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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger (1779–1850)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)
 
THE GREATEST of Danish poets was born in Copenhagen, November 14th, 1779, just a quarter of a century after the death of Holberg. His ancestry was more German than Danish, and his descent from four generations of organists may fairly be reckoned as having some influence in the determination of his artistic bent. His youth was careless and singularly happy; he applied himself indifferently to his studies, read a good many books, and wrote boyish verses, tales, and dramatic sketches. His interest in the drama even impelled him to study for the actor’s profession, and during a year or two he played minor parts on the stage of the Royal Theatre. His youthful literary efforts were of insignificant value, and there was little that was stimulating in the literary surroundings of his early years. Holberg had left nothing that could be called a school, and the classical tradition that he had maintained was carried on feebly enough by a few third-rate poets. This tradition received its death-blow at the hands of Wessel, the one poet contemporary with Ewald who was a real literary force, and whose satirical play ‘Kjærlighed uden Strömper’ (Love without Stockings) had killed classical tragedy in Denmark as effectively as ‘Don Quijote’ killed chivalrous romance in Spain. The exquisite talent of Ewald had blossomed and passed away, its seed to all seeming having fallen upon stony ground. Jens Baggesen, a graceful poet and a master of both pathos and humor, a typical transition figure, striving to escape from a past which he felt to be outworn, but lacking the discernment of the pioneer, was the most conspicuous writer of the closing years of the century; but it was quite evident that no word of his was to be the “open sesame” of the new treasure-house of the spirit.  1
  That word was soon to be spoken by the young Oehlenschläger, who had tired of the play-actor’s calling, and entered the University as a law student. But he found jurisprudence less tempting than the opportunity—offered soon after his entrance—of competing for a prize by writing an essay on the subject of the desirability of substituting the Norse for the Greek mythology in Scandinavian literature. It is hardly necessary to say which side of the argument he took: and although his essay failed to win the prize, it shows us to what extent the ideals that were to control his future creative activity were already shaping themselves in his mind. Meanwhile, the events were hastening that were to give his genius the needed impulse, and help him to the discovery of his true self. After eighty years of peace his country got a taste of warfare in the first year of the present century. The French revolutionary movement and the Napoleonic wars suddenly drew Denmark within their vortex, and a wave of passionate patriotism swept over the land when an English fleet under Nelson attacked the Danes in the harbor of Copenhagen. This event and its attendant surge of national feeling stimulated the young law student to renewed poetical exertions; and although his work was still amateurish and tentative, it struck a new note and gave evidence of a new energy. But the influence that was to operate most powerfully in shaping his poetical destiny was intellectual rather than political. It was the great revolution in taste and sentiment that had been creating a new literature in Germany, and that is called, somewhat vaguely, the Romantic Movement.  2
  Oehlenschläger’s mental condition at this time was like that of a bud ready to burst open with the first hour of sunlight; almost that of a powder magazine needing but a spark for the liberation of its imprisoned force. The sunlight hour or the spark—to leave the reader his choice of metaphors—was provided by a young Norwegian, Henrik Steffens by name, who came to Copenhagen in the summer of 1802, after having spent four years in Germany in the Jena-Weimar circle of Schelling, Fichte, A. W. Schlegel, Schiller, and Goethe. During the first year of his stay in Denmark, Steffens gave courses of lectures in which philosophy and literature and art received fresh and suggestive discussion, just as they were receiving similar discussion by Coleridge in England at almost exactly the same time. Oehlenschläger was introduced to Steffens soon after the arrival of the latter, and lost no time in improving the acquaintance. His first call upon his new friend was at eleven o’clock one morning, and the conversation that began between them was kept up for sixteen hours without a break. At three the next morning, Steffens offered his guest a bed, and the young poet snatched a few hours of restless sleep. Returning to his lodgings, he took pen and ink, and straightway composed ‘Guldhornene’ (The Golden Horns); with which work, says the historian Hansen, “the romantic period of Danish literature begins.” The horns in question were two relics of antiquity that had been unearthed not long before and placed on exhibition. Their history “becomes a symbol for the newly awakened poet: the golden horns, with their strange carvings and mysterious runic inscriptions, are gifts of the gods bestowed upon men to remind them of their divine origin; of the ties, half forgotten, that bind them to the distant past.” Once started upon his new career, Oehlenschläger went forward with all the impetuosity of youth. Abandoning the works upon which he had been engaged, and which were almost ready for the press, he so gave himself up to the new impulse that by Christmas of this memorable year a fresh volume of ‘Poems’ was ready for publication. These ‘Poems,’ bearing the date of the next year (1803), included lyrics, ballads, and a dramatic piece, and proved nothing less than a revelation of the hitherto unknown possibilities of Danish song. Nothing like them had ever before been written in the language, and nothing save the lyrical impulse of Ewald had even remotely foreshadowed such a production. In the words of P. L. Möller, the book became “the corner-stone of nineteenth-century Danish poetry. No other Danish book has so wonderful a fragrance of culture-history, breathes forth such a wealth of glowing memories, of fiery ardor, of the joy of life, and of impossible hopes for the future.”  3
  The years immediately following were the richest of Oehlenschläger’s life. He produced in rapid succession ‘Förste Sang af Edda’ (First Song of the Edda); the prose ‘Vaulundurs Saga’; the cycle of lyrical impressions de voyage called ‘Langelands-Rejsen’ (A Journey to Langeland); the awkwardly named ‘Jesu Christi Gjentagne Liv i den Aarlige Natur’ (The Life of Christ Annually Repeated in Nature), which was a series of poems with the pantheistic inspiration of Novalis and Schelling; and most important of all, the dramatic fairy tale ‘Aladdin,’ wherein the rich free fantasy of the poet’s youthful imagination found its most complete and adequate expression. This poem, based upon the familiar Eastern tale, became deeply significant for Danish culture. It is the gospel of genius, the glorification of the magic power that commands the deepest secrets of existence, the song of the joy of life and the new birth of the spirit after an age of prosaic and uninspired “enlightenment.” The works above mentioned, together with a few others,—all the product of a little over two years of activity,—were collected into the two volumes of ‘Poetiske Skrifter’ (Poetical Writings), published in 1805, just before the author left Denmark for Germany. The poet Hauch, writing of these volumes, spoke as follows: “Nearly everything I had previously read of poetry seemed to give me only momentary glimpses of the temple of the gods, as in the distance it now and then revealed itself to my vision; but Oehlenschläger, next to Shakespeare, was the one who threw the temple wide open for me, so that the fullness of its divine splendor streamed upon me.”  4
  Oehlenschläger’s foreign journey, begun in 1805, extended over four years. For a time he lived in Halle with Steffens and Schleiermacher, and then visited other German cities. In Berlin he made the acquaintance of Fichte, and in Weimar read a German translation of his ‘Aladdin’ to Goethe. A long stay in Paris followed; then a winter in Coppet, as the guest of Madame de Staël; finally a spring and summer in Rome, where he contracted a warm friendship for Thorvaldsen. Six important poetical works resulted from these four years of rich experience and broadening ideals. ‘Hakon Jarl’ (Earl Hakon), ‘Baldur hin Gode’ (Balder the Good), and ‘Thors Rejse til Jöthunhejm’ (Thor’s Journey to Jötunheim), were written in Germany, ‘Palnatoke’ and ‘Axel og Valborg’ in Paris, and ‘Correggio’ in Rome. As these are the greatest of Oehlenschläger’s works, they call for more than a mere designation. It had long been an article of his literary creed, that the most important work to be done for Danish poetry was that of giving a new life to the literature of Edda and Saga, and that he was himself the man best fitted for the task. ‘Hakon Jarl,’ a tragedy in five acts and in blank iambic verse, was the first result of this impulse. It deals with the deeply interesting period of the introduction of Christianity into Norway. “The day was come,” we read in the ‘Heimskringla,’ “when foredoomed was blood-offering and the men of blood-offerings, and the holy faith come in their stead, and the true worship.” The day was near the close of the tenth century, when Olaf Trygvesön fared from Dublin to Norway, and overthrew Earl Hakon, the great heathen chieftain. Oehlenschläger’s treatment of this splendid theme is well-balanced and impressive. He makes us feel the tremendous significance of the struggle, and views the issue with the impartial eye of the artist. ‘Palnatoke’ deals with the same period, taking us to Denmark soon after the forced introduction of Christianity under Harald Blaatand. The tragedy is a worthy counterpart to ‘Hakon Jarl,’ and is distinguished by a similar strength, directness, and fine dramatic workmanship. It is a curious fact that the interest of ‘Palnatoke’ is created and sustained without the introduction of a single female character, and with hardly an allusion to the part played by woman in human life. ‘Axel og Valborg’ atones for this deficiency—if such it be—in the fullest measure; for it is a love tragedy in a sense almost as exclusive as ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and is steeped from beginning to end in the purest romantic sentiment. It is difficult to speak in measured terms of this beautiful work; the other tragedies of Oehlenschläger compel admiration in various degrees and forms, but this commands affection rather than admiration, and has a place all by itself in the heart. This sweet and tender story of the two cousins, forbidden to marry by the canon law, but at last united in death, is dramatized with such simplicity, pathos, and depth of poetic feeling, that the effect upon either spectator or reader is simply overwhelming. It occupies the highest place in Danish literature, and is equaled by but few tragedies in any other modern literature. ‘Baldur hin Gode,’ written under the influence of Sophocles, as expounded by Schleiermacher, is a tragedy in the older poetic form of iambic hexameter, and seeks to deal with the fascinating myth of Balder’s death after the manner of the Greeks. ‘Thors Rejse til Jöthunhejm’ is an epic in five songs, and is interesting as furnishing the prologue to ‘Nordens Guder’ (The Gods of the North), the poet’s greatest work in the non-dramatic field, produced many years later. ‘Correggio,’ the chief result of his Italian sojourn, was first written in German, of which language Oehlenschläger thought himself a master, which he distinctly was not. The character of the painter in this play is conceived rather passively than actively, and the balance inclines too far toward the side of pure emotion to make the work as effective as it might otherwise have been.  5
  Oehlenschläger had left Denmark in the flush of youthful success; when he returned in 1809, he was acclaimed with but few dissenting voices as the greatest of Danish poets, and all sorts of honors were heaped upon him. The following year he married, and was made professor of æsthetics in the University. “Comedies and novels end with the wedding of the hero,” he says in his autobiography; “for only the struggle, not the acquired position, lends itself to their treatment.” Although an account of Oehlenschläger’s career may hardly end with his marriage and settlement in life, it must be said that the remaining forty years of his existence, although they added many volumes to the series of his writings, brought but little increase to his fame. In a certain sense indeed they diminished that fame; for when the first outburst of enthusiasm had died away the voice of the detractor began to be heard, and for many years the poet was compelled to defend himself in a critical warfare that enlisted among his opponents some of the strongest and acutest minds among his contemporaries. Grundtvig, Baggesen, and Heiberg were the leaders in this onslaught. Grundtvig, the strongest of the three, claimed that Oehlenschläger was lacking in the historical sense, and charged him with a lack of religious seriousness. Baggesen’s attack was chiefly concerned with minute questions of philology and æsthetics. It was reserved for Heiberg, a calmer writer, to review Oehlenschläger’s work in the spirit of an enlightened and impersonal æsthetic criticism, and to pass upon it the judgment that has been substantially accepted by posterity.  6
  For twenty years after his return to Denmark in 1809, Oehlenschläger kept hard at work, lecturing at the University, defending himself against his critics, and producing a great amount of original work of various sorts, from the occasional set of verses to the tragedy and the epic-cycle. One year of this period (1816–17) was spent abroad, in what the poet called “a voluntary ostracism,” the journey being undertaken in a moment of petulance resulting from Baggesen’s persistent critical onslaughts. The list of works produced during this score of years is so lengthy, and the greater number of them so unmistakably inferior to their predecessors, that only a few need be named at all. ‘Nordens Guder’ (The Gods of the North), the great epic-cycle of the Scandinavian Pantheon, is the consummation of Oehlenschläger’s efforts to utilize the Norse mythology for the purposes of modern poetry. ‘Den Lille Hyrdedreng’ (The Little Shepherd Boy) was a dramatic idyl so beautiful as almost to silence for a time the critics of the poet. ‘Hrolf Krake,’ another considerable poem, deals with the epic material previously handled by Ewald. ‘Öen i Sydhavet’ (The Isle in the Southern Sea) is a prose romance of great length, the only important work of the sort attempted by Oehlenschläger. The principal tragedies of these twenty years are ‘Stærkodder,’ ‘Hagbarth og Signe,’ ‘Erik og Abel,’ ‘Væringerne i Miklagaard’ (The Varangians in Micklegarth), ‘Karl den Store’ (Karl the Great), and ‘Langbarderne’ (The Lombards).  7
  In the summer of 1829, the poet, just completing his fiftieth year, made a holiday trip to Sweden, and was received with great enthusiasm. He took part in the annual celebration of the University of Lund, presided over by Tegnér, the greatest of Swedish poets. Here he was crowned in the Cathedral of Lund as “the Adam of skalds, the king of Northern singers.” Immediately after the ceremony he returned to Copenhagen, and a few days later had the pleasure of receiving Tegnær upon Danish soil, where the festivities of Lund were echoed. When his fiftieth birthday fell, he received a striking demonstration from the students of his own University. The remaining twenty years of his life (for he rounded out the full Scriptural tale) were no less active than the twenty just preceding. They were marked by the same uninterrupted succession of new productions; few of which, however, proved worthy of his genius, although the old fire and deep poetic feeling flashed out now and then, to the surprise of both critics and friends. Among the tragedies of this closing period the following may be named: ‘Tordenskjold,’ ‘Sokrates’ (the poet’s only dramatic handling of a Greek theme), ‘Olaf den Hellige’ (Olaf the Holy), ‘Dina,’ and ‘Amleth.’ The latter of these tragedies is particularly interesting as an attempt to reconstruct the historical Hamlet of Saxo’s chronicle, in contrast with Shakespeare’s purely imaginative creation. Other works of this period were ‘Norgesrejsen’ (The Journey to Norway), ‘Digtekunsten’ (The Art of Poetry), ‘Örvarodds Saga,’ and ‘Landet Fundet og Forsvundet’ (The Found and Vanished Land), the latter a dramatic handling of the Norse discovery of Vinland. His last production was a hero-poem upon the subject of ‘Regnar Lodbrok’; and ends with the pathetic words, “The old skald sang for the last time of the old Norse heroes.” The poet’s ‘Erindringer’ (Recollections), upon which he had been engaged for several years, remained to be published after his death. The series of works thus completed fills, in the standard edition, no less than forty volumes, of which four contain the ‘Erindringer,’ ten the tragedies, and twenty-six the miscellaneous productions in verse and prose. They stand as a lasting monument to the genius of the greatest poet of Denmark; as the living memorial of their author’s singularly rich, fruitful, and fortunate career.  8
  Outwardly, the score of years that crowned Oehlenschläger’s life were comparatively uneventful. A trip to Norway in 1833, and a second visit to Sweden in 1847, were the most noteworthy episodes. Meanwhile, in face of the broadening fame of the poet, and his strengthened hold upon the minds and hearts of his fellow-countrymen, the wave of adverse criticism that had at one time risen so high was steadily subsiding; and even his most determined opponents came to recognize the indebtedness of the nation to the man who, whatever his lapses from a high standard of production, had nevertheless created a new literature for Denmark, and awakened the creative spirit that was now displaying itself on every hand. It was during these last years of Oehlenschläger’s life that most of the men arose who have shaped nineteenth-century Danish literature. These were the years of the early successes of the novelists Ingemann, Blicher, Goldschmidt, and St. Aubain; of the poets Hertz, Paludan-Müller, Winther, and Ploug; of the philosopher Kierkegaard, and the story-teller Hans Christian Andersen. Widely divergent as were the paths of these men, Oehlenschläger justly felt that they were all in some sense his successors, and that he had given the impulse which was resulting in so marked an expansion of the national literature. And nearly all of these men joined to do him honor in the celebration of his seventieth birthday; an occasion which evoked tributes of heartfelt admiration even from Heiberg and Grundtvig, his most inveterate critics. A few weeks later, he lay upon his death-bed. At his request, his son read to him a scene from his own ‘Sokrates’; and he also expressed the wish that this tragedy should be presented at the theatre as a memorial performance after his death. A few hours later, towards midnight, January 20th, 1850, he passed quietly away, retaining full consciousness almost to the last moment. He was buried in the Frederiksberg church-yard, where a massive block of stone marks his grave. Hans Christian Andersen tells us that when a short time after the entombment, fresh wreaths were brought to replace the old ones upon the grave, it was found that a songbird had made its nest in the withered leaves.  9
 
 
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