Jensen, Johannes V. (20 January 1873 - 25 November 1950)
Johannes V. Jensen (20 January 1873 - 25 November 1950)
Sven Hakon Rossel
University of Vienna
This entry was expanded by Rossel from his Jensen entry in DLB 214: Twentieth-Century Danish Writers.
BOOKS: Danskere (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1896);
Einar Elkær: Roman (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1898);
Himmerlandsfolk: Historier (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1898);
Intermezzo: Dolores, Forsvundne Skove, Louison (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1899);
Foraarets Død (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1900);
Den store Sommer (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1900);
Den gotiske Renaissance (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1901);
Vinteren (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1901);
Kongens Fald (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske, 1901)–comprises Foraarets Død, Den store Sommer, and Vinteren; translated by P. T. Federspiel and Patrick Kirwan as The Fall of the King (London: Grayson & Grayson, 1933; New York: Holt, 1933);
Kirken i Farsø: Skitse (Minneapolis & Chicago: C. Rasmussen, 1903);
Madame D’Ora (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1904);
Nye Himmerlandshistorier (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1904)–includes “Kirstens sidste Rejse,” translated by Lee Marshall as “Kirsten’s Last Journey,” in Anthology of Danish Literature: Bilingual Edition, edited by F.J. Billeskov Jansen and P. M. Mitchell (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), pp. 300-379;
Skovene (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1904);
Hjulet (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1905);
Digte (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1906); revised and enlarged as Digte: Anden Udgave, 1917; revised and enlarged as Digte: Tredie Udgave, 1921; revised and enlarged as Digte: 1901–1941, 1943; revised and enlarged as Digte, 1948–includes “Ved Frokosten” and “Paa Memphis Station,” translated by Alexander Taylor as “At Lunch” and “At Memphis Station,” in Contemporary Danish Poetry, edited by Line Jensen and others (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1958), pp. 91-92;
Myter og Jagter (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1907)– includes “Fusijama,” translated by Elias Bredsdorff as “Fujiyama,” in his Contemporary Danish Prose: An Anthology (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1958), pp. 85-90;
Den ny Verden: Til international Belysning of nordisk Bondekultur (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1907);
Singapore Noveller (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1907);
Nye Myter (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1908);
Bræen: Myter om Istiden og det første Menneske (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1908); translated by Arthur G. Chater in Fire and Ice, volume 1 of The Long Journey (London: Gyldendal, 1922; New York: Knopf, 1923);
Lille Ahasverus (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1909);
Myter: Ny Samling (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1910);
Himmerlandshistorier: Tredie Samling (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1910);
Nordisk Aand: Kroniker og Karakteristiker (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1911);
Skibet (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1912);
Myter: Fjerde Samling (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1912);
Rudyard Kipling (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1912);
Olivia Marianne (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1915);
Introduktion til vor Tidsalder (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1915);
Aarbog l916 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1916);
Eksotiske Noveller (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1916)–comprises Singapore Noveller, Lille Ahasverus, and Olivia Marianne;
Aarbog l917 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1917);
Norne-Gæst (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1919); translated by Chater in The Cimbrians, volume 2 of The Long Journey (London: Gyldendal, 1923; New York: Knopf, 1923);
Det tabte Land: Mennesket før Istiden (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1919); translated by Chater in Fire and Ice, volume 1 of The Long Journey (London: Gyldendal, 1922; New York: Knopf, 1923);
Johannes Larsen og hans Billeder (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1920);
Christofer Columbus (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1921); translated by Chater as Christopher Columbus, volume 3 of The Long Journey (London: Gyldendal, 1924; New York: Knopf, 1924);
Sangerinden (Madame d’Ora): Drama i fem Akter (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1921);
Cimbrernes Tog (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1922); translated by Chater in The Cimbrians, volume 2 of The Long Journey (London: Gyldendal, 1923; New York: Knopf, 1923);
Æstetik og Udvikling: Efterskerift til Den lange Rejse (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1923);
Aarstiderne, illustrated by Johannes Larsen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1923);
Myter: Tredie Bind, 1914–1924 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1924);
Hamlet: Til Forklaring of Hamletskikkselen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1924);
Evolution og Moral (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1925);
Aarets Højtider (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1925);
Verdens Lys: Nye Digte (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1926);
Jørgine (Copenhagen: Hage & Clausens Forlag, 1926);
Dyrenes Forvandling: Til Udviklingens Plastik (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1927);
Ved Livets Bred og andre Myter (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1928);
Aandens Stadier (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1928);
Retninger i Tiden: Artikler 1925–30 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1930);
Den jydske Blæst: Digte 1926–1930 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1931);
Form og Sjæl: Portræter og Personligheder (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1931);
Paa danske Veje, illustrated by Larsen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1931);
Pisangen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1932);
Kornmarken (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1932);
Sœlernes Ø (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1934);
Det Blivende: Tankens Revoluüoneñng i det 19de Aarhundrede og Tïlbagefaldet i det 20de (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1934);
Dr. Renaults Fristelser (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1935);
Gudrun (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1936);
Darduse, Bryllupet i Peking: Eventyrkomedie i fire Akter (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1937);
Paaskebadet: Digte 1931–1937 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1937);
Jydske Folkelivsmalere: Dalsgaard, Michael Ancher, Hans Smidth (Copenhagen: Arthur Jensen, 1937);
Den lange Rejse, 2 volumes (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1938)–comprises volume 1, Det tabte Land, Bræen, and Norne-Gæst; and volume 2, Cimbrernes Tog, Skibet, and Christofer Columbus;
Thorvaldsen: Haandvœrkeren og Manden (Copenhagen: Arthur Jensen, 1938);
Nordvejen: Indtryk af norsk Natur (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1939);
Fra Fristaterne: Rejsebreve, med et Tilbageblik (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1939);
Gutenberg: Til Bogtrykkerkunstens Historie, by Jensen and Aage Marcus (Copenhagen: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, 1939);
Mariehønen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1940);
Udvalgte Prosastykker, edited by Morten Borup and Peter Iløse (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1940);
Mindets Tavle: Portrœter og Personligheder (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1941);
Vor Oprindelse (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1941);
Om Sproget og Undervisningen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1942);
Kvinden i Sagatiden (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1942);
Folkeslagene i Østen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1943);
Møllen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1944);
Myter, 2 volumes (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1946);
Bogbinderen (Copenhagen: Printed by J. H. Schultz, 1947);
Afrika: Opdagelsesrejserne (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1949);
Danske Køreteøjer (Copenhagen: Thaning & Appel, 1949);
Swift og Oehlenschläger (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1950);
Tilblivelsen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1951);
Mytens ring: Efterladte myter og beskrivelser (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1957);
Ungt er endnu Ordet: Portræter og Personligheder, edited by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1958);
Troth, edited by Sven Hakon Rossel (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2002).
Editions and Collections: Den jydske blæst og andre digte, selected by Ole Wivel (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1957);
Bræen, edited by Martin Larsen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1963);
Himmerlandshistorier, edited, with an afterword, by Jørgen Elbek, Gyldendals Bibliotek, no. 24 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1963);
Johannes Larsen og Aarstiderne, edited, with a foreword, by Aage Marcus, Gyldendals Uglebøger, no. 56 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1963);
Jordens Kreds, selected by Marcus, introduction by Niels Birger Wamberg (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1967);
Myter i Digte i Udvalg, selected by Leif Nedergaard (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1969);
Himmerlandshistorier, edited by Povl Marstal (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1970);
Mørkets frodighed; Tidlige myter, selected by Wamberg (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1973);
12 Himmerlandshistorier, edited by Sven Moller Kristensen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1979);
Tretten Myter: Johannes V. Jensen, selected and illustrated by Jens Jensen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1982);
Himmerlandshistorier: Et udvalg, selected by Sonja Carlberg (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1984);
Kender du Johannes V. Jensen, selected by Margit Mørk (Copenhagen: Grafisk, 1986);
Christofer Columbus, foreword by Ib Michael (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1992);
Madame D’Ora; Hjulet, edited by Sven Hakon Rossel (Copenhagen: Det Danske Sproge-og Litteraturselskab/Borgen, 1997);
Digte: Johannes V. Jensen, edited by Frits Johansen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1998).
Editions in English: “Ane og Koen,” translated by Victor Folke Nelson as “Ann and the Cow”; “Forsvundne Skove,” translated by Henry Commager as “Lost Forests,” in Denmark’s Best Stories, edited by Hanna Astrup Larsen (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation/Norton, 1928), pp. 327-340;
Garden Colonies in Denmark, translated by F. Aubrey Rush (Copenhagen: Danske selskab, 1949);
Denmark’s Johannes V. Jensen, translated by Marion L. Nielsen (Logan: Utah State Agricultural College, 1955);
The Waving Rye, selected by C. A. Bodelsen, translated by Ronald Bathgate and others (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1958; New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1959);
The Fall of the King, translated by Alan Bower and edited by Sven Hakon Rossel (Seattle: Mermaid Press, 1992; revised edition, Traverse City: Stonehill, 1995).
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Trods, Chicago, Scandia Hall, 1 February 1903;
Sangerinden, Odense, Odense Teater, 16 November 1923;
Darduse, Bryllupet i Peking: Eventyrkomedie i fire akter, Copenhagen, Royal Theater, 22 January 1937;
Hamlet, translation of William Shakespeare’s play, Copenhagen, Royal Theater, 24 April 1937.
OTHER: Jack London, Naar Naturen kalder, translated by Aslaug Mikkelsen, foreword by Jensen (Copenhagen: Peter Hansen, 1907);
Ditleff von Zeppelin, Fugletrak, edited by Jensen and Otto Gelsted (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1916);
Thorvaldsens Portrœtbuster, introduction by Jensen, biographical notes by Aage Marcus (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1926).
TRANSLATIONS: Frank Norris, Af Hvedens Saga: Polypen, en Bog om Kalifornien (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1907);
Rudyard Kipling and Wolcott Balestier, Nauhlaka: Forædling fra Vesten og Østen, translated by Jensen and Aslaug Mikkelsen (Copenhagen: V. Pio, 1911);
Kipling, Fribytterbreve; De rædselsfulde Nætters By og andre Skizzer, translated by Jensen and Mikkelsen (Copenhagen: V. Pio, 1912);
Kipling, Fra Hav til Hav, translated by Jensen and Mikkelsen (Copenhagen: V. Pio, 1913);
Kipling, Liv og Drøm, translated by Jensen and Mikkelsen (Copenhagen: V. Pio, 1913);
Kipling, Med Natexpressen Aar 2000 og andre Fortœllinger, translated by Jensen and Mikkelsen (Copenhagen: V. Pio, 1914);
Rudolf Requadt, Krigsflyveren (Copenhagen: Fr. Ravn, 1916);
Adelbert von Chamisso, Peter Schlemihls vidunderlige Historie (Copenhagen: Høst & Søn, 1918);
Walt Whitman, Digte, translated by Jensen and Otto Gelsted (Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk, 1919);
De islandske Sagaer, 3 volumes, translated by Jensen, Knud Hjortø, and Hans Kyrre (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1930–1932);
William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1937);
Egil Skallagrimssons Saga (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1943);
Snorre Sturlason, Heimskringla: Norges Kongesagaer, translated and edited by Jensen and Kyrre (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1948).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS–UNCOLLECTED: Skatten paa Korsøgaard: Fortælling fra Aarhundredets Begyndelse, as Ivar Lykke, Revuen (2 January-21 July 1895);
DødssejUren: Fortælling, as Lykke, Revuen (24 July 1895–26 January 1896);
Blodfesterne i Arizona: Mexikansk, historisk Fortælling, as Lykke, Revuen (26 January-31 May 1896);
Jim Blacksools Revolver: Roman fra det fjerne Vesten, as Lykke, Revuen (31 May-30 September 1896);
Falskmønterbandens blodige Bog: Kriminal-Roman, as Lykke, Revuen (1 July-13 December 1896);
Nihilistens Ed: En Nutidsroman, as Lykke, Revuen (19 July - 23 September 1896);
Taterkongens ni Sønner og deres Blodhœvn: Roman fra Dronning Margrethes Tid, as Lykke, Revuen (9 December 1896–5 May 1897);
Milliontyvenes Høvding eller den røde Tiger: Original illustreret New Yorkerroman, as Lykke, Revuen (9 May-22 September 1897);
Hakon Blodøxes Bedrifter: Roman fra Vikingetiden, as Lykke, Revuen (26 September 1897 – 9 March 1898);
Ridder Tages Dødsridt eller de blodige Sporer: Original historisk Roman fra Valdemar den Stores Tid, as Lykke, Revuen (13 March-20 July 1898).
By revolting against the introspection of Danish turn-of-the-century literature and the psychological and social naturalism of the nineteenth century, Johannes V. Jensen became one of the most prolific, innovative spirits in Danish cultural life. His worship of modern science and technology, the bustling life in the international metropolis, and pragmatic materialism and capitalism made him instrumental in the reorientation of Danish literature away from continental French and German models toward Anglo-American cultural life. His enthusiasm for American literature resulted in the introduction and promotion in Denmark of the works of many American writers.
Charles Darwin’s theories were an important source of inspiration for Jensen’s depictions of nature scenes and animals but had a disastrous impact on his questionable evolutionary and anthropological ideas. Despite his scientific and anti-idealistic orientation, Jensen was never able to let go of his deep-rooted dependence on the Jutland peasant traditions of his childhood and an equally deep-rooted fascination with Christian metaphysics. This contradiction or split resulted in an existential insecurity that manifests itself in a fragmentation both with regard to content and form, which gives Jensen’s fictional work continuing relevance. It places him in the modernist tradition of the twentieth century, adding to some of his texts a vibrant and eclectic, almost postmodern, quality. However, when Jensen was able to bridge this split in his myths and poetry, he created pieces of timeless art in which observation and vision, present time and eternity, reality and dream are seamlessly merged.
Johannes Vilhelm Jensen was born on 20 January 1873 in Farsø in the northern Jutland province of Himmerland. His parents were both of peasant stock. His mother, Marie Kirstine Jensen, had a prosaic and practical view of life, but she also possessed a vivid imagination and a hot temper; his father, Hans Jensen, was the district veterinarian and was an expert in botany and zoology. He inspired Jensen’s later studies of nature and discovery of Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Although the family was strongly antireligious, in the late 1880s Jensen’s father became interested in spiritualism, an interest that became lifelong for Jensen’s sister, the writer Thit Jensen. Johannes V. Jensen later criticized this occult interest, although it was undoubtedly one of the causative factors for the longing for eternity and spiritual expansion that became an essential feature in his writing. Jensen also had one younger brother, who became a painter under the name Hans Deuvs.
In the autobiographical sketch Kirken i Farsø: Skitse (1903, The Church in Farse: Sketch), Jensen described his boyhood with his siblings and friends from the small town and the neighborhood farms, emphasizing his boldness and extroversion. A somewhat different description comes from one of Jensen’s friends, Peder Bach, quoted in Oluf Friis’s 1974 biography of Jensen: “Han var en besynderlig Dreng, ikke som de andre, men for det meste tavs og indesluttet, og han gik gerne og saa ned i jorden i sine egne dybe Tanker; men til Tider kunde han vaagne op, og da husker jeg at hans Snebolde blev temmelig haarde” (He was a strange boy, not like the others, but mostly silent and reticent, and he usually walked around looking down deep in his thoughts; but at times he could wake up, and then I remember that his snowballs became rather hard). A characteristic trait was his joy in reading. Jensen himself, in Mytens ring: Efterladte myter og beskrivelser (1957, The Ring of the Myth: Posthumous Myths and Descriptions), recalled his first books: children’s readers; accounts by Captain James Cook, Henry Morton Stanley, and David Livingstone of their expeditions; a history of Denmark; and Hans Christian Andersen’s tales–all works that he found on his father’s bookshelves.
After two years at Farse School, followed by private tutoring, Jensen went in 1890 to Viborg Katedralskole (cathedral school) for three years, where he became familiar with the humanistic, bourgeois educational tradition that for hundreds of years had formed the basis for spiritual life in Denmark. Jensen’s years in Viborg, depicted in the first two chapters of his first novel, Danskere (1896, Danes), were not harmonious, and his opposition was nourished in particular by reading the German poet Heinrich Heine, whom Jensen called, in his monograph Rudyard Kipling (1912), “denne Dynamitsjæsl” (this explosive spirit), and the British author Rudyard Kipling, in whose works Jensen experienced a new world of activity and international settings. Although classes in Viborg did not include modern literature, Jensen read works by contemporary writers in private. Both the neo-Romantic Danish poet Johannes Jørgensen and the Norwegian Knut Hamsun, whom Jensen regarded as the first to break with the older realism and naturalism–what Jensen called “den galliske knirkende Fornuftspoesi” (the Gallic, creaking literature of reason)–became additional models for the future writer.
Jensen passed his university entrance exams in 1893 and began the study of medicine at the University of Copenhagen in the fall. In January 1894 he published four poems, basically derivative of neo-Romantic literature, that include motifs foreshadowing his later settlement with the introverted and spiritual attitude that was prevalent in Danish literature at the time of his debut and remained part of Jensen’s own personality. Likewise without artistic quality are ten serial novels written under the pseudonym Ivar Lykke and published in the Copenhagen journal Revuen between 1895 and 1898. In Mytens ring, Jensen hints at the main ingredients of these serial novels, remarking that “Hvert Kapitel havde sit horrible Mord” (Each chapter contained a horrible murder). The novels hold no trace of his later mastery of style but are not without importance, as in them Jensen introduces motifs that he took up again later.
Jensen had his true literary debut in 1896 with the novel Danskere. After he abandoned his medical studies in 1898, he published Einar Elkœr: Roman (1898, Einar Elkæsr: Novel). Between the publication of the two novels he took a brief trip to New York City in 1896, the first of many travels that, altogether, brought Jensen to the United States six times. Both the character Buris in the first novel and Einar Elkasr in the second are students from the provinces who are confronted with the modern metropolis, Copenhagen. They are obsessed by paralyzing self-absorption that prevents them from establishing a spontaneous rapport with other people, in particular with women. Whereas Jensen hints at the possibility that the disintegration of Buris’s personality may stop, Einar constantly lapses into his ravings and dreams and dies at a mental hospital, where “Sektionen viste blèd Hjæsrne” (the autopsy showed a soft brain). Even though the two novels are strongly dependent on literary models–their melancholy atmosphere, big-city sceneries, and self-reflective protagonists can be found in the early works of Jergensen and Hamsun–their rebellion against both the fin-de-siècle spirit of the 1890s and literary and philosophical authority in general has a genuine ring. Jensen later excluded his first two books from lists of his works, perhaps because he recognized too much of his own introverted personality in his two protagonists. They are desperate outsiders, whose longing for happiness finds no fulfillment. This longing, which in so many of Jensen’s characters manifests itself as a longing to travel, is in reality a longing for the expansion of the soul.
Introspection remains a major issue in the two travelogues, Intermezzo: Dolores, Forsvundne Skove, Louihon (1899, Intermezzo: Dolores, Lost Forests, Louison) and Skovene (1904, The Woods), both written under the influence of Heine’s capricious, ironic style. The first was based on Jensen’s two visits as a reporter for the liberal newspaper Politiken to Spain, Germany, and France in 1898 and also includes the first of his many attacks on the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose theories of the superman constituted the “bad Darwinism” that Jensen later saw as the indirect cause of the two world wars. The second book was inspired by Jensen’s five-week stay in Singapore and on the Malay Peninsula during his first trip around the world in 1902 and 1903, which also took him to China, Japan, and the United States. In his description of a tiger hunt Jensen incorporates lyrical and satirical passages, witticisms, and brilliantly executed, precise but poetic descriptions of animals and nature. The strong stylistic contrasts in the volume reflect the self-ironic and didactic approach Jensen takes toward his own glorification of the primitive, against which he sets his homesickness and longing.
The reworked travel letters from his visit to Spain in 1898 and another to the World’s Exhibition in Paris in 1900, which Jensen incorporated into his Den gotuke Renaissance (1901, The Gothic Renaissance), on the other hand, include an enthusiastic endorsement of progress and reality: “Det tyvende Aarhundrede suser over Hovedet. Jeg bekender mig til Virkeligheden, jeg bekender” (The twentieth century roars above our heads. I profess to reality, I profess). This work glorifies the expansive spirit of the Gothic, that is, Anglo-Saxon, race, the fullest expression of which Jensen found in the American pragmatic and progressive view of life as it brought liberation from the decadence of the previous century. The volume climaxes in Walt Whitman–inspired prose hymns to progress and technology. Jensen’s theory was that the Gothic race had its origin in his home region, Himmerland. Its nature and people are portrayed in the realistic short stories in Himmerlands-folk: Historier (1898, Himmerland People: Stories), which constitute a counterbalance to Jensen’s introspective writings from the same period, and in the two collections Nye Himmerlandshistorier (1904, New Himmerland Stories) and Himmerlandshistorier: Tredie Samling (1910, Himmerland Stories: Third Collection). The early texts are marked by Jensen’s preoccupation with the meaninglessness of day-to-day existence and death. Later stories include masterful character studies of grotesque, roaming eccentrics, heroic accounts of man’s stubborn fight against either sordid surroundings or the callous forces of nature, and comic or satiric exposures of human folly. Jensen’s intimate knowledge of the flaws and meanness of his characters is balanced by a profound veneration for the old peasant traditions they also represent. In such texts Jensen has distanced himself from the uncritical glorification of technology and progress in Den gotiske Renaissance, and these stories are far above traditional regional literature.
In 1900 and 1901 Jensen published an historical novel in three parts: Foraarets Død (1900, Spring’s Death), Den store Sommer (1900, The Full Summer), and Vinteren (1901, Winter). Jensen combined the works into a single volume under the title of Kongens Fald (1901; translated as The Fall of the King, 1933). With Kongens Fald, Jensen successfully merged the extrovert/naturalistic and introvert/spiritual elements in his writing into a splendid mythic composition. In Jensen’s works there are many attempts at defining “the mythic.” In his 1932 article on Jensen, Aage Marcus reports Jensen as saying: “Leave out the plot, concentrate on those short flashes of the essence of things that illumine man and time, and you have the myth.” As Jensen writes in his Aarbog 1916 (Yearbook 1916), his point of departure is generally a concrete observation from which an expansion in time and space takes place, a technique that entails a revelation, “ingen lang møjsommelig Opregning men et Spring ind i et Billede” (rather a leap into an image than a long painstaking account). Crucial components of the myth are the tensions between the close and the distant, the tangible and the transcendental, and the concrete and the inexplicable, frequently establishing a perspective of time in which present, past, and future are bound together.
Kongens Fald can be read as a purely historical novel, attacking the passivity and indecisiveness that Jensen perceived as a major component of Danish mentality. These negative qualities are embodied in the Renaissance king Christian II and his companion, the mercenary Mikkel Thøgersen. However, Jensen ignores both historical accuracy and a structured psychological character delineation. Instead, by mingling dream-like passages of poetic beauty with harsh, naturalistic scenes of violence and destruction, he creates magnificent, deeply pessimistic visions of man’s inability to reach happiness. Like Buris in Danskere, the introverted outsider Mikkel completely lacks the ability to devote himself to enjoying the present: he can only act when his anguish turns into hatred and blind destructiveness. He rapes Ane Mette, the fiancée of his rival Otte Iversen, and many years later he kills Otte’s son, the carefree and spontaneous Axel, whose success with women stirs Mikkel’s feelings of alienation, envy, and hatred. He assaults the unarmed Axel, who later, without any bitterness, dies of blood poisoning, fever-stricken and dreaming that he is sailing into “den store Sommers Land, Dødens Land” (the land of full summer, the land of death). Axel’s “fall,” one of the lyrical highlights of the novel, corresponds on the historical level to the king’s “fall” during the fateful night in 1523 when Christian II, accompanied by Mikkel, irresolutely sails back and forth between two regions of Denmark wondering whether or not to take up the fight against the rebellious nobility–a dramatic highlight and at the same time a penetrating analysis of the paralysis of action by doubt. However, of crucial importance is not the outward fall as demonstrated in the king’s destiny. Jensen’s masterpiece must be read as a book about the inner fall, about man’s impermanence, and about death as his inexorable destiny in the midst of burgeoning life, illustrated in Axel’s fate. Kongens Fald is a book about the total absurdity of life and love, illustrated in Mikkel’s person. All of humanity is subject to the law of the fall, and only death brings the desired peace.
On his first trip around the world Jensen crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan, stopping in the Hawaiian Islands and disembarking in San Francisco on 26 October 1902. His stay in the United States, primarily in Chicago and New York during the winter and spring of 1902–1903, provided him with the scenery for the two novels Madame D’Ora (1904) and Hjulet (1905, The Wheel), with which Jensen–only in part successfully-intended to continue the antimetaphysical trend in his authorship. Intentionally he disregards the rules of the traditional, naturalistic novel as he sets out to portray not individuals but various stages in man’s evolution within the framework of a fierce Darwinian struggle for the “survival of the fittest.” In Madame D’Ora this struggle takes place between “the missing link”–the cynical lay preacher, charlatan, and murderer Evanston–and the scientist Edmund Hall, a Faustian character fascinated with the transcendental, a neurasthenic dreamer who not only fails to reciprocate the passionate and unconditional feelings of the opera singer Leontine D’Ora but also falls an easy prey to Evanston because of his preoccupation with spiritual experiences.
In the sequel, Hjulet, the young poet Lee, Jensen’s alter ego, kills Evanston, who has now changed his name to the symbolic Cancer and has become an even clearer example of the Nietzschean vulgarization of Darwinism that Jensen had earlier attacked in Intermezzo. Through his struggle Lee overcomes his earlier passivity and turns into a man of action who condemns all aesthetics as nothing but “en Sygdom i Sansen for Virkeligheden” (a disease in the perception of reality). Passages parodying the detective novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alternate with lengthy monologues (in particular by the constantly talking Cancer), congenial translations of poems by Whitman, and Lee’s sweeping visions, ranging from prehistoric, evolutionary stages in man’s development to his view of Christopher Columbus as a man of Nordic descent and a bridge builder between Europe’s past and America’s present. These visions–indeed prose poems of compelling poetic force–as well as the totally negative portrayal of the representative of pure materialism, Evanston/Cancer, prove that Jensen could not let go of the aesthetics that he lets Lee reject. The enthusiasm for the United States expressed in these two novels foreshadows later works of fiction and nonfiction, as Jensen returned to both theories of Columbus and Faustian motifs.
After Jensen returned to Copenhagen from New York City in the summer of 1903, he published a series of newspaper articles. In these articles his violent criticism of Danish superficiality and provincialism demonstrates how difficult it was for him to resign himself to staying home. He was particularly irritated by Danish literary life, partly because of his own aggressive nature, which isolated him among colleagues, and partly because he rejected both the neo-Romantics and the radical circle around the influential critic Georg Brandes, whom he had earlier admired. He was also unhappy because his books received mostly negative reviews and sold poorly.
Nevertheless, the period from 1904 to 1906 was characterized by a hectic productivity: two novels, a travelogue, a new volume of stories from Himmerland, and finally an epoch-making collection of poetry. All these publications were projects that Jensen felt he wanted to finish and move on. Digte (1906, Poems; revised and enlarged, 1917, 1921, 1943, 1948) includes almost all of his youthful poetry, except for those poems that he had published during his first year at the university, which have never been collected. Two of Jensen’s earliest prose poems from 1901, “Interferens” (Interference) and “Ved Bordet” (At the Table), published in a newspaper, were revised and incorporated in Digte. Prose poetry came to dominate this volume, especially with the inclusion of the Whitman translations, first published in the novel Hjulet. This preponderance of free verse has contributed to the popular but erroneous view that Jensen’s poetry consists mostly of prose poetry, with Whitman as the predominant model. The truth is rather that Jensen’s prose poems, modeled after the free verse of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heine, belong to the period of 1901 to 1906, after which he increasingly devoted himself to poems in regular meters with either Old Norse alliterative verse or the classical rhymed stanza as models.
Digte is a milestone in the development of Danish lyric poetry. Its highly developed, bold imagery is filled with contrasts and tension both in content and in style, a style that veers from cynical statement to ecstatic exclamation to heart-rending simplicity and tenderness–the heritage of the 1890s. This metaphoric language is based on a sharp sensory perception that often takes the shape of a merciless self-analysis at the same time as it incorporates images from modern technology and everyday life.
At the center of the volume are three texts, the two prose poems “Interferens” and “Paa Memphis Station” (At Memphis Station), and the ballad-like “Christofer Columbus.” In “Interferens,” Jensen seeks, as he does in several of the poems, to reconcile the clash between extroversion and introversion, optimism and pessimism, belief in progress and wish for death–the two poles in his writing. When they intersect or rather become fused in one single state of mind, the myth emerges, as in “Christofer Columbus,” originally published in Madame D’Ora, where it was a warning to Hall to abandon his insatiable ambitions to transgress the boundaries of empirical science. It can, however, also be read as an anticipation of the novel Christofer Columbus (1921; translated as Christopher Columbus, 1924), as a portrait of Jensen’s tragic alter ego, Columbus, who is invoked in the poem “Afsked” (Departure). Here, another crucial theme from Jensen’s novels, the longing to travel, is introduced in an attack on humdrum everyday life in provincial Denmark. The poem was written in 1902 just before Jensen’s voyage around the world. Inspired by the voyage itself is “Paa Memphis Station,” a commitment to a reality that must encompass even the experience of death. This realization ignites the poet’s zest for a life that must be conquered through travel. Thus Columbus must move on, but the outcome of his travel turns out to be tragic, as Jensen points out in the succeeding poem, “Hverdagene” (Everyday Life). Its concluding request to “gaa frygtløst ind i Hverdagene” (enter into everyday life fearlessly) is preceded by lines about the merciless passage of time and unavoidable death:
Somren slaar sine Kister i.
Unge er vi saa ikke mere.
Men har Haabet ikke beskæmmet os tilstrækkeligt?
Nu kommer vor rige Dødstid, Broder.
(Summer is closing its chests.
So we are young no longer.
But has hope not shamed us sufficiently?
Now comes a plentiful dying time, brother.)
Such lines point ahead to perhaps the most difficult of all lyrical genres, the memorial poem, a genre that Jensen mastered to a degree not reached by any other Danish writer. In the second edition of Jensen’s collected poems, Digte: Anden Udgave (1917, Poems: Second Edition), there are two such poems, “Leonora Christine” and “Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson,” written in traditional iambic meter. The first is a portrait of Leonora Christine, a Danish Renaissance princess who spent twenty-two years in prison and whose tragic destiny Jensen perceives in a mythic perspective. The second poem is a glorification of the active and extroverted Norwegian writer, written on the occasion of Bjørnson’s death in 1910. The poem is pervaded with pantheism; however, Jensen concludes with lines negating that pantheism: “O Solopgang paa Bjergets Sne – / ham skal du aldrig mere se” (Oh sunrise on the mountain’s snow– / you shall never see him again). The last poem in the volume is “Envoi,” which Jensen kept revising until it received its final form in the third edition of his collected poems. This poem is noteworthy for its haiku-like simplicity, with a perfect form embracing time and space, a myth concentrated around the eternity of love placed in the cycle of nature.
Jensen’s productivity after his return from his journey around the world in 1902 and 1903 was also caused by the need to make a living for his family. On 15 April 1904 he married twenty-six-year-old Else Marie Ulrik, with whom he had three sons, Jens, Villum, and Emmerick. On 2 July 1906 Jensen began his own newspaper, Pressen (The Press), with John Martin. Modeled on contemporary American tabloids, Pressen was filled with sensational news, cartoons, and many advertisements. As Jensen did not have any political or cultural program for the newspaper, he did not find any readers, and Pressen lasted only until 31 July. This project was preceded by several trips to Himmerland and Berlin, and at the same time Jensen began translating Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus (1901), eventually published as Af Hvedens Saga: Polypen, en Bog om Kalifornien (1907, From the Wheat’s Saga: The Octopus, a Book about California). By writing the foreword to Naar Naturen kalder, a translation in 1907 of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903), Jensen called attention in Denmark to another American writer; he introduced a third American writer, Ernest Hemingway, to the Danish public with an essay in Politiken (30 May 1930).
As a result of a 1905 trip to New York City, Jensen began writing a series of articles in March 1906 for Politiken about journalism, literature, and social issues in the United States. These essays were republished in the collection Den ny Verden: Til international Belysning of nordisk Bondekultur (1907, The New World: For an International Illustration of Nordic Peasant Culture). The heroes of the book are the American reporter Norris, who successfully portrayed the hectic pioneer spirit during the growth of the United States, and Theodore Roosevelt, who is seen as the epitome of American civilization because of his dynamic and extroverted nature. From the fall of 1906 to the summer of 1907 Jensen was preoccupied with polemical exchanges with various Danish writers and critics. For this reason the collection of prose Myter og Jagter (Myths and Hunts), from 1907, includes primarily texts that had previously been published. Singapore Noveller (Singapore Stories), also from 1907, was likewise based on older material. Together with the texts in Lille Ahasvérus (1909, Little Ahasuerus) and Olivia Marianne (1915), the stories in Singapore Noveller were collected in Ehothke Noveller (1916, Exotic Stories). They form an exotic counterpart to the stories about Himmerland. The United States provides the setting for some of the stories, but most of them are set in Java and China, inspired by Jensen’s Far East trip in the summer and fall of 1902, and owe their quality mainly to the exquisitely drawn scenery and linguistic virtuosity. In their somewhat simplistic view of the life of Europeans among the natives, the stories are an example of the strong influence Kipling had on Jensen’s early writings.
In the summer of 1907 Jensen, tired of literary disputes–although he had provoked them himself– made a trip to Norway, and in the following winter he went to Sweden. These visits resulted in several realistic hunting descriptions for Politiken, later included in the volume Nye Myter (1908, New Myths), which also includes one of Jensen’s best prose texts, “Darwin og Fuglen” (Darwin and the Bird). It opens with a magnificent spring scene, then is extended into a portrait of Darwin, the man whose evolutionary theories influenced Jensen’s writing for the remaining forty-three years of his life. With this volume and Myter og Jagter, Jensen had begun to create a series of brief, somewhat uneven prose texts, so-called myter or myths, which usually were first printed in newspapers; from 1910 to 1944 nine additional volumes were published. In essays and sketches based on reading and traveling, Jensen incorporates
Øjebliksbilleder fra Gaden, indre dæmrende Erindringer omspændende alle fem Verdensdele, Historien, Urtiden og en fjern Barndom... mellem hinanden, men sandt til Hobe forsaa vidt som det hænger sammen og har Tone og Farve.
(snapshots from the street, inner dawning memories encompassing all five continents, history, the earliest times and a distant childhood... intermingled, but every bit of it true in so far as it has coherence and resonance and color.)
Jensen presents his basic ideas in a symbolic, concentrated form: a full acceptance of present reality as the source and final goal of all longing as in “Fusijama” (1907; translated as “Fujiyama,” 1958) and a belief in eternity as it is found in the cyclic reappearance of the seasons as in “Nordisk Foraar” (1912, Nordic Spring). Jensen’s myths are based on his belief in the necessity of placing oneself in a meaningful context with nature as in “Haren” (1908, The Hare) and creating links to the most distant memories from history and prehistory as in “Dansk Natur” (1910, Danish Nature). This myth gives a superb description of Denmark seen in the light of the country’s past, incarnated in ancient monuments and in visions of the life of Stone Age people. It is actually one of several myths exemplifying the impossibility of seizing and preserving the present moment in isolation and thus–characteristic of the split in Jensen between materialism and spirituality–partially contradicting the “Fusijama” myth. Directly dealing with man’s quest for the indefinite and eternal are the myths “Moderen og Barnet” (1917, Mother and Child) and “Den store Kristoffer” (1917, The Great Christopher). “Moderen og Barnet,” which in his Æsketik og Udvikling: Efterskerift til Den lange Rejse (1923, Aesthetics and Evolution: Postscript to The Long Journey) Jensen called “nok det gyldigste jeg har gjort” (probably the most valid thing I have ever written), is based on the Roman Catholic concept of the Madonna and child, “Livets skønneste Symbol, Slægten i et Afbillede, som var Slægten selv, det højeste Under, og samtidigt den højeste Moral” (life’s most beautiful symbol, the family in a single image that is the family itself, the highest miracle and at the same time the highest ethics). In his retelling of the legend of St. Christopher, Jensen makes a Northerner of him. His staff, which changed into a palm, is interpreted mythically as the Northerner’s longing for the South, which is finally satisfied when the South comes to him in the person of the infant Jesus, whom Christopher carries across the river and into the North, an achievement that is duplicated when his namesake, Columbus, brings Christianity to the New World.
These two myths, as well as several others, were reworked and incorporated into the six books that became Den huge Rejse (1938; translated as The Long Journey, 3 volumes, 1922-1924). This multivolume novel comprises an evolutionary history or rather a fantasy of mankind. It was intended as a scientific counterpart to the biblical legends but turned out to be a collection of legends itself. Jensen sees the challenge of nature as the driving force of progress that brings about evolution. Bræen: Myter om Istiden og det første Menneske (1908, The Glacier: Myths of the Ice Age and of the First Man; translated in Fire and Ice, 1922) is the first written in the series and also its most popular. Here the Glacial Age has forced the humans to migrate southward; only Dreng (Boy) turns in defiance to the north and founds, together with the woman Moa (Mother), a large family. In a memorable scene Dreng rediscovers fire by striking sparks from flint, while Moa collects seeds and begins to till the soil.
Det tabte Land: Mermesket før Istiden (1919, The Lost Land: Man Before the Ice Age; translated in Fire and Ice) is a Darwinian myth of creation about the transition from animal to Homo sapiens in the preglacial rain forests of Jutland. The major character of the volume is Fyr (Fire), who climbs a volcano and, like Prometheus, steals the fire. Up on the mountain he sees the ocean in the distance, and the feeling of longing is stirred in him for the first time.
In Norne-Gæst (1919; translated in The Cimbrians, 1923), Jensen follows the lives of the Northerners from the Glacial Age to the Great Migration. The opening lines describe the newborn title character’s first glimpse of the blue sky between the leaves. This vision is to become crucial for his insatiable longing to travel that will drive Norne-Gæst around the world, encountering, for instance, Greek and Roman civilization, and up through the Bronze and Iron Ages. Cimbrernes Tog (1922, The Raids of the Cimbri; translated in The Cimbrians), the last volume of the series to be published, is also mainly set abroad. It opens with Norne-Gæst wandering up through Jutland in order to attend the spring festivals in Himmerland, home of the Cimbrians. Suddenly climatic deterioration sets in with floods and famine, and the Cimbrians set off under the command of Bojerik, a name modeled after a Boiorix mentioned in one of Jensen’s sources, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The narrative then follows the everyday life of the Cimbrians as they raid down through Europe, with intervening mythic scenes as observed and commented upon by the omnipresent Norne-Gæst. Other tribes join the Cimbrians, and together they win their first battles against the Romans. Here the Northerner and the Southerner, separated in Bræen, meet again. Eventually, the Cimbrians, having acquired the decadence of the foreign lands, are defeated in a bloody battle; yet, the volume concludes on a conciliatory note in which the spirits of antiquity and of the North merge harmoniously.
In Skibet (1912, The Ship) the Nordic longing to travel is embodied in the Vikings and their raids to the Mediterranean. In the North, Christianity is introduced through a monk, Brother Parvus. Jensen’s description of Parvus’s works of charity belongs among his best passages, forming an essential correlation to his frequently stressed anti-Christian attitude. The first church is erected by turning the Viking ship upside down. In the deepest sense the forest itself becomes a cathedral, while the longing to go abroad takes on a religious dimension.
Longing as the basic trait of the Nordic people becomes personified by the title character of the 1921 novel Christofer Columbus–whom Jensen had previously described as a reddish-blond Northerner in Hjulet– and his voyages of discovery. Jensen’s view of the defiant and struggling individual as the creator of culture, fundamental to Den lange Rejse, is paralleled by his concept of the basic trait of the Nordic people–“the Gothic race”–as being the dream about warmth and sun. This dream, which is Jensen’s explanation of the religious sentiment, is expressed through a longing for distant places, in the final account a longing for paradise that becomes embodied in the structures of the ship and the upward-reaching Gothic cathedral. The Viking migrations, the “raids of the Cimbri,” were a result of this longing, as was the voyage of the Goth, Columbus. His attempt at finding legendary lands resulted, however, in the discovery of America, of reality; and yet, at the conclusion of his life, Columbus realizes that his new discovery has brought him nothing but homelessness and loneliness. Now the initial optimism turns into tragic resignation, as Columbus subsequently chooses not a metaphysical solution but a return to his memories of the past. He does not realize that he must let his journey continue toward the eternal as it is depicted in the myth, “Ave Stella,” that concludes the volume.
Den lange Rejse is not a novel with a traditional plot centered around the adventures of a hero, nor should the work be read as a scientifically correct depiction of various cultural stages. The fact that so many of its theories are contrary to modern history, anthropology, and archeology is irrelevant and cannot weaken the work as literature. Rather, Den lange Rejse is a vision written by an artist with a formidable ability to identify with other periods and conditions. The outcome proves the impossibility of creating a meaningful coherence based on evolution alone, and Jensen’s project defies any organizing structure; however, the six volumes form a grandiose and gripping artistic work that is outstanding as a depiction of the ages of history and of mankind.
Jensen gradually turned away from the writing of fiction in favor of a growing involvement in current cultural and scientific issues; this reorientation was accompanied by a focusing on the feature article and the essay with the purpose of popularizing the theories of evolution. In Jensen’s collection of essays Nordisk Aand: Kroni-ker og Karakteristiker (1911, Nordic Spirit: Chronicles and Characteristics), the American society that he had glorified in Den ny Verden was analyzed further and seen as an implementation of the program in Den gotiske Renaissance, indeed as the true expression of the Nordic character; the Scandinavian prototype of this character is Bjørnson, who is portrayed with several other Danish and Norwegian writers. The volume concludes with a fierce attack on contemporary Danish literary critics for not appreciating Jensen’s work.
In April 1911 Jensen traveled with his wife to Paris and London via Berlin and Cologne. His fascination with the cathedral in Cologne found powerful expression in his next essay collection; and in a 10 May 1911 travel letter to Politiken from Normandy, where he looked for traces of the ancient Nordic population, can be seen the first impulses for the novel Skibet, which is set during the Viking Age. In 1912 Jensen also published a monograph, Rudyard Kipling, written in connection with several translations of various Kipling stories that he and Aslaug Mikkelsen had begun in 1911. Although Jensen was strongly influenced by the English writer during the composition of Singapore Noveller and the two additional volumes of short stories from 1909 and 1915, he is strongly critical of Kipling’s imperialistic attitude and deprecation of women.
In the fall of 1912 Jensen began his second great journey to Asia, from which he returned the following year. His reflections en route were later included in the philosophical travelogue Introduction til vor Tidsalder (1915, Introduction to Our Epoch). “I det indiske Hav” (In the Indian Ocean) displays pure poetry in some passages, where Jensen describes the voyage until the vessel sails into the Ceylonese port of Colombo in December. Singapore is revisited, and the homesickness that Jensen had experienced a decade earlier overtook him again. In China he found the theme for a lyrical short story, “Darduses Myndlinge” (Darduse’s Wards), which was later adapted for the stage as the comedy Darduse, Bryllupet i Peking: Eventyrkomedie i fire akter (1937,
Darduse, Wedding in Peking: Fairy Tale Comedy in Four Acts). From Manchuria, Jensen continued on his trip, describing in the chapter “fra Østen til Evropa” (from the East toward Europe) his experiences traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, seeing again with joy the European peasant culture, and describing jubilantly his return to Scandinavia. In its analysis of the Northerner’s longing, the book forms a striking link between Den gotiske Renaissance and Christofer Columbus. At the same time, Jensen’s attempt to give religious feelings a purely physiological explanation is one more bit of evidence that the question of immortality kept troubling him.
Jensen planned to make still another journey to Asia, by way of the United States, the following summer, but did not complete his trip. In March 1914 he embarked for New York City, but the joy of rediscovery was moderate. Even though Jensen still admired the American press and the hectic and progressive atmosphere in the country, he sharply attacked what he saw as the childishness and bigotry of the Americans. In mid April, Jensen decided to return to Copenhagen, and a few months later World War I broke out. Since Denmark remained neutral, Jensen could leave for Berlin in August in order to negotiate with his German publisher, Samuel Fischer. During his visit he became strongly critical of the bellicosity that was shared by all of the German political parties, and he bitterly regretted the clash between Germany and Britain, since both nations had the same Gothic origin.
During the war Jensen was mainly occupied with writing the last volumes of Den lange Rejse. He also prepared a greatly enlarged edition of his collected poems, Digte: Tredie Udgave (1921, Poems: Third Edition). It includes–in addition to several memorial poems and other portraits–nine poems from Den lange Rejse. Of these, the alliterative “Drengs Gravsang” (Dreng’s Elegy) from Bræen binds up the experience of love and boundless longing in a mythic vision. “Vor Frue” (Our Lady), structured on the prosody of the medieval hymn “Dies irae,” and the ballad-like “Den sørgeligste Vise” (The Saddest Song) from Christofer Columbus treat other recurrent themes in Jensen’s writing: the first glorifies woman as a saving force and culminates in an apotheosis of the Madonna, while the second is one of the most overwhelming interpretations in Danish poetry of the futility of life. Disillusion and resignation also characterize the majority of remaining poems in the volume, many of which are in alliterative form.
Negative reviews of Cimbrernes Tog and the Den lange Rejse project as a whole by a critic for Politiken led to another of Jensen’s many literary feuds and culminated in a break with the newspaper that lasted until 1926. Shortly after the break, in December 1922, Jensen began the publication of his own periodical, Forum: Tidsskrift for Litteratur, Biologi og Samfundsspørgsmål (Forum: Periodical of Literature, Biology, and Social Issues), which survived for only one and a half years. In the first issue of Forum he published his most succinct and best-written settlement with the misuse of Darwinism, “Den daarlige Darwinisme” (The Bad Darwinism). In addition, Forum included a few insignificant poems about birds that, together with other animal poems illustrated by Jensen’s close friend the painter Johannes Larsen, were collected in the volume Aarstiderne (1923, The Seasons). Jensen’s interest in this painter and in the visual arts in general–he was himself a painter and was also an accomplished sculptor–resulted in several art books, two of which deal with the renowned Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. Related to these works is the collection of newspaper articles about art, Form og Sjæl: Portræter af Personligheder (1931, Form and Soul: Portraits of Personalities), one more expression of Jensen’s love for classicism and of sculpture.
Essential for an understanding of Jensen’s fiction is his 1923 work Æsktik og Udvikling. The book is a sort of afterword to Den lange Rejse, in which Jensen also launches his “gradus” theory, a conception designating the gliding steps of evolution that he wanted to stress rather than the static species–further developed in later volumes, such as Aandens Stadier (1928, Stages of the Mind). In Æsktik og Udvikling, Jensen writes: “Den lange Rejse handler ikke eksklusivt om en Race, den handler om Udviklingstrin. Den ene Race er Udviklingstrinet af den anden” (Den lange Rejse does not deal exclusively with a race, it deals with stages of evolution. One race is the evolutionary stage of another). At the same time Jensen sharply attacks novels that focus exclusively on individuals as being pre-Darwinian and thus hero-worshiping and outdated. The concept of “bad Darwinism” is discussed again in the obscure and insignificant collection of previously published articles about Darwinism, Evolution og Moral (1925, Evolution and Ethics).
At the end of 1925, Jensen once again set out on a long journey; this time the goal was the Egyptian health resort of Helwan. From Egypt and later from Palestine, he sent several travel letters home to the newspaper Social-Demokraten, revised versions of which were included in Aandens Stadier.
Jensen continued to write memorial poems, and his perfection of this genre can be seen in the undervalued collection Verdens Lys (1926, The Light of the World). Verdens Lys includes six alliterative poems from Cimbrernes Tog that–in a mythic perspective–juxtapose and celebrate the union between North and South. Distinct among Jensen’s works in its focus on artistic expression is “Graven i Sne” (The Snow-Covered Grave), a memorial poem to the Danish Romantic poet Adam Oehlenschläger. It is both an idealized portrait of Oehlenschläger, Jensen’s beloved model as both a harmonious artist and human being–“To Gange gav han Livet Form, / i Livet selv, i ædel Norm” (Twice he gave to life a form, / in life itself, in noble norm)–and a poem about the eternal value of art in spite of the inevitability of death. It becomes a glorification of Jensen’s own poetic art, as it is expressed in a structure that combines observation, vision, and reflection into a perfect artistic entity that may turn out to be the only way to overcome the absurdity of life. The poems in memory of Jensen’s father offer an affectionate portrait of a man who lived in close intimacy with the miracles of life in nature, a closeness to nature inherited by the poet although not without discord. A much more somber tone is heard in the obituary for Jensen’s mother, the concluding poem of the volume, “Ved min Moders Død” (At My Mother’s Death), as well as in the hymn-like “Kirken i Hardanger” (The Church in Hardanger), in which the reader can perceive, behind the stoic resignation that results from placing oneself in the hands of the cycle of nature, the author’s fear of annihilation, which is so powerful that it threatens to break up the poetic form.
In 1927 Dyrenes Forvandling: Til Udviklingens Plastik (The Transformation of Animals: A Contribution to the Plasticity of Evolution) was published; it was another presentation of evolutionary theories but without the fierce attacks on Christianity that characterize some of his earlier writings. Jensen attempts–and the task appears scientifically absurd–to describe the animal soul and ethics as they change through all stages of evolution. Trips to Madeira and Rome followed in 1928, and impressions from both trips were likewise included in the anthropological study of human origin and development, Aandens Stadier.
In May 1929 Jensen received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lund. At the same time Jensen began to focus again on Nordic issues and started his translation of Egil’s Saga for a planned edition of De islandske Sagaer (The Icelandic Sagas), which was published in three volumes from 1930 to 1932. At the same time he returned to his preoccupation with Nordic archaeology in a series of articles subsequently published in the volume Paa danske Veje (1931, On Danish Roads) with his own photos and drawings by Larsen. With this work Jensen got involved in a fierce public debate about the preservation of the ancient burial mounds and stirred up so much political attention that stringent conservation laws were put into effect in 1937. His introduction to De islandske Sagaer, in which he discusses the sagas as products of a genuine Nordic mentality untouched by the traditions of antiquity and Christianity, points ahead to his book about women in the Viking Age, Kvinden i Sagatiden (1942, The Woman in the Saga Period), which also includes retellings of selected saga texts. For a new edition of Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla, published in 1948, Jensen took upon himself the difficult task of translating all 539 stanzas.
The transcendental aspect in his earlier poetry is not found in Den jydske Blæst: Digte 1926–1930 (1931, The Jutland Wind: Poems 1926-1930), Jensen’s last important poetry collection. Whereas death in, for instance, the memorial poem “Knut Hamsun” is still accepted as a pantheistic amalgamation into nature, most of the texts are structured on the tragic contrast between active life and the corruption of death, as in the memorial poem “Otto Benzon,” and now nature brings no consolation: “I Kammerdøren peb Vindens Røst, / en ensom Jammer, ingen Trøst” (The voice of the wind whistled in the chamber door / a lonesome lamentation, no comfort). When the memorial poem over others becomes a poem about Jensen himself, as in the concluding title poem, one finds the same death motif, the portrayal of death as man’s tragic but only certain verity. Jensen’s writing has this motif in common with Baroque literature, albeit without Heaven as the final destination.
On his sixtieth birthday, 20 January 1933, Jensen had reached such an esteemed position that a torchlight procession was held in his honor in Copenhagen and a festschrift published, Unge Digteres Hyldest til Johannes V. Jemen (Young Writers’ Homage to Johannes V. Jensen). In response to virulent public criticism of his lack of political commitment, Jensen, in an article published in Politiken on his birthday, emphasized–as he had done throughout his career–his independence as a freelance writer outside the political parties. Nevertheless, in a review of Hartvig Frisch’s Pest over Europa (1933, Plague over Europe) in the same newspaper on 3 December, he once again attacked Nietzsche’s philosophy and its consequences in the Germany of the early 1930s. Here Jensen strongly dissociated himself from contemporary political developments in Europe toward dictatorship, and, in the 1938 article “Hagekorset” (The Swastika), he publicly expressed his disgust with anti-Semitism.
In 1930 Jensen published the collection of essays and articles Retninger i Tiden: Artikler 1925-30 (Trends of the Times: Articles 1925-30); however, during the first part of the 1930s Jensen turned away from the essay form, with the exception of his short history of ideas, Det Blivende: Tankens Revolutionering i det 19de Aarhundrede og Tilbagefaldet i det 20de (1934, The Permanent: The Revolution of Thought in the 19th Century and the Backslide in the 20th), written in a more concise and concentrated style than his other philosophical works. With the underrated novel Dr. Renaults Fristelser (1935, The Temptations of Dr. Renault) he again took up fiction, reworking the Faust motif into a plot that, in contrast to the version presented by Goethe, lets the title character win over Mephistopheles because he is ready to fully accept the present. As in Hjulet, aestheticism is regarded as a barrier between man and reality, and in a significant scene Dr. Renault throws a valuable statue of Aphrodite into the sea, so that nothing will stand between him and life.
In October 1936 Jensen went on a short trip to the United States in order to collect material for a sequel to Dr. Renaults Fristelser, in spite of the negative reception that the book had received. The continuation never materialized. Instead, Jensen published the novel Gudrun (1936), a realization of a much older project: a contemporary novel of the Copenhagen woman, and thus also a novel about the city of Copenhagen, but completely different from Jensen’s first two novels. The city is no longer seen through the eyes of a student from the provinces. Now a citizen of Copenhagen for many years–and a matured artist–Jensen delivers a deeply intimate tribute to this city as a swarming, animated organism. Most of Jensen’s poems written in the 1930s were collected in 1937 as Paaskebadet: Digte 1931-1937 (The Easter Bath: Poems 1931-1937).
That same year, Jensen’s play adaptation of Darduse, Bryllupet i Peking, a “Fairy Tale Comedy in Four Acts,” had its premiere on 22 January at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen and was performed sixteen times. It was a weak play, carried by excellent acting and Knudáge Riisager’s rousing music. Jensen’s relationship with the theater was, on the whole, marked by a lack of success. During his stay in Chicago in the winter of 1902–1903 he had his own dramatization of some of his Himmerland stories performed by Danish-American amateurs with the title Trods (2002, Defiance). The one and only performance was a resounding fiasco. A dramatization of Madame D’Ora, titled Sangerinden (The Singer) and published as Sangerinden (Madame d’Ora): Drama i fem Akter (1921, The Singer [Madame d’Ora]: Drama in Five Acts), was performed unsuccessfully in 1923, premiering at the Odense Teater on 16 November; and when, on 24 April 1937, Jensen’s translation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was performed at the Royal Theater, it provoked such fierce criticism that the production had to be canceled.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Jensen managed to visit Norway, described in the travelogue Nordvejen: Indtryk afnorsk Natur (1939, The Way North: Impressions of Norwegian Nature), and then the United States; in March 1939 he left Denmark for his sixth journey to the New World. His travel letters were first printed in Politiken and subsequently as a book, titled Fra Fristaterne: Rejsebreve, med et Tilbageblik (1939, From the Free States: Travel Letters with a Retrospect). This time Jensen’s encounter with the United States was marked by ambivalence. In the chapter “Fra Stillehavet til Atlanten” (From the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic), which is among the best sections of the book, the impressions from the trip are summed up. Although his overall impressions were still positive, Jensen was disappointed by what he saw as the increasing vulgarity and materialism of American society, where technology had become an end in itself, not an expression of man’s inventiveness and ingenuity. After having arrived on the East Coast, Jensen became ill and had to return home earlier than planned. Back in Copenhagen in May 1939 he added a concluding chapter on Thomas Jefferson, meant as a counterweight to the current antidemocratic trends in Europe.
Jensen had planned a tour to France for September 1939 in order to visit the regions where traces of prehistoric man had been discovered, but this plan was thwarted by the outbreak of World War II and had to be postponed until spring 1948. When the Germans occupied Denmark in April 1940, Jensen, apparently fearing arrest, took the precaution of burning his diaries from the previous thirty years, together with all personal letters written to him. In this way much data related to the writing of his books and–most important–notes from his many travels were lost for posterity. Nevertheless, he continued to write throughout the occupation from 1940 to 1945. In 1941 came Mindets Tavle: Portrœter og Personligheder (Plaque of Commemoration: Portraits and Personalities) with portraits of Nordic and British explorers, scientists, writers–and Darwin once again–and in 1943 the collection of some unimportant ethnographic articles, Folkeslagene i østen (The People of the Orient). Of greater quality is the study Vor Oprindehe (1941, Our Origin), describing humanity’s gradual acquisition of civilization. Again Jensen’s myth-creating fantasy bloomed in a visionary description of cultural progress. At the same time he offers a subtle analysis of his authorship, clearly drawing up a balance sheet and expressing his feeling that he was at the end of the road, a feeling that is also expressed in the essay “Tak til Sproget” (Thanks to Language), Jensen’s farewell to literature; this essay was included, together with some linguistic studies, in a small book, Om Sproget og Undervisningen (1942, About Language and Teaching).
After having been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Jensen finally received it on 9 November 1944. The Nobel Committee announced that the prize was awarded in recognition of “the remarkable force and richness of his poetic imagination, combined with a wide-ranging intellectualism and bold, innovative sense of style,” and Den lange Rejse appeared to be a decisive factor for the committee. In his speech of thanks at the City Hall of Stockholm on 10 December 1945, the writer once again paid tribute to Darwin and identified himself with the scientist: “To him [Darwin], evolution was not only the subject of a life’s study but the very essence of life, proof of the inexhaustible richness and wonder of nature, revealed each day and taken to heart.”
Since 1925 a large number of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish intellectuals, literary scholars, and scientists had been proposing Jensen for the prize. Initially, the proponents pointed to his earlier works, in particular his myths, and his distinctive handling of style and language as well as his depictions of the Danish mind and Danish nature as qualifying him for the prize. Judged negatively, however, were Jensen’s anthropological essays for their lack of speculative content as well as their polemical tone.
The publication in 1938 of the two-volume edition of Den lange Rejse once again drew attention to Jensen’s major series of novels, and the positive attitude was strengthened further in 1943 with the publication of his poetry collection Digte: 1901-1941. Also, the German occupation of Denmark during World War II probably had an impact on the decision to award Jensen the prize in 1944.
In Denmark the Nobel Prize was welcomed by the entire press, which published large articles on Jensen on their front pages and had his friends and colleagues comment on the significance of the award as well as on Jensen’s authorship in general. The underground press also noticed the prize, even though Jensen was not an active member of the resistance. Because of the war, however, the event did not attract much attention abroad.
Jensen definitely appreciated having been awarded the Nobel Prize and expressed a certain amount of pride and self-esteem in his banquet speech in Stockholm; but he was not dependent on the money, and the award did not have any visible impact on his personal life or his writing. Neither did it contribute to increase his reputation abroad, which had reached its zenith in the interwar years, particularly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries; he never became a popular writer in the Anglo-American countries.
During the last years of Jensen’s life his productivity decreased significantly. After an operation in September 1948 he managed to finish a book about the great explorers, Afrika: Opdagelserejserne (1949, Africa: Journeys of Discovery), demonstrating that one of the favorite topics of his childhood reading was still inspiring him. Otherwise, Jensen was primarily occupied with the preparation of a combined, revised edition of the three books Dyrenes For-vandling Aandens Stadier, and Vor Oprindelse, but he managed to complete only the first volume, published posthumously in 1951 in the volume Tilblivelsen (Genesis). Troubled by an ear disease, he also suffered from shingles during the summer of 1949 and was hospitalized. He still managed to write a few more articles; the most valuable of these, “Adam Oehlenschläger 1779-1850,” published in the book Swift og Oehlenschläger (1950, Swift and Oehlenschläger), is a finely drawn portrait of his artistic model as a man of simple nature, without stiltedness, who calmly accepted death as Jensen had described in the poem “Graven i Sne.” On 31 January 1950 Jensen commented on his second great model, Darwin, in a short article, “Træsk fra vor Oprindelse” (Traits from Our Origin). These two personalities, the poet Oehlenschläger and the scientist Darwin, perfectly symbolize the two facets of Jensen’s authorship. In his later years natural science came to dominate, but the first element stands as the most valuable, the one that will survive.
Johannes V. Jensen died on 25 November 1950. Brandes once claimed that as a thinker and preacher Jensen could not be taken seriously. Brandes had a point: the content ofjensen’s many collections of essays and articles dealing with natural science, archaeology, and anthropology are often based on dubious scientific theories and deductions. In addition, in these volumes Jensen linguistically turns from lyrical expressiveness to a terse, matter-of-fact diction. But one must not fail to notice that in spite of the scientific topic, his stylistic mastery often breaks forth in evocative passages that can be read as sublime prose poetry. Jensen’s critics have also frequently overlooked that he was brilliant as a journalistic writer. He was unusually well-informed about current trends, and his knowledge of American society and literature was unique for a Dane of his time. Neither should his contributions as a translator be overlooked. Besides his accomplished translations from Old Norse, his outstanding rendering of Whitman’s poetry in Danish must be acknowledged.
Jensen reached perfection as a lyrical poet and a creator of myth, both in his collections of poetry and myths and when he succeeded in combining the two genres, as in Kongens Fald, Skovene, Den huge Rejse, and several of his stories of Himmerland. With his debut collection of poems, Jensen introduced modernism in Danish poetry, and he became the writer who, arguably, has had the strongest impact on twentieth-century Danish literature.
Frits Johansen and Aage Marcus, Johannes V. Jensen: En Bibliografi, 2 volumes (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1933-1951);
Aage Jørgensen, Litteratur om Johannes V. Jensen En bibliografi (Odense: Odense University Press, 1998).
K. K. Nicolaisen, Johannes V. Jensen: Bidrag til hans Biografi og Karakteristik (Aalborg: Viggo Madsens Boghandel, 1914);
Oluf Friis, Den unge Johannes V. Jensen 1873-1902, 2 volumes (Copenhagen: Gad, 1974);
Villum Jensen, Min fars hus: Erindringer om Johannes V. Jensen og hans miljø (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1976);
Leif Nedergaard, Johannes V. Jensen, third edition (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzel, 1993);
Lars Handesten, Johannes V. Jensen: Liv og Værk (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2000).
Harry Andersen, Afhandlinger om Johannes V. Jensen (Rødovre: Rolv, 1982);
Andersen, Studier i Johannes V. Jensens Lyrik: Verseteknik, Sprog og Stil (Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard, 1936);
Jørgen Elbek, Johannes V. Jensen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1966);
Otto Gelsted, Johannes V. Jensen: Kurven i hans Udvikling (Copenhagen: Arthur Jensen, 1938);
Alf Henriques, Johannes V. Jensen (Copenhagen: H. Hirschsprung, 1938);
Iben Holk, Jartegn: Et essay om Johannes V. Jensens myter (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzel, 2000);
Poul Houe, Johannes V. Jensens lange rejse: En postmoderne myte (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 1996);
Niels Ingwersen, “America as Setting and Symbol in Johannes V. Jensen’s Early Works,” American Norvegica, 3 (1971): 272-293;
Bent Haugaard Jeppesen, Johannes V. Jensen og den hvide mands byrde: Eksotisme og imperialisme (Copenhagen: Rhodos, 1984);
Aage Jørgensen, “Johannes V. Jensen (Literature): ‘. . . a good enough poet and; nowadays, a good enough human being. . . .’” in Neighbouring Nobel: The History of Thirteen Danish Nobel Prizes, edited by Henry Nielsen and Keld Nielsen (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2001), pp. 207-243;
Jørgensen and Helene Kragh-Jacobsen, eds., Columbus fra Himmerland (Farsø: Farsø Bibliotek, 1994);
Jørgensen and Anders Thyrring Andersen, eds., Et spring ind i et billede: Johannes V. Jensens mytedigtning (Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 2000);
Aage Marcus, “Johannes V. Jensen,” American-Scandinavian Review, 20 (1932): 339-347;
Felix Nørgaard and Aage Marcus, eds., Johannes V. Jensen. 1873-20. Januar–1943 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1943);
Sven Hakon Rossel, “Andersen og Jensen–Eventyret og myten,” in Hvad Fatter gjør... Boghistoriske, litterære og musikalske essays tilegnet Erik Dal, edited by Henrik Glahn and others (Herning: Poul Kristensen, 1982), pp. 392-402;
Rossel, Johannes V. Jensen (Boston: Twayne, 1984);
Aage Schiøttz-Christensen, Om sammenhængen i Johannes V. Jensens forfatterskab (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1956);
Henrik Wivel, Den titaniske eros: Drifts- og karakterfortolkning i Johannes V. Jensens forfatterskab (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1982).
The major collection of correspondence and manuscripts is in the Johannes V. Jensen Archives at Det kongelige Bibliotek (The Royal Library), Copenhagen. Additional material is located at Statsbiblioteket, Arhus, and the Farsø Bibliotek. Forty-three letters from Jensen to various Norwegian writers and friends are located at the University Library, Oslo.