The Danish Blicher Society
Articles’ by Erik Harbo Knud Sørensen Margaret Drabble
Extracts from Blichers Stories
Important Dates in Steen Steensen Blicher’s Life
1782 Blicher is born in Vium parsonage on 26 March.
1796 The family moves to Randlev in East Jutland.
1796 Pupil at Randers grammar school.
1799 Matriculation. Commences theological studies at the University of Copenhagen.1807 Publishes Vol. I of the translation of Poems of Ossian.
1809 Publishes Vol. II.
1809 Obtains a doctorate in theology.
1810 Appointed master at Randers grammar school. Marries his late uncle’s 17‑year‑old widow, Ernestine Juliane.
1811 Appointed farm manager at father’s parsonage in Randlev.
1814 Publishes first collection of poetry, Poems. Part I.
1819 Appointed pastor of Thorning‑Lysgaard.
1824 Publishes his first short story, Fragments from the Diary of a Parish Clerk.
1826 Appointed pastor of Spentrup‑Gassum.
1827 Publishes translation of Oliver Goldschmidt’s The Vicar of Wakefield.
1828 Writes his first poem in the Jutland dialect, inspired by the Scottish poet William Laidlaw.
1833 Publishes his short stories for the first time in book form.
1839 Arranges the first big mass meeting in Denmark on the Jutland hill, “Himmelbjerg” (Sky‑Mountain).
1842 Collects his dialectal writings and publishes the work, E Bindstouw (The Knitting‑Room), with its genuine appeal to the common people.
1848Dies on 26 March.
Blicher wrote 95 short stories and about 340 poems. He is the author of several translation and wrote many works dealing with rural economy and social reform. His complete oeuvre fills 33 volumes, c. 7000 printed pages.
Steen Steensen Blicher, Erik Harbo
Already during his life-time the writer Steen Steensen Blicher achieved considerable fame for his excellent short stories, which often depicted his native Central Jutland and its inhabitants. By virtue of Blicher’s stories, this region with its moors and marshes is frequently called “Our very own Scotland”.
It was Scotland’s legendary hero Ossian who first brought the young Blicher recognition in Copenhagen. In 1807-9 his translation of Poems of Ossian was published, and he retained his interest for Scottish and English writing throughout his life. He was greatly inspired by Shakespeare, Scott and Sterne, and his translation of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield was published in 1827. With their fascinating and often simple mode of narration and their style, Blicher’s short stories not only impressed readers in his own century but continue to do so to this very day. At the same time they have been a source of inspiration for countless Danish writers like Henry Pontoppidan, J.P. Jacobsen, Herman Bang, Johannes V Jensen and Karen Blixen, and they have continued to influence a number of important authors in recent decades.
Blicher was not only a clergyman but also an active farmer, humanist and citizen. A clergyman by profession, his humanism and active interest in society was a natural result of his love for his fellow human beings and his native land, and not least of the upbringing he had received in the previous century.
But his real mission in life was to be a poet, and his greatest love was hunting. Thus all his spare time was spent on his writing and on his daily hunting trips in the barren Jutland landscape.
Of his voluminous oeuvre nowadays we are chiefly conversant with some very fine poems and songs and a handful of masterly short stories which can be contained in one single volume. The songs are known and sung by all Danes, while the short stories are read and re-read, and are just as indispensable to us as Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are.
In this newly issued volume of seven short stories in English translation you will meet, in The Diary of a Parish Clerk, the faithful Mortem Vinge-the parish clerk’s son who suffers so much hardship and experiences love only once in his life. In The Gamekeeper at Aunsbjerg you can read about the said gamekeeper, in reality a Frenchman who has hidden himself away in Denmark. The story is based on the true experiences of little Steen (Blicher) when, at the age of 6-8, he was brought up by members of his family at Aunsbjerg Manor. In Alas, How Changed! you will meet Blicher’s alter ego, Per the Fiddler, a Dickens-figure, a kind of pre-Dickensian Pickwick He relates of an experience from his youth, a trip to Cimbria, the northernmost part of Jutland. In The Hosier and His Daughter Blicher tells a quiet yet bloody story about the fate of the young and beautiful Cecil and her sweetheart Esben on the Jutland moors. Among the tales about parsons in seventeenth-century Jutland Blicher discovered the story of a colleague Soren Quist and his unhappy fate. This became the thriller, The Pastor of Vejlby. Its plot was subsequently used by Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer, Detective from 1896. There are signs in various places of their having been directly translated from Blicher’s story. The short story Tardy Awakening immediately captures the reader with its modern psychological description of a woman in a Jutland market town, who deceives her husband with his closest friend throughout twenty-five years. The story aroused considerable indignation in the Copenhagen bourgeois society of the time, but later became fully accepted. Stylistically, it is far ahead of Blicher’s own time. The collection ends with Three Festival Eves, w which symbolizes the citizen and politician Blicher’s protest against the Danish absolute monarchy. Here it is no longer the will of the King that rules but the individual who assumes responsibility himself in the shape of the peasant Strong Sejer, who overcomes the robbers with his own free will and strength. A will and a strength that the Danish peasantry acquired through the emancipation of the peasants in 1788.
Blicher had followed this development at close hand. The farming reform was followed up by the school reform of 1814, which sent all children, boys and girls alike, to school for seven years. Later followed the establishment of the Assembly of the Estates of the Realm in 1834, whereby members of the Danish Estates were given the right to advise the king!
In Denmark, as in other European countries, the idea of freedom was gathering momentum and, after the death of King Frederik VI in 1839, it gave the Danes a free constitution, that of 1849. Contributory to this were the freedom festivals that Blicher himself established on Himmelbjerg, Jutland’s highest “mountain” (at least so it was thought), throughout five years 1839-44.
Blicher died almost entirely forgotten during the commotion aroused by the wars against Schleswig-Holstein in 1848, but his stories have quietly gone from strength to strength and also become generally known abroad, not least in Germany.
Now the stories are available in this new compelling translation for the English-speaking world. Translated by Paula Hostrup Jessen
Knud Sørensen the Danish writer in this afterword, used in the edition of seven short stories by Blicher, 1996, gives us some information about the stories:
Steen Steensen Blicher was born on 11 October 1782 in the village of Vium in mid‑Jutland, on the border between vast and thinly populated stretches of moorland towards the west and more fertile, arable land towards the east. He was the son of Pastor Niels Blicher and his wife Kristine Marie.
His childhood home was marked by his mother’s illness. She suffered from depression, with the result that her son not only became more attached to his father but was also ─ during periods of excessive strain ─ sent to stay at the neighbouring manor at Aunsbjerg belonging to his mother’s uncle, Steen de Steensen.
During the 1780s the Danish absolute monarchy embarked on a series of reforms that were totally to change both rural life and agriculture: villeinage was abolished, the transition to private ownership gathered momentum, the land was redistributed and new methods of cultivation were introduced. Like many other clergymen of the time Niels Blicher too was engaged in this work. His interest and enthusiasm greatly influenced his son, who was for periods directly involved in his father’s local community work and remained actively interested in agriculture and social reform for the rest of his life.
In 1799 Blicher commenced his theological studies at the University of Copenhagen. He came from a family of clergyman, and there had never been any doubt as to his chosen profession.
Blicher’s studies coincided with the breakthrough of romanticism in Danish literature. But whereas the majority of Danish artists and intellectuals found inspiration in Germany, Blicher mainly looked to English poets and writers. His first contribution to literature was a highly regarded translation of Ossian’s poems, published in two volumes in respectively 1807 and 1809.
Blicher completed his studies in the autumn of 1809 and was appointed grammar‑school master in Randers, the east-Jutland town where he himself had gone to school. In 1810 he married his uncle’s seventeen‑year‑old widow, Ernestine Juliane, who brought considerable capital into the marriage.
From 1811 to 1819 he administered the farm at his father’s parsonage. The latter was then the incumbent of Randlev in south‑east Jutland, and it was here Blicher began to write in earnest. His debut in 1814, with Poems. Part I, won him instant recognition as a poet.
These were difficult years. Denmark was at war with England on the French side 1807‑14, and the ensuing inflation resulted in 1813 in state bankruptcy with a subsequent crisis especially in agriculture. During these critical years much private capital ─ including Blicher’s ─ turned into debt, and he was obliged to apply for a benefice. From 1819‑26 he was the pastor of Thorning, a parish neighbouring on that of Vium, and from 1826 until shortly before his death he was the pastor of Spentrup, north of Randers.
On the map of the Jutland peninsula the three important localities in Blicher’s life ─ Vium/Thorning, Randlev and Spentrup ─ form a triangle with sides measuring 40‑50 miles, and within or near this triangle are to be found most of the places he mentions in his fiction.
Margaret Drabble the famous English writer, has written this foreword used in the edition of seven short stories by Blicher, 1996.
Steen Steensen Blicher is a writer whose work, although proudly and profoundly Danish in character, was much influenced by English and Scottish literature. He never came to Britain ─ indeed most of his life was spent in his native Jutland ─ but his stories reveal strong links with our own literary history. Yet their interest is not antiquarian. They are as lively and accessible today as when they were first published.
Blicher speaks to us with apparent directness, arresting the reader’s attention with an informal tone of personal intimacy and immediacy. His matter and manner seem engagingly simple: one can well understand why in Denmark he remains a classic, popular with readers of all ages. But on closer inspection, or on a second reading, we become aware that his stories work on several levels, and are neither as artless nor as naive as they appear. The short story as a form was young in his hands, when he published his first prose piece in 1824, and he developed it with a masterly narrative skill. He speaks to us, in fact, in many voices, all carefully differentiated. He prefers the first person, but we cannot trust what this first person tells us, for Blicher introduces us to a variety of what are now recognised as “unreliable narrators”, and many of the stories serve also as dramatic monologues, unfolding to us the personality, the prejudices, and the limitations of the story teller, as well as events of the tale he tells.
We meet here, in these freshly‑translated versions, the parish clerk, perhaps Blicher’s most celebrated character study, whose life remorselessly unfolds from the high hopes of youth to tragic stoicism; the child Steen, learning of but not quite comprehending adult passion and sacrifice; the poetic fop boasting of Copenhagen fashions, teased and mocked by the village maiden; the wandering scholar, accidental witness to a tale of violence and derangement; the anguished judge, presiding helplessly over a mystifying miscarriage of justice; and the pastor, unable to give comfort to his closest friend. In each story of this collection (except the last, “The Three Festival Eves”, which represents a slightly different folk mode) we are aware of a psychological complexity beyond the immediate grasp of those who act as recorders or participants: Blicher, with remarkable economy, suggests an unexplored hinterland of suffering and longing. His style is lucid, but his characters elude simple moral judgements.
Perhaps the most enigmatic of his figures is “Mrs L”, the anti‑heroine of “Tardy Awakening”, an intriguing precursor of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or of some of Kipling’s frustrated wives on the British Raj. The actions of this seductive small‑town beauty are open to many interpretations: both her sexual desires and her calm acceptance of them are utterly convincing yet strangely opaque. She is a startling creation for a Jutland pastor, and we certainly cannot identify the pastor who describes her with the pastor Blicher who created both narrator and unfaithful wife. Scandalous stories were told about Blicher’s own wife, and one feels there may be some autobiographical feeling here, but there is no edge of resentment. He writes neither as sentimentalist nor as satirist.
Beyond Blicher’s psychological realism lies another hinterland. In the natural world which inspired both his prose and his poetry. His work is a powerful evocation of the Jutland landscape, with its bogs and brown moorland, its skylarks, its vipers, its stags, grouse and bittern, and its scattered population of peasants, farmers, poachers, gypsies, and huntsmen. A keen huntsman himself, Blicher uses many metaphors drawn from the sport, and his description of the duck‑shoot in “Alas! How Changed” is a small comic masterpiece. Writing in the Golden Age of Danish romanticism, he embodies the Romantic faith shared by his British and German contemporaries: he believed that we are formed by the landscape we inhabit.
Yet this landscape too has its paradoxes. Is it eternal, or is it in itself a symbol of change and decay? Blicher, like Walter Scott, whom he greatly admired (though he did not like to be described as his imitator), was keenly aware that country ways of life, in the nineteenth century, were subject to irreversible change, and, like Scott, he was anxious to record them before they vanished, and to stimulate, if possible, a pride that would keep some of them alive. The theme of the passage of time sounds as a constant threnody in his prose, and it is no accident that his first published works were translations of the Poems of Ossian, by the Scottish poet James Macpherson. Ossian was said to be the last of his race, the last of the Gaelic bards of a vanished Scotland, and Blicher at times clearly saw himself as an isolated voice speaking from a remote world: Ossian’s Scotland becomes Blicher’s Jutland.
Did Blicher represent an end or a beginning? Like Scott himself, he represented both. Scott loved to dwell on heroic defeat, on the lay of the last minstrel, on the death of the Highlands, yet he created the historical novel as we know it ─ indeed, it is not too much to say that he helped to create the image of Scotland as we know it. Similarly Blicher, although possessed of a profound melancholy, a deep sense of the futility of human endeavour, and an interest in and sympathy with loss of class and status, was an energetic innovator. He opened the eyes of Denmark to the rugged beauties of one of its apparently less‑favoured regions: he created the sensibility which would appreciate and conserve it. It is no surprise to discover that his work is invoked by the Danish Tourist Board.
Romanticism, as a movement, looked both ways, to the past and to the future. Its early stirrings, in the late eighteenth century, were more marked by a nostalgic sense of loss than by a revolutionary fervour; Ossian was only one of the “end of the race” figures who attracted literary attention. Goldsmith wrote about the deserted village and the “last and greatest” of the Irish bards, the blind Carolan; William Cowper wrote about lone castaways and blasted oaks and fallen avenues, and was quoted with approval by the anti‑romantic Jane Austen. Thomas Gray, in “The Bard”, celebrated the last poet of Wales, defeated and forced to suicide by the invading English army under Edward I. A few decades later, Byron saw himself as “the last and youngest of a noble line” (“Elegy on Newstead Abbey”), Southey sang of the “Last of the Goths”, and Mary Shelley in 1826 published a novel about the end of the world called The Last Man. One can see links of mood and subject in all these authors, most of whom blended a sense of patriotism with an awareness of inevitable defeat.
We can also see a connection with Walter Scott’s exact contemporary, William Wordsworth. Wordsworth, like Blicher, was a man whose writing sprang from deep roots in place: like Blicher, he chose to wander the countryside, alone and on foot, interesting himself in all conditions of people. He met and cross‑questioned shepherds, farmers, gypsies, tinkers, and women driven mad by loss. A character like the Hosier’s Daughter would not be out of place in Wordsworth’s first volume, Lyrical Ballads, and Blicher would, one feels, have recognised the dignity of Wordsworth’s Simon Lee the Huntsman. Both writers sought the company of ordinary, often inarticulate people: indeed, Blicher extended his researches further than Wordsworth, for he is said in later years to have been quite at home drinking in the canal‑side taverns of low‑life Copenhagen, and unlike Wordsworth, although he became famous, he never became thoroughly respectable.
There is something poignant about the figure of Steen Steensen Blicher, Denmark’s most celebrated author, shabby, in debt, and given to drink, wandering the countryside like a Wordsworthian beggar, like the ghost of himself. Yet this forlorn and seemingly helpless victim was and remained a highly conscious artist, keenly aware of the aesthetic and technical problems of presenting a world as yet unpainted and unsung. In his work, he was no primitive. Should he, we can see and hear him wonder, opt for a “Scottish realism” of overloaded detail, or for the discursive style of the village storyteller, or for the detached scholarly narrator, or for mock‑epic, or for a Netherlandish “low‑life” canvas? His varied choices are all deliberate. He may well have learned not only from Scott and Ossian, but also from the innocent first‑person tale of Goldsmith’s long‑suffering and heartbreakingly optimistic Vicar of Wakefield, whose adventures Blicher also translated. Yet Blicher’s style and his subjects are his own, and they are timeless.
In one of his finest works, “The Diary of a Parish Clerk”, through one voice recording one bewildered and disappointed life, Blicher can make us hear the sound of history. Morten Vinge, in his last diary entry, describes himself as “a leafless tree on the moors” and “the last of my family”: the phrases have a romantic, Ossianic ring, but Morten and Blicher have outlived Ossian, and they share a stubborn brave resilience. Macpherson’s Ossian was a sentimental forgery: Blicher’s Morten is the real thing. Margaret Drabble
Extracts from Blicher’s Stories.
Blicher was forty‑one when, in February 1824, he published his first attempt to tell a story in prose. Until then he had been recognized as a poet, and the short story was not yet accepted as a genre in Danish literary circles; but he was short of money and had agreed to supply material for a magazine entitled Readers’ Fruits, designed for the literate middle classes and the increasing number of readers in rural districts following upon the Primary Education Act of 1814. It was primarily entertaining and seldom featured anything of literary merit.
Fragments from the Diary of a Parish Clerk was the first result of Blicher’s endeavours, and chiefly responsible for the year 1824 becoming famous in retrospect for the breakthrough of Danish prose.
Blicher may possibly have got the idea for the title and genre from a story translated from the English and subtitled “Extracts from the Diary of a Poor English Country Parson”; this had been published a couple of years previously, without mention of the author’s name, in a volume of Readers’ Fruits to which Blicher had contributed some poems. Precisely the diary form, told in the first person, was ideal for Blicher the poet, who was yet to become the narrator; here he was able to leave his readers to connect up the snatches of narrative to form a plot.
When the story was collected in book form nine years later Blicher made several changes and abbreviated the title to The Diary of a Parish Clerk. It is the latter edition from 1833 that has been used in this selection.
Blicher partially modelled his heroine on an authentic person, the noblewoman Marie Grubbe, 1640‑1718, of Thiele Manor. Her life took a socially downhill course and was known to Blicher from older sources. He has likewise known Thiele Manor between Viborg and Randers, where his father had been a private tutor.
But Blicher was not interested in historical authenticity; he created his own chief female protagonist, Miss Sophie, and transferred the action to 1708‑1753, during which period the narrator, Morten Vinge, son of the parish clerk from Føulum, writes his diary. Denmark’s war against Sweden on the side of Russia 1709‑20 influences Morten Vinge’s fate.
The Gamekeeper at Aunsbjerg from 1839 is based on Blicher’s childhood experiences during his more or less enforced stays at the manor. Built on two factual though entirely disconnected events ─ the execution of a servant for killing his sweetheart and the death of a gamekeeper, one Vilhelm Johansen, who had been thrown from his horse ─ the plot itself is nevertheless purely fictitious.
Though the story refers to the gamekeeper as Vilhelm, the reader is immediately informed that he was in fact French. He had come to Denmark as orderly for a Danish general who had been serving under the French flag during the Seven Years’ War (in which Prussia and England were fighting France and her allies) when Frederick the Great of Prussia routed the French at Rossbach, Thuringia (1757). At the end of the story, after his death, his full name, Guillaume de Martonniere, is revealed, while the existence of some letters that might possibly throw light on his previous life is hinted at.
Alas, How Changed! was initially published in the journal Northern Lights, of which Blicher was then co‑editor. The story was printed in October 1828 and signed “P.Sp.”.
“P.Sp.” stands for Peer Spillemand (Peer the Fiddler) ─ a pseudonym Blicher adopted when he wished to bring the more jovial, satirical and cynical side of his personality to bear. He even has Peer criticize some of Steen Steensen Blicher’s proposals for reforming society!
The story was written at a time when Blicher was somewhat despondent and had a fellow feeling for the pastor he describes ─ the one‑time bel esprit who, like Blicher himself, “lived in a quiet, tucked‑away spot in the north of Jutland”. This he intimates when the narrator asks his old friend how many children he has. “One for each finger”, he replies, expressing how difficult it was to keep them in clothes, while “to send any of them away to study would be quite out of the question.”
Ten children! That was what Blicher himself was responsible for at the time the story was written.
The Hosier and His Daughter, published in Northern Lights in January 1829, is still ─ like The Diary of a Parish Clerk ─ one of Blicher’s most popular stories. However different they may be, both embrace a conflict between love and the social order and reveal a fundamentally tragic view of life. But whereas the latter is set in the past, the former is set in Blicher’s own time among the farming community he knew and understood so well. In the surrounding moorlands a home knitting industry chiefly devoted to stockings had sprung up, and many such travelling “hosiers” made a considerable income from selling their wares in Copenhagen or Hamburg.
The story is an example of the poetic realism wherein Blicher’s especial strength lies; brief lyrical descriptions of the moorland scenery contrast starkly with human trouble and suffering and lend the story its special character ─ its balance and perspective.
The Pastor of Vejlbye was printed in Northern Lights in May 1829, subtitled “A Crime Story”.
With the exception of an important appendix it is again written in diary form and based on an authentic event. In 1626 Pastor Søren Qvist of Vejlbye near Grenå was sentenced to death, on the basis of the circumstantial evidence, for having killed his coachman, Jesper Hovgaard, in 1607. After his execution one of his sons bored deeper into the case, and during the course of a new trial in 1634 it came to light that the chief witness and one other had committed perjury. Both were sentenced to death.
Out of this authentic account Blicher creates a tragedy ─ unusually compelling because, unlike its historical model, he makes the pastor confess to a crime for which he is wrongfully accused. Psychologically speaking, it is Søren Qvist’s belief in the social order, and first and foremost in the God he serves, that makes it impossible for him not to submit to the charge and the alleged proof. It must have been so, otherwise the almighty God would have intervened.
Some weighty evidence has been produced to the effect that, via a summary in Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence from 1874 by the American S.M. Philips, The Pastor of Vejlbye gave Mark Twain the idea for some of the episodes in Tom Sawyer, Detective, first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1896.
Tardy Awakening (Northern Lights, March 1828), like The Diary of a Parish Clerk, is characterized by the ambivalence between the narrator’s voice and the author’s own standpoint. Superficially a condemnatory description of double adultery, but below the surface a description of a bigoted, closed society in which inquisitive outrage covers over envy and jealousy, the story shocked Blicher’s contemporaries. Particularly the sections not related by the storyteller, consisting of “documentary” letters from Elise to her lover and portraying a woman who has the courage to live out her feelings, were difficult to stomach at the time.
The Three Festival Eves is one of Blicher’s late stories, printed for the first time in a Danish popular almanac for 1841. It strikingly conveys a change in Blicher’s own conception of himself as writer and “social critic”.
Whereas in the much earlier story The Hosier and His Daughter Blicher clearly addresses the educated reader, telling him or her about the countryside and the peasantry who inhabit it before getting round to the story itself, in The Three Festival Eves Blicher presumes that the reader knows the milieu, and narrates the story from the peasants’ point of view, employing their traditional narrative form. He has become the writer who writes about and for the people.
Blicher sets the story in a past speckled with villeins and bands of outlaws, but his motive for doing so was extremely topical. From 1836 onwards Blicher was busy working for a federation between Denmark, Sweden and Norway, for a free constitution and for general armament ─ of the entire population. Its partial aim was to strengthen Denmark in relation to Germany, whom Blicher then regarded as a threat, and whose national turmoil subsequently led to the so‑called Three Years’ War of 1848‑50, in which an attempt by Schleswig‑Holstein to detach itself from Denmark was supported by Prussia and other German states. Whereas Blicher had hitherto regarded the absolute monarchy as the pillar of society, he now placed all future hope in the people; it is Strong Sejer, the representative of the people, who displays strength and drive and becomes the saviour of society.
Blicher is not only regarded as Denmark’s first important short‑story writer, but also as the writer who widened the literary, and thereby also the general conception of Denmark to include the Jutland countryside and its people. He will also go down in Danish history as having helped to generate the national will that led to the bloodless revolution of 1848 and a free constitution the following year.
He himself never came to experience the fulfilment of his political dreams. He died in Spentrup on 26 March 1848. Translated by Paula Hostrup Jessen 1996