|Date:||Early May 1842.|
|Form:||Four stanzas of eight five-stress lines (in Danish), rhyming aBaBcDDc.|
|Manuscript:||ÍB 13 fol. (a fair copy with the title "Ved Efterretningen om Mag. S. Dreiers Död"; (facsimile KJH121-3; image).|
|First published:||1929 (1D252-3; image).|
|Sound recording:||Dick Ringler reads "On Receiving News of the Death of S. Drejer, M.A." [1:54]|
Drejer's work on Danish flowering plants was his most important scientific contribution. He was astonishingly productive: in the six years that preceded his death he published no fewer than 28 books, treatises, and translations, several of which have enduring value. Carl Christensen, the Danish botanist and historian of science, wrote:
We do not find, in the annals of Danish science, very many individuals who can compare with Drejer in intelligence, knowledge, and industry. He burst on the scene like a great light at a critical moment in the history of botany, when interest in natural philosophy, which had peaked around 1830, was being superseded by empirical research, and he stands as representative of both schools: in his youthful enthusiasm adhering to the philosophical school but in his practical work, in his area of expertise as a botanist, following the path that was later to prove so fruitful. His premature death was a great blow to Danish science, and only many years afterward do we encounter any botanists who are his equals. None of his contemporaries ever reached anything like his level. (1DBH
Drejer, whose mind had always been of a speculative bent, was the leading Danish botanist to associate himself whole-heartedly with natural philosophy (Naturphilosophie), following the lead of the German Carl Ludwig Reichenbach (1788-1869), whose system Drejer espoused in all his works.1
"Once I had begun to clarify my ideas on botany," Drejer wrote,
it could not long remain obscure to me what side I should take. It was especially the school of natural philosophy [den naturphilosophiske Skole
], whose representative in botany was Reichenbach, that attracted me. And it was the axiom that a system as a whole follows the same laws of development as its individual members that suddenly illuminated my path and showed me the way I have subsequently followed. This is the conscious
research I have preferred — and continue to prefer — to blind empirical investigation without goal or purpose. (1DBH
In an obituary on Drejer his close friend Carl Ploug (1813-1894), the editor of Fædrelandet, wrote as follows:
He applied [the conclusions of natural philosophy] to the plant kingdom, which he interpreted as a system coming from the hand of the Creator and containing forms that expressed a rational idea. To reconstruct this system; to investigate its tiniest particulars without ever losing sight of its totality; to discover its ligatures and interconnections, hidden from ordinary eyes, in order to behold the total structure in its full grandeur and clarity; to seek for unity in infinite multiplicity, in the jumbled succession of forms; — this is what he regarded as the natural scientist's (and his own) mission, and he looked down with the utmost contempt on mere empiricists who, without an inkling of the rationality inherent in organic nature, rummaged through it with dissecting knives and microscopes, thinking they had done something remarkable when they discovered some totally isolated individual phenomenon or distinction. (1DBH
The whole tenor of Jónas's poem, and especially the reference to Drejer as "truth's champion" (Sanhedskæmpe) and the image of his mounting step by step up the ladder of truth (Trin fra Trin på Sanhedsstige), reflect Jónas's awareness of Drejer's study of natural philosophy and his commitment to it.
No doubt Jónas was spurred to write this elegy by the suddenness and unexpectedness of Drejer's death, the spectacle (once again) of a brilliant and promising young man cut off in his prime.2 Jónas knew Drejer well and held him in high regard. Both were students of science at Copenhagen University; both were close friends of Japetus Steenstrup, who — for a time — shared Drejer's commitment to natural philosophy (see 1DBH507; 1MJSII/22, 47 f.); and both contributed (Jónas occasionally, Drejer prolifically) to Henrik Krøyer's journal Naturhistorisk Tidsskrift. Jónas had collected moss for Drejer at Þingvellir in 1841, the summer before Drejer's death. It would be pleasant to think that the two men, fellow scientists and seekers after truth, had discussed natural philosophy and the religious problem that lies at the heart of Jónas's poem.
That religious problem, of course, is the momentous question of what awaits us after death: whether our present identity, self-consciousness, and memories — what Ludwig Feuerbach calls Ichheit (1FFS361) — will survive in whole or in part, or whether they will be totally extinguished.3 Jónas (or at least the affective part of him) certainly preferred the first hypothesis, which carried with it the corollary — so important to him — that he would be reunited after death with his many dead friends and relatives. But he seems to have felt (or at least the rational, skeptical, scientific part of him seems to have felt) increasingly anxious that the second hypothesis was more likely to be true. For the first hypothesis he had the authority of his Christian upbringing, his theological training at Bessastaðir, and J. P. Mynster's Reflections on the Principal Points of Christian Faith (that brilliant and persuasive work which he had translated in collaboration with Brynjólfur Pétursson and Konráð Gíslason). For the second hypothesis he had the authority of his scientific training, which had taught him to repudiate untestable hypotheses, and Ludwig Feuerbach's Reflections on Death and Immortality, which seems to have had an increasing influence on his thinking in the last years of his life (and excerpts from which he also translated).
In his elegy on Tómas Sæmundsson, written the summer before the present poem, Jónas had asserted that if there is no life after death, Christianity is a sham. "I do not doubt my friend still lives," he wrote.
Otherwise, all God's gifts would seem —
the ageless skies, the world's perfection,
the Son's victorious resurrection —
an open grave, a cruel dream.
In the present elegy on Drejer he seems concerned most immediately and urgently with the question of whether or not our ego-awareness and memories (Ichheit) will survive death and remain intact in the afterlife. In the third stanza he alludes to — and rejects with horror — the school of thought discussed by Mynster in the following passage:
There are many people. . .who acknowledge the spiritual element in man to be immortal but seem to think that after death it will manifest itself in other beings in much the same way that our flesh and blood disintegrate in the ground only to be recombined in other bodies and reappear in new forms. Such people claim that an individual's spiritual essence survives death, but the same self no longer exists: there is no survival of the consciousness that enabled him to say here on earth: "I am one and the same individual from the beginning of life to the days of my old age, no matter how much everything may change." Persons who subscribe to this view maintain that on the other side of the grave there will be no memory of what is past, but it will all drop into the gulf of oblivion, never to return. (Hhk537; see also 543-4).
As if in an effort to combat this view, Jónas emphasizes "sight" and "vision" throughout his poem (the Danish original contains nine words having to do with looking, glimpsing, seeing, recognizing) and the text as a whole suggests that he has been pondering St. Paul's words, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Corinthians 12 [AV]).
The other hypothesis — that Ichheit is extinguished by death — is present in Jónas's poem by implication. Indeed the poem's emphasis on "truth" (the word Sanhed occurs three times in the Danish original); its insistence that the ascent to truth is "no idle fancy" (stakket Tant); its celebration of the joys of immortality and individual consciousness and self-awareness after death; even Drejer's "deep-blue flowers" blooming in heaven (din Himmelblomst, . . .den dunkel dybeblå)4 — all these things read like a conscious and deliberate attempt to rebut the argument in the following passage of Feuerbach's Reflections:
Wo keine Zeit, da ist kein Individuum, wo kein Individuum, keine Empfindung, und umgekehrt. Wenn du daher in dem dunkelblauen Jenseits, wo von aller Zeit abstrahiert wird, dem Individuum individuelles Dasein, Empfindung, gar ewige Wonne, ewige Lust zuschreibt, so folgst du nur der Einbildung, in der alles möglich ist, was im Wesen, in der Wahrheit, im Begriffe unmöglich ist, aber nicht der Wahrheit. (1FFS
The question of whether consciousness and memory survive death is intimately connected, for both Jónas and Mynster, with the question of the nature of God. Is he a personal God, a living God, a conscious God, a loving God, a Father? Or is he a pantheistic God? Both the attraction of pantheism (for a scientist and intellectual like Jónas) and the nature of its error (from the point of view of Lutheran orthodoxy) are stated very clearly by Mynster:
We often see, these days, how easily it comes about — especially among people of superior intelligence — that the living God is distorted, turned into "nature," or "the universe," or "everlasting force," or "something divine that streams through all existence," or one of the other concepts fashioned by those who prefer the shadow to the substance, and the ray of light that plays over all creation to the eternal source of light itself. (Hhk16-7; see also 50-1, 63-4 [very important], 241, and 525)
Pantheism, since it is based exclusively on God's general revelation (almnenn opinberun) in the works of nature, entails rejection of the special revelation (einkanleg opinberun) of Christianity, including its promise of personal immortality. In some versions of pantheism, individuals do not retain their individuality and personality in a recognizable form after death, but dissolve into the All, or the One, or the World Soul (whatever one chooses to call it).5 This may or may not be a consoling thought; it is certainly not a Christian one.
"On Receiving News of the Death of S. Drejer, M.A." represents a victory of faith over doubt. But it is a narrow and nervous victory, and a Pyrrhic one. The evidence suggests that at some point after Jónas's return to Denmark in the fall of 1842, doubt began to gain the upper hand. It is notable that the elegy on Drejer stands last in Jónas's great series of uncommissioned memorial poems, poems emerging spontaneously from his own religious struggle. In the time remaining to him, in poems composed during the final three years of his life, though we continue to hear a good deal about God — for on this point Jónas's faith never wavered — we hear very little about immortality or life beyond the grave. Jacob had wrestled with the angel of death, and the angel had won.
Bibliography: On Drejer's life, career, and commitment to natural philosophy, see Carl Christensen, Den danske Botaniks Historie med tilhørende Bibliografi, 2 vols. (København: H. Hagerups Forlag, 1924-6), I, 276-90.