(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

The poetry alone does not even hint at the full scope of Novalis’s literary activity or his encyclopedic interest in philosophy, science, politics, religion, and aesthetics. While two seminal collections of aphorisms–Blütenstaub (pollen) and Glauben und Liebe (faith and love)—were published in 1798, the bulk of his work was published posthumously. Among these writings are six neglected dialogues and a monologue from 1798-1799; the essay Die Christenheit oder Europa (Christianity or Europe, 1844), written in 1799 but first published fully in 1826; and two fragmentary novels, Die Lehrlinge zu Sais (1802; The Disciples at Sais, 1903) and Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802; Henry of Ofterdingen, 1842), begun in 1798 and 1799 respectively. As prototypes of the German Romantic novel, these two works comprise a variety of literary forms: didactic dialogues, poems, and literary fairy tales. Like so much of Novalis’s work, these novels were first published by Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich von Schlegel in the 1802 edition of Novalis’s writings. Insights into these literary works and into Novalis’s poetics are provided by his theoretical notebooks and other papers, which include his philosophical and scientific studies and outlines and drafts of literary projects, as well as his letters, diaries, and professional scientific reports.


Novalis is perhaps best known as the creator of the “blue flower,” the often trivialized symbol of Romantic longing, but his importance has a far more substantial basis than this. Within the German tradition, his Romanticism influenced important writers such as Joseph von Eichendorff, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Hermann Hesse. As an innovative theorist and practitioner of the Romantic novel, Novalis prepared the way not only for the narrative strategies of Franz Kafka’s prose, but also for the themes and structures of Thomas Mann’s major novels. As the poet of Hymns to the Night and as a theorist of poetic language, Novalis set the Orphic tone for German Romantic poetry and the aesthetic agenda for German Symbolists such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George.

Novalis’s impact outside Germany is no less consequential. His evocative imagery, the prose poems included in Hymns to the Night, and his view of poetic language as musical and autonomous make him a major precursor of the French Symbolist poets. Among them, Maurice Maeterlinck was especially drawn to Novalis’s philosophy of nature, and he translated The Disciples at Sais in 1895. Later, Novalis’s imaginative poetics not only inspired André Breton, one of the founders of French Surrealism, but also had an impact, less widely known, on Chilean Surrealism via the poets Rosamel del Valle and Humberto Díaz Casanueva. In the English-speaking world, Novalis was first praised in 1829 by Thomas Carlyle, whose enthusiasm spread ultimately to writers as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Conrad, and George MacDonald.

In an anthology of poetry published in 1980, News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, the American poet Robert Bly justly lauded Novalis as a prime shaper of modern poetic consciousness. Such an evaluation offers hope that Novalis will continue to gain recognition as an internationally important forerunner of both modern poetry and literary theory, especially as more of his literary and theoretical works become accessible in translation.


Novalis was born Friedrich von Hardenberg, the first son of Heinrich Ulrich Erasmus von Hardenberg, a strict member of the pietistic Herrnhut sect, and Auguste Bernhardine von Bölzig. Throughout his life, Novalis attempted to reconcile the practical demands of his father with the poetic inspiration he claimed first to have received from his mother. Novalis’s acquaintance with the popular poet Gottfried August Bürger in 1789 intensified his early literary aspirations, but encouraged by his father to pursue an administrative career, Novalis began the study of law at the University of Jena in 1790. Although his lyric output during his stay in Jena seems to have abated, he soon found his poetic proclivities rekindled and redirected by the poet Friedrich Schiller, who was then a professor of history at the university. Under Schiller’s spell, the young Novalis became more introspective and sought a solid foundation for his life and poetry. With this new outlook, he bowed to paternal pressure and transferred to the University of Leipzig in 1791. His experience there once again only strengthened his literary and philosophical interests, however, for it was in Leipzig that he began his friendship and fruitful intellectual exchange with Friedrich von Schlegel, the brilliant theorist of German Romanticism. Only after taking up studies in Wittenberg did he receive his law degree, in 1794.

After several carefree months with his family in Weissenfels, Novalis was apprenticed by his father to Coelestin August Just, the district director of Thuringia, who lived in Tennstedt. It was during his first months there that Hardenberg came to know the twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn of nearby Grüningen, who revived his active poetic imagination and became a central figure in his new poetic attempts. Within a year they were engaged, but Sophie’s serious illness led to her death in March, 1797. Sophie’s death, followed by the loss of his brother Erasmus in April, shattered Novalis, and he turned inward to come to grips with the experience of death. This experience, certainly the most crucial of his life, helped him to articulate his mission to transcend the dual nature of existence through poetry. His confrontation with death did not weaken his will to live or cause him to flee from life, as is sometimes claimed; rather, it was a catalytic event that enabled him to reorient his life and focus his imaginative powers on the fusion of life and poetry.

With a new, clearly poetic mission before him, Novalis could commit himself to life; it was at this time that he assumed the pen name (meaning “preparer of new land”) by which he is known. By the end of 1797, he had resumed his intense study of the Idealist philosophers Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Novalis’s interest in science grew also, and in December, he commenced studies at the Freiberg Mining Academy, which would later give him a career. In the next year, he not only published the philosophical aphorisms of Blütenstaub and Glauben und Liebe, but also attempted to articulate his own philosophical ideas in a novel, The Disciples of Sais. By December, 1798, his involvement in life embraced the domestic once again, and he became engaged to Julie von Charpentier.

Novalis had finally reconciled his poetic mission with the practical demands of life and career. During 1799, he not only worked on Devotional Songs and Hymns to the Night, which had grown out of the crisis of 1797, but also accepted an appointment to the directorate of the Saxon salt mines. Both his career and his literary endeavors flourished. In 1800, he worked on Henry of Ofterdingen, conducted a significant geological survey of Saxony, published Hymns to the Night, and wrote some of his best poems. Yet illness had overpowered Novalis’s resolve to live and fulfill his poetic mission. On March 25, 1801, Novalis died in the family home in Weissenfels. A few days before his death, he had said to his brother Carl: “When I am well again, then you will finally learn what poetry is. In my head I have magnificent poems and songs.” These died with him.


The late eighteenth century in Germany was a time of new beginnings. The gradual change from a feudal to a capitalistic society bestowed a new importance on the individual, as reflected in the philosophy of German Idealism, which emphasized the primacy of the subjective imagination. On the other hand, the weakening of the Holy Roman Empire gave rise to a new sense of German nationalism. German writers responded to these changes by seeking to initiate a new literary tradition, a new beginning that would free them from the tyranny of foreign taste and example. Understandably, in such a dynamic age, no single, unified movement emerged, and the literary pioneers—writers as diverse as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich Klopstock, and Christoph Martin Wieland—set out in many different directions. Nevertheless, by the end of the century, Friedrich von Schlegel would proclaim that he lived “not in hope but in the certainty of a new dawn of a new poetry.”

Schlegel’s optimism was based on his conviction that his contemporaries were on the verge of creating a new mythology, a new Romantic poetry in which the newly emerging self would examine its own depths and discover universal truths, ultimately achieving a synthesis of subject and object. Like the literature of the eighteenth century, the poetry of Novalis moved toward the realization of this Romantic goal. While in his early works he experimented with many styles, betraying his debt to various currents of the Enlightenment, he soon developed a personal Romantic voice and new mode of expression that marked the advent of a new poetic age. This development became more obvious after Sophie’s death in 1797, but it is evident even in the poems of his literary apprenticeship (1788-1793). Indeed, many themes that preoccupied Novalis after the crisis of 1797 had already surfaced in his earliest poetry. The theme of death and the dual images of night and darkness, for example, find their initial expression in early poems, although at this stage his poetry was largely imitative. Only after his encounter with Schiller and his relationship with Sophie, which made him more introspective, did Novalis strike out on his own to record his own experiences and the changes that had taken place within himself. He was then able to create a consistent vision, a vision proclaiming the transforming power of love and raising personal experience to the level of mythology. In transforming his subjective experience into universal symbolism, Novalis created the Romantic mythology that Schlegel had proclaimed the sine qua non of the new poetic age. In his last poems, which envision the return to paradise brought on by the union of poetry and love, Novalis transcended his personal experience to create symbolic artifacts behind which the poet himself nearly disappears. In his lyric poetry, then, Novalis ultimately reveals himself not only as a pioneer of Romanticism but also as a precursor ofSymbolism.

If Novalis’s last poems are thematically consistent and anticipate the Symbolist movement, his early poems are endlessly diversified and echo the Enlightenment. In the poets of the eighteenth century, the young writer, searching for a poetic voice, found his models, limited only by his eclectic taste. Besides translations from classical poetry, Novalis composed serious political verse influenced by the work of Friedrich Stolberg and Karl Ramler, and in the bardic tradition of Klopstock; Rococo lyrics under the particular influence of Wieland; elegiac verse echoing Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty and Schiller; and a spate of lyrics in the style of Bürger. The variety of these early attempts, the assorted literary models that they imitate, and the poems showing a young poet experimenting with traditional forms (such as the invented necrologues addressed to living family members) reveal a writer in quest of a suitable mode of expression.

“To a Falling Leaf”

While they do share some common concerns, many of which inform the later writings, the early poems lack the unified vision and unique perspective that would come later with Novalis’s Romantic lyrics. Poems that foreshadow later developments also contrast significantly with the more mature poetry. The first version of the poem “An ein fallendes Blatt” (“To a Falling Leaf”), written in 1789, paints a melancholy scene in which the approach of winter storms is compared to the approach of death. The melancholy tone, however, is purposely undercut by a conclusion that affirms death as a joyous experience of the eternal that need not be feared. This view of death hints, perhaps, at the thanatopsis that Novalis would elaborate in Hymns to the Night, but it is merely a hint, for here the idea is actually no more than a common poetic cliché, and the poem as a whole lacks the visionary perspective that underlies the later works. This poem’s persona, in fact, is barely visible at all, and his emotional response to death’s coming at the end of the poem is expressed impersonally: “Oh happy . . ./ One need not then fear the storm/ That forbids us our earthly life.” The persona and his climactic emotional exclamation vanish behind the anonymous “one,” and death—which had been only...

(The entire section is 5333 words.)