Danish literature

views updated

Danish literature, the literature of Denmark.

Early Writings

The earliest literature of Denmark is preserved in the runic carvings on nearly 275 stone monuments erected to the Vikings c.850–1050. A number of these are written in alliterative verse. The Danish legends of the heroic period were preserved in the work of Saxo Grammaticus (fl. 12th cent.). With Christianity came the epic poetry of the scholastics, the legends of saints, and theological works written in Latin. The Danish folk song appeared in the 12th cent., stimulated by customs of knighthood and chivalry. Danish literature of the later Middle Ages, primarily in Latin, was formal and ecclesiastical; it included annals, chronicles, legends, and a few poems.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

The Reformation stimulated religious polemic and satire as well as the literary use of the Danish language. The Danish translation of the New Testament, completed in 1531 by the humanist Christian Pedersen (d. 1554), who also published an edition of Saxo (1514), greatly influenced Danish literature. In 1535 Hans Tausen (1494–1561) translated the Old Testament. From the Reformation also dates modern Danish drama, which was long a medium for religious moralizing. Fine poetry in the Renaissance manner was created in the early 17th cent. by Anders Arrebo, and baroque verse reached its zenith as rendered by the clergyman Thomas Kingo (1634–1703).

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Ludvig Holberg introduced the ideas of the Enlightenment in the 18th cent., and neoclassical poetry, the drama, and the essay flourished, following French and English models. German influence is seen in the verse of the leading poets of the late 18th cent., Johannes Ewald and Jens Baggesen.

It was maintained by the romantic school, fathered by Adam Oehlenschläger. A transcendent figure in Danish literary culture was N. F. S. Grundtvig; both he and Oehlenschläger influenced the poet and novelist Bernhard Ingemann. A more aesthetic ideal was promulgated by the dramatist and essayist J. L. Heiberg; two of his protégés were the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, renowned for his fairy tales.

Although S. S. Blicher may have been the first Danish realist, the actual breakthrough to realism was inspired by the internationally influential critic Georg Brandes and was reflected in the novels of J. P. Jacobsen, H. J. Bang, Karl Gjellerup, and Hendrik Pontoppidan and in the early verse of H. H. Drachmann. The novelists Karin Michaëlis and Gyrithe Lemche were among the many women writers, mainly realists, active by the late 19th cent.

The Twentieth Century

By 1900 a lyrical reaction was being led by the poet J. J. Jørgensen; impressionistic themes became important, but were never the sole fruit of Danish literary endeavor. Both before and after World War I Martin Andersen Nexø wrote in a context of proletarian realism, and J. V. Jensen employed elements of realism and fantasy alike. Fantasy was dominant in the tales of Isak Dinesen, while the theater was enlivened by the dramas of Kaj Munk and the brilliant stage technique of Kjeld Abell.

The period following World War II saw the passing of a number of great figures and the emergence of Martin Hansen, Aage Dons, H. C. Branner, Frank Jäger, Tove Ditlevsen, and Knut Sønderby as outstanding Danish writers. Leading writers of the following generation have included Ole Sarvig, Klaus Rifbjerg, Villy Sørensen, Benny Andersen, Inger Christensen, and Peter Hoeg.


See P. M. Mitchell, A History of Danish Literature (2d ed. 1971); F. J. B. Jansen and P. M. Mitchell, ed., Anthology of Danish Literature (1972; bilingual); P. Borum, Danish Literature (1979); S. Rossel, A History of Danish Literature (1992).