The German poet and author Novalis (1772-1801) was the most important poet and imaginative writer of the early German romantic movement. Both his poetry and his prose writings express a mystical conviction in the symbolic meaning and unity of life.
Novalis, whose real name was Baron Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg, was born of an aristocratic family in Wiederstedt, Saxony, on May 2, 1772. While studying philosophy and law at the universities of Jena and Leipzig, he met the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the poet Friedrich von Schiller. He also became friends with Friedrich von Schlegel, later the chief theoretician of the romantic school. Novalis also studied at the University of Wittenberg and from 1794 to 1796 worked as an official in Tennstädt.
At Tennstädt, Novalis became engaged to 13-year-old Sophie von Kühn, who died in 1797. Her death affected him deeply, and in the same year he began his Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night), which were published in 1800. In these poems he recounted his experience of Sophie's death and his conversion to a kind of Christian mysticism in which he longed for his own death in order to be reunited with his beloved.
Despite his longings for death, however, Novalis continued his career. He turned to the study of mine engineering, married Julie von Charpentier in 1798 (while maintaining his mystical union with Sophie), and in 1799 became mine inspector in Weissenfels. He had advanced to supervisor by the time of his death.
During these years Novalis also developed his mystical view of the world. In the fragmentary novel Die Lehrlinge zu Sais (1798; The Novices at Sais) Novalis expressed his belief that the things of the natural world are symbols whose meanings can be discovered by poets. His most important novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, incomplete at his death, tells of the initiation of a young medieval poet into the mysteries of his calling. Heinrich undertakes a journey, receives poetic instruction, and falls in love. The dominant idea of the novel is the harmony and eternal significance of all life and nature. It also presents the image of the blaue Blume (blue flower), which later became the romantics' favorite symbol for any object of mystical aspiration.
Novalis's mystical attitudes also found expression in Geistliche Lieder (Religious Songs) and in the essay Die Christenheit oder Europa (1799; "Christendom or Europe"), which extols the unity of faith and society made possible by medieval Catholicism. Several of Novalis's writings were left unfinished at his death, of tuberculosis, at Weissenfels on March 25, 1801.
For English readers the best general work on Novalis is Frederick Hiebel, Novalis (1954; 2d rev. ed. 1959), which provides a detailed study of his life and spiritual development, as well as a careful analysis of each of his major works. For shorter general discussions see Ralph Tymms, German Romantic Literature (1955), and Michael Hamburger, Reason and Energy (1957). Oskar Walzel, German Romanticism, translated by Alma E. Lussky (1932), deals with Novalis's religious attitudes; and August Closs, Medusa's Mirror (1957), offers a detailed analysis of the Hymns to the Night.