A History of Danish Literature

By P. M. Mitchell; Mogens Haugsted | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
The Enlightenment. Holberg and His Successors

Until the eighteenth century, Danish literature, aside from folklore, had little independent national existence. Denmark was the northern outpost of the European literature which was the "world literature" of the times. Men of letters in Denmark, like writers in France, Germany, or the Netherlands, felt themselves to be members of an international republic of letters rather than citizens of their countries of residence. When they wrote--and they wrote primarily in Latin and French--they were addressing an audience of the learned unlimited by national boundaries. In England and France a literature of consequence in the vernacular had been developing since the Reformation, in part because of the political superiority which those two nations enjoyed. Elsewhere however, bellettristic endeavor in the vernacular was slight, though by the turn of the eighteenth century some learned writers in several countries had begun specifically to address their compatriots in the vernacular. Even in the academic world the modern tongues also made some slight inroads, in the wake of Christian Thomasius' revolutionary use of the German language for academic lectures in 1687. The transition to a national literature as we know it today was nevertheless slow. Writers of the first half of the eighteenth century in Denmark reflect the conflict of the vernacular with the languages of learning; they employed Latin or French, as well as Danish, in order to be read in the world. Dependence first on French and English and later on German models continued to be marked until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The new vernacular literature was born of a culture which, by twists and turns, had been disassociating itself from ecclesiastical domination ever since the Reformation. The new culture was a secular culture, but theological and ecclesiastical elements were everywhere to be found in it. Relatively few books published during the first half of the seventeenth century contained imaginative writing and even at the end of the century most books were still of a theological bent. By the end of the eighteenth century the literary scene had noticeably changed.

The new Danish literature reflected the dominant literature of the outside world. Although not all genres flourished in it, Danish literature was

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