18. On Receiving News of the Death of S. Drejer, M.A. (Ved Efterretningen om Mag. S. Drejer's Død)

Lithograph portrait of Salomon Drejer, small version.
[larger image/full caption]

Salomon Drejer.

On Receiving News of the Death of S. Drejer, M.A.

Ved Efterretningen om Mag. S. Drejer's Død

recording available

In heaven, my friend, your deep-blue flowers will grow
forever. You will see the true condition
of everything: will see what, here below,
you only glimpsed with darkling intuition —
only divined through spiritual force —
of life's hid currents and deep aspirations;
will scan the flood — past men's imaginations —
and gaze with joy on truth's immortal source.

For you were truth's own champion, valiant, free,
armored with youth and sturdy self-possession,
a man who made himself, as I could see
reading your bold, self-confident expression.
With all your soul you searched for truth, among
the high and beautiful, the pure and holy —
this is no idle fancy! — and you slowly
mounted truth's towering ladder, rung by rung.

Yet if your soul, at freedom in the skies,
should turn its gaze upon the stream of being
that flows forever, and not recognize
it — and yourself — and know what it was seeing,
then (why not think the thought out to its end,
so bleak my soul rejects it like a liar!) —
then life's Lord could not be life's Father, Drejer,
and God could not be our God — or our friend.

Farewell! We think of you with every breath,
our circle shattered, glassy-eyed, unsleeping;
we weep your unanticipated death,
though life can spare us little time for weeping.
— You hurry on, winged spirit, all the while,
spurning this dark and dust for life immortal.
Behold God's realm! And there, at mercy's portal,
greet us one day with your familiar smile.

Så glæd dig ved din Himmelblomst, o Ven!
Den dunkel-dybeblå, i Evigheden,
Og fryd dig ved den Fylde, som igen
Du ser af alt, der aned' dig herneden,
Af alt som tænkte og som vidste du
Om Livets Tragten og dets skjulte Strømme,
Du Seer af den Elv, som få kun drømme,
Så fryd dig højt ved Sandhedskilden nu.

Thi du var Sandhedskæmpe, ung og fri
Og kraftig, rask og modig som de bedste,
Og var dit eget Værk, og dette i
Dit mandig-sikre Blik jeg ofte læste.
Med al din Sjæl du søgte og du fandt
Det høje, skønne, rene, guddomlige
Og svang dig Trin fra Trin på Sandhedsstige.
Hvor tør vel sige, det er stakket Tant?

Og dog — hvis nu i Livets lyse Hjem
Dit frelste Blik mod Strømmen du ej vendte,
Den Livets Strøm som evigt iler frem,
Og så den selv og dig og den erkendte,
Da — hvorfor tale Ordet ikke ud?
(Min Tro forkaster det, min Sjæl det hader),
Da var ej Livets Herre Livets Fader,
Da var, o Drejer! ikke Gud vor Gud.

Farvel! o se, vi sidde her igen
I brusten Kreds, hvor Tabet alle sårer,
Og mangen Tåre falder for vor Ven,
Skønt der er ikke megen Tid til Tårer.
Il du forud, bevinget Ånd! o il,
Frigjort fra Støvets Brøst og Gravens Dvale,
Sku Herrens Herlighed i Frelsens Sale
Og mød der engang os med venligt Smil.

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." recording available [1:54]

Commentary:        Salomon Thomas Nicolaj Drejer (1813-1842) was a brilliant young Danish botanist who died at the tragically early age of 29. Because of his extreme poverty Drejer had been forced to gain his botanic knowledge through self-study, not regular attendance at university lectures (which is why Jónas refers to him in line 11 of the poem as a "man who made himself"). Since Drejer took no commencement examination, his pursuit of the Master of Arts degree (which he received in 1840) had to be authorized by special dispensation; perhaps this is why Jónas is at pains to give him his full academic honors in the title of the poem. At the end of his brief, meteoric career, Drejer was a Lecturer at the Veterinary College in Copenhagen and editor of Flora Danica, the enormous ongoing publication about Danish plants. His death was widely mourned among the Danish scientific community.

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. (1DBH290)

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. (1DBH186)

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. (1DBH186)

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. (1FFS246-7)

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.


1 On the "dark forest of natural philosophy" and the relationship between natural philosophy and pantheism, see Book II of Heine's Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland. Jónas had very probably read this work, since it forms part of Heine's Salon II, a book Jónas had requested the library in Regensen to acquire in 1835, the year it was published.

2 It is instructive to compare Jónas's elegy on Drejer with St. St. Blicher's (see 1DBH279).

3 It is interesting to note, as an example of Jónas's intense engagement with this issue in all its aspects and permutations, that toward the end of his life he translated — brilliantly and obviously with great sympathy — P. L. Møller's poem "Sjælevandring" ("Transmigration").

4 Note that while the "deep-blue flowers" in Jónas's first line (which suggest the hue of the sky, of eternity) are a standard motif in memorial poetry of this kind, they are especially appropriate for Drejer as a botanist.

5 Even Feuerbach makes fun of pantheists of this stripe:

Wie könnten sie denn, wenn mann ihnen beweist, daß sie einst nicht mehr sein werden, daraus folgern: Also verfließen wir nach dem Tode in die Weltseele oder Urmaterie, also löst sich die Seele in den Weltgeist auf? So verunreinigen sie der Seele reines und heiliges Wesen mit ihren schmierigen Vorstellungen und ihrer schmutzigen Denkungsart. (1FFS312)

Copyright © 1996-8 Dick Ringler. All rights reserved.

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