“The writings of Grundtvig, whether in prose or verse, have never been attractive to me. They are so exclusively national as to be scarcely intelligible to a foreigner; they lie, if I may say so, outside the European tradition. But as a human being, as a documentary figure in the history of his country, no one could be more fascinating.”
Since Edmund Gosse (Two Visits to Denmark 1872, 1874, London 1911) presented this view of Grundtvig to his English-speaking readership at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, fascination with Grundtvig “as a human being” has continued to endure undiminished for nigh on a hundred years more, and it is likely to continue as long as human beings feel drawn in that universal human manner to experience vicariously, through reading of it, the drama, great or small, of another human being’s life.
Grundtvig’s long life incorporated drama on a large scale. At a personal level, its peaks and troughs were determined in part by his vulnerability to a manic-depressive disorder which three times brought him into serious crisis; but the age through which he lived was itself as dramatically turbulent for the Danes as for others across Europe. Grundtvig’s adult life covered three-quarters of the nineteenth century, and it was hardly possible that anyone so seriously engaged in the issues of those decades-determined to play his part in his country’s destiny under God and the worldly powers, willing to accept the burdens of responsibility, to face the exposure, the opposition, the penalties, the defeats, in the hope of also sharing in the victories great and small-could have a life that was anything other than dramatic.
It is a life abundantly documented. As well as writing books in prose and in verse, most of which have considerable personal and autobiographical content (though he never wrote a full formal autobiography), Grundtvig published periodicals of his own and contributed frequently to others. Sermons from almost every Sunday of his pastoral life and a great number of hymns help chart the course of his spiritual development and furnish a record of his pastoral teaching. The huge archive of personal papers in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, contains everything from his passport with its details of height and eye colour, through diaries and notebooks, teaching materials, texts of speeches and lectures, letters received, copies of his correspondence with others, and progressive drafts of subsequently published works, to the voluminous raw materials of works which did not reach publication. There are also, of course, the many published memoirs by people upon whose life his life impinged.
In Gosse’s day, as he rightly observes, Grundtvig had significance “as a documentary figure in the history of his country” by virtue of his struggle to reawaken the Danish national congregation, to revitalise the Danish Church, to establish principles of individual liberty of conscience and of speech, to redefine the goals of education and give a hitherto disempowered majority access to an appropriate education, and to promote-through poetry and song as well as through more direct polemic and action-a historically-rooted idea of nationhood and community that was inclusive and faced outwards to the world . . .