HOLBERG : POET, SATIRIST, DRAMATIST.* EVERY educated person is familiar
at least with the name of the great Dane, Ludwig Heiberg, but it is doubtful whether this familiarity extends to the works or life of the man. There is a general impression abroad that Holberg was a great writer, that there is a "Holberg Society," and that his centenary has just been celebrated in his native land. But wherein his greatness specially consists, few persons trouble to inquire. And really to appreciate and understand the work of Heiberg, it is necessary to do more than read his voluminous works. It is needful also to peruse those of his predecessors, as far as he can be said to have had any, and of his contemporaries. Above all, it is necessary to study the social conditions under which he lived and laboured. To do this requires more time and enthusiasm than is possessed by most. Dr. Georg Brandes, the well-known Scandinavian critic, has bestowed both on Heiberg, with the result of producing a book in all respects admirable, and which should be read by every student of Northern literature. Dr. Brandes is peculiarly fitted for the task, thanks to his wide culture, critical insight, and literary sympathy. Mr. Gosse, in an essay upon the Danish writers, speaks of Holberg as "the greatest of Scandinavian writers." Had he said that Heiberg had created the literature of his laud, that he in his sole person did for Denmark what the Encyclopmdists did for France and Leasing for Germany, we could re-echo his words. But when we remember that Scandinavia has produced one of the greatest dramatists of modern times, one of the most po werfal and original of any time, to wit, Henrik Been, we confess we must join issue with him as to the place he assigns to Heiberg. Dr. Brandes, despite his profound admiration of Holberg's merits, makes no such exaggerated statement. He is content to show wherein lay his genius, wherein the greatness of his work.
Dr. Brandes divides his book into parts, dealing with Hol- berg's youth, contemporaries, development, bent of mind, life, struggle, and death. Each of these will appeal especially to different tastes ; but probably the general reader will be most attracted by the first two. Holberg's youth was full of adven- tures, and of this and of his contemporaries Dr. Brandes gives a graphic picture. Few poets have had a harder struggle than Holberg ; and that his works as a whole bear so few traces of the bitterness usually born of such a struggle is the more re- markable when we remember that he was far from taking his troubles lightly. Dr. Brandes points out that his views of life
• Ludwig Heiberg und seine Zitgenossen. Von Georg Brandes. Berlin: Robert Oppeubeim. London : Nutt. 1685.
were always tinged with pessimism, and he quotes some sad lines written ten years before the poet's death, wherein he says, —" The good days I have had in the world are easy to count.
The greater part of my life has been spent in sorrow and sick- ness, lacking all that the world calls its good. If others can count more happy days I shall be glad, for though one may oneself be in constant tribulation, one should not grudge others their short joys." Those who read Dr. Brandes's Life will admit that the poor old poet in nowise exaggerated the unhappiness of his lot.
Holberg was ever, a fighter. He fought long and bravely against pain, poverty, and neglect ; be fought long and bravely for liberty, and emancipation from blind bigotry and superstition, and it is painful to reflect that the last years of his life were particularly sad. It is cruel to think that his death called forth no expression of feeling at Copenhagen. The theatre ignored it altogether ; not even a few verses were spoken from the stage, which owed its very existence to him. When he was buried, two peasants formed the whole escort ; yet, when nine days later, a dissolute actress died, all Copenhagen was roused.
The students carried her to the grave, and a large funeral cortege, composed of all classes, gave assurance of the loss the town had sustained. It was several years before a reaction set in in favour of the man who, to quote the fine words of Tyge Rothe, "sought nought but the good of his countrymen, who found them sleep- ing and awakened them." "He found his countrymen sleep- ing." This is also the verdict of Dr. Brandes; and his picture of the condition of society in Denmark, of the Court, the middle- classes, the Universities, is masterly, and necessary to give readers some conception of Holberg's courage and genius. Heiberg was born at Bergen in 1684—how many of the great Scandinavians are Norwegian born I—and Dr. Brandes points out that his birthplace is no unimportant factor in his life. Of all the Scandinavian towns of the period it was the most cosmopolitan, and to the connection of Bergen merchants with the outer world was no doubt due Holberg's irresistible desire to travel. Intended originally for a soldier's life, he was too eager for study to content himself with such a career. In 1702, he therefore went to the University of Copenhagen ; but he was so poor that he was forced, after a short while, to abandon his studies to become a tutor. This, however, was only a temporary expedient. When he had earned a few thalers he passed his examination in philosophy and theology, and learnt French and Italian. Then he again became tutor, this time to a Herr Schmidt, the happy father of twenty children.
Small wonder that the family were too much for the young tutor, and that after he had saved sixty thalers, he left his post and with this princely fortune started for Holland. Sickness and dire want drove him home again. Again he set forth, was once more driven back, and once again, undaunted, set sail. He walked all through Holland and Belgium, often begging his way or singing from door to door for bread, wandered as far as Paris, and from thence to Rome. From Rome he again made his way to Amsterdam. After this he spent two years at Oxford (main- taining himself by teaching music and languages), one year at Paris, many months in Rome and other Italian towns. He met with innumerable adventures, had endless hair-breadth escapes, encountered highwaymen and pirates, learnt to know all sorts and conditions of men. Nor was this all. At every great centre of learning where he sojourned, he worked in the libraries, making himself acquainted with all the chief writers of England, France, Germany, Italy, and Holland. He saw and noted everything. The result of all these varied experiences we can find in his works. Whilst he satirises the faults, follies, and foibles of his countrymen and contemporaries, he also satirises the faults, follies, and foibles of mankind of all times. Moliere's Precieuses have died out, and his Tart ufe has assumed another guise. But there are still Precieuses and Tartufes, and Moliere's works are immortal. In like manner, Holberg's comedies will never grow old. It is true they lack Moliere's perfection of form ; they never, perhaps, strike a note so profound as that of Le Misanthrope ; the humour is never quite so exquisite as in Le Bourgeois Gentilhornme ; but Holberg's genius, like that of Moliere, bears the impress of that eternal youth which "age cannot wither, nor custom stale."
Returned once more to Denmark, Holberg found himself suddenly transported into a society removed far as the poles from the intellectual efforts of the century. To quote Dr. Brandes
:- "Holberg, when he returned from his travels, his bead full of the philosophical problems of the age : how far this is the best conceiv-
able world, or an imperfect one how the existence of God may be reconciled with that of evil ; whether Descartes were in the right with his vortex-theory, or Newton with his law of gravitation—found his countrymen occupied solely with the questions of the schoolmen wherever they were not absolutely sunk in heathen-Christian super- stitions. They upheld the Lutheran dogma of consubstantiation against the dogma of Calvin ; they believed in magic arts, in indul- gences, in bonds with the devil, in vampires and demonises, in witches."
In short, when Holberg returned from the morning sun of the eighteenth century that threw its light over Europe, he found Denmark still steeped in the night of the sixteenth. He felt that he was standing in front of an Augean stable full of super- stitions and pedantry that it was necessary to clean out. While he introduced into his native land the stream of ideas from abroad, he, in fact, heralded a new century in a far-off corner of the earth, where time had stood still. It is to the eternal honour of this brave man that, unaided, he achieved work so noble ; and Dr. Brandes rightly calls his struggle for free inquiry on the one hand, and toleration on the other, the worthiest that he maintained. And as a first step in the struggle, Holberg grieved to note that in Denmark the native tongue was rarely spoken. At Court, in society, German or French were the only languages heard. The Danish Army was officered by foreigners, the administration of law was carried on in German, all scholars, all students and professors tried to forget their mother-tongue, to speak and write Latin. In short, it was that artificial period which Dr. Brandes has well stigmatised as "the epoch of peri- wigs," that last expression of artificiality, that symbol of the triumph of charlatanism. It was Holberg who banished these hideous excrescences from the national life and literature.
His early works dealt with history, geography, and philosophy, and it was not till his thirty-sixth year that he wrote verse. His first production in that line was the comic epic," Pedlo Paars," fol- lowed at short intervals by other satires (all issued under the assumed name of Hans Mikklesen), in which he unsparingly, yet with a certain undertone of good-natured raillery, lashed the follies and abuses of Copenhagen society. At last, in 1722, Holberg came forward as a dramatist. Within a few years he gave the Danish Theatre—in itself his creation, since, till his time, only French or German plays were performed—a repertory that counts many masterpieces, as popular to-day, 150 years after his death, as when he wrote them. To gather some idea of the incredible activity of this extraordinary man, it is only necessary to remember that iniess than three years he wrote over twenty dramas.
The influence of Moliere upon Holberg is unquestionable; but, while there can be no doubt of this influence, it would be a mistake to suppose that he was a vulgar imitator. M. Legrelle, in his "Holberg consider4 comme imitateur de Moliere," admits that no other writer so nearly approaches the great Frenchman ; and this no mere plagiarist could do. Indeed, it may be said of Holberg as of Moliere, and of the greatest of all, Shakespeare, that he " prit son bien oil il le tronvait;" but in taking the bien, their genius transformed it into something of their own. Heiberg is indebted to Moliere, as Moliere was to Cyrano de Bergerac ; but his characters are creations, not imitations. This is also the view taken by Dr.
Brandes, who says :—" Holberg's chief sources were after all the conditions of Danish, and especially Copenhagen, society. His plays reproduce, with the exactness of a camera obscura, the external side of old Copenhagen." A pleasing trait in connection with Holberg's indebtedness to Moliere is the manner in which the Dane always speaks of the Frenchman. Moliere is invariably mentioned as "the great man." When he wants to quote some final authority on questions theatrical, he says,—" Moliere himself would not say otherwise." But notwithstanding the amusing plays and the efforts of the actors, the Danish Theatre proved no success. In 1727 it closed, and for the final performance Holberg wrote the "Funeral Procession of Danish Comedy." A few months later the great fire of Copenhagen not only burnt down almost the whole town, but for years also burnt out all possibility of reopening the theatre. The fire was looked upon as a direct punishment for the sins of the people, and new troubles were prophesied if the theatre were reopened. Soon clerical influence was again all-powerful; and when the King died in 1730, every- one knew that there could, under the Government of his suc-
cessor, be no thought of play-acting.
This reaction had a demoralising effect on the morals of the people; it became the fashion, in order to get on, to feign religion, and the only literature that succeeded was that of religions songs. In the Library of Copenhagen is a collection of German Church-hymns, consisting of 33,712 numbers alphabetically arranged in five hundred to six hundred volumes, which Princess Charlotte Amelia, Christian VI.'s sister, presented
to the Institution. The theatre had been sold by auction ; the actors had dispersed. For some twenty years all intellec- tual life seemed to have died out of the land. That these
were years of infinite suffering to Holberg needs no saying. Dr. Brandes compares his struggle with that of Moliere in regard to Tartufe, and of Beaumarchais for Figaro. But he points out that while their fight was one to spur them on, this effort of Holberg's to give his own people a literature, which they rejected and scorned, involved a far more crushing pain.
"Where can a parallel be found to this P Holberg has given his
country the first readable poem, then introduces into the land an entirely new art, writes as a beginning some two dozen masterpieces, is in the maturity of his age, about forty years old, and twenty years are struck out of his life as a dramatic writer. Twenty years ! Bigotry sends his dramatic genius to the House of Correction for twenty years of a savant's hard labour ; locks it within a prison cell; condemns it to solitude, to silence!"
For twenty years Holberg again took up metaphysics, and when at last another reaction set in, with the trembling hand of age he drew his last figures for the stage. Nor was this all.
The twenty years of bigotry, of hypocrisy, had borne fruit. The classic comedy of Holberg no longer suited the demoralised taste of the public. They wanted "vaudevilles," ballets, spectacles ; and Holberg made a desperate effort to meet this demand. "It was a sad sight," writes Holberg's biographer, "as though a beauty, deserted of the old adorers for the sake of unworthy, be- painted women, herself began to rouge her faded cheeks Certainly Holberg's heart must have bled. And it was all in vain. Taste had too utterly changed ; he was forsaken. Old, suffering constantly from headaches and hectic attacks that finally ended in consumption, Holberg stood absolutely alone and neglected." That his death passed almost unheeded we have already said. Such was the life of the man of whom his native land is now justly proud. Alas ! that such pride so often comes too late to give pleasure to its object.
Only when we take into consideration the enormous quantity of his work, its infinite variety and general excellence, can we estimate this remarkable man at his true worth. That such a man should have lived and died neglected and misunderstood it is infinitely sad to remember.