onsdag den 19. oktober 2022

Henry Von Ofterdingen: A Novel - Novalis (1802)


Henry of Ofterdingen

I have 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.

The 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.

The stories 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.

I suppose 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.

For me 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.

The ending 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 from me.

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