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(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,...

(The entire section is 5,333 words.)