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Swedish Literature

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

At the close of the Eighteenth Century Swedish literature had sunk into a depressed state. The French classical style prevailed; didactic and serious poems like those of Pope and Young were the only kind approved. But Romanticism was introduced by a group of poets whose organ was called "Phosphor" (Light-bringer), whence they were known as Phosphorists. The leader of this group. Peter Daniel Amadeus Atterbom (1790-1855), edited the journal, which contained only poetry and critical essays. His lyrical poems called "The Flowers" were marred by too great fondness for mysticism and allegory. His most celebrated work is the beautiful drama "The Fortunate Island" (1823). Another member of this group, Lorenzo Hammarsköld (1785-1827), published in 1806 "Translations and Imitations of Poets, Old and New," in the preface of which he condemned the Swedish classic writers, and commended Goethe and Tieck for imitation. His most important work was a "History of Swedish Literature" (1818).

The leader of the opposition to these Phosphorists was the far more distinguished Bishop Esaias Tegnèr (1782-1846). He was the son of a village pastor and taught in the University of Lund. In 1808, stirred by the great events 0f the time, he composed a war-song which was welcomed and sung by the people. He then organized a Gothic League for the study of Scandinavian antiquity. Its journal "Iduna," so called from the goddess of youth in Northern mythology, was edited at first by Geijer and afterward by Tegnèr. In this journal appeared Tegnèr's romance of "Axel," his beautiful idyl of "The Children of the Lord's Supper," which has been translated into English by Longfellow, and his famous modernization of "Frithiof's Saga." The last consists of twenty-four short cantos or ballads, each having a different form of verse or meter to suit the special subject, and all taken together presenting the finest picture of ancient Scandinavian life.

As a reward for this national epic Tegnèr was made a bishop, though he had not previously been ordained. He discharged his episcopal duties well until his mind gave way. During a temporary recovery he began two epic poems which were left unfinished. The work of his youth, however, has placed him at the head of Swedish literature. As Longfellow has said : "This modern Skald has written his name in immortal runes, not on the bark of trees alone, in the 'unspeakable rural solitudes' of pastoral song, but on the mountains of his native land, and the cliffs that overhang the sea, and on the tombs of ancient heroes, whose histories are epic poems."

The other leader of the Gothic League, Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783-1847), is Sweden's greatest historian. To the "Iduna" he contributed several essays and some songs, whose sweet simplicity and ardent patriotic feeling have made them ever dear to his countrymen. In 1815 he was called to the University of Upsala to give instruction in history, and thenceforward devoted himself to that department. His "History of the Swedish People" (3 vols. 1832-36) brings the subject down to the close of Queen Christina's reign in 1654. Many other historical works and essays were published by him, before failing health obliged him to resign in 1846. They all exhibit correct critical insight and artistic arrangement of material.

Frans Michael Franzén (1772-1847), who was a native of Finland, became professor of history in the University of Abo, and eventually a bishop, was the author of many minor poems full of sweetness and of popular songs. His epics on Sven Sture, Columbus, and Gustavus Adolphus, in spite of beautiful passages, are inferior to his short pieces. His best lyrics sing of domestic joys, the prattle of children and the beauty of the fields.

The most extraordinary character in Swedish literary history is Karl Jonas Ludwig Almquist (1793-1866). In early manhood he gave up an official position at Stockholm and led a colony to wild forest lands to found a primitive community called "Man's Home Association." On its failure he became a teacher and prepared some school text books. After awhile he issued a collection of dramas, lyrics and romances, under the name "The Book of the Thorn-Rose." It contains some of the finest gems of Swedish literature, and quickly made him famous. Then a flood of treatises of all kinds, historical, philosophical, religious, flowed from his pen. With these were inter-mingled admirable lyrical, epic and dramatic poems. But the unstable author passed from one position to another, and raved about socialism. Suddenly in 1851 he fled from Sweden, and it became known that he was convicted of forgery and charged with murder. It was afterward ascertained that he came to the United States under an assumed name, earned a precarious living, and it is even stated that he was a secretary to Abraham Lincoln. When he was almost within the grasp of the law, his papers were seized and destroyed, but he himself escaped to Europe. He died at Bremen. Almquist put in practice the extreme disregard of morality which some of the Romanticists taught or exhibited in fiction. His books show great keenness of observation, rich humor and strong poetic feeling.

Finland, though now belonging to Russia, is peopled by Swedes, and has contributed to Swedish literature. Johann Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877) as a poet, is second only to Tegnèr. He was born in Finland and educated at the University of Abo. His little epic "The Elk-Hunters" (1832) was followed by "Hanna" (1836), a charming idyl in hexameters. Runeberg was now made professor of Latin at Borga College, and from this obscure place sent forth poems which established his high rank. Among them are "Nadeschda," a romance of Russian life, "Kung Fjalar," a cycle of romances in unrhymed verse. His popularity was greatly enhanced by "Ensign Steel's Stories," poems on the War of Independence in 1808. His tragedy "The Kings at Salamis" (1863) shows the true classical spirit. His poems are realistic, yet full of artistic beauty and strong religious feeling.

Another able poet of Finland is Zacharias Topelius, born in 1818. He was editor of a newspaper in Helsingfors until 1860. His poems were collected in book form in "Heather Flowers" (1845-54). His best prose work, "The Surgeon's Stories" (1872-74), relates to the history of Sweden and Finland in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Of Swedish novelists none is more widely known than Miss Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865). She was born near Abo in Finland, but her childhood was spent at Arsta near Stockholm. In 1821 the family went on a tour through Germany and France. After a year thus spent, Fredrika, to escape the dullness of country life, began to visit the poor and sick. To get money for her charities her brother sold some sketches she had written. When in 1830 "The H— Family" was issued the Swedish Academy awarded her a gold medal. Her career was now determined. Her simple tales of middle-class family life were favorably received in Sweden, and even more so in England and America, when translated by Mary Hewitt. After residing some years in Norway, Miss Bremer visited England and America, and on her return wrote her impressions in "Homes in the New World" (1853). Later visits to Switzerland, Italy, Palestine and Greece, were also pleasantly sketched. The better education of girls and the ad-mission of women to various employments were advocated in her later novels, "Hertha" and "Father and Daughter," but these "purpose" novels were not so attractive as the simpler pictures of family life in "The Neighbors," "The President's Daughters," "Brothers and Sisters," "The Home."

Less widely known, yet almost of equal merit as a novelist, is Mrs. Emilia Flygare-Carlen (1807-1892). She was twice married, her second husband, J. G. Carlen, being a lawyer and poet. Her first novel, "Waldemar Klein," was published anonymously when she was thirty years of age. Its success led her to prepare a long series of similar works, treating all classes and conditions of Swedish life. Her wide experience enabled her to depict not only the well-to-do, but peasants, fishers and smugglers. Among her best books are "The Professor" (1840), "The Rose of Thistelon" (1842), "The Maiden's Tower" (1848), "The Tutor" (1851), "The Trading House" (1860), and her autobiography "Recollections of Swedish Life" (1878). Her novels are graphic pictures rather than studies of character, but they are bright and sparkling.

Abraham Viktor Rydberg (born in 1829) is the most attractive essayist of Sweden. His original work includes aesthetic and historical studies, treatises on the philosophy of religion, and one on "Teutonic Mythology" (1886). His only novel, "The Last of the Athenians" (1859), relates to the struggle between classical Paganism and Christianity.

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