Thomas Carlyle: On Novalis 2/5

Excerpt: “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays: Novalis” by Thomas Carlyle, 1829.


‘In this season,’ observes Tieck, ‘Novalis lived only to his sorrow; it was natural for him to regard the visible and the invisible world as one; and to distinguish Life and Death only by his longing for the latter. At the same time too, Life became for him a glorified Life; and his whole being melted away as into a bright, conscious vision of a higher Existence. From the sacredness of Sorrow, from heartfelt love and the pious wish for death, his temper and all his conceptions are to be explained: and it seems possible that this time, with its deep griefs, planted in him the germ of death, if it was not, in any case, his appointed lot to be so soon snatched away from us.
‘He remained many weeks in Thuringia; and came back comforted and truly purified, to his engagements; which he pursued more zealously than ever, though he now regarded himself as a stranger on the earth. In this period, some earlier, many later, especially in the Autumn of this year, occur most of those compositions, which, in the way of extract and selection, we have here given to the Public, under the title of Fragments; so likewise the Hymns to the Night.’
Such is our Biographer’s account of this matter, and of the weighty inference it has led him to. We have detailed it the more minutely, and almost in the very words of the text, the better to put our readers in a condition for judging on what grounds Tieck rests his opinion, That herein lies the key to the whole spiritual history of Novalis, that ‘the feeling which now penetrated and inspired him may be said to have been the substance of his Life.’ It would ill become us to contradict one so well qualified to judge of all subjects, and who enjoyed such peculiar opportunities for forming a right judgment of this: meanwhile we may say that, to our own minds, after all consideration, the certainty of this hypothesis will nowise become clear.
Or rather, perhaps, it is to the expression, to the too determinate and exclusive language in which the hypothesis is worded, that we should object; for so plain does the truth of the case seem to us, we cannot but believe that Tieck himself would consent to modify his statement. That the whole philosophical and moral existence of such a man as Novalis should have been shaped and determined by the death of a young girl, almost a child, specially distinguished, so far as is shown, by nothing save her beauty, which at any rate must have been very short-lived, –will doubtless seem to every one a singular concatenation.
We cannot but think that some result precisely similar in moral effect might have been attained by many different means; nay, that by one means or another, it would not have failed to be attained. For spirits like Novalis, earthly fortune is in no instance so sweet and smooth, that it does not by and by teach the great doctrine of Entsagen, of ‘Renunciation,’ by which alone, as a wise man well known to Herr Tieck has observed, ‘can the real entrance on Life be properly said to begin.’
Experience, the grand Schoolmaster, seems to have taught Novalis this doctrine very early, by the wreck of his first passionate wish; and herein lies the real influence of Sophie von K. on his character; an influence which, as we imagine, many other things might and would have equally exerted: for it is less the severity of the Teacher than the aptness of the Pupil that secures the lesson; nor do the purifying effects of frustrated Hope, and Affection which in this world will ever be homeless, depend on the worth or loveliness of its objects, but on that of the heart which cherished it, and can draw mild wisdom from so stern a disappointment.
We do not say that Novalis continued the same as if this young maiden had not been; causes and effects connecting every man and thing with every other extend through all Time and Space; but surely it appears unjust to represent him as so altogether pliant in the hands of Accident; a mere pipe for Fortune to play tunes on; and which sounded a mystic, deep, almost unearthly melody, simply because a young woman was beautiful and mortal.
We feel the more justified in these hard-hearted and so unromantic strictures, on reading the very next paragraph of Tieck’s Narrative. Directly on the back of this occurrence, Novalis goes to Freyberg; and there in 1798, it may be therefore somewhat more or somewhat less than a year after the death of his first love, forms an acquaintance, and an engagement to marry, with a ‘Julie von Ch_____’! Indeed, ever afterwards, to the end, his life appears to have been more than usually cheerful and happy.
Tieck knows not well what to say of this betrothment, which in the eyes of most Novelreaders will have so shocking an appearance: he admits that ‘perhaps to any but his intimate friends it may seem singular’; asserts, notwithstanding, that ‘Sophie, as may be seen also in his writings, continued the centre of his thoughts; nay, as one departed, she stood in higher reverence with him than when visible and near’; and hurrying on, almost as over an unsafe subject, declares that Novalis felt nevertheless ‘as if loveliness of mind and person might, in some measure, replace his loss’; and so leaves us to our own reflections on the matter.
We consider it as throwing light on the above criticism; and greatly restricting our acceptance of Tieck’s theory. Yet perhaps, after all, it is only in a Minerva-Press Novel, or to the more tender Imagination, that such a proceeding would seem very blamable. Constancy, in its true sense, may be called the root of all excellence; especially excellent is constancy in active well-doing, in friendly helpfulness to those that love us, and to those that hate us: but constancy in passive suffering, again, in spite of the high value put upon it in Circulating Libraries, is a distinctly inferior virtue, rather an accident than a virtue, and at all events is of extreme rarity in this world.
To Novalis, his Sophie might still be as a saintly presence, mournful and unspeakably mild, to be worshipped in the inmost shrine of his memory: but worship of this sort is not man’s sole business; neither should we censure Novalis that he dries his tears, and once more looks abroad with hope on the earth, which is still, as it was before, the strangest complex of mystery and light, of joy as well as sorrow. ‘Life belongs to the living; and he that lives must be prepared for vicissitudes.’
The questionable circumstance with Novalis is his perhaps too great rapidity in that second courtship; a fault or misfortune the more to be regretted, as this marriage also was to remain a project, and only the anticipation of it to be enjoyed by him.
It was for the purpose of studying mineralogy, under the famous Werner, that Novalis had gone to Freyberg. For this science he had great fondness, as indeed for all the physical sciences; which, if we may judge from his writings, he seems to have prosecuted on a great and original principle, very different both from that of our idle theorisers and generalisers, and that of the still more melancholy class who merely ‘collect facts,’ and for the torpor or total extinction of the thinking faculty, strive to make up by the more assiduous use of the blowpipe and goniometer.
The commencement of a work, entitled the Disciples at Sais, intended, as Tieck informs us, to be a ‘Physical Romance,’ was written in Freyberg, at this time: but it lay unfinished, unprosecuted; and now comes before us a very mysterious fragment, disclosing scientific depths, which we have not light to see into, much less means to fathom and accurately measure. The various hypothetic views of ‘Nature,’ that is, of the visible Creation, which are here given out in the words of the several ‘Pupils,’ differ, almost all of them, more or less, from any that we have ever elsewhere met with. To this work we shall have occasion to refer more particularly in the sequel.
The acquaintance which Novalis formed, soon after this, with the elder Schlegel (August Wilhelm), and still more that of Tieck, whom also he first met in Jena, seems to have operated a considerable diversion in his line of study. Tieck and the Schlegels, with some less active associates, among whom are now mentioned Wackenroder and Novalis, were at this time engaged in their far-famed campaign against Duncedom, or what called itself the ‘Old School’ of Literature; which old and rather despicable ‘School’ they had already, both by regular and guerrilla warfare, reduced to great straits; as ultimately, they are reckoned to have succeeded in utterly extirpating it, or at least driving it back to the very confines of its native Cimmeria.
It seems to have been in connexion with these men, that Novalis first came before the world as a writer: certain of his Fragments under the title of Bluthenstaub (Pollen of Flowers), his Hymns to the Night, and various poetical compositions, were sent forth in F. Schlegel’s Musen-Almanach and other periodicals under the same or kindred management. Novalis himself seems to profess that it was Tieck’s influence which chiefly ‘reawakened Poetry in him.’ As to what reception these pieces met with, we have no information: however, Novalis seems to have been ardent and diligent in his new pursuit, as in his old ones; and no less happy than diligent.
‘In the summer of 1800,’ says Tieck, ‘I saw him for the first time, while visiting my friend Wilhelm Schlegel; and our acquaintance soon became the most confidential friendship. They were bright days those, which we passed with Schlegel, Schelling and some other frineds. On my return homewards, I visited him in his house, and made acquaintance with his family. Here he read me the Disciples at Sais, and many of his Fragments.
He escorted me as far as Halle; and we enjoyed in Giebichenstein, in the Riechardts’ house, some other delightful hours. About this time, the first thought of his Ofterdingen had occurred. At an earlier period, certain of his Spiritual Songs had been composed: they were to form part of a Christian Hymnbook, which he meant to accompany with a collection of Sermons. For the rest, he was very diligent in his professional labours; whatever he did was done with the heart; the smallest concern was not insignificant to him.’
The professional labours here alluded to, seem to have left much leisure on his hands; room for frequent change of place, and even of residence. Not long afterwards, we find him ‘living for a long while in a solitary spot of the Guldne Aue in Thuringia, at the foot of the Kyffhauser Mountain’; his chief society two military men, subsequently Generals; ‘in which solitude great part of his Ofterdingen was written.’ The first volume of this Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a sort of Art-Romance, intended, as he himself said, to be an ‘Apotheosis of Poetry,’ was erelong published; under what circumstances, or with what result, we have, as before, no notice.
Tieck had for some time been resident in Jena, and at intervals saw much of Novalis. On preparing to quit that abode, he went to pay him a farewell visit at Weissenfels; found him ‘somewhat paler,’ but full of gladness and hope; ‘quite inspired with plans of his future happiness; his house was already fitted up; in a few months he was to be wedded: no less zealously did he speak of the speedy conclusion of Ofterdingen, and other books; his life seemed expanding in the richest activity and love.’
This was in 1800: four years ago Novalis had longed and looked for death, and it was not appointed him; now life is again rich and far-extending in his eyes, and its close is at hand. Tieck parted with him, and it proved to be forever.
In the month of August, Novalis, preparing for his journey to Freyberg on so joyful an occasion, was alarmed with an appearance of blood proceeding from the lungs. The Physician treated it as a slight matter; nevertheless, the marriage was postponed. He went to Dresden with his Parents, for medical advice; abode there for some time in no improving state; on learning the accidental death of a young brother at home, he ruptured a blood-vessel; and the Doctor then declared his malady incurable. This, as usual in such maladies, was nowise the patient’s own opinion; he wished to try a warmer climate, but was thought too weak for the journey.
In January (1801) he returned home, visibly, to all but himself, in rapid decline. His bride had already been to see him, in Dresden. We may give the rest in Tieck’s words: ‘The nearer he approached his end, the more confidently did he expect a speedy recovery; for the cough diminished, and excepting languour, he had no feeling of sickness. With the hope and the longing for life, new talent and fresh strength seemed also to awaken in him; he thought, with renewed love, of all his projected labours.
He determined on writing Ofterdingen over again from the very beginning; and shortly before his death, he said on one occasion, “Never till now did I know what Poetry was; innumerable Songs and Poems, and of quite different stamp from any of my former ones, have arisen in me.” From the nineteenth of March, the death-day of his Sophie, he became visibly weaker; many of his friends visited him; and he felt great joy when, on the twenty-first, his true and oldest friend, Friedrich Schlegel, came to him from Jena.
With him he conversed at great length; especially upon their several literary operations. During these days he was very lively; his nights too were quiet; and he enjoyed pretty sound sleep. On the twenty-fifth, about six in the morning, he made his brother hand him certain books, that he might look for something; then he ordered breakfast, and talked cheerfully till eight; towards nine he bade his brother play a little to him on the harpsichord, and in the course of the music fell asleep.
Friedrich Schlegel soon afterwards came into the room, and found him quietly sleeping: this sleep lasted till near twelve, when without the smallest motion he passed away, and, unchanged in death, retained his common friendly look as if he yet lived.
‘So died,’ continues the affectionate Biographer, ‘before he had completed his twenty-ninth year, this our Friend; in whom his extensive acquirements, his philosophical talent and his poetic genius must alike obtain our love and admiration. As he had so far outrun his time, our country might have expected extraordinary things from such gifts, had this early death not overtaken him: as it is, the unfinished Writings he left behind him have already had a wide influence; and many of his great thoughts will yet, in time coming, lend their inspiration, and noble minds and deep thinkers will be enlightened and enkindled by the sparks of his genius.
‘Novalis was tall, slender and of noble proportions. He wore his light-brown hair in long clustering locks, which at that time was less unusual than it would be now; his hazel eye was clear and glancing; and the colour of his face, especially of the fine brow, almost transparent. Hand and foot were somewhat too large, and without fine character.
His look was at all times cheerful and kind. For those who distinguish a man only in so far as he puts himself forward, or by studious breeding, by fashionable bearing, endeavours to shine or to be singular, Novalis was lost in the crowd: to the more practised eye, again, he presented a figure which might be called beautiful. In outline and expression his face resembled that of the Evangelist John, as we see him in the large noble Painting by Albrecht Durer, preserved at Nurnberg and Munchen.
‘In speaking, he was lively and loud, his gestures strong. I never saw him tired: though we had talked till far in the night, it was still only on purpose that he stopped, for the sake of rest, and even then he used to read before sleeping. Tedium he never felt, even in oppressive company, among mediocre men; for he was sure to find out one or other, who could give him yet some new piece of knowledge, such as he could turn to use, insignificant as it might seem. His kindliness, his frank bearing, made him a universal favourite: his skill in the art of social intercourse was so great, that smaller minds did not perceive how high he stood above them.
Though in conversation he delighted most to unfold the deeps of the soul, and spoke as inspired of the regions of invisible worlds, yet was he mirthful as a child; would jest in free artless gaiety, and heartily give-in to the jestings of his company. Without vanity, without learned haughtiness, far from every affectation and hypocrisy, he was a genuine, true man, the purest and loveliest embodiment of a high immortal spirit.’
So much for the outward figure and history of Novalis. Respecting his inward structure and significance, which our readers are here principally interested to understand, we have already acknowledged that we had no complete insight to boast of. The slightest perusal of his Writings indicates to us a mind of wonderful depth and originality; but at the same time, of a nature or habit so abstruse, and altogether different from anything we ourselves have notice or experience of, that to penetrate fairly into its essential character, much more to picture it forth in visual distinctness, would be an extremely difficult task.
Nay, perhaps, if attempted by the means familiar to us, an impossible task: for Novalis belongs to that class of persons who do not recognise the ‘syllogistic method’ as the chief organ for investigating truth, or feel themselves bound at all times to stop short where its light fails them. Many of his opinions he would despair of proving in the most patient Court of Law; and would remain well content that they should be disbelieved there. He much loved, and had assiduously studied, Jacob Bohme and other mystical writers; and was, openly enough, in good part a Mystic himself.
Not indeed what we English, in common speech, call a Mystic; which means only a man whom we do not understand, and, in self-defence, reckon or would fain reckon a Dunce. Novalis was a Mystic, or had an affinity with Mysticism, in the primary and true meaning of that word, exemplified in some shape among our own Puritan Divines, and which at this day carries no approbrium with it in Germany, or, except among certain more unimportant classes, in any other country. Nay, in this sense, great honours are recorded of Mysticism: Tasso, as may be seen in several of his prose writings, was professedly a Mystic; Dante is regarded as a chief man of that class.
Nevertheless, with all due tolerance or reverence for Novalis’ Mysticism, the question still returns on us: How shall we understand it, and in any measure shadow it forth? How may that spiritual condition, which by its own account is like pure Light, colourless, formless, infinite, be represented by mere Logic-Painters, mere Engravers we might say, who, except copper and burin, producing the most finite black-on-white, have no means of representing anything?
Novalis himself has a line or two, and no more, expressly on Mysticism: ‘What is Mysticism?’ asks he. ‘What is it that should come to be treated mystically? Religion, Love, Nature, Polity. –All select things (alles Auserwahlte) have a reference to Mysticism. If all men were but one pair of lovers, the difference between Mysticism and Non-Mysticism were at an end.’ In which little sentence, unhappily, our reader obtains no clearness; feels rather as if he were looking into darkness visible.
We must entreat him, nevertheless, to keep up his spirits in this business; and above all, to assist us with his friendliest, cheerfulest endeavour: perhaps some faint far-off view of that same mysterious Mysticism may at length rise upon us.
To ourselves it somewhat illustrates the nature of Novalis’ opinions, when we consider the then and present state of German metaphysical science generally; and the fact, stated above, that he gained his first notions on this subject from Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre. It is true, as Tieck remarks, ‘he sought to open for himself a new path in Philosophy; to unite Philosophy with Religion’; and so diverged in some degree from his first instructor; or, as it more probably seemed to himself, prosecuted Fichte’s scientific inquiry into its highest practical results.
At all events, his metaphysical creed, so far as we can gather it from these Writings, appears everywhere in its essential lineaments synonymous with what little we understand of Fichte’s, and might indeed, safely enough for our present purpose, be classed under the head of Kantism, or German metaphysics generally.
Now, without entering into the intricacies of German Philosophy, we need here only advert to the character of Idealism, on which it is everywhere founded, and which universally pervades it. In all German systems, since the time of Kant, it is the fundamental principle to deny the existence of Matter; or rather we should say, to believe it in a radically different sense from that in which the Scotch philosopher strives to demonstrate it, and the English Unphilosopher believes it without demonstration.
To any of our readers, who has dipped never so slightly into metaphysical reading this Idealism will be no inconceivable thing. Indeed it is singular how widely diffused, and under what different aspects, we meet with it among the most dissimilar classes of mankind. Our Bishop Berkeley seems to have adopted it from religious inducement: Father Boscovich was led to a very cognate result, in his Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis, from merely mathematical considerations. Of the ancient Pyrrho, or the modern Hume, we do not speak: but in the opposite end of the Earth, as Sir W. Jones informs us, a similar theory, of immemorial age, prevails among the theologians of Hindostan.
Nay, professor Stewart has declared his opinion, that whoever at some time of his life has not entertained this theory, may reckon that he has yet shown no talent for metaphysical research.
Neither is it any argument against the Idealist to say that, since he denies the absolute existence of Matter, he ought in conscience to deny its relative existence; and plunge over precipices, and run himself through with swords, by way of recreation, since these, like all other material things, are only phantasms and spectra, and therefore of no consequence. If a man, corporeally taken, is but a phantasm and spectrum himself, all this will ultimately amount to much the same as it did before. Yet herein lies Dr. Reid’s grand triumph over the Sceptics; which is as good as no triumph whatever.
For as to the argument which he and his followers insist on, under all possible variety of figures, it amounts only to this very plain consideration, that ‘men naturally, and without reasoning, believe in the existence of Matter’; and seems, philosophically speaking, not to have any value; nay the introduction of it into Philosophy may be considered as an act of suicide on the part of that science, the life and business of which, that of ‘interpreting Appearances,’ is hereby at an end.
Curious it is, moreover, to observe how these Common-sense Philosophers, men who brag chiefly of their irrefragable logic, and keep watch and ward, as if this were their special trade, against ‘Mysticism’ and ‘Visionary Theories,’ are themselves obliged to base their whole system on Mysticism, and a Theory; on Faith, in short, and that of a very comprehensive kind; the Faith, namely, either that man’s Senses are themselves Divine, or that they afford not only an honest, but a literal representation of the workings of some Divinity.
So true is it that for these men also, all knowledge of the visible rests on belief of the invisible, and derives its first meaning and certainty therefrom!
The Idealist, again, boasts that his Philosophy is Transcendental, that is, ‘ascending beyond the senses’; which, he asserts, all Philosophy, properly so called, by its nature is and must be: and in this way he is led to various unexpected conclusions. To a Transcendentalist, Matter has an existence, but only as a Phenomenon: were we not there, neither would it be there; it is a mere Relation, or rather the result of a Relation between our living Souls and the great First Cause; and depends for its apparent qualities on our bodily and mental organs; having itself no intrinsic qualities; being, in the common sense of that word, nothing.
The tree is green and hard, not of its own natural virtue, but simply because my eye and my hand are fashioned so as to discern such and such appearances under such and such conditions. Nay, as an Idealist might say, even on the most popular grounds, must it not be so? Bring a sentient Being, with eyes a little different, with fingers ten times harder than mine; and to him that Thing which I call Tree shall be yellow and soft, as truly as to me it is green and hard.
Form his Nervous-structure in all points the reverse of mine, and this same Tree shall not be combustible or heat-producing, but dissoluble and cold-producing, not high and convex, but deep and concave; shall simply have all properties exactly the reverse of those I attribute to it. There is, in fact, says Fichte, no Tree there; but only a Manifestation of Power from something which is not I. The same is true of material Nature at large, of the whole visible Universe, with all its movements, figures, accidents and qualities; all are Impressions produced on me by something different from me.
This, we suppose, may be the foundation of what Fichte means by his far-famed Ich and Nicht-Ich (I and Not-I); words which, taking lodging (to use the Hudibrastic phrase) in certain ‘heads that were to be let unfurnished,’ occasioned a hollow echo, as of Laughter, from the empty apartments; though the words are in themselves quite harmless, and may represent the basis of a metaphysical Philosophy as fitly as any other words.
But farther, and what is still stranger than such Idealism, according to these Kantean systems, the organs of the Mind too, what is called the Understanding, are of no less arbitrary, and, as it were accidental character than those of the Body. Time and Space themselves are not external but internal entities: they have no outward existence, there is no Time and not Space out of the mind; they are mere forms of man’s spiritual being, laws under which his thinking nature is constituted to act.
This seems the hardest conclusion of all; but it is an important one with Kant; and is not given forth as a dogma; but carefully deduced in his Critik der reinen Vernunft with great precision, and the strictest form of argument.
The reader would err who supposed that this Transcendental system of Metaphysics was a mere intellectual card-castle, or logical hocus-pocus, contrived from sheer idleness and for sheer idleness, being without any bearing on the practical interests of men. On the contrary, however false, or however true, it is the most serious in its purport of all Philosophies propounded in these latter centuries; has been taught chiefly by men of the loftiest and most earnest character; and does bear, with a direct and highly comprehensive influence, on the most vital interests of men.
To say nothing of the views it opens in regard to the course and management of what is called Natural Science, we cannot but perceive that its effects, for such as adopt it, on Morals and Religion, must in these days be of almost boundless importance. To take only that last and seemingly strangest doctrine, for example, concerning Time and Space, we shall find that to the Kantist it yields, almost immediately, a remarkable result of this sort. If Time and Space have no absolute existence, no existence out of our minds, it removes a stumbling-block from the very threshold of our Theology.
For on this ground, when we say that the Deity is omnipresent and eternal, that with Him it is a universal Here and Now, we say nothing wonderful; nothing but that He also created Time and Space, that Time and Space are not laws of His being, but only of ours. Nay, to the Transcendentalist, clearly enough, the whole question of the origin and existence of Nature must be greatly simplified; the old hostility of Matter is at an end, for Matter is itself annihilated; and the black Spectre, Atheism, ‘with all its sickly dews,’ melts into nothingness forever.
But farther, if it be, as Kant maintains, that the logical mechanism of the mind is arbitrary, so to speak, and might have been made different, it will follow, that all inductive conclusions, all conclusions of the Understanding, have only a relative truth, are truly only for us, and if some other thing be true.
Thus far Hume and Kant go together, in this branch of the inquiry: but here occurs the most total, diametrical divergence between them. We allude to the recognition, by these Transcendentalists, of a higher faculty in man than Understanding; of Reason (Vernunft), the pure, ultimate light of our nature; wherein, as they assert, lies the foundation of all Poetry, Virtue, Religion; things which are properly beyond the province of the Understanding, of which the Understanding can take no cognisance, except a false one.
The elder Jacobi, who indeed is no Kantist, says once, we remember: ‘It is the instinct of Understanding to contradict Reason.’ Admitting this last distinction and subordination, supposing it scientifically demonstrated, what numberless and weightiest consequences would follow from it alone!
These we must leave the considerate reader to deduce for himself; observing only farther, that the Teologia Mistica, so much venerated by Tasso in his philosophical writings; the ‘Mysticism’ alluded to by Novalis; and generally all true Christian Faith and Devotion, appear, so far as we can see, more or less included in this doctrine of the Transcendentalists; under their several shapes, the essence of them all being what is here designated by the name Reason, and set forth as the true sovereign of man’s mind.
To be continued…