Obituary: Piet Hein

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Piet Hein did not exactly have an ordinary Danish name - his forebears on his father's side were in fact Dutch - and nor could it be said of him that he was exactly an ordinary Dane: he is talked of as a poet and inventor, something of a philosopher, something of an artist - a pupil of the Swedish cartoonist Albert Engstrom on the one hand and of the Danish atomic physicist Niels Bohr on the other.

The paradox inherent in this lies perhaps at the heart of his most famous creations, the brief aphoristic poems known in English as Grooks and the so-called "super ellipse" in which Hein combined the ellipse and the oval. Danish he certainly was, but he combined his Danishness with a cosmopolitan outlook, reflected in the many years he spent abroad, some six or seven of them in Britain.

Piet Hein was born in 1905 into an affluent middle-class family. His father, Hjalmar Hein, was a civil engineer, his mother, Estrid, an eye specialist. In the small world of Danish intellectual and cultural life it is perhaps no surprise to discover that his mother was a cousin of Karen Blixen's mother. After attending the famous Metropolitanskole, where mathematics was his principal subject, Piet Hein went to study art at the Stockholm Royal Swedish School of Fine Arts, breaking off and returning to Copenhagen three years later in order to study philosophy and theoretical physics, though once more without taking a final examination.

He then embarked on a series of experiments and inventions in fields ranging from light to Oriental games, and from creations in metalwork, china and glass, including a sophisticated lock mechanism, to the super ellipse that was used in the design of tables and chairs, and which ultimately came to form the basis for the new Sergels Square in Stockholm in the 1960s, when Hein was employed there as a town planning consultant. He - and his ideas - were widely discussed in scientific journals.

It was, however, for his poems that he became best known. His Grooks, written under the pseudonym Kumbel Kumbell (an erudite and complicated pun on his own name), began to appear in the newspaper Politiken in 1940 soon after the beginning of the German occupation, and before long they achieved a national following. Witty, aphoristic, subtle, sometimes humorous, sometimes biting, they could be used in typical Danish resistance fashion to comment on the occupation, but they went further than this in their general comments on life, their play on words, their fondness for the sting in the tail, their sheer inventiveness.

Consequently, they continued to be written long after the occupation and became one of the best known and best loved of all Danish literary products for many years, certainly until the rather more drab literary creed of the 1970s took over. Piet Hein is said to have written some 10,000 in all, and some of them have achieved proverbial status. Many of them, each illustrated by Hein himself, were collected and published in book form, and there are six volumes of English translations, also splendidly done by the author.

In an earlier day, such poems would inevitably have been didactic moralisings, but Piet Hein avoided all such in his search for humanity and tolerance. The best advice he could give, he said, was not to give advice. If he modelled himself on anyone, it must surely have been the late 18th-century humorist Johan Herman Wessel, and, significantly enough, Hein wrote the prologue for a Royal Theatre production celebrating Wessel in 1942. The literary ancestry was a good one: Wessel is still read today.

As a result both of his scientific work and his commitment to the liberal ideas envisaged in movements such as the World Movement for World Federal Government, Open Door International and the PEN Club, to name but a few, Piet Hein wrote a series of theoretical and philosophical works. He received a host of distinctions and awards, including honorary doctorates in Yale and Odense. It is, however, as the creator of the super ellipse and the Grooks that he is most likely to be remembered by a general public that approved both of his ideas and his manner of expressing them.

Perhaps the best summary of these is the Grook he wrote and placed in the middle of a drawing of the super ellipse:

There is one art,

no more, no less:

to do all things

with artlessness.

W. Glyn Jones

Piet Hein, inventor and poet: born Copenhagen 16 December 1905; died Middelfart 17 April 1996.