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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jens Baggesen (1764–1826)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
JENS BAGGESEN was born in the little Danish town Korsör in 1764, and died in exile in the year 1826. Thus he belonged to two centuries and to two literary periods. He had reached manhood when the French Revolution broke out; he witnessed Napoleon’s rise, his victories, and his fall. He was a full contemporary of Goethe, who survived him only six years; he saw English literature glory in men like Byron and Moore, and lived to hear of Byron’s death in Greece. In his first works he stood a true representative of the culture and literature of the eighteenth century, and was hailed as its exponent by the Danish poet Herman Wessel; towards the end of the century he was acknowledged to be the greatest of living Danish poets. Then with the new age came the Norwegian, Henrik Steffens, with his enthusiastic lectures on German romanticism, calling out the genius of Oehlenschläger, and the eighteenth century was doomed; Baggesen nevertheless greeted Oehlenschläger with sincere admiration, and when the ‘Aladdin’ of that poet appeared, Baggesen sent him his rhymed letter ‘From Nureddin-Baggesen to Aladdin-Oehlenschläger.’  1
  Baggesen was the son of poor people, and strangers helped him to his scientific education. When his first works were recognized he became the friend and protégé of the Duke of Augustenborg, who provided him with the means for an extended journey through the Continent, during which he met the greatest men of his time. The Duke of Augustenborg meanwhile secured him several positions, which could not hold him for any length of time, nor keep him at home in Denmark. He went abroad a second time to study pedagogics, literature, and philosophy, came home again, wandered forth once more, returned a widower, was for some time director of the National Theatre in Copenhagen; but found no rest, married again, and in 1800 went to France to live. Eleven years later he was professor in Kiel, returning thence to Copenhagen, where meanwhile his fame had been eclipsed by the genius of Oehlenschläger. Secure in the knowledge of his powers, Oehlenschläger had carelessly published two or three dramatic poems not worthy of his pen, and Baggesen entered on a violent controversy with him in which he stood practically by himself against the entire reading public, whose sympathies were with Oehlenschläger. Alone and misunderstood, restless and unhappy, he left Denmark in 1820, never to return. Six years later he died, longing to see his country again, but unable to reach it.  2
  His first poetry was published in 1785, a volume of ‘Comic Tales,’ which made its mark at once. The following year appeared in quick succession satires, rhymed epistles, and elegies, which, adding to his fame, added also to the purposeless ferment and unrest which had taken possession of him. He considered tragedy his proper field, yet had allowed himself to appear as humorist and satirist.  3
  When the great historic events of the time took place, and overthrew all existing conditions, this inner restlessness drove him to and fro without purpose or will. One day he was enthusiastic over Voss’s idyls, the next he was carried away by Robespierre’s wildest speeches. One year he adopted Kant’s Christian name Immanuel in transport over his works, the next he called the great philosopher “an empty nut, and moreover hard to crack.” The romanticism in Denmark as well as in Germany reduced him to a state of utter confusion; but in spite of this he continued a child of the old order, which was already doomed. And with all his unrest and discord he remained nevertheless the champion of “form,” “the poet of the graces,” as he has been called.  4
  This gift of form has given him his literary importance. He built a bridge from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century; and when the new romantic school overstepped its privileges, it was he who called it to order. The most conspicuous act of his literary life was the controversy with Oehlenschläger, and the wittiest product of his pen is the reckless criticism of Oehlenschläger’s opera ‘Ludlam’s Cave.’ Johann Ludvig Heiberg, the greatest analytical critic of whom Denmark can boast, remained Baggesen’s ardent admirer; and Heiberg’s influential although not always just criticism of Oehlenschläger as a poet was no doubt called forth by Baggesen’s attack. Some years later Henrik Hertz made Baggesen his subject. In 1830 appeared ‘Letters from Ghosts,’ poetic epistles from Paradise. Nobody knew that Hertz was the author. It was Baggesen’s voice from beyond the grave, Baggesen’s criticism upon the literature of 1830. It was one of the wittiest, and in versification one of the best, books in Danish literature.  5
  Baggesen’s most important prose work is ‘The Labyrinth,’ afterwards called ‘The Wanderings of a Poet.’ It is a poetic description of his journeys, unique in its way, rich in impressions and full of striking remarks, written in a piquant, graceful, and easy style.  6
  As long as Danish literature remains, Baggesen’s name will be known; though his writings are not now widely read, and are important chiefly because of their influence on the literary spirit of his own time. His familiar poem ‘There was a time when I was very little,’ during the controversy with Oehlenschläger, was seized upon by Paul Möller, parodied, and changed into ‘There was a time when Jens was much bigger.’ Equally well known is his ‘Ode to My Country,’ with the familiar lines:—
  “Alas, in no place is the thorn as tiny,
  Alas, in no place blooms as red a rose,
Alas, in no place is there couch as downy
  As where we little children found repose.”
  7
 
 
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