January 20, 2023

David Constantine on Friedrich Hölderlin


Video Title: David Constantine on Friedrich Hölderlin. Source: Bloodaxe Books. Date Published: Jan 17, 2019. Description: 

Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) was one of Europe’s greatest poets. The strange and beautiful language of his late poems is recreated by David Constantine in the remarkable verse translations published in his new edition, Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poetry, published by Bloodaxe Books in November 2018 [https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/pro...]. 

This is an expanded edition of Constantine’s widely-praised Hölderlin Selected Poems (1990/1996), containing many new translations as well as the whole of Hölderlin's Sophocles (2001), in which he sought to create an equivalent English for Hölderlin's extraordinary German recreations of the classic Greek verse plays. Constantine won the European Poetry Translation Prize in 1997 for his translations of Hölderlin. This new volume presents a substantial selection from the work of a poet who, writing around 1800, addresses us ever more urgently two centuries later. 

Hölderlin translated all his writing life. Through translation he reached a poetic language of his own, so that much of his best poetry reads like a translation from elsewhere. He was intensely occupied with Sophocles in the winter of 1803-04. His versions of Oedipus Rex and Antigone (he worked at but never finished Oedipus at Colonus and Ajax) came out in the spring of 1804 and were taken, by the learned, as conclusive proof of his insanity. He was by then very near to mental collapse, but no one now would dismiss his work for that. He translated in a radical and idiosyncratic way, cleaving close to the Greek yet at the same time striving to interpret these ancient, foreign and – as he thought – sacred originals, and so bring them home into the modern day and age. 

In this short video, Constantine introduces Hölderlin and his poetry, discussing how translating Greek poetry (at first Pindar) helped Hölderlin evolve his own way of writing in German. Like Beethoven, Hölderlin was inspired by the French Revolution before it went wrong, and Constantine discusses the relevance also of Hölderlin to the times we live in, most particularly when there has been renewed interest in his work, such as during both world wars and during the period of social revolt in Germany in the 1960s. Hölderlin reads two poems from the book, ‘Once there were gods…’ (‘Götter wandelten einst…’), written in the spring of 1799 (but not published until 1909), and ‘The sun goes down’ (‘Geh unter, schöne Sonne…’), written some time before May 1800 but not published until 1846, three years after his death. Constantine was filmed at his home in Oxford by Neil Astley in June 2018.