Erik Johan Stagnelius Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.

Principal Works

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


William and Mary Howitt (essay date 1852)

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 heavenward longings of his soul, he was deeply impressed with the philosophy which the gnostic sect of the early Christians inherited from Plato and Pythagoras, that our souls were once in a higher state of existence, and that, in the words of Byron, we all live in a place of penance:

Where for our sins to sorrow we are cast.

It was the doctrine which Wordsworth drew from Plato in his noble Ode, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house being to close
Upon the growing boy.

The farther he goes, the more the heavenly inborn light "fades into the light of common day."

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a mother's mind,
And no unworthy aim;
The homely nurse doth all she can
To make her foster-child, her inmate man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And the imperial palace whence he came.

This is the gnosticism of a man comfortably wandering amid the lakes and mountains of Cumberland, with a good old clerk issuing stamps to the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland, and leaving him no care except that of receiving the rich percentage. But the gnosticism of Stagnelius was held under different circumstances. Cooped in a sickly body, contending with the higher instincts of the soul, "the homely nurse," old mother earth, did seem to him to have an "unworthy aim." Psyche, in his eyes, was in bondage to Hyle; the soul was in a stern prison to matter, which was constantly endeavouring to make her,

Forget the glories she had known,
And the imperial palace whence she came.

Stagnelius did not, like Wordsworth, live out a serene life of upwards of seventy years, but his tried and conflicting existence terminated at the age of thirty. Therefore, we have no remoulding of his youthful doctrines, no calmer views evolved through the experience of longer and more tranquil years, but his thoughts and feelings stand before us, thrown off in the fire of youth, and the gloomy fervour with which the upward and the downward tendencies of complicated human nature inspired him.

The Swedish critics see a strong resemblance between Stagnelius and Wordsworth: we see more between him and Shelley. With the exception of the differing faiths, there is the same early fate, the same speculative spirit, the same attachment to Greek philosophy and Greek poetic forms. No one can read the Cydippe, the Narcissus, the Bacchantes, "Proserpina," nor even his "Svedger," without being struck with this. There is the same yearning after the unknown, the same tendency to the mythic and speculative, the same constant warring of oppressed nature, which Shelley has expressed in his Prometheus Unbound, against some overbearing power or element, and the same wonderful power of language and affluence of inspired phrase. In the very choice of the subject of the Riddertornet and the Cenci we see a resemblance. But far more lies this kinship of spirit in the spirit itself, in those longings, despairings, those far flights into the ideal world and those sufferings from the real one, which marked them both.

Stagnelius was the son of a clergyman, afterwards Bishop of Kalmar. He was born in 1793; studied in Lund, and afterwards in Upsala, and became a Clerk of Chancery in the Ecclesiastical Department in 1815, and took successive advancements in that office. He died in Stockholm in 1828. In his lifetime he published "Women in the North," for which he received the prize of the Royal Academy. His Wladimir, a fine heroic poem in hexameters, was published in 1817; his Lilies of Sharon, in 1821; his Bacchantes, in 1822; and, after his death, his Collected Writings were published in three volumes by Hammarsköld.

They are his Lilies of Sharon which distinguish him from all other Swedish poets, and place him amongst the greatest intellectual poets of the age. Some of the critics of his native country complain of the gloom and the sorrowful tone of his poetry, and are inclined to regard it as sickly. To our fancy it is much too strong and wrestling in its nature to be sickly. That there is a tone of suffering running through the greater part of his productions, is true; for it was the lot of Stagnelius preeminently to present an example of the truth of Shelley's declaration, that

We learn in suffering
What we teach in song.

We are, therefore, more pleased with the serious portions of his poetry than with the rest. The world has a superflux, and Sweden especially, of the light, the playful and the merely fanciful lyric; and we listen with a far profounder interest to the outpourings of a great and suffering soul, as it were the wail of the chained Prometheus on his midnight Caucasus, uttering his...

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (essay date 1870)

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...

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Edmund Gosse (essay date 1875)

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....

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Adolph Burnett Benson (essay date 1914)

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...

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Leif Sjöberg (essay date 1968)

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...

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Karl Toepfer (essay date 1992)

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...

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