The poem begins with the speaker calling out to his friends, urging them to join him at a point high up in the mountains. When his friends arrive, however, they hardly recognize him. He suggests that he has undergone great changes through a constant struggle with himself. He has learned to live in inhospitable climates, and has "unlearned mankind and god, prayer and curse." His friends can't live with him here in the mountains: they are not strong enough for it. He has trained himself to be a hunter, a "wicked archer": his bow is bent so far that the ends touch, and can fire arrows with unimaginable force.
His friends begin to leave, causing the speaker some heartache. He resolves to let these old friends go and await the arrival of new friends. He should not cling to memories: he knew these friends when he was young, and now he is even younger. Friendship, he suggests, fades like words and cannot remain fixed. The distance that now exists between him and his friends is a result of their aging: while he has changed they have not. Now all he can do is sit alone and await new friends.
The speaker concludes by remarking that this song of longing for friendship has now ended. It is time instead for feasting, laughter, and celebration. Joined by Zarathustra, "the guest of guests," they can begin "the wedding...of dark and light."
We can be thankful that Nietzsche wrote better prose than he wrote poetry. His aggressive style makes for exciting prose reading, but it lacks the subtlety and grace we might hope for in poetry. He also has a very narrow poetic range. The entire poem consists of little more than a limited and unsubtle use of symbols that we find more elegantly placed in his prose. For a writer who places so much emphasis on multiple perspectives, this poem strikes the reader as single- minded and unswerving in its course. Perhaps it sounds better in German, but even Walter Kaufmann, the translator, confesses that he dislikes the poem.
The poem can be useful to us in its very clumsiness, as it gives us a rare opportunity to examine Nietzsche's use of symbolism free from its usual ambiguities and subtleties. The poem gives us a portrait of Nietzsche's noble type as sketched in the previous chapter: alone, above the crowd, misunderstood, constantly changing through a process of self-overcoming. (One wonders, though, why Nietzsche's ideal noble type is such a lousy poet.)
Mountain heights have both a symbolic and an autobiographical significance to Nietzsche. His discussion of "high" and "low" is over- used so much that it is tedious even in his prose. The master is "higher" than the slave, and so can look "down" in contempt. Hatred, ressentiment, envy, jealousy, etc., are all feelings expressed by someone looking "up." The theme of "going down" is "rising above" is also played upon very heavily in ##Thus Spoke Zarathustra##, where they are given extra shading by the "self-overcoming" of the "overman."
Nietzsche was very ill during the 1880s, and he found the clean, mountain air did wonders to improve his health. He spent many of his happiest moments and wrote many of his greatest works in solitude in the Alps. No wonder, then, that he should associate freedom of spirit with heights, and with mountains in particular.
The image of the bent bow also pops up a number of times in Nietzsche's writing. He compares inner struggle and self- overcoming to the bending of a bow, and speaks harshly against democrats and Jesuits for trying to "unbend" this bow. Like the bending of a bow, this struggle creates great inner tension, but, he argues, the tightly bent bow shoots arrows the farthest. This image of the bow also fits in with Nietzsche's conception of humans as a kind of bridge between animal and overman. We are not ends in ourselves: we are merely a means, a bow that must be bent in order to shoot for the overman, our ultimate goal.
Nietzsche also plays frequently with youth and wickedness. He concludes the previous chapter with an affectionate reference to his "wicked thoughts." For Nietzsche, "wicked" is not a negative term, but rather suggests a kind of lightness and slyness, a refusal to remain fixed in place. It would be the perfect adjective to describe a free spirit. That Nietzsche's speaker is a "wicked archer" suggests that he has freed his spirit through a process of self- overcoming. Nietzsche associates this freedom of spirit with youthfulness: one only grows old if one allows oneself to get fixed in place. Thus, as the speaker has grown older chronologically, he has grown younger spiritually.
Lastly, we might remark on the importance of friends to Nietzsche. He lived a very lonely life, and rarely had friends who understood him at all. He longed for a disciple who would not admire him abjectly, but who would be able to engage with his thoughts, criticize them, and move beyond them. Sadly, Nietzsche never found such a disciple, and his "new friends" never arrived.