1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Grundtvig, Nikolai Frederik Severin

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12
Grundtvig, Nikolai Frederik Severin
17092281911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12 — Grundtvig, Nikolai Frederik Severin

GRUNDTVIG, NIKOLAI FREDERIK SEVERIN (1783–1872), Danish poet, statesman and divine, was born at the parsonage of Udby in Zealand on the 8th of September 1783. In 1791 he was sent to live at the house of a priest in Jutland, and studied at the free school of Aarhuus until he went up to the university of Copenhagen in 1800. At the close of his university life he made Icelandic his special study, until in 1805 he took the position of tutor in a house on the island of Langeland. The next three years were spent in the study of Shakespeare, Schiller and Fichte. His cousin, the philosopher Henrik Steffens, had returned to Copenhagen in 1802 full of the teaching of Schelling and his lectures and the early poetry of Öhlenschläger opened the eyes of Grundtvig to the new era in literature. His first work, On the Songs in the Edda, attracted no attention. Returning to Copenhagen in 1808 he achieved greater success with his Northern Mythology, and again in 1809–1811 with a long epic poem, the Decline of the Heroic Life in the North. The boldness of the theological views expressed in his first sermon in 1810 offended the ecclesiastical authorities, and he retired to a country parish as his father’s assistant for a while. From 1812 to 1817 he published five or six works, of which the Rhyme of Roskilde is the most remarkable. From 1816 to 1819 he was editor of a polemical journal entitled Dannevirke, and in 1818 to 1822 appeared his Danish paraphrases (6 vols.) of Saxo Grammaticus and Snorri. During these years he was preaching against rationalism to an enthusiastic congregation in Copenhagen, but he accepted in 1821 the country living of Praestö, only to return to the metropolis the year after. In 1825 he published a pamphlet, The Church’s Reply, against H. N. Clausen, who was professor of theology in the university of Copenhagen. Grundtvig was publicly prosecuted and fined, and for seven years he was forbidden to preach, years which he spent in publishing a collection of his theological works, in paying two visits to England, and in studying Anglo-Saxon. In 1832 he obtained permission to preach again, and in 1839 he became priest of the workhouse church of Vartov hospital, Copenhagen, a post he continued to hold until his death. In 1837–1841 he published Songs for the Danish Church, a rich collection of sacred poetry; in 1838 he brought out a selection of early Scandinavian verse; in 1840 he edited the Anglo-Saxon poem of the Phoenix, with a Danish translation. He visited England a third time in 1843. From 1844 until after the first German war Grundtvig took a very prominent part in politics. In 1861 he received the titular rank of bishop, but without a see. He went on writing occasional poems till 1866, and preached in the Vartov every Sunday until a month before his death. His preaching attracted large congregations, and he soon had a following. His hymn-book effected a great change in Danish church services, substituting the hymns of the national poets for the slow measures of the orthodox Lutherans. The chief characteristic of his theology was the substitution of the authority of the “living word” for the apostolic commentaries, and he desired to see each congregation a practically independent community. His patriotism was almost a part of his religion, and he established popular schools where the national poetry and history should form an essential part of the instruction. His followers are known as Grundtvigians. He was married three times, the last time in his seventy-sixth year. He died on the 2nd of September 1872. Grundtvig holds a unique position in the literature of his country; he has been styled the Danish Carlyle. He was above all things a man of action, not an artist; and the formless vehemence of his writings, which have had a great influence over his own countrymen, is hardly agreeable or intelligible to a foreigner. The best of his poetical works were published in a selection (7 vols., 1880–1889) by his eldest son, Svend Hersleb Grundtvig (1824–1883), who was an authority on Scandinavian antiquities, and made an admirable collection of old Danish poetry (Danmarks gamle Folkeviser, 1853–1883, 5 vols.; completed in 1891 by A. Olrik).

His correspondence with Ingemann was edited by S. Grundtvig (1882); his correspondence with Christian Molbech by L. Schröder (1888); see also F. Winkel Horn, Grundtvigs Liv og Gjerning (1883); and an article by F. Nielsen in Bricka’s Dansk Biografisk Lexikon.