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BARON LUDVIG HOLBERG HOLBERG (1684-1754)

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Originally appearing in Volume V13, Page 581 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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BARON LUDVIG HOLBERG HOLBERG (1684-1754), the great Scandinavian writer, was born at Bergen, in Norway, on the 3rd of December 1684. Both Holberg's parents died in his childhood, his father first, leaving a considerable property; and in his eleventh year he lost his mother also. Before the latter event, however, the family had been seriously impoverished by a great fire, which destroyed several valuable buildings, but notwithstanding this, the mother left to each of her six children some little fortune. In 1695 the boy Holberg was taken into the house of his uncle, Peder Lem, who sent him to the Latin school, and prepared him for the profession of a soldier; but soon after this he was adopted by his cousin Otto Munthe, and went to him up in the mountains. His great him, Holberg's career might have had an untimely close. During the next two years he published five shorter satires, all of which were well received by the public. The great event of 1721 was the erection of the first Danish theatre in Gronnegade, Copenhagen; Holberg took the direction of this house, in which was played, in September 1722, a Danish translation of L'Avare. Until this time no plays had been acted in Denmark except in French and German, but Holberg now determined to use his talent in the construction of Danish comedy. The first of his original pieces performed was Den politiske Kandestober (The Pewterer turned Politician); he wrote other comedies with miraculous rapidity, and before 1722 was closed, there had been performed in succession, and with immense success, Den Vaegelsindede (The Waverer), Jean de France, Jeppe paa Bjerget, and Geri the Westphalian. Of these five plays, four at least are masterpieces; and they were almost immediately followed by others. Holberg took no rest, and before the end of 1723 the comedies of Barselstuen (The Lying-in Room), The Eleventh of July, Jakob von Thyboe, Den Bundeslose (The Fidget), Erasmus Montanus, Don Ranudo, Ulysses of Ithaca, Without Head or Tail, Witchcraft and Melampe had all been written, and some of them acted. In 1724 the most famous comedy that Holberg produced was Henrik and Pernille. But in spite of this unprecedented blaze of dramatic genius the theatre fell into pecuniary difficulties, and had to be closed, Holberg composing for the last night's performance, in February 1727, a Funeral of Danish Comedy. All this excessive labour for the stage had undermined the great poet's health, and in 1725 he had determined to take the baths at Aix-la-Chapelle; but instead of going thither he wandered through Belgium to Paris, and spent the winter there. In the spring he returned to Copenhagen with recovered health and spirits, and worked quietly at his protean literary labours until the great fire of 1728. In the period of national poverty and depression that followed this event, a puritanical spirit came into vogue which was little in sympathy with Holberg's dramatic or satiric genius. He therefore closed his career as a dramatic poet by publishing in 1731 his acted comedies, with the addition of five which he had no opportunity of putting on the stage. With characteristic versatility, he adopted the serious tone of the new age, and busied himself for the next twenty years with historical, philosophical and statistical writings. During this period he published his poetical satire called Metamorphosis (1726), his Epistolae ad virum perillustrem (1727), his Description of Denmark and Norway (1729), History of Denmark, Universal Church History, Biographies of Famous Men, Moral Reflections, Description of Bergen (1737), A History of the Jews, and other learned and laborious compilations. The only poem he published at this time was the famous Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum (1741), afterwards translated into Danish by Baggesen. When Christian VI. died in 1747, pietism lost its sway; the theatre was reopened and Holberg was appointed director, but he soon resigned this arduous post. The six comedies he wrote in his old age did not add to his reputation. His last published work was his Epistles, in 5 vols. the last of them posthumous (1754). In 1747 he was created by the new king Baron of Holberg. In August 1753 he took to his bed, and he died at Copenhagen on the 28th of January 17J4, in the seventieth year of his age. He was buried at Soro, in Zealand. He had never married, and he bequeathed all his property, which was considerable, to Sorb College. Holberg was not only the founder of Danish literature and the greatest of Danish authors, but he was, with the exception of Voltaire, the first writer in Europe during his own generation. Neither Pope nor Swift, who perhaps excelled him in particular branches of literary production, approached him in range of genius, or in encyclopaedic versatility. Holberg found Denmark provided with no books, and he wrote a library for her. When he arrived in the country, the Danish language was never heard in a gentleman's house. Polite Danes were wont to say that a man wrote Latin to his friends, talked French to the ladies, called his dogs in German, and only used Danish to swear at his servants. The single genius of Holberg revolutionized this581 system. He wrote poems of all kinds in a language hitherto employed only for ballads and hymns; he instituted a theatre, and composed a rich collection of comedies for it; he filled the shelves of the citizens with works in their own tongue on history, law, politics, science, philology and philosophy, all written in a true and manly style, and representing the extreme attainment of European culture at the moment. Perhaps no author who ever lived has had so vast an influence over his country-men, an influence that is still at work after 200 years. The editions of Holberg's works are legion. Complete editions of the Comedies are too numerous to be quoted; the best is that brought out in 3 vols. by F. L. Lichtenberg, in 187o. Of Peder Paars there exist at least twenty-three editions, besides translations in Dutch, German and Swedish. The Iter subterraneum has been three several times translated into Danish, ten times into German, thrice into Swedish, thrice into Dutch, thrice into English, twice into French, twice into Russian and once into Hungarian. The life of Holberg was written by Welhaven in 1858 and by Georg Brandes in 1884. Among works on his genius by foreigners may be mentioned an exhaustive study by Robert Prutz (1857), and Holberg considers comme imitateur de Moliere, by A. Legrelle (Paris, 1864). (E. G.)
End of Article: BARON LUDVIG HOLBERG HOLBERG (1684-1754)
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