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This review is taken from PN Review 90, Volume 19 Number 4, March - April 1993.

BACK TO THE NIGHT Novalis, Hymns to the Night, translated by Jeremy Reed with an introductory essay by David Gascoyne (Enitharmon) £4.95

Novalis comes complete with a charismatic aura of strangeness on each of the many occasions his cause is canvassed, as perhaps befits a figure with so honoured a name in the traditions of the 'perennial philosophy'. Of the other great German writers of his generation, only Hölderlin enjoys the comparable benefit of a legendary life to transfix the attention even if there were no literary achievements to address. Yet Novalis's works themselves - a mass of large and small fragments for the most part - exert a fascination beyond anything their author, dead of consumption at twenty-eight, could ever, even with his extraordinary mental powers, have imagined. It has been as though posterity had sought to compensate Novalis by proxy for the deficiencies of his life on earth by granting him the limitless possibilities of eternity. And for a century and more the focus has tended to fall, partly perhaps because they comprise more of an entity than any of his other projects, on the Hymns to the Night, published in 1800 shortly before Novalis's death.

The Hymns provoke a diversity of approach which would have delighted Novalis himself, ever avid as he was to synthesize knowledge after due study of its several, ostensibly separate, branches. But it is what the Hymns say, or can be construed to mean, which has prompted the most comment, given that Night has supplanted any of the more obviously benign and radiant properties of Enlightenment thinking. At the same time, Novalis's ...


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