Danish Literature and The Baltic

Within this presentation I shall attempt to mark pictures of the Baltic Sea and its coastal surroundings as they are depicted in Danish literature, in works where the sea and its coastal areas play a predominant roll. A selection is necessary, the amount of works will otherwise be incalculable.

Unavoidable is on the other hand 1o the very earliest large presentation of my country in books, namely “The Deeds of Danes”, as “Gesta Danorum” written in Latin by the clergyman known as Saxo Grammaticus in the years around 1200 p.C., 2o in the historical novels of Bernhard Severin Ingemann of the 1830’es, , when he wanted to write a continuation of the Gesta Danorum 600 years earlier. In the beginning of the 20th century the perspective was 3o still more expanded by the later Nobel prize winner Johannes V. Jensen who as a devoted evolutionist and Darwin student wanted to write a Genesis of the Nordic peoples from the Ice Age to the discovery of America.

A wider range of writers and poets have dealt with The Baltic environment in 4o poetry.

Diagnosis I

Danish literature – one might like to define it in the way Immanuel Kant defined (in Kritik der reinen Vernunft 1781) the phenomena of the outer world, there is The Thing in itself, and there is Danish literature as it is understood in the world outside Denmark itself; of course that could be said of almost any national literature, but probably with the exception of the major literatures, the Russian, the German, the French and the Anglo-Saxon e.g. What they read inside these language communities, is very much the same as we are entertained by outside them, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostojevski and Proust belong as much to e.g. Danish literary education and treasure.

But with Danish literature it is not so; there is a literary legacy to us which I would prefer to perceive as the thing itself, and there is a few aspects of Danish literature known to literary educated persons outside the language community. There is in short much more to it than is compiled in the names of Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard; to literary educated persons with a background in the former Communist hemisphere one might add Martin Andersen Nexø, to others, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, Karen Blixen. Experts of Rainer Maria Rilke, James Joyce or Boris Pasternak will also be aware of the works of Jens Peter Jacobsen.

These names are naturally also of great importance to the Danish reading community, but they are not the only ones, and they could perhaps not be regarded as equally predominant as they are in the minds of outsiders.

It has been my fate to lead comparative studies in Danish and Swedish literature; in spite of the closeness between those two, the differences are striking, to put it shortly: Danish writers have convincingly demonstrated their disability in writing popular but artistic songs in the style from Carl Michael Bellman to Cornelis Vreeswijk, and likewise the almost total absence of Strindberg-Norén-like tragedy playwrights is predominant.

Swedes always accept this with a quiet and almost subdued smile of satisfaction, but get rather upset when I number the disabilities in Swedish literature: they cannot write philosophy, they cannot write Lutheran congregational hymns. In the philosophic line the extraordinary quality of Danish literature is obvious, but other language communities dispose of outstanding philosophers as well. But in two aspects Danish literature could be seen as having works beyond competition in any other literature I could think of. One is the Lutheran congregational hymn, another is a genre hardly known of outside our country, a genre one might describe as a secular hymn, the “Danish song”, a form of singable and sung poetry by our best poets – and composers, to be sung by ordinary people at meetings and assemblies with political or philosophical contents, defining the actual and historical situation of the singing assembly.

As its motive “The Danish song” normally has the very song itself and the singing of it exactly in the situation in which people will perform it for one part, “danishness”, “being Danish” makes out the other part of its text which was written in the honour of a certain special event, e.g. a public meeting, a celebration of Constitution Day (5th of June) or another national memorial datum, that is the typical feature of it. Equally typical is an actual, nationally or in some cases regionally important event, just having occurred, the liberation day of 1945, the occupation five years earlier, the reunification of the realm in 1920, the battles of 1864 and the first Schleswig-Holstein wars 1848-50 – or on the inner lines the struggle against the nobility junta in favour of parliamentarism between 1871 and 1901[i].

What really has occurred in many of these song producing situations was/is that the urge for a fine song in the public coincide with the need by the poets to express their emotions, the ability of the artist meets the needs of the customers.

You might understand this genre as a kind of national anthems, only that we own hundreds and hundreds of them, learn them at home and in the schools, participate in singing them whenever a meeting is taking place. For obvious reasons practically no examples of this literature have reached the rest of the world; as far as I know, few others than the Swiss-Australian scholar, my learned friend, dr. Hans Kuhn[ii], has understood this special feature of Danish literature. The songbook of the Danish folk high school is the nucleus of this literary uniqueness, but almost every association and form of school has its own variant of the anthology of Danish poetry from the last millennium.

- As a footnote I just mention that poems in Norwegian and Swedish as a matter of course are included in this national legacy.

Thus the hymn book of the Danish Lutheran church, the songbook of the folk high school and to some extent the so called red songbook, the songbook of the Workers’ Movement form the centre of Danish literature. Parallel to the sung poetry there is canon of not singable poetry and prose, introduced as a part of common education in the gymnasium and folk high school as well as in the universities. Some of the classics in this canon are generally read and their works  enjoyed, even studied, by common readers and library users. As president of the Council of Literary Societies in Denmark I am constantly in contact with amateurs of literature, and our list of participating societies forms an index of the names in the songbooks and the canon, very few of them known to the educated public outside our language borders, even to other Scandinavians.

It is not my object to introduce you to The Thing itself, Danish literature; the purpose of this lecture is to draw the outlines of how the Baltic Sea is a part of how people and country of Denmark is defined by its writers through history; you will therefore meet names of important Danish poets that you hardly ever heard of before. I myself consider exactly this matter of fact as one of the purposes of this lecture.

Diagnosis II

The second part of this lecture should be dealing with The Baltic. Nowadays everybody has acknowledged that the European continent contents two seas amidst the firm lands, in Latin Mediterranean seas. The southern Mediterranean has been allowed to keep that name for itself, the northern was perceived as a belt of waters, of fairways amidst the countries from Denmark eastward. We have borrowed the very word “belt”  (in Scandinavian not less than in English)  from the Latin balteum, and when Adam of Bremen in the 11th century had to transfer the names of the sea east of Jutland, south of the Danish islands and Scania, he stated that the local inhabitants named it mare Balticum, the Belt Sea. Of course, they inhabited the coasts of the Little Belt, The Great Belt and The Sound, and as civilisation travelled eastward, the name of the sea travelled with it, as it obviously was the same sea.

A synonym for The Baltic sometimes used by poets is Sinus Codanus “The Golf At The Danish Coasts”, introduced by the Roman writer Pomponius Mela around 44 AD, in Medieval Latin often Mare Codanum “The Danish Coastal Sea”. To us who as Scandinavians are compass fixed, we tend to name everything possible after the corners of the world, it is for obvious reason The Eastern Sea.

On purely terminological reasons one might say, even if it would be  pushing the matter to its extremes, that as well as feminist literature deals with the lives and loves of females, the Wilhelm Meister-type novels with the development of the individual in question, Danish literature is occupied with the Baltic, in so far that Danish literature at all deals with the lives and loves of Danes, the development of Danish individuals etc.

The title of this lecture Danish literature and The Baltic could thus be seen as a pleonasm. If not The Baltic, what should Danish writers tire their readers with?

This is evident when in what we before agreed on naming “The Danish song” we study how the poets define the surroundings of their characters and their events; it is likewise obvious in the prose.  In “The Long Journey” the Nobel prize winner Johannes V. Jensen gives the following picture of the country in question:

Swain was a seafaring man, he came in his ship to a land which almost made one with the sea and consisted of many low islands with fjords and sounds between. ... The sky stood mightily above this land which scarcely showed in the sea, with swelling worlds of cloud and shafts of light slanting down from the hidden sun[iii].

In order to define the fatherland, every poet has to include the Baltic Sea in the poetic depiction.

Along with the philosophical-ideological, political purposes of these songs in which the emotion of poets and public meet, we find, and this goes for congregational hymns as well as the secular songs, the characteristics of Danish nature in all seasons of the year are almost always used as description, one could be tempted to use the word: definition, of the scenery of the said feelings and experiences: the special features in landscape. As time goes by, this sense of natural beauties come forward more and more, midst 20th century almost totally taking over e.g. on the cost of historical myths and factualities that more often were seen in the earlier more abstract periods. The direct depicturing of the country, the concretion of and within the words of poetry may seem striking.

The Baltic Sea in its wider meaning, including what the weathermen use to name “the Belt Sea” is thus a prominent feature of Danish poetry.

The Folk High School Songbook

The song singing itself has of course inspired some of our poets; as I have already mentioned, Norwegian and Swedish poetry stands equal with that written in Danish proper, so the Norwegian giant Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson competes with the less wellknown 20th century poet Kai Hoffmann who in 1924 was asked or inspired to write a song about the Danish song. He had as a student made his acquaintance with the muses of Greek mythology, eventually also with the Kanteletar of Finnish, so that it came natural to him that “The Danish song is a young blonde girl”.  The point is that he placed this miss Denmark at the sea side: she is a child of the sea blue kingdom/

where beeches listen to the billows’ roar[iv].

This last verse is by every Dane recognised as an echo from the national Anthem by Adam Oehlenschläger one hundred years earlier, in which the lovely country of Denmark is sketched as standing

with broad beeches

near salty eastern shore[v],

that is: at the beach of The Baltic Sea. Intertextuality is an old invention in literature, but in the actual case called upon in a very natural way and giving a precise and determinant depiction of the Danish isles. Because of moraine character of the soil and the soft breakers in the inner waters, the vegetation actually can mirror itself in the sea.

Even more evident it was written out by Hans Christian Andersen during the Slesvigian war of 1850 when he contributed to the collection of patriotic songs and protesting against the negative and pejorating German propaganda in world press of his native country by pointing out its characteristics with the fresh strand in focus:

Wherever will the summer make a bed of flowers

More richly than here down to the open strand ?[vi][vii]

Had Andersen borrowed this from Oehlenschläger too? In 1850 it was already practically impossible to mention Denmark in a poetic context without adding something about coast, beach and sea to the name. What both Andersen 1850 and Hoffmann 1924 used as poetic figures, N.F.S. Grundtvig had compressed in one mighty stanza in his consolation song of spring 1848 as the insurgents of Slesvig-Holstein with Prussian assistance threatened to smash the existence of the fatherland:


Ancestral land!

At the abyss you stand

in the billowing blue

as a blossoming you

with your May and your flowers in flush,

like a maid with her cheeks all in blush[viii] 

How highly the poets cherish the nearness of the sea and the freshness of the wind and the scent from the sea, one can learn from the far east travelling Poul Martin Møller who as a ship parson wrote of his longing back to Denmark somewhere in the Indian Ocean having paid visits to Canton, Manilla and Dyakarta. As the most valuable characteristics the pleasant sensation of the sea breeze only was outnumbered by the faithful love of a Nordic woman[ix].

The poet does not have to go the antipodes to experience the urge to walk at the sea side; Oehlenschläger did not go any further than to Central Germany to compare the misery of a river to the immensity of the sea:

In my homeland no streams smother

In a grave, wide, wet with clay:

Life’s own fountain, pleasure’s mother,

Sea of silv’ry blue, makes way,

Twines her arms with friendly gests

‘Round her daughters’ full grown breasts,

At her youthful bosom staying

with all  Zealand’s flowers playing[x].

It is obvious that these generations of poets were visitors at the sea side, they shared their experiences with a bourgeois public that spent summer holidays and picnics in meadows and forests neighbouring The Baltic. The poet Holger Drachmann, who in fact was the first Danish writer with a sailor’s experiences, pinned his predecessors and colleagues in a sharply written stanza of the country and its poets; we should cherish it, it is to be found in a collection from 1877 titled Sea Side Songs. In the first stanza he declares his love to Denmark due to the fact that it is surrounded by the sea, and every working man has a view to it, which makes both thinking and working easy and is inspiring for the poet; then he proceeds:

Here now lies fjord and belt and sound;

The sun looks at it all around

And shines with obvious delight

At Denmark’s islands far and tight.

These flowery isles have bred a score

Of sons well talented for song,

Great minstrels we have had galore

And most of everything ashore

They made to poems all along,

But of the sea we had no lore[xi].

Whether this harsh poem did the job, or the times they were achanging anyhow: with the introduction of the steam ship and later the diesel motor vessel, the first one of the species built in Denmark, the perspective changes, the poets made common cause with the ship owners and sailors in the high period of modern sea fare in the hundred years between 1870 and 1970, in the three decades between the victory for parliamentarism and the break through of Social Democracy, the kingdom was ruled from ship owners’ offices, EAC offering the grey eminence in deep alliance with the royal court. In the same period also in popular songs and dance lyrics sailors’ living and doing became one typical topic, the sailor song making a Fenno-Scandinavian genre of its own. In the genre we deal with here, we find the same tendency: the somewhat grandiose extreme right wing versemaker Valdemar Rørdam renewed the picture by gathering The North Sea and The Atlantic, the Belts and The Baltic in a double portrait of our existence conditions:

Tearing currents and ocean’s roar,


The breeze is fresh all along your shore

in your bright green dwellings.

This is written in 19o8, and in the very same year our treasure of songs is enriched by one on the subject of the sea surrounding Denmark, not from ashore in safety viewing the fine colours, but amidst it. L.C. Nielsen wrote like this:

Seaways around Denmark, maternal sea,

Blue as our eyes are and soft as our dreams are,

Currents filled with memory,

sweeping ‘gainst the coast. –

Yearning you gave us as most!

We travel your lanes, obey by your laws,

We’re ploughing your meadows with steady vessels’ keel.

You rock us through the world, as far as we set course. –

To you we do belong and in love for  you we kneel[xii].

Thus the standard was finally established, and accordingly the point of culmination was reached when on the 10th of July 1920 king Christian rode into the regained province of Northern Schleswig and the directors of The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen ordered a jubilee play by the leading poet Helge Rode and the foremost composer Carl Nielsen; they called it “The Mother”, and in this play the patriotic anthem was renewed into what some of us think is the best of them all: Like a fleet all clear for sailing.

Helge Rode concentrates the impression of his home country in one striking metaphor: the islands seen as as many vessels in an armada anchored at the pier formed by Jutland the peninsula, in the following stanza turning it 180 degrees around, as the poet states:

Sprayed by sea the land is spawning.

Water-borne, a thousand isles

Left the port one peaceful morning,

Denmark’s name to bear for miles.

Gaily forth to life’s hard fight,

Through the dark, yet radiant, bright.

Hail to you, proud vessels!

Flag is flying on the line.

There lies Denmark, yours and mine –

In the sea she nestles.[xiii]

“Sea” - you might exclaim, there are seven seas only around Denmark, isn’t The Baltic one directly mentioned by its own name. Sure it is: On Codan’s waves wave proudly/ Thou blood red Danish flag ­Ingemann recited 1816[xiv], and the same year the same poet somewhat less declamatory retold an old myth of the riders in the sky, opening the stanzas like this: Upon the fair plains of Zealand at the beach of Baltic Sea[xv]. Among the historical songs of N.F.S.Grundtvig we will be able to find that

The Wends were ruling the Baltic waves –

Lovely and green is the wood

Women were weeping from isle to isle.

The summer and the meadow went along very  well[xvi].

Many others could be mentioned.

This is thus the poetic heritage that we learn in our homes, at school and when we by our parents were brought to meetings, national, political or for enlightenment purposes; they accompanied us through the 12 years of school at the morning assemblies, 2.400 mornings around the grand piano, 500 children and young people singing this marvellous poetry in equally marvellous music. And repeating them again in the afternoons and the evenings at scout parades, clubs and lecture events.

We were, you might say, indoctrinated with a picture of our country indivisible from the sea. I did not lay eyes on The Baltic Sea until the age of 15 when as a young boy I was moved across the country  and realised how different this inner ocean was to the fjords and wind ridden North Sea of my childhood, so not until this moment I really understood what the poets had been writing about all the time.

The Norse Renewal

What I realised in the summer of 1953 was the stated fact that the core of Danish writing is to be found along the Eastern coastline, facing the Sound and The Baltic, the majority of our literary works are created by writers who grew up on the islands in the Baltic and thus transferring their impressions of environmental details and totalities into their verses, novels and dramas.

This is the fact from the very beginning, Saxo Grammaticus who ended writing his Gesta Danorum shortly after the year of 1200 was undoubtedly of Zealand descent, and accordingly to both geography and contemporarity The Baltic Sea forms the main scene of his representation of the deeds of Danes from the dawn of time up till 1180’es under the reign of Canute VI. It is a fact to this very day.

Not only are the majority of writers children and inhabitants of the Eastern shores, the language itself is a creation of the fishermen-farmers of Scania and Zealand; Saxo and his employer, the Archbishop Andreas Sunesson[xvii], of course wrote in Latin for an Pan-European public, not until the Lutheran reformation made the national language the idiom of culture, Danish was developed into a standard, and this occurred in Malmoe with the translator Christiern Pederson of Elsinore as the founder of the literary language.

Merely historical facts of Mare Balticum being a Danish mare nostrum in some periods will state the interest for the waters in what has been written.

The peak of concernment was reached with the 19th century renewal of Norse tradition in the wake of romantic philosophy – which in so many ways itself is a Baltic affair (Herder, Kant etc.). Classic Greek and Roman mythology was exchanged with the indigenous Norse set of gods and goddesses, legends and heroes as the main source for lyrical-epic, epic and dramatic treatments. The focus was moved into the highlights of Scandinavian history, the viking ages and the Middle Ages with Saxo Grammaticus and his Icelandic successor Snorri Sturluson as the main sources.

As their scenery is The Baltic Sea and Coastal Areas, their Romantic heirs moved their focus from the narrow streets of Copenhagen into the wider and more open space of the Northern Mediterranean.

In dealing with both the glorious victories and the tragic defeats of those centuries the writers detected and discovered valuable means of dealing with the tragedies and catastrophes of the Napoleonic Wars, the destruction of Copenhagen, the splitting up of the twin kingdom of Denmark and Norway, the loss of the merchant navy as well as the royal navy, the national financial bankrupt.

The necessity of living on and having to find a new standing point for the nation made the works of Saxo and Snorri once again actual. So the multigenious and most learned N.F.S. Grundtvig resorted as he himself put it to the study chamber in order to translate those Medieval works into a everyday-like modern Danish, oral and drastic expressionistic. Translations from Latin and Old Norse already existed and were widely read by the intellectuals of the time, but by his new and in many ways provoking and renewing treatment of the language Grundtvig made especially Saxo modern, his legends and history telling a main topic for almost a century. The revival and revitalisation of the nation were in fact based on the reading of Gesta Danorum, by Grundtvig titled The Chronicle of Denmark.

One way of measuring the depths of the saxonian influence among common people was the cultural revolution that occurred in the decades following 1817, namely the acceptance of person names from the saxonian figures, the ancient Nordic first name system that for more than a century almost eliminated the German dynastic names.

Also the poets were highly inspired by the medieval chronicles, among them especially one, Grundtvig’s close friend and fellow fighter in the struggle for the national reconstruction, B.S. Ingemann. In the early 1820’es he began writing a large epic poem on the subject of king Valdemar the Great (1157-82) whose life time closely reflected the experiences of Ingemann’s contemporaries: the almost total defeat at the one hand, the rise to victory and power status at the other, in Ingemann’s own words: The deep fall of Denmark and the new rise by Valdemar with his great companions, the death of the national spirit and its resurrection by the great heroes that were called upon by the Lord as the need was at its peak – lo, this historical rebirth of the people[xviii] - that was what he wanted to depict in verses.

Valdemar the Great and His Men[xix] opens with a preface, almost an invocation, widely quoted whenever the national revival is spoken about:

Arise from graves, departed kin!

Pronounce your fall, depict your sin!

Warn us from destruction’s doom

And show the door to saviour’s room!

Of course, Denmark once again is described as the country at the streams of the sea. Unfortunately Ingemann was no sailor, had no precise experiences from having sailed, much further than on ferry boats connecting the Danish islands, so he was not very well equipped for portraying the naval expeditions of king Valdemar and his men, at most he tells about ships sailing of to the Wends’ coast south of the Baltic, not much more. The sea seems to him to be a highway between habitats and battle fields, and who would care to describe the character of a dusty or muddy trace among pastures or arable stretches, the bumping up and down hills and valleys, so why then bother telling about a highway, just because it consists of blue, green or greyish black watery substances instead of soil or sand?

It was published in 1824. And in spite of its author’s lacking experiences with sailing, somehow he had succeeded in fulfilling what a previous poet Johannes Ewald half a century earlier had said of Danes’ relationship to the salty main in a song that later was elevated as the Royal anthem:

Thou Danish way to praise and might,

dark coloured sea[xx]!

In the desperate fight against the Wendic vikings of the southern coastlands of the Baltic the sea was the necessary theatre for liberating the home land from their looting raids and in the last phase suppress the looters, and therefore there is to be found a lot of vessels flying on the waves, sail hoisting and rudder steering throughout the epos:

Proud Ingefrid stands on the rail

And looks into deepest billow[xxi];

Or a hundred verses later:

His boatsmen watch out for the clouds:

“Here comes a shower, she is not good –

Against her so little we could”.

And straightway up in yards they fly;

With noise they cut the sails.

The poachers seek the thwarts nearby,

Some grab the oars and some the bails.

But mightily roars the whirlwind now –

It squeaks in cords and masts...[xxii]

It ends with a marvellous stranding and for once we readers get a picture of the Baltic in a storm, as an angry sea, so much he knows as a Dane of the changing behaviour of the sea.

The outlook from the coast is even more obvious in the great novel continuing the chronicle of Danish medieval kings. In Valdemar Seier - the English title uses his byname, but translates it: or The Victorious even the crusade expedition of 1219 to Estonia which bears so strong emotional, if not direct political meaning to both nations, revitalised in the liberation process some ten years ago, is only recorded as the impressive view of the enormous fleet as it takes to sea from Slien, and at its arrival at Lindanise in the Finnish Golf, again seen by the Estonians from their coast defense positions.

Nevertheless, this novel is, if one were forced to pick only a single piece of Danish literature dealing with The Baltic, the one which should be picked up. It is an intense and moving description of the events from that quarter of a century when the kingdom of Denmark was the master of The Baltic. With it Ingemann took over where and when Saxo for natural reasons had to stop in the telling of the Deeds of the Danes. With this line of historical novels covering the period from 1200 to 1340 something he described the rise and fall of the Danish Baltic domination, including the loss of Estonia as a ransom for rebuilding the kingdom proper in the ruins of what once was and again should become Denmark. The novels of B.S. Ingemann form the central Baltic focused part of Danish literature after Saxo.

Valdemar Seier was published in 1826 and is to this day the most successful novel in the history of Danish literary history, 25 editions in more copies sold than any other single work of literary art in our language community. It also takes the stand as the first of its kind. With this book the novel took over as the central genre, and Ingemann thus started a movement counting impressive novel writers such as Thomasine Gyllembourg and Hans Christian Andersen.

That the Danish writers were strongly influenced by the success of Walter Scott, is obvious, his Ivanhoe etc were widely read in Denmark, too, even translated, and naturally Ingemann studied the British novelist. But even stronger one should see the influence from the German prose writers of this generation, E.T.A. Hoffmann above all, and his real ideal is Shakespeare.

 The Mythology of Evolution

After Ingemann had ended his Gesta Danorum II, the focus of writers and readers were transferred to contemporary or exotic topics, and the novel genre tried to live up to its real meaning: news. For Ingemann’s colleague Carsten Hauch the events in Poland had great attraction, the uprising of 1830 gave him subject for one novel A Polish Family, in the repeated rebellion 33 years later he wrote political poems on the likeness in the Polish and the Danish situation. 3 decades later the feminist Agnes Henningsen wrote her novel on Daughters of Poland, vividly inspired by her lover, the world famous man of letters Georg Brandes and his books on his travels in Poland and Tsarist Russia.  In respect of the political influence from Saint Petersburg on Danish affairs throughout the 19th century, one might have expected a profound interest of the city, but very little of that kind is recorded, Russia’s Baltic provinces and Finland is beyond the horizon, whilst Sweden occupies the mind of Steen Steensen Blicher, the before mentioned Carsten Hauch and H.C. Andersen.

In 1856 once again a poet dives into history, returns to the subjects of the 15th century, to the time of Eric The Pomeranian, the versified novel by Chr. Winther titled The Flight of the Stag; one character is a former admiral from the maritime wars of the 14th century, and he recapitulates his navy career, fighting Wends, really meaning the Hanseatic cities of the former Slavonic coast, and Holsteiners, and of course the conquering of Gotland:

I lead his fleet to Gotland

In those days, what a pride

When walls of Visby cracked,

The gates flew open wide,

And merchants as their ransom

Their cans and jugs let leap,

With ring of gold and silver

At royal feet a heap[xxiii].

The Baltic Sea is anyhow present all through this masterpiece at all seasons of the year, all kinds of weather and moods.

The above mentioned book by Holger Drachmann titled Sea Side Songs could have been the thing we were looking for, and many of the maritime sceneries in this collection could well be read as impressions from The Baltic, the poet had e.g. often visited the Island of Bornholm and knew the Baltic sea side very well, but somehow it reminds me more of the Kattegat.

Drachmann is what we call a transitional figure in our literature; he started out as a member of the modern breakthrough, but had his relapses into romanticism and right wing traditionalism. The influence of Marx, John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin was nevertheless impossible to stop, so that at the dawn of the 20th century the philosophy of evolutionism had become so wide spread that the greatest writer of this time thought it adequate to write a Genesis all over again, rejecting every ancient mythology and retelling the dawn of man and of civilisation by the results of modern natural science, geology, palaeozoology, palaeoanthropology, archaeology etc.

This Danish Moses-Homer-Snorri-Elias Lönnrot was Johannes V. Jensen, and his project ended in 1922 with what in English translation is titled The Long Journey – rather directly from the Danish. The principal idea is that necessity is mother of invention; when the great ice age glacier made life as they knew it impossible in Northern Europe, most homines sapientes fled to the fertile south, but for indisputable psychological reasons a couple stayed to fight the impossible life conditions, and so this Darwinish Adam had to invent everything necessary for surviving on the glacier.

The next step forward occurred together with the melting down of the glacier, creating a second natural crisis for existence, and therefore under similar psychological conditions creating a second everything inventing hero. As this actually occurred in the Baltic area, the glacier as well as the melting catastrophe, civilisation, according to the gospel of Darwin-Jensen, was founded at the borders of this sea. In spite of the general human character, a chronicle of creation and of a civilisation making hero will have to be general, in spite of this one will hardly be able to find anywhere in all written down recordings of human experiences a description of the Nordic-Baltic man that is so right, to such degrees central, as is Jensen’s picture of his hero White Bear:

Not many years were to pass before the ice receded altogether from the coast, and what icebergs were still to be seen swimming far out at sea came from the extreme north.

No doubt but White Bear opened his nostrils, sniffed and sniffed again when he made the sea’s acquaintance. There was something hidden away in his soul which the salt smell awoke... it implanted a dormant instinct in all his descendants which a salt breath from the beach was enough to awaken. White Bear drank in the sea air with great open nostrils, and the sea took him in its arms.[xxiv]

This feeling, this dormant instinct is what Danish literature really is about, as you have already seen from our songs. As Jensen put it:

It became second nature to him... splashing about in the water with new and improved craft[xxv]

This true master piece of Danish literature claims the birth right of civilisation for The Baltic Area, makes it the very scene of human progress. The Long Journey was written in the age of imperialism and under the literary influence of Kipling and similar British Empire building writers, so to day it has become politically incorrect in the most shocking manner. As literature it is untouched and untouchable.

By the turning of the millennium one of Jensen’s novels was elected the summit of Danish literature; it could have been The Long Journey, but it was another, with a title The King’s Fall, never translated into English, but into Baltic area languages like Lithuanian, Polish and Finnish.  And as the king is standing at the brink of his fall, already been chased out of one of his inherited realms, that of Sweden and being run out of Denmark, he recalls what this country is like:

Denmark which is a reality in the sea, a sum of tracts in all colours, a land.

It is in all eternity true that Denmark lies between the two blue seas, green in summer, rusty in harvest and white under the winter’s sky. The Danish beaches show themselves as wonderfully waving, the fields ashore curve up familiarly, they get clad in corn and shed it again. The sun stand in fans over the hillsides at Limfjorden where the western wind blows homelike; the changing of the day in Denmark is always different and always the same. The little fjords and side fjords repeats Denmark a hundred times, The Sound is like a gate into the final country. Here the creeks flood along towards the sea, the forests grow in the nearness of the sea, you see a gull, you lay eyes on a hiding hare upon the heath, sun and freedom of cares, that is Denmark[xxvi]


A seafaring population will tend to have a literature open to all winds. Looking into the themes of Danish literature, you will find that no corner, no nook of the globe is unknown to Danish writers. No wonder, then, that the coastal landscapes of the very sea whose waves are kissing the naked feet of the muses form the background of so many works of literature. Some philosophers and scholars have by studying the very essence of what is Nordic, found that the nearness of nature, one could almost say: the insistence of the mighty nature north of the Northern Mediterranean, makes one of the typical features of Nordic thinking.

As again the inner, spiritual expressions of life will have to take form of metaphors, the impressions of the nature surrounding us will be the store of metaphoric treasures. So, even when describing scenarios of the outer world and developments of the soul, we as Danish writers will have to draw upon what we experienced with all senses from the very moment of our birth.


Throughout the 20th century The Baltic and the countries around it have been rendering themes, motives and environment to Danish literature, even if we delimit the phenomenon to fiction alone, leaving out essays, cultural non-fiction etc.; Danes found experiences in the events on Baltic shores in the civil wars following the dissolution of Tsarist empire, in Finland and Estonia, from a right wing point of view commented by Valdemar Rørdam in the collection of poems Nordisk Hilsen/ Nordic Salute 1921[xxvii]. Eye witness poems from Petrograd of 1917 and 1918 we may find in Hans Hartvig Seedorf’s From Denmark to Dvina Cph 1918[xxviii]. Reflections of the revolutions we recognise in Tom Kristensen’s The Land of Atlantis, published 1920, probably rather from Berlin than from Petrograd[xxix].  Refugees in Sweden, concentration camp prisoners in Germany and Poland, and volunteers in SS, fighting at the Eastern front during WW II let their experiences from places and events be transferred into novels and poems, e.g. Otto Gelsted’s collection Emigrant Poems 1945, and from the Soviet occupation of Bornholm 1945-46 e.g. Henning Ipsen wrote some fine novels.

In the post war decades we have had a trilogy of novels from Tampere by Steen Kaalø, novels with Estonian themes by Lars Henrik Olsen, the famous novel The Jade Cat by Suzanne Brøgger starts out in Riga; the Polish immigrant poet Janina Katz has given her Danish readers glimpses of her native country, and my own bilingual poetry collection of 2001 Strandlangs contains poems from among other places Visby, Gotland, Åland and Helsinki. A collection of poems translated by myself from German, Estonian, Finnish, Sami and Swedish was published 1998.

Lecture given at the Visby conference on "The Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002

[i] Compare Sørensen: ”Den danske sang” och dess poetik med särskild hänsyn till Carl Michael Bellman in ”Sångens poetik” Vasa 2001 p. 61

[ii] Defining a Nation in Song Cph 1990

[iii] English by A.G. Chater The Long Journey New York 1961 p. 222

[iv] FHS nr. 132 Den danske sang er en ung blond pige/ hun går og nynner i Danmarks hus,/ hun er et barn af det havblå rige,/ hvor bøge lytter til bølgers brus. 1924

[v] FHS nr. 160 Der er et yndigt land/ det står med brede bøge/nær salten østerstrand.. 1823. By S.D. Rodholm translated: There is a lovely land/ With spreading, shady beeches/ Near Baltic’s salty strand. Peter Balslev-Clausen: Songs from Denmark Cph 1988 p.102

[vi] FHS nr. 154 Hvor reder sommeren vel blomstersengen/mer rigt end her ned til den åbne strand? By Paula Hostrup-Jessen translated thus: O where does summer strew her bed all over/ With lovelier flowers than her, by open strand? Peter Balslev-Clausen: Songs from Denmark Cph 1988 p. 89

[viii] FHS nr. 157 Fædreneland/ Som på afgrundens rand/ midt i bølgerne blå/ skal du blomstrende stå/ med din maj og med dine kærminder,/ som en mø med letrødmende kinder.

[ix] FHS nr. 158 kunne du, ved guld og sølv at love,/ købe dig en nordisk kvindes tro,/ købe dig et pust fra søens vove...

[x] This stanza is traditionally left out in songbooks, obviously for moral reasons, so also in FHS nr. 162 where only 5 of 9 stanzas are printed: Hjemme rinder ingen Floder/ I en siid og leret Grav: Livets Kilde, Glædens Moder/ Taarner sig, det sølvblaa Hav!/ Slynger sig med venlig Arm/ Om sin Datters fulde Barm,/ Og med Blomsten sig forlyster/ Paa Siølundas unge Bryster

[xi] Poem Fugleperspektiv in Skrifter Kbh 1921 Vol. I p. 108f: her ligger nu Fjord og Sund og Bælt;/ Og Solen ser paa det brogede Felt/ Og skinner med synligt Velbehag/ Paa det danske Arkipelag./ De blomstrende Øer har fostret en Flok/ af Sønner med Sangens Evne;/ Store Sangere var der nok,/ Besunget har de det meste,/ Som var i Landet at nævne./ Men Havet glemte de fleste.

[xii] FHS nr. 164 Havet omkring Danmark, vort moderlige hav,/ blåt som vore øjne og blidt som vore drømme,/ minderige strømme,/ som stryger mildt mod kyst. -/ Længsel har du lagt i vort bryst!/ Vi vandrer din vej, vi lyder din lov; / vi pløjer dine enge med kølens ranke plov./ Du vugger os i verden så vide som vi vil.-/ Dig elsker vi, o hav, og dig vi hører til.

[xiii] Translated by Paula Hostrup-Jessen, cf. Songs from Denmark p.93, Unfortunately, Paula either has misunderstood the Danish text in the two last verses, or has chosen to change the meaning: Denmark is really not lying, nestling in the sea, on the contrary: the thousands ships are (pieces of) Denmark with their stripes of wake. FHS nr.166: Havombruset yngler landet/Tusind øer gik af havn,/ lod sig bære bort af vandet/ for at bære Danmarks navn/. Muntert frem til livets dyst/ gennem mulm og strålelyst./ Hil jer, vore skibe!/ Flaget blaffer rødt og hvidt./ Her er Danmark, dit og mit/ med sin kølvandsstribe.

[xiv] As being too militant to the folk high school movement you will have to look in more conservative edited songbooks like Ring & Grytter: Vore skolesange Kbh 1958 nr. 180: Vift stolt på Kodans bølge/blodrøde Dannebrog

[xv] FHS nr. 375 – famous by the melody of Niels W. Gade who used it as main theme in his C minor Symphony 1842 : På Sjølunds fagre Sletter ved Østersøens Bred

[xvi] FHS nr. 374: Slaverne rådte på Østersø/ skoven står dejlig og grøn/ kvinderne sukked fra ø til ø/ den sommer og den eng så godt kunne sammen

[xvii] By the way a central figure in the novel Excavations/Väljakaevamised 1990 by the Estonian Jaan Kross

[xviii] Quotation from a letter to Grundtvig, quoted in Carl Langballe: B.S. Ingemann Kbh. 1949 p. 113

[xix] unfortunately never translated

[xx] FHS nr. 383 : Du danskes vej til ros and magt,/ sortladne hav! Ewald 1779

[xxi] Op.cit. p. 73

[xxii] Op.cit. p.77

[xxiii] Hjortens Flugt 10th song 13th stanza: Til Gulland selv jeg førte/ Hans Folk og Skib dengang,/ Da Visbys Mure revned/ Og Portene sprang,/ Da kræmmerne til Løsning/ Deres Kander og Stob/ For Dankongens Fødder/ Maatte lægge i Hob.

[xxiv] Chater’s translation The Long Journey p.167

[xxv] Ibidem p. 170

[xxvi] From chapter King is falling p. 136f

[xxvii] Containing poems on The Baltic Sea, Sweden, Finland, the volunteers in Estonia, The Dannebrog

[xxviii] E.g. the poem called As I Took Cover For a Hail of Bullets Behind the Pushkin Momument in Peterograd, 1st stanza: Stand still now, Pushkin. These merry bullets,/ That pass you marching like a hundreds drums,/ Will waken up the joy within your heart of bronze,/ You, friend of fight and bolshevik of verse.

[xxix] One very often quoted poem, cf. e.g. 3rd stanza: Fair as a smashed up railway station/ Is our youth, our strength, our wild ideas,/ fair as the icy green star of the pistol/ Born in an instant with banging labour/At the pane in the strident glass-sound cafes/Of our revolution.

Note that when nothing else is mentioned the rhymed and rhythmic translations are my own.