Hymnen an die Nacht, 1800 (Hymns to the Night, 1897, 1948)
Geistliche Lieder, 1802 (Devotional Songs, 1910)
Die Lehrlinge zu Sais, 1802 (The Disciples at Sais, 1903)
Heinrich von Ofterdingen, 1802 (Henry of Ofterdingen, 1842)
Glauben und Liebe, 1798
Die Christenheit oder Europa, 1826 (Christianity or Europe, 1844)
Pollen and Fragments: Selected Poetry and Prose of Novalis, 1989
Novalis (noh-VAHL-uhs) was a highly original German poet and thinker and a central figure in the history of German Romanticism. Born Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, the son of an old and noble family, he showed literary interests at an early age. By 1789 he had met Gottfried Bürger, the author of Lenore (1774), and had begun writing verses of his own.
After attending Gymnasium, Novalis studied law at the University of Jena in 1791. There he met Friedrich Schiller. who profoundly impressed him; a poem written at this time, “Klagen eines Jünglings” (lament of a youth), shows Schiller’s influence. In October, 1791, Novalis left Jena and went to the University of Leipzig, where he remained until March, 1793. During this period he became friends with Friedrich Schlegel. Although this association was difficult and strained at times, Schlegel’s intellectual influence contributed greatly to Novalis’s development.
In May, 1793, Novalis entered the University of Wittenberg, where he received his law degree in June, 1794. He thereupon became a law clerk in the small town of Tennstedt. On November 17, 1794, on the occasion of an official visit to Grüningen Castle, he met the twelve-and-a-half-year-old Sophie von Kühn, a meeting that was to be the most important event of his life.
By his own account, Novalis immediately fell in love with the young girl, and in March, 1795, they became engaged. In November of that year, however, Sophie became ill, and on March 19, 1797, at the age of fifteen, she died of tuberculosis and liver disease. Even before her death, Novalis had begun to see her as the embodiment and symbol of transcendent love. The following May 13 of that year he had a mystical experience at Sophie’s grave which strengthened his sense of her identification with the infinite, the eternal, and the divine. Sophie, as symbol and muse, is present in most of his mature writing.
Throughout the period from 1793 to 1797 Novalis read widely in philosophy. He was particularly influenced by Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Immanuel Kant. In 1798 Novalis published Blütenstaub (pollen), a collection of philosophical aphorisms, many of which show brilliant originality. Novalis’s philosophical preoccupations can also be seen in his The Disciples at Sais, begun in 1798. In this fragmentary novel Novalis combines philosophical discourses with a central fairy tale. The discourses focus on the deep creative powers of nature, while the fairy tale treats two lovers, Hyacinth and Rosebud, who are united, separated, and finally reunited. This ultimate reunion is a symbolic treatment of the soul’s discovery of its own higher, divine self. The tale of Hyacinth and Rosebud is also intended as a symbolic account of Novalis’s experience with Sophie. Although be became engaged to Julie von Charpentier in December of 1798, Novalis remained obsessed with Sophie as both a memory and a symbol.
In July, 1799, Novalis met the young Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck. In Jena, Tieck, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and August Wilhelm Schlegel formed the center of the first German Romantic movement. Novalis devoted much of 1799 to three of his most important works: Devotional Songs, Christianity or Europe, and Hymns to the Night. Devotional Songs is a cycle of religious lyrics in which traditional Christianity is blended with Novalis’s highly personal vision. Christianity or Europe is an essay in which Novalis praises the spiritual unity of medieval Europe, laments the fragmentation of the Reformation and Enlightenment, and longs for a new spiritual unity for modern Europe. Hymns to the Night, published in 1800 by the Schlegel brothers, is considered one of Novalis’s greatest works. In six “hymns” Novalis combines prose poems and metrical verse to develop and celebrate the symbolic significance of night. For Novalis night and death, transfigured by transcendent love, come to be identified with eternity, divinity, the deepest and highest truth, Sophie as the immortal beloved, and Christ. Hymns to the Night was quickly recognized as a defining work for German Romanticism.
Novalis devoted the early months of 1800 to his last major achievement, the symbolic novel Henry of Ofterdingen. Written in part as a reaction against Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1825), this richly Romantic work traces the education of the ideal poet. It also contains the important “Klingsor’s Fairy Tale,” in which is treated the process by which love, wisdom, imagination, and poetry triumph over petrified reason and transform the world. In Henry of Ofterdingen Novalis introduces as a symbol of Romantic yearning a mystical blue flower, which has come to be seen as the central symbol of German Romanticism.
Throughout the period of his greatest literary creativity, Novalis also worked energetically as a governmental official, first as an administrator of salt mines and later as the head of a geological survey in Saxony. Novalis’s philosophical interests also continued during this period, and between 1797 and 1801 he produced hundreds of philosophical fragments, the best of which mark him as an important and original thinker. Novalis became seriously ill in late 1800, and he died on March 25, 1801, of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. Novalis is the most essentially Romantic of the German Romantic writers, and his influence has been international in scope.