With his moony-eyed, flushed face gazing out from his portrait, the late-eighteenth-century poet Novalis looks like the patron saint of German Romantic literature. Friedrich von Hardenberg took his pen name from his twelfth-century Saxon ancestors, known in Latin as de Novali, or “clearers of new land,” which finely evokes the otherworldly aura for which he came to be revered. Yet the “ardent and holy Novalis,” as Emerson called him, had his feet firmly planted on the ground. The poet made his living as a salt-mine inspector, conducting geological surveys and mineralogical studies–an experience that had a significant influence on his literary work that scholars are only beginning to register.
Still, it’s not the scientist who has enchanted generations of readers but rather the doomed visionary who died young after spending his entire life in the shadow of mortality. Born in 1772 in Saxony, Novalis barely survived an attack of dysentery at the age of 9. In 1794, after completing a law degree, he fell desperately in love with the 12-year-old Sophie von Kühn, to whom he was engaged in secret. But Sophie soon fell ill and died just after her 15th birthday. The following, grief-stricken year, Novalis enrolled at the Mining Academy in Freiburg and began writing poetry while pursuing his studies of mathematics, physics and chemistry. His first major work–the Blütenstaub [Pollen] fragments–appeared in 1798 in the premiere issue of the journal Athenäum. Edited by August and Friedrich Schlegel, the journal was the central forum for the early German Romantics who congregated in the city of Jena, notably the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the writer and critic Ludwig Tieck and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.
The Romantics, feeling that the French Revolution had left mostly desiccated cultural forms in its wake, sought to forge a new mode of existence out of the ruins. Their movement ran counter to the cult of reason and scientific objectivity arising from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Advocates of a higher unity, they did not so much reject rational illumination as insist that the nocturnal, subterranean and interior realms of existence not be forgotten. Significantly, the Athenäum‘s history paralleled Novalis’s career, its final issue containing his last work before his death at the age of 28 in 1801. In the span of three years, he virtually patented the sensibility of early German Romanticism. His writings–most notably the haunting poetic work Hymnen an die Nacht [Hymns to the Night], which memorialized his lost child-bride, and the never-completed novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen [Henry of Ofterdingen]–helped launch the movement and have since become practically synonymous with it. The yearning for the remote and unattainable, the fascination with ancient myths and mysticism, the heralding of spiritual rebirth, the celebration of the fragment as a form of expression–it’s all there in Novalis. But his unfinished novel Die Lehrlinge zu Sais–which has just been reissued by Archipelago Books as The Novices of Sais–is more than a specimen for an anatomy of a literary movement. Its variations on the theme of the human search for knowledge of nature exhibit a dazzling array of poetic motifs and philosophical expositions.