Jens Peter Jacobsen
Jens Peter Jacobsen; drawing by David Levine


The Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–1885) is little known in America, except among musical people, and largely through Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (1900–1911), a German-language setting of Jacobsen’s Gurresange ballad. Some concert audiences have also heard Jacobsen’s shorter poems in songs by his compatriot Carl Nielsen and by Frederick Delius, whose last opera, Fennimore and Gerda, was an adaptation of the two main episodes of Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne.1

In contrast, Jacobsen’s high European reputation is essentially literary. “Niels Lyhne,” Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fliess in 1895, “has moved me more profoundly than any other reading of the last ten years; the last chapters I recognize as classic.” A professor of Scandinavian literature, Niels Lyhne (sic) Jensen, Jacobsen’s most acute and comprehensive critic in English, comes close to explaining Jacobsen’s attraction for Freud: “[Most] likely it is the deep tragic disillusionment of the novel that appealed to a man who did not regard happiness as inherent in the plan of creation while accepting that existence was hard to bear both for mankind and the individual.”2 Freud also may have been struck by the Oedipal relations between mother and son in Jacobsen’s story Fru Fönss. When the woman of the title tells her teen-age son of her intention to remarry he replies angrily:

Have you any idea of the things you make me think of? My mother loved by a strange man, my mother desired in the arms of another and holding him as hers. Nice thought for a son.

Ibsen, who had known Jacobsen in Rome, had a high opinion of Niels Lyhne, and echoes of it are heard in Ghosts and Rosmersholm. Strindberg based Miss Julie on Jacobsen’s novel Marie Grubbe and attempted to dramatize it. Hofmannsthal, Musil, Thomas Mann, and, above all, Joyce were admirers. Stefan Zweig described Jacobsen as “the poet of poets for a whole generation in Germany” and Niels Lyhne as its Werther, while Herman Hesse thought of Jacobsen as the “completely modern writer.” But it is Rilke who best expresses the deeper reasons for Jacobsen’s fascination:

There is nothing [in Niels Lyhne] that does not seem to have been understood, grasped, experienced, and fully known in the tremulous after-ring of memory…the least incident unfolds like a destiny, and fate itself is like a wonderful wide web in which each thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand.

The excellent new translation of Niels Lyhne, which makes available in English for the first time since 1919 Jacobsen’s greatest fiction, is accompanied by the publisher’s note that Jacobsen “produced only a small body of work in his short lifetime.” What seems more remarkable is that, chronically ill with tuberculosis from the age of twenty-two, and dead at thirty-seven, he should have produced so much. Indeed, the six-volume Danish collected edition contains writings that would have assured him a niche in the history of science if he had published nothing else.3

Born on April 7, 1847, in Thisted, Jutland, the eldest of five children in a merchant-class family with no cultural horizons, Jacobsen entered the University of Copenhagen in 1868 as a biology student. The imaginative writer in him, as well as the biologist, is already evident in his first published work, an article, “Darwin’s Theory” (1871), which appeared in a new periodical, Nyt dansk Maanedsskrift:

What he had to say was that all life on earth was like a gigantic garment weaving itself, where the trend and color of each thread presuppose those of another, and as time passed the texture became richer and lovelier.

Jacobsen’s social as well as biological Darwinism provoked discussion and dissension in Copenhagen. His replies, in which, Jensen tells us, he dealt with his opponents “in a sober and elegant fashion,” demonstrated an impressive command of the subject. On the strength of his article, Jacobsen was invited to translate The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man into Danish, a task he completed in 1874. Between 1870 and 1873 he published a series of popularizing pieces on the new biology, and his dissertation, a study of algae in Denmark written in French, Aperçus systematique et critique sur les Desmidiacées du Danemark, was awarded a prestigious gold medal in 1873.

Meanwhile, Jacobsen pursued his literary interests, writing poems—a selection of them, Hervert Sperring, was rejected by every publisher to whom he sent it—and founding a literary society, Agathon. When he showed his poems to Georg Brandes, the leader of a new literary movement dedicated to radicalism in politics and Realism in literature, this otherwise discerning critic was also dismissive, though some of them are now among the classics of Danish poetry. Later, the Brandes brothers, Edvard and Georg, became Jacobsen’s good friends.4

One of Jacobsen’s early letters lists his reading before he was twenty: in English, Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson; in German, all of Goethe, Schiller, Wieland, Heine, and the Nibelungenlied; in French, Sainte-Beuve and Taine; in Danish, Kierkegaard, Andersen, and the Bible; in Old Norse, Eddic and Skaldic, the Scandinavian mythologies; and, in whatever language, the Kalevala. Paul Kierkegaard, Soren’s nephew and, as a disciple of Feuerbach, in revolt against him, was a close friend whose influence on Jacobsen’s obsessive agnosticism seems evident.


Flaubert was a later discovery. As a daydreamer in conflict with reality, Marie Grubbe is a sister of Emma Bovary, the feckless, failed-lover Niels Lyhne a brother of Frédéric Moreau. But the voice of the author-narrator is a principal component in Jacobsen’s fiction, unlike Flaubert’s. It is probably Joyce, in characterizing George Moore as “struggling in the backwash of that tide which has advanced from Flaubert through Jakobsen [sic] to d’Annunzio,” who was the first to recognize the link to Flaubert.5 (The link in the other direction is puzzling: Jacobsen’s gentleness and refinement, his playful ironies—“when you have become the possessor of the whole truth…wouldn’t it be unforgivable if you kept it all to yourself”—and his comic kinship with Smollett, are at an opposite extreme from the vulgar sensibilities of d’Annunzio.)

During a vacation in Florence, while working on his Darwin translations, Jacobsen suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage. Back home, advanced, incurable tuberculosis was diagnosed, and he was given no more than two years to live; indeed, a medical report rejecting him from military service suggests that the disease had been detected four years earlier. Yet he continued to write for six years, and lived, too feeble to work, five years beyond that.

In spite of the pain and inanition of illness, Jacobsen’s world is neither confining nor moribund. From the beginning, however, it was pervaded by a preoccupation with death and disillusion with religion. In his first story, “Strangers,” unpublished in his lifetime, a man and a woman, social misfits, stigmatized by their lowly births, meet at a country fair where their apparel and manner of dancing, so different from that of the others, are ridiculed. They marry and live, virtually ostracized, in the moorland, away from the peasant village to which they go from time to time to earn a pittance, she by dancing at various gatherings, he by accompanying her on the clarinet.

Their lives are marked by tragedy and deprivation. When their only child dies, his mother blames God for the infant’s sufferings. When she dies from a disease herself, her husband plays the music that they both loved over her corpse, and when discovered doing so by outraged villagers is driven away. Both the theme of the story, the conflict of individual lives with convention, and the ironic narrative style are characteristic of Jacobsen’s later work.

Jacobsen’s first published fiction and his only long short story, Mogens (1872), was received in Copenhagen as the work of an original and appealing talent. A youth of about twenty, of independent means, Mogens lives alone as a forest warden in a remote, sparsely populated part of Zeeland, twelve miles from a town. In the woods one day, he is surprised by a young girl, Camilla, who comes upon him unexpectedly. She flees and hides in a thicket, but he catches a glimpse of her. A little later, when she accompanies her father, councilor of the district, on a visit to the warden, the two young people recognize each other. Mogens takes his guests rowing on a neighboring lake, and the councilor invites him to visit them in turn. That night, preparing for bed and thinking about Mogens’s talk, Camilla undresses “with affected slowness,” while Mogens asks himself “how a human being could be so wonderfully beautiful.”

As he approaches the councilor’s house on his visit, Mogens glimpses a red shawl as it disappears “behind the balcony windows…and the back of a still moving empty rocking-chair.” Embarrassed at having been caught out watching for him, Camilla appears in a “glaring blue shawl,” and greets him with “a faint welcome.” But Mogens’s visits become more and more frequent, and the pair become easier in each other’s company. Eventually they decide to marry.

There is an abrupt change of mood at this point, which disturbs us even though we realize that the euphoria and sweetness of the early part of the novella can only be ephemeral. The councilor is called away, and Camilla goes to stay in their house in town. One night a fire breaks out in a nearby factory and quickly spreads to the councilor’s house. Mogens, staying not far away and at the moment laughing over a passage in a novel by Smollett, runs to the scene, breaks in, and tries to save Camilla, but is in time only to see her burn to death. He goes wild with grief, and is found days later lying in the forest.


After a long recovery from “brain fever,” he begins to lead a dissolute life with a succession of loose women, one of whom he abandons brutally. “Everything was full of injustice and lies, the entire earth was a huge rotting lie,” and “love was the hollowest of all things.” He then meets Thora, after overhearing her sing during his nightly strolls past her house, and falls in love with her. They marry, but fearing a return of the person he was during his violent period, that “what had been surely still was there,” he does not, perhaps cannot, immediately consummate the marriage. And when at last he does, Jacobsen’s happy ending, his only one, seems as sentimental as a movie fadeout. Having been told almost nothing about Thora, we replace her with a vision of the deceased Camilla:

They went out together into the freshness of the morning. The sunlight was jubilant above the earth, the dew sparkled, flowers that had awakened early gleamed, a lark sang high up beneath the sky, swallows flew swiftly through the air. He and she walked across the green field toward the hill with the ripening rye; they followed the footpath which led over there. She went ahead very slowly and looked back over her shoulder toward him, and they talked and laughed. The further they descended the hill, the more the grain intervened. Soon they could no longer be seen.

The fairy tale opening, with its account of the innocent love of Mogens and Camilla, its descriptions of landscapes and the feelings expressed for the moods of nature, is the most successful part of the novella, and one passage, in which Jacobsen disassociates colors and forms as attributes of objects, has become celebrated, despite the early critic who said that the author’s pen “has the impossible ambition to be a brush”:

Within the room all forms and colors had awakened, all lines and contours had come to life. Whatever was flat extended, whatever was bent curved, whatever was inclined slid, and whatever was broken refracted the more…. Reddish brown tones flooded in flames across the surface of the mahogany table…on the carpet all the colors broke and mingled in a joyous, shimmering confusion.

Against this, the vagueness about the backgrounds and personalities of the dramatis personae can be exasperating, while the botanical and arboricultural opinions, extraneous to the story and merely mouthed by the otherwise totally undeveloped councilor, are often irritating: “Gardens were nothing but nature spoiled…. There was no style in nature, providence has wisely made nature natural.” Yet some of the perceptions of Danish life are witty and shrewd, as when Mogens complains to Camilla about her worldly friends:

There isn’t a thing between heaven and earth which they cannot dispose of in the turn of a hand. This is common, and that is noble…. Every one of them knows the same things and talks about the same things…. One of them in his passion says something which he doesn’t mean, and then the other says the direct opposite which he doesn’t mean either, and then the one attacks that which the other doesn’t mean, and the other that which the first didn’t mean.

Jacobsen began the full-length historical novel Marie Grubbe in 1872, worked on it only intermittently because of ill health, and completed it in 1876. It is based on the life of a noblewoman born in 1643, who married a bastard son of King Frederik III, divorced him for a social and financial inferior, was caught in flagrante delicto with a stableboy, and spent the later years of her long life in poverty and degradation. Although H.C. Andersen and others had written about the historical Marie Grubbe, only Jacobsen seems to have undertaken extensive research, not only in the original documents in the Royal Library in Copenhagen, but even, according to Niels Lyhne Jensen, spending “months on the streets of Copenhagen to study historical buildings under varying conditions of light.” Unfortunately, the admired feature in the Danish original, the pastiche of seventeenth-century language in which it is written, is all but indigestible in the English rendering. T.E. Lawrence, who learned Danish in order to read Marie Grubbe, tried but failed to interest a London publisher in commissioning a better translation.

When the novel begins, Marie is fourteen, a lonely child living with her uncaring widowed father and his mistress. During the Dano-Swedish war of 1657–1658 she is taken to Copenhagen to live with her maternal aunt, through whom she meets, and at a distance falls in love with, the King’s natural son. The royal bastard dies horribly of syphilis, leaving Marie devastated until her aunt introduces her into court society, where she makes the acquaintance of Ulrik Frederik Glydenlöve, the viceroy of Norway, whom she later marries. At first the match seems a brilliant one, but eventually Ulrik, restless and bored, goes abroad. Returning after fifteen months, he treats Marie with great insensitivity, and in an irrational fit of hatred and resentment, she tries to kill him with a tableknife. He begins to fear her, turns to the company of whores, but still feels love for her, while hers for him vanishes: “I believe that your love is great and strong, but mine you have strangled with your own hands.”

The marriage is dissolved, and Marie has an affair with her brother-in-law which ends in disenchantment. When her next lover dies in an accident, she goes home to her father for a time, then manages to attract a nobleman, who marries her. She wrecks this relationship by an involvement with a peasant twenty years younger than herself, who subjugates and humiliates her. Jacobsen sees her acceptance of this as a reflection of her own innermost desires: “In this self-abasement there was a strange, voluptuous pleasure…for such was the manner in which the clay had been mixed and of which she was fashioned.”

The headstrong, self-destructive Marie entirely dominates the novel. Desiring her brother-in-law as a lover after seeing his display of physical strength in a tavern brawl, and the stableboy after watching him struggle with his horses during a fire, she reminds us of a D.H. Lawrence heroine. Marie Grubbe is an astonishingly modern study of a woman driven and undone by her sexuality. This daring portrait was attacked by Danish reviewers, who, apparently for no reason other than to disguise their distaste, saw Marie as “lacking consistency.” Jacobsen wrote to Georg Brandes, by this time a strong supporter of his work:

Certain facets of people do not cohere. Why should a complex thing such as a spiritual side to man hang together, culled from so many places, molded and influenced in so many ways?

Marie herself, answering a question whether she believes in the resurrection of the flesh, says much the same thing:

How shall I arise? As the young innocent child I was when I first came out among the people, or as the honored and envied favorite of the King and ornament of the court, or as the poor hopeless ferryman’s Marie?

Niels Lyhne, Jacobsen’s only other full-length novel, is a Bildungsroman set in the Denmark of the 1840s. Perhaps it is best described as a chain of stories, each with the same central character, tracing the growth of his disbelief and disillusion. Niels is the prototype of the ineffectual man, the unheroic hero who fails at virtually everything he attempts, from his early ambition to be a poet to his several defeats as a lover. But only when praying for his dying wife and, later, his dying son, and then temporarily, does he betray his disbelief. On his own deathbed, after he has been mortally wounded by a bullet in the Dano-Prussian war of 1864, he does not surrender to “the pact of bread and wine with the inscrutable God.” As Jensen points out, the last words of the novel, “And then finally he died the death—the difficult death,” are indebted to Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death:

For to die means that is the end, but to die death means to experience what it is to die; and to have this experience for one moment is to have it forever.

The novel chronicles Niels’s successive experiences with six women. The first is his infatuation, aged twelve, with his widowed aunt, the young and beautiful Edele, who inspires fantasies in him of a solosexualist kind. His tutor is also in love with her, and she briefly responds with a love that “surrounded him with an ephemeral aura of spirituality and loftiness—something that often happens with inferior temperaments.” But his utterances irritate her; they had “something brashly absolute about [them], rather like a misplaced drum in a dolce concert.” Niels secretly witnesses a scene in which Edele rather too preachingly rejects this groveling suitor (“We close our eyes to our real life, we will not hear the ‘No’ it pronounces in the face of our wishes”), and the boy is drawn to her all the more intensely.

Like so many of Jacobsen’s women, Edele is mortally consumptive. Niels’s prayers for her are not heeded, of course, even though “addressed not to Jesus,” who “was…only the son of God, not God himself, and thus it was to God the Father that he had prayed.”6 But God the Father “betrayed him in his bitter need,” and on the day Edele was buried, Niels “stomped his foot on the earth of the grave with contempt every time the pastor mentioned the Lord’s name.” How ridiculous, Niels thought, that the

mighty Old Testament God, the one who was so fond of Adam and Eve…barely has created life before He…drowns His world in waters from His heaven, who thunders down laws that are too weighty for the people He has created, and who then in the days of Caesar Augustus develops sympathy for them and sends His son to death so that the law may be broken, even as it is obeyed.

While this will remind Baron Grimm’s admirers of his scorn for the God “who must sacrifice his son because he once allowed an apple to be eaten,” the soliloquy seems overly precocious for a boy of twelve. The book’s early critics contended that however strong Niels’s feelings, Edele’s death is not likely to have made a lifelong atheist of him. Perhaps Jacobsen was thinking of Darwin, whose rejection of Christianity began with the death of his beloved daughter Annie.

Niels’s next romantic adventure, as an older student, is with a femme fatale, Mrs. Boye, a member of a bohemian circle in Copenhagen, who leads him on. Critics have objected that, even from a very forward woman, her arguments in favor of greater sexual explicitness and candor in literature would have been unthinkable in conversation with a younger man at the time (c. 1850), but one could reply that the two are alone and the atmosphere, including the furniture—in particular, a sexually suggestive rocking chair—is charged with seduction. Niels is called away to his father’s deathbed, and when on his return she coolly informs him of her engagement to another man, he is deeply hurt. Jacobsen’s portrait of Mrs. Boye is convincing and perfectly drawn: she is the essential coquette of any period.

Niels’s dying mother, Bartholine, is the subject of the next episode, a parody of Rousseauean sentimentality, for which reason, no doubt, Jacobsen, who had lived for a time in Montreux, set it in the philosopher’s native Clarens. Bartholine, who is reading Héloïse, drips wistfulness: “Niels, take me along in your thoughts, my son, when someday you take part in all that glory I will never, ever see.”

The centerpiece of the novel is Niels’s love for his nineteen-year-old cousin, Fennimore. During his annual summer visit to his Aunt Rosalie, Fennimore’s mother, Niels takes along his artist friend, Erik, who has also been in love with and abandoned by Mrs. Boye. Both young men fall in love with Fennimore and are overcome by the eroticism that she exudes, above all when singing and letting herself

be taken by those notes…breathing into them…as though she were singing herself naked before him…. There was such a fresh, unconscious sensuality about her entire figure; even her walk whispered of her body, there was a nakedness about her movements.

Fennimore, who had imagined her cousin as “more firmly defined” than he is, marries Erik.

Three years later, Erik invites Niels, now “a little more bitter and a little less trusting,” for a visit, and since Erik’s letter indicates that something is seriously wrong, Niels accepts, resolving to show “that he had so completely forgotten that he didn’t even remember there was anything to forget.” He discovers that Erik is neglecting Fennimore for the company of a group of farmers, who ease the dullness of country life with “whatever excesses their none-too-lively imaginations come up with.” Niels falls in love with Fennimore all over again and they are soon engaged in an adulterous affair.

When Erik is killed in an accident in Aalborg, Niels, unaware of the death, has set out for a rendezvous with Fennimore, who, meanwhile, receives the news. She is standing outside in the snow as he approaches, and at the sight of the black figure he slows his pace. “It’s me, the whore Fennimore,” she shouts out to him. When he suggests that they talk inside, her fury explodes: “Never will you set your cowardly, dishonest foot in this house again…. Can’t you hear that I hate you…your lies dragged me down into the dirt with you.” The irony of the scene is delicious. Fennimore’s responsibility for their affair is at least as great as Niels’s, since, as a founding feminist, she had repeatedly expressed contempt for “males who worship the purity of females.” Moreover, only minutes before the arrival of the fateful telegram, she is shown pacing the floor in anticipation, and worrying, “Dear God, maybe he isn’t coming!”

Niels’s next encounter is with Madame Odéro, an opera prima donna no longer in her prime, whom he meets in a hotel in Riva on Lago di Garda. The episode is of little consequence, and when she jilts him he is not angry, but has instead “a little resigned smile for this new hostility of fate.” The cholera scare that empties Riva’s and other hotels in the region seems to have been borrowed and given only a small change of locale by the author of Death in Venice.7

Finally, Niels marries his very young cousin Gerda, whom he tries to convert to his agnosticism, teaching her that “the belief in a personal God who…in another life punishes and rewards [is]…a futile attempt to remove the thorn from the bleak arbitrariness of life.” But on her deathbed—she succumbs to pulmonary disease—she returns to her faith and begs him to send for the pastor. He does so, out of love for her, then kneels in prayer himself to a god in whose existence he does not believe.

In a conversation recorded by Georg Brandes, Jacobsen conceded that most people

cannot manage to get through life without, every now and then, appealing to heaven for help…. In Niels Lyhne I wish to show how difficult it is for a man to be a freethinker in a country like Denmark, with on one side the siren-voices of tradition and the memories of childhood, and on the other the censoriousness of society.

The scheme of Niels Lyhne is transparent, moving, step by Bunyan-like step, through the principal stages of Niels’s disillusionment. “Belief in a ruling, judgmental God [is] the last great illusion of humanity,” his friend Dr. Hjerrild remarks to Niels one Christmas Eve, “and when it is gone people will be wiser, but not happier…. Atheism will make greater demands on people than Christianity does.” Niels concurs, acknowledging that neither the present generation nor the next two will be able to bear atheism, for “the innermost marrow” of most people “will still be steeped in tradition.” But he looks forward to the time when heaven, “instead of a threatening, watchful eye…will give life when everything must be contained in life and nothing is placed outside it…what nobility would spread over humanity if people could leave their lives freely and meet their deaths without fear of death or hope of heaven.”

“You cannot find the word ‘happiness’ in the New Testament; it is decidedly a pagan idea,” Niels tells Gerda. The anti-Christian bias in Niels Lyhne is astonishing for the time, and in view of the survival of the Lutheran Church in Denmark today as a quasi-state religion (to the extent that Gymnasium students are required to attend a confirmation ceremony and that the chrism is applied at the coronation of the monarch), the novel’s religious skepticism seems aggressive even for the present. Yet Niels Lyhne, far from a tract, is verbal, narrative, and psychological art of a high order. And surely it will be read now more in spite of its scientific materialism and positivist platforms than because of them.


Rilke, recognizing that Jacobsen’s essential gift was as a poet, regarded the best of his fiction as poetry:

If I am to say from whom I have learned something about the nature of creative work, there are but two names I can mention: that of Jacobsen, the great, great, great poet, and that of Auguste Rodin.

Jacobsen’s most moving work, the Gurresange, a long poem of passion, loss, and despair, was written when he was twenty-one, before any of his prose, and published only after his death. It is based on the great legend of medieval Denmark, King Valdemar’s love for his mistress Tove, or, as Valdemar calls her in Jacobsen’s poem, Tovelille, little Tove.8 During Valdemar’s absence, his jealous queen, Helvig, induces her lover Folkvard to kill Tove by locking her in her bath house and scalding her with steam. Valdemar, in his grief, incurs his own eternal damnation by placing the blame on God:

Shame on you, God, I damn you!
Killing a beggar’s only lamb

Valdemar’s heroic denunciation of God is embedded by Jacobsen in a love lyric of intense feeling:

I and Tove, we are one;
If our souls should ever be divided,
I to hell and she to heaven
Then I shall rise with all my power,
To destroy your bright heavenly angels

Nor does he relent. As Klaus the Fool says for him:

Who gave naked truth its clothing?
Right will yet prevail at the last
And I shall go home to heaven’s garden.
And then may heaven, not I, seek pardon.

The castle at Gurre, on the lake at Gurresö, not far from Elsinore, was excavated in the nineteenth century (from 1835) and has recently been restored. It is first mentioned in court chronicles in 1364, when Pope Urban V sent a gift of relics to its chapel, and it is recorded that Valdemar the Fourth—the Valdemars ruled from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries—died there in October 1375. In the Tove and Valdemar ballads (Folkeviser), first written down in the fifteenth century, upon which Jacobsen based his poem, Valdemar discovers Tove living in a small castle on a Baltic island and falls in love with her. In the originals, Helvig, holding a torch, which in Jacobsen’s version corresponds to the “vengeance aflame in her heart,” follows Folkvard as he locks the door of Tove’s bath. Valdemar’s vengeance on him is even more grisly than Tove’s scalding death—he is stuffed into a barrel bristling with nails and rolled about, the actual fate of a famous Danish criminal called Folkvard Lavmandsson—but Jacobsen eliminates the violence in both cases.

The first part of Jacobsen’s poem is narrated by Valdemar and Tove in alternation, and, after her death, by the Voice of the Wood Dove (“Wood doves of Gurre! Woeful tidings I bear over the island sea”), the Voice of the Peasant, the Voices of Valdemar’s men, the Voice of Klaus the Fool, and the Voice of the Poet. This dramatization is Jacobsen’s invention, as is the character of Klaus, who is intended as, but fails to provide, comic relief.

Jacobsen’s identification of Tove with a forest wood dove—Taube—exploits the alliterative relationship in their names; in Old Norse, Tove is Tofa and “gurre” the onomatopoeic word for the sound emitted by the dove. As the symbol of purity, fidelity, and happiness, the dove is contrasted with other birds—“Helvig’s falcon it was that has slain Gurre’s dove,” and “howling hawks cry from the spire of the church over Tove’s grave”—which are associated as well with times of night and day, the raven, the owl, the chanticleer. Like Pelléas, the Gurresange begins at twilight, in a forest at the edge of the sea. It ends, following a night of love and horror, at sunrise.

After Tove’s murder, Valdemar searches for her beyond her death and even beyond his own:

My Tove is here, and Tove is there.
Tove is far and Tove is near.
Tove bound by magic to the lake and the wood.
My heart is dead but it glows and calls you.
Tove, Tove, Valdemar yearns for you.

And he rediscovers her in Nature:

With Tove’s voice whispers the wood,
Through Tove’s eyes shines the lake
Tove’s smile laughs from the stars,
The clouds swell like her snow- white breast.

The most memorable music in Schoenberg’s mammoth cantata was inspired by the “Song of the Wood Dove” and the “Voice of the Poet” in The Summerwind’s Wild Hunt (“Sir Ganderfoot and Mother Goose”). The wind is compared to a horseman (“In the corn stalks hear the wind go by like a rider”), and some of the verse is Tennysonian: “White horses all over the lake are prancing / And through the meadow crickets are dancing.” Perhaps the heroic attitudes, the medieval atmosphere, and the fin-de-siècle symbolism (though Gurresange was written in 1869) are greater in concept than in poetic realization, but one would have to know Danish to say. Jacobsen’s champions, including Niels Lyhne Jensen, regard it as the pinnacle of Danish poetry.

During a walk together, Camilla, the councilor’s daughter, asks Mogens to pick some convolvuluses from a hedge for her. When he hands them to her, she says that she had not wanted so many, and lets them fall to the ground. Mogens gently reproves her: “Then I wish I had let them be.” So, too, on the morning of Jacobsen’s death, April 30, 1885, when his mother brought him the earliest spray of cherry blossom, he whispered to her, “What a pity to break it off for me.”

This Issue

October 22, 1992