Writing Polarities: Romanticism and the Dynamic Unity of Poetry and Science

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The Germanic Review


Das Ewige muss eine Sehnsucht bleiben! Der Mensch braucht den unendlichen Horizont! Aber wehe, er berührt ihn! Wie sollen die Säulen länger das Himmelsdach tragen, wenn alle Polarität ausgelöscht, alles in eins geschmolzen? So wie der Tag die Nacht braucht, das Positive das Negative, der Mann das Weib, so braucht die Unendlichkeit die Endlichkeit. Vernichte den einen Pol – und du hast das Ganze vernichtet! (Thea Dorn, Die Unglückseligen, 209)

These words, spoken by Johann Wilhelm Ritter in Thea Dorn's 2016 novel Die Unglückseligen, circumscribe a distinctive German Romantic engagement with nature. In Dorn's Faustian tale, the Romantic physicist Ritter, who died in 1810, miraculously survives until the present day, complete with his Romantic worldview, for which the perception of polarities is the foundational principle. Day and night, man and woman, finitude and infinity contradict and attract one another in an ever-changing dynamic relationship. The idea of polarity pervades Romantic writing from Schelling to Goethe, from Ritter to Karoline von Günderrode. The essays in this special theme issue investigate how polarity illustrates exemplarily the intimate relationship of poetry and science around 1800. At the time, the two areas were not as strictly separated into different fields as would happen in the later nineteenth century (see Snow). The exploration of nature and the world was not yet codified in the quantitative experimental mode of later disciplines. For many of the Romantics, experimentation in poetry as much as in science were two of the many ways to explore and to romanticize the world, two possible poles of an overall unity. Naturphilosophie (the German philosophico-scientific movement of the first third of the nineteenth century) vied for legitimacy with a rapidly advancing practice of numerous new measuring and documenting technologies (Daston and Galison; Brain). In early Romanticism, experiment and speculation interacted closely and polarity became an encompassing and unifying concept. A formative notion with concrete experimental roots, the model of polarity made poetic and scientific practice two sides of the same investigation of the world. Even the distance between a symbol and its material inscription gave rise to and reformulated polarities, as Friedrich Kittler argued in Discourse Networks: Romantic poetry reflected technologically engendered binaries that emerged from shifts in material practices of reading and writing. The following essays probe the writing of science (cf. Lenoir) in German Romanticism, from experiment to inscription to narrative and poetry.


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Antje Pfannkuchen and Leif Weatherby are Guest Editors of the Special Issue of The Germanic Review, “Writing Polarities: Romanticism and the Dynamic Unity of Poetry and Science,” Volume 92, Number 4, 2017.



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