Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Blue Flower: A sad story

The first of the great Romantic theorists was Friedrich Leopold, Baron von Hardenberg (Novalis) (see left). Wasn't he a pretty boy! Both his looks and his life show him to be a text-book case of a Romantic poet: an intense love affair followed an early death of tuberculosis (like John Keats) (below right).

In 1790-91 he studied law at the University of Jena, where he met the great Friedrich von Schiller (left) and Friedrich Schlegel. By 1793 when the ideas of the French Revolution were sweeping though Germany, he dreamed of a time when ‘the walls of Jericho’ would tumble down. In 1795 he read Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which he considered the Bible of the ‘new age’.

In 1798 he published his Fragments and two years later he published his beautiful Hymns to the Night, dedicated to the memory of his first love, Sophie von Kühn.

Novalis had met Sophie when she was twelve. He became engaged to her a few years later, but she died of tuberculosis in 1797 aged fifteen. After this he saw everything in his life in relation to his lost love. Eight months after her death he began to study mining at the Academy of Freiberg. In 1798 he again became engaged (to Julie von Charpentier) and in 1799 he became (rather unpoetically, you might think) a mine inspector at the saltworks at Weissenfels. He died of tuberculosis in 1801 before he could marry.

The last nine years of his short life was a period of intense creativity in which he attempted to unite poetry, philosophy and science in an allegorical interpretation of the world. In Glaube und Liebe (Faith and Love) (1798), he expresses the belief that universal spirituality will supersede all forms of human government. His romance Heinrich von Ofterdingen (published posthumously in 1802), set in an idealized Middle Ages, was one of the earliest historical novels. It describes (what else?) the romantic searchings of a young poet. The central image of his visions was a mysterious blue flower, the object of his quest, which later became a symbol of longing among the Romantics: what Schiller called ‘exiles pining for a homeland’.
‘ “It's not the treasures I care about" he said to himself "such coveting is miles from my mind, but I long to see the blue flower. I can’t get rid of the idea, it haunts me. I never felt like this before, it’s as if I dreamed of it years ago, or had a vision of it in another world, for who would be so concerned about a flower in this world? And I've never heard of anyone being in love with a flower. … I can’t even express the strange state I'm in. Sometimes rapt in delight......but when I forget about the blue flower, a nameless longing takes possession of me, no one can understand this. I'd think I was mad, if it were not for the fact that my thoughts are so clear and connected, and I understand so many new things. ...” ’ From Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802)
Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful Booker winning novel of 1995, The Blue Flower (scroll down) tells the tragic story of Novalis and Sophie von Kühn. Highly recommended.