Novalis was the pseudonym of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (May 2, 1772 – March 25, 1801), a poet, author, and philosopher of early German Romanticism.
Novalis was born in Oberwiederstedt manor (now part of Arnstein, Saxony-Anhalt), in the Harz mountains. Hardenberg suffered from tuberculosis, and on March 25, 1801, he died in Weißenfels. His body was buried in the old cemetery there.
Novalis was essentially an intellectual, with a fascination for all things spiritual. There is probably only one event in his life which catapulted him into a state in which he might have had first hand experience of the spiritual, of which more shortly, otherwise his writing is theoretical rather than from experience. Novalis was also something of an idealist believing that man ' forever strives towards and tries to recreate a new Golden Age – a paradisical Age of harmony between man and nature that existed in earlier times’. This idealism extended into a fascination for the mystical view and Novalis made an intensive study of the works of Jakob Böhme, which had a clear influence on his own writing.
But he had a formidable intellect, which can only have got in the way.
He displayed an ability to remember a considerable number of facts on numerous subjects - in science, law, philosophy, politics and political economy - and his early work shows that he was in the rather privileged position of having access to a vast range of books. Novalis spent his childhood on the family estate and benefited from being taught by private tutors. After the age of 12, he was educated by his uncle Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Hardenberg at his stately home in Lucklum. Novalis’ intellectual studies continued with the study of Law from 1790 to 1794 at Jena, Leipzig and Wittenberg. He attended Schiller's lectures on history, met Goethe, and befriended Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and the brothers Schlegel. All the signs pointed to him becoming a philosopher.
He started writing quite early and left an astonishing abundance of notes on these subjects. But he lived long enough to see the publication only of Pollen, Faith and Love or the King and the Queen and Hymns to the Night. His unfinished novels Heinrich von Ofterdingen and The Novices at Sais, his political speech Christendom or Europa, and numerous other notes and fragments were published posthumously by his friends.
Of these Hymns to the Night is the work most often cited as being a work of spiritual content. Novalis influenced, among others, the novelist and theologian George MacDonald, who translated his Hymns to the Night in 1897. The Hymns to the Night was published in August 1800, eight months after its completion and not long before he died, as such we can see that his illness was a major driver. The hymns “are often considered to be the climax of Novalis’ lyrical works and the most important poetry of the German early Romanticism”.
Along with his poetry and prose, Novalis considered that he had a duty or destiny to educate: "We are on a mission: we are called upon to educate the earth." And one of the things he believed was his mission, was to try to unite the world of science and poetry. The science to which he referred was not the science of our day and age, but the science of philosophy. The result was supposed to be a "progressive universal poesy” (fragment no. 116 of the Athenaum journal). Essentially therefore Hymns to the Night was meant to be both philosophical and poetry. The novel fragments Heinrich von Ofterdingen and Die Lehrlinge zu Sais (The Novices of Sais) reflect the idea of describing a universal world harmony with the help of poetry.
The six hymns are essentially autobiographical. Even though a lyrical "I", rather than Novalis himself, is the speaker, there are many parallels that can be drawn between the hymns and his experiences from 1797 to 1800. But there is an earlier event which had a huge influence on him. In 1794, Novalis met the 12-year-old Sophie von Kühn (1782–1797). On March 15, 1795, when Sophie was 13 years old, and Novalis was 23, the two became engaged to marry. Sophie died in March 1797, aged only 15 years old and it affected Novalis deeply. The two had not married. Novalis was in a state of mourning and suffering for a considerable period of time after her death, quite possibly right up to his own at aged 29.
Novalis became engaged for the second time in December 1798. This may seem to indicate that his feelings about Sophie were not as deep as indicated, but his fiancée was Julie von Charpentier (1776–1811), a daughter of Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Toussaint von Charpentier, a professor in Freiberg. Novalis had studied from 1795 to 1796 at the Mining Academy of Freiberg in Saxony, a leading academy of science, to study geology under Professor Abraham Gottlob Werner, who befriended him, as such we can conclude that Julie was known to him through the academy. Novalis died before they were married.
The metaphors of the hymns are closely connected to the books Novalis had read at about the time of his writing of the hymns. These are prominently Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (in the translation by A.W. Schlegel, 1797) and Jean Paul’s Unsichtbare Loge (1793). Jean Paul was born Johann Paul Friedrich Richter and was a German Romantic writer. A spiritual crisis he suffered on 15 November 1790, in which he had a vision of his own death, altered his outlook profoundly. His book, Die unsichtbare Loge ("The Invisible Lodge"), was a romance which ‘had all the qualities that were soon to make him famous’, later works had ‘supernatural themes involving such things as Doppelgängers and pseudocide’.
The Night is as symbolically described in the spiritual path – see Four seasons and the hours. Novalis intended Night to mean death, but he did not view death as an end but part of a cycle, implying he believed in reincarnation – according to Novalis “the two are intertwined concepts, death is the romantic principle of life”. Or if we put this another way, we are reunited with those we loved and who have died, in death.
The hymns consist of two groups of three hymns. The first hymn group shows the development from an assumed happy life on earth through a painful era of separation, to salvation in the ‘eternal night'; the following hymns tell of the awakening and the longing for a return to life – so the full cycle.
The Hymns to the Night display a ‘universal religion with an intermediary’. In effect, Novalis understood the principle of the Higher spirit, but he also believed in Spirit helpers – and the spirit helper could be ‘the dead beloved’ as in the hymns. Another way of viewing this is to think of Sophie as his soul mate.
Overall, Hymns to the Night are Novalis’ attempt to reconcile himself to what had happened. After all, if you believe in the institutionalised view of God as a personal pal, then the sort of things that had happened to Novalis were inexplicable. So Novalis, in true philosophical fashion, forged a new philosophy. He did not find it easy. Novalis' father, Heinrich Ulrich Erasmus Freiherr von Hardenberg (1738–1814), was a strict pietistic man who had become a member of the Moravian (Herrnhuter) Church. His father’s beliefs could not have been more different from the beliefs Novalis tried to forge.
“A mystical world view and a high standard of education, combined in Novalis' attempt to reach a new concept of Christianity, faith, and God. He forever endeavours to align these with his own view of transcendental philosophy, which acquired the mysterious name "Magical idealism"
Novalis also called it the Liebesreligion ("religion of love").
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