"Hyperion's Song of Fate" Analysis

by Walter Johnson

Friedrich Holderlin's "Hyperion's Song of Fate" is one of the classics of the German Romantic movement. Written in 1799, it is deceptively brief, but it is dense, packed with symbolism. The symbolism deals with the Titans, or Giants, in Greek mythology and their symbolic meaning for living in the period after the French Revolution of 1789.


The French Revolution changed everything in European politics. The old ways were under attack---for better or worse---and nothing was stable. By 1799, Napoleon was already riding this revolutionary wave and swallowing up much of Europe. The German Romantics were split: Some saw the revolution as releasing the Titans from Elysium, others saw the Titans as pure evil. Revolution was seen as Promethean---referencing another titan---who gave man all power, science and knowledge to make war on the gods. Holderlin saw mankind as limited, weak and unable to make good use out of any power given to it.


Humanity in 1799, in this poem, was in a terrible condition. Man was unstable, waffling between revolution and tradition and seeing familiar signposts taken down. As Napoleon spread war and revolution through Europe, Holderlin could easily write, "vanishing, falling/blindly from one hour to the next ---are thrown like the water/cliff down to cliff, yearlong down to an unknown abyss." The abyss is the void or pure chaos. Chaos, however, cannot be understood, only controlled. Holderlin meant that will and power are the only things that matter in a chaotic world.


Hyperion was one of the dominant titans eventually unseated by the gods. Hyperion was the titan associated with the sun and born of the earth-mother Gaia. A titan is earthly, while a god is heavenly. In practical terms, the Titan represented earthly power in politics or economics, while a god dealt with the more abstract concepts of reason, war or statecraft.


This poem has both the gods and titans in Elysium, a resting place for the gods who today, have no function. Holderlin, as exemplified in his poem, rejected the gods in favor of the titans, since Romanticism was about the natural. Reason had a place but only attached to the will. Neither gods or titans had any role in man's destiny, or fate. The gods can safely exist in paradise while humans suffer. Napoleon was slowly rising as Holderlin wrote these lines; Holderlin could easily have associated Napoleon with a new titan, wreaking havoc, because of his ambition, ability and power.

The Harp

The stringed instrument referenced in the fifth line is what the gods and titans are listening to in the heavens. The harp, or lyre, was normally associated with nature in perfect tune, making sweet music without friction or difficulty. The harp was also the symbol of man's ability to live effortlessly within nature and the very symbol of paradise---a world of plenty, gained without work. Holderlin saw the human world, however, as very different from paradise, with nature herself seeming to be in revolt.