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Peer E. Sørensen

Sophus Claussen and European Symbolism

Under the auspices of the research project Literature at the Turn of the Century 1870-1918, at the Centre for Cultural Research, I am currently working on a project concerning the Danish poet Sophus Claussen. It is a study of one of the most important lyrical works in Denmark from the turn of the century. Spanning the period from the 1880s to the 1930s, Claussen's work is from beginning to end a mirror of the aesthetic and poetological problems of the time and thus a privileged 'place' to study the passage from romanticism to the early stages of avant-gardism and modernism characterizing this period.

I am studying Claussen's production through a number of readings of selected poems from his work as a whole. The poems are regarded as representing a coherent and broken field of energy, where connecting lines are drawn between romantic and post-romantic experiences and approaching modernism, thus connecting Claussen's poems with European lyrical tendencies of this same period. He knew that the romantic dream of unity was merely a dream; and he knew that he had to dream that dream under impossible conditions after the critique of romanticism in the wake of Søren Kierkegaard and Georg Brandes. A dream of unity and at the same an awareness of the perishability of this dream he had to dreamæthis is the figure through which one can see his poetry emerging in a endless span, striving for an unattainable totality. Many of his poems suggest an experience of the sublime, and many are centered around momentary incarnations of the infinite; in short: ineffable experiences of a metaphysical shape and character and reflections on this experience; at the same time, the active interplay between presence and absence in his poems never ceases. This means that the themes of romanticism are displaced towards reflection and fractures; that the interplay between precise articulations of fractures and the need for a world filled with dreams, the interplay between knowing and exorcising exactly that knowledge is the hallmark of his poetry. In Danish ësymbolismí reemerge the themes of romanticism with a fragile, luminous aura of great and unprecedented intensity. In the poems of Sophus Claussen one can find a fatal knowledge of the deceits of history: dreams that were never realised, implying an immeasurable amount of disconsolation and unlived experiences and pointing out a chiliastic world of dreams in poem after poem. These poems are highly ambiguous: they are new and old at once, both leaving the nineteenth century behind and carrying it with them into the new century.

In my readings of the poems I am focusing on the following issues: (1) the ambiguous emancipation from/transformation of romantic thinking in symbols, the aesthetics of the work as an organic whole, and Claussen's turn towards hermetic and modernistic ways of writing; (2) the blend of pagan and Christian mythology in the poems, with implicit and explicit connections to the revitalization of mythological thinking around the turn of the century; (3) the presence of experiences of nothingness, characteristic of the period, intermingled with dreams of totality and unity, also characteristic of the period. (4) Finally, I aim to combine these readings with explorations of the introduction of Poe, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé and Huysmanns into the Danish literary arena. The primary ideologist in this turn towards French poetry was Johannes Jørgensen, who wrote many articles on the subject. I will therefore be examining Johannes Jørgensen's critical writings and the sources of his intellectual work.

The part of the project concerning Claussen and Jørgensen is almost finished. My book about Sophus Claussen, Udløb i uendeligheden. Læsninger i Sophus Claussens lyrik (Outlet into Infinity. Readings of Sophus Claussen's Lyrical Poetry), is forthcoming in November 1997.

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