Frederick Paludan-Müller imagines how a faithful woman responds to love betrayed
Frederik Paludan-Müller (1809-1876) stands in Danish literature in much the same position Gogol does in Russian literature. Roughly contemporary (although Gogol died young), they both produced a number of humorous works. Although neither originated or popularized Romanticism in their countries, both of them did produce arguably the most influential large Romantic works in their respective languages and in both cases they were somewhat gentle (at least non-radical) satires. Gogol’s was of course Dead Souls. Paludan-Müller’s was Adam Homo. Both works were produced at about the same time; the first part (of three) of Paludan-Müller’s work was published at the end of 1841. Both these two works pointed the way to the kind of realism that their countries would later become known for, although neither work escapes its romantic context.
Adam Homo is a novel written entirely in verse. It is a monumental work of poetry (the kind that would never be read, much less published, today), resembling some of the efforts of Byron. In fact, the title character of Adam Homo (really “Everyman”) is similar in many way’s to the hero of Byron’s Don Juan. Adam comes from a mid-century bourgeois family, but soon forsakes his middle class morality for libertine excesses. His Faust-like encounter with a prostitute marks the nadir of his descent, but Adam is, temporarily, saved when he comes under the sway of gentle Alma, the pious and poor daughter of a gardener. Although she remains entirely faithful, Adam next succumbs to his second failing: upward social mobility, and he forsakes Alma to marry a woman whose situation assures him of a great career. We’ve of course seen all this before, and we know the result. Fortunately Alma has remained faithful and pious and is able to tend to Adam’s eternal salvation. Although Alma is Gretchen in her ability to achieve divine grace for her ungrateful lover, Adam does not seem much like the central genius in Faust. And Adam Homo has none of the metaphysics of Goethe’s drama. Paludan-Müller’s view of the world is much more conventional and conservative. Man (and especially woman) is meant to suffer so that he then can be rewarded in an afterlife.
Adam Homo was immediately popular. It was well received critically when it appeared and still is considered a major work of the Danish language. The success of the work allowed Paludan-Müller to live the rest of his life as an acknowledged public intellectual. His outlook was conservative, somewhat elitist and unsympathetic to democratic or popular movements. His nationalism was profoundly shaken by Denmark’s defeat at the hands of Prussia, and his response was the huge prose novel Ivar Lykkes Historie. The theme, once again, was the moral necessity of suffering, although this time, like Paludan-Müller himself, the hero is allowed to retire in obscurity, rather than to die, to achieve salvation.
Adam Homo is for the most part narrative verse, but the final part is episodic. Perhaps the best verse, however, is contained in the love poems of Alma, one of which we have today. Alma herself would live again in the less pious, though no less morally salutary, Solveig in Peer Gynt. Ibsen was influenced by Adam Homo in many ways in his one important non-natralistic play. Unlike Paludan-Müller, however, Ibsen did not achieve immediate critical success with his story, but over time it entirely occupied the field.
from Adam Homo
(Kjøbenhavn [Copenhagen]: C.A. Reitzel Forlag, 1873), I:313
by Frederik Paludan-Müller
Du gav mig nok at tænke paa forleden.
Du spurgte mig: hvordan det vel mig gik,
Naar pludselig du andre Tanker fik,
Og tog for mig en anden Brud isteden;
Naar af dit Hjerte bortsvandt Kjærligheden,
Med alle Draaber af dens Lædskedrik;
Og med tilbagevendte, tunge Blik,
Jeg stod, berøvet Adam, for mit Eden —
Ak, hvis saa dybt mit Hoved her blev bøiet,
Hvis som en Piil, der farer frem med Hvinen,
Saa skarp en Smerte traf mit Bryst engang:
Da vilde det mig gaae som Fiolinen,
Der, sønderslagen, atter sammenføiet,
En bedre Tone gi’er, men svagre Klang.
by D.K. Fennell]
You’ve occupied my mind for several days,
Since asking me what future I could see
If suddenly your wish is to be free
And with another bride you part our ways.
When Love completely trickles from your Heart
The final drops of nectar wholly drained
I’ll look behind though standing like I’m chained
And see my Eden lacking Adam and depart.
And if, alas, my head must humbly bow,
And if I must endure a whistling dart
To pierce acutely in my very breast
Then like a cast-off violin, I vow,
Once glued together what was dashed apart
I’ll sing with better tone, although suppressed.
Text note: I was unable to immediately consult the first edition of Adam Homo, so instead I used the last two editions published during Paludan-Müller’s lifetime. The text above is from the next-to-last. The last edition (by the same publisher in 1876) differs only in the orthography of Lædskedrik in the 6th line. The later edition has it as Læskedrik.