by Erin Johannesen, M.A., M.D.
At the University of Freiberg in Bavaria in the pre-war years of 1934-35, Professor Martin Heidegger read aloud portions of Friederich Hölderlin’s poetry to his students in his course on this German poet’s writings.
One of these readings may perhaps have been Hölderlin’s poem, Einst Hab Ich de Muse Gefragt (I Once Asked of the Muse), a fragment of which is given here in its original German language:
Vom Höchsten will Ich schweigen.
Verbotene Frucht, wie der Lorbeer, ist aber
Am meisten das Vaterland. Die aber kost’
Ein jeder zulezt.
If translated literally, or word-for-word, which is often what occurs in many translations, then this fragment reads in English as:
Of what is highest, I wish to be silent.
Forbidden fruit, like the laurel, is however,
Above all your country. But such fruit,
Each one of us must taste last.
If, however, we take a slight turn and allow ourselves to play with this small fragment of Hölderlin’s poetry, then a far less literal translation can emerge that may perhaps bring his poetry closer to what our mind, listening through the ear of the heart, now hears:
To tell you what is pure and all pervasive, I remain still and am silent.
However ineluctable a fruit, like the laurel that seems inedible,
It is at heart none other than the all-creating Mother of presence.
Yet, we too often doubt ourselves, limit ourselves, to nibbling
First bits and pieces of smaller ‘things’ before we let ourselves leap
Into the lap of the Mother that is our own lap
To taste at last the overflowing sweetness
Of such once forbidden fruit.
Any errors that may occur in the presentation of this poem or in the translations are unintentional and belong to the author alone. English translations are by the author.
Useful references for further reading are:
Hölderlin’s Hymns by Martin Heiddegger, translated by William McNeill and Julia Ireland
Selected Poems and Fragments by Friederich Hölderlin, edited by Jeremy Adler and translated by Michael Hamburger.