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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Johannes Ewald (1743–1781)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)
 
THE LATTER half of the eighteenth century is known in Danish literature as the “age of enlightenment”; but although a period fairly prolific in literary production, it is distinguished by few conspicuous names. Altogether the most important among these few is that of Johannes Ewald, who stands out as the one great figure of the transition period between Holberg and Oehlenschläger. Born in Copenhagen, November 18th, 1743, he came to manhood a few years after the death of Holberg had bereft Denmark of the father of its literature. He died March 17th, 1781, a little more than a year later than the birth of Oehlenschläger, the most illustrious of his successors.  1
  His brief life of thirty-seven years was outwardly uneventful, except for a boyish attempt to win fame as a warrior, which came to an inglorious end before he had reached the age of eighteen. It was a life of baffled ambition and unsympathetic environment, a life of poverty and sickness,—and it must be added, of reckless dissipation,—brightened only near its close by the sunshine of royal favor and popular recognition. Viewed from within, however, this life, to outward seeming so nearly a failure, was rich with emotion, phantasy, and imaginative experience. The son of a Lutheran priest, and himself destined for that calling, his temperament was the least possible fitted for enlistment in such service; and although he went through the forms, passing his theological examination with great credit, he never undertook pastoral duties, and the poetic impulse soon became so strong as to put a professional career entirely out of the question for him.  2
  Of his youthful feelings and aspirations, Ewald has written with charming naïveté in his ‘Levnet og Meninger’ (Life and Opinions), a fragment of autobiography almost as candid and outspoken as the ‘Confessions’ of Rousseau:—
          “I was from my childhood a lover, an admirer of everything remarkable, whereby one might set himself apart from the crowd, become noticed, discussed, pointed out with the finger. What fruit of true and shining deeds might have sprung from this seed, had it been properly cultivated and given the right direction! But all my pedantic teachers, without a single exception, were content to cram my memory with Biblical phrases, Greek and Latin vocables, and philosophical rubbish; not one of them concerned himself with my turbulent heart, or seemed to care whether or not I was a thinking and feeling being. The fairy tales that I heard with great delight from the servant folk were to me so many articles of faith; to my active imagination they were not only possible, but very fine and worthy of imitation; and since no one took the pains to show me their absurdity, they naturally became the fundamental principles upon which I planned my life in my little noddle.”
  3
  One day, when thirteen years old, the boy got hold of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and emulous of that hero as many other boys have been, started on foot for Holland, intending to sail thence for the Dutch Indies; “hoping that on the way I might be shipwrecked upon some desert island or other.” He got only four miles from home when he was haled ignominiously back. A couple of years later another childish impulse had more serious consequences. The boy of fifteen fell in love, and could not contemplate with patience the ten years or so that must elapse before he could become a priest and find himself in a position to marry. The warrior mood then seized upon him, and he thought that by winning military renown he might hasten a union with the object of his devotion. The Seven Years’ War was then in full swing, and Johannes, with an elder brother whom he had persuaded to go with him, ran away to Hamburg to join the Prussian army. The courage of the brother oozed away, and he returned home, leaving Johannes alone in Hamburg. He enlisted, was sent to Magdeburg, and found himself a soldier of infantry instead of the hussar of his dreams.  4
  Not liking this, he deserted the Prussians for the Austrians, remained with them for a year and a half, became a subordinate officer, took part in the march to Prague, and was in Dresden in 1760 when the city was bombarded. About this time he became convinced that his dreams of swiftly achieved glory had been a delusion; that “the age of the demigods was past,” and that there was small hope of distinction for him as one of a hundred thousand men, “all of whom are pledged to do their duty and dare do nothing more.” Having learned this salutary lesson, he deserted once more, escaped from the army in disguise, and returned to Copenhagen a great deal wiser than he had gone away.  5
  Settling down to his studies, he passed the examination already mentioned, and was looking forward to a cheerful future when he learned that the maiden of his fancy was about to marry another man. The loss “doubtless did much to attune my soul to the deep melancholy that I believe to be a leading characteristic of most of my poems,” he says of this episode. Like many other unhappy young men with the gift of expression, he turned to teach in song what he had learned in suffering, although prose was the medium of which he first sought to make use. ‘Lykkens Tempel: en Dröm’ (The Temple of Happiness: A Dream), a cold and transparent sort of allegory, was the immediate outcome of his melancholic mood, and was offered for the criticism of a certain society established for the encouragement of literary production. After much revision, the work was accepted by the society and included in its publications. This piece of good fortune, together with his success in a competition for a cantata in memory of Frederik V., so encouraged him that he definitely made up his mind to follow his bent and devote himself to literature. He studied the Latin poets, Corneille, Shakespeare, and Ossian; but his chosen master was Klopstock, and he gave himself up almost without reserve to the influence of the epic poet of the ‘Messias.’ Welhaven says that this work became “Ewald’s poetical Bible. He conquered his natural repugnance, that he might penetrate into the work and let it determine his spiritual destiny. This is why he says in his autobiographical fragment that he had been steadfast enough to read the ‘Messias’ a third or fourth time. He even began to translate this poem, and it was the last thing that he read; after his death the book was found in his bed.”  6
  The influence of Klopstock was very marked, both as to choice of subject and treatment, in Ewald’s next work, ‘Adam og Eva’ (Adam and Eve), a five-act drama in Alexandrine verse with lyrical interludes. Horn calls this work “the first serious attempt made in Danish literature to solve a great poetical problem in a grand style. If this drama illustrates the pioneer aspect of Ewald’s activity, his next work, ‘Rolf Krage,’ illustrates it still further. Although this tragedy is a reversion from poetry to prose, it is eminently poetical in conception, and makes us wish that the English language had a word equivalent to the Danish Digtning or the German Dichtung to use in describing it. ‘Rolf Krage’ is the first attempt of a true Danish poet to draw upon the rich treasury of material offered by the legendary history of the Scandinavian North. The story of the play was taken from Saxo Grammaticus, but it cannot be regarded as a successful reproduction of the spirit of the age which it sought to depict. The vein which it opened to imaginative writers was destined to be worked with rich results by later men,—by Oehlenschläger in the first half of the nineteenth century, by Björnson and Ibsen in the latter half; but Ewald could not escape from the trammels of eighteenth-century sentimentalism or from the artificial ideals of his German models. In this respect he merely failed to do what no eighteenth-century writer could accomplish: that is, he failed to grasp the inner significance of the strong, simple life of the period that produced the ‘Eddas’ and the sagas.  7
  At this point a few words should be said concerning the literary societies in Copenhagen, of which we hear so much when we attempt to follow the life and productivity of Ewald in any detail. One of them—the academic and State-subsidized organization that gave the poet his first encouragement and provided for the publication of several of his works—has already been mentioned. There were besides two others,—the Norwegian Society and the Danish Literary Society, both organized at the time when Ewald was coming into prominence. The former of these organizations stood for the classical ideal in literature, the exemplaria Græca, and was influenced by French models to such an extent that it could see nothing good in the German school. Klopstock and his imitators were the object of its most violent attacks, and Ewald came in for no little abuse on this score. The other society conducted a vigorous opposition to this æsthetic propaganda, and rallied about Ewald as a sort of standard-bearer.  8
  Naturally such a drama as ‘Rolf Krage’ was repugnant to partisans of the Norwegian Society, who felt toward it very much as Frederick the Great felt toward ‘Götz von Berlichingen.’ They could not foresee that a great literary revival was to be the outgrowth of Ewald’s work, and realized only that the new writer had forsaken the examples of literary excellence hitherto most approved by people of good taste. Although not very directly related to this particular conflict of æsthetic opinion, Ewald’s three satirical or controversial plays were a natural product of the factious conditions of the time. ‘Pebersvendene’ (The Bachelors), ‘De Brutale Klappere’ (The Brutal Claqueurs), and ‘Harlekin Patriot’—the first in prose, the two others in verse—did but little for the poet’s fame, and are chiefly interesting as evidence of his almost absolute lack of humor. Oehlenschläger’s judgment of ‘Harlekin Patriot,’ the best of the three, must be accepted as the final word of criticism upon this subject:—“We cannot regard the piece as a comic drama, for it is destitute of action, characterization, illusion, and comic nature.”  9
  Only two of Ewald’s works now remain to be accounted for, but they are his masterpieces; ‘Balder’s Död’ (Balder’s Death), and ‘Fiskerne’ (The Fishers), each a three-act drama in verse. For the tragedy of ‘Balder’s Död’ the poet turned once more to Saxo for inspiration, and produced a far finer and deeper work than ‘Rolf Krage,’ his earlier essay in this direction, had been. The work was moreover the first Danish drama to forsake the conventional and unwieldy Alexandrine verse for the freer movement and richer possibilities of the iambic pentameter. It is still possible to find many faults with this poem, to censure it for its nebulous ideality, its monotony, its lack of adequate motivation, to accept, in short, nearly all of the adverse criticisms of Oehlenschläger and Welhaven; yet there remains enough of the beautiful in its diction and of the masterly in its construction amply to justify the high place that the work occupies in Danish literature. At its best, and particularly in its lyrical portions, the poem soars to a height that had never before been reached by Danish song; it was at once a revelation of the author’s full-fledged genius and of the poetical capacities of his mother tongue.  10
  The production of Ewald’s ‘Fiskerne,’ his last great work, is associated with almost the only gleam of light that fell upon his pathway. He had been living the larger part of his adult life away from the capital, in one country or sea-coast village after another, in great poverty, suffering much of the time from a severe form of rheumatism. At one time the poor-house seemed his only hope of refuge. From all this misery he was finally rescued by a friend, through whose efforts he was brought back to Copenhagen, provided with a comfortable home, and granted aid by the court. ‘Balder’s Död’ was put upon the boards of the Royal Theatre, and the poet at last tasted the sweets of popularity. At the same time his health bettered, and he found strength to devote himself to the new poem which was to prove his last. ‘Fiskerne’ is a lyrical drama—almost what we should call a cantata—based upon the story of a shipwreck that had occurred a few years before. In this work Ewald’s imagination, psychological insight, and lyric impulse found their highest expression. Above all, the poem is informed with a passionate patriotism and a sense of the sea power of Denmark—qualities that affected the national consciousness like wine, and have never lost their charm and their inspiration. One of the lyrics included in this drama became and has ever since remained the national song of Denmark, and no nation can boast a nobler one.  11
  After the production and success of ‘Fiskerne,’ Ewald set about the preparation of a uniform edition of his complete writings, but lived to witness the publication of only one volume. His partly restored health soon failed him again, and he died, after much suffering, in his thirty-eighth year. He was buried in the grave-yard of Trinity Church, Copenhagen, in the presence of a great assembly of his fellow-countrymen, tardily brought to recognize the fact that with his death a great national poet had passed away.  12
  Ewald’s reputation has undergone the vicissitudes that usually come to the memory of men of genius. For a time the subject of indiscriminate laudation, his work was attacked by the searching criticism of later writers, notably Oehlenschläger and Welhaven, and his reputation suffered for a time. Since then his fame has again grown bright, and it is probable that something like the final estimate has been placed upon his work. And a high place in Danish literature must always be occupied by the man who wrote the national ballad of ‘King Christian,’ who brought the pathetic quality into Danish poetry, who first revealed the lyrical possibilities of the Danish language, who established the verse form that was ever thereafter to be chosen for the poetical drama, and who first among moderns tapped the well-spring of the inspiration that was to flow into Scandinavian literature from the rich legendary inheritance of the old Norse myth-makers and saga-men.  13
 
 
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