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The Poetry of Bakkehuset

Written by: Anne Scott Sørensen |

The Nordic countries did not boast a bourgeois salon culture akin to that of the German pre-Romantic salon. In Denmark and Sweden, however, a number of renowned literary gathering-places materialised in circles where creative writing and the dissemination of literature were becoming professions in their own right. In Denmark, Karen Margrethe Rahbek (1775-1828), married to the periodical editor, publisher, and professor of aesthetics Knud Lyhne Rahbek, created just such a place at Bakkehuset (the House on the Hill) near Valby Bakke (Valby Hill) just outside Copenhagen.

Wilhelm Marstrand: Københavnsk Selskabsscene, c. 1860. Watercolour. The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

Karen Margrethe Rahbek established her person and her home at Bakkehuset as the hub of a variable circle of friends with an interest in the written word, people who were also the public face of literature in their day. In each their way, the Rahbek couple acted as midwives to a new generation of writers: Oehlenschläger, Grundtvig, Ingemann, Hauch, P. M. Møller, and so forth. All these writers also frequented the more prominent, aristocratic, and German-orientated salons, but posterity views them as celebrating “Kamma” as muse to the young, home-grown talents, paying tribute to Knud Lyhne Rahbek for having helped them on their way, and praising Bakkehuset for being the domestic setting in which fledgling artists could spread their wings.

Georg Brandes on Bakkehuset in Kritiker og Portraiter (1870; Critiques and Portraits):

“In the entire history of our literature, Bakkehuset is the only private literary rendezvous of any import and any reputation. Since that time there have certainly been many houses and circles in which the company was mainly one of literary renown, Mrs Friederike Brun’s for example, but they have not been graced with any poetic radiance, and they have had no wide-ranging effect.”

Even in its own day, Bakkehuset had an almost mythological glow, one reason being that it represented emancipation from German and aristocratic influence and from the system of patronage. It was Kamma Rahbek’s expressed wish that Danish alone be spoken at Bakkehuset, and she similarly conducted her written correspondence in Danish, with a few eloquently ironic exceptions. Cultivation of the national language and promotion of the national cultural heritage were also features that characterised Knud Lyhne Rahbek as voice of the Enlightenment, as publisher of Danish literary classics, and as lecturer in the history of the Danish language and literature. Similarly, Kamma Rahbek made a virtue of the circumstance that few of Bakkehuset’s guests had title or rank; she made ironic comment on this “abnormality”, as she called it, by drawing up an in-house ranking system with “the generals”, these being the most steadfast guests, at the top. In the same spirit, she equipped each guest with a byname which summed up their distinguishing characteristic and was their admission card to the literary Parnassus.

J. M. Thiele stayed at Bakkehuset from 1821 to 1822; in Erindringer fra Bakkehuset (1869; Memories of Bakkehuset) he describes Kamma Rahbek’s tea table:

“For among Mrs Rahbek’s many other finesses was also that which her tea table accomplished for every visitor […]. Everything – the tea, the sugar, the pastries – prima sorte! – in such a profusion that this exquisite tea table not only provided for the guests in the drawing room, but, with the same abundance and elegance, for the servant girls in the kitchen, the gardener, and ‘old Stine’ should she happen to be nearby.”

Kamma Rahbek was younger than both Charlotte Schimmelmann and Friederike Brun, but for a period in the early years of the nineteenth century, all three were salon hostesses in their respective settings. Kamma Rahbek received a good many invitations to take part in the social life of the higher echelons, all of which she declined humbly but firmly. She had great respect, however, for Charlotte Schimmelmann and Friederike Brun. She never met the former in person; she exchanged letters with the latter for many years and visited Sophienholm a few times.

While Charlotte Schimmelmann’s salon demanded a certain rank and Friederike Brun’s a certain status as intellect, at Kamma Rahbek’s gatherings it was the human qualities that counted. And if the Sølyst and Sophienholm salons comprised the dinner party and the ballroom, then Bakkehuset was defined by the friends around the tea table in the corner room, where Kamma Rahbek also wrote her letters and worked on her boxes and her flower arranging. Attendance was usually by invitation, verbal or in a letter, but Bakkehuset gatherings could also be more spontaneous affairs, especially in summertime. With Kamma Rahbek as hostess no formal rules applied, just a number of informal ones: the guests, for example, would enjoy a simple, yet choice, dinner followed by discussions with Knud Lyhne Rahbek over wine, and then, finally, intimate conversation with Kamma on a corner sofa. In the course of the gathering, there was often reading aloud, and for Kamma Rahbek the evening usually ended sitting at her now cleared desk in order to resume conversation on paper with the person or persons who had that same evening or recently been “visiting”.

Of dinners at Bakkehuset, J. M. Thiele recalls:

“At Bakkehuset the evening meal was – as far as I was aware – the main meal of the day, because that was the preferred time for receiving visits from friends of the house. This ritual had something of the same nature – although not as luxurious – as the tea ritual. A sizzling roast, excellent fruit, and a couple of bottles of wine was the norm.”

Erindringer fra Bakkehuset (Memories of Bakkehuset).

The guests came to Bakkehuset for Kamma Rahbek’s company, and they did so because she had a talent for making the individual feel important and able to express clearly the perhaps as yet still unclear idea.

It was her capacity to listen with sympathetic understanding while keeping a distance, her liking for flowing yet nonetheless reflective dialogue, and her appreciation of witty while pithy argumentation that underpinned her reputation as conversational artist. Indeed, a close friend, bishop J. P. Mynster, said to her that he considered it her “official duty” to talk with people, and a young guest, the poet P. M. Møller, said of her that she was “the first human being” he had met.

In his portrait of Kamma Rahbek, Georg Brandes writes:

“The poetry that is lived is worth just as much as that which is written down, and the poetry that emanated from Kamma Rahbek’s personality and conversation was certainly as deep and just as arch as that which flowed from her husband’s pen […]. In a sense she wrote even better than Rahbek. He certainly had a hundred times more skill with language that she! But everything in him, wit and sensibility alike, are of the eighteenth century. His wit is old-fashioned, hers agile, and she is more sincere of sensibility that he.”

Adam Oehlenschläger was one of the talented writers spotted by Kamma Rahbek before anyone else had seen his potential, and she helped him find his voice. It is obvious from Breve til og fra Adam Oehlenschläger 17981809 og 18091829 (Letters to and from Adam Oehlenschläger, 1798-1809 and 1809-1829) that they shared a great delight in the ironic; their correspondence is in itself a study in the so-called ‘Bakkehus language’, only understood by those initiated in their circle. The same is true of the only surviving literature from Kamma Rahbek’s hand, a comic ballad dedicated to Oehlenschläger and inserted in one of the letters.

A closer look at the literary myth that has grown up around Kamma Rahbek reveals a degree of ambivalence. Even J. P. Mynster and Oehlenschläger, both of whom have made a considerable contribution to her posthumous reputation – in Meddelelser om mit Levnet (Communications Concerning My Life) and Ungdomserindringer (Memories of My Youth) respectively – allow a sense of condescension to shine through. They upgrade her efforts in “the infinitely small”, while at the same time devaluing her importance to “the infinitely great”. This two-pronged approach – to put her on a pedestal and to dethrone her – has marked her biographies ever since. Thus Georg Brandes, too, writing in Kritiker og Portraiter (1870; Critiques and Portraits), states that in Kamma Rahbek the good heart was put to the service of a spiritual beauty, and that her talent was more of the soul than rational. Through the myth of Kamma Rahbek, a male-dominated literary history has contributed to a definition of modern femininity as ‘the other’.

The Language of the Heart and the Pleasure of Confidentiality

Hans Peter Hansen (After a silhouette by F. L. Schmitz 1805): Kamma Rahbek. Illustreret Tidende, 1883

Marriage with Knud Lyhne Rahbek gave Kamma Rahbek the opportunity to continue with the literary and intellectual interests and acquaintances she had established as a youngster growing up in the family brewery in Nørregade in Copenhagen and with her mother’s relatives at Strandmøllen (a paper mill north of Copenhagen). Her brother, Carl Heger, belonged to a group of young artists and ‘intellectuals’, of which Knud Lyhne Rahbek was the older, respected focal figure. By marrying him, she chose to pursue the goal of an ideal life, allowing her to develop the norms of female behaviour allotted by her era and her milieu without going beyond these prescribed bounds. The price Kamma Rahbek paid for this ‘life project’ was a perpetual battle with herself, against her “hot-headedness” and her “vehemence” on the one hand and her “melancholy” and ill health on the other. In her correspondence with the two friends of Bakkehuset, J. P. Mynster and Christian Molbech, she was actually playing out and thematising aspects of her own self as a general conflict in women’s lives.

In Kritiker og Portraiter (1870; Critiques and Portraits), Brandes claimed that Kamma Rahbek’s relationship with Mynster and Molbech had an erotic slant – the former filial, the latter maternal – and seen in this light he characterised her as “a woman who has not known passion, I mean the passion of love”. This aspect of her nature has been of interest to her biographers both before and after Brandes made his analysis.

Of her relationship with Mynster and Molbech, Kamma Rahbek said that in them God had allowed her to find her two dearest friends on earth. Indeed, she was in contact with them right up until her death. Both friendships evolved as intense epistolary relationships, with Mynster from 1805 to 1812 and with Molbech from 1813 to 1815. It was in letters that she could use the “language of the heart” and the “sweet pleasure” of confidentiality that helped her to greater self-understanding, and which gave her a sense of being “whole”. The longing for this wholeness or existence in writing accounted for Kamma Rahbek’s inexhaustible pen and distinctive creativity.

Of her correspondence with Mynster, however, only a little survives, published in Af efterladte Breve til J. P. Mynster (1862; Selected Letters to J.P. Mynster). In his memoirs, Mynster’s reason for having destroyed most of Kamma Rahbek’s letters is that they contained too much that was “insignificant”, and that she often “worked herself up”. He refers the reader to his own papers in order to assess the nature of their correspondence, nonetheless pointing out that he had also destroyed some of his own letters because they contained much that was “impulsive” and, moreover, “immature”. It was too difficult for the mature husband and bishop to expose the emergent self of his formative years, his emotional crises and religious scruples, and Kamma Rahbek’s part herein. After his years of apprenticeship as country pastor in remote Spjellerup, their actual friendship was restricted to Kamma Rahbek presenting herself as the most steadfast of listeners to his sermons, which she also encouraged and supported him in publishing.

Christian Molbech’s son edited and published Christian Molbech og Karen Margrethe Rahbek. En Brevvexling (1883; Christian Molbech and Karen Margrethe Rahbek. A Correspondence). In the foreword, he states that he has left out any letters he considered immaterial to the overall development in the correspondence, and which in his opinion had no intrinsic value in terms of literary or personal history. In spite of considerable holes, he nonetheless manages to preserve the fundamental continuity in the correspondence, and the collection is a quite exceptional testimony to the awakening of a modern female and male consciousness.

The letters were exchanged between two private individuals, but with an awareness of a potentially larger audience. Kamma Rahbek knew that Christian Molbech let friends and family read her letters, and she made play with his threats to publish them.

In a letter to Molbech dated 16 July 1813, Kamma Rahbek states that she ought and would like to control her “vehemence”, but that it is also an expression of her most heartfelt feelings: “For this unhappy vehemence always spoils my purest, greatest pleasures, and involves too much U N R E S T for me to regard it as entirely h a r m l e s s. It must be continually c u r b e d, and I cannot work too much on this since I am in no danger whatsoever of o v e r c o m i n g it, which I probably should not anyway – even if I could – as by doing so I would kill all that is good in me.”

In 1813 they nevertheless had great expectations of their correspondence as the realisation of a “Community of Souls”, an equal meeting between kindred spirits, in which they could let thoughts and feelings flow; thoughts and feelings they could not even express verbally, face to face. Both envisaged a forum in which they could be directed by the inner eye and could therefore say “everything”, trusting to meet with recognition and acknowledgement. Both, however, were to be disappointed, and in 1815 Kamma Rahbek had to admit that there was “nothing” she now dared say to him. Between the two extremities was a realisation that they had different values and outlooks on life, and that they had each built up an idea of the other and of their epistolary relationship that did not correspond to the reality. A distinctive trait of their letters is that they exhibit uncertainty and restlessness each time they have spoken and been together in person, and the conceptions that have been built up and the level of intimacy reached in the letter-writing have been put to the test of real life. Both were ‘victims’ of the power they had generated in one another, and which for both of them was about finding the way into themselves. For Kamma Rahbek, this epistolary relationship was therefore the occasion of deep self-reflection, while for Christian Molbech it marked the end of his formative years and bachelor life.

From the very outset of their correspondence, he had in fact established an imbalanced relationship by assigning her the role of instructive female friend and female liberator – his Natalie.

Natalie is one of Goethe’s double female characters. In Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-96; Eng. tr. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) she is the young hero’s older friend and guide, with whom he is later united in a platonic marriage.

In a letter dated 17 December 1813, he formulates his dream of her: “[…] a noble figure, in the full, vigorous reality of life would step towards me, breathe the enthusiastic warmth of emotion into my soul, stir up the freshness of youth in my heart, give my spirit the courage to be alive to itself and the desire to develop its dormant seeds – and in a word become one of my life’s good angels […].”

While he nurtured the pain of his inner emptiness, his heaviness of mind, and his ineffectiveness, and dreamed about female power of transformation, so she reproached him for wasting his life in self-pity and fantasies. She realised that he was not actually interested in being guided to greater personal responsibility and being instructed in the value of the personal relationship with God in which she believed. Her condemnation became increasingly severe, keeping pace with his growing adoration of her young summertime-neighbour and friend, Hanne Langberg. This was partly because she thought that he had not yet learnt that love is God-given and therefore of a spiritual and selfless nature, and partly because by keeping silent about the liaison he had betrayed her confidence and thereby forfeited her claim to trust and appreciation.

Kamma Rahbek did not see the matching rejoinder, the role of Natalie, as a realisation of her hoped-for meeting of souls. In an early letter, dated 16 July 1813, in which she tries to initiate him in her outlook on life, she compared her relationship to the divine and to the mortal friend:

“I cannot even love my God with a perfectly pure, spiritual love, at least not to the degree I would wish, and am not at all ashamed [of myself] in confessing that I would like to be able to encircle him in my arms as in my heart.”

Her hope of transformation lay in the union of divine and mortal love, of the religious and the sensuous, and her own pleasurable sensation lay in putting this into words. But Molbech could not go along with this; for him, religious sensation and sensuality, friendship and love, were separate in time and space and linked to different persons, and thus he increasingly withdrew from her.

Kamma Rahbek repeatedly refers to discord caused by her tendency to “coddle” him and “mollycoddle him”. In a letter late in their correspondence, dated 11 March 1814, she made a last attempt to explain this urge as being a symptom of her childlike nature: “I thus also venture to say that God will surely protect the noble bonds with which He united our souls, and I also venture to hope with you that eternally clear heavens will smile upon our happy, childlike friendship.”

Her use of “childlike” has deeper significance as manifestation of the desire that defies control and common sense, and which is displaced into the pen writing in the “language of the heart” and the “blessed, confidential tone”. In this letter, she addresses Molbech for the first and only time as “du” (the familiar second-person, as opposed to the formal “De”), breaching the associative and yet strictly controlled form with an essentially sensitive style.

The correspondence between Kamma Rahbek and Christian Molbech can be read as a clear-cut manifestation, typical of its time, of the unresolved encounter between a male and a female communication and ‘word’. While she is searching and is driven by a yearning for that which is the same, the identical, he is searching for and driven by that which is different and complementary. Through their exchange of letters, they both come to greater self-awareness – while moving further and further apart.

Another woman of the enlightened bourgeoisie was poet’s daughter Signe Læssøe (1781-1870); she provided a forum for those in the cultural sector of her day, especially painters. Signe Læssøe preferred, however, domestic family life rather than grand socialising. Hans Christian Andersen, welcomed into her home as an extra son, writes of her in Mit Livs Eventyr (1855; The Fairytale of My Life):

“she turned my attention more and more towards the beautiful in nature and the poetical in the particulars of life, in the so-called details. […]. If there be womanliness [viz: tenderness] and purity in anything which I have written, she is one of those to whom I am indebted for this.”

Translated by Gaye Kynoch