Novalis (Hardenberg, Friedrich von)

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NOVALIS (HARDENBERG, FRIEDRICH VON) (1772–1801), German Romantic poet and philosopher.

Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg, known by his pen name "Novalis," is one of the best known and best loved of the early German Romantics. Born 2 May 1772 in Oberwiederstedt, Germany, he studied law in Leipzig and Wittenberg, but turned to philosophy, poetry, and the study of sciences while working in directorial posts for the Saxonian salt mines. He was a central figure in the so-called Jena Circle of early German Romanticism, a short-lived but profoundly influential group of intellectuals that included his close friend Friedrich von Schlegel, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Caroline Schlegel (later Schelling), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Friedrich Ernst Daniel Schleiermacher, Dorothea Mendelssohn-Veit Schleiermacher, and Ludwig Tieck. He died of tuberculosis at nearly twenty-nine years of age, in March 1801.

Novalis's life was marked by personal tragedy, close intellectual friendships, and a keen interest in science and in his "practical" job for the saltworks. His love for his fiancée, Sophie von Kühn, who died in 1797 just two days short of her fifteenth birthday and two years after their engagement, has come to epitomize the poet-philosopher's life and work, along with the leitmotif of the "blue flower," the symbol of the object of poetic striving in his famous unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802). His other well-known works include the Geistliche Lieder (1799; Spiritual songs), a group of "songs" that includes the Gesangbuch (Songbook), and Hymnen an die Nacht (1800; Hymns to the Night).

Blütenstaub (1798; Pollen), a collection of literary and philosophical reflections or "fragments" published in the Schlegels' journal Athenäum; Die Lehrlinge zu Sais (1798–1799; The Novices of Sais); and the essays Glauben und Liebe (1798; Faith and Love) and Die Christenheit oder Europa (1799; Christianity or Europe) are among his best-known writings as well. He also began an ambitious collection of material on the sciences, a "Romantic Encyclopedia" that was later given the title Das Allgemeine Brouillon (1798–1799).

Novalis is widely recognized and still best remembered for his literary contributions. A central figure in the early German Romantic movement, he is typically seen as a dreamy, even morbid figure, oriented toward the grave, sad and unearthly, longing to be reunited with his first fiancée. The view of Novalis as an otherwordly mystic is certainly due in part to his poetic rendering of visions of death and transcendence, captured in the remarkable poem cycle Hymns to the Night.

This view has been seriously challenged by recent scholarship that points out that Schlegel and Tieck, who edited the first collection of his works after his death, had much to do with creating this view of Novalis. The facts of his actual life belie the older picture of a love-struck delicate spirit pining for death. In fact, he fell in love and was engaged to be married again. Novalis had a passion for his work and enjoyed the company of a supportive and lively circle of friends. Newer interpretations focus on important aspects of his poetry that manifest a deep concern for the real world, view the universe as vital and alive in all its aspects, and in general embrace rather than reject the practical and the ordinary as well as the spiritual and enchanted aspects of life. A good example of this is the reinterpretation of his famous magical realist novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen as a primarily political novel, the term Novalis himself used to describe it, as opposed to readings that see mainly a Romantic version of the bildungsroman (novel of education).

Scholarship has also begun to recognize Novalis as far more than a gifted poet. His work encompasses philosophy, the sciences, and mathematics, as well as political- and literary-theoretical views. While his fame has rested primarily on his literary works, his philosophy has come to be seen as a serious contribution and/or critical antidote to the German idealist philosophy of the early nineteenth century. In 1796 he wrote to Friedrich von Schlegel that "the study dearest to me is basically named the same as my bride: it is called philosophy—philosophy is the soul of my life and the key to my real self." It was at this time, during the illness and impending death of his first fiancée that Novalis began a serious and important study of the work of the idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814). The resulting "Fichte Studies" have been the focus of philosophical reinterpretation of early German Romanticism, most notably in the work of Manfred Frank (2004), as a core text for the philosophy of that movement, and as a mouthpiece for a post-Kantian philosophical approach that is neither dogmatic nor skeptical. Indeed some scholars have seen the beginnings of a postmodern-sounding semiotic theory in certain aspects of these notes. Others have focused more attention on his later philosophical writings and writings about the sciences, arguing that these works, and especially the theory of magical idealism, are most central to his thought.

Topics that hinge on these interpretive debates include questions about the nature of what can be known, the limits of human knowledge, the possibility of genuine knowledge of the self and others, and metaphysical issues related to debates about vitalism versus mechanism, materialism versus idealism, determinism versus free will, and many others. Whether one reads Novalis as a proto-postmodernist, a critic of German idealism, or a contributor to the Romantic branch of idealism in Germany, it is clear that his philosophical work is as significant as his literary work is brilliant.

See alsoFichte, Johann Gottlieb; Germany; Romanticism; Schlegel, August Wilhelm von.


Frank, Manfred. The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism. Translated by Elizabeth Millán-Zaibert. Albany, N.Y., 2004.

Neubauer, John. Novalis. Boston, 1980.

O'Brien, William Arctander. Novalis: Signs of Revolution. Durham, N.C., 1995.

Pfefferkorn, Kristin. Novalis: A Romantic's Theory of Language and Poetry. New Haven, Conn., 1988.

Seyhan, Azade. Representation and Its Discontents: The Critical Legacy of German Romanticism. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Jane Kneller