Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Esaias Tegnér

TEGNÉR, Esaias (1782-1846), the most celebrated of Swedish writers, was born November 13, 1782, at Kyrkerud in Wermland. His father was a pastor, and his grandparents on both sides were peasants. His father, whose name had been Esaias Lucasson, took the surname of Tegnerus—altered by his fifth son, the poet, to Tegnér—from the hamlet of Tegnaby in Småland, where he was born. In 1799 Tegnér, hitherto educated in the country, entered the university of Lund, where he graduated in philosophy in 1802, and continued as tutor until 1810, when he was elected Greek lecturer. In 1812 he was named professor, and continued to work as a lecturer in Lund until 1824, when he was made bishop of Wexiö. At Wexiö he remained until his death, twenty-two years later. Tegnér's early poems have little merit. He was comparatively slow in development. His first great success was a dithyrambic war-song for the army of 1808, which stirred every Swedish heart. In 1811 his patriotic poem Svea won the great prize of the Swedish Academy, and made him famous. In the same year was founded in Stockholm the Gothic League (Götiska förbundet), a sort of club of young and patriotic men of letters, of whom Tegnér quickly became the chief. The club published a magazine, entitled Iduna, in which it printed a great deal of excellent poetry, and ventilated its views, particularly as regards the study of old Icelandic literature and history. Tegnér, Geijer, Afzelius, and Nicander became the most famous members of the Gothic League. Of the very numerous poems written by Tegnér in the little room at Lund which is now shown to visitors as the Tegnér museum, the majority are short, and even occasional lyrics. His celebrated Song to the Sun dates from 1817. He completed three poems of a more ambitious character, on which his fame chiefly rests. Of these, two, the romance of Axel and the delicately-chiselled idyl of Nattvardsbarnen (“The First Communion,” 1820), translated by Longfellow, take a secondary place in comparison with Tegnér's masterpiece, of world-wide fame. In 1820 he published in Iduna certain fragments of an epic or cycle of epical pieces, on which he was then working, Frithiofssaga or the Story of Frithiof. In 1822 he published five more cantos, and in 1825 the entire poem. Before it was completed it was famous throughout Europe; the aged Goethe took up his pen to commend to his countrymen this “alte, kräftige, gigantisch-barbarische Dichtart,” and desired Amalie von Imhoff to translate it into German. This romantic paraphrase of an ancient saga was composed in twenty-four cantos, all differing in verse form, modelled somewhat, it is only fair to say, on an earlier Danish masterpiece, the Helge of Oehlenschläger. Frithiofssaga is the best known of all Swedish productions; it is said to have been translated nineteen times into English, eighteen times into German, and once at least into every European language. It is far from satisfying the demands of more recent antiquarian research, but it still is allowed to give the freshest existing impression, in imaginative form, of life in early Scandinavia. In later years Tegnér began, but left unfinished, two important epical poems, Gerda and Kronbruden. The period of the publication of Frithiofssaga (1825) was the critical epoch of his career. It made him one of the most famous poets of Europe; it transferred him from his study in Lund to the bishop's palace in Wexiö; it marked the first breakdown of his health, which had hitherto been excellent; and it witnessed a singular moral crisis in the inner history of the poet, about which much has been written, but of which little is known. Tegnér was at this time passionately in love with a certain beautiful Euphrosyne Palm, the wife of a town-councillor in Lund, and this unfortunate passion, while it inspired much of his finest poetry, turned the poet's blood to gall. From this time forward the heartlessness of woman is one of Tegnér's principal themes. It is a remarkable sign of the condition of Sweden at that time that a man not in holy orders, and so little in possession of the religious temperament as Tegnér, should be offered and should accept a bishop's crozier. He did not hesitate in accepting it: it was a great honour; he was poor; and he was anxious to get away from Lund. No sooner, however, had he begun to study for his new duties than he began to regret the step he had taken. It was nevertheless too late to go back, and Tegnér made a respectable bishop as long as his health lasted. But he became moody and melancholy; as early as 1836 he complained of fiery heats in his brain, and in 1840, during a visit to Stockholm, he suddenly became insane. He was sent to an asylum in Schleswig, and early in 1841 he was cured, and able to return to Wexiö. It was during his convalescence in Schleswig that he wrote Kronbruden. He wrote no more of importance; in 1843 he had a stroke of apoplexy, and on the 2d of November 1846 he died in Wexiö. From 1819 he had been a member of the Swedish Academy, where he was succeeded by his biographer and best imitator Böttiger. In prose Tegnér wrote letters, which have been collected, and which are considered the best of their kind in the Swedish language. As a poet he will scarcely be preferred to Bellman or to Runeberg by Swedish verse amateurs, but he still exceeds these and all other writers in popularity.

See Böttiger, Teckning af Tegnérs Lefnad; Georg Brandes, Esaias Tegnér; Thomander, Tankar och Löjen.(E. W. G.)