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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) (1772–1801)

FRIEDRICH VON HARDENBERG, better known under the pseudonym of Novalis, was born upon the family estate of Wiederstedt, Mansfeld, Germany, May 2d, 1772. His early education and environment were conducive to the development of the best that was in him. His father, the Baron von Hardenberg, was in every respect an exemplary man and a wise father; his mother was loving and pious: and the family circle, which included seven sons and four daughters, was bound together by the closest ties of affection and congeniality.

As a lad, Novalis was delicate and retiring, and of a dreamy disposition. He withdrew from the rough sports of his companions, and amused himself by reading and composing poetry. He wrote poetical plays, in which he and his brothers enacted the characters of the spirits of the earth and air and water. His parents were Moravians; and the strict, religious character of his training had a deep effect upon his sensitive nature. His thoughts dwelt constantly upon the unseen. His eyes burned with the light of an inward fire, and he wandered about in a kind of day-dream, in which the intangible was more real than his material surroundings. A more healthful change took place during his ninth year. A severe attack of illness seems to have aroused his dormant powers of resistance; and after his recovery he was not only better physically, but brighter and more cheerful, and far more awake to temporalities. His education now began in earnest. He applied himself diligently to his studies, and entered the University of Jena in 1789. Here he met Fichte and Friedrich Schlegel; an acquaintance that was fruitful of results, for with Novalis a friendship was an epoch, and his ardent spirit readily yielded itself to affinitive influences. His passionate friendship for Schiller, whom he also met at Jena, and later for Goethe, were molds for his plastic nature. He remained at Jena until 1792, when he went to the University of Leipsic with his brother Erasmus; and the following year he finished his studies at Wittenberg.

The future character of his pursuits indicates his intention of following a business career. He went to Arnstadt, where, under the instruction of Just, the principal judiciary of the district, he applied himself to practical affairs. In 1795 he was appointed to a position in the Saxony salt works, of which his father was director. In the meantime, early in the spring of 1795, he had made the acquaintance of Sophie von Kuhn, a beautiful child of thirteen, for whom he at once conceived a poetic passion. In spite of her youth, they were betrothed; but Sophie died just after her fifteenth birthday, and Novalis entered upon a period of darkness and despair that threatened to engulf him. Shortly after her death, his brother Erasmus died at Weissenfels; and this double grief seemed to transfigure Novalis. For him the boundary line between the seen and the unseen disappeared. He longed for death, and yet was in a state of exaltation. He wrote to his brother Charles: “Be comforted. Erasmus has conquered. The flowers of the beloved wreath here drop off one by one, in order that there they may be reunited into one more beautiful and eternal.”

It was during this time and a little later that he wrote some of the most beautiful and spirituel of his compositions, notably ‘Hymnen an die Nacht’ (Hymns to the Night). These fragmentary pieces of prose are the breathings of a poet’s soul. “I turn aside to the holy, ineffable, mysterious Night. Afar lies the world submerged in the deep vault of heaven. Waste and lonely is her place. The chords of the bosom are stirred by deep sadness. I will descend in dewdrops and mix myself with the ashes. Distances of memory, wishes of youth, dreams of childhood, the short joys and vain hopes of a whole long life, come in gray apparel, like the evening mist after the sunset. In other spaces Light has pitched its joyful tents. Will it never return to its children who await it with the faith of innocence?”

With the intention of diverting his mind from his sorrow, his parents persuaded him to carry out a plan of his younger days, and undertake a course of study in the Mining School of Freiburg. Here, amid congenial friends and in the interests of his pursuits, he gradually recovered health and cheerfulness. He loved again, and shortly became engaged to Julie, the daughter of the famous mineralogist Charpentier. Novalis remained in Freiburg until the summer of 1799, when he returned to Weissenfels, where he was made assessor and was appointed under his father chief judiciary of the Thuringian district. He now visited often at Jena, where he established the warmest relations with Ritter, Schelling, Wilhelm Schlegel, and Tieck; of whom the last, in connection with Friedrich Schlegel, became his biographer and literary executor.

Always delicate, always spiritually toying with death, at last the invincible forces that had so long held aloof descended upon him. In August of the year 1800 he became very ill; and though he still attended to the duties of his office, and wrote constantly, his weakness increased, and on the 25th of March, 1801, he died at the house of his parents in Weissenfels, not quite twenty-nine years of age.

The influence of Novalis was due more to the time of his appearance than to his power as a writer; and it is as a factor in the evolution of German literature, rather than by the amount or even the quality of his work, that he is to be judged. His entire writings are comprised within two or three small volumes, and the years of his literary activity were but six, included in the period between the close of his student days and his death; and yet the name of Novalis is the brightest of the old Romantic school. Although his early death precluded the possibility of his fulfilling the expectations of his friends, who regarded him as the torch-bearer in the struggle against the materialism of the “Enlighteners,” yet his union of religion and poetry, his philosophy, and his deep faith in Christianity, made him a power quite unique in the world of letters. ‘Geistliche Lieder’ (Spiritual Songs) are matchless of their kind; and all his poems have an illusive beauty and fragrance quite impossible to translate.

A great part of the works of Novalis are made up of miscellaneous fragments, philosophical reflections, aphorisms, and irrelevant thoughts set down in disconnected sentences. Many of these were published in the Athenæum under the title of ‘Blumenstaub’ (Flower-Dust), and many more were collected from his papers after the death of the author. ‘Die Lehrlinge zu Sais’ (The Disciples at Sais) is a fragment of an unfinished psychological romance, which in its vagueness and philosophical speculation has many points of resemblance to his later and also unfinished work, ‘Heinrich von Ofterdingen.’

A new art, before its limitations have been reached, and before it has definitely assumed its ultimate shape, may develop many extravagances. Novalis was a leader in the new school of Romanticism, and ‘Heinrich von Ofterdingen’ was a protest against rationalism. This allegorical romance, if indeed what is pure allegory may be called a romance, was written during the last months of Novalis’s life. It was intended to be an apotheosis of poetry, and in this phenomenal piece of literature there existed no law either human or divine. The poet’s fancy is all supreme. Dreams and allegories may transcend all laws of mind and matter; nothing astonishes, nothing is impossible. Heinrich von Ofterdingen in his search for the Blue Flower, the absolute ideal, represents the struggle of the spirit of poesy against the environment of the material. Part first, ‘Expectation,’ which is completed, describes the gradual preparation of the hero for the reception of this ethereal essence. Part second, ‘The Fulfillment,’ has been completed in outline by Tieck, the author’s intimate friend and literary confidant, and is supposed to represent the full blossoming of the poet’s soul. “To the poet who comprehends the nature of his art to its centre, nothing appears contradictory and strange. To him all riddles are solved. By the magic of the imagination he can unite all ages and all worlds. Miracles disappear, and everything transforms itself into miracles.” And so throughout the tale the marvels advance by gigantic strides, until at the end it only dimly stirs us to learn that “Heinrich plucks the Blue Flower and releases Matilda from her enchantment, but she is again lost to him. He becomes insensible through pain, and turns into a stone. Edda (the Blue Flower, the Eastern Maiden, Matilda) sacrifices herself upon the stone, which is then transformed into a melodious tree. Cyane hews down the tree and burns it, and herself with it. He now becomes a golden ram which Edda—that is, Matilda—must sacrifice, when he again becomes man,” etc.

‘Heinrich von Ofterdingen’ as a romance is unworthy of the place assigned it by contemporary critics. Although full of passages of rare beauties, and ideas which outstrip their time, it is nevertheless vague, obscure, and chaotic. Its importance lies in its effect as the leaven of the new literature just springing into being. It embodies all the beauties, as well as all the faults and extravagances, of the old Romantic school, before time had pruned its growth and developed it into a fruitful maturity.