Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Night in Novalis, Schelling, and Hegel

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Night in Novalis, Schelling, and Hegel

Article excerpt

THE ABSOLUTE NIGHT INVOKED BY THE GERMAN ROMANTIC FRIEDRICH von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, might well have been more influential at the turn of the nineteenth century than previously acknowledged. This image saturating his dithyrambic cycle Hymnen an die Nacht [Hymns to the Night], published in 1800, continues to be read by some in terms of obscure private experiences despite the twentieth-century work of Kate Hamburger, Martin Dyck, and others that show scientific connections. (1) This construal is especially popular in the Enghsh-speaking world and has followed a long tradition of interpreting Novalis that began with the reviews of essayist Thomas Carlyle. In the late 1820s, Carlyle had tied this poet not just to the medieval German mystic Jakob Bohme but also to what he regarded as the "tenebrific constellation" of Immanuel Kant and the "Kantists." (2) Common readers today tend to merge Novalis's night more with a state of spiritual loneliness the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross had called "the dark night of the soul" ["la noche oscura del alma"]. This inclination is not merely the result of a religious metaphor's familiarity; it derives its understanding from an incident linked to the poem's inspiration, an epiphany Novalis experienced at the grave of his first fiancre, Sophie von Kuhn, on 13 May 1797. (3)

The subsequent view that Novahs's spiritual insight was inextricable from his emotional vulnerability has led several critics to identify a wide range of literary influences. Suggestions include August Wilhelm Schlegel's essay on Romeo and Juliet of 1797, Johann Gottfried Herder's mythic poems, the religious writings of Karl von Eckartshausen and Johann Patti Friedrich Richter, or Jean Paul, and Edward Young's Night Thoughts of 1742-45. (4) Young's poem, which had numerous European translations by the end of the eighteenth century, is often cited in view of its thematic resemblance to Novahs's poem and its reputation among German writers such as Herder, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Christoph Martin Wieland, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (5) Novalis might have turned to this reflection on mortality weeks before his graveside experience, but it seems rather excessive to proclaim Young's direct and deep impact. The British surrealist David Gascoyne expresses the same doubt in his introduction to an English edition of Hymnen an die Nacht translated by the American poet Jeremy Reed and published in 1989: Gascoyne notes that Young's poem exudes disgruntlement--its other tide being, after all, The Complaint--while Novalis's achieves "a serene transcendence of bereavement and mourning through the resolution of grief into rapture rather than resignation." (6)

This distinction between two otherwise comparable nights demands that we not only make better sense of Novalis's design but also check our own assumptions about lyrical intensity. Well-meaning critics who rehash the point of his anguish inadvertently perpetuate a tiresome picture of a sentimental artist so devastated by loss that he could barely order his thoughts, let alone argue for them. Even the esteemed Friedrich Hiebel seems to have contributed to this impression when he found Hymnen an die Nacht "deeply rooted in those months of grief" and its "emotional depth" reached only after three years of recuperation. (7) Such views present an obvious interpretive problem: what ultimately saw print in the Schlegel brothers' journal Athenaeum is taken to manifest both a profound mystical self-transformation and a contrary rehance on the overcoming of trauma. Novahs's poem becomes both the product of a strong mind able to integrate and transcend thoughts and the mark of irresolution and maladjustment to life, the product of a weak mind. The inconsistency here is wholly illusory; in what follows I will show that Novalis's main ideas reflect the distinct intellectual currents of his time. His image of night is no casual aesthetic plaything and in fact provided a heretofore uncharted series of reactions from both the philosophers Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. …

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