A European walk through Bordeaux 2O
37 allées de Tourny.
Originally, the hotel was a Louis XV creation by André Potier. At the request of Daniel Christoph Meyer, the Hamburg consul in Bordeaux who had bought it in 1793, Louis Combes (1757-1818) transformed the Meyer house in 1795-1796 and enhanced it with a peristyle of six columns with Ionic capitals, completed in 1797, making it look very different. It is this new perspective, which marks the end the avenues while offering six columns mirroring the twelve of the Grand Théâtre, that was seen by the German poet Hölderlin in 1802.
In fact, Hölderlin had hesitated before accepting the offer of the post of private tutor for the Hamburg consul, Daniel Christoph Meyer. His fees had to amount to about fifty gold louis, to which would have been added twenty-five gold louis for travel expenses. But the consul asked that the tutor carry out the functions of a “theologian,” and he did not reach a final decision before receiving the reassurance that he would be “temporarily excused from preaching.”
After a gruelling winter journey, passing through Lyon and the mountains of Auvergne, where he thought his last hour had come, Hölderlin crossed the peristyle in front of the Meyer home with its six columns in the morning of 28 January 1802: “My accommodation is almost too beautiful,” he wrote.
The first months of his stay in Bordeaux seemed uneventful. He described the Consul Meyer’s family as “truly excellent people” and he felt “very hopeful among his students.” On 16 April 1802, Hölderlin reassured his mother: “I am as well as I could hope to be.” But on 6 May 1802, after one hundred and two days in Bordeaux, he left in a hurry. His biographers would describe his Bordeaux preceptorship as “the most mysterious of all those that Hölderlin undertook.”
“You will be happy,” had said Consul Meyer on his arrival. In Bordeaux, he learned of the death of his grandmother on 14 February in Nürtingen. His brother said that while he was in Bordeaux he had received a letter from Suzette Gontard – no doubt the only love of his life – telling him “that she was seriously ill, that she had a feeling she would soon die and that she was saying goodbye to him forever.”
Six months after his return to Germany, he wrote in a draft letter: “The powerful element, the fire from heaven, and the silence of men, their life in the wild, their restrictions and contentment – all this has constantly struck me and, as one might speak of a hero, I can safely say that Apollo struck me.”
The only document explaining his mysterious stay in Bordeaux remains his poem Remembrance (Andenken), which Hölderlin wrote probably a year after leaving the banks of the Gironde. With the reminiscences of Ausonius, it remains “one of Hölderlin’s most perfect.”
The northeast blows,
But go now, and greet
the lovely Garonne,
and the gardens of Bordeaux,
from the windy peaks
and vine-covered hills
where the Dardogne
comes down with the great
Garonne; wide as an ocean
the river flows outward.
But the sea takes
and gives memory,
and love fixes the eye diligently,
and poets establish that which endures.
(Translated by James Mitchell)
Hölderlin never forgot his stay. Later, in three drafts of a hymn entitled The Nearest the Best, he sang of the gardens of Gascony.