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."