Swedish literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Swedish literature

Swedish literature, literary works in the Swedish language.

From Early Works to the Sixteenth Century

Swedish literature may have flourished in early medieval times, but few written traces remain. Historical chronicles, religious writings, and ballads and verse in Swedish are extant from the 12th cent. The earliest major religious writer was St. Bridget of Sweden (c.1300–1373). As Danish influence grew after the Kalmar Union (1397), there was a period of literary decline.

Of note in the 15th cent. were the poems of Bishop Thomas of Strängnäs (d. 1443) in praise of liberty. The Reformation (16th cent.) conferred a somber spirit upon Sweden, and few secular works were written. The theological and historical works of Olaus Petri (1493–1552) are notable for beginning the linguistic transition to modern Swedish. Petri also assisted in the great Swedish translation of the Bible (1540–41), a project directed by his brother Laurentius Petri (1499–1573).

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Sweden's emergence by 1648 as a great power was not accompanied by comparable literary splendor, but under Queen Christina continental influence helped to bring about a literary renaissance. Georg Stiernhielm (1598–1672) wrote verse that was sophisticated both in form and in content, combining classical idealism with a Gothic strain. The folk songs in medieval style of Lasse Lucidor (1638–74) and the baroque rhymes of Gunno Dahlstjerna (1661–1709) were outstanding among poetical works.

Ideas of the Enlightenment, introduced by Olof von Dalin in the 1730s, spread steadily, and great mystical intellectualism was set forth in the numerous works of Emanuel Swedenborg. The greatest Swedish poet of the age, Carl Michael Bellman, wrote superb verse inspired by traditional Swedish songs. In the reign of Gustavus III, founder of the Swedish Academy in 1786, the important court circle of writers included the eminent poet and critic Johan Henrik Kellgren. The great scientist Carolus Linnaeus also made enormously influential contributions to Swedish literature. Classical standards were upheld by the academy, but the sentimentality of Rousseau and other European writers, strongly defended by Thomas Thorild (1759–1808), began to permeate the middle classes in the late 18th cent.

The Nineteenth Century

When romanticism flowered in the golden age of Swedish poetry (c.1820–1840), the movement became Germanic in character and conservative in tone; many of its themes were taken from folk culture. Historical and folk interests are typified by the work of A. A. Afzelius. Three of the finest romantic poets were Erik Geijer, Per Atterbom, and Esaias Tegnér.

The tales of C. J. L. Almquist show the development of Swedish prose and also serve to divide the declining romantic movement from the literary ferment of the 1840s. By mid-century a mild utilitarianism and social criticism, modeled along English lines, was prevalent in Swedish literature and journalism. Fredrika Bremer gained international renown as a reporter, author, and activist for women's rights. Another major spokesman for an idealistic vision was the philosopher Abraham Viktor Rydberg.

The first true realism appeared with the dramatist August Strindberg and a group of writers called the Young Sweden, among them Victoria Benedictsson and Gustaf af Geijerstam. They were followed by a movement toward creative individualism. Verner von Heidenstam was an aristocratic exponent of personal expression, and the poet Gustaf Fröding and the novelist Selma Lagerlöf followed equally personal paths.

The Twentieth Century

In the early 20th cent. the fiction of Hjalmar Söderberg presaged a renewed emphasis on restraint and realism. Ludvig Nordström, Gustaf Hellström, and Elin Wägner were leading novelists of the 1910s and 20s. Proletarian themes were developed after World War I by Vilhelm Moberg, Ivar Lo-Johansson, Moa Martinsson, and Martin Koch. The Nobel laureate Pär Lagerkvist developed and sustained Swedish expressionism, as did the novelist Hjalmar Bergman and the poet Birger Sjöberg. Modernism, with its emphasis on experimental form, was a strong trend in the 1920s and after; among its leading exponents were Karin Boye and Gunnar Ekelöf.

A number of fine writers emerged both before and after World War II, including the novelist Eyvind Johnson (who shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in literature with the Swedish poet Harry Martinson), Ivar Lo-Johansson, and Agnes von Krusenstierna. Leading Swedish writers of the late 20th cent. include the novelists Sven Delblanc, Kerstin Ekman, Lars Gustaffson, P.C. Jersild, and Sara Lidman; the poets Tomas Tranströmer, Göran Palm, and Göran Sønnevi; and the dramatists Per Olov Enquist and Lars Norén.

Bibliography

See I. Scobbie, ed., Aspects of Modern Swedish Literature (1988); anthologies ed. by K. E. Lagerlöf (1979) and P. Wästberg (1979); collections of poetry ed. by R. J. McClean (1968) and G. Harding et al. (1979).

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