Coming to Terms with Reality: Jens Peter Jacobsen and his debut story, "Mogens"

Tim Farrand

This is the first essay in my ongoing AU Series, "Weaving Jens Peter Jacobsen into the Fabric of Literary Consciousness."

"Mogens" effectively inaugurated a new era in Danish literature. [1]

Jens Peter Jacobsen, 1879 by Ernst Josephson

Jens Peter Jacobsen is one of the greatest writers that you have never heard of.

During his lifetime, Jacobsen was, like Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche, a figure that inspired new ways of thinking about what it means to be human. He began as a botanist who was the first person to translate Darwin's works into Danish and, through a series of articles, illuminated Darwin's ideas to a budding Scandinavian generation. Conflicted between science and poetry, he eventually published his short story "Mogens" in a literary journal, taking Denmark—and later Europe—by storm with his pioneering of a new style of natural realism and the confrontation with what it means to be modern.

The weight of his influence was felt even in his own lifetime but took on a greater wave for the generations immediately following his death. Thomas Mann claimed that Jacobsen had the greatest effect on his early style and Jacobsen's works were praised by James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Musil, Stephan Zweig, Hermann Hesse, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka among many others. Perhaps the strongest influence was made upon Rainer Maria Rilke who found Jacobsen's works to be "indispensable" in shaping his life:[2]

Of all my books just a few are indispensable to me, and two even are always among my things, wherever I am. They are about me here too: the Bible, and the books of the great Danish writer, Jens Peter Jacobsen. . . Get yourself the little volume of Six Stories of J. P. Jacobsen and his novel Niels Lyhne, and start on the first story, in the former, called "Mogens." A world will come over you, the happiness, abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn,—it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.

Overshadowed by the later generations that were influenced by him, Jacobsen's works have fallen out of our literary consciousness. To counter this, I am launching my AU Series on "Weaving Jens Peter Jacobsen into the Fabric of Literary Consciousness" with this essay.

Jacobsen lived, like Franz Schubert, a relatively short life due to his contraction of tuberculosis which left him weak and mainly homebound for the last decade of his life. But, whereas Schubert completed over 1,500 works in his 31 years, Jacobsen only completed a collection of short stories, two novels, and a collection of poems in his 38 years (he admits to having been plagued by laziness!). Jacobsen is unique in that he had such a strong influence with such a small output.

The conciseness of Jacobsen's oeuvre makes it very feasible to fully investigate all his works within a reasonable amount of time. Over approximately the next year, I will launch a full study into his life, works, and influences in an attempt to contribute to the English-language discourse which has been relatively absent on Jacobsen. We start, as Rilke recommends, with his short story, "Mogens."

Jacobsen's Style: Conflicts of Meaning

As stated above, Jacobsen felt a conflict between Science and Poetry rise up within him:

There are moments in my life when I think that the study of Nature is my life's calling; but at other times it seems as if poetry should be my vocation, and this occurs precisely when some fine poem has aroused my enthusiasm or when I have been reading Nordic mythology. If I could transfer Nature's eternal laws, its delights, mysteries, and miracles into the world of poetry, then I feel that my work would become more than commonplace."[3]

In fact, it was this dual passion for the scientific study of Nature and his poetic longing to express "Nature's eternal laws" that formed his unique writing style. Jacobsen comes at a time where the Romantic era of metaphoric and extravagant depictions of nature had run its course and the era of Realism was longed for.

Jacobsen's study of botany gave him a unique view of the world around him. During his childhood and time at the University, Jacobsen spent hours observing plants, wading in bogs to study algae, or cataloging new species of newly discovered plant life. For Jacobsen, there was a mystery simply in the natural world itself without the need for allegory or the supernatural elements often imposed during the Romantic period. Nature itself, observed fully and without recourse to embellishment, was sufficient as Alrik Gustafson writes of "Mogens:"

. . .the central idea in 'Mogens' is that nature in itself is sufficient unto the spiritual wants of man, that no romantic 'additions' to it are necessary or desirable. Jacobsen here rigidly rejects, as intellectually dishonest and spiritually superfluous, the supernatural existences with which Romantic poets had invested in their nature."[4]

Morten Høi Jensen, in his masterful biography of Jacobsen—the only full English-language study of Jacobsen to date—goes a step further than Gustafson saying that it would be "misguided" to state Jacobsen's objection of the subjective over the objective view of nature too rigidly.[5] In reality, Jacobsen's work portrays an inner conflict between the rational realism gained by an objective view of the world and the story-driven subjective beliefs that society carries. He shows that, despite scientific advancements and the development of new theoretical systems, coming to terms with the emotional and existential repercussions of the shattering of old beliefs can have profound effects upon one's physical and emotional well-being.

A wonderful illustration of this conflict, as well as Jacobsen's feeling of awe in the midst of nature, comes towards the end of "Mogens" when the title character is speaking to his future bride, Thora. Thora has a wonderful imagination and sees fantastic colonies of elves and other imaginary creatures acting as nature's transformative agents. She asks Mogens—after he expresses his disbelief in this type of fantasy—if perhaps he doesn't love nature, to which he responds:

"Just so! I can take joy in every leaf, every twig, every beam of light, every shadow. There isn't a hill so barren, no a turf-pit so square, nor a road so monotonous, that I cannot for a moment fall in love with it."

Thora is unable to understand how someone can love nature without imagining a supernatural element behind it:

"But what joy can you take in a tree or a bush, if you don't imagine that a living being dwells within it, that opens and closes the flowers and smooths the leaves? When you see a lake, a deep, clear lake, don't you love it for this reason, that you imagine creatures living deep, deep down below, that have their own joys and sorrows, that have their own strange life with strange yearnings? And what, for instance, is there beautiful about the green hill of Berdbjerg, if you don't imagine, that inside very tiny creatures swarm and buzz, and sigh when the sun rises, but begin to dance and play with their beautiful treasure-troves, as soon as evening comes."

Mogens says that her vision is beautiful but prods whether she really sees that, to which Thora asks, "But [don't] you?" and he gives an answer that captures both that wonderful imagery of nature and the conflict of Man in confrontation with that reality:

"Yes, I can't explain it, but there is something in the color, in the movements, and in the shapes, and then in the life which lives in them; in the sap which rises in trees and flowers, in the sun and rain that make them grow, in the sand which blows together in hills, and in the showers of rain that furrow and fissure the hillsides. Oh, I cannot understand this at all, when I am to explain it."

Thora says, "And that is enough for you?" To which Mogens, replies:

"Oh, more than enough sometimes—much too much! And when shape and color and movement are so lovely and so fleeting and a strange world lies behind all this and lives and rejoices and desires and can express all this in voice and song, then you feels so lonely, that you cannot come closer to this world, and life grows lusterless and burdensome."[6]

Thora sees within nature a life full of fantasy whereas Mogens, closer to Jacobsen's own heart, see the life that is inherent within nature: the sap running through trees, the sun's energy causing the flowers to grow, the wind that forms hills from specks of sand, and the power of rain to change the shape of the land. Mogens sees all this but still struggles to find a way to express its power, its majesty. It harkens back to Henry David Thoreau, who laments that poets have yet to capture the essence found within pure nature itself:[7]

After sitting in my chamber many days, reading the poets, I have been out early on a foggy morning, and heard the cry of an owl in a neighboring wood as from a nature behind the common, unexplored by science or by literature. None of the feathered race has yet realized my youthful conceptions of the woodland depths. I had seen the red Election-bird brought from their recesses on my comrades’ string, and fancied that their plumage would assume stranger and more dazzling colors, like the tints of evening, in proportion as I advanced farther into the darkness and solitude of the forest. Still less have I seen such strong and wilderness tints on any poet’s string.

Another major conflict that runs through Jacobsen's works—related to Mogens's expressions of loneliness "that you cannot come closer to this world"—is the feeling of isolation between the self—the individual—and society, a theme that would become ever more prevalent in European literature, especially that of Paris.

With the scientific and cultural developments at the end of the nineteenth century, such as the "radical shift in humanity's place in the universe" along with "the decline of religious authority, the rise of revolutionary politics, and the advent of evolutionary science," there was an existential reaction grasping at finding meaning in a life who's moral systems had been shattered.[8]

Jensen writes:

"Mogens" was [Jacobsen's] first attempt to show the lived experience of this disorientation on the small scale of a single human life.[9]

Friedrich Nietzsche realized that the blows to the moral framework of society would have serious repercussions. Nietzsche, when proclaiming that "God is dead," knew that without a replacement for religion the whole of humanity would descend into nihilism, pointing out that "our entire European morality" was "built upon [the Christian God]."[10]

Jacobsen was an open atheist at a time in which that was a radical sentiment. His works are a testament to the struggle one goes through when trying to live in a world whose moral systems differ from one's own and the difficulty in finding a new place to center one's sense of meaning.

Nietzsche wrote of the need for a pioneer to come and redeem a society that has had its foundations stripped away, someone to find a new center of belief in order to prevent the turn to nihilism:[11]

Is this even possible today?– But some day, in a stronger age than this decaying, self-doubting present, he must yet come to us, the redeeming man of great love and contempt, the creative spirit whose compelling strength will not let him rest in any aloofness or any beyond, whose isolation is misunderstood by the people as if it were flight from reality – while it is only his absorption, immersion, penetration into reality, so that, when he one day emerges again redemption from the curse that the hitherto reigning ideal has laid upon it. This man of the future, who will redeem us not only from the hitherto reigning ideal but also from that which was bound to grow out of it, the great nausea, the will to nothingness, nihilism; this bell-stroke of noon and of the great decision that liberates the will again and restores its goal to the earth and his hope to man; this Antichrist and antinihilist; this victor over God and nothingness –he must come one day.

For Nietzsche, this person would be Zarathustra, not Jacobsen, and perhaps the seat still remains vacant.


The story of "Mogens" itself is more than the revolutionary style of its prose. It is a touching look at the life of Man in the face of much pain and suffering. The main character, Mogens, lost both his parents before his adulthood, a bitter loss whose sting is felt throughout the story. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Camilla. They are engaged and on the brink of a wonderfully happy life together. One evening, Mogens realizes there are flames coming from the street of Camilla's house. He runs, grabs a ladder, and hurries into the burning building to see if Camilla had made it out. Pinned to the floor by a beam, he is forced to watch the following horrible, poignant scene:[12]

He could not move, breathing became more and more difficult, his temples throbbed violently; to his left a jet of water splashed against the wall of the dining-room, and the wish rose in him, that the cold, cold drops, which scattered in all directions might fall on him. Then he heard a moan on the other side of the abyss, and he saw something white stir on the floor in Camilla's room. It was she. She lay on her knees, and while her hips were swaying, held her hands pressed against each side of her head. She rose slowly, and came towards the edge of the abyss. She stood upright, her arms hung limply down, and the head went to and fro limply on the neck. Very, very slowly the upper part of her body fell forward, her long, beautiful hair swept the floor; a short violent flash of flame, and it was gone, the next moment she plunged down into the flames.

This event sent Mogens into a period of despair and debauchery. He lost all belief in love and refused to let anyone get close. Those that tried, he would simply tolerate for a little while before running off, never letting them capture his heart. His days were dark and lonely:

There was a swishing of wind in the gable-windows, in the poplars of the manor-house; the wind whistled through tattered bushes on the green hill of Bredbjerg. Mogens lay up there, and gazed out over the dark earth. The moon was beginning to acquire radiance, and mists were drifting down on the meadow. Everything was very sad, all of life, all of life, empty behind him, dark before him. But such was life. Those who were happy were also blind. Through misfortune he had learned to see; everything was full of injustice and lies, the entire earth was a huge, rotting lie; faith, friendship, mercy, a lie it was, a lie was each and everything; but that which was called love, it was the hollowest of all hollow things, it was lust, flaming lust, glimmering lust, smoldering lust, but lust and nothing else. Why had he to know this? Why had he not been permitted to hold fast to his faith in all these gilded lies? Why was he compelled to see while the others remained blind? He had a right to blindness, he had believed in everything in which it was possible to believe.

He went from believing "in everything in which it was possible to believe" to descending into complete nihilism, refuting every bit of happiness in one's life as "a huge, rotting lie." Looking down from the mountaintop he states:

Down there home stood beside home. My home! my home! And my childhood’s belief in everything beautiful in the world.—And what if they were right, the others! If the world were full of beating hearts and the heavens full of a loving God! But why do I not know that, why do I know something different? And I do know something different, cutting, bitter, true...

He is in need of a redeemer and he happens upon her.

He meets Thora and gradually is able to come to terms with Camilla's terrible death, allowing himself to fall in love again. Life does not become easy for Mogens as he continually has to confront the fear of losing another one of his loves—love which he had stopped believing in but is now finding a redeeming thread of meaning within it again. He is slow to open himself ("one never can wholly escape from one's self" states the narrator) but eventually is able to overcome his fears:

He closed his eyes; how vividly he saw [Thora]; he heard her voice, she bent down toward him and whispered—how he loved her, loved her, loved her! It was like a song within him; it seemed as if his thoughts took on rhythmic form, and how clearly he could see everything of which he thought!

Standing, looking at Thora sleeping, "the last shadow of his past" disappears. The story ends with the two happy lovers disappearing into a field of grain, laughing with each other. Jacobsen vividly inserts us into this final scene through his powerful sense of natural imagery:

They went out together into the freshness of the morning. The sunlight was jubilant above the earth, the dew sparkled, flowers that had awakened early gleamed, a lark sang high up beneath the sky, swallows flew swiftly through the air. He and she walked across the green field toward the hill with the ripening rye; they followed the footpath which led over there. She went ahead, very slowly and looked back over her shoulder toward him, and they talked and laughed. The further they descended the hill, the more the grain intervened, soon they could no longer be seen.

"Mogens," as Rilke urges, is the best place to start weaving the thread of Jacobsen's effect upon your life. Jacobsen's writing is in scenes and pictures. He gives you powerful glimpses into moments in a person's life without any transitions or rounding off of edges between them. At first, this can be surprising, even frustrating as we wish to linger longer in the intervening moments that happen between the pages. It is almost like he presents a photo album rather than a film. One wants to know more about the relationship between Mogens and Camilla and go deeper into Mogens' life immediately following her death or find out what happens with Mogens and Thora after disappearing into the grain field. The beauty of it, though, is that you are left to fill out those scenes and come to your own conclusions. I found myself pondering for days after reading this story on different scenarios and situations that might have occurred. The images, as for Rilke, imprinted themselves upon me and have become a part of my being. I wish the same for you.

Read "Mogens" and the rest of Jacobsen's short stories free online via Project Gutenberg.


1. Morten Høi Jensen, A Difficult Death: The Life and Works of Jens Peter Jacobsen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 59.

2. Quoted in Jensen, A Difficult Death, xxii-xxiii in the translation by M. D. Herter of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Norton (New York: W. W. Norton, 1954), 24-25.

3. Jensen, A Difficult Death, 35-6.

4. Quoted in Ibid., 65.

5. Ibid., see pages 61-9 for Jensen's full breakdown of Jacobsen's style in "Mogens" and how his approach to the natural world created an entirely new approach to naturalistic-realism in Danish literature.

6. All text from the above passages of "Mogens" are taken from Anna Grabow's 1921 translation of Jacobsen's short stories:

7. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden or Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, edited by Robert F. Sayre, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1985), 47. Library of America, series 28.

8. Jensen, A Difficult Death, 61.

9. Ibid.

10. Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Gay Science: Book V, Section 343," in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 447-48.

11. Friedrich Nietzsche, "Second Essay, Section 24," On the Genealogy of Morals, in Basic Writings of NIetzsche, trans. and ed. with commentaries by Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), 532.

12. See footnote 6.

February 9, 2022

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