Johannes Ewald

Johannes Ewald (artist unknown)

Johannes Ewald (18 November 1743 – 17 March 1781) was a Danish national dramatist and poet. The lyrics of a song from one of his plays are used for one of the Danish national anthems, Kong Christian stod ved højen mast. Normally regarded as the most important Danish poet of the second half of the 18th century, he led a short and troubled life, marked by alcoholism and poor health.


He was born in Copenhagen, the son of a pietist vicar, Enevold Ewald, the grandson of pietist Marie Wulf. He was fatherless from an early age. At 15 he ran away and enlisted in the Prussian service. Being compelled to join a regiment of artillery at Magdeburg, instead of being attached to the hussars as he had been promised, he deserted the Prussian standard in the Seven Years' War, and entered the Austrian service. After a few months he again deserted, returned home and began to apply himself seriously to theology.

He was educated as a theologian, but his real interest was in literature. An unhappy love for a girl, Arendse, inspired his later poetry deeply (his description of this love is the first "modern" Danish poetic treatment of the subject).

He came back from the Seven Years' War seriously weakened. The following years were spent living as a bohemian and writing poetry in Copenhagen; they were also a time of alcoholism and conflicts with his mother and stepfather (for most of his life he was under their tutelage and he never took up a profession). His lifestyle had much in common with his contemporary Johan Herman Wessel, but, as writers they differed greatly.

On the death of Frederick V of Denmark, Ewald was requested to compose an elegy (1766). The general admiration with which it was received roused his ambition, and he soon became one of the most eminent lyric and tragic poets of his nation.

From 1773 to 1775 he had a rather happy convalescence at Rungstedlund (later the home of Karen Blixen). Ewald wrote some of his best verses during this time, but a conflict with his family led to his removal to the small North Zealand town of Humlebæk (1775–77), which depressed him and worsened his alcoholism. Finally, friends brought him to Søbækshus, near Helsingør, and where he lived for some years under growing public interest and literary fame, until his early death in Copenhagen, caused by drinking and rheumatism.

Quite until the days of romanticism Ewald was considered the unsurpassed Danish poet. Today he is probably more lauded than read; though considered classics, only few of his works have become popular.


A tableau from the final scene of Balders Død, by Peter Cramer.

As an author Ewald is a prominent representative of Danish sentimentalism but at the same time a forerunner of romanticism. His main inspiration was German poetry (Klopstock), but British writers like Edward Young and Sterne, as well as Rousseau, are obvious inspirations as well. Violent expressions of feeling (happiness, sorrow and love) are typical in his writing; these elements are apparently spontaneous but, at the same time, deliberately and artificially drawn up. Behind this a clear pietist tune is felt.

Several Ewald poems are Danish classics. He had his break-through with a melodious and expressive commemorative poem at the death of King Frederick V (1766). The famous Rungsteds Lyksaligheder (1773 - "The Happiness of Rungsted") is an ode to the Creator. (Rungsted is a city on Sjælland) Ode til Sjælen ("For the Soul") is a worthy hailing of Man’s uniqueness. Til min M*** ("For my M(oltke)) is a grateful praise for a noble benefactor, during the unhappy Humlebæk period. The hymn Udrust Dig, helt fra Golgatha ("Arm Yourself, Hero of Golgatha", 1781), practically written on his death-bed, must be mentioned. Minor humorous verses and satires are less known today.

Just as important are Ewald's dramas. Ewald was the first to rely heavily on Norse mythology, a trend which begins to point towards romanticism. He wrote the plays Rolf Krage in 1770, Balders Død (Eng. transl. "The Death of Balder", 1889) in 1773, and Fiskerne (The Fishermen) in 1779. From the latter play one song is still remembered by most Danes: King Christian stood by the lofty mast that shares the position of being the national anthem of Denmark (the other is Oehlenschläger's "There is a lovely Land").

Ewald's main prose work was the unfinished autobiography Levnet og Meninger ("Life and Opinions", written 1774-78, published 1804-08).



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