All the Fruit...

by Friedrich Holderlin

English version by Ivan M. Granger
Original Language German

The fruits are ripened, dipped in fire, cooked
and tested by the earth. The law is this:
that all must wind and curl inward like snakes --
prophetic, dreaming
upon the hills of heaven, with much held
on hunched shoulders, like bundled
branches. But the pathways
are perilous. For the chained elements
and the old laws of earth,
like errant horses, run astray, and always out
beyond the boundaries they go, longing. So much
must be borne in steadfastness.
Forward, backward -- neither way
will we look. Instead, we learn to live rocking
like a boat on the sea.

-- from This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World, Edited by Ivan M. Granger

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This poem by Holderlin is visionary and a bit haunting. Phrases like “the chained elements” tell us that the poet is using the language of alchemy, with its ideas of the perfectibility of the world—and the soul—through transformation and the release of its inner essence.

Let's explore this poem with that alchemical perspective in mind.

The fruits are ripened, dipped in fire, cooked...

Ripening, while natural, is at times painful, for it is a pathway of growth and change. The young hard fruit knows only its greenness. To soften and fill with sweet juice requires leaving the old self behind, yielding into an unknown future self.

Similarly, when food is cooked, it must go through searing heat to draw out its flavor. But once cooked, it is complete, ready. The cookfire is the alchemical fire beneath the crucible. It is the heat that purifies and refines, the intensity of life that draws out our spiritual essence, making us ready.

...and tested by the earth.

This is an odd phrase. We don't typically “test” our food, and what would it mean to test it “by the earth”? But by reading these lines through an alchemical lens, we understand that we ourselves are the food being ripened and cooked. It is our own souls that will be tested and strengthened by the world's rough handling.

The law is this:
that all must wind and curl inward like snakes--
prophetic, dreaming
upon the hills of heaven...

These lines evoke in my mind the vision of a cave painting with spirals and creatures turning in on themselves. All things turn inward to their center, hungering to know their very nature. In discovering that inner landscape, they encounter “the hills of heaven.”

I read this poem as a meditation on the struggle of the spiritual seeker engaged in worldly life. Holderlin speaks of shouldering heavy loads and a longing for escape.

So much
must be borne in steadfastness.

The spiritually-minded incline toward an otherworldliness that can make one uniquely vulnerable. The intensity of life experiences can overwhelm and disrupt, making a quick heavenly escape enticing. But we must remember that ripening is patient work, a process of inner opening while interacting with the wider environment.

The challenge is to develop steadiness and the strength to endure our ripening process, letting go of our hardness and old bitterness, while awakening new vision and the sweetness within. Real ripeness requires not escape, but presence and a harmony with the rhythms of life.
Instead, we learn to live rocking like a boat on the sea.

Recommended Books: Friedrich Holderlin

News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness Music of the Sky: An Anthology of Spiritual Poetry Poems of Friedrich Holderlin Holderlin: Selected Poems and Fragments Hymns and Fragments
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All the Fruit...