The Blue Flower
The sensibility of early German Romanticism seems infinitely distant to us now. The very name Novalis, the pseudonym of the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), sounds like an astronomical explosion on the edge of some remote galaxy. The symbol of the Blue Flower, which he created in his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, was never successfully transplanted into the English-speaking world. As the epitome of German Romantic longing, it was naturalized most convincingly in a delphic entry in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks.
If a man could pass through Paradise in a Dream, & have a Flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, & found that Flower in his hand when he awoke—Aye! and what then?
Novalis’s whole life seems something like that dream. A member of the minor German aristocracy in Thuringia, he fell in love with a twelve-year-old girl (like Dante falling for Beatrice or Petrarch for Laura) who died shortly after their engagement, and having written a mass of philosophic and poetic fragments partly inspired by her (notably the “Hymns to the Night,” 1800), he himself died from consumption at the age of twenty-nine. The five volumes of his Letters and Works (edited by Richard Samuel and Paul Kluckhohn, 1988) have never been fully translated,1 and it is characteristic that perhaps the most beautiful version of the “Hymns to the Night,” by the 1890s poet James Thomson, was only issued in a limited edition in 1995.2 His Fragments, some of them collected in Pollen, give a glimpse into a visionary world, strongly influenced by the extreme idealism of Fichte, and the poetic science or Naturphilosophie of Schelling. “Philosophy is really Homesickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.” “The Sciences must all be made Poetic.” “Man is metaphor.” “Poetry heals the wounds given by Reason.” “Space spills over into Time, like the Body into the Soul.” “Death is the Romantic principle in our lives.” “The World must be romanticized, only thus will we discover its original meaning.”
When Thomas Carlyle first introduced Novalis to English readers in a famous essay of 1829, he excused him as a “Mystic,” and remarked that though his writings showed wonderful depth and originality, Novalis’s mind was “of a nature or habit so abstruse, and altogether different from any-thing we ourselves have notice or experience of, that to penetrate fairly into its essential character, much more to picture it forth in visual distinct-ness, would be an extremely difficult task….”
The attempt to bring back Novalis—or rather young “Fritz” von Hardenberg—into a world of recognizable human feelings and “visual distinctness,” across that great gap of historical time and sensibility, is the subject of a truly remarkable novel by the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald. She puts as her epigraph another of Novalis’s aphorisms: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” And she steps back…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.