Erik Johan Stagnelius Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.