Night in Novalis, Schelling, and Hegel

March 22, 2011

This article was published in Studies in Romanticism 50.1 (2011): pp. 105-24.

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. 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.” 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.

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