Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Hölderlin’s madness

Nicolas Robles
Badajoz, Spain


Portrait of Hölderlin
The only representation on which Hölderlin looks people directly in the face – a pastel picture by Franz Karl Hiemerthat that the poet gave to his sister Rieke in 1792. According to his mother and sister, it does not resemble him.

German Literature Archive, Marbach, Germany. Accessed via Wikimedia. Original: Photo archive photo Marburg.

German poet and philosopher Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin was born in Lauffen-am-Neckar (Würtemberg) in the year 1770. His father, a pastor and a schoolmaster, died two years later. When he was four years old, his mother moved to Nürtingen and remarried, but his stepfather also died soon after the marriage. In addition to these losses, his childhood was marked by many other deaths, including his grandparents, four siblings, and an aunt.

His mother wished for him to become a pastor like his father, but the ministry never appealed to him and he only agreed to enter the seminary against his will. In 1788 he arrived at the seminary of Tubingen to study theology, where he formed a friendship with Friedrich Hegel. He enjoyed the study of philosophy and poetry, but theology meant little to him. He was admitted into the evangelical ministry by the Consistory of Stuttgart in 1793, but refused to take a pastoral position despite his mother’s wishes. Because she was unwilling to hand over his inheritance, he became a tutor to the son of Schiller’s friend, Charlotte von Kalb. In 1795, having had an illegitimate child by Charlotte’s companion, he left with his pupil for Jena, but within weeks he had resigned, exhausted by nightly vigils at his pupil’s bedside—the boy was addicted to masturbation. A generous grant from Frau von Kalb allowed him to continue his philosophical studies at the University of Jena, where he met Goethe and Herder and attended the famous course of lectures of the philosopher Fichte. At this time, he translated Ovid’s episode of Phaethon for Schiller’s journal and worked on an early version of his novel Hyperion, the story of a young Greek idealist caught up in his country’s revolt against the Turks.

By the end of 1795, Hölderlin had obtained another tutorial post, this time at Frankfurt am Main, in the house of a merchant called Gontard. Susette Gontard, the merchant’s wife, was a beautiful young woman, greatly admired in the town. She and Hölderlin fell passionately in love. He called her Diotima, after the heroine of his novel. But the following year difficulties arose in their relationship; her husband had discovered their secret, and there was a scene which ended in Hölderlin’s urgent departure.

He went to stay in Hamburg with a friend called Sinclair, but without employment and resources he was forced in 1800, to return once more to his family. He tried to apply for jobs without success. He wrote to Schiller to ask for help but received no reply. At the end of 1801, he left home for Bordeaux to undertake for the last time a tutorial engagement. He appeared at his mother’s house on 7 June, 1802 in a state of obvious derangement. On June 22nd, he received the news of Diotima’s death. It was at this point that the first notable psychopathological episode took place: atypical depression with hallucinations and furious agitation. “I am freezing,” wrote Hölderlin to Schiller in a letter of September 4. “I am freezing in the winter that surrounds me.” Magenau, a friend of Hölderlin, later reported in a letter that “he could no longer speak, he was inaccessible to his fellow men, a living dead. He wasted telling tangled stories about a trip to Rome.” After a time, Hölderlin seemed to recover slightly and was able to do a certain amount of work on poems and translations.

In 1804 with the aid of Sinclair, he obtained the position of librarian to the Landgrave at Homburg. Sinclair, with whom the poet stayed during this time, thought that he was well on the road to recovery and that he only “wore the mask of folly, from time to time, like Hamlet.” But in 1806 he was moved to Tübingen and handed over to Professor Autenrieth, whose clinic was notorious for cruelly ingenious contrivances to control and “cure” the insane. By May of the following year Autenrieth, having concluded that Hölderlin’s illness was incurable and assuming that he had at most three years to live, released him into the care of Ernst Zimmer, a local carpenter. Hölderlin remained in the care of his guardian at Tubingen, in a little room which looked out upon the river Neckar, for thirty-six years. The poet Wilhem Weiblinger described his life inside the small room: “. . . walking up and down from morning till evening in his room, muttering to himself, without ever doing anything of any use. He often gets up at night and walks about the house; he also goes out into the street occasionally. From time to time he goes out for walks with his guardian; or else he scribbles on any pieces of paper that he can get hold of, covering them with phrases which make no sense.”

Susette Gontard, the Diotima of Friedrich Hölderlin
Miniature portrait showing Susette Gontard, the Diotima of Friedrich Hölderlin. From Adolf Beck und Paul Raabe: Hölderlin. Insel-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1970. Accessed via Wikimedia.

The room where Hölderlin was shut up during those thirty years looked out upon a landscape of snowcapped mountain, dark forest, and green valley through which the Neckar flowed. In his madness, he transformed this earthly scene into the unearthly beauty and serenity of the poems of his last days:

Wenn in die Ferne geht der Menschen wohnend Leben
Wo in die Ferne sich erglänzt die Zeit der Reben,
Ist auch dabei des Sommers leer Gefilde,
Der Wald ercheint mit seinen dunklen Bilde.

When into distance pass away
The lives of men,
There in the distance shines the vineyard season
And present are also the empty fields of summer
And the dark image of forest rise up.

Perspectives. Hölderlin’s Madness.

Zimmer, his guardian, once declared: “If he went mad, it was not because he hadn’t enough mind, it was because he had too much. When the vessel is too full, and then one tries to seal it, it has to burst . . .”

Pierre Bertaux1 suggested the “thesis of the noble simulant,” which explained Hölderlin’s “madness” as a Hamlet-like subterfuge designed to shield him from political persecution. This is based on Sinclair’s writing to Hölderlin’s mother in 1804 that “not only me but 6-8 other people as well who have made his acquaintance, are convinced that what looks like mental confusion is . . . in fact a calculated act of simulation.” When in 1805 Sinclair is turned in to the authorities and charged with high treason for participation in a Jacobin conspiracy against the Elector of Württemberg, one of the indicted, Blankenstein, reported that Hölderlin knew of the conspiracy but soon “fell into a sort of madness, hurled insults at Sinclair and the Jacobins and cried out to the astonishment of all present: I am through with all Jacobins. Vive le roi!” Hölderlin was found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. The physician brought in as an expert reported: “During the course of my visits his condition worsened and his speech became more unintelligible. Once his madness reached the point of a constant, wild agitation and his speech became a jumble of German, Greek, and Latin, one could no longer understand him at all.”

In 1901 Paul Julius Möbius, a Leipzig psychiatrist, estimated that “Hölderlin was assigned to 32 years of dementia praecox.” In 1906 he stated that the poet had characteristics of a cyclothymic constitution. The same year, van Vleuten also diagnosed a “dementia praecox catatonica.” But the first documented psychiatric study of Hölderlin’s condition was conducted by the German psychiatrist Wilhelm Lange (or Lange-Eichbaum). After a meticulous clinical analysis, he diagnosed Hölderlin as suffering from an early dementia with catatonic form occurring on a pathological personality (“Psychopathy”), which would have first appeared in 1802.2

The diagnosis of schizophrenia occurring with a schizoid and cyclothymic personality seems well supported.3 The disorder seems to have started at the age of twenty-five (“depression of Jena”), worsened considerably at the age of thirty-two (around the trip to Bordeaux in 1802), and stabilized during his stay with Zimmer. Hölderlin was given the title of “Monsieur le Librarian” and became angry when his real name was used. He claimed not to be called Hölderlin anymore, but Killalusimeno, Buonarotti, or Scardanelli, pseudonyms whose meaning is still unknown but were used to sign poems with fanciful dates. He begin to exhibit further symptoms: autistic withdrawal, inconsistency of thinking, neologisms, depersonalization, and extreme mannerisms, such as giving all visitors titles such as “Holiness,” “Royal Highness,” “General,” “Baron,” and “Pater.” It is likely he had hallucinations and delusions. A visitor who asked him about Diotima was told that she had given him thirteen children; one who became emperor of Russia, another king of Spain, the third sultan, the fourth pope, etc. “And do you know,” he added in Swabian dialect, “she became mad, pretty, mad, mad.” In his retirement visitors reported more bizarre behavior, such as picking up all the rubbish in Zimmer’s yard, striking his handkerchief for hours on the fence, and making bouquets of flowers which he tore up immediately and put in his pockets.

In History of Madness, Foucault locates Hölderlin in the “moment of unreason” that can never be understood “from a positivist conception of madness.” Psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche4 described Hölderlin’s schizophrenic break as the penetrating breakthrough that led to Hyperion and other works of poetic genius. Lange, on the other hand, who also considered Hölderlin a genius, felt that psychosis had a destructive effect on his work.

It is difficult to formally eliminate a psycho-organic syndrome. Rapp and Gmelin found an anomaly in the Ventriculus septi pellucidi on autopsy, but this did not allow for conclusive results. Horowski5 has suggested that Hölderlin could have been the victim of a calomel and cantharidine intoxication administered by his physician, Autenrieth, a notable figure in early nineteenth century German psychiatry, who following the ideals of “Aufklarung” wanted to bring the insane to reason with firmness and severity but without cruelty. Hölderlin was treated with belladonna, digitalis purpurea, wine, mercury (to produce fever), and aloe to combat the weakness from mercury. Chronic mercury poisoning may result from inhalation of mercury vapors, dusts, or volatile organic mercurials, or through the skin absorption of mercury salts. Symptoms may include a metallic taste and excessive production of saliva; inflammation of the membranes of the mouth; loosening of the teeth; the formation of a blue line on the gums; pain, numbness, and tremor in the extremities; loss of weight and appetite; and mental and personality changes marked by depression and a tendency to withdraw. These signs and symptoms are consistent with some of those displayed by Hölderlin.6

Friedrich Hölderlin died peacefully on June 7, 1843 of pleurisy.

Wem einmal, so, wie dir, die ganze Seele beleidiget war, der ruht nicht mehr in einzelner Freude, wer so, wie du, das fade Nichts gefühlt, erheitert in höchstem Geiste sich nur, wer so den Tod erfuhr, wie du, erholt allein sich unter den Göttern

He who, like you, has suffered hurt in his whole soul can no longer rest in solitary joy, he who, like you, has suffered shallow nothingness quickens only in the highest spirit, he who has suffered death, like you, heals among the gods alone.

Hyperion to Berlamin LVI. Hyperion.

Mit Unterthänigkeit



  1. Bertaux P. Friedrich Hölderlin. 1978. Frankfurt am Main. Suhrkamp Verlag.
  2. Lange W.  « Hölderlin. Eine Pathographie », 1909. Stuttgart. Enke.
  3. Géraud M, Bourgeois M. [Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). Réévaluation psychiatrique à l’occasion du cent cinquantenaire de sa mort. Ann Med Psychol (Paris).1994;152(3):173-8.
  4. Laplanche J. :  Hôlderlin et la question du père (3rd edition), Paris. PUF, 1984.
  5. Horowski R. The “Madness” of Friedrich Hölderlin: an iatrogenic intoxication.  J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2017;124(6):761-763.
  6. Bernhoft RA. Mercury Toxicity and Treatment: A Review of the Literature. J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012: 460508. Published online 2011 Dec 22. doi: 10.1155/2012/460508



NICOLAS ROBERTO ROBLES is full professor of Nephrology in the University of Extremadura.


Spring 2020  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

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