Esaias Tegnér (tehng-NAYR), born in the Värmland district of Sweden in 1782, was the son of Esaias Lucasson, a clergyman who changed his name to Tegnerus, after the town of Tegnaby in Småland. The poet subsequently changed his name to Tegnér. Left fatherless in childhood, the boy received some tutoring through the assistance of the crown bailiff and later, with the aid of his brother’s employer, was able to enter the University of Lund. After receiving his degree in philosophy in 1802 Tegnér remained at the university as lecturer and professor of Greek for twenty-two years. During this period he gradually became recognized as Sweden’s leading national poet. After some early failures, he achieved overnight fame in 1808 with his “War Song of the Militia of Scania.” Three years later his patriotic poem Svea won him the grand prize of the Swedish Academy.
Together with Arvid Afzelius and Erik Geijer, Tegnér developed the Gothic League, which opposed modernist European trends in Swedish literature, and in 1819 he was appointed a life member of the academy. Drawing principally on Icelandic sagas and Norse folk tales, Tegnér made his great contributions to Swedish literature in The Children of the Lord’s Supper, which was made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1841 translation; Frithiof’s Saga, now translated into almost every European language; and his long narrative poem Axel.
In 1824 Tegnér was named to the bishopric of Växjö, but his health broke under the burden of diocesan and parliamentary duties, and for a time he became mentally ill. He recovered sufficiently, however, to fulfill the duties of his church office from 1841 until his death at Östrabo in 1846. Two epic poems, Gerda and Kronbruden, remained unfinished when he died.
Esaias Tegnér was born into a family that had begun as peasants and over several generations had become educated and aspired to middle-class status; his surname, “Tegnér,” was an abbreviation of “Tegnérus,” a Latin name adapted from the family’s earlier residence in the village of Tegneby in the province of Småland. Tegnér’s parents urged him to seek as much education as possible, and when Esaias had exhausted the resources of the local tutor, his elder brother, Lans Gustaf, took him to the Myhrman family household, whose children he was tutoring. Esaias fell in love with one of the Myrhman daughters, Anna, whom he married in 1806. By then, Esaias Tegnér had matriculated at the University of Lund, the leading academic institution in southern Sweden, where he became a professor upon graduation.
In 1808, Tegnér composed his first major poem, “Battle Song for the Swedish Militia,” followed by the 1811 “Svea,” which won the Swedish Academy prize. Both poems were patriotic manifestos urging Sweden to join the revolutionary Napoleonic cause and...
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