Henry of Ofterdingen
never really understood the concept of poetry.
I get it as
far as it being an attempt to condense something, usually intangible, into
verse and that you are supposed to feel it rather than understand it. Which
actually to me sounds like the definition of art as a concept. My problem is
that it usually does not touch me and often strikes me as so much sophism and
form that I find it hard to take seriously. I know, this is a philistine viewpoint,
and I will likely take a lot of heat for it, but there it is. To me, it is like
watching dancing: probably fun to be a part of but leaves me cold and
non-plussed to look at.
This is a
problem when reading Novalis’ “Henry of Ofterdingen”. This is a book that seems
to be intended as a manifest for poetry. Novalis tries to describe to role and
search of the poet, and define what poetry is and should do. Not in some
positivistic, practical sense, but by setting up a spiritual framework that
most of all sounds like a cult.
framework of the story is that of a young man, Henry, who is travelling from
his home in Thuringia with his mother to her father’s court in Augsburg,
Bavaria. This is a boy with poetic aspirations and underway he encounters numerous
characters who tell him instructive stories or instruct him directly in how
poetry work. The stories are rather lengthy and with a clear sense that it is
these and not the real-life voyage of Henry that is the agenda of the book.
range from fairy tales over real-life stories to mythological fables of which
the last ones are of a nature that I hardly know what is up or down in them and
much less what the point is. Recounting these seem pointless. It is easier with
the real-life stories such as those of the miner and the knight. They do make
some sense, but again, they are supposed to drive a point that eludes me.
that if I had been into poetry and really cared for it, this might have been a
gold mine and this is exactly what this text is considered to be. Almost the
defining text on the romanticism of early nineteenth century. I can just imagine
wannabe poets poring over this text and trying to find that spot where it all
makes sense. Proselytes into this mishmash cult of Christianity, Hellenisms,
nature and beauty.
however it comes across as a mess. In terms of catching the ephemeral, the intangible
essence I am far more a subscriber to the Proustian style. Marcel Proust had
much less need for a mythology and mysticism to formulate his images and it
seems to me more straight forward and obvious that the dramatic complexity of
the systems Novalis sets up.
Or maybe I
have just misunderstood the whole thing.
is rather peculiar. The story comes to an abrupt stop and in a post-script, a
friend of Novalis tries to summarize what was to come next, hinting that we
only got the first one and a half chapters of a five chapter long epic. For a
while I thought this was an artificial tool of Novalis, like Diderot would use,
but it seems to be genuine enough, making this an unfinished novel.
I am not
certain I would need to read the remaining chapters of the story. I get the
picture and think I will leave it to others to use this text. It is not a recommendation