Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg)

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Novalis [Friedrich von Hardenberg] (1772-1801): German Writer.

In his unfinished novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802), Novalis supplied German Romanticism with a symbol, “the blue flower,” which stood for the unknown and unattainable goal of the melancholy yearning pervading the romantic life. A leading Romantic poet and philosopher of “Magic Idealism,” Novalis expressed the Romantics’ idealization of the Catholic Middle Ages in the essay, “Christendom or Europe” (1797, not published until 1826), and explored romantic emotions, spirituality, and the fusion of love and death in his “Hymns to the Night” (1800), and “Spiritual Songs” (1802).

Novalis’ father, a Baron, belonged to the Moravian Brethren, and theirs was a strict pietist home. Novalis was born on the family estate, Oberwiederstedt in Thuringia, but the family moved to Weißenfels when he was twelve, and he eventually died there of tuberculosis after living in several other German cities. Following his years of education by private tutor, young Hardenberg studied at the University of Jena where one of his teachers was the writer Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von. Novalis later became friends with other luminaries, the writers Tieck, Ludwig and A.W. and Friedrich Schlegel(Schlegel, August Wilhelm and Friedrich), and the philosophers Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph and Fichte, Johann Gotlieb, all of whom influenced his thinking and creative output. Schlegel and Tieck also edited and promoted his works after his untimely death at age 29. Following his father’s wishes, Novalis attained a law degree at the University of Wittenberg and combined his studies with administrative positions. He served as an administrator of the Saxon salt mines and studied geology and engineering at the Mining Academy in Freiburg. His involvement in diverse academic fields led him into an encyclopedic project striving for “Synthesis” or the demonstration of the coherence of all knowledge. His notebooks show his unfinished efforts toward producing a single book that would encompass science, philosophy, and the Bible, with the idealistic imagination at the center.

If Novalis failed to reach his most exalted ambitions, however, he was successful in becoming one of German literature’s major Romantic writers. The tragedy of his own short life was heightened by his melancholy love for his young fiancée Sophie von Kühn, who died at age fifteen of the same ailment that he did. Her death and that of a beloved brother evoked profound religious and emotional experiences in Novalis. Through a process of “magical” substitution, the memory of the departed Sophie became identified with the Virgin Mary and his longing for her transformed into a longing for unity with Night and God. The hymns proclaimed that it is possible to experience the highest spirituality here on earth if we open ourselves to the search for it. His poems express the attraction many German Romantics had for the sensual, aesthetic dimensions of Catholicism, in contrast to Protestantism’s plainer customs.

The essay, “Christendom or Europe” is structured by the view of history that a state of harmony is followed by disunity, which must eventually lead back to a state of peace. The author’s regret that the medieval age gave way to the modern world is accompanied by a hope for the dawn of a glorious new age in the future. The medieval age is presented in vague rather than factual terms as a mythical childhood of Europe, when faith and beauty abounded and the disharmony of the Protestant Reformation had not yet disturbed the unified culture. The most controversial part of the essay was its praise for the founding of the Jesuit order. Novalis praised their attempt to heal the disruptions of the Reformation, as well as their monastic scholarship he considered superior to modern secular learning.

Like many German writers, including Goethe, Johann Wolfgang and Thomas Mann, Novalis contributed to the genre known as the Bildungsroman or novel of development or education, sometimes called “apprenticeship” of an individual. Although never finished, Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen is even today a major work of German literature. It is a quintessential expression of romantic idealization of emotional and spiritual life, of longing for the unattainable, and of the bittersweet feeling labeled Weltschmerz or “the pain of the world.” Set in the medieval age, the book recounts the inner and outer life of a legendary medieval poet. It suggests the romantic view that the world is a creation of the imagination. The death of the character Mathilde lends the book a sense of transcendence and a view of life as an impermanent state. This novel was also partially intended as an expression of the Romantic rejection of German classicism, particularly as expressed in the rationalism and optimism of Goethe’s Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96).

Less famous but also significant is Novalis’ Bildungsroman, The Apprentices of Sais, also published posthumously in 1802. Like its model, Schiller’s poem, “The Veiled Image of Sais,” this work is set in the Egyptian temple of Sais and concerns a quest for knowledge and self-knowledge. Schiller’s “apprentice” is so driven to learn “the whole truth” that he lifts the goddess’s veil against her injunction. The book warns the reader not to do the same. Novalis’ untraditional novel has little narrative or characterization. Instead, it consists largely of conversations and monologues on scientific and philosophical subjects. It is considered a precursor of encyclopedic novels by such modern writers as Maurice Maeterlinck, André Gide, Virginia Woolf, and Hermann Hesse.

Novalis is one of the best known and most influential figures of German Romanticism. He is the greatest lyric poet of the movement, and he exemplified many of its defining philosophical beliefs and artistic goals. His life was romantic as well, in its unfortunate early death, his wide-ranging studies, and his experiences of religion, tragic love and death.

Further Reading:

John Neubauer, Novalis, 1980.

Pamela S. Saur

Lamar University