Who is Grundtvig

Who is Grundtvig

The fact that popular education is so intimately linked in the Danish tradition with the concept of learning for life is mainly the work of Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), a clergyman and writer. Grundtvig was a contemporary of two other eminent Danes - Hans Christian Andersen and Soeren Kierkegaard - both far better known in the world at large than he is. Yet from a Danish viewpoint there is litle doubt that it was Grundtvig who left the most indelible mark on Danish culture.

Of course, no one can tell what the course of history might have been if Grundtvig had not lived, but I would venture to claim that life in Denmark - our whole cultural environment, Church life, educational system, political culture, atmosphere and mentality - would have been rather different, and probably a little less festive and cheerful than it is.

In many ways Grundtvig was a living paradox, a man full of contradictions. At times he suffered from extreme depression and would probably have been diagnosed as a manic-depressive today. But the undisputed fact is that he had a remarkable ability to transpose his personal experiences into poetry and prose of immense visionary power. Once in the grip of inspiration, he could work at a frenzied pace for long periods, hardly sleeping at all. Indeed, he is reckoned to have been the most prolific writer in Danish history, though paradoxically enough, one of the themes to which he constantly returned was the inferiority of the written word compared with the spoken or "living" word, as he called it. In the course of his long life he set forth his views in speech and writing on practically every topic that touched on human existence - from the burning political issues of the day to the question of eternity.

As a young man, Grundtvig was not much different from most others of his calling in Denmark. He believed that human life on earth was something transient, insignificant - a sort of temporary exile - and that the essential task for man was to turn his attention towards "the eternal life" beyond death. But in his late forties, between 1829 and 1831, he undertook three study trips to England, and these marked a major turning point in his life in several respects. One of the changes they brought about was a completely new outlook on human life and the world. At the same time he also began to develop the basic educational ideas that were to inspire the creation of the Danish Folk High School.

The actual purpose of his trips to England was to study a number of Old Norse manuscripts, including some kept in the University libraries at Oxford and Cambridge. While in Cambridge he stayed for some time at Trinity College, where he felt extremely at ease. In particular he was struck by the collegial atmosphere between the teaching staff and their students. They lived as a community even outside classes and lectures, dining together, meeting on the playing fields and debating with one another over afternoon tea. Students had a natural respect for the tutors and their knowledge and scholarship-which was not so very unusual, of course. What did surprise Grundtvig, however, was the similar respect clearly shown by the teaching staff for their students. Here was an environment that contrasted sharply with Grundtvig's own experience of the Danish educational system.

It was during Grundtvig's second visit to England in 1830 that an incident occurred that was to be of crucial significance. Seen from outside it might appear quite trivial. But spiritually and intellectually what happened was something in the way of an inner revolution, and it had a decisive impact on Danish culture! The date was 24th June 1830. At a dinner party that evening Grundtvig met Clara Bolton, the charming young wife of a doctor. And the revolutionary incident was simply the conversation that passed between the two of them. That entire evening Grundtvig and Clara Bolton sat engrossed in discussion about human existence, continuing long after the rest of the company had left for the bridge tables in the neighbouring rooms. When it was past midnight their host, somewhat concerned, came in to ask what kept them so long; to which Clara Bolton, looking up at him with her pretty brown eyes, replied, "There is nothing in the world that Mr Grundtvig and I could not talk about!"

As far as we know, they never met again. But Grundtvig's intense discussion with this intelligent and charming young woman left an indelible impression. He fell under a spell! Fourteen years later he still returned in his writing to that exhilarating meeting with "the lady of Greece", as he called her. For Clara Bolton's ideal was most definitely not the ascetic saint with his eyes set firmly on eternal salvation, but rather the ancient Greeks, proudly shouldering their destiny and openly accepting life with all the joys and pain it entails.

Clara Bolton's forceful personality and philosophy of life wrought a dramatic change in Grundtvig's view of human existence and Christianity. From now on he saw the purpose of Christianity in a completely different light. Its task is not to free man from this world - quite the reverse. It is to liberate mankind for life here on earth. Its object is not to release people from the trials and tribulations of earthly existence but to set them free and enable them to embrace life, with the good and the bad, to the full. He realized that human life - the very real life we live with ourselves and each other - is a meaningful and precious gift granted us for our own use.

Of course life is not a free ride. It harbours deep sorrow as well as great joy. But the underlying spirit is one of sheer joy at the wonder of creation. Or to put it another way: there is something about life you will not find anywhere else!