These signs near the Goethe House, in the center of Frankfurt, show the beginnings of the Hölderlin Path (22 km) and the Goethe Trail (11 km). From here, the Hölderlin Path goes off to the left and the Goethe Trail goes off to the right — which is appropriate considering the political orientation of the two men.
Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) was a fervent democrat, whereas Johann Wolfgang Goethe — or von Goethe as he was known after being elevated to the aristocracy in 1782 — was a conservative cabinet minister in the government of Duke Carl August of Saxony-Weimar.
Goethe, who was twenty-one years older than Hölderlin, was a successful and celebrated author, whereas Hölderlin in his lifetime was generally considered a failure. The two men met several times at Schiller‘s house in Jena in 1795, and again in 1797 in Frankfurt when Goethe made one of his rare visits to his native city to visit his mother. Goethe on this occasion gave Hölderlin some fatherly advice on how to write poems — choose an object from everyday life and make it come alive through sensuous details — knowing full well that Hölderlin didn’t care about objects of everyday life but wanted to write about Greek gods and goddesses and their (also his own) wild emotions.
This house, where Goethe was born and grew up, is just around the block from where the Gontards’ house used to be, where Hölderlin lived and worked from 1796 to 1798 as a resident teacher for the Gontards’ four children.
As I have recounted elsewhere, Hölderlin was fired in 1798 for having an affair with the lady of the house, Susette Gontard. Several months later he moved to the nearby town of Homburg, now Bad Homburg, and often walked from there to Frankfurt and back in hopes of seeing Susette at least for a few minutes. The current Hölderlin Path follows his route, more or less, from the Goethe House in Frankfurt northwards to the Sinclair House in Bad Homburg.
After leaving the center of Frankfurt, the Hölderlin Path leads up Oeder Weg past the Berta Jourdan School, as it is now called. For many years it was called the Hedwig Heyl School, but in 1999 the name was changed on the grounds that the politician Hedwig Heyl (1850-1934), though doubtless a feminist of sorts, was also a colonialist, a racist and an ardent Nazi sympathizer.
The school is on a street called the Adlerflychtstraße. For 103 years, from 1763 to 1866, there was a house on this site called the Adlerflychthof, which belonged to a family of the same name. In the 1790s the Adlerflychthof was rented by the Gontard family as their summer residence — which seems strange today since it was less than 2 km from their main residence in the city center. But at that time, the Adlerflychthof was outside the city walls, so it really was like having a house in the country. When Hölderlin walked here from Bad Homburg, this was where he and Susette Gontard exchanged love letters through the hedge if nobody was looking.
Further on, the Hölderlin Path goes through the Holzhausen Park and later past the rotunda of the Hessian public radio and television service hr (left photo). This rotunda was built in 1948 and was originally intended (wishful thinking on Frankfurt’s part) as the meeting place of the German Federal Parliament.
When Friedrich Hölderlin walked from Bad Homburg to Frankfurt and back in the years 1798 to 1800 he of course didn’t have to worry about where and how to cross the railroad tracks, because they didn’t exist yet. The official Hölderlin Path now crosses the railroad tracks through this ugly underpass at the station ‘Frankfurter Berg’, but as a cyclist I usually take the nearby road bridge, which is only a slight detour.
The Main-Weser railroad line from Frankfurt to Friedberg was built starting in 1846 and went into operation in 1850. It is now used by the suburban train line S6 and by regional trains (which don’t stop here) going from Frankfurt to Friedberg, Gießen, Marburg and Kassel, among other places. Occasionally you can also see a white InterCityExpress (ICE) train on these tracks, but only if their normal route via Fulda and the Kinzig Valley is blocked for some reason.
The Hölderlin Path leads along the Nidda River for a short distance, and then crosses the Nidda on this new pedestrian and cycling bridge which was originally called the Millennial Bridge because it was built at the beginning of the 21st century. It has since been re-named the Robert Gernhardt Bridge after a Frankfurt poet who lived from 1937 to 2006.
Robert Gernhardt was more of a humorous poet (also a painter, cartoonist and editor), not a tragic figure like Hölderlin.
When Hölderlin walked along here in the years 1798 to 1800 he of course also had to cross the Nidda, but I’m not at all sure there was any bridge for him to use. I do know that the water level of the Nidda was much lower in his time, so he probably was able to ford the river by wading or jumping from rock to rock at some shallow place.
The current high water level is a result of dams that were built further downstream in the 1920s for flood control purposes. Every two years in September you can see how shallow the Nidda used to be, because they open the dams for one weekend and let all the water out so that volunteers can go through and remove all the trash that has accumulated in the riverbed.
The Old Airfield was used by the United States Army as a base for helicopters and light planes from 1952 until the 1990s. About two dozen helicopters were stationed there in the 1980s, and the noise pollution was considerable. After the US Army withdrew (to the relief of people living nearby) there was the usual hiatus for (in)decision making, but eventually the site was developed as a recreational area with a restaurant (simplest German fare like sausages and Leberkäs, nothing special) and a fire brigade museum.
After leaving the Old Airfield, the Hölderlin Path skirts the Frankfurt district of Kalbach, following the brook of the same name, and crosses the tracks of the U2 and U9 subway lines near Kalbach station. Though the ‘U’ in their numbers stands for Underground, they actually run at ground level most of the time, as here.
From Kalbach, the Hölderlin Path goes uphill slightly to the Riedberg, which is not a mountain as you might think from the name, but rather just a slight bulge in the fields where a lot of new construction has been going on in recent years, including a new university campus.
In one of the new residential areas there is a small street named after Magda Spiegel (1887-1944), an opera singer who was popular in Frankfurt around 1920. She had to stop singing after several years because she made the mistake of getting married to an ardent admirer, and her new husband promptly ordered her to stop appearing on the stage. Later she was persecuted by the Nazis because of her Jewish ancestry, and finally murdered in a concentration camp in 1944.
Between Frankfurt and Bad Homburg, the Hölderlin Path has to make three separate Autobahn-crossings, once going under and twice going over the motorways. Again, this is a problem Hölderlin didn’t have, so we can assume his route was somewhat more direct than ours.
Shortly before the Hölderlin Path reaches Bad Homburg there is a signpost with the complete text of one of his most famous poems, “The Oak Trees”.
Admittedly the trees in the background are all quite scrawny compared to the towering trees in Hölderlin’s poem, standing “like a nation of Titans” in the mountains and seizing space with their powerful arms, their sunny tops “pointed serenely and majestically” towards the sky. But in the twenty-two kilometers between the center of Frankfurt and the center of Bad Homburg there don’t happen to be any mountains or towering oak trees, so this is the best location they could find.
In the poem Hölderlin contrasts the proud and splendid oak trees to his own life of servitude, and says he would gladly come and live among the oak trees if only his heart, which can’t stop loving, didn’t chain him to human society.
The poem is of course in German, but you can click here for an English translation.
Here’s the German text, written in dactylic hexameters as in an ancient Greek epic:
Aus den Gärten komm ich zu euch, ihr Söhne des Berges!
Aus den Gärten, da lebt die Natur geduldig und häuslich,
Pflegend und wieder gepflegt mit dem fleißigen Menschen zusammen.
Aber ihr, ihr Herrlichen! steht, wie ein Volk von Titanen
In der zahmeren Welt und gehört nur euch und dem Himmel,
Der euch nährt` und erzog, und der Erde, die euch geboren.
Keiner von euch ist noch in die Schule der Menschen gegangen,
Und ihr drängt euch fröhlich und frei, aus der kräftigen Wurzel,
Unter einander herauf und ergreift, wie der Adler die Beute,
Mit gewaltigem Arme den Raum, und gegen die Wolken
Ist euch heiter und groß die sonnige Krone gerichtet.
Eine Welt ist jeder von euch, wie die Sterne des Himmels
Lebt ihr, jeder ein Gott, in freiem Bunde zusammen.
Könnt ich die Knechtschaft nur erdulden, ich neidete nimmer
Diesen Wald und schmiegte mich gern ans gesellige Leben.
Fesselte nur nicht mehr ans gesellige Leben das Herz mich,
Das von Liebe nicht läßt, wie gern würd ich unter euch wohnen.
Hölderlin was a big fan of ancient Greek poetry, and he spent the winter of 1803-04 translating two classic Greek verse plays by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex and Antigone, into German. When these translations were published in the spring of 1804 they were rejected by traditionally-minded reviewers and in fact were taken as proof of Hölderlin’s insanity.
Later generations recognized the brilliance of these translations, however, and they have even been trans-translated into English (unusual — a translation of a translation!) under the title Hölderlin’s Sophocles: Oedipus and Antigone, translated by David Constantine and published in 2001.
When the Hölderlin Path gets to Bad Homburg it takes a couple of twists and turns but eventually winds up on the Dorotheenstraße, a street named after Elisabeth Dorothea von Hessen-Darmstadt (1676-1721), who was the wife of the then-ruling Landgrave of Hessen-Homburg.
This “Hölderlin House” is a block and a half from the end of the Hölderlin Path. The plaque reads: “Hölderlin House built again in 1986. Here the poet Friedrich Hölderlin lived from 1804-1805.”
During his second stay in Bad Homburg, Hölderlin rented a room in this house for several months from a clock- and watchmaker named Calame. The house was completely demolished in 1983, but it was rebuilt from scratch three years later, so what we can see now is actually a replica, not the original house. It is now used as a residence for visiting literary scholars.
The Hölderlin Path ends (or begins) at the Sinclair House, at the corner of Dorotheenstraße and Löwengasse, across the street from the entrance to the palace grounds in Bad Homburg.
Isaac von Sinclair (1775-1815), Hölderlin’s friend and benefactor, was a diplomat and government official in the service of the Landgrave of Hessen-Homburg. At the same time, he was a leading figure in a group of democratically-oriented intellectuals.
Sinclair and Hölderlin had been friends since their student days together in Jena, and it was Sinclair who befriended and supported Hölderlin during both of his stays in Bad Homburg 1798-1800 and 1804-1806. But Sinclair was also the one who made the difficult decision to have his friend committed to an insane asylum in 1806.
The Sinclair House is now used by the Nantesbuch Foundation as a venue for art exhibitions. (Currently closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
My photos in this post are from 2005, 2008 and 2009. I revised the text in 2020.
See also: Hölderlin in Homburg.