Friday, April 23, 2010

Hans Christian Andersen

He's my new obsession. It's Rumer Godden's fault. And the Goodwill's. I found Rumer writing about Hans  at 50% off. Couldn't pass them up for $1.50.

We grew up with a giant Fairy Tales with illustrations by Benvenuti. The pictures transported me as wind on the wings of the words. I have never tired of the Tales.

As an adult, reading about his life is almost as good. Against all odds isn't a cliche for him. His life epitomizes it. He is Denmark's most beloved artist and son. Against all odds.

This is what Rumer Goddin writes about him in Hans Christian Andersen. Forgive how long it is. I think it was my need that compelled me.

His father started it on his deathbed by admonishing his mother, "If it's the silliest thing in the world, let him do it." She let him leave home very young to begin a new life in the big city. He had nothing except the contents of his broken ceramic pig and an imagination. And his perpetual answer, "I shall be famous." This seemed preposterous given his humble family beginnings. 

Hans was ungainly, uncomely, gawky and given to tears. He was unsuccessful at learning a trade and studying in general. 

Once an older friend gave him some flowers to take to a woman friend and said, gracefully: "It will please her to get a bouquet from a poet's hand." 

Hans Christian felt as if he were on fire. It was the first time anyone had called him a poet.

"I really loved these people in whose society one is made better....that which is dark passes away and the whole world appears in sunlight." 

When Hans was happy he soared to dangerous heights, dangerous because in his happiness he boasted and showed all his naivete. 

So much of a writer's life is inextricably woven with his work that it is hard to tell what is dreamed and what is reality. Hans was then the young student poet of the story, leaning on the sill, gazing while the moonlight shone over the houses: he gazed until the chimney-pots seemed to change to mountains and the gleam of the canal was a river winding far away. The whole world came to him there, through the moon, which said: "Paint what I tell you, and you will have a fine picture book." 

....there was a change in him; in his years away Hans had grown a mind filled with judgment and knowledge, and his quiet suffering under much bullying had given him dignity, a queer legacy to have come from Meisling. 

People thought it was conceit that made Hans read aloud; it was not, it was necessity. A poet cannot tell the effect of his poem until he has heard it, seen it effect on an audience. It was the same later on with the Tales; as he read them, he was listening acutely, waiting to see where they lost pace and flagged, where they needed more weight, and afterwards he would go home and correct them. 

"My hardships are over," he said. It seemed that all he had to do to be happy was to write and earn a little money, and that was charming because it was writing that made him happiest of all. 

Then he had a letter from Ingemann; the poet warned Hans against frivolity. Ingemann knew that a social life is death to the artist, and he begged Andersen to give it up, and not to care so much for other people's opinion, but to be true to himself. 

What is wrong with sophistication? Nothing, if it does not take one's sense of values away. Hans ended by knowing this very well. 

....he had to live, and that for an artist is always the difficulty, how to balance dreams and living. 

It is not wise for a writer to challenge his critics, except by working steadily on......

"Memories are like amber beads," he wrote, "if we rub them, they give back the old perfume." 

Hans was the perfect traveler; he had an open mind, a quick eye, a capacity for picking up conversations and little scenes, and a breadth of vision to wonder at great ones. 

....he had always this uncanny power of bringing things alive, darning needles, tin soldiers, pots and pans, fir trees.....

If he seemed unquenchable, it was partly unconscious; he was still very naive; if anything was beautiful to him, he said so with enthusiasm; he thought his own works very beautiful and believed in them with his whole heart; and that heart was so big and vulnerable, it could be wounded at once; then he cried out bitterly. He knew this was not good, but he could not help it. 

It was not vanity. It was because he had been made to feel inferior for so long - a poor workman's son, charity child, beggar, ignoramus - that he was so thin-skinned, thin-skinned but not really vain; really vain people like the silliest flattery; Hans disliked gushing admiration as much as he liked genuine appreciation. 

If it is tiring to read about the continual tears, the wild happinesses, it was far more tiring to experience them; Andersen was often worn out with his own emotions, flagellated by them. A book was published in 1927 considering him as a psychiatric case, carefully considered from a doctor's point of view, but the way a poet lives is on his emotions; the soaring hopes, the deep despair are normal for a poet; for him life is very bitter or very sweet. 

Hour after hour he sat in his room holding his head in his hands, while the paper was blank in front of him or scribbled over with writing that was sterile, immature, ill mannered, still straining to be a Walter Scott or Heine.....still, still not Andersen. 

Hans, they said, could never tell the color of a woman's eyes; "He only sees the soul in things." 

"Oh dear me, one need only let the heart speak to be a good poet!" 

When Andersen was sent the first bad reviews of Agnete, Hans rushed with them to Thorvaldesen, who, when he had read them, spoke seriously to the younger man. "Never let this sort of thing touch you," he said. "Feel your own strength. Don't be led by popular opinion. Go quietly ahead. Peace of mind is essential to creative work. You are unfortunate in needing a public, but this is something one must never be aware of or one becomes the prey of its whims." 

The kind of women he wanted hardly thought of him as a man.... they were fond of the child in him. It was the price he paid for his gift; one of the qualities of Han's writing, the one that makes it impossible for anyone to imitate him is its purity of feeling, its innocence; it is like the pure clear voice of the choristers he had heard in Dresden, who had given up their manhood to sing. 

"But the poet knew it was only God who made the poem...." And God, in life, has a way of giving you what you want in such a curious fashion that you do not recognize it.  

Hans said of his Tales, "Really I should drop these trifles, and concentrate on my real work." 

The Andersen Tales spread quickly......But they were to be more than a fashion and soon they were found on the grownups' tables as well as  in the nursery. That is what Andersen had meant: I get hold of an idea and tell a story for the young ones," he said, "remembering all the time that father and mother are listening and we must give them something to think about too." 

He was completely bewildered when he brought out the third collection and they were declared the best things he had written. 

He was not only mystified, he was a little annoyed. 

People who have not read Andersen may ask, with him, what there was in these little tales that has placed them where they are. What is it that makes them so different from Perrault or Grimm? The answer is "everything." 

To begin with, they have a perfection of form that none of the others achieved. Each story has the essence of a poem, and a poem is not prose broken into short lines, but a distilling of thought and meaning into a distinct form, so disciplined and finely made, so knit in rhythm, that one word out of place, on word too much, jars the whole. In Andersen we are never jarred and it is this that gives the Tales their extraordinary swiftness-too often lost in translation-so that they are over almost before we have had time to take them in, and we have had the magical feeling of flying. The children, he remarked, always had their mouths open when he had finished; that is the feeling we have too. 

They were not written swiftly, were not the happy accidents that some people think them; anyone who has studied the original manuscripts from the first short draft of a story, through all its stages of crossing out, rewritings and alterations in Andersen's small spiky handwriting, the cuttings and pastings together, until the last draft was ready for the printer, can see how each word was weighed, and what careful pruning was done, what discipline was there. Even the discipline was skillful; Andersen never let it kill the life in his style. 

In the Bible we are told that God formed man out of the dust of earth and breathed into his nostrils....and Man became a living soul. Without irreverence it might be said that Hans did something like that too; he formed his stories of the dust of earth: a daisy, an old street lamp, a darning needle, a beetle, and made them live. His breath was unique; it was an alchemy of wisdom, poetry, humor, and innocence. 

He was adult, a philosopher, and a lovable man; his stories are parables and have meanings that sound on and on-sometimes over our heads-after their last word is read. He was a poet and knew the whole gamut of feeling from ecstasy to black melancholy and horror. People call him sentimental; in a way he was, but in the first meaning of the word, which is not "excess of feeling" but an abounding in feeling and reflection. He was a child; children have this godlike power of giving personality to things that have none, not only toys, but sticks and stones, banister knobs and footstools, cabbages; it dies in them as they grow up, but Andersen never lost this power. "It often seems to me," he wrote, "as if every hoarding, every little flower is saying to me: 'Look at me, just for a moment, and then my story will go right into you'""Right into you," that is the clue. The daisy, the street lamp, the beetle-they are suddenly breathing and alive. 

.....Even though they did not understand the whole; they were not mean to; all Andersen wanted was that they should love them; presently, as they grew up, they would understand; to stop and explain-as conscientious mothers do-is to spoil the rhythm, the whole feeling. Let the children wonder; these are wonder tales.  

A poet is unpredictable even to himself; he never knows when or how his ecstasy or melancholy will seize him; it has nothing or little to do with outside circumstances; the same people, the same place, the same things can fill him with joy one day, misery the next. 

Just as most people do not  have transports of happiness that make them throw their arms round trees and kiss them, so they do not know this black melancholy. A poet has to learn that he is in the grip of his own moods, paying as it were for his gift, almost to diagnose himself, and this is hard to do; Andersen must often have looked round on his equable, sensible friends, serene with that tough and cool serenity which seems to flourish in the North, and wished that he were they. 

There was another recognition in these years, one that meant more to Andersen than anyone would ever know; he met Meisling, his old rector, in the street. He had suffered more from this man than from anyone else in his life, been driven almost out of his mind by fear of him; now he looked down on a fat shabby little man with a red nose, whose breath was rank with drink. Andersen was on his way out to dine, groomed, with clean linen and a fashionable coat, hat and cane. As he looked at the grotesque figure of his old master, certain words must have rung on the air: "Your verse will end as waste pater...and you in a lunatic asylum." 

Meisling trembled and held out his hand. "I must tell you," he stammered, "that I know how wrong I have been." He could barely get the words out; they were unmistakably sincere. He knew he had been cruel and how much he was below his old pupil; if Hans would only forgive......Andersen would not let him finish; he took the little man's hand and all he felt was gladness that the strange inexplicable hatred was gone, that and sorrow that his old tormentor should be so derelict. 

In The Staunch Tin Soldier a quality shines out that might be called the soul of Andersen; a little fantastic, and so gay and crisp that one almost forgets the steadfastness that is the point of the whole story. It was staunchness that molded the one-legged tin soldier, at last, into a glowing tin heart, and steadfastness that was beginning to make the scattered, complex Andersen into a whole poet. 

This is my tribute to poetry month and the poets in my life. I'm thankful for each lovely thing you write.


  1. what a good read.
    i am thankful.


  2. This is fascinating the way it's written. A thoroughly good read with lots of great quotes within.

    And you're no slouch with words. Remember that.

  3. I'm so glad you took the time to re-write and post this. Thank you. Much needed and timely. I will keep it close at hand.

  4. I printed this for a leisurely read. Thank you!


A comment, reply, idea, dialogue or conversation with you means so much. Thanks for the two way street thing.