Esaias Tegnér Essay - Critical Essays


Esaias Tegnér’s early years as an academic in Lund are captured in “Kannick” (the church house). In the poem, he contrasts the active lives of Lutheran pastors who can marry with the ascetic lives of medieval Catholic monks who could not, as innocent outdoor frolics with young girls turn into loving marriages; the possibility of a good clergyman being able to fall in love was a keynote of Tegnér’s biography. “Flyttfåglarna” (birds of passage) is a mock-celebration of poets who yearn for the sun and migrate to the south during the winter, but then wish to return to the bracing climes of their northern origin. The poem also carries a secondary scene of Sweden’s own marginality with respect to the rest of Europe, canvassing both the benefits and liabilities of that position. “Sången” (song) is Tegnér’s most adamant rejection of Romantic melancholy; he embrances sound, strenuous moral optimism, a position all the more poignant because of the unhappiness of Tegnér’s later life. Even “Mjeltsjukan” (melancholy), written in the late 1820’s during a period of emotional turmoil, shows the speaker, far from exulting in self-pity, wishing he could recover his self-assurance and sanity.

Epilogue at the Master’s Presentation was written for the conferral of degrees on the graduating students at Lund. Using the metaphor of laurel and its fanciful origins in Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, who is turned into the plant, Tegnér sees this myth as an image of a larger ideal, but also shows how any linguistic sign is only a partial manifestation of the implied reality behind it. Tegnér’s emphasis, though, is not skeptical, but oratory, as he urges the young graduates not just to live a life of joy and learning but also to engage in a fiery, concerted struggle against ignorance and illiberalism, in favor of truth and enlightenment. That the travails of his later life and his ambivalence about becoming a bishop soon made him unable to fully espouse these ideals himself is a further irony.

Tegnér’s becoming a bishop highlights two aspects of Romanticism: the writers’ tendency to become more conservative as they grew older and their distaste for the aftermath of the French Revolution and its unshackling of religious belief from incipient Enlightenment secularism. Both tendencies, though, are somewhat eccentric. In Tegnér’s case, his belief in Christianity was not that fervent; his assumption of a pastoral and then episcopal vocation was more a solution to the question of what to do with his life than an urgent calling, and his performance in the ministry, though both competent and compassionate, was marked by neither theological revelation nor dogmatic ardor. This was noted by the later poet Gustaf Fröding in his “Hans högvördighet biskopen i Växiö” (the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Växjö),...

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