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WILHELM JENSEN, of whose many works this is the first to appear in an English translation, has been one of the most popular writers in Germany for more than twenty years. Since 1866 a number of works from his pen have appeared almost every year: poems, epics, short stories, novels, and dramas. In all these branches of literature he has shown himself to be an author of signal culture and great power, but he is at his best as a novelist and writer of lyric poetry.
Jensen is a son of that branch of the Teutonic family which is most closely akin to the Anglo-Saxon race—he is a Frisian. His father, who was Landvogti.e., governor-in the island of Sylt, died before Wilhelm Jensen's birth. The widow went to live at Heiligenhafen, near Kiel, and there our author was born on February 15, 1837. The mother, too, died early, and the boy was brought up by comparative strangers in a strange house, that of a Lutheran pastor. Very probably it was there that the boy conceived the aversion for narrow-minded dogmatic theology which is so clearly marked in all his writings.
He studied medicine at various German universities, but found little satisfaction in the study, and turned to that of literature, history, and philosophy, and in 1860 took his degree as Doctor of Philosophy.
Through Geibel's influence he went to Munich, where, at that time, a choice set of poets, men of letters, and artists were gathered round King Maximilian, whose ambition it was to make his capital a second Weimar.
After a while Jensen entered the journalistic profession, was editor of several important papers, first at Stuttgart, then at Flensburg, Kiel, and Freiburg in the Black Forest, and finally settled again at Munich, where he still lives in the winter, while during the summer months he occupies a charming villa on the banks of the Chiemsee, in Upper Bavaria. One of his daughters is married to a prince of the Bavarian royal family. No official duties fetter his literary activity, and he is able to devote his whole time and energies to his writings.
Jensen's poems are characterized by deep feeling, a fine appreciation of nature, enthusiastic admiration for all that is high and beautiful, a ceaseless seeking after truth, and courage to declare it when found, healthy pleasure in life, and sympathy with every living thing, combined with a rare gift of language. Never is he weary of celebrating the beauties of earth, but through the hymn of praise there sounds an undertone of regret for the fleeting nature of all things earthly.
The desire for knowledge which possesses his soul, the craving for a transcendental world, is clearly expressed in many of his poems, but, at the same time,
, it is equally clear to us that the sure and certain hope of a future life does not exist for him. It must not,
however, be supposed that in his writings any taint of crude, modern materialism or mocking, self-confident atheism is to be found. Against these he hurls the full weight of his righteous indignation as unsparingly as against dull indifference, irreverence, utilitarianism, and narrow-minded dogmatism of any kind.
Among his poems a special and peculiar position is occupied by his “Lieder aus Frankreich,' which appeared in the year of the great war, together with so many other poetical effusions. Most of these are only variations on the well-worn theme of joy in battle and victory and triumph over the fallen and hated foe. With Jensen it is different. He, too, sings the joys of
, triumph, but more prominent is his lament over the misery which war brings to friend and foe alike, the horror of slaughter, compassion for the comrade who sinks down at his side, and pity for the vanquished. Mingled with thrilling pictures of the horrors of war are scenes of bright humour on the march and by the camp fireside, and touching descriptions of the longing for home and for peace which fills the soldier's breast. Even in France, admirers have been found for the beauties of these German war-songs. In the Indépendant Littéraire we read in a review of the German warpoems of 1870: ‘Les autres seront, si l'on veut, de grands poètes Allemands; celui-ci (Jensen) sera tout simplement un grand poète.'
In his early works, both in prose and poetry, Jensen is unmistakably under the influence of Theodor Storm and Emanuel Geibel; then comes a period in which Dickens's influence is distinctly traceable; but soon he frees himself from all fetters of imitation, and strikes a new and entirely original note.
The background of most of his novels is formed by the scenery of the Frisian coast and islands and the low-lying moors of the mainland. Few can rival him in his descriptions of the sea. Here and there we come across a passage describing sunset or sunrise, a violent storm or the stillness of the calm sea, which in power of delineation remind one of Heine's 'Nordseebilder.' Though his pictures of sea and landscape are in a sense highly realistic, yet they differ widely from those painted by the disciples of the modern realistic school. What he has in common with them is a keen power of observation, but he makes a different use of it. They go about, pencil in hand, collecting striking details, to be afterwards patched together in a mosaic; he draws in bold style a few characteristic lines; they, in spite of all the trouble taken, never penetrate the surface of nature; he sympathizes so fully with her in all her varying moods that with a few words he can convey to us the same impression which would be left on our minds if we were face to face with the landscape he is describing
In no other work has Jensen given a clearer expression of the view of life he holds than in the novel which appears here in an English translation. Its original title is ‘Runensteine, "* exactly rendered by the translator as 'Runic Rocks.'
Scattered over the whole of Northern Germany, England, and Scandinavia, large stones have been found which are covered with inscriptions in strange characters. They are the oldest chronicles of our race, the first efforts of our Germanic forefathers to
* The novel was published in 1888, and has since gone through several editions.