In the essay, Poetically Man Dwells, Martin Heidegger explored the meaning of Friedrich Hölderlin's phrase "Poetically Man Dwells." in the broader context of the poem that contains it. Heidegger draws the reader's focus to the true nature of dwelling as not dwelling within a building, but in a broader sense of dwelling on earth. Man can only locate his dwelling on this earth by figuring out the enclosure that contains the earth, an enclosure delineated by the sky. Heidegger thus explains that "man measures out" his dwelling on earth by "an upward-looking measure" and that this "measure gauging brings out the in between" of heaven and earth.

This process of "taking measure" is poetic because the boundary between heaven and earth is not precisely gaugable. The measuring of the heaven and the sky that defines the boundary of man's dwelling on earth does not "consist in clutching or any other kind of grasping but rather in letting come of what has been dealt out."

In other words, he who takes measure of the sky has to content himself with taking in only the appearances emanated by the sky and not its reality. What is perceptible of the sky in sounds and visions is an ever-changing series of sense-illusory images. Seeing only the sky from our earthly perspective, we are treated to the view of its surface that seems the way it does only from our vantage-point, but would appear differently from other vantage-points.

Thus taking measure of heaven as the enclosure of the earthly and the delineator of man's dwelling space is measuring the "unknown and hidden"

"The poet calls, in the sight of the sky, that which in its very self-disclosure causes the appearance of that which conceals itself, and indeed as that which conceals itself."

The sky's appearance conceals forces beyond-the-earth that define the earth, be they are physical phenomena or divine entities. Hölderlin wants to imagine these beyond-earthly forces as divine and that itself might be nothing more than the speculative taking-measure permitted to a poet dealing with the unknown. Here's the lines of Hölderlin's poem that reveal this approach: "A man not unhappily measures himself against the godhead."

Thus when poet records his visions of the sky in a poem, he is not merely sparking out fancy with imaginings. The beautiful visions define man's dwelling in its reality: as being part of world the origin of whose appearances are uncertain and mystifying. If poets use their word to delve into the appearances of things and describe mirages detached from objects, that is because dwelling in the world is ultimately very much like being in the midst of the unknown.

Hölderlin's poem Vista cited at the end of his essay sums up this "taking measure" of our dwelling by showing how images of nature are both real and illusory:

And forest looms, its image darkly showing That Nature paints the seasons so complete, That she abides, but they glide by so fleet

A season like the fall has a certain memorable beauty that feels real to the senses, say the foliage. At the same time, once the season is over, so do the visual signs of its presence suddenly vanish, reminding the dweller of the fleeting nature of the gliding seasons.


Though that last sentence concludes the writeup itself, I would like to offer you a long quotation of Hölderln's poem that Heidegger drew upon to make his case that man dwells poetically. Having read the essay, you will be in the position to "take a measure" of the poem's meaning from Heidegger's perspective (there are others as well), though as Heidegger himself would have said, you won't be quite able to "grasp and clutch" its meaning.

May, if life is sheer toil, а man
Lift his eyes and say: so
I too wish to be? Yes. As long as Kindness,
The Pure, still stays with his heart, man
Not unhappily measures himself
Against the godhead. Is God unknown?
Is he manifest like the sky? I'd sooner
Believe the latter. It is the measure fo man.
Full of merit, yet poetically, man
Dwells on this earth. But no purer
Is the shade of the starry night,
If I might put it so, than
Man, who's called an image of the godhead
Is there a measure on earth? There is

P.S: Heidegger's essay and the included segments of Hölderlin's poetry were translated by Albert Hofstadter. They are part of an anthology of Heidegger's essays entitled "Poetry, Language, and Thought."

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