Stagnelius, Erik Johan
Erik Johan Stagnelius 1793-1823
Swedish poet and dramatist.
Stagnelius wrote lyric poetry, an epic, several dramas, and an opera in a fervent, ornate style that expressed an ascetic spiritualism in terms of highly sensual imagery. Although he was virtually unknown to his contemporaries during his eleven-year career, today he is widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the Swedish Romantic movement.
Stagnelius was born on the island of Öland, off the southeastern coast of Sweden. His father, a local vicar, later became bishop of Kalmar. A solitary child, Stagnelius read widely in the classics and in Norse mythology. In 1811 he attended the University of Lund briefly as a student of theology, but soon left to pursue his studies at the University of Uppsala. There he became acquainted with the writings of contemporary European authors of the Romantic movement and began writing verses of his own. After passing a civil service exam in 1814, he accepted a junior government post at the Department of Church and Education. Around this time he was diagnosed with a severe heart ailment. His subsequent abuse of alcohol and possibly drugs is often attributed to attempts to relieve the physical suffering and mental anguish caused by his deteriorating health. Around 1817, a spiritual crisis appears to have drawn him to a mystical and fervent Christianity inspired by the writings of Gnostic and Pythagorean philosophers, who saw the soul as engaged in a constant struggle to transcend the limits of its physical prison. Although Stagnelius appears to have written steadily throughout his adult life in a number of poetic and dramatic genres, he did not mix in Swedish literary circles, and relatively little of his work was published before his death. He was found dead in bed in 1823.
Many of Stagnelius's mature works center on the conflict between a sensual attachment to the world and a spiritual yearning for transcendence. In many of his lyric poems, spiritual aspirations are expressed metaphorically in terms of sexual desire.
His first major poem, Vladimir den Store (Vladimir the Great; 1817), has been described by Leif Sjöberg as "the first great Swedish hexameter poem"; it recounts the conversion to Christianity of a pagan warrior through his love for a Christian woman whom he has taken captive. Liljor i Saron (Lilies in Sharon), a collection of religious poems, was published with Martyrerna (The Martyrs), a verse drama expressing an ascetic Christianity, in 1821. His tragedy Bacchanterna eller Fanatismen (The Bacchantes, or Fanaticism; 1822) was his last work to be published during his lifetime. Many of the works published posthumously in his Samlade skrifter (Collected Works; 1824-26) are in the form of fragments. These include the unfinished epic poems Blenda, which celebrates the vigor and manly virtues of Viking days, and Gunlög, which affirms the divine origin of poetry.
Stagnelius is seen as one of the leading representatives of the Romantic movement in Sweden. His work is often associated with that of the Swedish "Phosphorists," who valued emotion over intellect and idealized beauty as the highest expression of divinity. British and American critics have likened his work to that of the English poets William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Critics often discuss Stagnelius' work in terms of contradictions. While his style is described as almost Byzantine in its rich, ornate complexity, he is also praised for the clarity of his language and the lucidity of his ideas. Both in his lyric poetry and in his dramas, a transcendent and ascetic spirituality is generally expressed in terms of highly sensual imagery, and motifs drawn from classical and Norse mythology are pressed into service to convey Christian ideals.
Vladimir den Store [Vladimir the Great] (poetry) 1817
Liljor i Saron och Martyrerna [Lilies in Sharon and The Martyrs] (poetry and drama) 1821
Bacchanterna eller Fanatismen [The Bacchantes, or Fanaticism] (drama) 1822
Thorsten Fiskare [The Fisherman Thorsten] (drama) 1823
Samlade skrifter [Collected Works] 3 vols. (poetry, drama, and opera) 1824-26
Samlade skrifter [Collected Works] 5 vols. (poetry, drama, and opera) 1911-19
Samlade skrifter [Collected Works] 4 vols. (poetry, drama, and opera) 1957
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SOURCE: "Poets Belonging Generally to the New School," in The Literature and Romance of Northern Europe: Constituting a Complete History of the Literature of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, Vol. II, Colburn and Co., 1852, pp. 405-26.
[In the following excerpt, the authors characterize Stagnelius as a "gnostic" poet and cite resemblances between his work and that of English Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley.]
The most prominent poets of [the "New School"] are Stagnelius, Almquist, Livijn, Dahlgren and Fahlcrantz. It would be incorrect to allocate them with Phosphorists or Goths, for they differ both from these schools and from each other so decidedly, that they can only be styled writers of modern power, tendencies and spirit. They possess much of that independent and individual character which should be the result of the doctrine of every man endeavouring to develop his own genius according to his own inner impulses, and the perception of his own natural organization and endowments. The greatest of these poets is unquestionably—
Erik Johan Stagnelius
Stagnelius is a genuine modern gnostic. His poetry is as fully and as positively the enunciation of gnosticism as ever were the preachings of the old Syrian and Egyptian speculative Christians. Himself a physically suffering creature, with passions at war in his body with the intense...
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SOURCE: "Eric Johan Stagnelius," in The Poets and Poetry of Europe: With Introductions and Biographical Notices, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893, p. 173.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1870, the American poet comments briefly on Stagnelius's career and cites a review that typifies the Swedish lyricist as a mystical, otherworldly poet.]
The most signal specimen of a genius at once precocious and productive, which the annals of Swedish literature afford, is Stagnelius. He died at the age of thirty, but has left behind him three epic poems,—one of which, though never completed, was written at the age of eighteen,—five tragedies, and seven other dramatic sketches, and a very large collection of elegies, sonnets, psalms, ballads, and miscellaneous lyrics; making, in all, three large octavo volumes, written in the space of twelve years, and marked with the impress of a high poetic genius.
Stagnelius was the son of a parish priest in Öland (afterwards bishop of Kalmar), and was born in 1793. He studied first at the University of Lund, and then at Upsala, where, upon passing his examination in 1814, he was made clerk in the Department of Ecclesiastical Affairs. This, or some similar office, he held until his death, in 1823. His brief existence, though completely barren of incident, was rich in intellectual achievements. "Stagnelius," says a writer in the Foreign...
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SOURCE: "Birds of Passage," in Cornhill Magazine, Vol. XXXII, No. 189, September, 1875, pp. 346-53.
[In the following excerpt from an essay on several Swedish poets, Gosse praises Stagnelius' work for its spontaneity and philosophical depth.]
In presenting the reader with some specimens of Swedish poetry, and of the works of three great poets of the language, we have selected the subject of Birds of Passage; not because the lyrics here given exhibit these poets at their best, but because the idea is a typical one, and has been treated characteristically by each. The advent of the birds of passage is the most anxiously awaited event in the life of the North. Through the summer they bring song and love to whilom dreary silence of the woods; in autumn their flight forbodes the departure of a thousand delights and the speedy approach of a stark and cheerless torpor in nature; their return in spring is the harbinger of the realisation of the hopes and anticipations of the year. . . .
Johann Eric Stagnelius was born 1793, and died in 1823. His short life of thirty years was one of perpetual martyrdom, owing to malformation of some of his vital organs. It was, therefore, at an early period of life that he, himself of a voluptuous nature, sought to blunt the sting of bodily pain and mental agony by a frequent recourse to the Lethean draughts of the glass. In the company of gay comrades,...
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SOURCE: "Erik Johan Stagnelius: The Old Norse Element as a Vehicle for Romanticism," in The Old Norse Element in Swedish Romanticism, Columbia University Press, 1914, pp. 125-43.
[In the following essay, Benson examines various ways in which Stagnelius combined elements of Scandinavian mythology and ancient Hellenic drama in expressing Romantic themes.]
The most thorough Romanticist in Sweden was the young and suffering Stagnelius. Both his life and work point him out as the natural exponent of what is deepest and most typical in Romanticism. He did not have to affiliate himself with any new school to be called Romantic. He did not have to take part in any polemics to advertise his theories. Stagnelius was something more than an obscure theorist; he was primarily a creator. He loved to produce and what he produced came spontaneously, without undue effort or adherence to any set literary dogma. He was always independent. He educated himself by persistent browsing in his father's library, wrote independently, lived alone, and finally died alone at the age of thirty. He was an original, self-taught savant, to whom both the Northern and Southern mythologies were equally familiar. We may call him a Romantic genius. Mystical yearning, personal suffering, deep pathos, "singing eloquence," and characteristic coloring are nowhere better exemplified than in the poetry of Stagnelius. No one understood better than...
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SOURCE: "Wladimir den Store: Some Observations," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1, February, 1968, pp. 303-09.
[In the following essay, Sjöberg examines Stagnelius' style as well as political and religious ideas expressed in his epic poem Wladimir den Store.]
Wladimir den Store, the first great Swedish hexameter poem, is also the first poem which Stagnelius allowed himself to publish (1817). The reasons for this may have been many, but the main one is presumably that he had a specific poetical method—Chateaubriand's theory in Le Génie du Christianisme—which is almost consistently applied, and used Les Martyrs as a pattern. The purpose was to glorify Christianity. But perhaps there were other purposes as well.Wladimir den Store is the first poem in which Stagnelius presented his political views—which he does explicitly. He was very pro-Russian and swore allegiance to The Holy Alliance (part III, verses 180 following, are a panegyric for Czar Alexander). Olle Holmberg has found a couple of letters from which it is evident that Stagnelius was occupied with plans to marry and to take a position in the Finnish army. The poem is then to be considered a typical specimen for an officer's commission. Fredrik Böök has repudiated this view with more determination than ability to convince in Bonniers Litterära Magasin, 1942. It has been noted...
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SOURCE: "Orfeus and the Maenads: Two Modes of Ecstatic Discourse in Stagnelius's Bacchanterna," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 26-52.
[In the following essay discussing Stagnelius' Bacchanterna, Toepfer suggests that the poet used tensions between Classicism and Romanticism to probe the relationship between feeling and language.]
In 1822, a year before his death, Erik Johan Stagnelius (1793-1823) completed a fascinating one-act tragedy, Bacchanterna eller Fanatismen.1 But despite the beauty of its language, the complexity of its thematic concerns, the intensity of its dramatic effects, and the bizarre grandeur of its ambitions, the play hardly enjoys the acknowledgement it deserves in discussions of the romantic contribution to drama and theater. That Stagnelius wrote in Swedish may explain in part the lack of international appreciation for his achievement. If this explanation is not entirely convincing, it is because one can always point to Strindberg, Ingmar Bergman, or Pär Lagerqvist as producers of Swedish dramatic texts which speak in other languages. A more satisfying explanation lies in Bacchanterna itself, in its relation, not to the Swedish language as such, but to Language—or more precisely, poetic speech—as a sign of cosmic intelligence.
However, the national identity of the text looms over...
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