with an introduction
EDMUND GOSSE, C.B.
printed for private circulation
Copyright in the United States of America
by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. for Clement Shorter.
Borrow and the Kjæmpeviser.
The modern poetical literature of Denmark opens with a collection of epical and lyrical poems from the Middle Ages, which are loosely connected under the title of Kjæmpeviser or Heroic Ballads. Of these the latest scholarship recognises nearly 500, but in the time of Borrow the number did not much exceed 200. These ballads deal with half-historic events, which are so completely masked by fantastic, supernatural and incoherent imagery that their positive relation to history can rarely be discovered. Nevertheless, they throw a very valuable light upon the manners of mediaeval society in Scandinavia, and they are often of high poetical beauty. No conjecture can be formed as to the authors of these ballads, and even the centuries in which they were composed are uncertain. Grimm believed them to be uralt, and attributed them to the 5th and 6th centuries. But on linguistic
grounds, this extreme antiquity cannot be maintained. It is now supposed that they were composed at various times between 1300 and 1500, and that in their present form they bear the stamp of the period when they were first collected by the Danish antiquaries of the sixteenth century.
The circumstances in which this famous collection of folk-songs came into public notice were of a romantic nature. Sophia, Queen of Denmark, when sailing across the Sound in the year 1586, was driven by stress of weather to take shelter in the little island-harbour of Hveen, where the famous observatory stood, close by the house of the astronomer, Tycho Brahe. It so happened that at that very time Brahe was entertaining as a guest the most eminent Danish man of letters of that age, Anders Sörensen Vedel (1542–1616). Vedel, whose labours were encyclopædic, was engaged in preserving all the monuments of Danish mediaeval history and learning which he could discover in the monasteries and libraries of Denmark. He had been much encouraged in this work by the Monk of Roeskilde, Peder Olufsen, who on his death-bed, about 1570, had placed in Vedel’s hands all the MSS. which he had collected. Queen Sophia,
cloistered in the Ouranienborg with her antiquary and her astronomer, and waiting for the tempest to moderate, desired to be amused with stories of her national history. Vedel ventured to read to her some of the legendary poems which still lingered among the people, and she was so enchanted with them, that she commanded him, when he returned to the mainland, to make a collection of these ballads and publish them.
Accordingly, in 1591, Vedel issued from the private printing-press in his house called Liljeborg at Ribe in Jutland, a selection of 100 mediaeval ballads, under the title of Et Hundred udvalgte danske Viser. This volume is one of the landmarks of Scandinavian, and indeed of European, literary history. Vedel made another collection, this time of ancient love-ballads, which he called Tragica; it was not published until 1657, long after his death. But the