As I continue on Longfellow’s journey through Europe in The Poems and Poetry of Europe, my next stop is Danish Language and Poetry, which is the “daughter of old Norse, or Icelandic”. Danish language began to assume new forms, and to take the character of a separate language, about the beginning of the twelfth century. In this essay, Longfellow is referencing H.M.Petersen’s, Det Danske, Norske og Svenske Sprogs Historie, his history of the Danish, Norse and Swedish languages, which divides the various changes it has undergone into four periods: 1. Oldest Danish, from 1100-1250; 2. Older Danish, from 1250-1400 ; 3. Old Danish, from 1400-1530; 4. Modern Danish, from 1530-1700. Through these changes the old Icelandic passed into the Danish of the present day (as of 1837!) (Longfellow, Poems, 59).
At the time of Longfellow’s essay, the Danish language was not confined to Denmark only, but was the language of literature and of cultivated society in Norway also. The dialects, spoken by the peasantry in the mountains of Norway, are found many words of the ancient mother tongue, and no longer in use in towns.
In this essay, Longfellow beings with the Danish language and the poems of Peder Jensen Hegeland in the 16th century and ends with Bernhard Severin Ingemann in the eighteenth. For this blog, I will focus on the most famous Danish poet, Adam Gottlob Oehlenschlager, the author of the “Oriental drama”, Alladin.
Oehlenschlager was born in Copenhagen in 1779. He was fluent in Danish, German and French and had a great learning of geography and history, particularly the legendary lore of the North. According to Longfellow, in these poems Oehlenschlager reproduces the bold and energetic spirit of the elder times of the North, softening its harsher features occasionally by the light of modern refinement. The contrast between the cruel and bloody rites of the Scandinavian paganism, and the manners and precepts taught by the Christian religion, is seized by him with striking skill; and his great familiarity with the times in which his scenes are laid is manifested, “’not in the accumulation of minute particulars or antiquarian allusions, but in a primeval simplicity and essential truth pervading and informing the whole’”(92).
After a brief study of law, Oehlenschlager traveled with a pension from the Danish government to Germany, France and Italy. He lived a brief time in Weimar during its occupation of the French after the battle of Jena, in which he wrote three tragedies on national subjects, ” Hakon Jarl,” ” Palnatoke,” and “Axel and Walburg”.
During this tour, he was introduced to the great German poets Wieland and Goethe.Oehlenschlager and Goethe would have an estranged relationship, however, because of Goethe’s harsh criticism of Oehlenschlager’s works. Oehlenschlager had requested to read a new tragedy he had just written to Goethe, but Goethe refused with this reply, “This is not your field ; — he who can make wine should not make vinegar”. Oehlenschlager was scheduled to leave Weimer soon after this encounter and he and Goethe “took a cold farewell of each other”. This grieved him to the soul, stating “for there was not a being in the world that I loved and honored more than Goethe, and now we were parting, perhaps never again to meet in life (70)”. Even though they were never to meet again, Oehlenschlager named his eldest son after Goethe.
He would soon make the acquaintances of Madame de Stael and Augustus William Schlegel while visiting Paris. Schlegel read Oehlenschlager’s poems and advised him to begin writing in the German style as he was versed in both languages. He took Schlegel’s advice and wrote his principal works in German as well as in the Danish.
Leaving Madame de Stael ‘s residence, he proceeded on his Italian tour, to which he had long been looking forward. At Parma he visited the frescoes of Correggio in the churches of St. Joseph and St. John and decided to write a play of Correggio’s life.
Oehlenschlager was married immediately after his return from Germany, and soon received the appointment of Professor Extraordinary in the University of Copenhagen where he lectured on elegant literature. In 1815 he was made a Knight of Dannebrog (Danish Flag), and in 1827 elect- ed Ordinary Professor and Assessor in the Consistory.
I will close with an excerpt from the introduction of Oehlenschlager’s Aladin (93).
[EXTRACT FROM ALADDIN, OR THE WONDERFUL LAMP.]
ALADDIN AT THE GATES OF ISPAHAN.
My head is swimming still. Heavens, what a journey !
He took me on his back ; I felt as if Upon a bath of lukewarm water floated.
How high he flew in the clear moonshine ! how The earth beneath us strangely dwarfed and dwindled !
The mighty Ispahan with all its lights, That one by one grew dim and blent together,
Whirled like a half-burned paper firework, such As giddy schoolboys flutter in their hands.
He swung me on in wide gigantic circles, And showed me through the moonbeams’ magic glimmer/
The mighty map of earth unroll beneath me. I never shall forget how over
Caucasus He flew, and rested on its icy peak;
Then shot plumb down upon the land, as if He meant to drown me in Euphrates’ bosom.
A huge three-master on the stormy Euxine Scudded before the blast ; he hovered over her,
Pressed with his toe the summit of the mast,
And, resting on its vane as on a pillar,
He stretched me in his hand high into heaven,
As firm as if he trode the floor of earth.
Then, when the moon, like a pale ghost, before
The warm and glowing morning sun retreated,
He changed himself into a purple cloud,
And dropped with me, soft as the dews of dawn,
Here by the city gate among the flowers.
Then, changed again by magic, like a lark
He soared and vanished twittering in the sky.
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Longfellow, Henry W. The Poets and Poetry of Europe: Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845.
Petersen, H.M. Det Danske, Norske og Svenske Sprogs Historie, 2 vols. Copenhagen: 1529.