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The Heartbreak of Hans Christian Andersen

Of turning sorrow into song.

The Heartbreak of Hans Christian Andersen

Harriet Hosmer — whose remarkable forgotten story I tell in Figuring (public library), from which this essay too is adapted — was not yet thirty when she became the world’s first successful female sculptor, claimed a place for American art in the European pantheon, and furnished queer culture with a bold new vocabulary of being. Her studio in Rome became a pilgrimage site for royalty and luminaries, drawing such esteemed admirers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Maria Mitchell, the Prince of Wales, the Crown Princess of Germany, and the exiled queen of Naples (who would become Hosmer’s lover).

Among her famous visitors was Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805–August 4, 1875) — a man of supreme storytelling genius and aching self-alienation, which Hosmer instantly intuited. In a letter home, she described Andersen as “a tall, gaunt figure of the Lincoln type with long, straight, black hair, shading a face striking because of its sweetness and sadness,” adding that “it was perhaps by reason of the very bitterness of his struggles, that he loved to dwell among the more kindly fairies in whose world he found no touch of hard humanity.”

Hans Christian Andersen (Portrait by Christian Albrecht Jensen, 1836)

Andersen’s struggles were ones of a heart unsettled, ambivalent, at war with itself. By all biographical evidence, he died a virgin. For years, he was infatuated with the Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind, but his great erotic love was reserved for Edvard Collin — a boyhood beloved who remained the single most intense emotional relationship throughout Andersen’s life. “The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery,” he wrote to Edvard, who left in his memoir a forlorn record of the dual heartbreak that scars all such relationships between people who love each other deeply but differently: “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.” Andersen was unambiguous about both his feelings and his suffering, writing to Edvard with heart-rending plaintiveness:

I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman.

Jenny Lind, on the other hand, was a woman of the highest caliber of femininity, and one of the most successful women artists of her time. Andersen sent her passionate, pouting letters, then wrote his classic story “The Nightingale” out of his frustrated reverence shortly before making an awkward marriage proposal in a letter handed to her on a train platform. The tale didn’t earn him Lind’s reciprocity, but it earned her the monicker “the Swedish Nightingale.”

Jenny Lind (Portrait by Eduard Magnus, 1862)

To make art out of heartache is, of course, the most beautiful thing one could do with one’s sorrow, as well as the most generous — no artist knows how the transfiguration of their pain into beauty will salve another heart, give another sorrower the language of their own truth, the vessel for navigating their own experience.

Across the Atlantic, Andersen’s heartbreak-fermented fairy tales furnished the language of understanding between two other deeply entwined hearts. Susan Gilbert — the love of Emily Dickinson’s life, to whom the poet had written those electrifying love letters — had married Emily’s brother to be near her. Having managed marital celibacy for an impressive five years, Susan eventually gave birth to her first child. That season, Dickinson sent to her editor a famed cryptic letter on the meaning of which biographers would speculate for centuries to come, telling him of some great unnamed and perhaps unnameable hurt:

I had a terror… I could tell to none, and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid.

Illustration for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” by Ukrainian artist Georgi Ivanovich Narbut, 1912.

Not a “fright,” not a “shock,” but a terror. Whether or not she was the cause, Susan knew of Emily’s suffering and suffered in consonance, for any two hearts bound by love are also bound to share in sorrow. Drawing on an image from Andersen’s fairy tale “The Nightingale and the Rose” — which in turn drew, as most of his fairy tales did, on the terrors of his own unmet heart — Susan captured the parallel heartbreak of their impossible love in a letter apologizing for turning away from Emily’s kiss:

If you have suffered this past Summer — I am sorry — I Emily bear a sorrow that I never uncover — If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we?

Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert

Complement this fragment of Figuring with Andersen’s arresting account of climbing Vesuvius during an eruption and the most beautiful illustrations from 150 years of his fairy tales, then revisit Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his friend and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, penned in the same era and pained with the same sorrow.


A Curious Herbal: Gorgeous Illustrations from Elizabeth Blackwell’s 18th-Century Encyclopedia of Medicinal Botany

Time-travel to the dawn of modern medical science via the stunning art of a self-taught woman illustrator and botanist.

A century before botany swung open the backdoor to science for Victorian women and ignited the craze for herbaria — none more enchanting than the adolescent Emily Dickinson’s forgotten herbarium — a Scottish woman by the name of Elizabeth Blackwell (1707–1758) published, against all cultural odds, an ambitious and scrumptiously illustrated guide to medicinal plants, titled A Curious Herbal: Containing Five Hundred Cuts of the Most Useful Plants Which Are Now Used in the Practice of Physick (public library).

Elizabeth Blackwell

Blackwell — not to be confused with the 19th-century physician of the same name, who became the first woman to earn a medical degree from an American university — was not yet thirty when she began the project. It was a rare triumph of turning desperation into inspiration, or what Audre Lorde called turning fear into fire for creative work: Impoverished beyond imagination, with her husband in debtor’s prison and a young child to care for at home, Blackwell decided to enlist her early training in painting — women’s access to formal education was still centuries ahead — in saving her family. But she didn’t yet know exactly how.

After befriending the head curator Chelsea Physic Garden — a teaching facility for apprentice apothecaries established several decades earlier — she realized that there was a need for a handbook depicting and describing the garden’s new collection of mysterious plants from the New World. A keen observer, a gifted artist, and an entrepreneur by nature, she set about bridging the world’s need and her own.

Pomegranate. (Available as a print.)

Blackwell took rooms near the garden and began painting the plants as she saw them. She then took the drawings to her husband’s cell and had him supply each plant’s name in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. (The Linnaean classification system did not yet exist — Carl Linnaeus, born the same year as Blackwell, was yet to revolutionize taxonomy with his binomial nomenclature.) After producing an astonishing 500 drawings — many of species now endangered or altogether extinct, species falling out of our dictionary and imagination — she engraved the copper printing plates for the images and text herself, and hand-colored the illustrations.

Saffron. (Available as a print.)
Red poppy. (Available as a print.)
Dandelion. (Available as a print.)
Iris. (Available as a print.)

In 1737, just around her thirtieth birthday, Elizabeth Blackwell began publishing A Curious Herbal, which has since been digitized by the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library — one of the most inspired and inspiring digital scholarship initiatives.

I have restored a selection of her gorgeous illustrations and made them available as prints, benefiting The Nature Conservancy to support their noble, necessary work of preserving our planet’s biodiversity.

Fig. (Available as a print.)

Punctuating the pictorial splendor are the fascinating fossils of modern medicine — folk remedies like the use of cucumber seeds to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections, stinging nettles to stop internal bleeding and counter coughs, mistletoe (now studied for its capacity to shrink tumors) to fight “convulsion fits, the apoplexy, palsy, and vertigo,” and the world’s first mass-market antidepressant: St. John’s Wort to allay “melancholy and madness.”

Mistletoe. (Available as a print.)
Coffee. (Available as a print.)

Across from her illustration of the coffee plant, Blackwell explains:

Accounted good for those who are of a cold, flegmatic constitution. But for persons of a thin, hot and dry temperament, the drinking it too much may bring on them nervous distempers.

Radiating from the pages is also the welcome disorientation of time travel, deconditioning our habit of mistaking today’s culturally constructed commonplaces for ahistorical givens: Blackwell’s bright-red tomato blazes the reminder that this plant — so common today as to be commonplace the world over — was then an exotic native of the New World, known in the Old World as love-apple.

Tomato, or Love-Apple. (Available as a print.)
Hot pepper, or Guinea pepper. (Available as a print.)

Against this botanical backdrop of cultural change arise certain cultural constants — under the entry for Agnus castus, commonly known as chaste tree for the belief that it preserves chastity, Blackwell wryly remarks, as every human culture has always remarked on its own moral collapse under the forces of progress, that “this age has left that medicine out of the dispensatory as useless.” (I am reminded of James Baldwin’s incisive remarks on Shakespeare: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” The past is better. The past is worse. Our misplaced historical nostalgia is a hideout for the terror of our own temporality and the concession that our present is always someone else’s past, both better and worse.)

Cucumber. (Available as a print.)

Blackwell’s book did for plants what Sarah Stone would do for animals a generation later with her trailblazing natural history illustrations of exotic species. The handsome two-volume set, featuring hundreds of Blackwell’s hand-colored full-page engravings, was embraced by the medical community and lauded by the Royal College of Physicians. With the revenues, she was able to secure her husband’s release from prison. Outliving both Elizabeth and her husband, the book remained in print for decades — a rarity in the era’s ecosystem of publishing. Sir Joseph Banks — who christened Australia’s Botany Bay after alighting there with Captain Cook and who would become president of the Royal Society twenty years after Blackwell’s death — cherished his copy of her book and bequeathed it to the British Library. As Blackwell’s illustrated botany made its way across Europe, it eventually reached Linnaeus himself, who came to admire her work so ardently that he gave her the affectionate nickname Botanica Blackwellia.

Grapevine. (Available as a print.)
Quince. (Available as a print.)

Complement with the stunning algae cyanotypes of the self-taught Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who more than a century after Blackwell and shortly after the invention of photography became the first person to publish a scientific book illustrated with photographic images, then revisit poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s wondrous 19th-century illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees and French artist Paul Sougy’s vibrant mid-twentieth-century scientific diagrams of plants, animals, and the human body.


Bach and the Cosmos of Belonging: Michael Pollan on How the Transcendent Power of Music Allays the Loneliness of Being and the Ache of Regret

“Opened to the music, I became first the strings… and then the breeze of sound flowing past as it crossed the lips of the instrument and went out to meet the world, beginning its lonely transit of the universe.”

Bach and the Cosmos of Belonging: Michael Pollan on How the Transcendent Power of Music Allays the Loneliness of Being and the Ache of Regret

Some of humanity’s greatest writers have extolled the singular enchantment of music. Walt Whitman considered it the profoundest expression of nature. Maurice Sendak found in its fusion of fantasy and feeling the key to great storytelling. “Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed with his characteristic drama of finality. Music can save a life, allay the shock of death, and permeate the living flesh of memory. “After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote in contemplating the transcendent power of music two decades before he swung open the doors to transcendence in a different way, as charioteer in the first wave of the psychedelic revolution. Huxley discovered in psychedelics a kindred portal into the inexpressible — or what William James identified as the first of his four features of transcendent experiences: ineffability — that peculiar state of surrender — in which regions of consciousness unconquerable by thought, inaccessible by its arsenal of language, begin to emerge and to expand our understanding of reality through what Whitman celebrated as “dainty abandon.”

Illustration by Margaret Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Available as a print)

A century and a half after Whitman and a turn of the cultural cycle after Huxley, Michael Pollan revisits the transcendent, ineffable common ground between music and psychedelics in How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (public library) — a rigorously researched and sensitively reasoned inquiry into the neurophysiology, phenomenology, and inner poetry of transcendence.

During his first experience with psilocybin, Pollan asked his facilitator to put on a Bach cello suite in D minor, performed — reanimated, rather — by Yo-Yo Ma. He had heard the spare, melancholy suite many times before, usually at funerals, but had “never truly listened to it” — until that moment. With a poet’s access to the language of inner quickening, the language of the ineffable beyond the ripening of thought and feeling in ordinary consciousness, where the deepest and most mysterious substance of being lies, Pollan recounts the experience:

I lost whatever ability I still had to distinguish subject from object, tell apart what remained of me and what was Bach’s music. Instead of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, egoless and one with all it beheld, I became a transparent ear, indistinguishable from the stream of sound that flooded my consciousness until there was nothing else in it, not even a dry tiny corner in which to plant an I and observe. Opened to the music, I became first the strings, could feel on my skin the exquisite friction of the horsehair rubbing over me, and then the breeze of sound flowing past as it crossed the lips of the instrument and went out to meet the world, beginning its lonely transit of the universe. Then I passed down into the resonant black well of space inside the cello, the vibrating envelope of air formed by the curves of its spruce roof and maple walls. The instrument’s wooden interior formed a mouth capable of unparalleled eloquence — indeed, of articulating everything a human could conceive. But the cello’s interior also formed a room to write in and a skull in which to think and I was now it, with no remainder.

So I became the cello and mourned with it for the twenty or so minutes it took for that piece to, well, change everything. Or so it seemed; now, its vibrations subsiding, I’m less certain. But for the duration of those exquisite moments, Bach’s cello suite had had the unmistakable effect of reconciling me to death… Having let go of the rope of self and slipped into the warm waters of this worldly beauty — Bach’s sublime music, I mean, and Yo-Yo Ma’s bow caressing those four strings suspended over that envelope of air — I felt as though I’d passed beyond the reach of suffering and regret.

Illustration by Margaret Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Available as a print)

Complement this fragment of How to Change Your Mind — a symphonic read in its totality, and one of the most timeless books of its year — with Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of poet Mark Strand’s “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” and German philosopher Joseph Pieper, writing in Huxley’s age and with uncommonly lyrical lucidity, on how Bach will save your soul.


Virginia Woolf on Why We Read and What Great Works of Art Have in Common

“Our minds are all threaded together… Any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.”

Virginia Woolf on Why We Read and What Great Works of Art Have in Common

Patti Smith listed among her criteria for a literary masterpiece that it must leave one so enchanted as to feel “immediately obliged to reread it.” Susan Sontag considered rereading an act of rebirth. I attest to this readily with my habit of rereading The Little Prince once a year every year, each time finding in it new revelations of meaning, new existential salve for whatever is ailing my life at that particular moment. We reread beloved books because on some level we recognize the temporality of all experience and the temporariness of the confluence of states and circumstances comprising the self at any given moment — we recognize that next year’s self will outgrow last year’s self and move on to a whole new set of challenges, hopes, and priorities, becoming, in some essential sense, a whole new self.

Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was only twenty-one when she recorded this recognition with uncommon lucidity of mind and luminosity of language.

Virginia Woolf

In the summer of 1903, Woolf took two months’ respite from London’s bustle in the blue-green spaciousness of the English countryside, enjoying “a very free out of door life” and reading voraciously. “I read more during these 8 weeks in the country than in six London months perhaps.” Under the twin luxuries of time for reading and space for reflection, she arrived at a revelatory new understanding of why it is we read at all — what books do for the human spirit, how they furnish what Iris Murdoch would call “an occasion for unselfing,” and how they can perform the astonishing acrobatics of arising from one consciousness and reaching another — thousands, millions of others, across time and space — on such an intimate level, and in the process interleaving those myriad different consciousnesses into a shared wilderness of experience.

On the first of July, she writes in her diary:

I read a great deal… Besides this I write… But the books are the things that I enjoy — on the whole — most. I feel sometimes for hours together as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger & larger, throbbing quicker & quicker with new blood — & there is no more delicious sensation than this. I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before. I seem to feel Napoleons influence on our quiet evening in the garden for instance — I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together — how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.

Art by Lia Halloran from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Later in life, Woolf would return to this realization in her exquisite account of the epiphany in which she understood what it means to be an artist, writing:

Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.

And yet, even at twenty-one, she understood how momentary these glimpses of elemental truth are — how easily this sense of inter-belonging, this thing-itselfness of being, slips out of our grasp. She continues the same 1903 diary entry with the swift pivot — as swift as the mind’s — from this awareness that “all the world is mind” to the habitual loss of perspective as the cotton wool drops over our eyes and unworlds us once more:

Then I read a poem say — & the same thing is repeated. I feel as though I had grasped the central meaning of the world, & all these poets & historians & philosophers were only following out paths branching from that centre in which I stand. And then — some speck of dust gets into my machine I suppose, & the whole thing goes wrong again.

Art by Shaun Tan from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

More than a decade later, Woolf refined the sentiment in one of the extraordinary essays she composed during her quarter century as a critic for the Times Literary Supplement, newly collected in Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read (public library) — a book which, had I not been too consumed by rereading beloved books of yore to realize its publication, I would have ardently included among my favorite books of 2019.

Like the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, whose contemplative criticism uses books less as specimens for review than as springboards for soaring meditations on life and art, Woolf treats each book she reviews as a stone dropped from the coat-pocket into the Ouse of life, observing first its essential stoneness of form and then the widening circles of understanding rippling into the river of consciousness. Into the first essay from the collection, writing about Charlotte Brontë’s novels, Woolf nestles this exquisite insight into what makes a great work of art — the kind to which we keep returning again and again:

There is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on why we read, André Gide on the five elements of a great work of art, and the young poet May Sarton’s arresting account of meeting Woolf, then revisit Woolf’s own arresting account of a total solar eclipse and her abiding insight into illness, love, gender, writing and self-doubt, and the relationship between loneliness and creativity.


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