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Novalis
A Sketch

by Violet Plincke


An essay first printed in the journal,
Anthroposophy a Quarterly Review of Spiritual Science,
Vol. 3, No. 3, Michaelmas, 1928.


Portrait of Violet Plincke
Violet Plincke


The quotations from the Hymns to the Night are taken from W. Hastie's Translation (Hymns and Thoughts on Religion, 1888). The extracts from The Disciples at Saïs from the translation of F.V.M. and U.C.B. with an introduction by Una Birch, 1903. The Fragments are my own translation. — V.P.


Book Cover Image  

“ALL is seed” — Novalis once wrote in his note-book. These words hover round us when we read his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, his essay entitled The Disciples at Saïs, or his Fragments, properly so called. It is seed that will have to await a distant future before it can germinate and develop into leaf, blossom and fruit. Even his Hymns to the Night, the Spiritual Songs and the poems dedicated to the Blessed Virgin — pure and perfect in their compilation though they be — are but “seed,” because they are pregnant with a spirituality that points to a still far future, when the inner forces of man will have reached an altogether different degree of alertness, intensity and purposefulness. To read Novalis is to stand on tip-toe, with bated breath, feeling the beat and flutter of wings. Dawn is calling us.

Novalis left the earth before the close of his twenty-ninth year and some are inclined to conjecture what his work — planned on so vast a scale — would have been if ... But such conjecture is false. Every effort to penetrate more deeply into his thoughts leads to one firm conviction: no length of years would have helped to give final maturity to these gleams of the future. The time had not yet come (the end of the eighteenth century) for anything more than hints of the approaching inter-penetration of spirit and matter to be given, and so Novalis died when the basket of precious seeds he offered to humanity was full.

Turning to his recorded life, we find that numbers of facts are available. But they are not very helpful for the understanding of his work — with the exception of one all-decisive event and two or three others which mark periods in his short career. His early childhood seems to have indicated little vitality and an over-retiring disposition. At the age of nine he was the victim of a catastrophic illness which was like a great upheaval in a frail constitution; yet the result was an awakening, as his friend Tieck says. The child's powers of understanding were immeasurably quickened and in his later years, Novalis astonished people more than once by his lightning like grasp of whole domains of knowledge and life. Nine years later we find him at the University of Jena. His life is centred in Schiller; he has glowing enthusiasm for this “educator of the coming century.” “Destiny gave him (Schiller) the divine gift of turning all that he touched into the purest gold of a refined humanity” — this is how Novalis formulates his impression of Schiller. Schiller's Letters on the Æsthetic Education of the Human Race enthralled him and he made himself an apostle of the statement that “truth and beauty are one and the same; reason is the sole name and salvation which man can attain here on earth.” As time went on, Novalis recognised the difference between Schiller's nature and his own and broke free from the bonds that had fettered him to Schiller. Yet the great moral impulse of Schiller is a chapter of decisive significance in Novalis' life.

Somewhat later, Novalis encountered Fichte. All Jena was at that time teeming with excitement about Fichte's work. Schelling said that “The philosophy of Fichte was like lightning; it appeared only for a moment but it kindled a fire that will burn for ever.” The very title of his book, Sonnenklarer Bericht an das grössere Publikum über das eigentliche Wesen der neuesten Philosophie. Ein Versuch die Leser zum Verstehen zu zwingen — gives us a glimpse into the intimate workings of his mind and heart. In his Fragments, Novalis makes frequent reference to Fichte, for example: “It is possible that Fichte is the inventor of an entirely new mode of thinking for which language has not yet found a name.” “Fichte's demand for simultaneous thought, action and observation is the ideal of philosophising; if I fulfil this demand, I begin to realise the ideal.” “According to Fichte, ‘I am’ is the result of the universe. In order to state ‘I am,’ I must presuppose the whole universe; vice versa, the absolute statement of the ‘I am’ is at the same time the statement of the universe.”

Fichte had dared, as no thinker before had done, to take the Ego as the starting-point of his philosophical investigations. To him, all being and development of the universe were the result of an interplay between the ‘I’ and the ‘Non I.’ In the process of investigation, the latter thinned down into a more and more shadow-like existence, since all reality was identical with activity and activity belonged solely to the Ego.

Fichte was of significance in the life of Novalis because he not only brought a new richness into his being but touched a chord which was the innermost essence of his mind and Spirit: Fichte awakened Novalis to the realisation of the depths of the Ego and of the all-transforming, sovereign power of the moral impulse. In the Fragments, we read: “The system of morality must become one with the system of Nature. We must become magicians in order to be truly moral. The more moral we are, the more we are in harmony with God, the more united to God. Only through the moral sense does God become audible to us. The moral sense is the sense of existence — not affected from without — the sense of union, of the highest harmony, of a life freely chosen and yet within fellowship; it is true sense of divination.” And again: “The moral sense is a sense of the absolute creative power, the generative freedom, the infinite personality, the singular divinity within us.”

The application of the moral sense to all research, all science, was a subject ever-present in the mind of Novalis. He spoke of the “moralisation of the universe” in anticipation of the knowledge in which the wall between the moral world and the laws of Nature is broken down and they are recognised as one — as indeed the wall is cleft when an act of cognition pierces the veil of the sense-world. Only when the outer world is permeated by the moral sense will man be enabled to enter into the intimate understanding of Nature which must arise if he is to experience the earth with her living creatures not as a place of exile, but as a familiar homeland. All human life is the pursuit of an ever-increasing interpenetration of the Spirit within and without. “The individual soul must be understood as being in harmony with the cosmic soul. What is Nature? An encyclopaedic, systematic index or plan of our Spirit. Why should we rest content with the mere enumeration of our treasures? Let us investigate them, elaborate them and put them to manifold use. The destiny which oppresses us is the indolence of our Spirit. By expanding and developing our activity, we will transform our own selves into destiny.” “The world is at all events the result of an interaction between me and the Godhead. All that is, all that becomes, proceeds from spiritual contact.” “We shall understand the world when we understand ourselves for the world and we are integrating halves. We are God's children, divine seeds. What our Father is, that we shall sometime be.”

One landmark in the life of Novalis is, as we have seen, the illness and subsequent awakening during his childhood. Somewhat later came the contacts with Schiller and Fichte. But these facts fade into the background when we realise the significance of his meeting with Sophie von Kühn — a child of twelve. Novalis was drawn to her at first sight. His brother Erasmus speaks of her as a ‘heavenly creature’ and all who knew her were full of wonder at her beauty. Any attempt to describe the nature of her inner being is fruitless. Her letters and diaries seem childlike; yet who would venture to judge of the soul of such a child by the external expression given to it in her diaries and letters? She fell ill and grave fears for her life were entertained by those around her. We are told that Goethe had heard of Sophie von Kühn and that he went twice to see her during her illness. Hopes for her recovery grew more and more slender and finally, two days after her fourteenth birthday, she passed away.

The news fell on Novalis like a dull, heavy blow. It was not unexpected for he had anticipated it for days beforehand. A few weeks later, his favourite brother Erasmus died and he felt that the link binding him to earth was broken. His one desire now is to follow Sophie into the realms she inhabits. He doubts not but that it rests in the power of man's free-will to cut life short merely by the strength of desire for the cessation of earthly existence. “Sophie is my religion now — not merely my love.” He feels that he can transform every inner and outer happening of his life into Sophie. His memory of her is like a sacred lamp in his being which he tends and cherishes with constantly renewed spiritual effort. There are times when he realises her presence in every action. When the preoccupations of daily life draw a veil over her image, he is aware of this as of something that ought not to be. She has ceased to be a memory only of an earthly love; she is a veritable guide into the spiritual world and so reigns supreme in his daily life, sublimating it to new stages of translucency and strength.

As we study the life of Novalis before and again after the death of Sophie von Kühn, we can find nothing parallel to this sudden awakening of spiritual forces. Turning the pages of his works, we find certain poems written before the gateway to new worlds had been opened to him by Sophie's death. Then we pass on to the Hymns to the Night, The Disciples at Saïs or Heinrich von Ofterdingen, and we find it very difficult — nay almost impossible — to realise that these are the writings of the same man. And in truth they are not. Sophie drew her lover after her through the portal of death which became to him the portal of initiation. Ever after he drank of a fountain of inspiration which brought a new man to birth within him. In olden days passing through the portal of initiation meant that the candidate discarded his old name and received a new one, as an indication that the old within him was blotted out and that the new, expressed in the new name, was henceforward to determine his life.

Where did Sophie lead her lover, what are the secrets she disclosed to him? As her Spirit set out on its journey through the starry worlds, she revealed to Novalis the secrets of the night:

“Yet away I turn myself to the holy, ineffable, mysterious Night. Afar lies the world, sunk in a deep vault below; desert and solitary is its place. Deep sadness breathes through the chords of the breast. In drops of dew will I sink down and mingle with the dusk. The depths of memory, the wishes of youth, the dreams of childhood, the short joys and vain hopes of the whole span of life, come forth in grey robes, like the evening mist after the setting of the sun. In other regions of space Light hath pitched its cheerful tents. What if it should never come again to its children who wait for it with the faith of innocence?

“And now what springs there up at once so full of presentiment beneath the heart and swallows up the soft air of sadness? Dost thou also take pleasure in us, dusky Night? What hidest thou under thy mantle that comes invisibly but in strength, to the soul? Precious balsam drips from thy hand, from the bunch of poppies it holds. Thou raisest again the heavy wings of the soul. Darkly and unutterably we feel ourselves moved. Terrified, I behold an earnest face which bends to me softly and devoutly and beneath infinitely tangled locks it shows a Mother's dear youth.

“How poor and childish does the light seem to me now! How gladdening and blessed the departure of day! Is it only because the Night draws thy servants away that thou didst sow in the wide fields of space the gleaming spheres to announce, during the hours of thy absence, thy omnipotence and thy return. More heavenly still than those flashing orbs seem to us the infinite eyes which Night hath opened within us. They see farther than the palest of those numberless hosts; unneedful of the light they glance through the depths of a loving heart which fills a higher space with unutterable delight. Praised then be the Queen of the world, the high revealer of holy worlds, the guardian of blissful love — she sends me to thee — tender Beloved, lovely Sun of the Night. Now I wake, for I am thine and mine; thou hast proclaimed Night to be Life; thou hast made me man. Consume my body with Spirit-glow, that air-like I may commune with thee closer and closer and the bridal Night last evermore.”

All the hymns, in their succession, resound with new praises of the Night and her mysteries. The fifth Hymn brings a majestic picture of the golden age of humanity. But when it began to pass away and cruel hardening of body and mind was spreading ever further, so that the clutch of death was cramping and terrorising man, then the Divine Child was born on earth in order to renew the world. A new, strange life sprang up like flowers in His surroundings. A bard, born under the bright sky of Greece, journeys to Palestine in order to pay homage to the Divine Child. Prophetically, he concludes his rapturous song:

“In death the eternal Life is shewn forth plain
Thou art the Death that makes us whole again.”

Years pass and the time of Golgotha has come. “Those loved lips drained the dark cup of unutterable sufferings. In terrible anguish, the hour of the birth of the new world drew near. He struggled hard with the sorrows of old death, and the burdens of the old world lay heavy upon Him. Yet again He looked with a kindly glance to His Mother, and then the loosening hand of Eternal Dove came, and He slept. For a few days there hung a deep rest over the foaming sea and the quaking land. The beloved ones wept countless tears. The mystery was unsealed and heavenly spirits rolled the old, old stone from the dark grave. Angels sat by Him as He slept, shaped in tender forms from His dreams. Awakened in new Divine glory, He ascended the heights of the new-born world. With His own hand He buried the old body in the tomb He had left — and then His Almighty Hand laid upon it the stone which no power shall ever remove.

“Thy dear ones still weep tears of joy, tears of gladness, tears of affection and of infinite gratitude by Thy grave. Ever and ever again, they see Thee rise from the dead, and see themselves with thee.”

The fifth Hymn to the Night closes with a triumphant song:

“O joy that Life is lasting
To endless life above;
Now larger longing tasting,
With sense transformed in love
The starry world melts flowing
Into life's golden wine,
To feed our souls a-glowing,
Till we as starlight shine.

“And Love is freely given;
Nor is there parting more;
The full life rolls in Heaven,
A sea without a shore!
One night of bliss unending,
One everlasting Hymn
While God's face o'er us bending
Shines sun-like, never dim.”

Not only were the starry expanses and prophetic vistas of a new humanity, radiant with divine love, beginning to be as familiar to Novalis as an old home — nay, the Eternal Virgin, the Cosmic Soul began to beckon to him from where She is veiled, where She works and weaves in the realms of Nature. In The Disciples at Saïs, Novalis tells of the manifold ways pursued by those who seek Her — the veiled Isis. “All things lead me back into myself ...I rejoice in the wonderful collections and figures in the study halls; it seems to me as though they were only symbols, veils, decorations, enshrouding a Divine Being; and this is ever in my thoughts. I do not seek for them, but I often seek in them. It is as though they might show me the path to a place, where, slumbering, lies the Virgin for whom my spirit yearns. ... How much longer I shall stay here, I know not. It seems as though I should remain for ever. I scarcely dare to admit it to myself, but the conviction forces itself only too deeply upon me. One day I shall find here what incessantly moves me; she is present. When I go about here in this belief, everything induces a higher semblance, a new order, and all is directed towards One Goal. Each object then becomes to me so intimate, so dear, and what yet appears to me as curious and strange, suddenly becomes like a household word.”

We hear, too, the words of a young poet: “Only the poets have felt what Nature can be to man, and one might well say that in them Humanity finds its most complete expression and therefore each impression is transmitted unsullied in all its endless modifications, towards all sides, through the crystal clearness and activity of their spirits. ... Does not all Nature, even as the countenance and the gestures, the pulse and the colour, express the condition of that superior, wonderful Being we call Man? Does not the rock become individual when I address it? And what else am I than the river when I gaze with melancholy in its waves and my thoughts are lost in its course? Only a serene exuberant spirit can understand the plant-world, and animals are only to be known by a merry child or a savage. Whether anyone has yet understood the stones or the stars, I know not, but such an one must certainly have been a gifted being.”

After a long pause he continued: “To understand Nature we must let Nature evolve to the fullest in us. For this enterprise we must make up our mind to be determined solely by divine aspirations towards beings that resemble us and to distinguish their essential characteristics. For verily all Nature is only comprehensible as the instrument and medium of the intelligence of a reasonable Being. A thoughtful man turns to the primary functions of his being, to the creative speculation, back to the point where production and knowledge exist together in the most wonderful state of flux, to that generative moment of peculiar bliss, of inward auto-conception. If he be absolutely sunk in the contemplation of this original phenomenon there spreads out before him, like some unlimited pageant of rising seasons and places, a history of Nature's evolution and each point that establishes itself in the boundless fluidity will be a new revelation to him of the Genius of Bove, a new volume of the Thou and the I. The punctilious description of this inner world history is the true theory of Nature. Through the inter-coherence of his own world of thought and its harmony with the universe, a system of thought arises spontaneously as the true image and formula of the Universe. But the art of peaceful Meditation, of generative cosmic speculation is difficult.”

It would be quite wrong to think that Novalis — as a poet to whom no heights were inaccessible — would have rested satisfied with a merely rhapsodical indication of the necessity to discover the traces of the Cosmic Soul and Spirit in the minutest workings of Nature. On the contrary, we find him entering into the most tortuous paths of physics and chemistry in order there to espy the innumerable metamorphoses of the same forces which were active within his own innermost being. “Strange,” he says, “that the innermost of man has up to the present received such scant consideration and a treatment so devoid of spirit. The so-called psychology is one of the masks which have taken the place of the true images of the gods in the sanctuaries. How inadequately man has made use of physics for the study of the inner life and, vice versa, of the inner life for the study of the outer world!”

Novalis conceived a plan for a peculiar encyclopaedic work in which experiences and ideas from all the different sciences were mutually to elucidate, confirm and strengthen each other. As Heinrich von Ofterdingen was to represent the stages of the development of the poet, so Novalis hoped to write six other novels which were to give expression to his views on physics, everyday life, action, history, politics and love. He was aware of the necessity for collecting hosts of facts which should embody and illustrate the fundamental ideas of his conception of the world. Travels were planned to Greece, to Norway, to Scotland. Life with the promise of ever new vistas of knowledge seemed to claim him again.

Unceasing wonder fills us as we learn, page by page, the directions along which the genius of Novalis worked. The lightning-like quickness of apprehension which had characterised his mind ever since the illness at the age of nine, seemed to be immeasurably enhanced. His thoughts go to the very roots and shoot up to the stars; they are ever in the central heart of things — where life and death are one.

Can we wonder that words like these flow into his pen when he thinks of man: “Man is the higher Sense of our planet, the star which connects it with the upper world, the eye which it turns towards Heaven.” And again: “Man is a sun, his senses are the planets.” “There is only one temple in the world and this is the human body. Nothing is holier than his sublime form. Bowing before men is an act of homage to this revelation in the flesh. One touches heaven when one touches the body of man.”

Novalis felt all human life to be the fulfilment of one uninterrupted mission — the shaping, the education of the earth. All life then becomes divine service. “All our affections seem to be nothing but practical religion. The heart appears to be as it were the religious organ. Perhaps the higher product of the creative heart is none other than Heaven. ...”

“More sacred books can be written than those we already possess. One thing only is needed: that the spring of religion be quickened within us again. Prayer, which in the religious domain is the equivalent of thought in philosophy, must glow again till it seeks an outlet in speech — and that will be a true sermon.”

“There is no religion which is not Christianity,” we read in one of the Fragments. “It is among men that one must seek God. In human happenings, in human thoughts and feelings, the spirit of heaven reveals itself most clearly of all. Martyrs are spiritual heroes. Every human being has his years of martyrdom. Christ was the greatest martyr of the human race. Through Him, martyrdom has received a significance of infinite depths and holiness.”

The longer we allow the thoughts of Novalis to hover around us and the more deeply we allow them to sink into us, the more clearly do we realise how all his being was permeated through and through with music. Rudolf Steiner expressed it thus, in a lecture on The Psychology of the Arts (Dornach, April 9th, 1921): “The fundamental element of Novalis' poetic work is music — music, the world of artistic sound which is revealed by cosmic harmony and which is the creative force that works into the human being from out of the Cosmos in the most intimate of all ways.” And turning to Novalis' works, we find again and again, reference to music and the musical element. So for example: “Nature is an Aeolian harp, a musical instrument the sounds of which are keys of higher strings within us. All method is rhythm; if one has grasped the rhythm of the world, one has comprehended the world. Every human being has his own individual rhythm. ... Every sickness is a musical problem, and the cure is the musical solution. The briefer and more perfect the solution, the greater the musical gift of the physician. ...”

On Lady Day, 1801, when the wings of death approached Novalis, he begged his brother to play some music on the harpsichord. He passed over during sleep, his brother's music accompanying his entrance into the spiritual world. Soon after Sophie's death he had written in his diary: “I have noticed that it is evidently not my destiny that I should achieve anything here. While still in my blossom I must detach myself from all. Only at the very end I must learn to know the best in the well-known and familiar — myself too. Now I learn to know myself and to enjoy this — that is why I must go now.” His prophetic words were fulfilled.

When a century had elapsed after the death of Novalis, the seed of his heritage began to germinate and grow. Rudolf Steiner once said: “What is given now as anthroposophical spirituality lived in Novalis.” As the Disciples at Saïs sought Isis, so Novalis had set out in search of the veiled Goddess. When the mysteries of the Night had revealed themselves to him, Cosmic Wisdom — the Divine Sophia — began to pour into him and make him her own. All his life was spent in reaching out for clearer and clearer visions of Anthropos — the TRUE MAN. In very truth Anthroposophia weaves and lives in the work of Novalis.


   Page last updated on Wednesday October 29, 2014 at 00:26:27.