J. P. (Jens Peter) Jacobsen.

Niels Lyhne online

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E-text prepared by Paul Marshall and the Online Distributed Proofreading
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Transcriber's note:

Underscores "_" before and after a word or phrase indicate
_italics_ in the original text.

Small capitals have been converted to SOLID capitals.

This series of SCANDINAVIAN CLASSICS is published by The
American-Scandinavian Foundation in the belief that greater familiarity
with the chief literary monuments of the North will help Americans to
a better understanding of Scandinavians, and thus serve to stimulate
their sympathetic coöperation to good ends.









Translated from the Danish
by Hanna Astrup Larsen

New York
The American-Scandinavian Foundation
London: Humphrey Milford
Oxford University Press

Copyright, 1919, by The American-Scandinavian Foundation

D. B. Updike · The Merrymount Press · Boston · U. S. A.


To the student of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s life and works, _Niels Lyhne_
has a value apart from its greatness as literature from the fact that
it is the book in which the author recorded his own spiritual struggles
and embodied the faith on which he came, finally, to rest his soul in
death as in life. It tells of his early dreams and ideals, his efforts
to know and to achieve, his revolt against the dream-swathed dogmas in
which people take refuge from harsh reality, and his brave acceptance
of what he conceived to be the truth, however dreary and bitter.

The person of the hero is marked for a self-portrait by the
description, “Niels Lyhne of Lönborggaard, who was twenty-three years
old, walked with a slight stoop, had beautiful hands and small ears,
and was a little timid,”—though friends of Jacobsen’s youth declare
that “a little timid” was far from describing the excessive shyness
from which he suffered. He himself would sometimes joke about his
“North Cimbrian heaviness,” for like Niels Lyhne he was a native
of Jutland, where the people are more sluggish than the sprightly
islanders. Like him, again, he had a mother who kept alive her romantic
spirit in rather humdrum, prosaic surroundings, and who instilled into
her son’s mind from childhood the idea that he was to be a poet. It is
Jacobsen’s own youthful ideal speaking through Niels Lyhne’s mouth when
he says: “Mother—I am a poet—really—through my whole soul. Don’t
imagine it’s childish dreams or dreams fed by vanity.... I _shall_
be one of those who fight for the greatest, and I promise you that I
shall not fail, that I shall always be faithful to you and to my gift.
Nothing but the best shall be good enough. No compromise, mother! When
I weigh what I’ve done and feel that it isn’t sterling, or when I hear
that it’s got a crack or a flaw—into the melting-pot it goes! Every
single work must be my best!”

Niels Lyhne never wrote the poems he had fashioned in his mind. On
the intellectual side of his nature he remained always a dreamer,
floundering around in a slough of doubt and self-analysis. Edvard
Brandes, in his introduction to J. P. Jacobsen’s letters,[A] calls
attention to “the place dreams occupy in this book, which begins with
the childish fancies of the three boys, in which the mother dreams with
her son of the future and of distant lands, while Edele dreams her
love, and Bigum dreams his genius and his passion—he who is put into
the novel as a tragic caricature of Niels Lyhne himself, as he goes
about dreaming, in the midst of people and yet far away from them. In
his youth, Niels Lyhne never attained to anything but dreams of great
deeds and of love.... Read _Niels Lyhne_, and on almost every page
you will find the word _dream_! Read about Niels Lyhne’s mother who
‘dreamed a thousand dreams of those sunlit regions, and was consumed
with longing for this other and richer self, forgetting—what is so
easily forgotten—that even the fairest dreams and the deepest longings
do not add an inch to the stature of the human soul,’ and who goes
on dreaming because ‘a life soberly lived, without the fair vice of
dreams, was no life at all.’”

[A] _Breve fra J. P. Jacobsen. Med et Forord udgivne af Edvard Brandes._

In his strictures on dreams and dreamers Jacobsen scourged his own
sluggish temperament, and the story of Niels Lyhne’s futile efforts
is in part the record of the author’s own youth. From the time he was
ten years old, he tells us, his one sure dogma was that he was to be a
poet, and there must have been years of his boyhood and early manhood
when he was haunted by visions of what he wanted to write without being
able to frame it in a form satisfactory to himself. He was almost
twenty-five years old when his first story, _Mogens_, appeared, in
1872, and after that his other short stories followed only at intervals
of years. It is true, he was by no means idle. He won distinction as a
botanist; he introduced Darwin to the Scandinavian reading public by
translations and magazine articles, and he familiarized himself with
the literature not only of Denmark, but of England, France, Germany,
and Italy. He had a theory that any one aspiring to produce creative
literature ought to know what had been written by great minds before
him, and we recognize himself in the picture of Niels Lyhne restlessly
trying to absorb all the knowledge and wisdom of the ages while he felt
like a child trying to dip out the ocean in his hollow hand.

Unlike Niels Lyhne, who never formed in his own image the clay he had
carted together for his Adam, Jacobsen shaped his material in the image
of the vision that had taken possession of him at the inception of his
idea. Though execution always cost him an agonizing effort, he did not
shirk it, and though he worked four years on each of his two novels,
_Marie Grubbe_ and _Niels Lyhne_, he never lost sight of his goal. The
truth is that, however much he might abuse his own slothfulness—which
was due largely to failing health—Jacobsen had a slow, deep strength
by virtue of which he managed to write his immortal works.

Niels Lyhne, too, had a kind of strength and was essentially sound
though a dreamer. So we see him, when every relation of life was
dissolved, when friend and mistress had thrown him back upon himself,
gathering himself together in a resolve to find a place in his old home
and make it a fixed point in his hitherto aimless existence. There, at
last, he tasted life in its fullness, and by an effort of the finest,
purest will made his short married life an experience of such beauty
that the description, so moving in its simplicity, is one of the most
exquisite things Jacobsen ever wrote. He, too, mastered life, though
not in the sense of which he had dreamed. The solution of his hero’s
problem is perhaps a compromise on Jacobsen’s part; he did not want to
drop his other self as a mere failure, but shrank from picturing him as
the fêted and admired author he himself became in the latter years of
his life.

In this connection, it may not be out of place to state briefly that
Niels Lyhne’s love affairs are drawn entirely from the imagination.
On this point we have the positive evidence of Edvard Brandes and
the negative testimony of Jacobsen’s own letters. Even if he had
experienced the great love for which he longed at the same time as
he shrank from it, poverty and ill health would have prevented his
marriage. His fine rectitude and horror of doing anything that might
hurt another human being kept him from questionable adventures.

The revolt of his hero from the accepted religion of his day is in
accord with Jacobsen’s own development. The word “atheism,” which falls
on our ears with a dead sound, meant to him a revolt against fallacious
dreams. He believed that the evangelical religion as taught in Denmark
at the time had become a soft mantle in which people wrapped themselves
against the bracing winds of truth. As a scientist he refused to accept
the facile theory that a Providence outside of man would somehow juggle
away the consequences of wrongdoing. The doctrine that immunity could
be bought by repentance seemed to him a cheap attempt to escape the
bitter and wholesome fruit of experience. To our modern consciousness,
there is no reason why his sense of the sacredness of law should have
driven him away from all religion—it might rather have driven him to a
truer conception of Him who said of Himself that He came to fulfil the
law—but in this respect he was the child of his day.

For himself, Jacobsen resolved that illness, suffering, and death
should not make him accept in weakness the religion that his sober
judgement in the fullness of his strength had rejected. Niels Lyhne’s
death “in armor” foreshadowed his own, and was perhaps written to steel
himself for the ordeal he knew to be approaching. His refusal to lean
on any spiritual power outside of his own soul lends an added sadness
to the stoicism of his death, which took place in his home in Thisted,
in 1885.

* * * * *

In the above paragraphs I have attempted only to sketch the relation
of _Niels Lyhne_ to Jacobsen’s own life. For a brief estimate of
his position in Northern literature I will refer the reader to my
introduction to _Marie Grubbe_, SCANDINAVIAN CLASSICS, VII.

The translation of an author who, as Edvard Brandes says, “worshipped
the word,” and who believed that there never was more than one word
or one phrase in all the world that could exactly express what he
meant in any given instance, is naturally fraught with more than usual
difficulty. I have striven, above all, to be faithful, and very often,
where my first impulse has been to simplify a paragraph, my second,
and I hope better, thought has been to leave it as the master chose to
write it, with only such slight changes as the new medium absolutely
required. I wish to express my sincere thanks to Professor W. H.
Schofield, chairman of the Publication Committee, who has been so good
as to read the proof and has helped to solve many problems of language.

H. A. L.


_Chapter I_

She had the black, luminous eyes of the Blid family with delicate,
straight eyebrows; she had their boldly shaped nose, their strong chin,
and full lips. The curious line of mingled pain and sensuousness about
the corners of her mouth was likewise an inheritance from them, and so
were the restless movements of her head; but her cheek was pale; her
hair was soft as silk, and was wound smoothly around her head.

Not so the Blids; their coloring was of roses and bronze. Their hair
was rough and curly, heavy as a mane, and their full, deep, resonant
voices bore out the tales told of their forefathers, whose noisy
hunting-parties, solemn morning prayers, and thousand and one amorous
adventures were matters of family tradition.

Her voice was languid and colorless. I am describing her as she was at
seventeen. A few years later, after she had been married, her voice
gained fullness, her cheek took on a fresher tint, and her eye lost
some of its lustre, but seemed even larger and more intensely black.

At seventeen she did not at all resemble her brothers and sisters;
nor was there any great intimacy between herself and her parents. The
Blid family were practical folk who accepted things as they were; they
did their work, slept their sleep, and never thought of demanding any
diversions beyond the harvest home and three or four Christmas parties.
They never passed through any religious experiences, but they would no
more have dreamed of not rendering unto God what was God’s than they
would have neglected to pay their taxes. Therefore they said their
evening prayers, went to church at Easter and Whitsun, sang their hymns
on Christmas Eve, and partook of the Lord’s Supper twice a year. They
had no particular thirst for knowledge. As for their love of beauty,
they were by no means insensible to the charm of little sentimental
ditties, and when summer came with thick, luscious grass in the meadows
and grain sprouting in broad fields, they would sometimes say to one
another that this was a fine time for travelling about the country,
but their natures had nothing of the poetic; beauty never stirred any
raptures in them, and they were never visited by vague longings or

Bartholine was not of their kind. She had no interest in the affairs
of the fields and the stables, no taste for the dairy and the
kitchen—none whatever.

She loved poetry.

She lived on poems, dreamed poems, and put her faith in them above
everything else in the world. Parents, sisters and brothers, neighbors
and friends—none of them ever said a word that was worth listening to.
Their thoughts never rose above their land and their business; their
eyes never sought anything beyond the conditions and affairs that were
right before them.

But the poems! They teemed with new ideas and profound truths about
life in the great outside world, where grief was black, and joy was
red; they glowed with images, foamed and sparkled with rhythm and
rhyme. They were all about young girls, and the girls were noble and
beautiful—how noble and beautiful they never knew themselves. Their
hearts and their love meant more than the wealth of all the earth; men
bore them up in their hands, lifted them high in the sunshine of joy,
honored and worshipped them, and were delighted to share with them
their thoughts and plans, their triumphs and renown. They would even
say that these same fortunate girls had inspired all the plans and
achieved all the triumphs.

Why might not she herself be such a girl? They were thus and so—and
they never knew it themselves. How was she to know what she really was?
And the poets all said very plainly that this was life, and that it was
not life to sit and sew, work about the house, and make stupid calls.

When all this was sifted down, it meant little beyond a slightly morbid
desire to realize herself, a longing to find herself, which she had
in common with many other young girls with talents a little above the
ordinary. It was only a pity that there was not in her circle a single
individual of sufficient distinction to give her the measure of her own
powers. There was not even a kindred nature. So she came to look upon
herself as something wonderful, unique, a sort of exotic plant that
had grown in these ungentle climes and had barely strength enough to
unfold its leaves; though in more genial warmth, under a more powerful
sun, it might have shot up, straight and tall, with a gloriously rich
and brilliant bloom. Such was the image of her real self that she
carried in her mind. She dreamed a thousand dreams of those sunlit
regions and was consumed with longing for this other and richer self,
forgetting—what is so easily forgotten—that even the fairest dreams
and the deepest longings do not add an inch to the stature of the human

* * * * *

One fine day a suitor came to her.

Young Lyhne of Lönborggaard was the man, and he was the last male
scion of a family whose members had for three generations been
among the most distinguished people in the county. As burgomasters,
revenue-collectors, or royal commissioners, often rewarded with the
title of councillor of justice, the Lyhnes in their maturer years had
served king and country with diligence and honor. In their younger days
they had travelled in France and Germany, and these trips, carefully
planned and carried out with great thoroughness, had enriched their
receptive minds with all the scenes of beauty and the knowledge of life
that foreign lands had to offer. Nor were these years of travel pushed
into the background, after their return, as mere reminiscences, like
the memory of a feast after the last candle has burned down and the
last note of music has died away. No, life in their homes was built
on these years; the tastes awakened in this manner were not allowed
to languish, but were nourished and developed by every means at their
command. Rare copper plates, costly bronzes, German poetry, French
juridical works, and French philosophy were every-day matters and
common topics in the Lyhne households.

Their bearing had an old-fashioned ease, a courtly graciousness, which
contrasted oddly with the heavy majesty and awkward pomposity of the
other county families. Their speech was well rounded, delicately
precise, a little marred, perhaps, by rhetorical affectation, yet it
somehow went well with those large, broad figures with their domelike
foreheads, their bushy hair growing far back on their temples, their
calm, smiling eyes, and slightly aquiline noses. The lower part of the
face was too heavy, however, the mouth too wide, and the lips much too

Young Lyhne showed all these physical traits, but more faintly, and, in
the same manner, the family intelligence seemed to have grown weary in
him. None of the mental problems or finer artistic enjoyments that he
encountered stirred him to any zeal or desire whatsoever. He had simply
striven with them in a painstaking effort which was never brightened by
joy in feeling his own powers unfold or pride in finding them adequate.
Mere satisfaction in a task accomplished was the only reward that came
to him.

His estate, Lönborggaard, had been left him by an uncle who had
recently died, and he had returned from the traditional trip abroad in
order to take over the management. As the Blid family were the nearest
neighbors of his own rank, and his uncle had been intimate with them,
he called, met Bartholine, and fell in love with her.

That she should fall in love with him was almost a foregone conclusion.

Here at last was some one from the outside world, some one who had
lived in great, distant cities, where forests of spires were etched
on a sunlit sky, where the air was vibrant with the chimes of bells,
the pealing of organs, and the twanging of mandolins, while festal
processions, resplendent with gold and colors, wound their way through
broad streets; where marble mansions shone, where noble families
flaunted bright escutcheons hung two by two over wide portals, while
fans flashed, and veils fluttered over the sculptured vines of curving
balconies. Here was one who had sojourned where victorious armies had
tramped the roads, where tremendous battles had invested the names of
villages and fields with immortal fame, where smoke rising from gipsy
fires trailed over the leafy masses of the forest, where red ruins
looked down from vine-wreathed hills into the smiling valley, while
water surged over the mill-wheel, and cow-bells tinkled as the herds
came home over wide-arched bridges.

All these things he told about, not as the poems did, but in a
matter-of-fact way, as familiarly as the people at home talked about
the villages in their own county or the next parish. He talked of
painters and poets, too, and sometimes he would laud to the skies a
name that she had never even heard. He showed her their pictures and
read their poems to her in the garden or on the hill where they could
look out over the bright waters of the fjord and the brown, billowing
heath. Love made him poetic; the view took on beauty, the clouds seemed
like those drifting through the poems, and the trees were clothed in
the leaves rustling so mournfully in the ballads.

Bartholine was happy; for her love enabled her to dissolve the
twenty-four hours into a string of romantic episodes. It was romance
when she went down the road to meet him; their meeting was romance,
and so was their parting. It was romance when she stood on the hilltop
in the light of the setting sun and waved him one last farewell before
going up to her quiet little chamber, wistfully happy, to give herself
up to thoughts of him; and when she included his name in her evening
prayer, that was romance, too.

She no longer felt the old vague desires and longings. The new life
with its shifting moods gave her all she craved, and moreover her
thoughts and ideas had been clarified through having some one to whom
she could speak freely without fear of being misunderstood.

She was changed in another way, too. Happiness had made her more
amiable toward her parents and sisters and brothers. She discovered
that, after all, they had more intelligence than she had supposed and
more feeling.

And so they were married.

The first year passed very much as their courtship; but when their
wedded life had lost its newness, Lyhne could no longer conceal from
himself that he wearied of always seeking new expressions for his love.
He was tired of donning the plumage of romance and eternally spreading
his wings to fly through all the heavens of sentiment and all the
abysses of thought. He longed to settle peacefully on his own quiet
perch and drowse, with his tired head under the soft, feathery shelter
of a wing. He had never conceived of love as an ever-wakeful, restless
flame, casting its strong, flickering light into every nook and corner
of existence, making everything seem fantastically large and strange.
Love to him was more like the quiet glow of embers on their bed of
ashes, spreading a gentle warmth, while the faint dusk wraps all
distant things in forgetfulness and makes the near seem nearer and more

He was tired, worn out. He could not stand all this romance. He longed
for the firm support of the commonplace under his feet, as a fish,
suffocating in hot air, languishes for the clear, fresh coolness of the
waves. It must end sometime, when it had run its course. Bartholine
was no longer inexperienced either in life or books. She knew them as
well as he. He had given her all he had—and now he was expected to go
on giving. It was impossible; he had nothing more. There was only one
comfort: Bartholine was with child.

Bartholine had long realized with sorrow that her conception of Lyhne
was changing little by little, and that he no longer stood on the dizzy
pinnacle to which she had raised him in the days of their courtship.
While she did not yet doubt that he was at bottom what she called a
poetic nature, she had begun to feel a little uneasy; for the cloven
hoof of prose had shown itself once and again. This only made her
pursue romance the more ardently, and she tried to bring back the old
state of things by lavishing on him a still greater wealth of sentiment
and a still greater rapture, but she met so little response that she
almost felt as if she were stilted and unnatural. For awhile she
tried to drag Lyhne with her, in spite of his resistance; she refused
to accept what she suspected; but when, at last, the failure of her
efforts made her begin to doubt whether her own mind and heart really
possessed the treasures she had imagined, then she suddenly left him
alone, became cool, silent, and reserved, and often went off by herself
to grieve over her lost illusions. For she saw it all now, and was
bitterly disappointed to find that Lyhne, in his inmost self, was no
whit different from the people she used to live among. She had merely
been deceived by the very ordinary fact that his love, for a brief
moment, had invested him with a fleeting glamor of soulfulness and
exaltation—a very common occurrence with persons of a lower nature.

Lyhne was grieved and anxious, too, over the change in their
relationship, and he tried to mend matters by unlucky attempts at
the old romantic flights, but it all availed nothing except to show
Bartholine yet more clearly how great had been her mistake.

Such was the state of things between man and wife when Bartholine
brought forth her first child. It was a boy, and they called him Niels.

_Chapter II_

In a way, the child brought the parents together again. Over his little
cradle they would meet in a common hope, a common joy, and a common
fear; of him they would think, and of him they would talk, each as
often and as readily as the other, and each was grateful to the other
for the child and for all the happiness and love he brought.

Yet they were still far apart.

Lyhne was quite absorbed in his farming and the affairs of the parish.

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Online LibraryJ. P. (Jens Peter) JacobsenNiels Lyhne → online text (page 1 of 17)