Georg Brandes: A Silhouette

Georg BrandesA Silhouette


Julie Norregard

An old ballad sings of Denmark as a swan's nest, thrown on the
blue sea.

Her sons are the swans.

Of these many have kept close to the nest, patiently strengthen-
ing and guarding it, till they sank in death and their saga

But there were other swans with mightier wills and more
arduous desires. These spread out their strong wings and flew
over the world, bringing to foreign lands tidings of their humble
homestead. Their names are shining in gold on the silver tablets
of fame : Thorvaldsen, Orsted, Hans Christian Andersen, Gade,
and there, forcibly writ—the youngest of them all—Georg

* * * * *

The youngest, yes, but not the least illustrious. For, indeed,
in every city throughout Europe where literature holds a place of
honour, his name is known as that of the finest of living critics.

He is a special favourite in Berlin and Vienna, and is treated as
a prince in St. Petersburg. His very name is a banner of liberty


164 Georg Brandes

to the Polish student, and theTzecs look up to him as one of the
bravest fighters for freedom. In Paris he belongs to those artistic
circles to which but few foreigners are welcomed. Amongst his
best friends are Bourget and Daudet, as was the late M. Taine,
who, Dr. Brandes says, was the man who, more than any other,
has influenced his mind and opinions.

The country that has honoured him least, and least understood
the value of his genius, is the land to which he has given his youth,
his work, and the very finest music of his soul—the land where he
was born—Denmark.

When, therefore, during his recent stay in London, the repre-
sentative of the Daily Chronicle asked him "What is your position
in Copenhagen ? " it was the bitter truth Dr. Brandes spoke when
he answered, " I have none."

Indeed, none of those honours governments are accustomed to
bestow on the best men in the country have been bestowed on
him. He was the only man for the chair of aesthetics at the
University, but pedantic prejudice has denied it him for years. He
has no title, no decoration, no subsidy. He is seldom a guest at
Court, nor is he a lion in the salons of the aristocracy.

From a social point of view he might even be called a no-

Yet, for all that, there is no Danish citizen with a finer, more
significant position. His influence, however unacknowledged, is
far-reaching and of a curiously subtle power. It shows itself
everywhere. Many are those whose whole lives have been changed
by a word of his. His helping hand, stretched out in the last
moment, has saved for the nation art and individualities, which
otherwise might have vanished into Nirvana.

There is not to-day in Denmark, Norway, or Sweden, an author,
a thinker, a critic, from the greatest to the youngest aspirant, who


By Julie Norregard 165

does not owe something to Georg Brandes. His honours lie in
their gratitude, his kingdom in their hearts.

* * * * *

Having taken his degree as a doctor at the University of Copen-
hagen, he has a right to lecture in the buildings of the University,
and he has largely exercised that right. It was the 3rd of
November 1871, after his return from a journey to Italy, that
Georg Brandes gave his first lecture. Timidly, he had chosen the
smallest room. But on his arrival he found people standing all
down the staircase, and already the first evening the largest room
had to be used. It is this room, No. 7, which has ever since been
the forum whence his inspired words have gone forth.

It was here, through his lectures, even more than through his
books, that he influenced the minds of young Danish men and

How well 1 remember those evenings, twice a week, when we
stood together waiting outside the big door. It was not opened till
seven o'clock, but to secure a seat we had to be there long before.
All young, all enthusiastic, all dreaming of the possibilities life had
in store for us, we stood there, crowded together on the steps
leading to the portal. Round us the quiet square, clad in its robe
of snow ; behind us the dome, silent and solemn. Over us the moon
and a thousand stars glittering with that cold radiance only known
in the winter nights of the north.

Woe to the porter, if he did not open for us the minute the big
clock sounded. How we used to hammer on the door, till it
echoed through the old buildings. Then there was the run
upstairs, the rush down the corridors, the crush and struggle,
till at last one could breathe contentedly in one s favourite

A few minutes after, a storm of clapping hands ; then silence.

The Yellow Book—Vol. VIII. K


166 Georg Brandes

On the cathedra stood Georg Brandes.

A tall, lithe figure, dressed simply but with scrupulous care.
And what a wonderful face is his ! Irregular features, some might
even be called ugly ; it seems impossible to say exactly what they
are like, captivated as one is by their ever-changing expression—
quiet thoughtfulness flashing into humour, tired melancholy break-
ing into a sunlit smile.

He speaks without pose and affectation, seems scarcely to raise
his voice above the pitch of ordinary conversation, yet it carries
each phrase to the furthest corner of the room. But behind the
quietness is felt the quivering of a passionate nature, which now
and then, when he is roused by some best loved or best hated
theme, flashes on the audience with a suddenness that electrifies.
Sometimes we would follow him with Goethe to the Court of
Weimar, or another time he would reveal to us the gigantic fancy
concealed behind the mountains of dull description in the works
of Zola. With glowing words he would paint for us the poetry and
romance of Polishliterature, or illuminate for us the golden thoughts
of Niezche, young Germany's ill-fated philosopher.

Winter after winter has passed, and youth has fled with the
years. The sadness in his eyes has deepened, and his hair is
touched with silver, but his vitality is still the same, his spiritual
alertness as keen as ever. Still he gathers round him the young
men and women of Copenhagen, and when he showers on them
the sparks of his own rich personality, he sets aflame the smoulder-
ing fire of their natures, brings into bloom the flowers that lie
sleeping in their souls.

* * * * *

A favourite saying of Dr. Brandes' is " that men and women
can be divided into three classes those who command, those who
obey, and those who can neither command nor obey and that they


By Julie Norregard 167

ought to be killed," and how savagely his voice rings out the last
word—it sounds like the click of the guillotine.

Many minutes are not needed to find out to what class he him-
self belongs. It is written on his brow that he was born to
command, was intended by the Norns for a leader of men. Many
are the incidents in his life which show how his strong will has
carried everything before him.

More characteristic than any seems this little story of how his
first pamphlet was printed. He was a very young man at the time,
known only in University circles as a promising student, and
publicly his name meant nothing. He had written a paper upon
some burning question of the day, and brought it to one of the big
printers at Copenhagen. Calling shortly afterwards to fetch the
proofs, he found that nothing had yet been done with the MS.
The manager told him in rather an off-handed way that he must
wait, they had other important work to do first. Georg Brandes
looked at him hard, and told him that no work could be more im-
portant than his, and that his MS. must be set up at once—his
MS. could never wait. " Let me tell the printers myself," he said.

Before the astonished manager could interfere he heard from the
workroom a clear, strong voice commanding the men that whenever
they got his writings they must put aside all other work and do his
first. But such was the fire of his temperament, such the will-
power in his face, that the men did not shrug their shoulders as at
a madman, but instead they gave him an " Hurrah ! " and followed
out his orders. Shortly after he began writing his books, and every
morning he brought to the printers some few sheets, of which the
proofs were sent to him in the evening. The curious point in his
method of working is that he gets his books printed page by page
as he goes along. For as wine invigorates the blood, so does the
printed word inspire his brain.


168 Georg Brandes

Here, as in so many other ways, he shows himself an impatient
man—a man who must not be kept waiting. His desires must be
fulfilled at once. In this there would lie danger for his work were
not his impatience balanced by great perseverance. His impatience
does not make him hurry ; his work is finished as that of few
other writers, and no pains seem to him too great, no trouble too
tedious, if thereby his book may be strengthened.

Thus he gave twenty-three years of his life to his most important
work, " Main Currents of European Literature in the Nineteenth
Century." To convey an idea of the varied knowledge he
possesses, I give the sub-titles. They are : " The Literature of
Emigrants," " The Romantic School in Germany," " The Reaction
in France," " Naturalism in England," " The Romantic School in
France," and " Young Germany."

The last six years Dr. Brandes " has lived with Shakespeare,"
to use his own phrase. The first two volumes of his study of
him have appeared in Danish, the last and third he is now writing.
Fortunately, this great work is being translated into English by
Mr. William Archer, and when it appears will, without doubt,
make a deep impression. Dr. Brandes hopes that he has been
successful in his attempt to bring forth the great poet s personality
by a critical study of his work. " For," as he says, " when a
writer leaves thirty volumes behind him, it is the world's fault if
it knows nothing of his life." Of the critical value of the book,
others more competent must judge. I can only say that it reads
like a fairy-tale.

Though crammed with facts, it does not belong to the " dry
goods " of literature. The historical events of that most picturesque
period of English history are painted in colouring, the glow and
richness of which remind one of some great master of the
Renaissance, and the exposition of the dramas is so subtle, so


By Julie Norregard 169

fantastically vivid, that it seems to add new treasures to the

* * * * *

Sparkling as is the writing of Dr. Brandes, his conversation is no
less so. Indeed, a more entertaining companion can hardly be
imagined. He seems to know everything, to have seen every-
thing and in his travels all over Europe he has met most of
the great ones of the earth. He talks freely about every
subject, casts new light over the most trivial matter, and can, in
a few words, give a sketch of this or that famous person.

Stuart Mill, Renan, Ibsen, Max Klinger, Tolstoy, Bismarck ;
he will pass in review all such powerful influences of our century.
The last name brings him to talk of his long stay in Berlin,
and of the old Emperor and his Court, and suddenly he says :

" I have never felt myself so completely left out in the cold as
when at a great Court ball at Potsdam. I was the only one of
eleven hundred guests who had no decoration." With a twinkle
in his eye he adds : " Unless it was when at a big dinner in
Switzerland I found myself the only one who was not condemned
to death all the others being Russian and Polish exiles."

Being an excellent causeur it is no wonder that Dr. Brandes
has always been a great favourite with women. His mind
fascinates them, and they never feel overwhelmed with his
knowledge, because he always cares most to try and make
them talk about themselves, and he is certainly an artist at that.

That dreadful female monster—if it is proper to call her female
—who, two minutes after being introduced, tells one that she
wears " divided skirts " and starts her day with a brandy-and-soda,
has no interest for Dr. Brandes. He combines with his very
advanced views in other directions the old-fashioned idea that
womanhood still remains the greatest fascination of woman.

I don't

170 Georg Brandes

I don't mean by this that he opposes the liberty women now-
adays have obtained. Nothing could be further from his mind.
He means the two sexes to have equal rights and equal freedom.
But he has no sympathy with the woman who, because she works
and fights her own battles, must throw to the winds all grace and
beauty. For there is nothing book-wormish about Georg
Brandes. As a true pagan, he loves to be surrounded by youth
and loveliness. There is an old-world tenderness and grace about
his bearing towards women, and he belongs to that race of men
who, like Bismarck, believe that a man never looks more charm-
ing than when reverently bending over a woman's hand.

It need scarcely be said that Dr. Brandes often finds the oppor-
tunity to look charming !

* * * * *

On the 26th of October 1891, it was twenty-five years since
he had published his first book. The anniversary was a good
opportunity for his friends and followers to honour him. A
public dinner was arranged, and in the course of the evening the
workmen, the artists, and the students greeted him with torches.
The great preparations on the part of his friends, and the com-
plete silence with which the Conservative papers treated the
matter, aroused curiosity, and when the evening came all Copen-
hagen was in the streets to see the procession.

The dinner was given at the Concert Palace, a beautiful
rococo building in one of the main streets. On the balcony
stood Georg Brandes, surrounded by his nearest friends, while
every window in the great building was thronged with festive
men and women. In front the big courtyard was filled with the
young men carrying torches, and outside on the pavement and
down the side streets were thousands of spectators.

It was from this balcony that Dr. Brandes thanked all those


By Julie Norregard 171

who paid him homage—thanked them in words which have never
ceased to burn in the memories of those present. Though the
wonderful fire of the speech must more or less be lost in transla-
tion, I think that even the poorest translation could not fail to
convey some of its original poetry and power.

" Thanks for those torches !

" Thanks for lighting them. Thanks for carrying them. May
they still blaze, still go on shining—fire in the minds, fire in the
wills, blood-red fire burning through life.

" Thanks for those torches !

" Torches in the night mean hope in time of darkness. In the
early Christian days they used to be carried on Easter Saturday as
a symbol of the Resurrection. May the resurrection of our own
time be not too far away.

" I take this fire as an omen. It is good, it is splendid to see
workmen, artists, students, all carrying torches together. Let us
go on like this, and we will get light.

" No element is so pure as fire. It cleanses the air. May it
purify the foul air in this town.

" No element is so gay as fire. It stiis the nerves like
music and like wine. May it brighten the minds in this

" The light of the torches is as the light of the mind. As rain
cannot quench the one, mere words cannot kill the other ; nay,
not even a storm of words. The light of thought cannot be
quenched, and liberty and justice are the two torches which set
each other aflame.

" Thanks for those torches !

" May they shine and warm. May they burn up all lies and
conventionalities. May they burn to ashes all the thought-corpses
from times dead and gone.

" Are

172 Georg Brandes

" Are you tired of carrying torches ? Then hand them to the
younger generation.

" In Latin the morning star is called Lucifer, which means the
light-bringer. Old fathers of the Church, misunderstanding a
scriptural sentence, believed, and made others believe, that this
spirit of the morning star, this Lucifer, was a demon

" Never believe that ! It is the most stupid, the most dangerous
of all superstitions. The nation that believes that is lost. Lucifer,
the father of fire, the torch-bearer, the flame-spirit, whose symbol
is the torch he lifts high in his hand : he is that very spark of life
which fires our blood ; he is the star of intelligence that makes
bright our heaven.

" He is the true angel of light. Never believe that the angel of
light has fallen or could fall. It is a lie !

" Thanks for those torches !

" See that they blaze ! See that they shine ! "

* * * * *

So did he speak ; but what he asked of those young men who,
in the dark October night, crowded around him, torches in hand,
he himself has fulfilled. Never has his enemy had the strength to
snatch the torch from his hand ; never has he tired of carrying it
high, that it might shed its radiant light over his country and his

Thank you, torch-bearer, for the light you gave us !

MLA citation: Norregard, Julie. "Georg Brandes: A Silhouette" The Yellow Book 8 (January 1896): 163-172. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2012. Web. [Date of access].