Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Esaias Tegnér (1782–1846)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)
IN his interesting critical study of Tegnér, Dr. Brandes assigns the poet his place in Swedish literature in the following terms: “He is not the greatest poet of the Swedish tongue: one great singer before him, and after him another, molded that speech into forms that surpass his in perspicuity and actual life. But it is with Bellman and Runeberg that he must be named and classed; and while he is inferior to them as a poet, he outshines them both intellectually.” Tegnér appeared in Swedish literature at the time of sharpest conflict between the two poetical camps of the Phosphorists and the Gothics, and the day was won definitely for the latter by his activity. The Phosphorists, represented by such men as Atterbom, Stagnelius, and Sjöberg (Vitalis), were the standard-bearers of a misty romanticism inspired by the contemporary movement of thought in Germany, and even improving upon its models in the direction of the fantastic and the transcendental. The Gothic school, on the other hand,—chiefly represented by Geijer, Afzelius, and Ling,—pursued a more local and national ideal, seeking in the life and legendary history of the North the materials for a literature that should be independent of foreign influences. The advent of Tegnér was decisive for this conflict of ideals; for in him the national principle found as valiant a representative as it had found in Denmark in the person of Oehlenschläger, and in the presence of his work the controversy was silenced.  1
  Esaias Tegnér, born November 13th, 1782, was sprung from the purest of peasant stock. His father, who was parish priest of Kyrkerud, died a few years later, leaving a widow and six children (of whom Esaias was the fifth in age) without any means of support. A neighboring official agreed to take charge of Esaias, and provided the nine-year-old boy with a place in his home and his office, where he was given some simple clerical work. His employer’s business took him upon many excursions through the Wermeland district; and the boy, who usually went with him, received a deep impression of the natural beauties of the country. At the same time he was an eager reader of poetry, history, and saga-books; and we have thus accounted for the two distinguishing traits of his writings,—a passionate love of nature and a deep sense of the significance of the legendary past. One evening, returning from one of these country excursions, he astonished his employer by taking an intelligent part in a conversation upon a God’s omnipotence and its visible traces throughout nature.” The old man was so impressed by this precocity that a few days later he announced his intention of giving the boy an academic education.  2
  After two or three years of fitting, under the care of an elder brother who occupied the post of private tutor in a wealthy family, Tegnér entered the University of Lund in 1799, at the age of seventeen. In 1802 he took his degree, and received the laurel crown bestowed upon successful candidates; and soon thereafter got into a serious scrape by participating in a student demonstration against the unpopular rector of the university. But his friends saved him from the disgrace of the consilium abeundi cum infamia, and got him instead an appointment as docent. His vacations were spent with the family in which he had been prepared for college, and he soon won the love of the daughter of the house. The story of his courtship, to say nothing of the boy-and-girl intercourse of the earlier years, may be read plainly enough in the love episodes of ‘Frithjof’s Saga’; for Tegnér put into his own poetry the candor that he esteemed so highly in other men, and much of his work is hardly more than a direct transcript of his own experience. After his marriage, he remained at Lund for many years; until 1810 as docent, then as lecturer on Greek literature, and finally as full professor,—a post which carried with it, according to the curious Swedish custom, the duties of a parish priest, although the incumbent had taken no degree in theology. Promotion to a bishopric followed as a matter of course in the case of so brilliant a man as Tegnér, and he was given charge of the diocese of Vexiö in 1825. He made a very active sort of bishop; his first care being to clear his diocese of drunken clergymen, or at least to insist that they should not appear drunk on public occasions. He also undertook a close supervision of the parish schools under his charge, and took pains to see that his subordinates kept their accounts correctly. This very wholesome way of looking at his official duties was characteristic of a man who cared little for theology, but who recognized the importance of conduct. He accepted the forms of the established church, but interpreted them in a liberal spirit. The rationalism of the eighteenth century had left its mark upon him, and he was never orthodox in the narrow intolerant sense. His instincts were so unclerical as to enable him to enjoy a jest, even if the subject were of questionable taste; and he retained throughout the years of his health a certain buoyancy of spirits that marked him as a true child of the world.  3
  In thus sketching Tegnér’s official life, we have anticipated a little, and must turn back to the time of his docentship, when his first fame as a poet was won. His first poem of importance was a thrilling war-song, ‘För Skånska Landtvärnet’ (For the Reserves of Scania), written in 1808. In 1811 the fine patriotic poem ‘Svea’ won the prize of the Swedish Academy. Many other poems followed, and his most famous works were produced before the date of his removal to Vexiö. The last five years of his stay in Lund witnessed the publication of the three poems by which he is most widely known. They are the beautiful idyl ‘Nattvärdsbarnen’ (The Children of the Lord’s Supper), which the translation of Longfellow has made one of the most familiar of English poems; the narrative poem ‘Axel,’ rich in sentiment and diversified by exquisite lyrical episodes; and the world-famous cycle of ‘Frithjof’s Saga.’ The first of these three poems is in hexameters, and was obviously inspired by Goethe’s ‘Hermann and Dorothea’; while the second is in rhymed octosyllabic verse, and much in the manner of Byron. As for the last of the three, a great variety of metrical forms is made use of in the several songs or cantos, and the most astonishing virtuosity in the poetical use of the Swedish language is displayed. The subject of the ‘Frithjof’s Saga’ is taken from the Icelandic tale of ‘Frithjof the Bold,’ one of the later and more sophisticated products of the old Norse genius for story-telling. The significance of this choice of a subject, which preferred to the simple and rugged themes of the great age of saga-writing one belonging to a more self-conscious and artificial period, is thus commented upon by Professor Ker:—“The original Frithjof is almost as remote as Tegnér himself from the true heroic tradition; and like Tegnér’s poem, makes up for this want of a pedigree by a study and imitation of the great manner, and by a selection and combination of heroic traits from the older authentic literature.” But criticism, although it may cavil at the choice of subject, and at the rhetorical character of the diction, and at the poet’s flagrant violation of historical verisimilitude, cannot rob this poem of its beauty, or lessen its appeal to every noble instinct and generous sentiment. It has made its way triumphantly round the world, and been translated into almost every civilized tongue. There are not less than a score of English translations, and nearly that number in the German language.  4
  For a number of years after he became Bishop of Vexiö, Tegnér’s life was one of rich and varied activity. Besides performing his strictly official duties, he wrote many poems, and made many addresses upon educational and other occasions. But the cloud was slowly gathering that was to break upon his life and destroy its fairest prospects. Attacked by an insidious disease, the nature of which long baffled his physicians, his mind broke down, and insanity made him its prey. During the years 1830–40 the shadow grew darker and darker, until in the latter year his intellect gave way completely, and he had to be placed in an asylum. Within a year partial recovery followed, and he was able again to take up his work. But his powers were failing in other directions also, and in 1845 he applied for relief from his duties. The year following, he succumbed to a stroke of paralysis; and died November 2d, 1846. His mind was clear at the end, and his last words were: “I will lift up my hands unto the house and the mountain of God.”  5
  The impression made upon the student of his life and works is well stated in the words with which Dr. Brandes closes the monograph mentioned at the beginning of this article:—
          “Esaias Tegnér was beyond all else a whole man; for in his faults as well as his virtues he was an honest upright soul, easily wrought upon, but with a radiant love for the beautiful and the true. His human and earthly nature is so full of worth that it must always remain in a high degree attractive and interesting to every one who can appreciate the value of a rich personality; while the ideal image of Tegnér the poet will ever stand in luminous outline before the people upon whom he once shone as a living beam from the sun of the nineteenth century.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.