Friday 26 June 2020

Johan Herman Wessel (1742-85): 'Smeden og Bageren'

One of the problems in compiling any  anthology of Norwegian poetry is that from 1536/1537, Denmark and Norway formed a personal union that would eventually develop into the 1660 integrated state called Denmark–Norway, which existed until 1814. For centuries the 'Danish-Norwegian' bible was used, the language of which was Danish. The only university available to Norwegians was Copenhagen. The accepted written language (bokmål) was so strongly influenced by Danish that many Norwegian anthologies refer to a period of Norwegian poets as having written in Danish. But the written language does not reflects the vast variety of the Norwegian spoken language, where many Norwegian spoke a West Scandinavian language akin to Icelandic and Old Norse. After independence in 1814 successful attempts were made to join such dialects into a written language (nynorsk). And the surge of Nationalism led many poets to deliberately  try to write as un-Danish a language as possible. There are still two written languages in Norway.

Johan Herman Wessel, although a Norwegian, is a typical example of a poet who is found in both Norwegian and Danish anthologies of poetry. He wrote some wonderful pithy short poems and this longer poem is a favourite in both countries.

The smith and the baker

A small town there once was wherein a smith did dwell,
Who when irate turned dangerous as well.
He gained an enemy; (such lie in wait alway,
Myself I’ve none, and may
My reader likewise stay!)
By ill luck they not in the street
But in an inn did meet,
They drank (I too in inns imbibe;
Else to such places don’t subscribe.
None though, dear reader, rest content, 
Save those of good repute frequent.)
They drank, then, both,
And after much loud shouting, many an oath,
The smith his foe’s bonce almost split.
So powerful was his clout
That his foe’s lights went out,
Nor have they since relit.

       At once the smith they did detain.
A surgeon checked the man he’d slain
And wrote he met a violent death.
The killer, questioned, did at once confess.
He hoped his foe in th’other life
Would there forgive their erstwhile strife. 
But now the fun starts! On the day
Before the judge shall have his say,
Four citizens up to him went
And of them the most eloquent
Did thus address:

       “Oh judge most wise!
We know the city’s welfare you most prize;
This welfare though depends upon
Our smith not being dead and gone.
For can his death the dead man bring to life?
We’ll never find so competent a man again,
For whose crime we must pay so cruel a price,
If help he begs in vain.” –
“Consider though, dear friend! The price for life is life.” –
“A baker old and frail lives here.
Whom pox could take within the year.
We’ve two of them, the old one won’t be missed?
Then life’s by life repaid.” –
“Yes,” said the judge to them, “the idea’s quite well-made.
To slow things down I now must strive;
For in a case like this the arguments are rife –
If only I could spare the smith his life!
Farewell, good folk! I’ll do all that I can.” –
“Farewell, wise upright man!” –

       He leafs through all his law books with great care;
But he finds nothing written there
Forbids him changing smith to baker, if inclined;
So he makes up his mind,
And here’s his sentence clear:
(Let all come forward who will hear!)
“’Tis true that blacksmith Jens
Can offer no defence
And has confessed here in this court
He Anders Pedersen t’eternity has brought;
But since we have but one smith in this town
I would be something of a clown
Should I desire to see him dead.
But there are two here who bake bread.”

       “The sentence of the court:
The baker who is now of older years,
Shall for the murder with his own life pay,
A fitting punishment and one that’s clear,
A dire warning to all those that go astray.”

       The baker cried such bitter tears,
As he was led away.


       Of death be always circumspect!
It tends to come just when you least expect.

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