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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Carl Michael Bellman (1740–1795)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Olga Flinch
 
CARL MICHAEL BELLMAN was born in Stockholm on the 4th of February, 1740. His father, son of a professor at Upsala University, held a government office; of his mother he wrote that she was “fair as day, unspeakably good, dressed prettily, was kind to everybody, of a refined nature, and had an excellent voice.” From her he undoubtedly inherited the warm, genial heart which beats in every one of his songs. His father’s house was the rendezvous of many of the noted men of the day, among them the poet Dalin, who was then at the zenith of his popularity. The boy’s unusual gifts were early recognized, and everything was done to give him the best instruction, especially after an attack of fever, during which he not only spoke in rhyme, but sang his first improvised songs in a clear, true voice. The tutor who was then chosen taught him, “besides the art of making verse,” English, French, German, and Italian; and he progressed far enough in these studies to translate several German hymns and religious and philosophic essays, no doubt influenced in this choice of subjects by the religious atmosphere of his home. Moreover, he taught himself to play the zither, and very soon began to pick out his own melodies as an accompaniment to his songs. The instrument he used had been brought home from Italy by his grandfather, became his closest companion throughout life, and is now kept at the Royal Academy of Arts at Stockholm.  1
  At eighteen he entered the University of Upsala, and while there wrote a satirical poem, ‘The Moon,’ which he submitted to the criticism of Dalin, who however made but a single correction. It was written in the manner of Dalin, and he continued to be influenced by the latter until his twenty-fifth year. At this time, and within the same year, his father and mother died, and seeking among his friends the social stimulus which his nature craved, he became a frequent guest at the inns in the company of Hallman and Krexel, who were making their mark by their poetic and dramatic writings. It was then that his peculiar talent came to its own; he threw away all foreign influence and began to sing his songs, born of the impression of the moment and full of the charm of spontaneity. Some of them he jotted down quickly, most of them he sang to the sound of his zither, often fashioning them to suit well-known melodies, and again creating the melody with the words, for the greater part set in a form of verse not previously used. And so inseparably linked are words and melody, that it has not occurred to any one to set any other music to Bellman’s songs than what he originally chose. He took all his characters out of the life he saw around him; and with the appreciation of the man to whom the present is everything, he seized the charm of the fleeting moment and expressed it with such simplicity and truth, and deep feeling withal, that it stands forth immortally fresh and young. A number of these songs have probably been lost; he had no thirst for fame, and took no pains to circulate them, but they found their way to the public in written copies and cheap prints, and his name was soon known throughout the country.  2
  This way of living and singing like the birds of the air was, however, not very conducive to the satisfaction of material wants. He had made two attempts to go into business, but the more he was seen at the inns, the less he was seen at his business.  3
  Fortunately for him, Gustavus III., who was himself a poet, became at this time king of Sweden. He was an adherent of the French school of poetry, and Bellman’s muse could hardly be said to belong to this: but with considerable talent as a dramatic writer, Gustavus appreciated the dramatic quality in Bellman’s songs; and when Bellman sent him a rhymed petition, still kept, in which he wrote that “if his Majesty would not most graciously give him an office, he would most obediently be obliged to starve to death before Christmas,” the king made him secretary of the lottery, with the title of court secretary, and a yearly income of three thousand dollars. Bellman promptly gave half of this to an assistant, who did the work, and continued his troubadour life on the other half with a superb disdain of future needs. His affairs so well in order, he could afford to get married; and chose for his wife Lovisa Grönlund, a girl of a bright intellect and strong character, of which she ultimately had great need, the responsibilities of their married life being left altogether to her.  4
  Bellman was now at his best; about this time he wrote most of ‘Fredman’s Songs’ and ‘Actions concerning the Chapter of Bacchus order,’ both rich in lyric gems; he was the favorite companion of the King, to whom his devotion was boundless, and he was happy in his chosen friends whose company inspired him. Nevertheless he was now, as ever, in need of money. Atterbom tells that “One day the King met him on the street, so poorly dressed that he instinctively exclaimed, ‘My dear Bellman, how poorly you are clad!’ The poet answered with a bow, ‘I can nevertheless most obediently assure your Majesty that I am wearing my entire wardrobe.’” His ready wit never left him. “How goes the world with you?” asked the King once when they met; “you don’t look to me as if you could turn a single rhyme to-day.” The poet bowed and replied on the spur of the moment:—
  “No scrip my purse doth hold;
My lyre’s unstrung, alas!
But yet upon my glass
Stands Gustaf’s name in gold.”
  5
  Another time the King sent his men for him, with the order to bring him in whatever condition they found him. “He was found not entirely free from drink, and not very presentable, but was nevertheless carried off, zither and all, to Haga Castle, where he drank some champagne, sang some songs, drank a little more, and finally fell asleep. The King left him so to go to his supper; and when he returned and found his guest still sleeping, he remarked, ‘I wonder what Bellman would say if I awoke him now and asked him to give me a song.’ The poet sat up, blinked with his eyes, and said, ‘Then Bellman would say,—listen’; whereupon he sang to the tune of ‘Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre’:—
        “‘Oh, so heavily, heavily trailing,
      The clouds over Haga are sailing,
And the stars their bright glances are veiling,
      While woods in the gloom disappear.
          Go, King, thy rest is dear,
          Go, King, thy respite taking,
Rest softly, rest softly, then waking,
When dawn through the darkness is breaking,
      Thy people with mild rule thou cheer!’
Then he fell into his former position again, and was carried home asleep with a little gift in his hand.”
  6
  The task of collecting, preserving, and publishing his works fell entirely upon his friends; if it had depended on him, they would probably never have been collected, much less published.  7
  During the last fifteen years of his life, from 1780 to 1795, his health grew very poor. In 1791 he was invited to be present at the distribution of degrees at Upsala, and at the dinner he returned a toast with a song born of the moment; but his voice had grown so weak from lung trouble that only those nearest to him could hear him. To add to his sufferings, he had to meet the great sorrow of his King’s death at the hand of a murderer, and his poem on the ‘Death and Memory of the King’ was not of a nature to make friends for him at the new court. Thus it happened that, poor and broken in health, he was put into the debtor’s prison in the very castle where he had been so happy a guest. Hallman and Krexel and others of his best friends, as devoted to him as ever, were unable to obtain his release; but he was at last bailed out by some one, who as recompense asked him to sing one of his jolly songs, and in his poor broken voice he sang ‘Drink out thy glass, see, Death awaits thee.’ Atterbom remarks about the man in question, “And maybe he did not find that song so jolly after all.”  8
  While in prison he sent in a petition to the King,—somewhat different from his first petition to Gustavus III.,—in which he asked permission to live in the castle until his death. The following is one of the verses:—
  “Spring commands; the birds are singing,
    Bees are swarming, fishes play;
    Now and then the zephyrs stray,
Breath of life the poet bringing.
Lift my load of sorrow clinging,
    Spare me one small nook, I pray.”
  9
  Of his death Atterbom writes as follows:—
          “He had been the favorite of the nation and the King, content with the mere necessities of life, free from every care, not even desiring the immortality of fame; moderate in everything except in enthusiasm, he had enjoyed to the full what he wanted,—friendship, wine, and music. Now he lived to see the shadows fall over his life and genius. Feeling that his last hour was not far off, he sent word to his nearest friends that a meeting with them as in old times would be dear to him. He came to meet them almost a shadow, but with his old friendly smile; even in the toasts he took part, however moderately, and then he announced that he would let them ‘hear Bellman once more.’ The spirit of song took possession of him, more powerfully than ever, and all the rays of his dying imagination were centered in an improvised good-by song. Throughout an entire night, under continual inspiration, he sang his happy life, his mild King’s glory, his gratitude to Providence, who let him be born among a noble people in this beautiful Northern country,—finally he gave his grateful good-by to every one present, in a separate strophe and melody expressing the peculiar individuality of the one addressed and his relation to the poet. His friends begged him with tears to stop, and spare his already much weakened lungs; but he replied, ‘Let us die, as we have lived, in music!’—emptied his last glass of champagne, and began at dawn the last verse of his song.”
  10
  After this he sang no more. A few days later he went to bed, lingered for ten weeks, and died on the 11th of February, 1795, aged fifty-four years. He was buried in Clara cemetery.  11
  Bellman’s critics have given themselves much trouble about his personal character. Some have thought him little better than a coarse drunkard; others again have made him out a cynic who sneered at the life he depicted; again others have laid the weight on the note found in ‘Drink out thy glass,’ and have seen only the underlying sad pathos of his songs. His contemporaries agree that he was a man of great consideration for form, and assert that if there are coarse passages in his songs it is because they only could express what he depicted. All coarseness was foreign to his nature; he was reserved and somewhat shy, and only in the company of his chosen few did he open his heart.  12
  His critics have, moreover, assiduously sought the moral of his works. If any was intended, it may have been that of fighting sentimentality and all false feeling; but it seems more in accordance with his entire life that he sang out of the fullness of his heart, as a bird sings, simply because it must sing.  13
 
 
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