This is an interesting text to begin a study of modern poetry with. Mostly the poem is populated with classical and biblical allusion as well as imagery found in pastoral and Romantic poetry yet it seems to be making a connection between antiquity and Christianity as being part of the greater Universal Truths. Perhaps he is saying all of our stories are just that, stories, but that they speak to a reality we can only ever be dimly aware of. In Hölderlin’s Patmos, he describes God as being both “near, and hard to grasp” and in this poem he illustrates why we have such a difficult time explaining what we know is true.
The first stanza seems to deal straight away with the image of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (forbidden knowledge) and how that knowledge is “dipped in fire”, a destructive force. He reinforces this image with the snake, and then of the burden of labor upon human beings post-fall. And so since we have the capacity for knowledge it is up to us to maintain that knowledge which is easily lost, like wild horses running astray (a reference to the taming of animals, perhaps?) Yet he ends the first stanza with an allusion to Christ on the lake during the storm and the importance of faith above all else, including earthly knowledge.
The second stanza is Romantic and pastoral and deals with how much we do love the world we live in, even if it can be a burden. Christ asked his disciples if they still had no faith (when they thought they would drown on the lake) because they cling to life in this world and not the next, but what is so bad about this world? Isn’t this world worth loving too? Yet just like the first stanza that ends with a question that shakes the thesis of the stanza so far, Hölderlin again challenges us and introduces the friend who is annoyed at seeing a cross on the mountain. Is this friend annoyed at having to be reminded of God, that this world should not be of any concern to us, that when we see beauty in this world we should pay it no heed and only think of the next?
The final stanza is purely classical in allusion and bookends this poem. Stanza 1 was biblical, Stanza 2 earthly, and Stanza 3 is yet another way of interpreting the world. In Hölderlin’s Patmos, he writes “and that / Which endures be interpreted well” and perhaps Hölderlin is just offering us another way to understand the world, or he could be offering a hierarchy with the Christian God and heavenly reality above, our earthly realm of our mortal reality below, and the classical world of imagination below. This stanza does make me think of Hezog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams where we know next to nothing of how those people lived and what they thought, but we still have a trace of their imagination and so we still retain a wisp of memory.
And perhaps why this poem is named after the god of memory, Mnemosyne. Knowledge (be it heavenly / faith, earthly, or imaginative) is an act of remembering (think Plato). The soul makes contact with the timeless realm of the abstract when we recognize universal truths but like the Forms we can’t touch them or interact with them, we can only know them / remember them. Truth, then, is a knowledge we have memory of and we try to attain it through God, through what we do in our mortal realm, and in our imagination.
Honestly, I think I need more time to really think about this poem.