Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Tegnér, Esaias

  • Literature (fictional prose/drama)Literature (poetry/verse)Europe (general)Germanic / pan-GermanicSwedish
  • Author:
    Hermansson, Gunilla
  • Title:
    Tegnér, Esaias
  • Text:

    Esaias Tegnér (Säffle, Värmland 1782 – Vaxjö 1846), the son of a pastor, studied at Lund University, where, following his graduation, he taught aesthetics and was appointed Professor in Greek in 1812. He obtained his doctorate in theology and a position as pastor in 1818, and was appointed Bishop of Vaxjö in 1824, where he lived until his death – the years after 1840 being overshadowed by mental illness. In 1811 his patriotic poem Svea dealing with Sweden’s loss of Finland, won a prize from the Swedish Academy, to which he was elected in 1819. As Bishop of Växjö, Tegnér also had a seat in the Swedish Riksdag (parliament).

    In 1812 Tegnér joined the Götiska förbundet (“Geatish Association”), which aimed to revitalize the Nordic past through scientific and poetic publications, and contributed poems to its journal Iduna (1811-24). He eventually criticized both the National Romantics and the more universal Romantic school known as the phosphorists, whose leading figure was P.D.A. Atterbom. His own work aimed at a combination of Romanticism and Classicism. From the 1820s Tegnér far exceeded his fellow-poets in popularity and gained the status of Sweden’s national poet. His fame rested first of all on his romance cycle Frithiofs saga. Four of its cantos were published in Iduna in 1820, five more in 1822, and the entire work was published in book form in 1825. It was a modern interpretation of an Icelandic saga (Fornaldarsaga). It expounded the notion of the strong, simple and brave Viking dedicated to masculine virtues while combining this with Ossianic sentiment and Biedermeier values, including traditional gender stereotypes. The love story between Frithiof and Ingeborg was intertwined with a story of mishap and error, repentance and forgiveness, and the happy ending also secured a Christian framing of the ancient Norse religion. Politically, it sustained an idea of the old Nordic compromise between monarchy and democracy by promoting an image of an unspoiled bond of faithfulness and merit between the elected monarch and his people.

    Frithiofs saga was inspired by the works of the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger, but the result appealed more readily to modern audiences, causing the first major breakthrough for modern Swedish literature in Germany, Britain, America, and elsewhere, where it was perceived as expressing a true Nordic or Swedish character. It was also surrounded by ideas of a  racial bond between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, as well as of the particularities of the North-Germanic people.

    Nine Swedish editions of Frithiofs saga appeared during Tegnérs lifetime. In the same period more than 20 editions were published in Germany. Translations to Norwegian and German were made already from the first published cantos in Iduna, and the book publication saw three different German translations and two Danish-Norwegians as early as 1826. The first English translation (1833) was followed by at least 14 other by 1914. By 1914 it had been translated into at least nine more languages (Russian, French, Dutch, Italian, Polish, Icelandic, Hungarian, Finnish, Czech).

    Several Swedish composers created music to the songs; especially Bernhard Crusell’s Tio sånger ur Frithiofs saga, satta i musik och tillegnade Frithiofs skald (1826) bolstered the poem’s success in Sweden and abroad. Illustrations to the different editions mirror the progress of historical knowledge of Nordic antiquity, but also promoted the popular visual construction of the Viking with horned helmet and dragon-headed ship. It also boosted scholarly interest in and translations of this particular Icelandic saga during the 19th century. Across Europe and America the poem inspired other poems, novels, plays, operas, painting as well as tourism in Norway (the land of the hero). The production of translations, retellings and adaptations continued throughout the century. Kaiser Wilhelm II contributed a Song to Aegir (1894) which in English translation (by Max Müller) became part of the coronation celebrations of King George V, and in 1913 the Kaiser even donated a monumental statue of Frithiof to be erected in Norway.

    Word Count: 647

    Växjö (SE)

    Säffle (SE)

    Lund (SE)

    Müller, Max

    Oehlenschläger, Adam Gottlob

    Atterbom, Per Daniel Amadeus

    Bernhard, Crusell


    Text editions : Icelandic

    Narrative literature (historical) : GERMANIC (genl, pan-G)

    Narrative literature (historical) : Swedish

    Antiquarianism, archeology : Swedish

    National-classical music : Swedish

    Ingeborg (1868)

    Frithiof Vik (NO) 1913

    1894 – William II (German Emperor): Song to Aegir (Sang an Aegir)

  • Article version:
  • Elam, Ingrid; 1988. “Esaias Tegnér – klassicist och nationalskald”, in: Den svenska litteraturen: Upplysning och romantik, ed. Lars Lönnroth, Sven Delblanc (Stockholm: Bonniers) 283-307 [“E.T. – classicist and national poet”]

    Lundqvist, Åke K.G.; 1996. “Frithiofs saga på väg”, in: Möten med Tegnér, ed. Ulla Törnqvist (Lund: Tegnérsamfundet) 33-73 [“Frithiofs saga on the way/Meetings with T.”]

    Rühling, Lutz; 1996. “Nordische Poeterey und gigantisch-barbarische Dichtart: Die Rezeption der skandinavischen Literaturen in Deutschland bis 1870”, in: Weltliteratur in deutschen Versanthologien des 19. Jahrhunderts, ed. Helga Essmann, Udo Schöning (Berlin: Schmidt) 77-121

    Wawn, Andrew; 2000. The vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge: Brewer)

  • Creative Commons License
    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Hermansson, Gunilla, 2018. "Tegnér, Esaias", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 10-08-2018, consulted 19-07-2019.