Novalis (1772–1801)

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Novalis was the pseudonym of Friedrich Leopold Freiherr von Hardenberg, the lyric poet and leader of the early German romanticists. Novalis was born of Pietistic parents on the family estate, Oberwiederstedt, in Saxony. In preparation for a civil service career, he studied jurisprudence, philosophy, chemistry, and mathematics at Jena, Leipzig, and finally at Wittenberg, where he completed his studies in 1794. In Jena, Novalis came under the influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and especially Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Soon afterward he became friendly with Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich von Schelling, and Johann Wilhelm Ritter. While apprenticed to a local official in Tennstedt, Novalis became engaged to thirteen-year-old Sophie von Kühn in 1795. Her death in 1797 reinforced his romantic mysticism and culminated in a poetic transfiguration of his loss, in which his love and his desire to follow her into death are mingled (Hymnen an die Nacht, first published in 1800). From 1796 on, Novalis worked in the administration of the Saxon salt works at Weissenfels. From 1797 to 1799 he studied mining at Freiburg, where he became engaged to Julie von Charpentier. He died at Weissenfels.

With Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis is the most characteristic spokesman of early romanticism. In opposition to the ideals of the Enlightenment and early classicism he presented his vision of the romantic life. In his novelistic fragment Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which was written in opposition to Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, he furnished the age with a poetic description of the poet. The self-consciousness implicit in such an undertaking is characteristic of Novalis. Thinking about his own situation, the poet tries to answer the more general question of the destiny of humankind; the poet is a seer who leads man home. The homelessness presupposed in this theme is also manifest in Novalis's characterization of the modern age as fragmented. By contrast, according to Novalis's idealized picture, the Middle Ages was a time of unity.

These ideas are further developed in Die Christenheit oder Europa (1799), an essay on the history of Western civilization, in which Novalis attacks the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment for having destroyed medieval unity. Also, he proposes that the most important reason for the homelessness of man is simply that he is a finite being. To be finite is to be in search of the infinite, which can be recovered in the depths of the human soul, a concept which develops ideas derived from Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre. Meaning, being, and truth are identified with the absolute ego. When the adept in Die Lehrlinge zu Sais (1798) lifts the veil of Isis that hides the meaning of human existence, he discovers only his true self. At the same time, this discovery is an escape from all that separates man from nature and from others.

The poet, through knowledge of his true self, is intuitively able to grasp the meaning of the world, which is veiled by mechanistic explanations, and to reveal this meaning to others. Poetry is an attempt to draw away the veil of the finite, which hides the mysterious meaning of everything. It thus has an apparently negative effect. The claims of the finite must be destroyed for the sake of the infinite. Romantic irony negates the ordinary significance of things and paves the way for a magic transformation of reality. Novalis's magic idealism may be described as an esoteric game in which relationships are suggested that may seem fantastic but are designed to reveal a higher meaning. The best example of this is Heinrich von Ofterdingen, in which past and present, fairy tale and everyday reality, mingle in such a way that the reader loses his bearings. This loss liberates his imagination. The world reveals its meaning when it is transformed into something man has freely chosen, and the opposition between man and nature is thereby overcome. Salvation lies in the godlike freedom of the artist.

Meaning escapes adequate conceptualization; it can only be hinted at. Fragment and aphorism (Blütenstaub, published in 1798) lend themselves particularly well to this purpose, as they point to meanings beyond themselves which must remain unstated. The romantic's refusal to mediate between the finite and the infinite, his assertion that there is no relationship between mere facts and transcendent meanings, makes it impossible to give any definite content to that reality which is said to be the goal of man's search. The movement toward salvation becomes indistinguishable from a flight into nothingness. Thus, in his Hymnen an die Nacht Novalis celebrates the night, in which all polarities are reconciled, and opposes it to more shallow daya theme taken up by Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and their more recent followers.

See also Enlightenment; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Reformation; Romanticism; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schiller, Friedrich; Schlegel, Friedrich von; Schopenhauer, Arthur.


works by novalis

German Editions

Editions of Novalis's collected works are Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Schlegel, eds., 2 vols. (Berlin, 1802); Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel, eds., 4 vols. (Leipzig, 1929; 2nd ed., Stuttgart, 1960); C. Seeling, ed., 5 vols. (Zürich: Bühl, 1945); and E. Wasmuth, ed., 4 vols. (Heidelberg, 19531957).

For Novalis's philosophical works, see Das philosophische Werke, Richard Samuel, ed., Vol. I (Stuttgart, 1965), the first volume of a projected four-volume critical edition.

English Translations

The Devotional Songs of Novalis. Edited by Bernard Pick. Chicago, 1910. Also contains German text.

Henry of Ofterdingen: A Romance. Cambridge, MA: Owen, 1842.

Hymns to the Night and Other Selected Writings. Translated by C. E. Passage. New York, 1960.

The Novices of Sais. Translated by R. Manheim. New York, 1949.

works on novalis

Biser, E. Abstieg und Auferstehung, Die geistige Welt in Novalis Hymnen an die Nacht. Heidelberg, 1954.

Carlyle, Thomas. "Novalis." In Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, in Works, edited by H. D. Trail. London, 18961899; New York, 18961901.

Dilthey, W. Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung: Lessing, Goethe, Novalis, Hölderlin, 3rd ed. Leipzig, 1910.

Friedell, E. Novalis als Philosoph. Munich, 1904.

Kuhn, H. "Poetische Synthesis oder ein kritischer Versuch über romantische Philosophic und Poesie aus Novalis Fragmenten." Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung (19501951): 161178; 358384.

Küpper, P. Die Zeit als Erlebnis des Novalis. Cologne: Böhlau, 1959.

Rehm, W. Orpheus, Der Dichter und die Toten. Düsseldorf: L. Schwann, 1950.

Karsten Harries (1967)