The North! To the North! Five Swedish Poets of the Nineteenth Century

The North! To the North! Five Swedish Poets of the Nineteenth Century

The North! To the North! Five Swedish Poets of the Nineteenth Century

The North! To the North! Five Swedish Poets of the Nineteenth Century

Synopsis

Judith Moffett presents substantial selections of five important nineteenth-century Swedish poets in formal translation, with "en face" text, critical and biographical introductory essays, and notes. Each of the poets Esaias Tegner, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Viktor Rydberg, Gustaf Froding, and Erik Axel Karlfeldt made a significant contribution to Swedish literature and was justly famous in his own time. Even today, every Swedish student knows the names of these poets. Noting that much fine Swedish literature remains untranslated, Moffett makes the work of these five important poets available to readers of English. She points out that the dearth of material translated from Swedish to English is particularly notable in poetry, especially rhyming, metrical poetry. Earlier translators have dealt with the poets represented here, but the results have lacked literary merit. Only rarely, in fact, has their work in translation read like English poetry. In preserving the rhyme and meter of the original works, Moffett has chosen a controversial path, with powerful allies on her side. Those who believe the rhyme and rhythm must be carried out in the translation include the late Joseph Brodsky and Richard Wilbur, who says a formal poem stripped of its form has been watered down to free verse. Moffett introduces each poets section with a biographical essay that sketches the poets critical reputation as well as his historical milieu. She identifies obscure references and provides other useful information in the notes to the poems. Several of these poets were members of the Swedish Academy. Karlfeldt was posthumously awarded the Nobel Prize. Even long after his death, Runeberg is regarded as the National Poet of Finland. Frodingin particular continues to be passionately admired by modern Swedes. Moffett, a formal poet translating formal poetry, makes this splendid body of work accessible to the larger audience it deserves."

Excerpt

Swedish Romanticism begins with a landmark event: the loss of Finland to Russia in the Finno-Russian War of 1808–9. The blow to Swedish national pride forced changes in many spheres of society, including literary society, which became receptive to the influence of the German Romantics and their powerful Platonic idealism. It is difficult to be definitive about the “Romantic Period”; some writers see it as fairly brief, 1810–30, when it began to be replaced by social realism; others see social realism itself as merely another form of Romantic idealism. If one views Viktor Rydberg as the last Romantic—as he has often been called—then the Romantic Period runs all the way up to the Modern breakthrough of the 1880s, when August Strindberg, following the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, burst out of the Scandinavian hinterlands onto the world stage.

But literary labels are a convenience, a way to talk about general trends in the writing of a given period and unimportant in themselves. They are shorthand for the background against which individual writers, with their different personal circumstances, can be understood in a shared social and historical context. For our purposes here, it suffices to note that when Platonic idealism, along with a nostalgic appreciation for Viking legend and Norse mythology, had largely replaced the literary sensibility of the Gustavian Golden Age that had preceded it, the Romantic Period had arrived.

The Golden Age coincided with the reign of King Gustav III, 1772–92, who founded the Swedish Academy. The Gustavian period was most remarkable for its theater, but it also enabled the careers of several noteworthy poets and of one genius. Carl Michael Bellman, 1740–95, writer and singer of brilliant lyrics in praise of sexual promiscuity, alcoholic debauchery, and the bucolic delights of rural Stockholm, is the poet most identified with the court of Gustav III and the late-eighteenth-century sensibility in Sweden. The English contemporary most like him is Jonathan Swift. Bellman was not the only important poet of the period, but he was the finest as well as the raunchiest, and he makes a useful, if rather extreme, foil against which to appreciate how nineteenth-century Romanticism reacted against eighteenth-century hedonism in poetry. A second Gustavian poet who deserves to be mentioned is the intellectual pre-Romantic Johan Henrik Kellgren, 1751–95, a writer much influenced by the French and English Enlightenment poets and a firm antagonist of certain occult influences . . .

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