Hymns to the Night is a group of six organically related poems or hymns of praise and religious devotion. The hymns record the poet’s struggle to overcome his grief at the death of his young fiancée, Sophie von Kühn, in 1797, shortly after her fifteenth birthday and shortly before they were to be married. The death of Sophie, the inconsolable loss of an unspoiled and idealized love, becomes for Novalis the occasion of a spiritual awakening, the opening of a new religious vision. The spiritual world opened to Novalis is represented as the world of the night.
Though the first hymn opens with praise of light, the inexpressible, secretive night soon exceeds the lavish wonders of day. As the world darkens and the busy activity of daytime fades away, distant memories, the wishes of youth, childhood dreams, and brief joys reemerge. The soul stirs its heavy wings and comes to life, returning to spiritual matters of its deepest concern. The night opens our spiritual eyes, which look at last toward the depths of the soul. Night becomes the realm of the life of the spirit.
Late in this hymn, the poet addresses night’s messenger as his beloved. This messenger is Sophie, who “called the night to life” for him and opened his eyes, and to whom he owes his spiritual birth. Her love and her death broke the hold of the practical daylight world. He calls upon her to consume him with spirit fire, so that he may join her in the pure spiritual world of night, where the union denied them in the daylight world can be everlasting.
The second hymn laments the interruption of night by the return of day and entreats the night not to abandon her intimates utterly to the affairs of daylight. Novalis, however, comes to see that the daylight world secretly depends on the hidden processes of the night, which make a grape fill with juice or bring a young girl to her flowering. Similarly, the hidden processes that created the oldest stories and even the concept of heaven have their origins in the night world. Night and darkness bring the keys to our most infinite mysteries.
In the third and most personal hymn, Novalis recalls standing at the foot of Sophie’s grave with nowhere to turn, consumed in grief. At the depths of despair, “Night inspiration” comes to him. The mound becomes transparent (in the next hymn it is called a “crystal wave”). As he gazes into it, he sees his beloved. In her eyes he first glimpses eternity.
This timeless moment, also recorded in Novalis’s journals, is the point of origin of the hymns, which explore and develop the new vision this experience opened to him. Sophie’s grave thus becomes symbolic, the crossover point from the world of daily preoccupations to the mysterious and infinite world of the spirit.
In the fourth hymn, Novalis attempts to reconcile his new vision with the practical demands of life. He resolves to work untiringly in his daytime pursuits yet adds that his secret heart will stay true to the night and to “creative love, her daughter.” In this hymn, the author finds a mission that gives meaning and direction to his life and art. His mother, the night, sends him, and his brothers and sisters in this religious awakening, to transform the world with creative love and infuse it with spiritual meaning. The fourth hymn ends: “I live by day/ Full of faith and courage/ And die by night/ In holy fire.”
In the fifth hymn, Novalis constructs a brief history of religion. He begins...
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with the emergence of Greek gods, whose reign is pictured as a classical feast. Such early mythologies failed to address adequately the issue of death. The immortal gods were not concerned with it. For mortals, once life in the daylight world ended, there was only a dull dream in a world of shades. Death of a loved one brought sadness without consolation. The problem remained unresolved until the birth of Christ. A poet from Greece, present at the Nativity, sings of Christ as the savior whose death will open the world of the eternal spirit to humanity. Death, which once plunged humanity into despair, will now draw humankind forward in longing for eternal life.
Like Sophie, Christ opens the realm of eternal night, and like Sophie, Mary becomes the blessed virgin, the merciful messenger of the night world. The classical feast parallels the daylight world before Sophie’s death. The larger context of cultural history thus parallels and illuminates the poet’s new religious vision, and his revelation attains a broader cultural significance as a guide to a new spiritual awakening.
The sixth and final hymn, entitled “Longing for Death,” envisions death as a desirable passage to the realm of the night. Remote from the time when Christ was in the daylight world, humankind’s spiritual thirst can be quenched only in the world of the night. The poet praises night because in it individuals may join their lost loved ones and, guided by Mary and Christ, be settled forever in the lap of God.
The hymns are extremely innovative, formally mixing prose poetry and several forms of metrical, rhymed verse in a single work. In manuscript, the hymns were even more innovative, for the entire first hymn and several other lengthy passages were originally written in free verse. In the Athenäum version, on which almost all translations are based, the long passages of free verse were reorganized as paragraphs of poetic prose, or prose poems.
In the Athenäum version, the first three hymns are prose poems, the fourth begins in prose and shifts to rhymed verse, the fifth alternates forms, and the sixth is entirely rhymed, metrical verse. Thus, as Novalis’s vision becomes more developed and unified in the hymns, his poetry becomes more formalized.
Novalis first introduces rhymed verse in the fourth hymn. In the second section, the speaker addresses the light, insisting that he will remain true to the night without which day is nothing. Then, in one of the highest moments of inspiration of the hymns, the speaker’s point of view becomes identified with eternal spirit. Still addressing the light, he says, “Truly I was, before you existed. . . .” The speaker has become identified with pure spirit, which, unlike the body, can be said to be older than light itself, because it is eternal. In a way, he speaks with the voice of the night. This important shift in point of view reflects a leap of faith and is closely related to the shift in poetic forms.
From this inspired perspective, this union of the higher self and night, Novalis sees clearly his mission in life as an apostle of night. Shortly hereafter, Novalis breaks into rhymed verse, in a poem of devotion and celebration of the mission he has discovered. Written with inspired confidence in his vision, this poem is a part of Novalis’s private litany, written as an expression of a confirmed faith.
Much of the fifth hymn, the historical one, is printed as paragraphs of prose poetry. Death’s arrival at the table of the classical feast becomes the subject of an allegorical ballad, reminiscent of medieval morality tales. It is composed in rhymed iambic pentameter, in eight-line stanzas that end in a rhymed couplet. The form is reminiscent of folk song. The same stanza form is used for the song of the poet who attends Christ’s nativity later in the hymn.
When the history is completed, the fifth hymn, again from a position of commitment to the vision and mission, breaks into metrical verse very much like that which closes the fourth hymn in line-length, measure, and rhyme scheme. As at the end of the fourth hymn, the shift in verse form corresponds to the construction of a liturgy of devotion to the night, the beloved, Christ and Mary. The sixth hymn, similarly, is an extended song of devotion written entirely in rhymed, metrical verse.
Thus, as Novalis gains certainty of his vision and the mission of the hymns, he leaves the exploratory forms of free verse and prose poetry in which he has developed his vision and the history that confirms it. He turns to forms in which a liturgy to sustain devotion and commitment may be created. The formal trend also marks a transition toward his metrically regular, rhymed Geistliche Lieder (1801-1802; Devotional Songs, 1910), which Novalis completed after the hymns. Some of the Devotional Songs later became hymns in German hymnals.
The symbolic connotations of night and day, of light and dark in religion, and the usual ascent associated with spiritual enlightenment are inverted in the hymns. Novalis attains his vision looking down into the grave and descending into the night. Christ and Mary are enthroned in the darkness, and daylight and light are, for the most part, reserved for the banal affairs of daily living. At the end, the movement toward God is downward. Readers soon become naturalized in this imagery, however, and even come to accept the premise that darkness, since very much larger than the realm of daylight, is perhaps a better metaphor for the realm of the eternal spirit.
An important romantic symbol is also introduced in the fourth hymn as Novalis finds his mission. He and his spiritual brothers and sisters are to plant the world of light with flowers that will never fade. Yet, the flowers of the daylight world always fade, and fade quickly. Only through creative love, perhaps through creative arts, or imagination, can there be flowers that never fade. This is the germ of the idea for the famous “blue flower” of Novalis’s novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, (1802; Henry of Ofterdingen, 1842), an unfading flower that became a central symbol of the German romantic movement.