension. But consider:

The lines of life are various; they diverge
Like footpaths to the mountains’ utmost ends.
What here we are elsewhere a god amends. …

(It is even better in German; and could have been better in English had the translator not felt the need for accuracy, as I have not in my excerpt.)

There was a strange wisdom in Hölderlin’s madness. Unlike most, he seemed aware of his condition, but looked upon it as a reward. All the storm and stress of his early life, had lifted. He did not even write poems any more, except when people asked him to. In his serenity, he would oblige them. Zimmer kept them for us.

Alas, the people in my neighbourhood of Parkdale do not seem so happy. Perhaps they have been given the wrong drugs. They shout obscenities in the street, instead of softly reciting poems; and never wait to be asked.