Bernhard Severin Ingemann (Torkilstrup 1789 – Sorø 1862) was born as the youngest child of the vicar on the southern island of Falster, on the outskirts of the Danish Kingdom. In his youth he was close to peasant life and eagerly absorbed folksongs, dances and customs of annual festivals; this would later make him a harbinger of folkemindevidenskab (“folklore”). Ingemann observed that the books in peasant households would typically include, besides the Bible, a translation of the Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorom, a popular reprint of the 16th-century Danmarks Riges Krønike (“Chronicle of Denmark”), and hero-tales on topics like Charlemagne or Ogier the Dane; like Görres in his Die teutschen Volksbücher (1807), Ingemann would defend such debased-popular relicts of older sources against contemporary denigration. In his historical novels, a genre which he introduced in Denmark, Ingemann similarly addressed a popular, general readership as well as an educated one. Throughout his literary career he consistently introduced elements of popular culture folklore into public view, alongside history, myth and language interest.
After the death of Ingemann’s father in 1799, the family moved to Slagelse, where Ingemann enrolled in the Latin School; another alumnus of that school, Hans Christian Andersen (though Ingemann’s junior by 16 years) would later become a lifelong friend. Ingemann was deeply marked by the events of the Napoleonic wars, such as the naval Battle of Copenhagen of 1801 and the ruinous Copenhagen bombardment of 1807. These first-hand experiences and the loss of Norway (1814) established his convictions concerning the sacredness of the fatherland. His nationalism was conservative rather than liberal, and he remained in good standing with the monarchy throughout his life.
Ingemann enrolled in the University of Copenhagen in 1806 but his studies were interrupted by a penchant for poetry, the wartime situation and the death of his mother and three of his brothers in 1809; his early writings and diaries were lost in the Great Fire of Copenhagen. His resumption of university studies was more succesful: he obtained the gold medal for his dissertation on rhetoric and its relationship to literature; shortly after, in 1811, he published his first poems. This was the beginning of a literary career which would focus on religious and lyrical poetry as well as prose; translations of his work appeared in many languages and Ingemann encountered men like Tieck on his European travels in 1818-19; in Rome he became close to the circle around the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.
In 1820 Ingemann obtained tenure as lecturer in Danish national literature at the Academy of Sorø, at the time an intellectual centre with Romantics among the teaching faculty such as Carsten Hauch (1790–1872), Christian Wilster (1797–1840) and Peder Hjort (1793–1871). In 1822 his marriage took place with Lucie Mandix (1792–1868), who became a successful painter.
At Sorø Ingemann maintained a correspondence with the likes of Tieck, H.C. Andersen, N.F.S. Grundtvig, Steen Steensen Blicher and the Swede P.D.A. Atterbom. In particular Grundtvig was a friend, despite major artistic differences. Ingemann also began to write his historical novels on Danish medieval history. The inspiration came from Walter Scott, the material was drawn from history, old balladry and legend. The four historical novels which were produced between 1822 and 1836 are the core of his oeuvre: Valdemar Sejr (“Valdemar the Victorious”, 1826), Erik Menveds Barndom (“Erik Menved’s childhood”, 1828); Kong Erik og de Fredløse (“King Erik and the outlaws”, 1833); Prins Otto af Danmark og Hans Samtid (“Prince Otto of Denmark and his time”, 1835). Very popular amongst all social classes, it was strenuously attacked by critics, notably the historian Christian Molbech. These novels are chronologically bookended by epic-historical poems Valdemar den Store og hans Mænd (“Valdemar the Great and his men”, 1824) and Holger Danske (“Ogier the Dane”, 1837). More National-Romantic poetry followed: Ingemann was the first to popularize the theme of Greenland with his story Kunnuk og Naja of 1842. Today his best-known writings are his hymns, e.g. Morgen sange for børn (“Morning songs for children”).
On the occasion of his 70th birthday (1859) Ingemann was officially acclaimed as the “The People’s Poet”. He was given a Gold Horn – an iconic symbol reminiscent of Adam Oehlenschläger’s poem Guldhornene (“The Golden Horns”) which had initiated Danish Romanticism in 1802. Ingemann, the last representative of Danish Romanticism, thus closes a circle; he died in his home in Sorø in 1862. His funeral was a national event.