Novalis, a Guardian Spirit

The short life of Friedrich von Hardenberg brought him to an initation at the grave of his beloved. Out of this experience, he created works that still speak to us today. A portrait for the 250th anniversary of his birth.

For Dante, it was a descent into the underworld, the inferno. For Novalis, it was a descent into the night, into the underworld of consciousness, and a departure from the day. Dante was 25 years old when his lover and confidant Beatrice died. Novalis was also 25 years old when his secret fiancée and the awakener of his love preceded him to death. For Dante, this experience led to a new life and the literal constitution of his ‹Vita Nova›. For Novalis, it led to the birth of a spirituality that would make him a mystic, a prophet, and an instrument of a completely new experience of Christ. Three years followed: at the age of 28, Dante put an end to the last page of the ‹Vita Nova›. At the same age, Novalis carried the completed version of the ‹Hymns to the Night› to the printing house. Both paths, both works, would eventually lead to the sight and praise of the eternal feminine, the Divine Sophia, the Queen of Heaven, the supreme love: gathering power of all rays, awakening love in the human heart. Two years later, both poets returned to Earth, Dante married Gemma Donati, whom he did not mention in any work, and Novalis married Julie von Charpentier. We find her birthday, at least, albeit without attribution, immortalized in the mountain chapter of ‹Heinrich von Ofterdingen›: «With what kind of devotion I saw for the first time in my life on the sixteenth of March, now forty-five years ago, the king of metals in delicate leaves between the crevices of the rock.» Novalis had seen new gold shine in the Earth’s eclipse.

The number 45 adds up to 9, which flows to 10, the earthy sum of 16 and 3, the number of the incarnation.

The prophetic young Hardenberg had long before played his visionary game with numbers. But what can we say about the wedding card of Novalis and Sophie von Kühn, printed only four months after their first meeting in Grüningen?

We make our connection known to our mutual relatives and friends on March 19 of this year and rest assured in advance of their friendly participation.

Schlöben, March 25, 1798.
Friedrich von Hardenberg and Sophie von Hardenberg, born von Kühn

It is the announcement of a wedding and a name change, which would never take place. However, the card anticipates both days of death – Sophie’s on March 19, and Hardenberg’s on the 25th. Days of death anticipating the later mystical wedding! So, what do we say to such conundrums? The young man encounters fate in images of numbers and figures, in the imagination of other worlds, as the language of the hidden secret word.

When numbers and figures are no longer
the key to all creatures
When those who sing or kiss
know more than profound scholars …
Then flies away before a secret word
the whole inverted being.

Revival as the Life Pentecost

It all began during Hardenberg’s 22nd year of life. To be precise: on Monday, November 17, 1794. Ten days prior, he had started his service in the district office of Tennstedt for a one-year internship and reported to his brother in an exuberant sense and courage: «I am doing very well here. I have already been to Langensalza. Also there I hope to get into Train. Spun through the world – there, as everywhere, is a lack of dancers.» And on Sunday, November 16, he lets his counterpart in the ironized official German know that «in the old smokey office there seems to be a true pandemonium in which he» – because he speaks of himself distancing himself in the third person – «incessantly the woolly devil chicaned and dances around in front of him on paper with lustful pictures … Otherwise, he likes it very much, especially since he lives between four female neighbors, who are each approximately 18 years old, and say their attack has a good fundum dotalem along with beautiful pertinence and uses of all kinds», in short, alive, exuberant, sensual. The next day he goes with an acquaintance, Adolph von Selmnitz, who would thus come to his only but lasting appearance in the career of the Novalis, on a carriage ride to the nearby castle Grüningen, where the widowed wife von Kühn lives with her two daughters as a married wife of Rockenthien. One of the daughters is now Sophie von Kühn – and she should very well go down in literary history, although she can not write a word flawlessly, is not even 13 years old, but meets him attentively and openly on this Monday.

Image: Portrait of Novalis by Franz Gareis, around 1799

Because now in an hour, in a quarter of an hour, all previous relationships and quarrels fall away from him. He has a deep familiarity with this girl, and feels it reciprocated and moved, touched, and shaken in his innermost being. He hears within himself the ‹voice of genius›, who calls, awakens, and looks at his ‹I› at the same time. On the same evening, he writes thanks to the acquaintance, Selmnitz, who had brought him to Grüningen, for this excursion in the mood of emotion, and he suddenly finds his poetic tone.

To Adolph Selmnitz

What fits, that must round off,
What understands itself, has to find itself,
What is good, has to connect,
What loves, has to be together.
Give me your hands trustingly,
Be my brother and turn
your look ahead of your demise
no longer away from me.
A place – where we are moving,
A happiness – for which we glow
One heaven – me and you.

It is one look, one touch, which already formulates the end of life, and Hardenberg reports on this shortly afterward to his brother Erasmus: a quarter of an hour has transformed his life – who, of course, considers this a short-tempered infatuation, at best an intoxication and reproaches him: «You write to me that a quarter of an hour would have defined you; how can you understand a girl fully in a quarter of an hour? … If you had written to me ‹a quarter of a year›…»

Now the writer reacts indignantly, clarifyingly, and Christologically with the poem ‹Beginning›. In it, he counters his brother: If only this were an intoxication, he was «not born for this star»; what would life be anyway? It is the voice of genius that he hears, it is the observed immortality, it is the torch to a higher being, it is the consciousness of true value, which is only too rarely recognized by human beings – be it the anticipation of a higher humanity, it is just not intoxication – as little as the roar of the Pentecost spirit was intoxication and apostolic drunkenness:

You are not intoxicated, you voice of genius …
One day, humanity will be what Sophie is to me
now – completed – moral grace –
Then her higher consciousness will no longer
be confused with the haze of crying.

So the speechless learned about his brother’s Pentecost of life. He learned that Friedrich had found the soul of his life, the guardian spirit of his existence, and looked with him at a future world, and also learned that it was very questionable whether such a finding was only a bridal, loving coming together and not rather an entry into a completely transforming ‹Vita Nova›.

The circle of people around Friedrich von Hardenberg

The child Hardenberg was talked about as dreamy, weak, ailing. Born on May 2, 1772, he was baptized Georg Friedrich Philipp in the cold castle rooms of Oberwiederstedt, then County of Mansfeld. The castle was only accessible through a side gate. 150 years ago, a Hardenberg at the main gate had been waiting for his bride; who was struck by lightning as she was about to get out of the carriage, whereupon the entrance was bricked up. Thus the motifs are struck: bridal shaft, wedding, death as the world of fate into which the later Novalis would grow.

Image: Portrait of Sophie von Kühn

At the age of nine, the child falls seriously ill with dysentery. The strict and introverted father sends the boy to the Zinzendorfer Herrnhutern in Neudietendorf, whose confirmation the adolescent instinctively evades and is finally brought to the uncle in Lucklum near Braunschweig – a lord of the Teutonic Knight Order and Landkomtur of the Ballei Sachsen. Here the young man finds contact with books that would never have crossed the threshold of his father’s house: Goethe’s ‹Werther›, ‹Goetz›, Lessing, of course, Wieland, Cervantes, Shakespeare, French encyclopedists. At the beginning of the third seventh year, the family moves to Weißenfels, where his father becomes a saltwork manager. This was followed by high school years in Eisleben before the young man arrived in Jena at the age of 20 to study law. The revered and first lecturer he encounters there is, of course, Friedrich Schiller. And Hardenberg listens at his feet, captivated by the harmony of poetry, history, art, and philosophy, that he encounters here. And it is Wieland who publishes the first poem by the 21-year-old student in the ‹Teutschen Merkur›. The father reacts gruffly, sees the study of law neglected, and sends his son to Leipzig over the year. It is here where he meets his lifelong friend Friedrich Schlegel; a friend who shapes, criticizes, promotes, and inspires him, who as an ironic-skeptical Mephisto steps to the side of the rapturous dreamer. But Leipzig is also that Little Paris in which even the young Goethe had not thrived, and in the letters Lucies, Luischens, Lauras, Lottchens appear, there is talk of coquettishness, and of debts as well. Throughout the year we find Hardenberg at his next station: Wittenberg, where he finally completes his studies after almost one and a half years. Mention should be made of his acquaintance and the correspondence with the philosopher and Freemason Carl Leonhard Reinhold, whose writing on ‹Hebrew Mysteries› inspired Schiller to his lecture series on the ‹Mission Moses›, the ‹Ballade of the young man to Sais› and in this way the later Novalis to his novel ‹The apprentices of Sais›. Here he touches on the biblical and Egyptian spheres. The student had been reading Schiller’s ‹Don Carlos› at the same time as the ‹Odyssey›, sitting in a vineyard, and Schiller generously and pathetically reported on his insight that «a mistake of entire generations at the expense of the common, pure human sense, which concerns the desecration of our darlings – could entitle one to the zeal of an Elijah who had the Baalspfaffen slaughtered on the Kidron stream in a good Jewish way».

Fichte was the student, in the company of Hölderlin, who had already met him in Jena. He made friends with Schelling on the way in Freiberg – «we quickly became friends, I frankly explained to him our displeasure with his ideas.» Because in addition to studies, jurisprudence, youthful thirst for life, there is a sharpening and training of one’s own thinking, in a growing struggle against Kantian sobriety and in search of the essence of the I: «Spinoza rose to nature – Fichte to the I. I to the thesis of God. – Nature and I are like two pyramids that have one top.»

The fruit of these philosophical efforts is ‹Pollen›, the first publication intended for printing in 1798, three years before death, and for the first time given the code name Novalis, chosen after an old Hardenberg estate – «the name is an old gender name of mine and not entirely inappropriate». What he meant by it was novum agrum, new territory. Hardenberg has entered new territory!

Sophie’s Death and Blessing at the Grave

This new territory was Sophie’s grave – the bride’s grave – and the threshold across this grave into the new territory of mystical, spiritual experience. The diary states: «On Sunday morning, March 19, at half-past 10, she died, 15 years and two days old.» He was not there and did not learn of the events until two days later.

What did her death do to 25-year-old Hardenberg? In a letter, three days later, we read: «For three years she has been my hourly thought. She alone has tied me to life, to the country, to my occupations. With her, I am separated from everything, because I almost don’t have myself anymore. But it’s evening, and it’s as if I’m leaving early, and I would like to be calm and see all the benevolent faces around me – I want to live in her spirit, be gentle and good-natured as she was.» The following Easter, he goes to her grave for the first time. New territory begins, a second era; the journal of the lamentation for the dead, the joy of the resurrection, the will to «die after her» is growing.

My love has
become a flame,
which consumes
everything earthly:

And the next day:

You died – and it lasted
a scary while,
and I followed you.

This time from Easter to Pentecost to St. John means the actual growth, the birth, the release of the seer, prophets, and mystics on his new territory: the birth of Novalis. On May 13, 1797, he had received and read in the morning the newly published new translation of the Schlegel brother, Shakespeare’s ‹Romeo and Juliet›.

«I started reading Shakespeare – I read into it quite a bit. In the evening I went to Sophie. There I was indescribably joyful – flashing moments of enthusiasm – I blew the grave like dust in front of me – centuries were like moments – their closeness was palpable – I believed that she should always step forward.»

Image: Portrait of Johann Gottlieb Fichte by Albrecht Fürchtegott Schultheiß

What is now created in the remaining three years of creation grows from this experience at the bride’s grave. ‹Pollen›, ‹Fragments of Teplitz›, ‹Das allgemeine Brouillon›, ‹Hymns to the Night›, ‹Song to Mary›, ‹Spiritual Songs›, fairy tale poetry, fragments of novels, the speech ‹Christianity or Europe›, which was recited in the circle of friends, was only printed much later and probably only understood today, the unfinished last novel ‹Heinrich von Ofterdingen›, as the search for the Blue Flower and at the same time the great confrontation with the near-distant, strangely familiar Goethe.

At first, in the years and decades after Novalis’ death, it was believed that he was the creator of Romanticism; maybe because he had once written:

Romanticizing means giving the ordinary a mysterious appearance, giving the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite an infinite appearance.

But this falls short, and it hits some things in the novel texts, in the philosophical thoughts, but not the closeness to Christ of the ‹Spiritual Songs›, not that:

Nobody asked who I saw
and who was seen at his arm
I will see only this forever;
And of all hours of life
Will only those like my wounds
Stay open forever, cheerfully.

Or that verse from the eighth of the ‹Spiritual Songs›:

If they knew his love,
All human beings would become Christians,
Leave everything else behind;
All loved only the one,
All would cry with me
And pass in bitter woes.

This is not romanticism in the traditional sense; it is Orphic classicism. Professor Friedrich Hiebel rightly says of him: «With him began a new epoch of Christian existence, which is based on the ground of consciousness of the pure self. He exemplified to us a type of Christian discipleship that did not exist before, his longing for the return of the Golden Age arose from his pure message of being a child, of Johannine childhood. This was felt even by people who only suspected him from afar in his time. How else could words be explained, as Otto von Loeben wrote to his brother Karl: the innermost spirit of our time was embodied in him and then floated ahead of us, according to the goal and the true home of humanity.»

Novalis in Rudolf Steiner’s description

These words become all the more understandable to us if we follow early statements by Rudolf Steiner, with which he initiated a recitation matinee in October 1908. «This young man, who left the physical plane at the age of 29 and who gave more to the German spirit than a hundred and a thousand others, lived a life that was actually the memory of a previous one. […] He saw the time when the souls of plants, animals, and humans were still comrades of divine beings […]. Then the thought of death struck into this life of the Gods and divine earthly beings, and down into the earthly world went the spiritual one. […] And he learns to disenchant what floats in the realms of nature. This happened in Novalis’ soul when he was connected to the soul of his Sophie in his Eternity – and died after her. […] That’s when he had experienced this ‹die and become›, and then he realized what he calls his ‹magical idealism›.»

Image: Memorial plaque for Sophie von Kühn at the village church of Grüningen, cc by-sa 3.0

Today, in the year of the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1772, we are able to deepen the messages of his sentences, his fairy tales, imaginations, and Christian meditations with completely different eyes and ears. He is neither only part of the current history of literature and its exploration as it is only a phenomenon of Central European spirituality. He is, as Herman Grimm also said of Raphael: a global, an interdenominational, and cosmopolitan ambassador of the higher, the best in human beings. He is the herald of the purest wisdom from human beings down to the last detail, which is imbued with a future Christianity. For these two reasons, I call him THE ‹guardian spirit of anthroposophy›.

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