Patriotic songs and poems (Fædrelandssange) can surely only be written by those with an intimate relationship to their homeland. And yet even when they are, are such works always Heimatlieder, the kind of “songs of home” often characterized by a sentimental tone? This is certainly not the case with Klaus Rifbjerg’s work. Although the poems in this collection can be seen as expressing a deep affection for something beloved, they do so in a way that is completely unsentimental and at times even somewhat brittle. And in fact this was precisely what was demanded by a conservative Danish politician in the mid-1960s, who argued that poets should for once write songs dedicated to their fatherland. Rifbjerg responded to this call in his own way and not, of course, to the satisfaction of conservative thinkers. As one scholar puts it, Rifbjerg confronts his inner, psychological landscapes with their external counterparts. Jørgen Bonde Jensen, Klaus Rifbjergs poesi, Copenhagen 1986).
What is Denmark in the poem Danmark, Trofast? It is an endearing puppy that one would like to pat. It sits in its kennel, not trusting itself to really venture out or too lazy to do so. Before it all of Denmark lies, with its lovely landscapes, cities, villages and islands. A pleasing land, a poetic land, embodied by Frantz Wendt, director of the “Norden” association dedicated to cultural collaboration between the Nordic states, which is symbolized by five swans and headquartered in Hindsgavl Castle on the island of Funen. But why does this “trofast” quality, this loyalty, hide itself from the world? Danmark, Trofast is a declaration of love for the fatherland and motherland and gives poetic voice to Rifbjerg’s more matter-of-fact statement, “I am a Dane through and through.”
The widely travelled, rambling poet can never cut the ties binding him to his homeland, for this is the land of his childhood. It is to this primal soil that the writer always returns. Kronborg Castle of Hamlet fame is not sung of as the fortress facing Sweden across the Øresund but as something that suggests the memory of a school excursion, a feeling of, among other things, boredom and weariness. Don’t we all remember this from our own outings with parents or our school class? Nevertheless, it is part of a spiritual landscape, a source of strength to which Rifbjerg repeatedly returns — childhood.
And then there is Skagen, the picturesque landscape where the North Sea and the Baltic (or more correctly the Kattegat) meet. A landscape characterized by the unique quality of light that enchanted the painters of the late nineteenth century. Rifbjerg’s poem Skagen virtually recreates the paintings themselves: artist Peder Krøyer with his wife and dog taking an evening stroll on the beach, or the Skagen painters together at table, raising a glass to life and art. This, too, is part of Rifbjerg’s spiritual landscape. It was there, on the tip of Jutland, that he spent holidays as a child, and where he still spends his summers. Skagen — a moveable feast. However, there is also “a hint of death” in the air. And it is here that the present breaks into the poem: idylls, the land of fairytales — that was once upon time.
Anyone born on an island cannot help but have a relationship to water. And anyone born on the island of Amager, which forms part of Copenhagen’s extension into the Øresund, will always be drawn to water, whether to the Baltic, the North Sea or the Mediterranean. In Denmark you are always close to the sea and it is therefore hardly surprising that water is a central motif of Rifbjerg’s poems. In his work the country and its surrounding waters represent an existential elixir. His “fatherland songs” are reflections of his own being.
Copenhagen: Gyldendal 1970