Hyperion

Friedrich Hölderlin

translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
Archipelago Books 2008 [1797]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010 http://dannyreviews.com/
Hyperion is an epistolatory novel of education in which a Greek philosopher of the late 18th century writes letters to a German friend telling his life's story.

Hyperion pursues learning, friendship, love, patriotism and martial valour, and admiration of nature, as he is compelled by different visions of the Good. His journey brings him under the influence of a respected teacher Adamas, a close friend Alabanda, and a lover Diotima. He is attracted by the legacy and memory of ancient Athens, takes part in the struggle for Greek independence, leading a band of irregulars in the Peloponnese, but is disillusioned by the aftermath of victory and then comes close to death in the naval battle of Chesma. His story finishes with a Romantic suicide, reflections on Germany, and a retreat to nature.

The emotions in all of this are maintained at a high pitch of intensity, even as they range between near-ecstatic elation and despair. Hyperion reads very much like poetry, with compression, simplicity and power in its language and sustained elevation in its sentiment and tone. The following passages give something of a feel for this:

"I now gladly permitted everyone his opinion, his vice. I was converted, I no longer wanted to convert anyone; I only felt sad when I saw that people believed I left their farce untouched because I regarded it as highly and dearly as they did. I did not want to submit to their inanity, yet I sought to let it be when I could. It is their joy, I thought, and they live from it."

"Then my troop gathers eagerly about me, and it is wonderful how even the oldest and most defiant honour me in all my youth. We become more intimate, and many tell me how they fared in their lives, and my heart often swells with various fates. Then I begin to speak of better days, and their eyes widen and shine when they think of the union that shall join us, and the proud image of the nascent free state dawns before them."

"I can speak only here and there a word about her. I must forget what she wholly is, if I am to speak of her. I must deceive myself into believing that she lived a long time ago, that I knew something of her from hearsay, if her living image is not to seize me so forcefully that I expire in enchantment and in pain, if I am not to die the death of joy over her and the death of mourning for her."

This is all rather intense, but once one becomes accustomed to the style it doesn't seem overwrought. It is perhaps, however, best read in relatively small doses.

This Archipelago Books edition includes a twenty page postscript by the translator, Ross Benjamin, giving a brief biography of Hölderlin and some background to Hyperion.

December 2010

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%T Hyperion
%A Hölderlin, Friedrich
%M German
%F Benjamin, Ross
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2008 [1797]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780979333026
%P 236pp