Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Karl Mikael Bellman

BELLMAN, Karl Mikael, the greatest lyrical poet of Sweden, was born at Stockholm on the 4th of February 1740. His father, who held a responsible official position, was descended from a family that had already distinguished itself in the fine arts; his mother, a gifted and beautiful woman, early instructed him in the elements of poetry and music. When quite a child he suddenly developed his extraordinary gift of improvising verse, during the delirium of a severe illness, weaving wild thoughts together lyrically, and singing airs of his own composition. From this time he gave himself up to the poetic art, and received great encouragement from the various eminent men who met round his father's table, among whom was Dalin, the favourite poet of the day. As early as 1757 he published a book of verse, a translation of Schweidnitz's Evangelical Thoughts of Death, and for the next few years wrote a great quantity of poems, imitative for the most part of Dalin. In 1760 appeared his first characteristic work, The Moon, a satirical poem, which was revised and edited by Dalin. But the great work of his life occupied him from 1765 to 1780, and consists of the collections of dithyrambic odes known as Fredman's Epistles and Fredman's Songs. These were not printed until 1790. Tht mode of their composition was extraordinary. No poetry can possibly smell less of the lamp than Bellman's. He was accustomed, when in the presence of none but confidential friends, to announce that the god was about to visit him. He would shut his eyes, take his zither, and begin to improvize a long Bacchic ode in praise of love or wine, and sing it to a melody of his own invention. The genuineness of these extremely singular fits of inspiration could not be doubted. The poems which Bellman wrote in the usual way were tame, poor, and without character. The Fredman's Epistles glow with colour, ring with fierce and mysterious melody, and bear the clear impress of individual genius. These torrents of rhymes are not without their method; wild as they seem, they all conform to the rules of style, and among those that have been preserved there are few that are not perfect in form. The odes of Bellman breathe a passionate love of life; he is amorous of existence, and keen after pleasure, but under all the frenzy there is a pathos, a yearning that is sadder than tears. The most dissimilar elements are united in his poems; in a bacchanal hymn the music will often fade away into a sad elegiac vein, and the rare picturesqueness of his idyllic pictures is warmed into rich colour by the geniality of his humour. He is sometimes frantic, sometimes gross, but always ready, at his wildest moment, to melt into reverie. A great Swedish critic has remarked that the voluptuous joviality of Bellman is, after all, only “sorrow clad in rose-colour,” and this underlying pathos gives his poems their undying charm. His later works, The Temple of Bacchus, a journal called What you Will, a religious anthology entitled Zion's Holiday, and a translation of Gellert's Fables, are comparatively unimportant. He died on the 11th of February 1795. Several statues exist of Bellman. One represents him naked, crowned with ivy, and striking the guitar; the best is the splendid colossal bust by Byström, which adorns the public gardens of Stockholm, which was erected by the Swedish Academy in 1829. Bellman had a grand manner, a fine voice, and great gifts of mimicry, and was a favourite companion of King Gustavus III. The best edition of his works is one lately published at Stockholm, edited by J. G. Carlén.