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Peer E. Sørensen

Johannes Jørgensen as Literary Critic

In the 1890s Johannes Jørgensen wrote a series of essays on European modernist poetry ranging from Poe and Baudelaire to Huysmans and Pierre Loti, with digressions back to romanticism (Shelley). Supported by his broad readings of contemporary French criticism and especially of Huysmans' literary canon in A rebours, he emphasized an antinaturalistic poetics and by the same gesture introduced a number of authors oriented towards the coming modernism of the twentieth century. The articles are an important junction of romanticism and modernism in Danish literature. His importation of romantic ideas takes place with regard to "modern life's critique of romantic" philosophical universalism.

Consequently, Johannes Jørgensen's conception of romanticism is controlled by split experiences that prepare for modernist forms of expression. Johannes Jørgensen radicalizes the inner tensions in romanticism, accentuating its chiliastic eschatology in a revaluation of the potential for deliverance in poetry. He thus opens a specific rhetorical register with which he supplies poetological speculations inspired by Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Huysmans.

In these articles he cultivates a rhetoric of 'suggestion' with an emphasis on the 'music of verse' and the "secret correspondences" between the words that "lightly touch upon evocative keys so they resonate enigmatically." In Johannes Jørgensen's articles one can observe a certain modernist rhetoric come into being in the twofold movement of the return of romantic rhetoric and the importation of so-called 'symbolist' rhetoric, intended to found a poetry marked by "Byzantine refinement." In this way Johannes Jørgensen modernizes and transforms important lyric traditions in Danish literature on whose rhetoricity his own poetry depends.

Moreover, in his choice of chief ideologists (Mallarmé rather than Rimbaud), one can follow a number of preferences that contributed to the weak status of free verse and prose poetry in Danish literature at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Finally, in accentuating decadence and anti-modernism he underscores a problematic of autonomy concerned with the aesthetics of the work, one with which he himself and his contemporaries and successors had great difficulty, and that contribued to hindering the serious breakthrough of avant-garde tendencies in European lyricism.

One can see in the articles that Johannes Jørgensen denied the experiences that constituted the rhetoricity by which he was so fascinated. From the beginning of his critical activities a duplicity of aesthetic fascination and cognitive scepticism was manifest, and this is to be studied with regard to the belated breakthrough of modernism in Denmark. In my opinion this very reservation in respect to the factors that constituted the modernist rhetoricities is crucial to Johannes Jørgensen's great preoccupation with this rhetoricity of modernism.

A study like this based Johannes Jørgensen's early criticism will, I believe, be highly suited to delineating the first phases of modernism in Denmark and its European background. Johannes Jørgensen's essays should thus not only be studied as a junction between romanticism and modernism, but also as a junction between Danish and European poetry. Johannes Jørgensen paves the way for a new type of poetry on the basis of a contested understanding that the rhetoricity of modernity is not merely ornate, but is closely linked to the problematic constitutional conditions of modernistic poetry.


Updated 23 November 2000 by csc. Please mail comments to the webmaster at Centre for Cultural Research.