Swedish literature

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Swedish literature,

literary works in the Swedish language.

From Early Works to the Sixteenth Century

Swedish literature may have flourished in early medieval times, but few written traces remain. Historical chronicles, religious writings, and ballads and verse in Swedish are extant from the 12th cent. The earliest major religious writer was St. Bridget of SwedenBridget of Sweden, Saint,
c.1300–1373, Swedish nun, one of the great saints of Scandinavia. She was a noblewoman at court and the mother of eight children. After her husband's death she founded (1346) the Order of the Most Holy Savior (the Brigettines).
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 (c.1300–1373). As Danish influence grew after the Kalmar Union (1397), there was a period of literary decline.

Of note in the 15th cent. were the poems of Bishop Thomas of Strängnäs (d. 1443) in praise of liberty. The Reformation (16th cent.) conferred a somber spirit upon Sweden, and few secular works were written. The theological and historical works of Olaus Petri (1493–1552) are notable for beginning the linguistic transition to modern Swedish. Petri also assisted in the great Swedish translation of the Bible (1540–41), a project directed by his brother Laurentius Petri (1499–1573).

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Sweden's emergence by 1648 as a great power was not accompanied by comparable literary splendor, but under Queen ChristinaChristina
, 1626–89, queen of Sweden (1632–54), daughter and successor of Gustavus II. From her father's death (1632) until 1644 she was under a regency headed by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna.
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 continental influence helped to bring about a literary renaissance. Georg Stiernhielm (1598–1672) wrote verse that was sophisticated both in form and in content, combining classical idealism with a Gothic strain. The folk songs in medieval style of Lasse Lucidor (1638–74) and the baroque rhymes of Gunno Dahlstjerna (1661–1709) were outstanding among poetical works.

Ideas of the EnlightenmentEnlightenment,
term applied to the mainstream of thought of 18th-century Europe and America. Background and Basic Tenets

The scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th cent.
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, introduced by Olof von DalinDalin, Olof von
, 1708–63, Swedish historian, poet, and journalist, the foremost figure of the Swedish Enlightenment. In his successful career in the civil service, Dalin served as royal librarian (1737–39), tutor to the future Gustavus III (1750–56), royal
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 in the 1730s, spread steadily, and great mystical intellectualism was set forth in the numerous works of Emanuel SwedenborgSwedenborg, Emanuel
, 1688–1772, Swedish scientist, religious teacher, and mystic. His religious system, sometimes called Swedenborgianism, is largely incorporated in the Church of the New Jerusalem, founded some years after his death.
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. The greatest Swedish poet of the age, Carl Michael BellmanBellman, Carl Michael
, 1740–95, Swedish poet; protégé of Gustavus III. His early poetry was chiefly religious. His dithyrambic odes in Fredmans Epistlar (1790) and Fredmans Sånger (1791) include bacchanals, pastorals, and comic pieces.
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, wrote superb verse inspired by traditional Swedish songs. In the reign of Gustavus IIIGustavus III,
1746–92, king of Sweden (1771–92), son and successor of Adolphus Frederick. When Gustavus ascended the throne, he found his kingdom torn by civil strife.
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, founder of the Swedish Academy in 1786, the important court circle of writers included the eminent poet and critic Johan Henrik Kellgren. The great scientist Carolus LinnaeusLinnaeus, Carolus
, 1707–78, Swedish botanist and taxonomist, considered the founder of the binomial system of nomenclature and the originator of modern scientific classification of plants and animals. He studied botany and medicine and taught both at Uppsala.
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 also made enormously influential contributions to Swedish literature. Classical standards were upheld by the academy, but the sentimentality of Rousseau and other European writers, strongly defended by Thomas Thorild (1759–1808), began to permeate the middle classes in the late 18th cent.

The Nineteenth Century

When romanticism flowered in the golden age of Swedish poetry (c.1820–1840), the movement became Germanic in character and conservative in tone; many of its themes were taken from folk culture. Historical and folk interests are typified by the work of A. A. AfzeliusAfzelius, Arvid August
, 1785–1871, Swedish historian, mythologist, and songwriter. He made a notable collection of folk material in Swedish Folk Tunes from Olden Times (3 vol., 1814–16). His autobiography was published in 1901.
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. Three of the finest romantic poets were Erik GeijerGeijer, Erik Gustav
, 1783–1847, Swedish historian and poet. A leader in the revival of Swedish national literature, he also taught history at the Univ. of Uppsala. His History of the Swedes (tr.
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, Per Atterbom, and Esaias TegnérTegnér, Esaias
, 1782–1846, Swedish poet, bishop of Växjö. Tegnér was the most popular of the Swedish romantic poets. An optimistic nationalist and liberal in his youth, he later became melancholy and conservative and was subject to periods of
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The tales of C. J. L. AlmquistAlmquist, Carl Jonas Love
, 1793–1866, Swedish writer. He was one of the few Swedish authors developing the novel in the period 1830–50. At first a somewhat bizarre romanticist, inclined toward anarchy, he later became more concerned with realism and democracy.
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 show the development of Swedish prose and also serve to divide the declining romantic movement from the literary ferment of the 1840s. By mid-century a mild utilitarianism and social criticism, modeled along English lines, was prevalent in Swedish literature and journalism. Fredrika BremerBremer, Fredrika
, 1801–65, Swedish writer and feminist, b. Finland. Her novels of everyday life include The H Family (1829), The President's Daughters (1834), and The Home (1839).
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 gained international renown as a reporter, author, and activist for women's rights. Another major spokesman for an idealistic vision was the philosopher Abraham Viktor RydbergRydberg, Abraham Viktor
, 1828–95, Swedish philosopher and writer. Singoalla (1857), a romantic and mystical story of medieval times, was his first major work. His polemical novel The Last Athenian (1859, tr.
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The first true realism appeared with the dramatist August StrindbergStrindberg, Johan August
, 1849–1912, Swedish dramatist and novelist. He was a master of the Swedish language and an innovator in dramatic and literary styles.
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 and a group of writers called the Young Sweden, among them Victoria Benedictsson and Gustaf af Geijerstam. They were followed by a movement toward creative individualism. Verner von Heidenstam was an aristocratic exponent of personal expression, and the poet Gustaf FrödingFröding, Gustaf
, 1860–1911, Swedish lyric poet. His first two volumes of poems, Guitar and Concertina (1891) and New Poems (1894), both translated into English in 1925, assured his popularity.
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 and the novelist Selma LagerlöfLagerlöf, Selma
, 1858–1940, Swedish novelist. Her native Värmland is the background for many of her excellent stories, which deal with peasant life. Novels include The Story of Gösta Berling (1891, tr.
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 followed equally personal paths.

The Twentieth Century

In the early 20th cent. the fiction of Hjalmar SöderbergSöderberg, Hjalmar
, 1869–1941, Swedish writer. He is known for a lyrical but melancholic and disillusioned mood. Söderberg's first novel, Martin Birck's Youth (1901, tr. 1930), is the story of a dreamer living a drab middle-class existence.
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 presaged a renewed emphasis on restraint and realism. Ludvig Nordström, Gustaf Hellström, and Elin WägnerWägner, Elin
, 1882–1949, Swedish novelist. Wägner was a leading feminist of her day. In early works such as Pennskaftet [the penholder] (1910), she deals with the social, economic, and political questions confronting self-supporting urban women.
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 were leading novelists of the 1910s and 20s. Proletarian themes were developed after World War I by Vilhelm MobergMoberg, Vilhelm
, 1898–1973, Swedish novelist and dramatist. Substantial recognition came with his partly autobiographical Knut Toring trilogy (1935–39; tr. The Earth is Ours, 1940). The historical novel Ride This Night! (1941, tr.
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, Ivar Lo-Johansson, Moa Martinsson, and Martin Koch. The Nobel laureate Pär LagerkvistLagerkvist, Pär Fabian
, 1891–1974, Swedish poet, dramatist, and novelist. Lagerkvist is considered one of the most significant figures of modern Swedish literature. His central concern is the human soul, his main theme the problem of good and evil.
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 developed and sustained Swedish expressionism, as did the novelist Hjalmar BergmanBergman, Hjalmar
, 1883–1931, Swedish novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer. A popular and prolific writer, Bergman wrote from the background of an unhappy childhood and chronic mental depression.
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 and the poet Birger Sjöberg. Modernism, with its emphasis on experimental form, was a strong trend in the 1920s and after; among its leading exponents were Karin BoyeBoye, Karin
, 1900–1941, Swedish poet, novelist, and short-story writer. Boye's volumes of poetry, including Moln [clouds] (1922) and Glömda land
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 and Gunnar EkelöfEkelöf, Gunnar
, 1907–68, Swedish poet. Ekelöf's lifelong interest in mysticism was evident in his first book, Late Arrival on Earth (1932, tr. 1967), a collection of surrealist poems.
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A number of fine writers emerged both before and after World War II, including the novelist Eyvind JohnsonJohnson, Eyvind
, 1900–1976, Swedish novelist and short-story writer. After working as a laborer in the north of Sweden, Johnson moved to Stockholm in 1919 and began to write.
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 (who shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in literature with the Swedish poet Harry MartinsonMartinson, Harry,
1904–78, Swedish writer. Orphaned early, Martinson was self-educated. His works reveal his appreciation of nature and his distrust of modern technological society.
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), Ivar Lo-Johansson, and Agnes von Krusenstierna. Leading Swedish writers of the late 20th cent. include the novelists Sven Delblanc, Kerstin Ekman, Lars Gustaffson, P.C. Jersild, and Sara Lidman; the poets Tomas Tranströmer, Göran Palm, and Göran Sønnevi; and the dramatists Per Olov EnquistEnquist, Per Olov
, 1934–2020, Swedish novelist and dramatist whose work was especially popular in Sweden, France, and Germany. He wrote more than 20 novels as well as plays, essays, and collections of poems.
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 and Lars Norén.


See I. Scobbie, ed., Aspects of Modern Swedish Literature (1988); anthologies ed. by K. E. Lagerlöf (1979) and P. Wästberg (1979); collections of poetry ed. by R. J. McClean (1968) and G. Harding et al. (1979).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. www.cc.columbia.edu/cu/cup/
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