Hölderlin’s question is repeated time and time again. Its repetition confirms it as a desperate question, as well as ensuring an unending stream of answers. It is remarkable, however, that in isolating this question—in reducing it simply to its first two words in German, wozu Dichter [‘why poets’]—one risks rashly distancing oneself from Hölderlin’s thought.
He does little to isolate this question himself, so that it might effectively be read in his text as a simple subordinate to the preceding clause:
Weiß ich nicht, und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit.1 I do not know why there are poets in a time of need.
Here, everything is a question of syntax and punctuation. On the one hand it is certain that “I do not know” already has the preceding clauses as complements since the text reads:
Indessen dünket mir öftersBesser zu schlafen, wie so ohne Genossen zu seyn,So zu harren und was zu thun indeß und zu sagen,Weiß ich nicht, und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit. [End Page 9]
Often it seems to meBetter to sleep than to be thus without companionsThus always waiting, but what to do and what to sayI do not know, and why poets in a time of need.2
The presence of a question mark at the end of the last verse under consideration (followed by two more in stanza 7 of the poem) seems justified in the manuscript, but it has not prevented German editors—before the most recent transcription of the manuscripts—from occasionally omitting it. This omission is understandable if one clearly comprehends the role of the main clause, performed by “I do not know,” in relation to that which precedes and follows it. On the other hand, the question marks that are occasionally found—at least in French translations—after “to do” [faire] and “to say” [dire] are assuredly added to the text.
Of course, it is also perfectly reasonable to read a break after “I do not know,” and then the beginning of a question: ‘I, a poet, do not know… and for that matter, why poets?’ (or ‘why a poet?’—in German one cannot distinguish the number in this case, though the rest of the stanza would seem to indicate the plural). One would also be correct in thinking that the question mark comes to Hölderlin in deterministic fashion and makes him decide almost involuntarily on the rupture, even though he first wrote “and why…” by building on that which precedes it in the text.
The French translator could object, on the hypothesis of subordination, that one would expect a ‘nor’ rather than “and” before the “why”: ‘nor why poets…’ However, the rules of usage for French do not always hold true for German, especially in poetry, as here this “and” is tied to the preceding one: “what to do and what to say… and why…” More precisely, in this case the German has a single was [‘what’]) as the complement of “to do” and “to say,” which would prevent or make it more problematic, for while ‘nor’ can be expressed in various ways—weder…noch, auch nicht—it cannot be written in as economical a way as in the French [ni].
All of this minutia soon becomes tiresome. What should be taken from it is that the emotional emphasis on the desperate and anxious question is not nearly as marked as we are accustomed to seeing in the arbitrary selection of a single half of a single verse of poetry. The exaggeration of the isolated question belies the appeal of the text and misplaces the accent of its anxiety.
The same can be said for the word dürftig. Though often translated as ‘of distress,’ the word ‘need’ [indigence]3 seems more appropriate, including its social connotation. [End Page 10]
To these remarks on the words of the verse itself, one must add two others on its context.
On the one hand, stanza 7 of Bread and Wine does not end on this verse. It continues on in a final couplet that reads: