Tuesday, April 2, 2013

National Poetry Month—Hans Christian Anderson “The Native Land of Light”

We began our annual observation of National Poetry Month yesterday, but it was a busy day, so I am going to back up and reintroduce what I do here on this blog for those who may have forgotten or come in late.
Every year I feature a poet a day with a little background info and at least one verse.  I try to cover a lot of variety from the familiar to the obscure, many styles and ages.  I try not to get bogged down in old dead white guys with beards, but don’t want to ignore them either.  I make a conscious effort to balance by gender and racial and ethnic backgrounds, but there are no “quotas.”  My personal taste and knowledge is reflective so that it runs heavily to American writers and some poetry traditionalist feel that I have slighted 19th Century and earlier British writers.  Finally all poetry is a subjective experience and these are just my picks this year.  I can’t get to everyone, but will certainly entertain suggestions.
Now, off to the races.  We’ll begin with a perhaps unexpected choice, a birthday boy.

Hans Christian Anderson was born on April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark.  His father made unsubstantiated claims to connection with nobility and after he had risen to fame rumors would swirl that he was the bastard son of King Christian VII.  Highly unlikely but the rumors were fueled by the fact that Christian’s legitimate heir, King Frederick VI took an interest in him as young man and subsidized his education via travel. 

Impoverished by the death of his father at the age of 11 and the inability of his former washerwoman mother to support him, young Hans went to work as an apprentice first for a Weaver and then for a tailor, an experience that would inspire later tales.  But he had greater admissions and at the age of 14 walked to Copenhagen to try his hand as an actor after being entranced by touring wagon companies.

He was accepted at the Royal Danish Theater as a boy soprano, but was cut after his voice changed.  Someone at the theater told him that with his over-sized nose—even then almost Cyranoesque—that he would be better off as a poet.  With all of the earnestness of youth, Anderson set out to become one.

Patrons were impressed enough to sponsor his schooling in grammar school in Slagelse and later at Elsinore.  While obviously gifted, he was an indifferent student and a rebel at harsh discipline, especially while at Elsinore where he boarded with the schoolmaster, who abused him physically “to improve his character” and likely sexually as well.  Anderson considered his schooling, which ended in 1827 the most miserable years of his life.

He immersed himself in a dream world inspired by the fabulous tales of Arabian Knights as well as the folk tales told around winter hearths by poor people.  His first yarn was published in a newspaper 1822 while he was still a scholar.  

In 1829 he experienced his first taste of fame with the publication of the short book A Journey  onFoot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager drawing on his own long walks and spiced with picturesque encounters with everyone from St. Peter to a talking cat.  Shortly thereafter he had his first play,  Love on St. Nicholas Church produced and issued his first short book of poems.

It was after that early success that the King underwrote Anderson’s travels to through Europe, again often walking tours, during which he gathered materials, inspiration, and folk tales.  These travels would result later in a series of popular travelogue books.

Anderson’s first great success came slowly after the publication of his first volume of Fairy Tales in 1835.  The book started off to slow sales, but gradually picked up a devoted following and stories from it became widely anthologized.  Tale in that first book include some of his most beloved including The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina, The Little Mermaid, and The Emperor's New Clothes.

The reflected life-long themes including the acceptance of those with differences—these days he might well pass as an anti-bulling crusader--and an egalitarianism at odds with traditional class structure and even the monarchy which had sustained him.

Two more Fairy Tale volumes followed in that decade with more classic tales—The Wild Swans and The Steadfast Tin Soldier.  He continued to return to fairy tales for the rest of his life publishing new stories in popular magazines and issuing them in elaborate little books.  Best known are The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, The Nightingale, The Little Match Girl, Sandman, and the Snow Queen.  Many were quickly adapted for the stage or became the basis for operas and ballets.

Christiansen also successfully wrote now largely forgotten adult novels.  By the 1860’s he was the most popular writer in Danish history as well as the most beloved.  His fairy tales were translated into dozens of languages and were best sellers across Europe and in America.

Despite his success, Anderson was tortured by shyness and by uncomfortableness with his physical appearance, gangly long limbed walk, and by his feelings of being a bumpkin among the glitterati who embraced the writer but not the man.  He also suffered from what we would today call post-traumatic stress due to his likely sexual abuse as boy and youth.  He remained celibate, which he attributed to high morals, but which was plainly a fear of rejection.

And he was rejected often as he repeatedly fell in love with unattainable women and men and had his timid advances turned aside, often with laughter.  Most famous of these attachments were to the young ballerina who would inspire the Red Shoes and famed soprano Jenny Lind who took her persona as The Swedish Nightingale from an Anderson story.

He spent his last years as a semi-invalid after injuring himself in a fall from bed in 1872.  He lived in the he home of his close friends, the banker Moritz Melchior and his wife, who cared for him and enjoyed a special Royal pension in recognition of being a National Treasure.  He died of liver cancer in 1875.

Denmark plunged into mourning.  A statue of him was erected in the Rosenborg Castle Gardens in Copenhagen and another in his home town of Odense.  His Little Mermaid was immortalized in a beloved statue in the harbor at Copenhagen.  Other statues attract children in New York’s Central Park  and Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

Anderson’s poems are still beloved and widely read in Denmark, but few have been popularly published in translation in English.  They reflect a typical Victorian Era sentimentality, and an obsession with death, particularly that of children.  Like his contemporary and friend English writer Charles Dickens he was particularly moved by the desperate plight of poor children like his immortal Little Match Girl.  

In today’s poem, written in 1849, Anderson celebrated poetry itself. 

The Native Land of Light

There is a lovely Land
We call it Poetry
It reaches to the Sky
You’ll find it in a Rosebud

Its a Melody of Love
Lives on its greenest, heav’nly Shore

And there the Song of Bliss
Is like each Day you know

God is near
you can feel
That God is near
And old times live there

The Wise and Noble tremble
So grand it is, so rich

A Golden Hindustan
The Home of Melody

The Holy Land, by God,
It stands when Worlds will fade away
We call it Poetry
That Native Land of Light

—Hans  Christian Andersen
           Translation—Per Nørgård as lyrics for a choral piece

No comments:

Post a Comment