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Danish Literature

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In the Eighteenth Century, Denmark, like the rest of Continental Europe, was strongly under the influence of French ideas. The tragedies 0f Voltaire were the most popular dramas and native writers strove to imitate this pseudo-classical style, but one effective parody, in which its rules and meter were applied to a trivial plot, Wessel's "Love Without Stockings," was sufficient to banish all French plays from the Royal Theater. Only Danish plays on national, subjects were henceforth allowed. A number of young poets, fellow-students at Copenhagan, celebrated in lyrics the mountains and scenery of their native Norway. But this revival fell off in the next generation, and poetry became mechanical.

At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century the new fight of Romanticism penetrated into Denmark. The chief factor in this was the work and influence of the native Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger (1779-1850). In youth he aspired to be an actor and had written poems in the French didactic style then prevailing, but in 1802 Henrik Steffens, who had studied at Jena under Fichte and Schelling, converted his friend to the new Romanticism by one memorable interview, which lasted sixteen hours. Oehlenschläger on the next day wrote "The Golden Horns." In this poem two carved and inscribed relics of antiquity recently unearthed are celebrated as the gifts of the gods, reminding men of their divine origin. Casting aside his former work the poet devoted himself ardently to the new impulse and published in 1803 a volume of ballads and lyrics which inaugurated a new era in Danish literature. Oehlenschläger, who had already given some attention to ancient Scandinavia, now reproduced the "First Song of the Edda," and wrote a pan-theistic interpretation of nature in "The Life of Jesus Christ Annually Repeated in Nature." In the dramatic fairy tale "Aladdin," dedicated to Goethe as his master, Oehlenschläger sought to illustrate the marvelous power of genius. The Danish poet went to Germany in 1805, visiting Fichte and Goethe, thence to Paris, Switzerland and Rome. During the four years thus spent he wrote the national dramas "Hakon Jarl" relating to the overthrow of Pagan sacrifices in Norway by Christianity; "Palnatoke" describing the same period in Denmark; "Axel and Valborg" a romantic love-tragedy. "Correggio" is a tragedy in German in which that gentle painter is set in contrast with the sublime Michael Angelo. On his re-turn to Copenhagen Oehlenschläger was generally lauded as the greatest Danish poet, but was severely criticised by Grundtvig and others. His most important production in later years was a cycle of splendid poems on "The Gods of the North." Among his dramas are "Charles the Great," and "The Land Found and Vanished," which treats of the discovery of Vinland by the Norwegians. He requested that "Socrates," his only attempt at ,a Greek play, might be performed as a memorial after his death.

Jens Emmanuel Baggesen (1765-1826), who was born fourteen years before Oehlenschläger, did not come under the Romantic influence. He had risen from poverty and won his first success by "Comical Tales" in verse, but when his opera was ridiculed he left the country for foreign travel. His descriptive poem "The Labyrinth," published on his return in 1790, received applause. There-after he roamed over Europe, still publishing in Danish and German. When Oehlenschläger had achieved fame, Baggesen was more determined than ever to prove his own superiority. He remains simply a fine comic writer, but the best of all his pieces is the simple poem "Child-hood," translated by Longfellow.

The lyrical dramatist Henrik Hertz (1798-1870) was of Jewish parentage. His satirical "Letters of a Returning One" (1830), professing to be written by Baggesen's ghost, were published anonymously and caused great sensation. After a visit to Italy and France, Hertz showed new power in his romantic dramas "Svend Dyring's House" (1837) and "King René's Daughter" (1845). These two beautiful creations still hold the stage in Den-mark and the latter has been produced in every civilized country. Yet the troubadour genius of Hertz shines most in his sweet impassioned lyrics.

Frederik Paludan-Müller (1809-1876) was the best successor of Oehlenschläger. He wrote under the influence of Byron. His dramas "The Death of Abel" (1854), the philosophic "Kalanus," and "Paradise" (1861) raise him to a high rank among European poets. He obtained even greater success in a long humorous epic, "Adam Homo" (1841-48), which proved him to be a keen satirist.

Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872) was more noted as an earnest theologian than as a poet, and after long service in the Church was made a bishop. His study of Scandinavian antiquities resulted in his publishing "Northern Mythology" and "Decline of the Heroic Life in the North" (1809). In lyrical and historical poetry he rivaled Oehlenschläger, as in "King Harald and Ansgar." From the vehemence of the writings which gave him influence over his countrymen he has been compared to Carlyle.

Bernhard Severin Ingemann (1789-1862), under the influence of Sir Walter Scott, wrote a number of historical romances, "Valdemar Seier" (1826), "King Erik" (1833) and "Prince Otto of Denmark" (1835). Before these he had published many romantic poems, tragedies, and short tales. His rapidity of production and the religious melancholy of his verse gave him high popularity. He was the author of the national song, "Dannebrog."

Perhaps the only Danish writer who is universally known is Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), the prince of story-tellers for children. The son of a poor shoemaker of Odense, he went to Copenhagen and tried in vain to get employment at the theater. He was always fond of travel and his trip to Germany gave occasion for his first book of value, "Silhouettes." After a journey to Italy in 1833 his novel "The Improvisator" gave his impressions of that classic and romantic land. Then came "O. T.," a picture of Northern life. It was not until 1836 that he began to publish the "Wonder Tales," children's stories, forever inseparably connected with his name. In them he gave his fancy free scope, and revealed his child-like heart. The finest story is "The Ugly Duckling" (1845), which is really an allegory of his own career. The most popular of the later volumes are the "Picture Book Without Pictures" and "Tales and Stories." Andersen continued to add to this stock during the rest of his life. In 1837 he published his best novel, "Only a Fiddler," partly autobiographical. His journey to the East is shown in "A Poet's Bazaar" (1842). He was a bird of passage; he never settled down at home till he was past sixty. His "Story of My Life" has been regarded as an imperfect portrait, though it reveals both his merits and his weaknesses. His novels and books of travel show the egotism which constantly beset him. But the children's tales retain their vogue, because they show all things as children see them, living and acting, and tell everything as children wish it to be told.

Wilhelm Bergsöe, born in 1835, was in youth a zoölogist, but having so injured his sight that he was obliged to relinquish such work, he dictated a collection of stories, "From the Piazza del Popolo" (1866), which won general favor. His sight was afterward partly restored and he continued his literary labor. Later works include a romance "From the Old Factory" (1869), "In the Sabine Hills" (1871), stories told in letters; "In the Gloaming" (1876), "The Bride of Rörvig" (1872), and "Who was He?" They show keen observation and vivid imagination and are written in fine style. Some popular works on natural history have come from his pen.

One of the greatest living critics is Georg Brandes, born at Copenhagen in 1842. After a distinguished course at the University he traveled in England, France, and Germany to become acquainted with men of letters and science. The result of his studies appeared in his brilliant and valuable work, "Main Currents of Nineteenth Century Literature" (1872-76). It showed the gradual emancipation of thought through the first half of this Century. His former publications had provoked controversies, but a still greater one arose in 1876 and his opponents prevented his being appointed professor in the University of Copenhagen. Offended at this treatment he left the city and went to Germany. But he had already won a European reputation by "French AEsthetics in Our Day" (1870), "AEsthetic Studies" and "Critiques and Portraits." For some years he resided in Berlin, but he returned to Copenhagen in 1883. Many biographical works have been prepared by him, among them being lives of Tegnèr and Lord Beaconsfield. Among his critical works are "Modern Men of Genius" (1881), "Björnson and Ibsen" (1882). He is industrious, learned, energetic, and brilliant.

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