The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

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.

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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 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...

(The entire section contains 1644 words.)

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