Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg was a lyric poet of German Romanticism and a prose writer of encyclopedic talent; he wrote under the nom de plume Novalis. He was born into a family descended from the low German nobility; his father, a deeply pietistic man, managed a salt mine, as well as the family estate in the Harz mountains. Novalis was educated in law at Jena, Leipzig, and Wittenberg. At age 22, he fell in love with the 12-year-old Sophie von Kühn and became engaged to be married, but was devastated when she died, at the age of 15. During this time, he was first introduced to the philosophy of Johann Fichte [q.v], who would be a main influence on his later work.
His prose lyrics Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night, 1800), written after Sophie’s death in 1797, show his mediated, universal religiosity, the view that there must be an intermediary between man and God, not necessarily a cleric or divine figure, but in this case, the beloved—now dead. Novalis later studied geology, chemistry, biology, history, mathematics, mining, and philosophy; these contributed to his anticipated encyclopedia project. He died of tuberculosis at age 29.
The novel fragment The Novices of Sais (1802) reflects Novalis’s fascination with universal science; in particular, this short work explores the possibility of using poetry to describe a universal world harmony. In this context, Novalis alludes to the notion of universal suicide, imagining nature as hostile and man able to free himself from this threat only if all of humankind were to bring their lives to an end.
Novalis, The Novices of Sais, tr. Ralph Manheim. New York: Curt Valentin, 1949; New York: Archipelago Books, 2005, pp. 19-45.
from THE NOVICES OF SAIS
It must have been a long time before men thought of giving a common name to the manifold objects of their senses, and of placing themselves in opposition to them. Through practice developments were furthered, and in all developments occur separations and divisions that may well be compared with the splitting of a ray of light. It was only gradually that our inwardness split into such various forces, and with continued practice this splitting will increase. Perhaps it is only the sickly predisposition of later men that makes them lose the power to mix again the scattered colors of their spirit and at will restore the old, simple, natural state, or bring about new and varied relations between the colors. The more united they are, the more united, complete and personal will every natural object, every phenomenon enter into them; for to the nature of the sense corresponds the nature of the impression, and therefore to those earlier men, everything seemed human, familiar, and companionable, there was freshness and originality in all their perceptions, each one of their utterances was a true product of nature, their ideas could not help but accord with the world around them and express it faithfully. We can therefore regard the ideas of our forefathers concerning the things of this world as a necessary product, a self-portrait of the state of earthly nature at that time, and from these ideas, considered as the most fitting instruments for observing the universe, we can assuredly take the main relation, the relation between the world and its inhabitants. We find that the noblest questions of all first occupied their attention and that they sought the key to the wondrous edifice, sometimes in a common measure of real things, and sometimes in the fancied object of an unknown sense. This key, it is known, was generally divined in the liquid, the vaporous, the shapeless. The inertia and helplessness of solid bodies gave rise, no doubt, to a not unmeaningful belief in their baseness and dependence. But soon a pondering mind encountered the difficulty of deriving forms from forces and oceans without form. He attempted to loose the knot by a kind of combination; making the first beginnings into solid particles definitely shaped but minute beyond conception, and from this sea of dust, he believed that he could complete the immense edifice, though not without the help of ideal fictions of attracting and repellent forces. Earlier still we find, instead of scientific explanations, myths and poems full of marvelous imagery, of men, gods and beasts all building together, and it is here that the genesis of the world is most naturally described. Here at least we find certainty as to an accidental, handicraft origin, and even for those who despise the uncontrolled outpourings of the imagination, this conception is full of meaning. To treat the history of the universe as a history of mankind, to find only human happenings and relations everywhere, is a continuous idea, reappearing at the most widely separate epochs, always in a new form, and this conception seems to have excelled all others in miraculous effect and persuasiveness. Moreover, the capriciousness of nature seems of itself to fall in with the idea of human personality, which is apparently best grasped in the form of a human creature. That is why poetry has been the favorite instrument of true friends of nature, and the spirit of nature has shone most radiantly in poems. When we read and hear true poems, we feel the movement of nature’s inner reason and, like its celestial embodiment, we dwell in it and hover over it at once. Scientists and poets have, by speaking one language, always shown themselves to be one people. What the scientists have gathered and arranged in huge, well-ordered stores, has been made by the poets into the daily food and consolation of human hearts; the ports have broken up the one, great, immeasurable nature and molded it into various small, amenable natures. Poets have lightheartedly pursued the liquid and fugitive, while scientists have cut into the inner structure and sought after the relations between its members. Under their hands friendly nature died, leaving behind only dead, quivering remnants, while the poet inspired her like a heady wine till she uttered the blithest, most godlike fancies, till, lifted out of her everyday life, she soared to heaven, danced and prophesied, bade everyone welcome, and squandered her treasures with a happy heart. Thus she enjoyed heavenly hours with the poet and called the scientist only when she was sick and bowed down with conscience. On these occasions she answered each one of his questions and treated the stern man with reverence. Those who would know her spirit truly must therefore seek it in the company of poets, where she is free and pours forth her wondrous heart. But those who do not love her from the bottom of their hearts, who only admire this and that in her and wish to learn this and that about her, must visit her sickroom, her charnel-house.
Our relations with nature are as inscrutably various as with men; to the child she shows herself childlike, pressing fondly to his childlike heart, and to the god she discloses herself divine, in accord with his exalted spirit. It is bombast to speak of one nature, and all striving after truth in discourse about nature only removes us farther from the natural. Great is the gain when the striving to understand nature completely, is ennobled to yearning, a tender, diffident yearning that gladly accepts the strange, cold creature, in the hope that she will some day become more familiar. Within us there lies a mysterious force that tends in all directions, spreading from a center hidden in infinite depths. If wondrous nature, the nature of the senses and the nature that is not of the senses, surrounds us, we believe this force to be an attraction of nature, an effect of our sympathy with her; but behind these blue, distant shapes one man will seek a home that they withhold, a beloved of his youth, mother and father, brothers and sisters, old friends, cherished times past; to another it seems that out there unknown glories await him, a radiant future is hidden, and he stretches forth his hand in quest of a new world. A few stand calmly in this glorious abode, seeking only to embrace it in its plenitude and enchainment; no detail makes them forget the glittering thread that joins the links in rows to form the holy candelabrum, and they find beatitude in the contemplation of this living ornament hovering over the depths of night. The ways of contemplating nature are innumerable; at one extreme the sentiment of nature becomes a jocose fancy, a banquet, while at the other it develops into the most devout religion, giving to a whole life direction, principle, meaning. Even among the childlike peoples there were grave men, for whom nature was the face of a godhead, while other, merry hearts only prayed to her at table; the air was to them a soothing drink, the stars were a light to dance by, plants and beasts were merely delectable fare, nature to them was not a wondrous, silent temple, but a jolly kitchen and pantry. In between, there were other, more contemplative souls, who found in the nature before them only large but neglected gardens, and busied themselves creating prototypes of a nobler nature.—For this great work they broke into companionable groups, some sought to awaken the spent and lost tones in the air and in the forests, others fixed their presentiments and images of more beautiful races in bronze and stone, fashioned more beautiful rocks and made them into dwellings, brought back to light the treasures hidden in the crypts of the earth; tamed unruly streams, populated the inhospitable sea, restored noble plants and beasts to desert regions, damned the forest floods and cultivated the nobler flowers and herbs, opened the earth to the touch of the fructifying air and the kindling light, taught the colors to mingle and order themselves into charming shapes, taught wood and meadow, springs and crags to join again in pleasant gardens, breathed tones into living things, that they might unfold and move in joyous rhythms, took under their protection those poor forsaken beasts amenable to human ways, and cleansed the woods of savage monsters, the misbegotten creatures of a degenerate fantasy. Soon nature learned friendlier ways again, she became gentler and more amiable, more prone to favor the desires of man. Little by little her heart learned human emotions, her fantasies became more joyful, she became companionable, responding gladly to the friendly questioner, and thus little by little she seems to have brought back the old golden age, in which she was man’s friend, consoler, priestess and enchantress, when she lived among men and divine association made men immortal. Then once more the constellations will visit the earth that they looked upon so angrily in those days of darkness; then the sun will lay down her harsh scepter, becoming again a star among stars, and all the races of the world will come together after long separation. Families orphaned of old will be reunited, and each day will see new greetings, new embraces; then the former inhabitants of the earth will return, on every hill embers will be rekindled; everywhere the flames of life will blaze up, old dwelling places will be rebuilt, old times renewed, and history will become the dream of an infinite, everlasting present.
He who belongs to this race and this faith and wishes to contribute his part towards the taming of nature, frequents the workshops of artists, gives ear to the poetry that bursts forth unawares in every walk of life, never wearies of contemplating nature and conversing with her, follows all her beckonings, finds no journey too arduous if it is she who calls, even should it take him into the dank bowels of the earth: surely he will find ineffable treasures, in the end his candle will come to rest, and then who knows into what heavenly mysteries a charming subterranean sprite may initiate him. Surely no one strays farther from the goal than he who imagines that he already knows the strange realm, that he can explain its structure in few words and everywhere find the right path. No one who tears himself loose and makes himself an island arrives at understanding without pains. Only to children or childlike people, ignorant of what they are doing, can this happen. Attentiveness to subtle signs and traits, an inward poetic life, practiced senses, a simple, God-fearing heart—these are the basic requisites for a true friend of nature, and without them his striving will not prosper. Without full, flowering humanity, the striving to understand a human world does not seem wise. Not one of the senses must slumber, and even if not all are equally awake, all must be stimulated and not repressed or neglected. As we see the future painter in the boy who covers every wall and every level stretch of sand with his drawings, who combines bright colors into figures, we see the future philosopher in him who untiringly pursues and inquires into all things in nature, who turns his mind to everything, gathers whatever is noteworthy and is happy if he has made himself the master and possessor of a new phenomenon, a new force and knowledge.
Now to some it seems not worth the trouble to pursue the infinite divisions of nature, and moreover, they find it a dangerous undertaking without fruit or issue. Never can we find the smallest grain or the simplest fiber of a solid body, since all magnitude loses itself forwards and backwards in infinity, and the same applies to the varieties of bodies and forces; we encounter forever new species, new combinations, new phenomena, and so on to infinity. They seem to stand still only when our fervor wanes; we waste the precious time in vain study and tedious enumeration, and this in the end becomes a true madness, a fatal vertigo over the horrid abyss. And nature, they say, remains wherever we turn a terrible mill of death: everywhere monstrous change, indissoluble endless chain, realm of voracity and mad luxuriance, incommensurable and fraught with disaster; the few bright points, they say, only serve to illumine a night that is all the more terrifying, filled with all manner of specters that frighten the beholder into insensibility. Death stands like a savior by the side of unfortunate mankind, for without death the madman would be the happiest among creatures. The effort to fathom the giant mechanism is in itself a move towards the abyss, a beginning of madness: for every lure seems an expanding vortex, which soon takes full possession of the unfortunate and carries him away through a night of terrors. Here, they say, is the insidious pitfall of human reason, which nature looks upon as her worst enemy and everywhere seeks to destroy. Praised be the childlike ignorance and innocence of men, which leaves them unaware of the terrible dangers, which everywhere like awesome storm clouds surround their peaceful dwelling places, threatening at every instant to break over them. Only the inner disunity of nature’s forces has preserved man up to now, but inexorably the great moment will come when all mankind by common resolve will save itself from this intolerable lot, will wrench itself free from this hideous prison, when through voluntary renunciation of their earthly possessions men will redeem their race forever from this misery, and escape to a happier world, to the home of their ancient father. Thus men would end in a manner worthy of them, thus they would anticipate their inevitable extermination or even more terrible degeneration into beasts through gradual destruction of the mind, through madness. Association with the forces of nature, with beasts, plants, rocks, storms and waves, must inevitably make men resemble these things, and this adaptation, transformation, dissolution of the divine and human into uncontrolled forces is, they say, the spirit of the awful, devouring power that is nature: and is not indeed everything we see a rape of heaven, a desolation of former glories, the remnant of a hideous feast?
“Very well,” say some who are more courageous, “let our race carry on a slow, well-conceived war of annihilation with nature! We must seek to lay her low with insidious poisons. The scientist is a noble hero, who leaps into the open abyss in order to save his fellow citizens. Artists have dealt her many covert blows: continue along this road, possess yourselves of the secret threads, and make her lust after herself. Exploit her strife to bend her to your will, like the fire-spewing bull. She must be made to serve you. Patience and faith befit the children of mankind. Distant brothers are united with us for one purpose, the starry wheel will become the spinning wheel of our life, and then with the help of our slaves we shall build ourselves a new Djinnistan. With inward triumph let us behold her devastations, her tumults, she shall sell herself to us, and bitterly atone for every violent deed. With a rapturous sentiment of our freedom let us live and die; here rises the stream that will some day submerge and quell her, let us bathe in it and gather courage for new heroic deeds. The monster’s rage cannot reach us, a drop of freedom is enough to lame it forever, and put an end to its devastation,”