This warm account of an imaginary country, indebted to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, is not without some grimmer shadows
A prolific novelist, translator and poet, at the height of his popularity in the UK during the 1920s, today Humbert Wolfe is more or less forgotten. The one poem still quoted is that nicely prophetic and scathing "Epigram": "You cannot hope to bribe or twist,/ thank God! the British journalist./ But, seeing what the man will do/ unbribed, there's no occasion to." If that were the only verse by Humbert Wolfe you'd ever read, you might be surprised to learn that this week's discursive and romantic poem "Denmark" came from the same hand.
"Denmark" appears in his 1925 volume The Unknown Goddess. Serious light verse was Wolfe's metier, and here, though the tone is largely one of genial reminiscence, he succeeds in mixing some post-war shadows into his forest of fairytales. The opening image of "wounded trees" muttering together conspiratorially suggests a devastated and vengeful Germany. We learn that the speaker is travelling by train (the rhythm suggests this, too) and, as he leaves the Baltic town, his mood of foreboding is transformed by his sight of "the small first tree of Denmark". An elaborate metaphor follows: the tree becomes a verse from a serenade "where the slim pink stems were only a note" and the "easy stir" of the wind "only the dark musicianer." Like the word "musicianer" itself, these notions could be suspected of being "fillers", the result of the author's decision to spread himself in capacious hexameters.
So we're launched into the main theme of the poem. The speaker had plans to write a Danish epic, but claims he has been deflected from this rather unlikely purpose. He adopts an arch sort of tone when he asks "Why did you slip in, Hans?" His explanation is almost convincing. The fir-tree and the hare (that he has only pretended to see the latter is signalled by his protestation "I swear!") have conjured the Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Little Fir-Tree", complete with illustration. From then on, Denmark becomes a country of the imagination, under the rule of the dream-god Ole-Luk-Oie. The speaker is physically in Denmark but his imagination has returned to his childhood.
A group of double-syllable rhymes challenges pronunciation. "Ten mark/ Denmark," and "too coy" / "Luke-oie" only work if the first syllables of each pair, the "ten" and the "too," are stressed. A native English speaker wouldn't stress them, but it's possible that Wolfe, born in Milan to an Italian mother and a father of German descent, had a different way with English accents.
The little fir-tree, like so many Hans Christian Andersen characters, becomes a victim of its ambition. All ends sadly in the story, but Wolfe changes the ending to suggest the discarded Christmas tree enjoys further, if vicarious, adventures. I'm not sure how many stories Wolfe's memory stirs into the melting-pot. I couldn't trace the "dead-red sand" or the lead soldier (could he be the more famous tin soldier, misremembered?) but then Andersen wrote a lot of stories, and I haven't read them all. Two I recognise are "The Darning-Needle" and "The Nightingale". In the latter, the emperor's gentleman-in-waiting is so grand he only answers "P" to a person of lower rank – "which means nothing at all". These parables stress the virtues of simplicity over pretension. They may have had special meaning for someone like Wolfe, fundamentally an outsider, making his way in class-bound England.
As "trees" was repeated in the poem's second line, now, at the end of the discursive "story" stanza, "water" is repeated in a rhetorical device nicely accommodated by the sing-song ranginess of the lines. "Glass-cool water" and "the night-sun-haunted sky" open onto a meditative mood and a new, more adult focus on transience.
The final octet is conventional enough, a comparison and an assertion that none of the fine castles of Denmark matches the natural scenery with its infusion of childhood magic. Again, Wolfe draws a conclusion echoing that of "The Nighingale", where the mechanical bird with its "man-made beauty" and limited repertoire finally fails, and the real nightingale returns from its banishment to bring the dying emperor back to life.
Despite the often awkward gait of its couplets, "Denmark" is a poem of warmth and charm. It's not, of course, only about the fairy-stories: Wolfe extrapolates an appealing image of national character and "the quiet heart of the Dane". But the stories are central, and how much the poem would retain its charm for a reader with no memories of those haunting parables is an interesting question. It was published at a time when a writer could justifiably make assumptions that his more or less middle-class reader would share his formative literary experiences, and that these would have included bedtime tales by Andersen, probably in the same edition, with the same illustrations. Perhaps in 2020 there will be a wistful poem by a "grown-up" remembering JK Rowling's tales of Harry Potter?
I left Warnemünde and Germany with a sense of little ease,
because of the trees in Germany, because of the wounded trees
that muttered together sullenly in a dark conspiring crowd,
and when the wind went among them, sullenly cried aloud –
but the small first tree of Denmark was a verse (I knew) that had strayed
a little apart from the others, out of a serenade,
where the slim pink stems were only a note, and the easy stir
of the wind in the needles only the dark musicianer,
and out of the carriage window, I suddenly saw (I swear!)
how over the lower branches of my fir-tree there leaped a hare.
I had crossed over to Denmark with the most exalted plans
of writing a Danish epic – why did you slip in, Hans,
with your hare and your little fir-tree, and your dead-red sand, and then
with all the loves of my childhood, and my dreams, Hans Andersen!
It was an Epic poet, that carelessly offered ten mark
to a discontented porter, as he stepped on the shores of Denmark
- why did you take him, and change him (confess the whole business and own up!)
into the ghost of his boyhood, who had meant to be far more than grown-up!
Ah, well! I surrendered at random, and made no attempt to be too coy
to be caught, and be held, and be dazzled by the old enchanter – Luke-oie.
O little fir-tree of Denmark, I passed you by, but I guessed
what star of an unborn Christmas waited against your breast –
somewhere the glass-balls are waiting, and the unlit candles glisten
somewhere, and somewhere the children unborn are singing! oh, listen!
And though, when your Christmas is over, you must lie despoiled in the garden,
yet there is nothing to rail at, fir-tree, nothing to pardon.
For while you lie there, (it is written) playing his little drum
down through the pipe of the wash-house the lead soldier will come –
Yes, and the darning-needle will boast to the old street-lamp
that she alone is a lady, but the soldier an idle scamp.
All this as the train swept onwards, I dreamed, I saw, I heard,
till out of the deep of the forest, as the night came down, a bird,
an unseen bird in the forest sang, like the light of a star
clean through the stems of the fir-trees where no twigs or branches are,
of the great lord in the castle, who only answered "P"
(which, as you know, means nothing) to folk like you and me,
of the little kitchen-maiden, who, though she had scrubbed the floor,
was a better judge of music than a Chinese Emperor.
He sang, as he has been singing this thousand years, again
the tale of the fir, and the water, and the quiet heart of the Dane,
the fir, and the glass-cool water, and the night-sun-haunted sky,
and how we come with the morning, and how with the night we die.
I have seen great Kronborg standing in the red king's robes he wore
when Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was a prince at Helsingor –
I have seen Fredensborg whiter than the pale white hand of a queen,
and – a water-lily floating – Frederichsborg I have seen.
And yet these castles are shadows, lovely they were and are,
but all their man-made beauty fades by the light of the star,
that struck through the stems of the fir-trees – the evening-star, the pale
cool-throated star, that rises with the Danish nightingale.