Hölderlin in Homburg

The city of Bad Homburg vor der Höhe is now an affluent suburb of Frankfurt am Main. In the 19th century, Homburg did not yet have the coveted word “Bad” in its name (it didn’t get that distinction until 1912), but it was nonetheless already a fashionable spa for the rich and powerful. Before that, it was the seat of silly little landgraviate (sort of like a minor-league duchy) called Hessen-Homburg.

The Hölderlin Path (also free for bicycles)

Frankfurt and Bad Homburg are now connected (since June 2008) by a well-marked 22-kilometer walking and cycling trail called the Hölderlin Pfad (Hölderlin Path), named after the poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), who used to walk from Homburg to Frankfurt fairly often — but not daily, as an exaggerated local legend asserts — to catch a glimpse of his beloved Susette Gontard and on a good day even cop a kiss or at least exchange love letters by secretly passing them through the hedge when nobody was looking.

Susette Gontard, Hölderlin’s Diotima
(bust by Landolin Ohmacht in the Liebieghaus Museum in Frankfurt)

Susette was married to a wealthy Frankfurt merchant named Jakob Friedrich Gontard. In 1796 the Gontards hired Friedrich Hölderlin, a recent theology graduate, as private live-in teacher for their four children. This was a common occupation for young intellectuals in those days, before they got established as professors, like Hölderlin’s friend and former roommate Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, or before they drifted off into incurable insanity as Hölderlin himself eventually did.

Hölderlin and Diotima by Beatrix Langer

It was love at first sight between Hölderlin and Susette, but he was well aware that as a resident teacher the worst thing he could do would be to have a love affair with the lady of the house, so he suffered in silence and started rewriting his novel-in-progress, Hyperion, to make his hero’s beloved Diotima more like Susette.

This was all very well for an idealistic poet, but Susette wanted more so she soon took the initiative, passed him on the stairs at every opportunity, spoke to him, told him how she felt. Before long they were spending hours together while her husband was off at work. She soon knew she was Diotima, and read every word he wrote.

In the summer of 1796, a French army was threatening to attack Frankfurt, so Susette fled with the children — and their teacher! — to Bad Driburg in Westfalen, leaving her husband behind to protect his business and the family property. In Bad Driburg, Susette and Hölderlin had an idyllic summer together, before returning to Frankfurt and their life of secrecy.

It took another two years before even Susette’s husband realized what was going on, but then in September 1798 he finally fired Hölderlin and ordered his children never to mention their teacher’s name again.

Hölderlin’s friend and benefactor Isaac von Sinclair

A few months later, Hölderlin moved to nearby Homburg at the suggestion of his old friend Isaac von Sinclair, who lived and worked there as a minister in the government of the Landgrave of Hessen-Homburg. In the next two years Hölderlin finished the second volume of his novel Hyperion and wrote numerous poems that were not widely appreciated at the time but which later established his reputation as one of the most brilliant poets of his generation.

These two years, 1798-1800, were the years of his now-famous walks from Homburg to Frankfurt and back.

Hölderlin in Bad Homburg by Jochen Schmidt

Later Hölderlin returned to Homburg for another two years, 1804-1806, but that was a very different time. Susette was dead (she had died in an influenza epidemic while caring for her sick children), so there was no longer any reason for him to walk to Frankfurt.

He still had some lucid periods in which he wrote great poetry, but during these two years it gradually became clear that insanity was taking hold of him, and in 1806 his friend Sinclair reluctantly agreed to have him forcibly removed to an asylum in Tübingen.

He lived for 37 more years, mainly in a tower in Tübingen under the care of a carpenter and his family, but never really recovered.

Hölderlin and Susette in the Gothic House in Bad Homburg

My photos in this post are from 2009. I revised the text in 2020.

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