Hölderlin’s River

Der Ister

Friederich Hölderlin c.1803-5


Jetzt komme, Feuer!
Begierig sind wir,
Zu schauen den Tag,
Und wenn die Prüfung
Ist durch die Knie gegangen,
Mag einer spüren das Waldgeschrei.
Wir singen aber vom Indus her
Fernangekommen und
Vom Alpheus, lange haben
Das Schickliche wir gesucht,
Nicht ohne Schwingen mag
Zum Nächsten einer greifen
Und kommen auf die andere Seite.
Hier aber wollen wir bauen.
Denn Ströme machen urbar
Das Land. Wenn nämlich Kräuter wachsen
Und an denselben gehn
Im Sommer zu trinken die Tiere,
So gehn auch Menschen daran.

Man nennet aber diesen den Ister.
Schön wohnt er. Es brennet der Säulen Laub,
Und reget sich. Wild stehn
Sie aufgerichtet, untereinander; darob
Ein zweites Maß, springt vor
Von Felsen das Dach. So wundert
Mich nicht, daß er
Den Herkules zu Gaste geladen,
Fernglänzend, am Olympos drunten,
Da der, sich Schatten zu suchen
Vom heißen Isthmos kam,
Denn voll des Mutes waren
Daselbst sie, es bedarf aber, der Geister wegen,
Der Kühlung auch. Darum zog jener lieber
An die Wasserquellen hieher und gelben Ufer,
Hoch duftend oben, und schwarz
Vom Fichtenwald, wo in den Tiefen
Ein Jäger gern lustwandelt
Mittags, und Wachstum hörbar ist
An harzigen Bäumen des Isters,

Der scheinet aber fast
Rückwärts zu gehen und
Ich mein, er müsse kommen
Von Osten.
Vieles wäre
Zu sagen davon. Und warum hängt er
An den Bergen grad? Der andre,
Der Rhein, ist seitwärts
Hinweggegangen. Umsonst nicht gehn
Im Trocknen die Ströme. Aber wie? Ein Zeichen braucht es,
Nichts anderes, schlecht und recht, damit es Sonn
Und Mond trag im Gemüt, untrennbar,
Und fortgeh, Tag und Nacht auch, und
Die Himmlischen warm sich fühlen aneinander.
Darum sind jene auch
Die Freude des Höchsten. Denn wie käm er
Herunter? Und wie Hertha grün,
Sind sie die Kinder des Himmels. Aber allzugeduldig
Scheint der mir, nicht
Freier, und fast zu spotten. Nämlich wenn

Angehen soll der Tag
In der Jugend, wo er zu wachsen
Anfängt, es treibet ein anderer da
Hoch schon die Pracht, und Füllen gleich
In den Zaum knirscht er, und weithin hören
Das Treiben die Lüfte,
Ist der zufrieden;
Es brauchet aber Stiche der Fels
Und Furchen die Erd,
Unwirtbar wär es, ohne Weile;
Was aber jener tuet, der Strom,
weiß niemand.




Josef Koudelka Danube 2000

Josef Koudelka, Danube after dam construction, 2000





The Ister


Come to us, fire!
We are avid
For sight of day,
And when the ordeal
Has passed through the knees,
Woodsong is within hearing.
But we sing, having come
Far from the Indus
And Alpheus, we have long sought
Adequacy to fate,
It takes wings to seize
The nearest things
And reach the other side.
Let us settle here.
For the rivers make the land
Arable. If there be vegetation
And animals come to water
At the banks in summer,
Here men will also go.

And they call this the Ister.
Beautiful his dwelling. Leaves on columns
Burn and quiver. They stand in the wild,
Rising among each other; above which
Surges a second mass,
The roofing of rock. So it does not
Surprise me he had
Hercules as a guest,
Far-shining, up from Olympos,
Having left the Ishmos heat
In search of shade,
For though they had great fortitude
In that place, spirits also need
The cool. He therefore chose
To travel to these springs and yellow banks
With their ascending fragrance and black
With firs, and these valleys
That hunters love to roam
At noon, when you can hear the growing
Of the resinous trees of the Ister

Which almost seems
To run backwards and
Strikes me must come
From the East.
Much could be said
Of this. And why does he cling
So steep to these hills? The other,
The Rhine, ran off
Sideways. There is a reason rivers run
Through dry land. But how? All that is needed
Is a sign, pure and simple, which bears
Sun and moon in mind, indivisible,
And goes its way night and day, and
The gods will feel each other’s warmth.
Which is why rivers
Are the Almighty’s joy. How could He otherwise
Descend? And like green Hertha,
They are the children of heaven. Yet this one here
Strikes me as all too placed, barely
Free, almost laughable. For when
In his youth
The day come of him to begin
To grow, the Rhine is already there,
Driving his splendor higher, champing at the bit,
Like a colt, with the winds hearing
His passage in the distance,
While this one lies content.
But rock needs splitting,
Earth needs furrowing,
No habitation unless one longer;
But what he does, the river,
Nobody knows.

translation by Richard Sieburth, from Friederich Hölderlin: Hymns and Fragments, Princeton University Press, 1984




Heidegger reads Hölderlin’s “Der Ister”, excerpt from the documentary film “The Ister” (2004) dir. David Barison and Daniel Ross

The Ister
Still from the documentary film “The Ister” (2004) written/directed David Barison & Daniel Ross



Extract from Claudio Magris, The Danube [Danubio]


The river has many names. Among some peoples the words Danube and Ister were used respectively for the upper and lower courses, but sometimes for the entire length. Pliny, Strabo and Ptolemy wondered where the one ended and the other began: maybe in Illyria, or at the Iron Gates. The river, which Ovid called “bisnominis” or double-named, draws German culture, with its dream of an Odyssey of the spirit, towards the east, mingling it with other cultures in countless hybrid metamorphoses in which it find fulfillment and tis fall. The German scholar who travels fitfully along the whole course of the river carries with him his baggage of fads and quotations; if the poet entrusts himself to his bateau ivre, his understudy tries to follow the advice of Jean Paul, who suggested that on the way one should gather and record no only visual images but old prefaces and playbills, railway- station gossip, epics and battles, funerary and metaphysical inscriptions, newspaper clippings, and notices pinned up in taverns and parish halls. Memories, impressions, reflections and landscapes on a voyage to the Orient, announces a title of Lamartine’s. Reflections and impressions of whom? one may ask. When we travel alone, as happens only too often, we have to pay our way out of our own pocket; but occasionally life is good to us, and enables us to see the world, if only in brief snatches of time, with those four or five friends who will bear us witness on the Day of Judgment, and speak in our name.

Between one trip and the next we attempt to transfer the bulging files of notes onto the flat surface of paper, to get the bundles of stuff, the note-pads, the leaflets and the catalogues, down onto typewritten sheets. Literature as moving house; and as in every change of address something is lost and something else turns up in a “safe place” we had forgotten about. Indeed, we go almost like orphans, says Hölderlin in his poem on the sources of the Danube: the river flows on glittering in the sunlight, like the non-existent luminous spots on the wall, the neon dazzle.

A tremor of nothingness sets fire to things, the tin cans left on the beach and the reflectors of motorcars, just as sunset makes the windows blaze. The river adds up to nothing and travelling is immoral: this is what Weininger said, as he was travelling. But the river is an old Taoist master, and along its banks it gives lessons on the great Wheel and the gaps between its spokes. In every journey there is at least a smattering of the South, with hours of relaxation, of idleness. Heedless of the orphans on its banks the Danube flows down towards the sea, towards the supreme conviction.

Claudio Magris, The Danube, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989

Inge Morath Sulina Canal 1994

Inge Morath, Sulina Canal – Danube Delta, 1994