Wallace Stevens worked as a lawyer for an insurance company, William Carlos Williams was an obstetrician, Philip Larkin ran a university library, but few poets have ever had to manage a salt mine. For Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772–1801), the great German Romantic poet who called himself "Novalis," the administration of salt mines wasn't just his profession, it was his passion. A man of encyclopedic interests, philosopher as well as poet, Novalis saw all knowledge as interconnected. He was fluent in Greek and Latin by age 12 and by his early 20s had mastered not only mining technology but geology, physics and chemistry, mathematics and biology, history and law. He'd studied with Friedrich Schiller and sat at the feet of Johann Gottlieb Fichte.
A brilliant conversationalist, who talked three times faster than anyone else, according to one contemporary, Novalis was handsome, dashing, and an incorrigible flirt. He was also precocious poetically. His father, the sonorously named Heinrich Ulrich Erasmus Freiherr von Hardenberg — manager of salt mines himself — was surprised one Sunday to learn that the hymn he'd been singing in church had been composed by his own son. When he died, a few months short of his 30th birthday, Novalis had published only a few fragments and his "Hymns to the Night," the strange poems on which his fame — and his cult — rested for over a century.
The "Hymns," for all their visionary beauty, shed only a glimmer on the phenomenon that was Novalis. The poetic fragment was his true form. This becomes clear from his "Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon" (SUNY Press, 320 pages, $35), expertly translated, edited, and introduced by David W. Wood. The astonishing "Notes" consists of 1,151 aphorisms and observations drawn from every known discipline. Through his feverish labors on it over the last few years of his life, Novalis intended, in Mr. Wood's words, "to reunite all the separate sciences into a universal science." His jottings may have been fragmentary, but his vision was comprehensive. In the "Hymns," Novalis celebrated "the sacred, ineffable and mysterious Night" and exclaimed, "I will sink down into dewdrops and mingle myself with ashes." But in these notes, he is precise, astute, and practical.
Novalis wasn't a classic aphorist. His insights don't clinch a single bitter point but open outward; they are suggestive and sometimes puzzling. He remarks, "Every illness is a musical problem — the cure is a musical solution. The more rapid, and yet more complete the solution — the greater the musical talent of the doctor." I'm not sure what this means but haven't we all felt, at the onset of a cure, something like the return of a hidden harmony? Later he says, "Philosophy is really homesickness — the desire to be everywhere at home," and the italics are his, as though he were trying to crystallize all philosophy, from Plato on, in a statement at once definitive yet full of yearning. Finally, in an observation that seems startlingly modern, "Time is inner space — space is outer time." Could Einstein have put it better?
There seems to be no topic, from the mysteries of the skin to the properties of minerals, which Novalis's encyclopedic ambition failed to confront. Though his science is long outmoded, his curiosity quivers with insistent life. When he writes, "The acoustics of the soul is still an obscure, yet perhaps vitally important domain," and goes on to speculate on "multisenses — on obscure senses — on new senses," we find ourselves in the presence of a thinker unusually attuned to unexplored, and barely imagined, possibilities.
Novalis has always been seen as the poet of "The Blue Flower," as in the title of the beautiful 1997 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. On November 17, 1794, Novalis first set eyes on the 12-year-old Sophie von Kuhn and within 15 minutes, as he later reported, had fallen in love. They became engaged but Sophie fell ill. After three excruciating operations to remove a tumor from her liver, she died on March 19, 1797. She had just turned 15. The death of Novalis's beloved brother a month later compounded his grief. Sophie, whom he had playfully nicknamed "Philo-Sophie," became the mystical lodestone of his imagination.
Still, as Bruce Donehower demonstrates in "The Birth of Novalis: Friedrich von Hardenberg's Journal of 1797, With Selected Letters and Documents" (SUNY Press, 159 pages, $25), Novalis placed Sophie on an impossible pedestal yet saw her as she was. In a sketch he took note of her phobias (ghosts, spiders, and mice), her favorite foods ("beef and beans — eel"), her fondness for wine and tobacco, her occasional impudence, and observed, "She can't stand too much attention but pouts if she's overlooked." Mr. Donehower includes excerpts from Sophie's journal in this excellent collection of letters, diaries, and memoirs. These show her as very much the bored teenager; in entry after entry, while Novalis was courting her, she writes glumly, "and again nothing much happened." In Novalis, as both these books show, the mystical is never far from the salt mine. And like her lover, the Blue Flower had tough roots.