In lovely blueness

This poem, of Friedrich Hölderlin’s, arrested me as a youff (I think I was fifteen), and though I cannot yet begin to understand, it has haunted me through the years. It is of course in German, so my claim not to understand it can be accepted as very plausible. The music of it cannot be explained, even as music, but the poem begins:

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

Or rather, the piece begins, for it was written in what is called “prose,” and taken from the period of Hölderlin’s madness. Perhaps even Germans can make little sense of what follows. But as far as we have got (in Michael Hamburger’s translation), “In lovely blueness with its metal roof the steeple blossoms. …”

Already we must ask, is this “metal roof” not the sky, in sheets of tin, as we soon learn the steeple too is ringing, through gates that have opened, which he likens to trees of wood. And the man who looks upon this, as from a still-life, does he resemble these? For he manifests himself as the ground of the sky, and is God not his measure? Is he not part of the Heavenly beauty?

But I have simplified, and have begun to impose a narrative that will not be found in the original. In fact the poem itself is “doubtful,” having been adapted from an account in the novel Phaeton, by Wilhelm Waiblinger (1825). Hamburger printed it last, at the end of his magnificent book of translations, with a footnote speculating that Waiblinger, who had access to Hölderlin’s late manuscripts, was excerpting from what had been written in Pindaric verse. And is now lost, like many writings. But I am no German scholar, and cannot process this.

I can, however, “process” the description, or depiction, line by line, of what seems to be the light of heaven, falling first on the scene outside the poet’s window, and then on characters as the poem glides on. They are tragic characters, but the dead are alive, and those who are living have died. A mirror, in the lovely blueness, is looked into and reflects a man, in its metal; we see his divine stillness and simplicity. That is how the comparison is made; how the man becomes an object in the poem.

Well, far more could be said (though the piece extends only through three pages). But the power, which I would call “beyond anxiety,” seems to have attempted and to have successfully embodied a religious mystery. Hölderlin does this as we have felt it in music — in moments beyond the anxiety of a melody, a tune. He lifts us, in a divine way, to a home that perhaps only in madness can assimilate our worldliness, falling away.