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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Benjamin W. Wells (1856–1923)
 
THE PLACE of Hans Christian Andersen in literature is that of the “Children’s Poet,” though his best poetry is prose. He was born in the ancient Danish city of Odense, on April 2d, 1805, of poor and shiftless parents. He had little regular instruction, and few childish associates. His youthful imagination was first stimulated by La Fontaine’s ‘Fables’ and the ‘Arabian Nights,’ and he showed very early a dramatic instinct, trying to act and even to imitate Shakespeare, though, as he says, “hardly able to spell a single word correctly.” It was therefore natural that the visit of a dramatic company to Odense, in 1818, should fire his fancy to seek his theatrical fortune in Copenhagen; whither he went in September, 1819, with fifteen dollars in his pocket and a letter of introduction to a danseuse at the Royal Theatre, who not unnaturally took her strange visitor for a lunatic, and showed him the door. For four years he labored diligently, suffered acutely, and produced nothing of value; though he gained some influential friends, who persuaded the king to grant him a scholarship for three years, that he might prepare for the university.  1
  Though he was neither a brilliant nor a docile pupil, he did not exhaust the generous patience of his friends, who in 1829 enabled him to publish by subscription his first book, ‘A Journey on Foot from Holm Canal to the East Point of Amager’: a fantastic arabesque, partly plagiarized and partly parodied from the German romanticists, but with a naïveté that might have disarmed criticism.  2
  In 1831 there followed a volume of poems, the sentimental and rather mawkish ‘Fantasies and Sketches,’ product of a journey in Jutland and of a silly love affair. This book was so harshly criticized that he resolved to seek a refuge and new literary inspiration in a tour to Germany; for all through his life, traveling was Andersen’s stimulus and distraction, so that he compares himself, later, to a pendulum “bound to go backward and forward, tic, toc, tic, toc, till the clock stops, and down I lie.”  3
  This German tour inspired his first worthy book, ‘Silhouettes,’ with some really admirable pages of description. His success encouraged him to attempt the drama again, where he failed once more, and betook himself for relief to Paris and Italy, with a brief stay in the Jura Mountains, which is delightfully described in his novel, ‘O. T.’  4
  Italy had on him much the same clarifying effect that it had on Goethe; and his next book, the novel ‘Improvisatore’ (1835), achieved and deserved a European recognition. Within ten years the book was translated into six languages. It bears the mark of its date in its romantic sentiments. There is indeed no firm character-drawing, here or in any of his novels; but the book still claims attention for its exquisite descriptions of Italian life and scenery.  5
  The year 1835 saw also Andersen’s first essay in the ‘Wonder Stories,’ which were to give him his lasting title to grateful remembrance. He did not think highly of this work at the time, though his little volume contained the now-classic ‘Tinderbox,’ and ‘Big Claus and Little Claus.’ Indeed, he always chafed a little at the modest fame of a writer for children; but he continued for thirty-seven years to publish those graceful fancies, which in their little domain still hold the first rank, and certainly gave the freest scope to Andersen’s qualities, while they masked his faults and limitations.  6
  He turned again from this “sleight of hand with Fancy’s golden apples,” to the novel, in the ‘O. T.’ (1836), which marks no advance on the ‘Improvisatore’; and in the next year he published his best romance, ‘Only a Fiddler,’ which is still charming for its autobiographical touches, its genuine humor, and its deep pathos. At the time, this book assured his European reputation; though it has less interest for us to-day than the ‘Tales,’ or the ‘Picture Book without Pictures’ (1840), where, perhaps more than anywhere else in his work, the child speaks with all the naïveté of his nature.  7
  A journey to the East was reflected in ‘A Poet’s Bazaar’ (1842); and these years contain also his last unsuccessful dramatic efforts, ‘The King Dreams’ and ‘The New Lying-in Room.’ In 1843 he was in Paris, in 1844 in Germany, and in the next year he extended his wanderings to Italy and England, where Mary Howitt’s translations had assured him a welcome. Ten years later he revisited England as the guest of Dickens at Gadshill.  8
  The failure of an epic, ‘Ahasuerus’ (1847), and of a novel, ‘The Two Baronesses’ (1849), made him turn with more interest to wonder tales and fairy dramas, which won a considerable success; and when the political troubles of 1848 directed his wanderings toward Sweden, he made from them ‘I Sverrig’ (In Sweden: 1849), his most exquisite book of travels. As Europe grew peaceful again he resumed his indefatigable wanderings, visiting Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Bohemia, and England; printing between 1852 and 1862 nine little volumes of stories, the mediocre but successful ‘In Spain’ (1860), and his last novel, ‘To Be or Not To Be’ (1857), which reflects the religious speculations of his later years.  9
  He was now in comparatively easy circumstances, and passed the last fifteen years of his life unharassed by criticism, and surrounded with the ‘honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,’ that should accompany old age. It was not until 1866 that he made himself a home; and even at sixty-one he said the idea “positively frightened him—he knew he should run away from it as soon as ever the first warm sunbeam struck him, like any other bird of passage.”  10
  In 1869 he celebrated his literary jubilee. In 1872 he finished his last ‘Stories.’ That year he met with an accident in Innsbruck from which he never recovered. Kind friends eased his invalid years; and so general was the grief at his illness that the children of the United States collected a sum of money for his supposed necessities, which at his request took the form of books for his library. A few months later, after a brief and painless illness, he died, August 1st, 1875. His admirers had already erected a statue in his honor, and the State gave him a magnificent funeral; but his most enduring monument is that which his ‘Wonder Tales’ are still building all around the world.  11
  The character of Andersen is full of curious contrasts. Like the French fabulist, La Fontaine, he was a child all his life, and often a spoiled child; yet he joined to childlike simplicity no small share of worldly wisdom. Constant travel made him a shrewd observer of detail, but his self-absorption kept him from sympathy with the broad political aspirations of his generation.  12
  In the judgment of his friends and critics, his autobiographical ‘Story of My Life’ is strangely unjust, and he never understood the limitations of his genius. He was not fond of children, nor personally attractive to them, though his letters to them are charming.  13
  In personal appearance he was limp, ungainly, awkward, and odd, with long lean limbs, broad flat hands, and feet of striking size. His eyes were small and deep-set, his nose very large, his neck very long; but he masked his defects by studied care in dress, and always fancied he looked distinguished, delighting to display his numerous decorations on his evening dress in complacent profusion.  14
  On Andersen’s style there is a remarkably acute study by his fellow-countryman Brandes, in ‘Kritiker og Portraite’ (Critiques and Portraits), and a useful comment in Boyesen’s ‘Scandinavian Literature.’ When not perverted by his translators, it is perhaps better suited than any other to the comprehension of children. His syntax and rhetoric are often faulty; and in the ‘Tales’ he does not hesitate to take liberties even with German, if he can but catch the vivid, darting imagery of juvenile fancy, the “ohs” and “ahs” of the nursery, its changing intonations, its fears, its smiles, its personal appeals, and its venerable devices to spur attention and kindle sympathy. Action, or imitation, takes the place of description. We hear the trumpeter’s taratantara and “the pattering rain on the leaves, rum dum dum, rum dum dum.” The soldier “comes marching along, left, right, left, right.” No one puts himself so wholly in the child’s place and looks at nature so wholly with his eyes as Andersen. “If you hold one of those burdock leaves before your little body it’s just like an apron, and if you put it on your head it’s almost as good as an umbrella, it’s so big.” Or he tells you that when the sun shone on the flax, and the clouds watered it, “it was just as nice for it as it is for the little children to be washed and then get a kiss from mother: that makes them prettier; of course it does.” And here, as Brandes remarks, every right-minded mamma stops and kisses the child, and their hearts are warmer for that day’s tale.  15
  The starting-point of this art is personification. To the child’s fancy the doll is as much alive as the cat, the broom as the bird, and even the letters in the copy-book can stretch themselves. On this foundation he builds myths that tease by a certain semblance of rationality,—elegiac, more often sentimental, but at their best, like normal children, without strained pathos or forced sympathy.  16
  Such personification has obvious dramatic and lyric elements; but Andersen lacked the technique of poetic and dramatic art, and marred his prose descriptions, both in novels and books of travel, by an intrusive egotism and lyric exaggeration. No doubt, therefore, the most permanent part of his work is that which popular instinct has selected, the ‘Picture Book without Pictures,’ the ‘Tales and Stories’; and among these, those will last longest that have least of the lyric and most of the dramatic element.  17
  Nearly all of Andersen’s books are translated in ten uniform but unnumbered volumes, published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Of the numerous translations of the ‘Tales,’ Mary Howitt’s (1846) and Sommer’s (1893) are the best, though far from faultless.  18
  The ‘Life of Hans Christian Andersen’ by R. Nisbet Bain (New York, 1895) is esteemed the best.  19
 
 
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