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Bellman. Biografin review

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Issue number: 2021:2

Bellman. Biografin book cover

Bellman. Biografin

(Bellman. The Biography)

by Carina Burman
reviewed by Paul Norlen

In the century after his death Carl Michael Bellman (1740–1795) became known as Sweden’s national poet and thereby ‘a symbol of all that was considered typically Swedish’ (p. 36). That reputation has basically persisted to the present day.

There have been previous biographical studies of Bellman, most notably perhaps Carl Michael Bellman, an overview of his life and works by the Finland-Swedish poet Lars Huldén in 1994 (which was positively reviewed in Svenska Dagbladet by none other than Carina Burman). In The Life and Songs of Carl Michael Bellman (1967), Paul Britten Austin presented the poet in English in an illustrated work with a generous sampling of translated excerpts, now long out of print. In 2002 Ernst Brunner published a fictional autobiography of the poet, Fukta din aska (The Life of C.M. Bellman from Beginning to End), pointing out in an afterword that despite the extensive secondary literature on Bellman a scholarly literary biography remained to be written. As Burman’s title proclaims, this is that book.

Burman has structured the book as a play in three acts: ‘I. Morning. The Era of Freedom 1740–1771’; ‘II. Midday. The Light under Gustav III 1771–1789’; and ‘III. Evening. The Dark Years 1789–1795’. The author also provides a useful ‘dramatis personae’ of the many men and women that cross Bellman’s path.

Burman writes that the purpose of the book is to ‘paint Bellman’s portrait based on his surroundings’ (p. 30). Bellman lived his entire life in Stockholm, at that time a small city of about 70,000 inhabitants (with 700 taverns). As a young man he spent two months as a half-hearted student in Uppsala, another two months in the province of Sörmland, and (perhaps) a brief sojourn in Norway to escape creditors, but otherwise never strayed from the city of his birth.

Bellman’s literary output was vast. There were countless occasional poems, many to friends, others commissioned, for name days, weddings and funerals. Drinking songs were also a favored form, many of which are still sung today. Bellman even wrote verse soliciting employment or patronage. He often performed his songs in private homes and other semi-public settings; as Burman points out, he was ‘just as much troubadour as poet’ (p. 360). His ability to improvise verse and to imitate musical instruments and animals both entertained and astounded his audiences, as reported in contemporary diaries and later recollections. Many of the poems that are preserved were transcribed in private albums, a common practice of the day. Few were published.

In the 1770s Bellman began composing a new type of song, an ‘epistle,’ built around a cast of local characters including the late clockmaker Fredman and his Bacchanalian comrades. At the core of what would become Fredmans epistlar (Fredman’s Epistles) and Fredmans sånger (Fredman’s Songs), Bellman’s most significant works, is ‘the parody of religious texts and the praise of intoxication and the enjoyment of life’ (p. 158). Death is also a frequent subject, as in Epistle 30 ‘Drick ur ditt glas’ (‘Empty your glass, / See, Death is waiting for you’).

Bellman’s financial position was always precarious. In 1775 he applied to King Gustav III, in verse of course, for employment (preferably with a salary), and was granted a position at the recently established Nummerlotteriet (Number Lottery). (Alluding to this in a letter, Gustav III wrote (in French): ‘I have always admired poets, especially Swedish poets. You know that these gentlemen are always poor’.) The position could be described as a sinecure, in support of his literary activities.

Burman comments at several points about how little is known of Bellman as a person. About several issues, such as his relationship with his wife, she writes: ‘We don’t know’. He was not a letter writer like many of his contemporaries. But it is possible to map all the places he lived in Stockholm, from birth to death (in later years the family moved often), and to follow his financial situation, in part because he was so often in debt and pursued by collectors. Toward the end of his life he ended up in debtor’s prison for a time, where he also wrote a short memoir, to which Burman makes frequent reference in the first part of her account.

Gustav III was a strong supporter of the arts, and during his reign a number of cultural institutions were established, including the Royal Opera, the Dramatic Theater, and the Swedish Academy (in 1786). Bellman, however, was not selected as one of its eighteen members. But in 1790 a long-held dream was fulfilled, when Fredmans Epistlar (including 82 pieces) was finally published, followed a few years later by Fredmans Sånger. These were each published in two volumes, one with text and one with music, as they are meant to be sung.

Burman’s prose is eminently readable, and she occasionally makes striking comparisons to present-day phenomena. One example concerns the newly crowned Gustav III. ‘Gustav III’s interest in culture was generally known, and under his regime young authors flocked around the throne like teenage girls around a boy band’ (p. 187). Bellman was no exception; although he showed no signs of being political, he wrote a number of homages to the king, including the popular ‘Gustafs skål’ (A toast to Gustaf). Gustav III was his most important patron.

The author has distilled the considerable body of secondary literature on Bellman (mostly, but not entirely, in Swedish) into an engaging and entertaining account of an eighteenth-century life and a legendary literary figure.

Carina Burman smiling against shadowy background
Carina Burman. Photo: Fredrik Hjerling.

Bellman. Biografin

Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2019

751 pages

Foreign rights: Albert Bonniers Förlag

Carina Burman is the author of biographies of 19th-century author and reformer Fredrika Bremer (2001), essayist Klara Johansson (2007) and actor Gösta Ekman (2011). She has also published eight novels, including The Streets of Babylon (Babylons gator), translated into English by Sarah Death. Previous works have been reviewed in SBR 2009:1, 2006:2 and 2005:1.