There is one poem in this volume, in reference to which a few introductory remarks may be useful It is The Children of the Lord’s Supper, from the Swedish of Bishop Tegnér; a poem which enjoys no inconsiderable reputation in the North of Europe, and for its beauty and simplicity merits the attention of English readers. It is an Idyl, descriptive of scenes in a Swedish village; and belongs to the same class of poems, as the Luise of Voss and the Hermann und Dorothea of Göthe. But the Swedish Poet has been guided by a surer taste, than his German predecessors. His tone is pure and elevated; and he rarely, if ever, mistakes what is trivial for what is simple.
There is something patriarchal still lingering about rural life in Sweden, which renders it a fit theme for song. Almost primeval simplicity reigns over that Northern land, — almost primeval solitude and stillness. You pass out from the gate of the city, and, as if by magic, the scene changes to a wild, woodland landscape. Around you are forests of fir. Over head hang the long, fan-like branches, trailing with moss, and heavy with red and blue cones. Under foot is a carpet of yellow leaves; and the air is warm and balmy. On a wooden bridge you cross a little silver stream; and anon come forth into a pleasant and sunny land of farms. Wooden fences divide the adjoining fields. Across the road are gates, which are opened by troops of children. The peasants take off their hats as you pass; you sneeze, and they cry, “God bless you.” The houses in the villages and smaller towns are all built of hewn timber, and for the most part painted red. The floors of the taverns are strewn with the fragrant tips of fir boughs. In many villages there are no taverns, and the peasants take turns in receiving travellers. The thrifty housewife shows you into the best chamber, the walls of which are hung round with rude pictures from the Bible; and brings you her heavy silver spoons, — an heirloom, — to dip the curdled milk from the pan. You have oaten cakes baked some months before; or bread with anise-seed and coriander in it, or perhaps a little pine bark.
Meanwhile the sturdy husband has brought his horses from the plough, and harnessed them to your carriage. Solitary travellers come and go in uncouth one-horse chaises. Most of them have pipes in their mouths, and hanging around their necks in front, a leather wallet, in which they carry tobacco, and the great bank notes of the country, as large as your two hands. You meet, also, groups of Dalekarlian peasant women, travelling homeward or town-ward in pursuit of work. They walk barefoot, carrying in their hands their shoes, which have high heels under the hollow of the foot, and soles of birch bark.
Frequent, too, are the village churches, standing by the road-side, each in its own little garden of Gethsemane. In the parish register great events are doubtless recorded. Some old king was christened or buried in that church; and a little sexton, with a rusty key, shows you the baptismal font, or the coffin. In the church-yard are a few flowers, and much green grass; and daily the shadow of the church spire, with its long tapering finger, counts the tombs, representing a dialplate of human life, on which the hours and minutes are the graves of men. The stones are flat, and large, and low, and perhaps sunken, like the roofs of old houses. On some are armorial bearings; on others only the initials of the poor tenants, with a date, as on the roofs of Dutch cottages. They all sleep with their heads to the westward. Each held a lighted taper in his hand when he diedj and in his coffin were placed his little hearttreasures, and a piece of money for his last journey. Babes that came lifeless into the world were carried in the arms of gray-haired old men to the only cradle they ever slept in; and in the shroud of the dead mother were laid the little garments of the child, that lived and died in her bosom. And over this scene the village pastor looks from his window in the stillness of midnight, and says in his heart, “How quietly they rest, all the departed!”
Near the church-yard gate stands a poorbox, fastened to a post by iron bands, and secured by a padlock, with a sloping wooden roof to keep off the rain. If it be Sunday, the peasants sit on the church steps and con their psalm-books. Others are coming down the road with their beloved pastor, who talks to them of holy things from beneath his broad-brimmed hat. He speaks of fields and harvests, and of the parable of the sower, that went forth to sow. He leads them to the Good Shepherd, and to the pleasant pastures of the spirit-land. He is their patriarch, and, like Melchizedek, both priest and king, though he has no other throne than the church pulpit. The women carry psalm-books in their hands, wrapped in silk handkerchiefs, and listen devoutly to the good man’s words. But the young men, like Gallio, care for none of these things. They are busy counting the plaits in the kirtles of the peasant girls, their number being an indication of the wearer’s wealth. It may end in a wedding.
I will endeavour to describe a village wedding in Sweden. It shall be in summer time, that there may be flowers, and in a southern province, that the bride may be fair. The early song of the lark and of chanticleer are mingling in the clear morning air, and the sun, the heavenly bridegroom with golden locks, arises in the east, just as our earthly this the host replies, “Yes; were you seven times as many, you should all be welcome; and in token thereof receive this cup.” Whereupon each herald receives a can of ale; and soon after the whole jovial company comes storming into the farmer’s yard, and, riding round the May-pole, which stands in the centre, alights amid a grand salute and flourish of music.
In the hall sits the bride, with a crown upon her head and a tear in her eye, like the Virgin Mary in old church paintings. She is dressed in a red boddice and kirtle, with loose linen sleeves. There is a gilded belt around her waist; and around her neck strings of golden beads, and a golden chain. On the crown rests a wreath of wild roses, and below it another of cypress. Loose over her shoulders falls her flaxen hair; and her blue innocent eyes are fixed upon the ground. O thou good soul! thou hast hard hands, but a soft heart! Thou art poor. The very ornaments thou wearest are not thine. They have been hired for this great day. Yet art thou rich; rich in health, rich in hope, rich in thy first, young, fervent love. The blessing of heaven be upon thee! So thinks the parish priest, as he joins together the hands of bride and bridegroom, saying in deep, solemn tones, — “I give thee in marriage this damsel, to be thy wedded wife in all honor, and to share the half of thy bed, thy lock and key, and every third penny which you two may possess, or may inherit, and all the rights which Upland’s laws provide, and the holy king Erik gave.”
The dinner is now served, and the bride sits between the bridegroom and the priest. The Spokesman delivers an oration after the ancient custom of his fathers. He interlards it well with quotations from the Bible; and invites the Saviour to be present at this marriage feast, as he was at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee. The table is not sparingly set forth. Each makes a long arm, and the feast goes cheerly on. Punch and brandy pass round between the courses, and here and there a pipe is smoked, while waiting for the next dish. They sit long at table; but, as all things must have an end, so must a Swedish dinner. Then the dance begins. It is led off by the bride and the priest, who perform a solemn minuet together. Not till after midnight comes the Last Dance. The girls form a ring around the bride, to keep her from the hands of the married women, who endeavour to break through the magic circle, and seize their new sister. After long struggling they succeed; and the crown is taken from her head and the jewels from her neck, and her boddice is unlaced and her kirtle taken off; and like a vestal virgin clad all in white she goes, but it is to her marriage chamber, not to her grave; and the wedding guests follow her with lighted candles in their hands. And this is a village bridal.
Nor must I forget the suddenly changing seasons of the Northern clime. There is no long and lingering sirring, unfolding leaf and blossom one by one; — no long and lingering autumn, pompous Avith many-colored leaves and the glow of Indian summers. But winter and summer are wonderful, and pass into each other. The quail has hardly ceased piping in the corn, when winter from the folds of trailing clouds sows broad-cast over the land snow, icicles, and rattling hail. The days wane apace. Ere long the sun hardly rises above the horizon, or does not rise at all. The moon and the stars shine through the day; only, at noon, they are pale and wan, and in the southern sky a red, fiery glow, as of sunset, burns along the horizon, and then goes out. And pleasantly under the silver moon, and under the silent, solemn stars, ring the steel-shoes of the skaters on the frozen sea, and voices, and the sound of bells.
And now the Northern Lights begin to burn, faintly at first, like sunbeams playing in the waters of the blue sea. Then a soft crimson glow tinges the heavens. There is a blush on the cheek of night. The colors come and go; and change from crimson to gold, from gold to crimson. The snow is stained with rosy light. Twofold from the zenith, east and west, flames a fiery sword; and a broad band passes athwart the heavens, like a summer sunset. Soft purple clouds come sailing over the sky, and through their vapory folds the winking stars shine white as silver. With such pomp as this is Merry Christmas ushered in, though only a single star heralded the first Christmas. And in memory of that day the Swedish peasants dance on straw; and the peasant girls throw straws at the timbered roof of the hall, and for every one that sticks in a crack shall a groomsman come to their wedding. Merry Christmas indeed! For pious souls there shall be church songs and sermons, but for Swedish peasants, brandy and nut brown ale in wooden bowls; and the great Yulecake crowned with a cheese, and garlanded with apples, and upholding a three-armed candlestick over the Christmas feast. They may tell tales, too; of Jöns Lundsbracka, and Lunkenfus, and the great Riddar Finke of Pingsdaga.1
And now the glad, leafy mid-summer, full of blossoms and the song of nightingales, is come! Saint John has taken the flowers and festival of heathen Balder; and in every village there is a May-pole fifty feet high, with wreaths and roses and ribands streaming in the wind, and a noisy weathercock on top, to tell the village whence the wind cometh and whither it goeth. The sun does not set till ten o’clock at night; and the children are at play in the streets an hour later. The windows and doors are all open, and you may sit and read till midnight without a candle. O how beautiful is the summer night, which is not night, but a sunless yet unclouded day, descending upon earth with dews, and shadows, and refreshing coolness! How beautiful the long, mild twilight, which like a silver clasp unites to-day with yesterday! How beautiful the silent hour, when Morning and Evening thus sit together, hand in hand, beneath the starless sky of midnight! From the church-tower in the public square the bell tolls the hour, with a soft, musical chime; and the watchman, whose watch-tower is the belfry, blows a blast in his horn, for each stroke of the hammer, and four times, to the four corners of the heavens, in a sonorous voice he chaunts, —
“Ho! watchman, ho!
Twelve is the clock!
God keep our town
From fire and brand
And hostile hand!
Twelve is the clock!”
From his swallow’s nest in the belfry he can see the sun all night long; and farther north the priest stands at his door in the warm midnight, and lights his pipe with a common burning glass.
I trust that these remarks will not be deemed irrelevant to the poem, but will lead to a clearer understanding of it. The translation is literal, perhaps to a fault. In no instance have I done the author a wrong, by introducing into his work any supposed improvements or Embellishments of my own. I have preserved even the measure; that inexorable hexameter, in which, it must be confessed, the motions of the English Muse are not unlike those of a prisoner dancing to the music of his chains; and perhaps, as Dr. Johnson said of the dancing dog, “the wonder is not that she should do it so well, but that she should do it at all.”
Esaias Tegnér, the author of this poem, was born in the parish of By in Wärmland, in the year 1782. In 1799 he entered the University of Lund, as a student; and in 1812 was appointed Professor of Greek in that institution.
In 1824 he became Bishop of Wexiö, which office he still holds. He stands first among all the poets of Sweden, living or dead. His principal work is Frithiofs Saga; one of the most remarkable poems of the age. This modern Scald has written his name in immortal runes. He is the glory and boast of Sweden; a prophet, honored in his own country, and adding one more to the list of great names, that adorn her history.