See studies by B. Haywood (1959), J. Neubauer (1971), and J. Neuberger (1980).
Novalis, detail of an engraving by Edouard Eichens, 1845
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Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg was born in 1772 at Oberwiederstedt manor, in the Harz mountains (in present-day Saxony-Anhalt). The family seat was a manorial estate, not simply a stately home. Novalis descended from ancient, Low German nobility. Different lines of the family include such important, influential magistrates and ministry officials as the Prussian chancellor Karl August von Hardenberg (1750-1822). An oil painting and a christening cap commonly assigned to Novalis are his only possessions now extant. In the church in Wiederstedt, he was christened Georg Philipp Friedrich. He spent his childhood on the family estate and used it as the starting point for his travels into the Harz mountains.
Novalis’s father, the estate owner and salt-mine manager Heinrich Ulrich Erasmus Freiherr von Hardenberg (1738-1814), was a strictly pietistic man who had become a member of the Moravian (Herrnhuter) Church. His second marriage was to Auguste Bernhardine von Hardenberg, née Bölzig (1749-1818), who gave birth to eleven children: their second child was Georg Philipp Friedrich, who later named himself Novalis. At first, Novalis was taught by private tutors. He attended the Lutheran grammar school in Eisleben, where he acquired skills in rhetoric and ancient literature, common parts of the education of this time. From his twelfth year, he was in the charge of his uncle Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Hardenberg at his stately home in Lucklum.
Novalis studied law from 1790 to 1794 at Jena, Leipzig, and Wittenberg. He passed his exams with distinction. During his studies, he attended Schiller’s lectures on history and befriended Schiller during his illness. Novalis also met Goethe, Herder, and Jean Paul and befriended Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and the brothers Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel.
In October of 1794, Novalis worked as actuary for August Coelestin Just, who was not only his superior but also his friend and, later, his biographer. During this time, Novalis met the young Sophie von Kühn (1782-1797). On March 15, 1795, the two became engaged to marry. The following January, Novalis was appointed auditor to the salt works at Weißenfels.
In the period 1795-1796, Novalis concerned himself with the scientific doctrine of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, which greatly influenced his world view. He not only read Fichte’s philosophies but also developed Fichte's concepts further, transforming Fichte’s Nicht-Ich (German "not I") to a Du ("you"), an equal subject to the Ich ("I"). This was the starting point for Novalis's Liebesreligion ("religion of love").
The cruelly early death of his fiancée in March, 1797, affected Novalis deeply.
That same year, Novalis entered the Mining Academy of Freiberg in Saxony, a leading academy of science, to study geology under Professor Abraham Gottlob Werner (1750-1817), who befriended him. During Novalis's studies in Freiberg, he immersed himself in a wide range of studies, including mining, mathematics, chemistry, biology, history, and, not least, philosophy. It was here that he collected materials for his famous encyclopaedia project.
Novalis's first fragments were published in 1798 in the Athenäum, a magazine edited by the brothers Schlegel, who were also part of the early Romantic movement. Novalis’s first publication was entitled Blüthenstaub (Pollen) and saw the first appearance of his pseudonym, "Novalis". In July of 1799, he became acquainted with Ludwig Tieck, and that autumn he met other authors of so-called "Jena Romanticism".
Novalis became engaged for the second time in December of 1798. His fiancée was Julie von Charpentier (1788-1811), a daughter of Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Toussaint von Charpentier, a professor in Freiberg.
From Pentecost in 1799, Novalis again worked in the management of salt mines. That December, he became an assessor of the salt mines and a director. On the December 6, 1800, the twenty-eight-year-old Hardenberg was appointed "Supernumerar-Amtshauptmann" for the district of Thuringia, a position comparable to that of a present-day magistrate. But from August onward, Hardenberg suffered from tuberculosis, and on March 25, 1801, he died in Weißenfels. His body was buried in the old cemetery there.
Novalis lived long enough to see the publication only of Pollen, Faith and Love or the King and the Queen, and Hymns to the Night. His unfinished novels Heinrich von Ofterdingen and The Novices at Sais, his political speech Christendom or Europa, and numerous other notes and fragments were published posthumously by his friends Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Schlegel.
Novalis, who had great knowledge in science, law, philosophy, politics and political economy, started writing quite early. He left an astonishing abundance of notes on these fields of knowledge and his early work shows that he was very educated and well read. His later works are closely connected to his studies and his profession. Novalis collected everything that he had learned, reflected upon it and drew connections in the sense of an encyclopaedic overview on art, religion and science. These notes from the years 1798 and 1799 are called Das allgemeine Brouillon, and are now available in English under the title Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia.
Together with Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis developed the fragment as a literary form of art. The core of Hardenberg’s literary works is the quest for the connection of science and poetry, and the result was supposed to be a "progressive universal poesy” (fragment no. 116 of the Athenaum journal). Novalis was convinced that philosophy and the higher-ranking poetry have to be continually related to each other.
The fact that the romantic fragment is an appropriate form for a depiction of "progressive universal poesy”, can be seen especially from the success of this new genre in its later reception. Novalis’ whole works are based upon an idea of education: "We are on a mission: we are called upon to educate the earth." It has to be made clear that everything is in a continual process. It is the same with humanity, which forever strives towards and tries to recreate a new Golden Age - a paradisical Age of harmony between man and nature that was assumed to have existed in earlier times. This Age was recounted by Plato, Plotinus, and Franz Hemsterhuis - the latter being an extremely important figure for the German Romantics.
This idea of a romantic universal poesy can be seen clearly in the romantic triad. This theoretical structure always shows its recipient that the described moment is exactly the moment (kairos) in which the future is decided. These frequently mentioned critical points correspond with the artist’s feeling for the present, which Novalis shares with many other contemporaries of his time. Thus a triadic structure can be found in most of his works. This means that there are three corresponding structural elements which are written differently concerning the content and the form.
Hardenberg’s intensive study of the works of Jakob Böhme, since 1800, had a clear influence on his own writing.
A mystical world view, a high standard of education, and the frequently perceptible pietistic influences are combined in Novalis' attempt to reach a new concept of Christianity, faith, and God. He forever endeavours to align these with his own view of transcendental philosophy, which acquired the mysterious name "Magical idealism". Magical idealism draws heavily from the critical or transcendental idealism of Kant and Fichte, and incorporates the artistic element central to Early German Romanticism. The subject must strive to conform the external, natural world to its own will and genius; hence the term "magical". David Krell calls magical idealism "thaumaturgic idealism. This view can even be discerned in more religious works such as the Spiritual Songs (published 1802), which soon became incorporated into Lutheran hymn-books.
Novalis influenced, among others, the theologian George MacDonald, who translated his Hymns to the Night in 1897. More recently, Novalis, as well as the Early Romantic (Frühromantik) movement as a whole, has been recognized as constituting a separate philosophical school, as opposed to simply a literary movement. Recognition of the distinctness of Fruhromantik philosophy is owed in large part, in the English speaking world at least, to the writer Frederick Beiser.
In August 1800, eight months after completion, the revised edition of the Hymnen an die Nacht was published in the Athenaeum. They are often considered to be the climax of Novalis’ lyrical works and the most important poetry of the German early Romanticism.
The six hymns contain many elements which can be understood as autobiographical. Even though a lyrical "I", rather than Novalis himself, is the speaker, there are many relationships between the hymns and Hardenberg’s experiences from 1797-1800.
The topic is the romantic interpretation of life and death, the threshold of which is symbolised by the night. Life and death are – according to Novalis – developed into entwined concepts. So in the end, death is the romantic principle of life.
Influences from the literature of that time can be seen. The metaphors of the hymns are closely connected to the books Novalis had read at about the time of his writing of the hymns. These are prominently Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (in the translation by A.W. Schlegel, 1797) and Jean Paul’s Unsichtbare Loge (1793).
The Hymns to the Night display a universal religion with an intermediary. This concept is based on the idea that there is always a third party between a human and God. This intermediary can either be Jesus – as in Christian lore – or the dead beloved as in the hymns. These works consist of three times two hymns. These three components are each structured in this way: the first hymn shows, with the help of the Romantic triad, the development from an assumed happy life on earth through a painful era of alienation to salvation in the eternal night; the following hymn tells of the awakening from this vision and the longing for a return to it. With each pair of hymns, a higher level of experience and knowledge is shown.
The novel fragments Heinrich von Ofterdingen and Die Lehrlinge zu Sais (The Novices of Sais) reflect the idea of describing a universal world harmony with the help of poetry. The novel 'Heinrich von Ofterdingen' contains the "blue flower", a symbol that became an emblem for the whole of German Romanticism. Originally the novel was supposed to be an answer to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, a work that Novalis had read with enthusiasm but later on judged as being highly unpoetical. He disliked the victory of the economical over the poetic.
The speech called Die Christenheit oder Europa was written in 1799, but was first published in 1826. It is a poetical, cultural-historical speech with a focus on a political utopia with regard to the Middle Ages. In this text Novalis tries to develop a new Europe which is based on a new poetical Christendom which shall lead to unity and freedom. He got the inspiration for this text from Schleiermacher’s Über die Religion (1799). The work was also a response to the French Enlightenment and Revolution, both of which Novails saw as catastrophic and irreligious. It anticipated, then, the growing German and Romantic theme of anti-Enlightenment visions of European spirituality and order.
Walter Pater includes Novalis's quote, "Philosophirn ist delphlegmatisiren, vivificiren" (to philosophize is to throw off apathy, to become revived) in his conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Novalis' poetry and writings were also an influence on Herman Hesse; Hesse initially published his novel Demian under the name Emil Sinclair, who was a friend of Novalis.
Novalis' works were originally issued in two volumes by his friends Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Schlegel (2 vols. 1802; a third volume was added in 1846). Editions of Novalis' collected works have since been compiled by C. Meisner and Bruno Wille (1898), by E. Heilborn (3 vols., 1901), and by J. Minor (3 vols., 1907). Heinrich von Ofterdingen was published separately by J. Schmidt in 1876.
Novalis's Correspondence was edited by J. M. Raich in 1880. See R. Haym Die romantische Schule (Berlin, 1870); A. Schubart, Novalis' Leben, Dichten und Denken (1887); C. Busse, Novalis' Lyrik (1898); J. Bing, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Hamburg, 1899), E. Heilborn, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Berlin, 1901).
The most comprehensive and reliable edition of Novalis's works in German is the so-called 'Historische-Kritische Ausgabe' (commonly abbreviated as HKA): Novalis Schriften, 6 volumes, edited by Richard Samuel, Hans-Joachim Mähl and Gerhard Schulz, Stuttgart, Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 1960-2006.
"The others experienced nothing like it, even though they heard the same tales." (Henrich von Ofterdingen)
"Philosophy is really homesickness - the desire to be everywhere at home."(Romantic Encyclopaedia, no. 857)
"My book shall be a scientific Bible - a real, and ideal model - and the seed of every book." (Romantic Encyclopaedia, no. 557)
"Nature is a magical petrified city." (HKA II, p. 761)
"Every person who consists of people, is a person raised to the 2nd power - or a genius." (Vorarbeiten, HKA II, p. 645)
"Love is the final goal of world history - the One of the universe." (Romantic Encyclopaedia, no. 50)
"We are close to waking, when we dream that we're dreaming." (HKA II, p. 416)