Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.14

Minna Skafte Jensen, Friendship and Poetry: Studies in Danish Neo-Latin Literature. Edited by Marianne Pade, Keren Skovgaard-Petersen, and Peter Zeeberg. Renaessancestudier Series 12.   Copenhagen:  Museum Tusculanum Press, 2004.  Pp. 273.  ISBN 87-7289-961-1.  $46.00.  



Reviewed by Dana F. Sutton, University of California at Irvine (danasutton@mac.com)
Word count: 1054 words

Minna Skafte Jensen, Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Southern Denmark until her retirement in 2003, is the leading authority on the Renaissance Neo-Latin poetry of her nation. The present volume, assembled as an evident act of pietas by its editors, probably former junior colleagues or students, presents thirteen articles by her, published in different venues and hence written variously in English, Italian, and German (items originally written in Danish are supplied in English translations). The volume being such as it is, the reader should not expect a systematic treatment of the subject (the closest available approximation to which remains the chapter she co-authored with Karsten Friis-Jensen in Peter Brask, et al., Dansk Litteraturhistorie II, Copenhagen, 1984). Rather, we have a short sketches, many focusing on individual poems by such prominent writers as Hans Jorgensen Sadolin (1528-1600), Zacharias Lund (1608-1667), and Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the last of whom, it turns out, was a Humanistic poet of considerable parts.

Jensen is at her best in articles that focus on individual poems (translations are supplied). She is a sensitive reader and is keenly alive to intertextuality. As suggested by the title, a common denominator linking some but not all of these articles is the theme of friendship that appears in a number of the poems about which she writes. The editors observe in their short Preface (p. 8) that "[a] common thread is the sociological approach: throughout attention is paid to the social functions of Latin poetry within the academic world, both as a means of career-building and as a factor in shaping a group identity. Closely related to this topic is the theme of friendship between the young poets." This theme is most comprehensively studied in the article "Amicizia e amore nella poesia latina danese del Cinquecento" (pp. 185-201). The intertwined themes of male bonding and careerism will be thoroughly familiar to readers of the Neo-Latin literature of other nations, and it is interesting to see them recurring in a Danish context.

In view of the current explosion of interest in the Neo-Latin literatures of many European nations, it is of course welcome to have Denmark brought into the picture. But there is much about this work that fails to satisfy, especially in a volume that is evidently intended to draw these Danish Neo-Latin poets to the attention of an international audience. The problem is how do you write for a wide readership about a body of literature that is unedited and inaccessible to all but a few specialist readers? Surely this is to reverse the natural order of things, which would be to produce editions of these authors, or at least put out some kind of anthology, then write appreciations and critical studies afterwards. I do not wish to single out Jensen for this failing: other studies of Neo-Latin poetry exist that likewise put the cart before the horse, and are equally unsatisfactory for the same reasons. When Jensen confines herself to writing about individual poems, we are on solid ground. When she paints with a broader strokes, however, she ought to be far more liberal in providing quotations and she needs to cite primary sources, but she is far too sparing of both. In both the short bibliographical notices appended to some of the articles and in the final bibliography, presumably compiled by the editors, only modern secondary scholarship is included (with the exception of the great 1913-1929 Copenhagen edition of Tycho's Opera Omnia, which somewhere in its fifteen volumes contains text transcripts of the poetry). Biographical sketches of at least the principal poets of whom she writes would also have been welcome. We are fed dribs and drabs of biographical information in individual contexts, but a sign of what I mean is that for two of the three poets named above (Sadolin and Tycho) I needed to go to other sources to find their birth- and death-dates. The ultimate point of a volume like this should be to whet readers' curiosity about Danish Neo-Latin poets and to encourage others to study them more deeply. But no adequate signposts are provided for satisfying this curiosity or conducting further work. Armed with information about primary sources, the sufficiently interested reader could, if nothing else, obtain microfilms of original editions, but, on the basis of the meager information supplied in this volume, one scarcely knows where to make a beginning. The ultimate effect of Jensen's reticence in providing all this information is that some of her articles are more disorienting than informative. What is one to make, for example, of the article "Latin Bucolic Poetry in Sixteenth-Century Denmark" (pp. 27-36), in which no primary sources are cited and only one line of poetry is quoted?

These criticisms may seem unfair to Professor Jensen, since this volume is, after all, a collection of articles originally written for the benefit of specialist and at least sometimes local Danish audiences which conceivably did not need the kind of information a non-Dane misses. But in that case, when repackaging them into a volume intended for a wider readership, its editors ought to have realized that filling in the blanks was a necessary part of their job. This is not to deny the significance of this volume. Its most positive contribution is that it indicates the interest of its subject. Jensen manages to convince one that there are Danish Neo-Latin poets worth reading and deserving of systematic study. Above all, modern editions would be very welcome. Some ambitious young Dane could easily earn an international reputation by publishing most obviously a full-dress edition of the poetry of Tycho.

The above remarks apply to the first twelve articles in the collection. The thirteenth, "Peter Helgelunds Sammlung der Epigramme Melanchthons (1583)" (pp. 227-256) is actually off-subject since it deals with a German poet. But here, of course, one finds oneself on familiar ground, so many Neo-Latinists will, no doubt, find it useful.

[Reviewer's note: Tycho's De Nova Stella (1573), surely the best-known Neo-Latin poem by a Dane, is available at the Web site Danmarks Natur- og Laegevidenskabelige Bibliotek, and some other poems by him, including a short verse epistle to the great Scots Humanist George Buchanan, are available at the site Arkiv for Dansk Litteratur.]

[[For a response to this review by Minna Skafte Jensen, please see BMCR 2005.02.16.]]

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