1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Öhlenschläger, Adam Gottlob
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Öhlenschläger, Adam Gottlob
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ÖHLENSCHLÄGER, ADAM GOTTLOB (1779-1850), Danish poet, was born in Vesterbro, a suburb of Copenhagen, on the 14th of November 1779. His father, a Schleswiger by birth, was at that time organist, and later became keeper, of the royal palace of Frederiksberg; he was a very brisk and cheerful man. The poet's mother, on the other hand, who was partly German by extraction, suffered from depressed spirits, which afterwards deepened into melancholy madness. Adam and his sister Sofia were allowed their own way throughout their childhood, and were taught nothing, except to read and write, until their twelfth year. At the age of nine Adam began to make fluent verses. Three years later, while walking in Frederiksberg Gardens, he attracted the notice of the poet Edvard Storm, and the result of the conversation was that he received a nomination to the college called “Posterity's High School,” an important institution of which Storm was the principal. Storm himself taught the class of Scandinavian mythology, and thus Öhlenschläger received his earliest bias towards the poetical religion of his ancestors. He was confirmed in 1793, and was to have been apprenticed to a tradesman in Copenhagen. To his great delight there was a hitch in the preliminaries, and he returned to his father's house. He now, in his eighteenth year, suddenly took up study with great zeal, but soon again abandoned his books for the stage, where a small position was offered him. In 1797 he actually made his appearance on the boards in several successive parts, but soon discovered that he possessed no real histrionic talent. The brothers Örsted, with whom he had formed an intimacy fruitful of profit to him, persuaded him to quit the stage, and in 1800 he entered the university of Copenhagen as a student. He was doomed, however, to disturbance in his studies, first from the death of his mother, next from his inveterate tendency towards poetry, and finally from the attack of the English upon Copenhagen in April 1801, which, however, inspired a dramatic sketch (April the Second 1801) which is the first thing of the kind by Öhlenschläger that we possess. In the summer of 1802, when Öhlenschläger had an old Scandinavian romance, as well as a volume of lyrics, in the press, the young Norse philosopher, Henrik Steffens, came back to Copenhagen after a long visit to Schelling in Germany, full of new romantic ideas. His lectures at the university, in which Goethe and Schiller were for the first time revealed to the Danish public, created a great sensation. Steffens and Öhlenschläger met one day at Dreier's Club, and after a conversation of sixteen hours the latter went home, suppressed his two coming volumes, and wrote at a sitting his splendid poem Guldhornene, in a manner totally new to Danish literature. The result of his new enthusiasm speedily showed itself in a somewhat hasty volume of poems, published in 1803, now chiefly remembered as containing the lovely piece called Sanct-Hansaften-Spil. The next two years saw the production of several exquisite works, in particular the epic of Thors Reise til Jotunheim, the charming poem in hexameters called Langelandsreisen, and the bewitching piece of fantasy Aladdin's Lampe (1805). At the age of twenty-six Öhlenschläger was universally recognized, even by the opponents of the romantic revival, as the leading poet of Denmark. He now collected his Poetical Writings in two volumes. He found no difficulty in obtaining a grant for foreign travel from the government, and he left his native country for the first time, joining Steffens at Halle in August 1805. Here he wrote the first of his great historical tragedies, Hakon Jarl, which he sent off to Copenhagen, and then proceeded for the winter months to Berlin, where he associated with Humboldt, Fichte, and the leading men of the day, and met Goethe for the first time. In the spring of 1806 he went on to Weimar, where he spent several months in daily intercourse with Goethe. The autumn of the same year he spent with Tieck in Dresden, and proceeded in December to Paris. Here he resided eighteen months and wrote his three famous masterpieces, Baldur hin Gode (1808), Palnatoke (1809), and Axel og Valborg (1810). In July 1808 he left Paris and spent the autumn and winter in Switzerland as the guest of Madame de Staël-Holstein at Coppet, in the midst of her circle of wits. In the spring of 1809 Öhlenschläger went to Rome to visit Thorwaldsen, and in his house wrote his tragedy of Correggio. He hurriedly returned to Denmark in the spring of 1810, partly to take the chair of aesthetics at the university of Copenhagen, partly to marry the sister-in-law of Rahbek, to whom he had been long betrothed. His first course of lectures dealt with his Danish predecessor Ewald, the second with Schiller. From this time forward his literary activity became very great; in 1811 he published the Oriental tale of Ali og Gulhyndi, and in 1812 the last of his great tragedies, Staerkodder. From 1814 to 1819 he, or rather his admirers, were engaged in a long and angry controversy with Baggesen, who represented the old didactic school. This contest seems to have disturbed the peace of Öhlenschläger's mind, and to have undermined his genius. His talent may be said to have culminated in the glorious cycle of verse-romances called Helge, published in 1814. The tragedy of Hagbarth og Signe, 1815, showed a distinct falling-off in style. In 1817 he went back to Paris, and published Hroars Saga and the tragedy of Fostbrödrene. In 1818 he was again in Copenhagen, and wrote the idyll of Den lille Hyrdedreng and the Eddaic cycle called Nordens Guder. His next productions were the tragedies of Erik og Abel (1820) and Vaeringerne i Miklagaard (1826), and the epic of Hrolf Krake (1829). It was in the last-mentioned year that, being in Sweden, Öhlenschläger was publicly crowned with laurel in front of the high altar in Lund cathedral by Bishop Esaias Tegnér, as the “Scandinavian King of Song.” His last volumes were Tordenskjold (1833), Dronning Margrethe (1833), Sokrates (1835), Olaf den Hellige (1836), Knud den Store (1838), Dina (1842), Erik Glipping (1843), and Kiartan og Gudrun (1847). On his seventieth birthday, 14th November 1849, a public festival was arranged in his honour, and he was decorated by the king of Denmark under circumstances of great pomp. He died on the 20th of January 1850, and was buried in the cemetery of Frederiksberg. Immediately after his death his Recollections were published in two volumes.
With the exception of Holberg, there has been no Danish writer who has exercised so wide an influence as Öhlenschläger. His great work was to awaken in the breasts of his countrymen an enthusiasm for the poetry and religion of their ancestors, and this he performed to so complete an extent that his name remains to this day synonymous with Scandinavian romance. He supplied his countrymen with romantic tragedies at the very moment when all eyes were turned to the stage, and when the old-fashioned pieces were felt to be inadequate. His plays, partly, no doubt, in consequence of his own early familiarity with acting, fulfilled the stage requirements of the day, and were popular beyond all expectation. The earliest are the best — Öhlenschläger's dramatic masterpiece being, without doubt his first tragedy, Hakon Jarl. In his poems and plays alike his style is limpid, elevated, profuse; his flight is sustained at a high pitch without visible excitement. His fluent tenderness and romantic zest have been the secrets of his extreme popularity. Although his inspiration came from Germany, he is not much like a German poet, except when he is consciously following Goethe; his analogy is much rather to be found among the English poets, his contemporaries. His mission towards antiquity reminds us of Scott, but he is, as a poet, a better artist than Scott; he has sometimes touches of exquisite diction and of overwrought sensibility which recall Coleridge to us. In his wide ambition and profuseness he possessed some characteristics of Southey, although his style has far more vitality. With all his faults he was a very great writer, and one of the principal pioneers of the romantic movement in Europe. (E. G.)