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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)

By Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754)

THE LITERATURE of modern Scandinavia was, like that of modern Germany, slow to emerge from the intellectual darkness of the Middle Ages; and the writer who ushers in the literature of modern Denmark was a boy of sixteen when the seventeenth century rounded to its close. In Scandinavia, as in Germany, the Reformation had indeed been followed by a period of intellectual ferment, but the energies thus liberated found their chief vent in theological and political discussion. In Danish literature this period is known as the age of learning; but it was an age which left humanism clean out of the question, and even its learning was of the narrow scholastic type. Into the world thus busied, which was destined during his lifetime and largely owing to his activity to undergo so complete an intellectual transformation, Ludvig Holberg was born at Bergen, Norway, December 3d, 1684. The accident of his birth in this Hansa town has led the Norwegians to claim him for their own, and to dispute his title as the Father of Danish Literature. The facts are, of course, that Norway and Denmark were politically one until 1814, with a common language, and a common intellectual center in Copenhagen. Nearly all the literature produced, whether by Danes or Norwegians, saw the light in the Danish capital, and is properly to be described as Danish literature. Holberg saw Norway for the last time in 1705; it was in Denmark that he lived and wrote, and made for himself the greatest name in all Scandinavian literature.

The principal authority for the facts of Holberg’s life, except for the closing years, is a sort of autobiography, originally published in his ‘Opuscula Latina,’ and afterwards translated into Danish with the title ‘Trende Epistler’ (Three Epistles). This little volume is candid, concise, and extremely readable, mingling jest with earnest in an altogether delightful fashion. The touch of the writer of satirical comedy is frequently seen, and the author describes his own foibles with the same sort of good-humor that goes to the creation of the types immortalized in ‘Den Danske Skueplads,’ or collection of his plays. From this autobiography we learn that Ludvig was the youngest of twelve children, and was left an orphan at the age of ten. He went to school in Bergen, and was then sent to Copenhagen for an examination. Being without the money needful for university study, he soon returned to Norway, where he taught for a year in a clergyman’s family, incidentally preaching on occasion in his master’s place, and giving great satisfaction in the latter capacity by the brevity of his discourses. With the money thus earned, he went back to Copenhagen, studied French and Italian, and passed a fairly creditable examination in philosophy and theology. In the autumn of 1704, with sixty rigsdaler in his pocket, he set out to see the world.

Holberg’s first glimpse of foreign lands was gained in about two months, and at cost of no little hardship. He got as far as Amsterdam and Aachen, and then home again. This was the first of the five foreign journeys that he made in about twenty years. In itself it was unimportant, but all the five taken together were of great significance both for him and his country. For from these excursions into the larger world of thought and action, he brought back nothing less than the great gift of European culture to bestow upon his fellow-countrymen; through him the light of the modern intelligence shone upon the darkness of the North. The freedom of the human spirit was asserting itself in many directions abroad; at home it was held in the shackles of tradition. Holberg learned of such men as Rabelais and Montaigne, Descartes and Bayle, Newton and Locke, Leibnitz and Puffendorf, Spinoza and Grotius; and felt called upon to become their interpreter to his fellow-countrymen. To this task he gave his life; and, thanks to his efforts, the Scandinavian countries, in spite of their place apart, have never lagged far behind the rest of Europe. But it is eminently characteristic of their literature, from that time to the present, that its main inspiration has been thus brought from without; and Ibsen in 1864, leaving his country because its air seemed too sultry to breathe, but repeated the experience of Holberg a century and a half earlier.

Holberg’s second outing took him to Oxford, where he remained from 1705 to 1707, pursuing his studies and supporting himself by teaching music and the languages. It has been recently pointed out, mainly from internal evidence, that Addison was probably numbered among the friends made during this English sojourn, and that the germs of several of the comedies may be found in the Spectator and Tatler. The stay in Oxford was a turning-point in Holberg’s life, in the sense that when he returned it was to Copenhagen, not to Norway, and that he never thereafter set foot upon his native soil. After lecturing for a while in Copenhagen, he went abroad for a winter in Dresden, Leipzig, and Halle. Returning in 1708, he spent the six years following in teaching, and during this period published his first work, an introduction to European history. The publication of this work got the author into a literary controversy which is mainly significant because it first aroused Holberg’s consciousness of his possession of the gift of satire, and helped prepare the way for ‘Peder Paars’ and the comedies.

The dedication to the King of a historical work of minor importance won for Holberg an appointment as professor extraordinary at the University, a purely honorary post. He thought it a good deal of a joke that he should be appointed to lecture at the University, in view of his opinion of the subjects most industriously pursued in that institution. “I could,” he says, “by good luck frame a syllogism after a fashion, but could by no means be sure whether it was in Barbara or Elizabeth.” The question of subsistence in his unsalaried position was, however, anything but a joke; for his new dignity debarred him from giving private instruction, hitherto his mainstay. But there came presently a traveling stipend of one hundred rigsdaler annually; and thus slenderly provided, he set out in 1714 upon his fourth foreign journey, remaining more than two years away from home, for the most part in France and Italy. In the summer of 1716 he made his way home, and his Wanderjahre were over. The one foreign journey subsequently made by him took place ten years later, when he was at the height of his fame.

For two years after his return, Holberg lived in great poverty. At this time he published a treatise upon the law of nations, basing his work upon that of Grotius and Puffendorf. At last a chair became vacant in the University, and he was called to fill it. In 1718 he was installed in his professorship, and for the rest of his life remained, occupying higher and higher positions, in close official connection with the University. Metaphysics was the subject at first assigned him, and so with a wry face he became, and remained for two years, philosophe malgré lui. Brandes very plausibly finds in this enforced and distasteful occupation a main cause of the irony which was planted deep within his soul, and the active impulse which led to the development of his genius in its most characteristic phase.

‘Peder Paars,’ the first of the works to which Holberg mainly owes his fame, was published in 1719–20. It is a mock epic in four books, and extends to upwards of six thousand lines. It is written in rhymed iambic hexameters of a very pedestrian gait. Although a poem in form, it is as destitute of the spirit of true poetry as is the ‘Lutrin’ of Boileau, which it suggests. Holberg was not a poet, and could not become one. The gifts of irony and satire he had in the richest measure, his humor was all but the deepest, and his imagination was vivid upon every side but the poetic. His intellectual and human sympathies embraced nearly all the life and thought of mankind. He was of the Voltairean type, the incarnation of intelligence tempered by sympathy; and he even had his enthusiasms, although the superficial student might fail to find them. Most of these qualities appear in this his first great work, which recounts the adventures of a grocer of Callundborg upon a journey to Aarhus. It pretends to be written by one Hans Mickelson, and is provided with notes by an equally mythical Just Justesen. Speaking through the mask of the latter, the author declares that it is the object of his work “to ridicule the many ballads that are with so much eagerness read by the common people…. He has also wished to poke fun at heroic verse.” The poem is from beginning to end a travesty of the heroic epic, employing and turning to ridicule the supernatural machinery and the rhetorical devices of the classics of antiquity. Both the one and the other seemed absurd enough to this shrewd humorist, and probably the use to which the classics were put in an institution like the University of Copenhagen was sufficient to repress any impulse on the part of anybody to enter into their real spirit.

In the course of his journeyings, Peder Paars is wrecked upon the island of Anholt; and the following passage, relating to the inhabitants of that spot, may be given to illustrate the poem:—

  • “Anholt the island’s name, in answer he did say,
  • And daily for seafarers the islanders do pray,
  • That they may come to shore. And answer oft is given,
  • For hither storm-tossed ships quite frequently are driven.
  • Good people are they now, although I fear ’tis true
  • That they in former days were but a sorry crew.
  • A very aged man, once guest of mine, I know,
  • Who told me of a priest that lived here long ago,—
  • His name I do not give; it need not mentioned be,—
  • Who for a child baptized a daler charged as fee;
  • And when ’twas asked of him upon what grounds, and why,
  • He made this double charge, he boldly gave reply:—
  • ‘Two marks I am allowed for each child I baptize,
  • And two for burial. Now, rarely ’tis one dies
  • Of sickness in his bed, for hanged are nearly all,
  • And thus my rightful dues I get, or not at all.’
  • Of yore their lives were evil, as we from this may tell,—
  • It little touches me, for here I do not dwell,—
  • But now we see that better they grow from day to day,
  • For Christian lives they lead, and shipwrecks are their stay.”
  • A certain worthy Anholter felt so much aggrieved at this description that he petitioned to have the poem burned by the hangman. Another passage, which gave particular offense to the solemn pedants of the University, thus describes an academic disputation:—
  • “The entire hall was seen with syllogisms quaking,
  • While some their outstretched hands, and others fists were shaking.
  • From off the learnèd brows salt perspiration ran,
  • And most profusely from a venerable man
  • Who in the pulpit stood. There flew his head about
  • Greek-Latin shafts so thick, one could no longer doubt
  • That nothing less than life and honor were at stake;
  • Since for no trifle men would such a tumult make.
  • Tell me, Calliope, what deep, what grievous wrong
  • Hath to such passionate wrath stirred up this learnèd throng?
  • What ails these sages now, whose minds the world illume,
  • That here, like men made drunk or mad, they shout and fume?”
  • In spite of the indignation aroused by such passages, the poem escaped burning and the author punishment. Tradition says that the King read it and found it amusing. And the public read it as no Danish book had ever been read before. The author had his reward in the fame that suddenly came to him, and in the proud consciousness that posterity would atone for the injustice done him by his enemies. Some years later, in verses that come as near to being genuine poetry as any that Holberg ever penned, he referred to himself and his work in the following prophetic terms:—
  • “Perchance, when in the grave his body moldering lies,
  • Perchance, when with his death the voice of envy dies,
  • Another tone may swell, struck from another chord,
  • And things now hidden men may view with sight restored.
  • Admit, the work does not display the scholar’s lore,
  • Admit that ’tis a fantasy, and nothing more:
  • Although of little use, yet with a work of art
  • For many learnèd books the wise man will not part.”
  • We now come to the most fruitful period of Holberg’s activity; the creative period that gave to Denmark a national stage, and to universal literature a series of comedies that can be classed with those of Molière alone. The comedies of Aristophanes and Shakespeare are of course out of court: they constitute a distinct literary species, with a divineness all its own. We owe the comedies of Holberg to the fact that King Frederik IV. was fond of the theatre, and the other fact that the foreign companies that gave plays in Copenhagen were not exactly successful in suiting the public taste. In this emergency, it was suggested that Danish plays might be ventured upon as an experiment, and Holberg was asked to try his hand at their composition. After some hesitation he consented, and soon had a batch of five comedies ready for the players. They were received by the public with great enthusiasm; and others followed in quick succession, until no less than twenty-eight had been produced, all within a period of about five years. When we consider the technical finish of these comedies, their wealth of invention and humor, and the variety of the figures that live and breathe in their pages, we must reckon their production as one of the most astonishing feats in the history of literature.

    The theatre was opened to the public in 1722. Six years later, Copenhagen was almost wholly destroyed by fire, and there was an end of theatre-going. In 1730 Christian VI. came to the throne; the court became strictly puritanical, and the genial days of play-acting were over. In 1747, under Frederik V., the theatre was reopened, and for it Holberg wrote six new plays, making thirty-four in all. These plays, to which the author himself gave the collective name of ‘Den Danske Skueplads’ (The Danish Stage), are the most important contribution yet made by the Scandinavian genius to literature.

    To the student of Shakespeare or of Molière, the chronological order of the plays is a matter of the greatest consequence. To the student of Holberg it has no significance whatever. The first of them all is as finished and mature a production as any of those that come after. The only fact worth noting, perhaps, is that the comedies of the later period are less effective than those of the earlier; for the intervening score of years seem to have taken from the author’s hand something of its cunning. One group of the comedies, six or eight in number, deal with fantastic and allegorical subjects. Here we may mention the ‘Plutus,’ an imitation of Aristophanes; ‘Ulysses von Ithacia,’ a jumble of incidents connected with the Trojan War; and ‘Melampe,’ a parody of French tragedy, and the only one of the comedies written largely in verse. Another group deals with the popular beliefs of a superstitious age,—beliefs very real in Holberg’s day, and requiring considerable boldness to ridicule. This group of half a dozen includes ‘Det Arabiske Pulver’ (The Arabian Powder), concerned with the impostures of alchemy; ‘Uden Hoved og Hale’ (Without Head or Tail), which contrasts the two types of excessive credulity and excessive skepticism; and ‘Hexerie’ (Witchcraft), the hero of which makes a profitable business out of the Black Art. Many of the comedies depict “humors” in the Jonsonian sense, as ‘Den Stundeslöse’ (The Busy Man); ‘Den Vœgelsindede’ (The Fickle-Minded Woman); ‘Jean de France,’ depicting the dandy just returned from Paris; ‘Jacob von Tyboe,’ depicting the braggart soldier; and ‘Den Honnette Ambition’ (The Proper Ambition), depicting the personality of the title-seeking snob. Another group of the plays depend for their interest upon pure intrigue; and of these ‘Henrich og Pernille’ is perhaps the best, because the most symmetrical in construction.

    Four of the comedies deserve more extended mention, because they display Holberg’s highest powers of humorous satire, his keenest penetration, and his deepest moral earnestness. They are ‘Den Politiske Kandestöber’ (The Political Pewterer), ‘Jeppe paa Bierget,’ ‘Erasmus Montanus,’ and ‘Det Lykkelige Skibbrud’ (The Fortunate Shipwreck). In the first of these four plays we have a humorous delineation of the man who, without any practical experience in the work of government or any knowledge of political science, boldly discusses questions of public policy, and makes the most grotesque proposals for the welfare of the State. In ‘Jeppe paa Bierget’ we have the story made familiar to us by the ‘Induction’ to the ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ In his portrayal of a drunken peasant made for a day to believe himself a nobleman, Holberg achieved one of his greatest triumphs. It is not so much the drunken humor as the genuine humanity of the peasant that appeals to us, and the springs of pity are tapped no less than the springs of mirth. In ‘Erasmus Montanus,’ which Brandes calls “our deepest work,” we have a study of the country youth who is sent to Copenhagen for his education, and who comes back to his simple home a pedantic prig, a superior person, scorning his family and old-time associates. Petty and insufferable as his training has made him, he is in some sort, after all, the representative of the intellectual life; and there is something almost tragic in the manner in which he is forced finally to succumb to prejudice, sacrificing the truth to his personal comfort. The special significance of ‘Det Lykkelige Skibbrud’ is in the last of the five acts, which gives us the author’s apologia pro vita sua, and strikes a note of earnestness that must arrest the attention. The hero is a satirical poet, brought to judgment by his enraged fellow-citizens, and triumphantly acquitted by a righteous judge.

    It must not be forgotten, however, that the comedies, large as they loom in the history of Danish letters, represent only five or six years of a life prolonged to the Scriptural tale, and almost Voltairean in its productiveness. Among the other works that must at least be mentioned are the ‘Dannemarks Riges Historie’ (History of the Kingdom of Denmark), the author’s highest achievement as a historian; and the ‘Hero Stories’ and ‘Heroine Stories’ in Plutarch’s manner, which were among the most popular of his prose writings. The most widely known of all Holberg’s works is the ‘Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum’ (Niels Klim’s Underground Journey), published at Leipzig in 1741, and soon after translated into Danish and almost every other European tongue. It is a philosophical romance of the type of ‘Utopia’ and ‘Gulliver,’ and champions the spirit of tolerance in religious and other intellectual concerns.

    The same liberal spirit breathes in the ‘Moralske Tanker’ (Moral Reflections) of 1744. This work, and the five volumes of ‘Epistler’ (1748–54), are about the last of Holberg’s writings, and embody his ripest thought upon government, literature, philosophy, religion, and the practical conduct of life. If hitherto we have thought of Holberg as the Northern prototype of Molière or Voltaire, he appears to us in his ‘Epistles’ rather in the light of a Northern Montaigne. These brief essays, between five and six hundred in number, afford the most intimate revelation of the author’s life and intellectual attitude. They are charmingly ripe and genial work, and close in the worthiest imaginable way the long list of the writings with which for nearly forty years he continued to enrich the national literature of which he had been the creator.

    Nearly twenty years before his death, Holberg, who had never married, expressed a determination to devote to public uses the modest fortune that he had accumulated. He finally decided to apply this fortune to the endowment of Sorö Academy, a sort of auxiliary of the University; and the gift was made effective several years before his death. In 1747 he received a title of nobility; but as Baron Holberg remained the same conscientious and unaffected citizen that he had been as a commoner. He accepted his title with simple dignity, as a deserved recognition of his services to the State and the nation, just as in our own day the greatest of modern English poets accepted a similar title for similar reasons.

    The last summons came to him near the close of 1753, in the form of an affection of the lungs. When told of his danger, he said:—“It is enough for me to know that I have sought all my life long to be a useful citizen of my country. I will therefore die willingly, and all the more so because I perceive that my mental powers are likely to fail me.” The end came January 28th, 1754, when he had entered upon his seventieth year. His body lies in the church at Sorö, beneath a marble sarcophagus placed there a quarter of a century after his death.

    The words just quoted strike the prevailing note of Holberg’s character, in their unaffected simplicity revealing the inmost nature of the man. He was simple in his daily life, and simple in his chosen forms of literary expression, abhorring parade in the one as he abhorred pedantry in the other. Few figures of the eighteenth century stand out in as clear a light, and none is more deserving of respect. Holberg founded no school in the narrow sense, but in the wider sense the whole spiritual life of modern Denmark is traceable to his impulse and indebted to his example. He was not unconscious of his high mission, and even in the lightest of his comedies we may detect the ethical undercurrent. “Ej blot til Lyst”—“Not merely for pleasure”—has long been the motto of the Danish National Theatre; and it was in the spirit of that fine phrase that Holberg wrote, not only ‘Den Danske Skueplads,’ but also the many books of history and allegory, of philosophy and criticism, that occupied his long and industrious days. Denmark may well be proud that such a figure stands in the forefront of its intellectual life.

    NOTE.—It is difficult to give any adequate idea of Holberg’s work by means of a few selections, but the attempt must be made. I have chosen three extracts from the comedies: the first, from ‘Ulysses von Ithacia,’ illustrates the author’s work in its most fantastic phase; the second, from ‘Den Politiske Kandestöber,’ illustrates his powers and his limitations as a delineator of character; the third, from ‘Erasmus Montanus,’ develops the central situation of his most remarkable play, illustrating his insight, his humor, and his skill in the management of dialogue. To these dramatic scenes I have appended two of the most characteristic ‘Epistles,’ as examples of his manner as an essayist in prose. All the translations are my own, and made for the present occasion.