George MacDonald & Novalis

It was during 1842, whilst cataloguing a library (most probably at Thurso Castle in Caithness), that MacDonald became acquainted with the classic works of the German Romantics such as Goethe, Schiller, Jean Paul and Heinrich Heine. Using a New Testament and a grammar he had already begun to read German. As he later wrote in The Portent, "I found in these volumes a mine of wealth inexhaustible." It was a wealth that was to play a vital part in the development of his imagination and spiritual vision.

In particular MacDonald discovered the writings of the mystical poet and novelist Frederick von Hardenburg who wrote under the pseudonym of "Novalis", the magic of E.T.A. Hoffman (he especially loved The Golden Pot) and De La Motte Fouqué whose Undine he regarded as the most perfect of fairy tales. These, together with the mystics Swedenborg and Jacob Boehme and the English Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge, were to baptise his imagination in a deep way.

They introduced him to the concept of a God of love whose character could be seen in the workings of nature. William Raeper, in his biography of MacDonald, comments that, "The life and thought of Novalis so gripped MacDonald that he returned to him again and again, finding some deep affinity in the spiritual, sad and simple poetry of the afflicted German.”

Novalis' best known works are the Hymns to the Night (1799) and Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800). He wrote both works while already suffering from consumption, the disease from which he died in March 1801. This was almost four years to the day after the death of Sophie, the idealised and doomed love of his life. He died believing that once his soul had escaped this body he would meet her again face to face.

The hillock became a cloud of dust, and through the cloud I saw the glorified face of my beloved. In her eyes eternity reposed. I laid hold of her hands, and the tears became a sparkling bond that could not be broken. In to the distance swept by, like a tempest, thousands of years. On her neck I welcomed the new life with ecstatic tears. Never was such another dream; then first and ever since I hold fast an eternal, unchangeable faith in the heaven of the Night, and its Light the Beloved. (Hymns to the Night, MacDonald's own translation in Rampolli).

The Night for Novalis had a special significance as the place of suffering and loss where God reveals himself and also as the counter balance to Light and human reasoning.

His mysticism and piety sought to integrate heart and soul, and a longing after a "new" form of Christianity which greatly appealed to MacDonald. Novalis' Spiritual Songs were revelations of the new religion, of the deification of the universe and his yearning love for eternity. He argued that classical religions encouraged a deep fear of death. Christianity, however, had reconciled the world to the idea of death, through Christ's resurrection from the dead. In MacDonald's imagination this was transmuted into a belief that death was merely a higher form of life.

At Christmas 1851, MacDonald translated the Spiritual Songs of Novalis and distributed copies as presents for his friends. In due course he also translated the Hymns to the Night which were published in a volume called Exotics and later included in Rampolli. Sadly these works did not sell well and twice he published the Spiritual Songs at his own expense. The following is taken from the 5th Hymn to the Night:

Uplifted is the stoneAnd all mankind arisen!We are thy very own,We are no more in prison!What bitterest grief can stayBeside thy golden cup,When earth and life give wayAnd with our Lord we sup!

Lost, lost are all our losses!Love is for ever free!The full life heaves and tosses Like an unbounded sea! One live, eternal story! One poem high and broad! And sun of all our glory The countenance of God!

As a response to Enlightenment materialism, the idea that what we see is all there is, Novalis wrote, 'we can regard dreams, if not as directly sent from heaven above, at least as divine gifts, as friendly companions on our pilgrimage to the holy sepulchre.' The role of the poet-dreamer is to enable his readers to have a renewed vision of the world and how the physical and spiritual are closely integrated. Where prose restricts our vision, the use of symbols sets our imagination free to glimpse and embrace more complex truths.

Gisela Kreglinger, in her book Storied Revelation: Parables, Imagination, and George MacDonald's Christian Fiction, comments succinctly that, 'the highest form of dreams happens in a synthesis of dreaming and waking. In this synthesis the experience of the individual is brought into the spiritual world created by the imagination.' For MacDonald, the source of our dreams is not our own sub-conscious but the God who gives them. This is a key to understanding correctly MacDonald's Phantastes and Lilith. One an early work, the other late.

Novalis' novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen was the story of a journey and the search for a mysterious blue flower. It was a symbolic parable ('Erziehungsroman') that, in many ways, prefigured Phantastes and Lilith. Representing in dramatic form a step by step ascent and deliverance from the bonds of this earthly life. However, with MacDonald the quest was an inward one. Like MacDonald's Scottish novels it was also deliberately set in a removed but recognisable past.

MacDonald prefaced Phantastes with some quotations from Novalis including, 'A fairy story is like a disjointed dream-vision, an ensemble of wonderful things and occurrences, for example, a musical fantasy, the harmonic sequences of an Aeolian harp, nature itself ... '. It was a dream exploring the hidden unconscious inner meaning of the soul.

One of MacDonald's favourite sayings came from Novalis, 'Our life is no dream; but it ought to become one, and perhaps will,' which he quoted in Phantastes, Lilith, The Portent and elsewhere. Novalis also wrote, 'We are closer to things invisible than to things visible.' His belief was that the heart was the key to the world and life itself, and that all men and women were on a journey Homeward.

Novalis exalted the poet as a priest and philosopher, believing that 'poetry represents what cannot be represented.' There was a relationship between this world and the next which the Enlightenment had missed. Novalis argued that all the ills of the Enlightenment flowed from the Reformation, the destructive effect of rationalism culminating in a 'hatred for the Bible, for Christian belief, and finally for Religion itself'

The motto of David Elginbrod, 'Wo keine Götter sind, walten Gespenster' ('Where God's are not, spectres rule'), was taken from Novalis' Die Christenheit oder Europa.

© 2014 Michael J Partridge