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...
(The entire section is 2926 words.)