The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(The entire section is 861 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(The entire section is 783 words.)