Swedish Literature and Language

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SWEDISH LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. In 1500 the Swedish language had relatively low standing as a vehicle for literature. Latin was the language of the church and of scholarship and would be used as an academic language until the end of the eighteenth century. The Reformation was key to the development of Swedish as a literary language; in Sweden as elsewhere in Europe, it created a need for Scriptures in the vernacular. Foreign influence on Swedish language and literature continued to be strong, with German serving as an important source of loanwords in the 1500s and 1600s, after which French became more influential, especially among the aristocracy. In the sixteenth century, Swedish literary production was centered around the Reformation. During the following century, Sweden's military campaigns and emergence as a major European power provided a focus, with most literary activity in service to the state. And in the eighteenth century, Swedish literature became imbued with Enlightenment impulses imported from France and England.

In 1523 a revolt led by Gustav I Vasa led to the dissolution of the Kalmar Union, which had linked Denmark, Norway, and Sweden since 1397. Gustav I Vasa quickly consolidated his authority, appropriating church property and establishing a state-controlled Lutheran church. Out of these drastic changes came a milestone in Swedish literary history: the translation of the New Testament into Swedish in 1526. It is not known who was responsible for the translation, but Laurentius Andrae and Olaus Petri, both important advisers to Gustav I Vasa, were involved. The translation, based on Desiderius Erasmus's Latin translation of 1516 as well as Martin Luther's German translation of 1522, proved to be crucial for the development of modern written Swedish. A translation of the entire Bible, popularly known as Gustav I Vasa's Bible, was published in 1541. Revised somewhat in 1618 and 1703, it remained the standard version in Swedish until 1917, and it is the most important Swedish literary work of the sixteenth century. The Reformation also fueled a short-lived burst of literary activity in the form of polemical writings in support of the new Lutheran church (exemplified by Olaus Petri) and hymns, often based on German models.

The brothers Johannes and Olaus Magnus wrote two significant humanistic historical works, both of which were originally written in Latin and later translated into Swedish. Both brothers lived in exile in Rome due to their continued allegiance to the Catholic Church. Johannes Magnus wrote Historia de Omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque Regibus (1554; History of all the Gothic and Swedish kings), while Olaus Magnus produced Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555; History of the Nordic peoples). These complementary works were highly regarded in continental Europe, as well as by seventeenth-century Swedes, who sought evidence of past greatness in the legendary Goths. While most of the writing in schools and universities was in Latin, attempts were made to create dramatic works in Swedish. The most ambitious of these "school dramas" were the plays of the controversial historian Johannes Messenius (1579?1636).


The cultural climate in Sweden improved somewhat under Gustavus II Adolphus (ruled 16111632). The country's military successes during the Thirty Years' War (16181648) meant the acquisition of important manuscripts as well as renewed contact with European culture, belatedly bringing Renaissance ideas to Sweden. Gustavus II Adolphus died on the battlefield in Germany. His daughter Christina became queen in 1644 but ruled only ten years before abdicating the throne. During her reign the royal court became a center of intellectual activity.

The major literary figure of the time was Georg Stiernhielm (15981672), known as "the father of Swedish poetry." Stiernhielm composed works in Swedish during a relatively short period of his life; like many others of the time, he wrote mainly in Latin and other languages. His major work is Hercules (1658), a long hexameter poem based on the mythological motif of the hero at a crossroads in life; it is primarily a dialogue between Fru Lusta and Fru Dygd (Madam Desire and Madam Duty), who represent opposing moral principles. Important figures of the generation after Stiernhielm include Samuel Columbus, author of Odae Sueticae (1674; Swedish odes), and Haquin Spegel, author of Guds Hverk och Hwila (1685; God's work and rest), both of which proclaim new ideals for Swedish poetry.

Most Swedish literature of the 1600s and early 1700s falls into the category of "occasional poetry"poems produced for weddings, funerals, or other occasions. Two colorful individuals stand out among the authors of the thousands of poems printed in this genre. Lars Wivallius (16051669) was an adventurer and occasional author of songs, such as the well-known "Klagovisa över denna torra och kalla wåhr" (1642; Lament over this dry and cold spring); he composed many of his songs during various prison terms. Lars Johansson (pseudonym "Lucidor"; 16381674) was a bohemian figure, a prolific author of wedding and funeral poems, and one of the few who attempted to make a living, albeit meager, from his writing. Gunno (Eurelius) Dahlstierna's Kunga Skald (1697; Hymn to the king), written at the death of Charles XI, exemplifies the important genre of panegyric. A type of occasional poem cultivated at court, the panegyric could serve both as political propaganda and as homage to a royal benefactor. Dahlstierna was the foremost Swedish representative of the ornate baroque style then popular in Europe.

The first woman in Sweden to be a professional author, Sophia Elisabet Brenner, (16591730) also wrote Sweden's first feminist work, Det Qwinliga Könetz rätmätige Förswar (1693; The righteous defense of the female sex). Letter writing, diaries, and autobiographies were increasingly important as a means of expression, though they were seldom printed. A notable example of this type of writing is the autobiography of Agneta Horn, written about 1657.

Most books printed during this period were devotional, while the number of books intended solely for recreation remained small. From the early 1600s Stockholm's printers were under the watchful eye of an inspector. Censorship of all printed materials was instituted in the 1660s, and the office of censor librorum was established in 1686, hampering the spread of reading material for pleasure rather than for religious or other instruction. The first official hymnbook, compiled by Jesper Swedberg (father of Emmanuel Swedenborg), appeared in 1694 but was immediately withdrawn and revised for republication in 1695. Examples of hymnbooks from religious movements outside the state church include the Pietist hymnbook Mose och Lambses wisor (1717; Songs of Moses and the Lamb) and the Moravian Sions sånger (17431745; Songs of Zion).


The death of Charles XII in 1718 signaled the end of the Swedish "Period of Great Power." The period from 1718 to 1772, marked by the change from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary system, is often called the "Era of Freedom," and it coincides with an influx of Enlightenment ideas, especially from France and England, leading to a cultural renaissance in Sweden by the end of the century.

The use of a simpler, conversational style in written Swedish can be seen in the work of Olof von Dalin (17081763). His 1740 political allegory Sagan om hästen (The tale of the horse) became a Swedish classic. Previously, from 1732 to 1733, Dalin had published an influential newspaper, Then swänska Argus (The Swedish Argus), modeled on Joseph Addison and Richard Steele's The Tatler and The Spectator. In the pages of his newspaper, Dalin criticized foreign influence on the Swedish language, as had Stiernhielm in the previous century. Most novels in Sweden at this time were foreign imports, but a notable exception was the high-spirited Min son på galejan eller en ostindisk resa (My son on the galley, or An East Indian journey), by a ship's chaplain named Jacob Wallenberg (17461778).

In the spirit of the Enlightenment, various learned societies were formed for the advancement of science and the arts. Vitterhetsakademien (Academy of Letters), founded by Lovisa Ulrika in 1753, was a precursor to the Swedish Academy established by her son, Gustav III, in 1786. Literary societies were organized on Masonic models. Tankebyggarorden (Thought Builders), established in 1753, included important poets such as Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht (17181763), Gustaf Fredrik Gyllenborg (17311808), and Gustav Philip Creutz (17311785), whose works appeared in the society's publications. The naturalist Carl Linnaeus (17071778) wrote his scientific works in Latin, but his accounts of exploratory journeys to various Swedish provinces were written in Swedish. His students continued his work, publishing reports of their far-flung travels, which helped establish the travel account as a popular literary genre in Sweden.

Gustav III was keenly interested in theater and served as a patron of the arts. Many of the most notable poets of the era collaborated with him on works for the theater and opera. Among these was the poet and critic Johan Henrik Kellgren (17511795), who also edited the newspaper Stockholms Posten for several years. A frequent, though anonymous, contributor to Stockholms Posten was Anna Maria Lenngren (17541817), whose poems show a keen eye and a satiric edge. Sweden's most popular poet of all time, Carl Michael Bellman (17401795), took the popular practice of musical parody (setting words to familiar melodies) to unparalleled heights in the collections Fredmans epistlar (1790; Fredman's epistles; with a famous preface by Kellgren) and Fredmans sånger (1791; Fredman's songs).

The era of Enlightenment came to a definitive close in 1809. In politics, its end was marked by Sweden's defeat in the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent loss of Finland to Russia; in literature, it was heralded by the appearance of the Romantic movement.

See also Bible: Translations and Editions ; Censorship ; Christina (Sweden) ; Enlightenment ; Gustavus II Adolphus (Sweden) ; Journals, Literary ; Linnaeus, Carl ; Reformation, Protestant ; Sweden ; Vasa Dynasty (Sweden) .


Algulin, Ingemar. A History of Swedish Literature. Translated by John Weinstock. Stockholm, 1989.

Algulin, Ingemar, and Bernt Olsson. Litteraturens historia i Sverige. Stockholm, 1987.

Lönnroth, Lars, and Sven Delblanc, eds. Den svenska litteraturen. Vol. 4, Från forntid till frihetstid, 18001718. Stockholm, 1987.

Tigerstedt, E. N. Ny illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria. 4 vols. Stockholm, 1967. Part one covers ancient times through the Vasa era; part two covers through the Gustavian era.

Warme, Lars G., ed. A History of Swedish Literature. Lincoln, Nebr., 1996.

Paul NorlÉn

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Swedish Literature and Language

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