In Danish literature, runic inscriptions and legal books are the oldest surviving vernacular sources. The first literary references are in Latin.
The “Gesta Danorum” (around 1200) by Saxo Grammaticus offers a genealogical description of Danish history from its mythical beginnings to the time the book was written. In contrast, Anders Sunesen’s (* around 1167, † 1228) theological-allegorical didactic poem “Hexaëmeron” (circa 1200–28) provides an example of the international level of monastic literature of the Danish Middle Ages. The oldest book printed in Danish (1495) is the “Rimkroniken” (“Reimchronik”, finished in 1477).
Early modern age
Latin literature and handwritten records continued into the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. At the same time, printing and the Reformation marked a turning point. In Bible translations (New Testament of 1524 and the complete Bible “Christian III. Bible”, 1550) and the scientific examination of one’s own language, an increased appreciation of the vernacular was expressed. The interest in vernacular literature resulted in an early recording of medieval ballad poetry (Folkeviser). In addition to grammars and metrics, the first poetics appeared in Danish. With a rhetorically versed poetry, which was devoted to religious and secular subjects, attempts were made to tie in with European standards. So justified T. Kingo an independent Danish psalm poem. Leonora Christina Ulfeldt’s autobiography stands out from the memoir literature, which was still heavily influenced by Christian rhetoric.
In the 18th century, Danish literature emerged as the recipient of European enlightenment ideas. Impulses from French, English and German explanatory pamphlets were taken up in particular by L. Holberg. The historian, state theorist and moral philosopher wrote comedies from 1722-28 and institutionalized theater in Denmark. The satirical tradition of Holberg was continued by Charlotte Dorothea Biehl (* 1731, † 1788) and J. Wessel. In contrast, H. A. Brorson’s pietistic psalm poetry stands for an emancipation of subjective feeling that shaped the sentimental literature of the late 18th century. Next to Klopstock other central figures of German sensibility stayed in Copenhagen. Their influence made a. noticeable in the poetry and drama of J. Ewald and J. Baggesen. Both authors also contributed significantly to the final establishment of the novel in Denmark.
Romanticism – Biedermeier – Realism
In 1802/03, H. Steffens brought the ideas of German Romanticism to Denmark through lectures. The philosophical appreciation of art led to a new understanding of authors and art, which already shaped the early collections of poetry by A. Oehlenschläger and A. W. Schack von Staffeldt. The propagated aestheticization of the nation was expressed in the use of materials and forms from Norse, Old Danish and popular Danish literature, which reflected the poetry and drama of Oehlenschläger, N. F. S. Grundtvigs, C. Winthers and B. S. Ingemanns excels. The latter made a name for himself with extensive historical novels on Danish history. The second generation of Danish Romanticism was formed around the aesthetician and playwright J. L. Heiberg, who sought to reform Danish theater based on G. W. F. Hegel and French vaudeville. Henrik Hertz and Jens Christian Hostrup (* 1818, † 1892) followed this program. Like Heiberg, F. Paludan-Müller sought a philosophically inspired poetry of ideas. In contrast, E. Aarestrup anticipated modernist forms of symbolist poetry with his erotic poetry. With Thomasine Gyllembourg, S. S. Blicher, M. Goldschmidt, H. E. Schack and Vilhelm Bergsøe (* 1835, † 1911), who are considered representatives of poetic realism, an accomplished and ironic narrative art first blossomed. The philosopher S. Kierkegaard and the fairy tale poet H. C. Andersen also acted as novelists in this environment.
Modern breakthrough and decadence literature (1870–1910)
With his lectures on the “mainstreams of 19th century literature”, which began in 1871, G. Brandes (* 1842, † 1927) revised the concept of literature and literary criticism in Denmark. The literary program developed in close connection with the industrialization and urbanization processes. What was called for was a (political) tendency literature that critically deals with a bourgeois double standard (especially sexual morality). The reception of French naturalism coincided with the nihilistic and linguistically reflective radicalism of F. Nietzsche, the Brandes discovered for European literature. With the authors of the »Modern Breakthrough«, Danish literature gained European relevance. This is true v. a. for J. P. Jacobsen, H. Bang, H. Drachmann and H. Pontoppidan, who in their novels took up the problem posed by Brandes. The claim to modernity was also formally reflected in that these authors were guided by impressionistic methods. In addition to Amalie Skram, Thit Jensen and Agnes Henningsen (* 1868, † 1962), many female authors took part in the debates on emancipation and sexual morality.
At the same time as French symbolist poetry, as a country starting with letter D according to Countryaah, Denmark experienced a lyrical renaissance in the 1880s and 90s. J. Jørgensen, S. Claussen and V. Stuckenberg grouped authors around the magazine “Taarnet” (tower) who translated classical French modernism into Danish. They attempted to counter the depicted suffering from the loss of meaning in modernity and its social and industrial upheavals with exaggerated aestheticism and religious reorientation.
Ernesto Dalgas (* 1871, † 1899), J. V. Jensen (* 1873, † 1950) and M. A. Nexø wrote real decadence fantasies with doom scenarios. Jensen and Nexø - like Marie Bregendahl, J. Aakjær and Johan Skjoldborg (* 1861, † 1936) - later made a name for themselves as authors of popular breakthroughs and workers’ literature.
Interwar and wartime (1910-45)
Avant-garde tendencies were found among others. in the poetry and novels Emil Bønnelyckes (* 1893, † 1953) and A. T. Kristensens (* 1893, † 1974). Overall, however, traditional, realistic modes of representation prevailed, ranging from the bourgeois, naturalistic novels of J. Paludan (* 1896, † 1975) to the socially critical collective novels of H. R. Kirk to the psychoanalytic descriptions of H. C. Branner influenced by S. Freud. The 1930s were characterized by the dichotomy between a socialist-inspired cultural radicalism and conservative-bourgeois currents (including K. Munk) embossed. The main figure of the cultural radical wing was the architect, lighting designer and revue author P. Henningsen. For the concept he formulated of everyday poetry inspired by (proletarian) popular culture, prosaic (M. Klitgaard; Hans Scherfig, * 1905, † 1979) and dramatic implementations (K. Abell) can be found. Tania Blixen held an exceptional position, whose subtle narratives, written in English and Danish, are devoted to philosophical-aesthetic questions that raise fundamental political and religious problems (gender roles, power structures, etc.).
Post-war literature (1945-60)
The breakthrough of modernism only began with post-war literature. Authors, the aesthetic and v. a. ethical questions were taken up in a poetry that was at times hermetic and rich in metaphors. As a source of inspiration for the lyricists of this generation – i.a. T. Bjørnvig, O. Wivel, O. Sarvig and F. Jæger - acted by P. La Cour. With his subtle short stories, M. J. A. Hansen provided the prosaic counterpart to this poetry. It was only V. Sørensen who founded a really modernist prose with his linguistically reflective and seemingly absurd stories. Also in the poetry and short stories of the boy Benny Andersens (* 1929, † 2018), the poetry of Ivan Malinowski (* 1926, † 1989), the prose of P. Seeberg and in the dramas and television plays of L. Panduros, language criticism stands alongside the thematization of an existence that is perceived as absurd.
Postmodern and Political Engagement (1960-70)
An overcoming of the symbolistically inspired post-war modernism was already indicated in the early, experimental poetry of K. Rifbjerg, who has shaped the literary life of Denmark as a novelist to the present day. It was only the representatives of system poetry (analysis of language material, text generation based on mathematical processes), inspired by French structuralism and post-structuralism, who finally turned away from modernist art concepts by turning against subject, authorship and the concept of the work in their autopoetically generated texts. Authors as diverse as Hans-Jørgen Nielsen (* 1941, † 1991), Klaus Høeck (* 1938), Peter Laugesen (* 1942), Dan Turèll (* 1946, † 1993) and v. a. Per Højholt and Inger Christensen contributed to the international reputation of the Danish post-war avant-garde. Corresponding prosaic experiments were provided by S. Å. Madsen, Vagn Lundbye (* 1933) and Henrik Bjelke (* 1937, † 1993). In contrast, T. Hansen and T. Skou-Hansen represent the European documentary novel. In addition to experimental trends, the 1960s and 70s were characterized by political commitment. With (auto) biographical descriptions or confessional novels, Tove Ditlevsen (* 1917, † 1976), Jette Drewsen (* 1943), Vita Andersen (* 1942, † 2021), Dea Trier Mørch (* 1941, † 2001) and Suzanne Brøgger (* 1944) use literature for emancipatory purposes.
Contemporary literature (since 1980)
The 1980s were marked by a return to aesthetic issues and large narrative forms. The classic modern novel was linked, inter alia, to Poul Vad (* 1927, † 2003) and Peer Hultberg (* 1935, † 2007). P. Høeg celebrates European successes with his novels, which combine philosophical and ethical questions with popular forms of depiction of crime literature.
The youngest generation of Danish authors – i.a. Peter Adolphsen (* 1974), Solvej Balle (* 1962), Kirsten Hammann (* 1965), Helle Helle (* 1965) and Christina Hesselholdt (* 1962) - is characterized by minimalist art concepts (mostly concentrated short prose). Whereas in the 1980s, with Henrik Nordbrandt (* 1945) and Pia Tafdrup, poetry found its way back to a metaphor-rich modernism or addressed the big city experiences (Søren Ulrik Thomsen, * 1956; Michael Strunge, * 1958, † 1986), contemporary poets are more concerned with philosophically distant language experiments (including Niels Lyngsø, * 1968; Simon Grotrian, * 1961).
So far, three Danish writers have received the Nobel Prize for Literature: K. Gjellerup, H. Pontoppidan (both 1917) and J. V. Jensen (1944).