Runic inscriptions and a few poetic fragments suggest that pre-Christian Sweden possessed a poetic tradition similar to that of contemporary Iceland. The conversion to Christianity in the 11th century and the subsequent introduction of the Latin alphabet facilitated the development of a native literature. The first important works in Swedish were the provincial laws, recorded in the 13th century, whose narrative style reflect epic and poetic conventions. Continental chivalric literature was introduced in the beginning of the 14th century through translations collected in the Eufemiavisor. Of greater literary value was the historical romance Erikskrönikan ("The Chronicle of Erik") from the same period. In addition to the secular literature in the vernacular, there was a substantial body of religious writing in Latin. Most famous are St. Bridget's (1303-1373) visions dealing with religious and political matters collected in Revelationes Celestes (1492). Nationalistic sentiment inspired Bishop Thomas (d. 1443) to write his poem "Frihetsvisan" ("The Song of Liberty"), the earliest example of mature poetry in Swedish.
In 1541, with Olaus Petri's (1493-1552) translation of the Bible, the language assumed a distinct national character. Johannes Messenius and Magnus Olai Asteropherus wrote dramatic works, but their plays are far from the quality of European Renaissance drama. The poets were more successful. These included Lars Wivallius (1605-1669), who praised nature and liberty, and the religious poets Jesper Swedberg and Haquin Spegel. Most important was George Stiernhielm, known for his allegorical-didactic epic Hercules (1658), about a young man's choice between Mrs. Pleasure and Mrs. Virtue. The poetic tradition continued with Lars Johansson (pseud. Lucidor, 1638-1674) whose drinking songs, wedding poems, and religious poetry were published after his death in Helicons blomster (1688; "The Flowers of Helicon").
The Age of Enlightenment
In this era of materialism and utilitarianism, a modern Swedish language was established primarily in Olof von Dalin's (1708-1763) periodical Then Swänska Argus (1723-1734) modeled after the British The Tatler and The Spectator . It contained moralizing but entertaining writing on domestic and politicial matters of the day. Two scientists also contributed to the letters: the scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) wrote religious visions flavored by his erotic temperament, and the botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) published travelogues based upon his journeys throughout Sweden. Again, poets created the most enduring literature. Gustav Philip Creutz (1731-1785) wrote Atis och Camilla (1761) in graceful verse following classical ideals, and Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht (1718-1763), transformed the woes of her own life into passionate poetry. Johan Henrik Kellgren (1751-1795) began his career as a radical materialist and ended it as a pre-romantic poet with a vision of love as a power transforming the physical world. Anna Maria Lenngren (1754-1818) wrote idyllic, satirical poetry about middle class domestic life.
The greatest poet of the 18th century was Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795). His best known collection of poems, Fredmans epistlar (1790), celebrates drink, love, and death. His lower class, decrepit characters are given a mythical aura transcending their social misery.
Romanticism. The romantic movement was inspired by German idealistic philosophy, notably Schelling's pantheism. The leader of the romantics was Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom (1790-1885), whose play Lycksalighetens ö (1824; "Isle of Bliss") is the most representative product of the new movement. Most popular was Esaias Tegnér's (1782-1846) national epic Frithiofs Saga (1820-1825), which is about love and honor among the Vikings. The tradition of religious poetry was furthered by Johan Olof Wallin (1779-1839), Sweden's greatest writer of hymns. The most gifted of the romantic poets was Erik Johan Stagnelius (1793-1823). Erotic and religious features merge in his collection of poems, Liljor i Saron (1821; "Lilies of Sharon"), whose theme is the struggle between flesh and spirit. His later work, inspired by folklore, has a tone of touching simplicity as in "Näcken" ("The Neck"). Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793-1866) started as a romantic in his prose work Amorina (1822), attacking the Church, conventional morals, and marriage. He turned realist in the 1830's and wrote short stories about the virtuous qualities in the common and poor peoples. In his novel Det går an (1838; Sara Videbeck , 1919), he advocated feminist ideas.
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Realism, Naturalism, and Neoromanticism
From the middle of the 19th century, writers became more concerned with social issues. Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865), best known for her novel Hertha (1856; The Four Sisters , 1856), described middle class life and the injustice of women's legal inferiority. Her travelogues from the United States in the middle 1850's were widely appreciated. Victoria Benedictsson (pseud. Ernst Ahlgren, 1850-1888) exposed the fate of woman in a patriarchal society in the novel Pengar (1885; "Money"). The works of Viktor Rydberg (1825-1895) fluctuated between romanticism, in his novel Singoalla (1857; Singoalla, A Medieval Legend , 1903), and, in his poetry, indignation over the brutal egotism of industrialism.
The dominant figure in modern Swedish literature is August Strindberg (1849-1912). His novel Röda Rummet (1879; The Red Room , 1913) is about the hypocrisy of the Church and the corruption in business and bureaucracy. Other notable works by him include his autobiographical tetralogy Tjänstekvinnans son (1886-1887; Son of a Servant , 1913) and Hemsö borna (1887; The People of Hemsö , 1959), a humorous novel about intrigues for money and love in a fishing community. In two collections of short stories, Giftas (1884-1886; Married, 1917) he argued that economic and biological factors prevent both men's and women's liberation. In Inferno (1897; trans. 1968) he described the crisis that transformed him from a heretic into a religious man.
But it is as a dramatist that Strindberg is best known. His first major play was Mäster Olof (1872; Master Olof , 1915). He treated the national heroes Olaus Petri and Gustav Vasa as humans rather than legends, which at first made the play unacceptable for the theater. Nor was it easy for Strindberg to break through the moralistic climate in Sweden to have his great naturalistic play Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie , 1913) performed or even published. The play was received enthusiastically in Paris long before its Swedish premier in 1906. Strindberg projected his personal conflicts into the play's sex and class warfare, from which the stronger on both counts, the lower-class man, emerges victorious. To the play belongs its equally famous preface, articulating a theory of naturalistic drama and a demand for unity in time, place, and action. The naturalistic Fadern (1889; The Father , 1907) belongs to the same period. After the Inferno, however, Strindberg experimented with new dramatic techniques, resulting in the type of drama that inspired the expressionist theater. Best known among Strindberg's plays from this period is Ett drömspel (1902; A Dream Play , 1912) with the Schopenhauerian leitmotif "Man is to be pitied." A Dream Play is orchestrated with numerous characters and scenes following each other loosely connected as in a dream. During this period Strindberg also wrote a group of works called the "Chamber Plays," which utilized great economy of character and setting. To the Chamber Plays belong Spöksonaten (1907; The Ghost Sonata , 1912) and Pelikanen (1907; The Pelican , 1912). Strindberg was a prolific writer who also produced poetry, essays, and tales.
A neoromantic reaction was begun in the 1890's, exemplified by the poetry of Gustav Fröding (1860-1911). His Gitarr och Dragharmonika (1891; Guitar and Concertina , 1925) contains poetry of both mirth and melancholy. In later poetry he describes his struggle against madness. Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1864-1931; Nobel Prize, 1931) idealized closeness to nature and simple life in Fridolins visor (1898; "Fridolin's Songs"). His later poetry was more complex and demoniac. Best known from this period is Selma Lagerlöf (1850-1940; Nobel Prize, 1909) whose novels were often based on folklore. In Gösta Berlings saga (1891; trans. 1918) she created a romantic hero in the fallen priest who loves pleasure but repents through love.
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The novel became increasingly popular in the 20th century. The feminist tradition continued with Elin Wägner's (1882-1949) Pennskaftet (1910; "The Pen Holder"). Representing the bourgeois novel was Hjalmar Söderberg (1868-1941), who expressed the prevailing literary "decadent" mood in the lyrical disillusionment of Martin Birks ungdom (1901; Martin Birck's Youth , 1930), and in his short stories. Hjalmar Bergman (1883-1931) displayed comic genius in Markurells i Wadköping (1919; God's Orchid , 1924) and penetrating psychology in Chefen fru Ingeborg (1924; The Head of the Firm , 1936) about a middle-aged woman's passion for a younger man. In his last novel, Clownen Jac (1930; "Jack, the Clown"), Bergman comments ironically on himself as an artist.
In the late 1920's a group of self-educated writers from the lower classes emerged, the "proletarian" authors. The most prominent was Ivar Lo-Johansson (b. 1901) whose novels about poor farmworkers helped improve their condition. He was still active in the 1970's, publishing collections of short stories about man's sins and a series of autobiographies, notably Pubertet (1978; "Puberty"). Others were Jan Fridegård (1897-1968) and Moa Martinsson (1890-1964). Eyvind Johnson (1900-1976; Nobel Prize, 1974) came from the same class but his novels had a more cosmopolitan direction. They are recognized for their modern narrative technique. Notable among them are the tetralogy Romanen om Olof (1934-1937; first part trans. as 1914, 1970), the Krilon trilogy (1941-1943), and Strändernas svall (1946; Return to Ithaca , 1952). Another important proletarian author was Wilhelm Moberg (1898-1973), known for novels and plays critical of society and for his epics about the emigrants to America.
A group of five poets appeared in 1929, representing modernistic yet also primitivistic trends. Most important was Harry Martinson (1904-1978; Nobel Prize, 1974), also a major novelist and essayist. Spökskepp (1929; "Ghostship"), Passad (1945; "Trade Winds"), and Tuvor (1976; "Tussocks") provide a good cross section of his poetic development. Existential anxiety triggered by World War II is reflected in the poetry of Erik Lindegren (1910-1968), whose Mannen utan väg (1942; The Man Without a Way , 1969) stands as a milestone for the "new poetry" of alienated man. Other important poets were Artur Lundkvist (b. 1906), Karl Vennberg (b. 1910), and Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968). Contemporary trends are displayed in Tomas Tranströmer's (b. 1931) nature poems and in Goran Sonnevi's (b. 1939) poems of political awareness. Lars Gustafsson (b. 1936), also a major novelist, writes outstanding lyrical philosophical poetry, notably in Världens tystnad efter Bach (1983; "The Silence of the World After Bach"). Sonja kesson (1926-1977) represents modern feminist poetry.
The central figure in 20th-century Swedish literature is the poet, dramatist, and novelist Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974; Nobel Prize, 1951). His major theme is the modern world stripped of traditional religious and social values. Variations on this theme can be found in the story Det eviga leendet (1920; The Eternal Smile , 1934) and the autobiographical Gäst hos verkligheten (1925; Guest of Reality , 1936). In Dvärgen (1944; The Dwarf , 1945) he portrays evil. Man's need for God is the theme of two of Lagerkvist's finest works, Barabbas (1950; trans. 1951) and Sibyllan (1956; The Sibyl , 1958).
In the middle 1940's, a new aesthetic for the novel was advocated by the writer Lars Ahlin (b. 1915). Om (1946; "If, About, Around") with an intriguing narrative technique belongs to his major work. Ahlin broke a long silence in 1982 when he published, with his wife, Hannibal-segraren ("Hannibal-The Victor"), an exploration of the dynamics of a man's search for power. Other important novelists are Stig Dagerman (1923-1954), Lars Gyllensten (b. 1921), Per Olof Sundman (b. 1922), and Birgitta Trotzig (b. 1929). The modern trend toward incorporating contemporary history with fiction to create a literature of reportage is represented by Sara Lidman (b. 1922) and Per Olof Enquist (b. 1934), who is also an important dramatist. Much contemporary literature continues to seek material from the past. A masterpiece in this tradition is Sven Delblanc's (b. 1931) Hedeby series (published in the 1970's) about Sweden before and during World War II. Also important are Kerstin Ekman's (b. 1933) historical novels beginning with Häxringarna (1974; "The Witches Rings"). The most recent trend in Swedish literature is found in the writings of P. C. Jersild (b. 1935), who mixes social satire about inhuman bureaucracy with fantastic elements, notably in Djurdoktorn (1973; The Animal Doctor , 1975) and En levande själ (1980; "A Living Soul") about the life of a detached brain.
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