Danish literature

Danish literature

Danish literature, the literature of Denmark.

Early Writings

The earliest literature of Denmark is preserved in the runic carvings on nearly 275 stone monuments erected to the Vikings c.850-1050. A number of these are written in alliterative verse. The Danish legends of the heroic period were preserved in the work of Saxo Grammaticus (fl. 12th cent.). With Christianity came the epic poetry of the scholastics, the legends of saints, and theological works written in Latin. The Danish folk song appeared in the 12th cent., stimulated by customs of knighthood and chivalry. Danish literature of the later Middle Ages, primarily in Latin, was formal and ecclesiastical; it included annals, chronicles, legends, and a few poems.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

The Reformation stimulated religious polemic and satire as well as the literary use of the Danish language. The Danish translation of the New Testament, completed in 1531 by the humanist Christian Pedersen (d. 1554), who also published an edition of Saxo (1514), greatly influenced Danish literature. In 1535 Hans Tausen (1494-1561) translated the Old Testament. From the Reformation also dates modern Danish drama, which was long a medium for religious moralizing. Fine poetry in the Renaissance manner was created in the early 17th cent. by Anders Arrebo, and baroque verse reached its zenith as rendered by the clergyman Thomas Kingo (1634-1703).

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Ludvig Holberg introduced the ideas of the Enlightenment in the 18th cent., and neoclassical poetry, the drama, and the essay flourished, following French and English models. German influence is seen in the verse of the leading poets of the late 18th cent., Johannes Ewald and Jens Baggesen.

It was maintained by the romantic school, fathered by Adam Oehlenschläger. A transcendent figure in Danish literary culture was N. F. S. Grundtvig; both he and Oehlenschläger influenced the poet and novelist Bernhard Ingemann. A more aesthetic ideal was promulgated by the dramatist and essayist J. L. Heiberg; two of his protégés were the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, renowned for his fairy tales.

Although S. S. Blicher may have been the first Danish realist, the actual breakthrough to realism was inspired by the internationally influential critic Georg Brandes and was reflected in the novels of J. P. Jacobsen, H. J. Bang, Karl Gjellerup, and Hendrik Pontoppidan and in the early verse of H. H. Drachmann. The novelists Karin Michaëlis and Gyrithe Lemche were among the many women writers, mainly realists, active by the late 19th cent.

The Twentieth Century

By 1900 a lyrical reaction was being led by the poet J. J. Jørgensen; impressionistic themes became important, but were never the sole fruit of Danish literary endeavor. Both before and after World War I Martin Andersen Nexø wrote in a context of proletarian realism, and J. V. Jensen employed elements of realism and fantasy alike. Fantasy was dominant in the tales of Isak Dinesen, while the theater was enlivened by the dramas of Kaj Munk and the brilliant stage technique of Kjeld Abell.

The period following World War II saw the passing of a number of great figures and the emergence of Martin Hansen, Aage Dons, H. C. Branner, Frank Jäger, Tove Ditlevsen, and Knut Sønderby as outstanding Danish writers. Leading writers of the following generation have included Ole Sarvig, Klaus Rifbjerg, Villy Sørensen, Benny Andersen, Inger Christensen, and Peter Hoeg.


See P. M. Mitchell, A History of Danish Literature (2d ed. 1971); F. J. B. Jansen and P. M. Mitchell, ed., Anthology of Danish Literature (1972; bilingual); P. Borum, Danish Literature (1979); S. Rossel, A History of Danish Literature (1992).

Danish literature is, for the purposes of this article, the subset of Scandinavian literature composed in Denmark or by Danish people. Its history stretches from the Middle Ages into modern times and includes authors such as Saxo Grammaticus, Søren Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen and Karen Blixen.

Middle Ages

The earliest preserved texts from Denmark are runic inscriptions on memorial stones and other objects. Some of those contain short poems in alliterative verse. The advent of Christianity in the 10th century brought Denmark into contact with European learning, including the Latin alphabet and the Latin language, but it wasn't until the late 12th century that this was to bear significant literary fruit in Gesta Danorum an ambitious historical work by Saxo Grammaticus. Saxo's work is an important primary source for the study of Scandinavian myths and legends as well as a lively account of Danish history up to the author's own time. Other medieval literary works include the Danish ballads, more than 500 of which are known.

The 16th and 17th Centuries

The 16th century brought the Lutheran Reformation to Denmark and a new period in the nation's literature. Major authors of the time include the humanist Christiern Pedersen, who translated the New Testament into Danish, and Poul Helgesen who vigorously opposed the Reformation. The 16th century also saw Denmark's earliest plays, including the works of Hieronymus Justesen Ranch. The 17th century was an era of renewed interest in Scandinavian antiquities with scholars like Ole Worm at the forefront. Though religious dogmatism was on the rise the passionate hymns of Thomas Kingo transcended the genre with personal expression. External struggles with Sweden and internal rivalries among the nobility leading to Denmark's absolute monarchy in 1660 are chronicled from a royal prisoner's redemptive perspective in Jammersminde (Remembered Woes), in the heartfelt prose of Leonora Christina of the Blue Tower, written 1673–1698, but first published in 1869.


18th century

19th century

20th century

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