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From Parnassus to the Temple of Taste

Written by: Ebba Witt-Brattström |

From Carl Larsson, Anna Maria Lenngren: <em>Samlade Skaldeförsök</em>, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lund University

From Carl Larsson, Anna Maria Lenngren: Samlade Skaldeförsök, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lund University

Who was Anna Maria Lenngren, née Malmstedt? Her poem “Några ord till min k. dotter, ifall jag hade någon” (Some words to my dear daughter, if I had one), written in 1798, has really rocked the Swedish literary history boat. Its view of women is considered so masochistic that even the most hardened patriarchs among the honourable professors of literature have tugged their beards in protest. The question has been: was Anna Maria Lenngren being serious, or was she being ironic, when she allows a mother to advise her daughter against becoming “a learned woman”, saying that she should rather throw herself wholeheartedly into the making of gravy and other such domestic activities. Generations of Swedish schoolgirls have ground their teeth upon reading such lines as:

Obey, Betti, the rules obey,
Try not men’s deeds to emulate;
And find your dignity, my friend,
In the honour of womanhood.

Lyd, Betti, lyd bestämmelsen,
Sök ej at mannabragder hinna;
Och kän din värdighed, min vän,
I äran af at vara qvinna.

The parodic trait of the poem becomes clear when it is read alongside a work written concurrently, “Ålderdomströsten” (The Comfort of Old Age), a poem employing the same satirical style to tell of a (uncritical) mother’s relationship with her son. Read as companion pieces, the poems are ruthless in their exposure of the cynical upbringing of girls to be slaves and boys to be masters.

Flatter your son, blind mother.
Assent to all his wilfulness;
Bend over and tie his shoes,
Put goodies in his pocket:
All too soon will he grow up.

Find in the wellsprings of hope
(As mothers always have)
The joy of your future life;
Whatever your darling son points at
Give him right away.

Smickra pojken, blinda mor!
At hans sjelfsvåld bifall nicka;
Böj dig, spänn igen hans skor,
Stoppa nam-nam i hans ficka:
Vänta, pilten blir väl stor.

Se i hoppets perspectiv
(Alla mödrar sett detsamma)
Glädjen for din framtids lif;
Hvad han pekar på för mamma
Straxt den söta gossen gif.

The consequence of this servile upbringing is appalling. The boy becomes depraved, and has no scruples in exploiting his fellow creatures while he treads the primrose path. He impatiently awaits his mother’s demise, and implores: “God let the old lady have an end / So that I can receive my inheritance (mödernet).”

In these two poems, Anna Maria Lenngren turns the childless woman’s searching gaze, devoid of all illusion, on the issue of upbringing. This is also the gaze in an undated fragment of a poem, not intended for publication, in which a coffee party is described as an absurd experience because “I had no weaving / Or wet nurse to talk about”.

Illustration in Karl Warburg: <em>Anna Maria Lenngren</em>, Stockholm, 1917 (

Illustration in Karl Warburg: Anna Maria Lenngren, Stockholm, 1917 (

This is about as close as we get to the private individual Anna Maria Lenngren. The only extant biographical material about her is a handful of letters. She was born in 1754 in Uppsala, the fourth child and eldest daughter of a lecturer in Latin at Uppsala University. She had the same upbringing as her brothers, and received what could be called an academic education. The family was of modest means and Anna Maria, like two of her brothers, started writing and translating at an early age.

Male witnesses noted with delight that Anna Maria did not hide her “lyre” under a bushel, but probably under the sewing table.

Her all-consuming interest in ladies’ get-together chat about lace and calving cows has been pointed out, as has her becoming blush upon being caught red-handed in the audience at meetings of the Swedish Academy.

In February 1795, the king’s personal secretary, Carl Gustaf af Leopold, wrote to the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Nils von Rosenstein: “Do our regulations exclude women? Otherwise Mrs Lenngren would certainly be both a valuable asset and deserving of the Academy’s attention.”

The great question of women’s status was a relentlessly debated topic in Anna Maria Lenngren’s day, especially in the many new Swedish periodicals that had started to appear, and which were largely based on foreign prototypes. She wrote for one of these publications, Stockholms Posten (Stockholm Post, published 1778-1833). The moral journal Posten – published from 1768 to 1769, when Anna Maria was a prematurely mature teenager studying Latin with her older brothers – carried a lengthy debate on the fitting female station in life; beautiful Eugenia is an exemplar of the ideal woman:

“You will never find books lying out in her study; never does she quote an author. You become merry and witty in her company, for she supports your talents, launches them on their way, and never tries to stand out at somebody else’s expense […] Only a few of her friends know what she reads and whom she speaks with about books and learning. Oh Lysandra, she talks about them the same way as she does everything else: she captivates and charms people. Nor does she despise ordinary female chores. On the contrary, she devotes a great deal of time to them.”

Pehr Hilleström, 1732: <em>En liten flicka undervisas i läsning</em>. Oil painting, c. 1800, private collection. From Gerda Cederblom: <em>Pehr Hilleström som kulturskildrare</em> 1-2. Uppsala, 1927-29

Pehr Hilleström, 1732: En liten flicka undervisas i läsning. Oil painting, c. 1800. Private collection. From Gerda Cederblom: Pehr Hilleström som kulturskildrare 1-2. Uppsala, 1927-29

This was, and it cannot be stressed strongly enough, the ideal woman’s intellectual position in Anna Maria Malmstedt’s day. Against that backdrop, her reservations regarding the only real female competitor in the highest literary class, Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht, seem less shocking. We must assume that Anna Maria Lenngren simply wanted to avoid seeing herself acclaimed and insulted in the same way as her female predecessors. Her poem “Förnöjsamheten” (Contentment) exhibits ostentatious humility – “But no secret desire burns / to see my honour spread afar” – and also blazing irony happily identified by most scholars as female modesty:

The profession I have chosen is deceitful through and through,
Fruitlessly I the ranks of penniless geniuses swell,
Who wearily wear down their spirit, life and soul
For the thankless reward of a rhymer’s reputation.
But happiness and gain should be my true vocation,
Returning to my nature and the boundaries of my sex;
The intellect’s hollow quarrels no nourishment can bring.
Our joy consists of tassels, of gauze and finery,
An army of marionettes – I like your example;
From the Parnassus’ heights I flee to the Temple of Taste;
But when to my position I sorrowfully bid farewell,
A few verses will I keep for the pleasure of my friends.

Det yrke jag har valt mig tycks bedrägligt vara.
Jag ökar utan frugt de arma snillens skara,
Som mödsamt nöta ut bådanda, lif och själ,
Blott för den ringa lön som hetas rimma väl.
Nej lyckan och min vinst jag mera bör bevaka.
Jag går till min Natur och könets gräns tillbaka.
Af hjernans toma gräl man ingen föda får.
I toffsar, flor och bjaffs vår lycka nu består.
I gyckeldockors här, jag gillar ert exempel
Ifrån Parnassens höjd jag flyr till Smakens Tempel,
Men skall då jag med sorg från Pinden afsked tar,
Behålla några rim till vänners nöje qvar.

This was written on 9 April 1779 by the “mamsell” (Mademoiselle) Malmstedt who had been honourably rewarded by the royal court for her excellent translations and adaptations of opéras comiques into Swedish. In the introduction to the first of these libretti, Marmontel’s Lucile, she states bluntly that she is a bluestocking. The idea that the “ingenuity” of the female sex has a limit is dismissed as a hoary prejudice unworthy of Gustaf III’s age of enlightenment: “Early and recent times alike have provided us with many examples of women lacking neither ingenuity nor the facility for knowledge and learning.”

It is hard to imagine that this champion of female genius would harbour an equally zealous desire to follow the “army of marionettes” to the “Temple of Taste”, that is, the dressing table. It is undeniably easier to see the ‘retreat’ she describes as a first-class satire on the poor ‘learned woman’, mocked by her lady friends for wearing an old-fashioned hat. At the age of twenty-four, she is also still a spinster, which troubles her. By the following year, however, she is married and has moved out of the home, about which she wrote in a letter: “The power of God and every manner of hard work and thought on my part has fortunately drawn me away from the roaring seas at home.” Anna Maria’s father, an almost fanatical Herrnhuter, lived together with his housekeeper after the death of his wife, and he filled the impoverished household with students, relatives, and other needy people. Anna Maria was, according to all the sources, happy with her engagement; the man she chose can but be described as her father’s diametrical opposite: Carl Peter Lenngren was five years her senior, a meticulous and very reserved gentleman. His contributions to Stockholms Posten demonstrate pithy realism and upright, middle-class judgement. These were qualities that the then Anna Maria Malmstedt’s father, with his fervently religious disposition, lacked – “this man’s [Lenngren’s] exceptional faculty of seeing everything in a bright and rosy light,” wrote Atterbom. Carl Peter Lenngren aimed at the peak of the social pyramid, at a respectable, secure state of affairs. Initially, his wife must have found it a relief to escape from what she called her father’s “household set-up, with its confusion of old women and children”.

It would seem, however, that Anna Maria Lenngren paid a high price for her orderly existence. Her husband appears not to have blithely supported her writing activities. He did not, for example, adhere to the index of poems she had made for a planned posthumous edition of her collected works. What is more, in the 1819 preface to this edition, he characterised her long since acclaimed writing as being a “poetic recreation”. He maintained that, in accordance to her wishes, the collection had been called Skaldeförsök (Poetic Attempts). This choice of title fits so poorly with the content that a number of men in the Swedish Academy, including Carl Gustaf af Leopold, reproached him stiffly.

“But let me tell you in all sincerity that I have seen with displeasure that the unsuitable words Poetry Attempts have remained on the title page. When modesty grows excessive, it loses its force and is regarded as affectation. When cogency and excellence are beyond compare, on cannot reasonably speak of an attempt. It would be just as foolish to call The Aeneid an attempt at an epic poem or Napoleon’s campaigns an attempt at the art of war. Not even humbleness among the next of kin would justify such deprecation. Disagree with my judgement if you will but forgive me for my candour,” wrote Carl Gustaf af Leopold to Carl Peter Lenngren on 21 January 1826, after the second edition of Skaldeförsök had been published. He also resented the fact that Anna Maria Lenngren’s widower had refused to put the imposing programme poem “Invocation” at the front, but had chosen to let “Några ord till min k. dotter” open the collection. Anna Maria Lenngren had wanted to see the more neutral “Biographie” on the first page, a request ignored by her husband.

Pehr Hilleström: <em>Ett fruentimmer sitter och läser, kammarjungfrun kommer med Thé</em>, c. 1775, Nordiska Museet

Pehr Hilleström: Ett fruentimmer sitter och läser, kammarjungfrun kommer med Thé, c. 1775, Nordiska Museet

Irritation on the part of her husband could be the reason that she tried to disguise her industrious writing activity – a good eighty poems in the first thirteen years of marriage. For the sake of domestic peace, she hid her inkpot in her sewing table – which has survived, the inside covered with ink stains. In 1797, she was honoured, against her will, by Gyllenborg in the Swedish Academy, and thus what was known to everyone in Stockholm’s small cultural milieu – that, following the great Kellgren’s death, she was now the most celebrated pen at Stockholms Posten – was publicly corroborated. Seen from councillor at the Royal Board of Commerce Lenngren’s point of view, this was an ill-chosen moment for his wife to be declared a genius. Gustaf IV’s political censorship had been set in motion, and Stockholms Posten had been treading very carefully for the past year. As for Anna Maria Lenngren herself, it meant that her caustic satire on the nobility had to give way to more idyllic poems about young female commoners.

The historical background was this: in 1789 the nobility’s special privileges were abolished not only in France, but also in Sweden – in France by an elected National Assembly, in Sweden by an absolute monarch, Gustaf III. At midnight on 16 March 1792 he was wounded during an attempt on his life at a masked ball in the Royal Opera House in Stockholm; he died a few weeks later. The assassination had been carried out by a group of conspirators from the nobility, and it triggered a storm of hatred against the aristocracy. For commoners, among them editor Carl Peter Lenngren, the removal of the nobles’ privileges opened up the possibility of a career as a public officer. In her satirical writings on the upper classes and in what have been called her bourgeois idylls, the wife of the councillor at the Royal Board of Commerce, Carl Peter Lenngren, defended the winners: the commoners. Thanks to Gyllenborg’s 1797 poem in her honour, she ran the risk of being taken for a Jacobin; the acclaim not only jeopardised the councillor’s position, it also threatend the existence of Stockholms Posten.

In this situation, did Anna Maria Lenngren have any option other than retreat? Her response, the poem “Dröm”, which in passing makes poor Gyllenborg look a sorry figure, highlights the writer’s programmatic modesty at the expense of feminist Mrs Nordenflycht.

This, however, cannot hide the fact that councillor’s wife Lenngren, just like mamsell Malmstedt, had openly and knowingly been erudite. Her seal consisted of her initials AMM, plus: a book, a lyre and an Enlightenment torch. Her talent was acknowledged at an early stage and she enjoyed, by the yardstick of her times, a meteoric career. At the age of twenty-two she was elected to Göteborgs Kungliga Vetenskapsoch Vitterhetssamhället (the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences in Gothenburg). The following year, due to her membership of the Utile Dulci society, she could count herself among the intellectual elite of the nation’s capital city. When only twenty years old, she had been writing poems for the respected Gothenburg newspaper Hvad nytt? (The News) – “La matinée de Clarisse”, printed in 1774, being a masterpiece. The coquette Clarisse is engaged in her morning toilette, nervously chatting with her lady’s maid Cajsa and with her cousin, who is paying a visit. Heartfelt sadness and secret notes are discussed with surety of delivery, in all probability inspired by Anna Maria’s contemporary, Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795), but adapted with originality. The feeling of immediacy has no counterpart in the poetry of the Gustavian epoch. The reader’s nose is full of powder, and her ears burn from the sing-song secretiveness of the boudoir:

Cajsa, I do think you hiccough –
Help me then with my chignon.
Listen, hear my gold clock tick,
As my heart its rhythm follows.
Can you guess, Cajsa, what I’m thinking?
Yes, my heart I will give to Damon:
Do you remember his rapier’s gleam,
His passionate sighs whene’er I smile?

Cajsa, nå jag tror du hickar …
Hjelp mig då med min Chignon Lystna,
hör mit guldur pickar,
Och mit hjerta på en gång.
Vet du, Cajsa, hvad jag tänker?
Jo! jag Damon hjertat ger:
Mins du hur hans värja blänker,
Hur han suckar, när jag ler?

There is not much of the moralism here for which Anna Maria is usually, and unjustly, reproached. Virtue and innocence are far too serious concepts for this “marionette”, cheerfully drawn by a writer who is not much older, but just as inquisitive about life. The same vivid descriptive effect is adapted in her breakthrough poem, “Thé-conseilen” (The Tea Council; known as “Thee-Conseillen” in an earlier version), written the year after “La matinée de Clarisse”.

In her depictions of everyday life, Anna Maria Lenngren was a female predecessor of Fredrika Bremer. She has but scorn for the idealising genres, such as the pastoral poem, which was so popular in the eighteenth century: “See, at last an idyll we can understand, so real and straightforward that it bleats.” When, at the request of Gustaf III, she has to choose a piece by Ovid to translate from Latin, she sets to work on Dido’s lament over Aeneas’ deceit. Anna Maria was twenty-two at the time.

Have you read the new translation of Dido and Aeneas? The translator is Mrs L-n, the former Mademoiselle M-dt. What purity, taste, delightfulness and truth by a female genius! I have seen hundreds of delicately strewn masterpieces by the same hand, all marked by the grace of liveliness. Oh, dear sirs who so earnestly seek the transitory satisfaction of a pleasing face, what do you gain by so little knowing and admiring the charms of a human soul?

Thomas Thorild in Den nya Granskaren (1784; The New Examiner)

Her translations show how well the Swedish language can also be applied to learned and scientific matters. This was something to which Gustaf III aspired; nevertheless, as he was not convinced of this barbaric tongue’s facility for elegance, he chose, by definition, the opera rather than the spoken drama as the national art form. Music, he thought, tempered the boorishness of the Swedish language. However, young Anna Maria Malmstedt’s translations of the opéras comiques with the Swedish titles Lucile (1776) and Zemire och Azor (1778; Zémire et Azor), as well as the opéra féerie Arsène (1779; La belle Arsène), may also be fully enjoyed without their music.

Her special talent for stylistic accommodation also came to the fore later on in her career: she paid careful attention to role models, both those at home and those from abroad. One example of this is “Medelåldern” (Middle Age), with the secondary title “Imitation”, written in 1789, and based on the ‘household god’ Voltaire’s lines written to Madame du Chatelet in 1741. Voltaire regrets that, with the inevitability brought by age, love must yield in favour of friendship, l’amitié, which in French is feminine, a companion; and now he weeps as he has to follow her. Anna Maria Lenngren’s poem is independent of the source, but she uses the image of friendship as a companion to be followed. The difference is that in her poem (and in Swedish) friendship is a man:

In his healing abilities
I recognised that power;
He warmed with an exquisite flame,
But did not warm as love will do.

Come, he said, I will protect you
From life’s torments and distress;
Him I followed, and yet I wept
That I could only follow him.

Utaf hans läkande förmåga
Jag kände denna magt igen;
Han värmde med en ljuflig låga,
Men värmde ej som kärleken.

Kom, sade han, jag skall dig dölja
För lifvets qval och bitterhet;
Jag fölgde honom men jeg gret
At endast kunna honom följa.

Johan Tobias Sergel: <em>Ett kärlekspar</em>, c. 1750, NMH A 45/1970, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Johan Tobias Sergel: Ett kärlekspar, c. 1750, NMH A 45/1970, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Anna Maria Lenngren eventually left the so-called elevated genres behind, and chose to work in satire and in the anecdotal and epigrammatic poem. She also wrote many party songs and, to the surprise of scholars, a number of erotic poems, which do not tally particularly well with the conventional view of her as a sturdy and reserved matron. In all seriousness, for example, her ‘gentleman callers’ Leopold, Rosenstein and Franzén, maintained that she hardly ever left her house, despite the fact that her poems demonstrate a detailed knowledge of all the various categories of Stockholm life: aristocracy, clergy, commoners, and prostitutes.

During the first thirteen years of her marriage, Anna Maria Lenngren stopped undertaking expansive works in epic, satirical. or dramatic form. She might perhaps have clandestinely translated Horace, according to the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Nils von Rosenstein, but she did not publish anything. Stockholms Posten carried her epigrams, short occasional poems, puns, philosophical poems, translations of erotic poems, and party songs. A few pieces anticipate the Lenngrenesque satire and idyll that were to make her so famous in the 1790s.

Between 1784 and 1789, Anna Maria Lenngren was relatively quiet, one explanation being that virtually all her close family died during this period – with the exception of her father, who drowned in Norrström in 1798 following a visit to his daughter. In 1793, Anna Maria Lenngren moved into the void left by the deceased, ailing or exiled male poets Lidner, Kellgren, Bellman and Thorild – and by the middle of the decade she was already a major name. She can be said to have bridged the two great literary golden ages in the history of Swedish literature: on the one side, the Gustavian epoch, and on the other side, Romanticism, which had its breakthrough in 1809. Anna Maria Lenngren’s writing career culminated between her thirty-ninth and forty-sixth year. Her only serious rival was Franz Michael Franzén (1772-1847).

Between 1793 and 1800, Anna Maria Lenngren wrote one-hundred-and-twenty poems. Thereafter, they flowed more sparsely from her pen. In 1800, the Swedish Academy awarded her an annual pension. In 1798, she began preparing a list of the texts that might be considered for inclusion in a collected edition of her works. Her proud programmatic poem “Invocation”, published in 1809, which outlined her aesthetics and was addressed to Apollo, would suggest that she took her writing most seriously. If all that her lyre has produced is “capricious fancy”, she says in the final stanza, then it deserves to be crushed! It is a highly self-assured and self-important voice speaking, and in the face of incipient Romanticism’s “delirium” the voice asks for Enlightenment “courage”:

Capture my imagination, fire my blood,
Give purpose and guidance to my thoughts;
Give me the etheric singer’s courage,
But not his delirium.

Hänför min inbillning, elda min blod,
Gif mina tankesprång syftning och styrsel;
Gif mig étheriska Sångarens mod,
Icke hans yrsel.

Perhaps she was making ready to write in this elevated style during the last two decades of her life? We have no way of knowing; the tracks have been covered by her widowed husband’s picking and choosing for the Skaldeförsök selection.

But we do know that she was a committed woman of letters from the very outset of her career. In the first version of “Thee-Conseillen”, at the age of twenty-one, she wrote:

Nightfall does not torment me.
When the short day extinguishes the torch,
And darkness shrouds the earth’s orbit,
I rely on a tallow candle;
And then I can with pleasure feel
How an inkwell and a pen,
Lend new light to dusky thought.

Et skumrask intet qval mig gör.
När korta dagen faklan släcker,
Och mörker jordens krets betäcker,
Jag med et talgljus mig förser;
Jag därvid kan det nöget känna,
Som, med et bleckhorn och en penna,
Ny dag för tankans skymning ger.

This is the first stanza, not only of this poem but of her entire published body of work. “Thee-Conseillen” was published in a revised version in 1777 and is considered to be mamsell Malmstedt’s breakthrough as a poet. We are reading a confession from a sister with ink-stained fingers; her gratification is found in writing under cover of the gloaming. Two years later, in a rhymed letter to a male authority, she introduces herself thus: “My little understanding of verse chooses discreet subjects. / I worship epic fire and write Tea Councils.” “Thee-Conseillen” is not an innovative piece in its choice of subject; on the contrary, it sits well in a genre that had been used since the 1600s to complain about the need of the fair sex to band together at tea and coffee parties. But Anna Maria Malmstedt’s version, particularly the one from 1775, is an unsurpassed impressionistic commentary turning the reader into eavesdropping co-conspirator:

Respected friend, take off your coat,
My goodness, is it six forty-five?
If I hear right, somebody is clapping.
Welcome you are, my gentle lady.
Let me congratulate if I may:
(Ask the maid to make more coffee)
A little son, if I recall,
To take after his loving mother.
Have you found a wet nurse now?
Yes, but it wasn’t all that easy.

Min söta vän, lägg bort sin kappa.
Bevars! hon är treqvart på sju.
Om jag hör rätt, lär någon klappa.
Välkommen hit, min söta Fru!
Jag får den äran gratulera:
(Bed Jungfrun laga Caffe mera)
En liten Son, om jag mins rätt;
Han skal visst brås på söta Mamma.
Hur, fick Frun någon duglig amma?
Jo men, fast det ej gick så lätt.

C.A. Ehrensvärd: <em>Poetens historia</em>, 1794, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

C.A. Ehrensvärd: Poetens historia, 1794, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Like her contemporary, Bellman, Anna Maria Lenngren is a portraitist; Bellman draws a series of recurring figures, whereas Anna Maria Lenngren employs a throng of one-off likenesses. They both have a sense of the particular and of caricature. The Lenngrenesque caricature often lays into the aristocracy, as depicted in, for example, “Porträtterna” (The Portraits), “Hans nåds morgonsömn” (His Lordship’s Morning Sleep) and “Fröken Juliana” (Miss Juliana). There are no redeeming features, neither in character nor in conduct: barren idleness, marked by a nostalgic looking back on ancestral roots; an arrogance of rank, ready to subjugate fellow creatures at the drop of a hat. In “Porträtterna”, an old noblewoman condescends, for want of better company, to talk with her maid: “If condescendingly I brought / Myself to speak with this dull person. / Perhaps the change would give my gout a small diversion.” She sings the praises of her family, her husband, for example, the Colonel: “Who had ability and talent nigh supernal / In partridge-shooting, if not he?” Nevertheless, Anna Maria Lenngren’s satire on the nobility does not preclude a compassionate sigh about the lot of a countess. The poem “The Countess” (1792; Miss Lise; Eng. tr. The Countess) concludes with the lines:

Long the world’s slave to be,
And suffer torments in the end,
Moulding in the family grave,
The subject of a mournful song.

Vara länge verldens slaf
Sist i plågor lida af
Multna i Familiegraf
Och bli ämne för en Visa.

It is usually said that Mrs Lenngren turned the domestic idyll into a modern genre. This is true in so far as she sides from the very outset with the put-upon servant girls against the narrow-minded bourgeois mesdames and noblewomen who pride themselves on their pedigree. But the idyll is not really her métier. When she endeavours to contrast aristocratic arrogance and a clergy family’s hospitality, the latter initially comes off worst. In “Grefvinnans besök” the clergy are given the following well-directed kick:

The pastor accompanied the count to Linden –
His virtuous daughter and wife
Curtsied at the stairway, the door, and the gate,
And are standing there curtsying still.

Och Pastorn nu Grefskapet följde till Linden –
Hans sedsamma dotter och fru
Nu nego vid trappan, vid porten, vid grinden,
Och stå där och niga ännu.

Apart from the touching genre picture “Den glada festen” (The Merry Party), pure idyll is only apparent in the post-1796 affirmative poems about young women. Perhaps the shadows of Rousseau’s Julie, Goethe’s Lotte, or Goldsmith’s Sophia are stirring here. The century of the young women is dawning, and it will soon culminate in the person of Fredrika Bremer’s Hertha and all her like-minded Nordic sisters.

Liberty, equality, and fraternity prevail in the society that Anna Maria Lenngren sees as the ideal. This utopia is realised in the world of childhood. In this respect, one of her best-known poems, “Pojkarne” (The Boys), exhibits clear influence from Rousseau:

The free fields are before me.
To memory still the same,
Where I as hero bore me
In many an active game.

Jag mins de fria fälten
Jag mätt så mangen gång,
Der ofta jag var hjelten
I lekar och i språng.

Besides freedom in nature, the first-person poet’s childhood also featured equality:

No difference of persons
I saw in play’s delight;
For peasant-boys and Barons
Were equal in my sight.

Ej skilnad till personer
Jag såg i nöjets dar;
Bondpojkar och baroner
Alt för mig lika var.

And fraternity:

All people I thought good;
Each boy to me my brother,
So frolicsome and gay;
Each girl was soon my sister,
Each matron soon my mother.

Hvar människja var god.
Hvar pojke, glad och yster,
Var straxt min hulda bror;
Hvar flicka var min syster,
Hvar gumma var min mor.

C.A. Ehrensvärd, drawing, undated

C.A. Ehrensvärd, drawing, undated

Lenngren scholarship is much exercised by her moral stance and her contempt for the shallowness of her own sex, but closer scrutiny does not reveal much of either. She might indeed mercilessly mock the folly of ‘ladies’, but she also sets her sights on conceited representatives of the male sex who deserve no better fate than that of cuckold. Overall, her satirical poems are remarkably often concerned with the anything-but-idyllic relationship between the sexes. One example of this is “Bordsvisa för gifta männer” (Drinking Song for Married Men): “A toast to my wife!/ Because she is not here.” The occasional love affair in which both parties are of the same mind, at least amorously, is depicted with a certain measure of scepticism, as in “Fästmön” (The Sweetheart):

In nook and in cranny
They kiss and they grasp;
What ecstasies!
What phrases!
Abominable to hear […]

I vinkel och vrå
Nu smeka de två;
Hvad extaser!
Hvilka phraser!
Äckliga at höra på […]

In Anna Maria Lenngren’s version, Orpheus is a man who uses his sentimental song to get rid of Eurydice. Her poem “Orpheus” (1794) is intensely melancholic. It seems as if the disillusioned author thinks that the woman as an individual is surplus to the man’s requirements. In that same year, therefore, she happily and matter-of-factly describes a woman who makes capital out of this male-maintained double standard: “Rosalie”, a prostitute who has, without the slightest compunction, foregone the chance to follow in her virtuous mother’s footsteps, she who: “with pale and sunken cheeks; / Ate herring and mouldy bread, drank water, / And spun by the lamp late at night, / And lived in an attic.” Rosalie’s simple, yet effective defence is: “One rests better in this life / On eiderdown, under cover of silk, / Than on a bed of straw.” Other forerunners of social reportage are Anna Maria Lenngren’s poems “Ett Ord för den Fattiga” (1795; A Word in Favour of the Poor Person) and “Det blev ingen Julgröt men ändå en glad Julafton” (1800; There Was No Christmas Porridge, but Nonetheless It Was a Merry Christmas Eve).

Anna Maria Lenngren died of breast cancer in 1817, sixty-three years of age. Unanimous tribute was paid to her by her contemporary literary generation. The Swedish Academy honoured her memory with a medal, struck after her death, bearing her bust and the inscription: “Quo minus gloriam petebat, eo magis assecuta” (The less she sought glory, the more she won it). But no sooner was she in the ground than her critics made themselves felt.

Pehr Hilleström: <em>Fru Lenngren</em>, NMH 170/1891, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Pehr Hilleström: Fru Lenngren, NMH 170/1891, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Unsurprisingly, the attacks came from the new literary phalanx, the so-called Phosphorists, named after Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom’s journal Phosphoros (1810-13) – what we would call Romantics. Anna Maria Lenngren had stuck her neck out and warned about university men capturing the Parnassus. Perhaps she had recalled her father’s snooty young students who had once eaten her out of house and home. In 1814, she had written scornfully of the “plumed Phosphorist” and his caw in the poem “Kråkan” (The Crow). Retaliation was delivered, once she was in her grave, by a representative of this new school, Hammarsköld. In 1820, under the heading “Fru***” (Mrs***), she – in the form of a crow – is taken to task for her contempt of what the Romantics saw as the woman’s true genius: love, and her true philosophy: religion. Her poems are declared to have “a far too lively degree of physical revulsion” to appeal to the young men now making their name in print. In an issue of Svensk LitteraturTidning (Swedish Literary Journal) later that year, Palmblad and Atterbom pass the final verdict – “the most elegant conversation poetry” – and claim that no one would have valued their toning-down of her genius more than the coquettishly demure Mrs Lenngren herself!

Thirty-five years later, in Svenska siare och skalder (Swedish Prophets and Poets) – the first history of Swedish literature – P. D. A. Atterbom makes a conspicuous effort to be positively disposed towards Anna Maria Lenngren. Not that he could do otherwise, given that high and low alike recite and sing her poems and songs. He attempts to explain this “popularity”, which: “hardly any poet in Sweden has achieved to a greater extent than Mrs Lenngren, and why this – as far as can be judged from the close successive publications of new editions – still continues undiminished.” The first part of the explanation reduces her writing to “prose landfall”, that is, it is argued that it is not real poetry. And then her readership is belittled. Regrettably, the Swedes are as yet too simple to have sufficiently good taste – sufficient for the appreciation of Romantic writing, that is. Atterbom criticises Anna Maria Lenngren’s view of marriage for not placing greater importance on love, and he calls for more “positive representations” of domestic life. He is particularly disturbed by the poem “Några ord till min k. dotter” and its pragmatic advice to the young woman:

The spouse who was vouchsafed to you
(Note this eternal secret) –
Be faithful, if fealty he deserves,
If not – it would simply be annoyance.

Den maka som dig blir beskärd
(Märk denna stora hemligheten!)
Var huld, om han är huldhet värd,
Om ej – så var det i förtreten.

This was inconsistent with the Romantic philosophy of love, which had assigned woman the role of emotional vestal virgin.

Atterbom complained of his older colleague’s “lack of appreciation for the ideal”. He was possessed of insufficient wit to understand Anna Maria Lenngren’s way of writing. In the work of Anna Maria Lenngren, female irony attained its style and its station in Nordic literature.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch