I first learned of Heinrich von Ofterdingen from Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, which I read years ago while I studied at university.
Sophie’s World introduced me to the philosophical movement of Romanticism, to one of its prominent literary figures – Friedrich von Hardenberg aka Novalis, his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen and, last but not least, to the Blue Flower (die blaue Blume in German).
Romanticism appears to be more than just some sappy feelings of some sentimental fools. It does have a lot of things to do with feelings, what with Romanticism, which is a philosophical movement, having been a reaction against the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, according to Gaarder.
Romanticism dates back in the late 18th Century in Germany, and Romanticists were marked by yearnings they claimed to feel for something distant and unattainable. Their artworks were very much influenced by these yearnings.
Prominent Romanticists include Beethoven, Goethe, William Wordsworth and Novalis. In Indonesia, late painter Raden Saleh was probably the most prominent local figure of the genre.
Gaarder briefly described in Sophie’s World that the term “blue flower” Novalis used in Heinrich von Ofterdingen, published in early 1802, had since then become a key symbol of Romanticism.
The story told about young Heinrich who dreamt about the blue flower which called to him, after which he embarked on a journey, during which he searched for the flower. Novalis died before he finished the novel.
That story hits too close to home, so immediately I was enamored by this Blue Flower thing, which Wikipedia describes as a symbol of Romanticism that “stands for desire, love, and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable“.
You see, for years since I was a kid I’ve been feeling this aching, inexplicable yearning for something that I couldn’t even define, and I could barely discuss it with other people because nobody seems to understand the experience.
Several dreams I had in my late teen enabled me to later identify the object of said yearning, but similar to Heinrich (at least that was what I thought at first), I’ve been searching for it for years to no avail.
Anyway, knowing that some people did have similar experiences, and that they were not just ordinary people but prominent figures like Beethoven and Novalis, I no longer felt alone.
I became quite obsessed with Heinrich von Ofterdingen then, but it took several years before I finally found an original (as opposed to a re-told) part of the story. And it was just the first few paragraphs, most part of which I could easily recite without looking. They go as follow.
The parents have gone to bed and are asleep, the clock on the stairs ticks monotonously, the windows rattle with the wind, the chamber is lit up now and again with fitful gleams of moonlight.
The boy lay tossing on his bed, and thought of the stranger and his talk. “It is not the treasures,” he said to himself, “that have stirred in me such an unspeakable longing; I care not for wealth and riches. But that blue flower I do long to see; it haunts me and I can think and dream of nothing else.
“I never felt so before; it seems as if my past life had been a dream, or as though I had passed in sleep into another world, for in the world that I used to know who would have troubled himself about a flower? Indeed, I never heard tell of such a strange passion for a flower.”
Novalis might as well have talked about my years of muse!
I found a copy of the complete novel in Hamburg in 2010, but it’s in German, and when I bought it I was hoping to finish my German course so that I could read it. I ended up only taking one term of the course, so I never even get to start reading the book.
In 2012, I finally found the English translation, Henry of Ofterdingen (why did they even have to translate ‘Heinrich‘ into ‘Henry‘?), in Amazon.
I was again enthralled by the novel; this time by the Dedication part of the story, which has now made one of my most favorite poems. The feelings expressed feel so genuine; with no exaggeration. You would know this especially after you read the Life of the Author, which makes the introductory part of the novel.
The Dedication poem goes as follows.
Thou didst to life my noble impulse warm
Deep in the spirit of the world to look
And with thy hand a trusting faith I took
Securely bearing me through every storm
With sweet forebodings thou the child didst bless
To mystic meadows leading him away
Stirring his bosom to its finest play
Ideal, thou, of woman’s tenderness
Earth’s vexing trifles shall I not refuse?
Thine is my heart and life eternally
Thy love my being constantly renews!
To art I dedicate myself for thee
For thou, beloved, wilt become the muse
And gentle genius of my poesy
In endless transmutation here below
The hidden might of song our land is greeting
Now blesses us in form of peace unfleeting
And now encircles us with childhood’s glow
She pours an upper light upon the eye
Defines the sentiment for every art
And dwells within the glad or weary heart
To comfort it with wondrous ecstasy
Through her alone I woke to life the truest
And dared to lift my face with joy the newest
Yet was my highest sense with sleep oppressed
Till angel-like thou, loved one, near me flewest
And, kindling in thy look, I found the rest
From the Life of the Author, I learned that Novalis, born in Mansfield, Germany, in 1772, had been described as a silent and inactive child. He only seemed to have been “waken from his slumber” at nine, when he was severely ill and was given stimulants for his recovery.
He studied law, history and science – among other subjects – and made a number of trips for the studies before he met Sophie von Kühn, who became his beloved and whom he got engaged with when she was 13 and he around 24 (it wasn’t considered pedophile back then in late 1700s).
She died just a few days after she turned 15, and less than a month after, Novalis also lost his closest brother Erasmus. Their deaths affected him greatly. Novalis was in deep grief for some time before he suddenly turned joyful again.
His letter to his friend Ludwig Tieck explained it happened after he saw Sophie in a dream.
“It was the first and only dream, and since then I feel an eternal, unchangeable faith in the heaven of night, and its Sun my beloved,” Novalis wrote.
And in his Hymn to the Night, he spoke about this further.
“Praise be to the Queen of the world, the high announcer of holy spheres, the nurse of blessed love! She sends me thee, o dearly beloved, lovely Sun of the night. Now I’m awake, for I am thine and mine; thou has announced to me night as my life… Consume me with a spirit glow, that in ether I may mingle more closely with thee, and be thou my bridal night forever.”
Novalis, though, died at 29, a year after he was supposed to marry his second fiancee.
So Novalis’ blue flower was Sophie. In real life they were never united.
He united young Heinrich with his blue flower Mathilda in Heinrich von Ofterdingen, but she died young, shortly after they got married. Novalis’ death made the novel abruptly ended at the part where Heinrich just had his wedding with Mathilda.
But Tieck, who published the novel posthumously, said Novalis had intended to continue the story with Heinrich embarking on his long adventurous and philosophical journey across many parts of the old world (Jerusalem, etc) and eventually finding his blue flower, which turned into a living Mathilda. It was supposed to be a happy ending, with Heinrich’s magical reunion with his beloved.
Yup, if your own life is such a sad story, why would you write a sad tale? You would most likely want it to have a happy ending, to offset what you can’t obtain in real life.
Upon finishing the novel, I’ve learnt that I’m still alone.
Novalis met his blue flower, and then lost it and made it his inspiration. Heinrich dreamt about his blue flower, found it, united with it, lost it and re-united in the end.
As for me? I was inspired about my blue flower when I was 15, have been dreaming about it since then, and recently thought I finally found it. But probably I’ve been mistaken.
P. S.: Like Sophie’s World, Heinrich von Ofterdingen very much sounds like a long lecture by the author, who used a story-telling technique to transmit his views to his pupils. Nevertheless it still sounds like a boring lecture, which I consider to be a weak point of the novel. Many of the characters’ speeches feel too prolonged, and the speeches, to my opinion, stop the story from flowing easily. Either that or the poor German to English translation.
The novel’s strength lies in its genuine poesy, without dramatizing nor exaggerations; in the old tales re-told by some of the more noble characters in such poetic words they feel ethereal; and, last but not least, in the philosophy of yearning for the infinite that came from the deepest cavity of a mourning heart.
I give the novel 3.5 out of 5.