The Blue Flower
“The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion of something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.”
~”To---” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Thus begins a collection of stories, published in 1902, by Henry van Dyke entitled The Blue Flower. Shelley’s lines are appropriately chosen to open a book of this title since they elegantly capture the literary significance of “the blue flower” as a symbol. The blue flower in literature has come to represent inspiration, longing for the beautiful, for the presently unattainable, for that which is beyond. It has connotations of desire and love, the divine, the striving for the metaphysical, and hope.
Penelope Fitzgerald published another book entitled The Blue Flower in 1995, which was a literary sensation. Fitzgerald’s historical fiction novel is based upon the life of Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known by his pen name, Novalis. In his brief twenty-nine years, Novalis became an early German Romantic philosopher, poet, mystic, and novelist. Novalis is credited for first using “the blue flower” as the symbol it is today in his novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which describes the romantic longings of a young poet. He renders the flower into an image of what we desire that exists just beyond this life.
C.S. Lewis discusses his lifelong relationship with the blue flower in his autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy. At the age of six, Lewis had his first encounter with what he calls “joy,” when he was first overcome by unreachable beauty. Lewis was seated in his Ulster classroom, gazing longingly at the Castlereagh Hills through the windows beyond. The sensation this image provoked made him forever what he called a “votary of the Blue Flower.” Lewis connects the blue flower with the German word sehnsucht, meaning “longing,” or “intensely missing” and states that “this intense longing for things transcendent” is what made him “a votary of the Blue Flower.”
It is interesting to do a little research on the meanings of “votary.” I especially like the definitions offered by the Collins Dictionary:
1. a person bound by a vow or promise, esp. one bound to religious vows, as a monk or nun
2. a person devoted to a particular religion or object of worship; devout worshiper
3. a devoted or ardent supporter, as of a cause, ideal, etc.
By these definitions, I would have to declare that I, too, am a “votary of the Blue Flower.” Perhaps you are also. The blue flower is that feeling that arrests us during an encounter with beauty, with the divine or transcendent, that we are missing something, even while we can’t quite identify what that something is: that we are conscious of but a little. We’re glad to be perceiving it at all, but we desire more. It’s that which lies just beyond our grasp. For Lewis, and in my own life, this unattainability is not a source of sorrow. It is a message of hope. There is the sense that there is some deep essence of which we currently perceive only a very small part, an admiration of a microcosm, while we crave the whole. As dissatisfying as this compulsory and insatiable yearning can be, there is something sumptuous about its mystery and the way it compels us to seek, to pay homage, and to never stop seeking and paying homage to the beautiful and the sublime. Unlike Gatsby’s green light, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s symbol of the beautiful unattainable, through which Gatsby hankers after a tangible ideal, destined to disappoint, the blue flower draws us on to something intangible beyond this life: something real, more real than our current understanding of reality.
Without expressly referencing “the blue flower,” a devotion for it nonetheless pervades the work of countless authors, poets, artists, and philosophers. Each draws their own conclusions as to the source of this longing or prefer simply to attempt to put into words what generally defies language. Virginia Woolf’s writing is saturated with attempts to apprehend the blue flower. She writes frequently about a kind of “cotton wool” that our minds are too easily enveloped by, that we see things (beautiful, truer things), often as if we are seeing them through cotton wool: never clearly, only arriving at a shadowy sense of their proportions and substance. In her gorgeous autobiographical work, Moments of Being, falls one such reference to the cotton wool. Woolf explains:
“It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; [...].
From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate a constant idea of mine; that
behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings are connected
with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of that work of art.” (72)
Behind the cotton wool that obstructs our view like gauze over the eyes, Woolf discerns a pattern, and when she feels, through her writing, that this pattern is becoming revealed, she experiences “rapture.” That sounds like a moment of transcendence that leaves a thirst to uncover more, a moment of blue flower baptism.
Again, in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf mentions something important that alludes, that is obscured. “A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life” (202).
Woolf has the sense that this desired thing, this longed after reality, is made of permanence.
“There is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change,
and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the
flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she
had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is
made that endures” To the Lighthouse (105).
I find it especially fascinating reading Woolf’s descriptions of encounters with the blue flower considering that she, herself, would not have considered herself a spiritual person. She was an atheist, born to atheists. And yet, her whole life she longed after the transcendent and embedded that longing in all of her works, both fiction and autobiographical.
C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Lewis’s penchant for the blue flower puzzled him for a good portion of his early life, while he was an atheist. When he converted to Christianity in his 30s, suddenly this lifelong pursuit of beauty and that which is beyond the veil, this business of the blue flower, made utter sense. He longed for more than what the eye can discern, for the beyondness of things, because this world is not all that there is. Each moment of transcendence is like the whisper of the divine reminding us that there is more. And although that knowledge leaves us in a state of desiring after, rather than full and total contentment, it does not leave us without hope. It is a promise of glory to come.
“A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.” ~Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
“And so I fell in love with a color -- in this case, the color blue -- as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
Well, and what of it? A voluntary delusion, you might say. That each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe. How could all the shreds of blue garbage bags stuck in brambles, or the bright blue tarps flapping over every shanty and fish stand in the world, be, in essence, the fingerprints of God? I will try to explain this.” ~Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2).