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… I Love to Hear You Talk

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

The one who chooses virtue chooses the rightful joy and pleasure, states Swedish Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht in one of her many poems on the subject of virtue. Virtue is discussed everywhere in eighteenth-century women’s literature; and we do not have to look very far in the contemporaneous references to women authors and writers before we find feminine virtue cited as justification for her writing and the purpose of her work. Virtue, virtue, and yet again virtue can be heard wherever women make their appearance in the written word and in the literary institutions.

Whether a writing woman’s role is that of well-read lady, confidential diarist, religious confessor, or experienced writer, feminine virtue is and will remain her destiny. Mrs Nordenflycht writes of choosing virtue, but the woman writer must, and will always, reside in what Mrs Nordenflycht calls virtue’s “ljudwa tjäll”, that is, the lovely pavilion of virtue.

So then the poet’s duty is
the praises of virtue long to sing and elevate
the excellence of his gifts to the creator’s

Thus writes Nordenflycht in her poem “Tanker om Skaldekonstens nytta i et wäl inrättadt Land” (Thoughts on the Benefits of Poetry in a Well-Established Country).

The greater part of eighteenth-century literature would seem to be engaged in a gigantic, ongoing endeavour simply to put virtue and femininity together as a fixed rhetorical figure that could be applied socially, morally, and artistically. Just as this rhetoric has been thoroughly drilled, in both men and women, it slowly starts to fall apart. The concept of virtue is already beginning to falter in Mrs Nordenflycht’s and Anna Maria Lenngren’s work, whereas the Danish and Norwegian women continue unperturbed to plead its cause.

The change is particularly noticeable in Mrs Nordenflycht’s writing, because she had so meticulously and clearly projected and written her notion of virtue into her poems, and because the change first occurs at the very end of her writing career. What is virtue? asks Mrs Nordenflycht in her religious poem “En liten skymt af omätlige Ljus eller Tanker om Gud, Själen och Dygden” (1746-47; A Little Gleam of Immeasurable Light, or Thoughts on God, the Soul, and Virtue), and she replies:

W. A. Muller, Td 525,16. The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

What is she then? A light from the hand of the eternal one,
Illuminating ignorance, restraining desire.
She flows from the highest perfection:
This is her goal from beginning and end:
It has chosen her proudly and holds her so dear,
She glows and she leads, she strengthens and teaches:
She dispels all the clouds, she banishes the night
That have mistaken lust and habit for truth:
She suppresses all desire whose object is not
Virtue and wisdom and reason and light.

Hwad är hon? et ljus af den Ewigas hand,
Okunnighets lykta, begärelsers band.
Från högsta fullkomlighet flöder hon ut:
Det är hennes ögnemål, början och slut:
Den, henne har utwalt, och har henne kär,
Hon lyser och leder, hon styrker och lär:
Hon skingrar de målnen, hon sluter den natt:
Som lustar och wana, för sanningen, satt:
All åtrå hon dämpar, som icke begär
Hwad rättast och wisat och billigast är.

The poem’s fine use of metaphor with regard to virtue’s light and origins in supreme perfection suggests that Mrs Nordenflycht had been influenced by Plato. The poem’s elegantly shaped verse celebrates Plato’s four cardinal virtues – wisdom, justice, moderation and courage – and would seem to presuppose Plato’s concept of virtue as a concord between the components of the mind: reason, which has its abode in the individual’s head; courage, which resides in the breast, and passion, which is accommodated in the bowels. In her poem “Dygde-Målningar” (1744; Paintings of Virtue), Nordenflycht elaborates upon her thoughts about virtue; into an elegant poetic sequence, she inscribes the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the Stoics’ ideal of “constancia”, in her context meaning self-control and meekness. First she refers to humankind’s virtues in relation to God, then in relation to fellow human beings, and finally in relation to the self. The final and crucial virtue is identified as the individual’s own judgement: “A beginning and an end of all true virtues / Is knowledge of one’s self: it gives momentum to the others; /And, without this virtue, they lose their nature” – is how Mrs Nordenflycht gives the enlightened, analytical individual’s judgement the final word of the virtues. The ancient Greek term for virtue, “arete”, which originally denoted military discipline and physical prowess, assumes a central role – via Plato, the Stoics, and Christian philosophy and ethics – in eighteenth-century moral thinking and writing, and along with the Latin “virtus”, meaning manliness and virtue, women in particular are ascribed virtue. Men, too, ought to be virtuous, of course, but as a feature it must primarily characterise women. Mrs Nordenflycht’s best example of virtue is the Swedish Queen Ulrika Eleonora. In her grand elegy to the Queen, “Swenska Fruentimrets klagan, wid den stormäktigste Swea drottnings Ulricæ Eleonoræ graf” (1742; The Swedish Woman’s Lament at the Grave of the Most Powerful Swedish Queen Ulrika Eleonora) she writes:

With your valour, gentle queen, you have
Tread the path of virtue and made it agreeable;
With your daily example, you have exhorted your people
To cherish virtue above all earthly qualities;
You bore the welfare of the kingdom on your dear shoulders,
That virtue might reign in the land through you.

Men, milda Drottning! du har med dit Hjältemod
Trådt Dygde-wägen ut och honom giordt behagelig,
Upmanat alt dit Folk med dit exempel daglig,
At öfwer jordiskt alt erkänna Dygden god;
Du bar dit Rikes wäl på dine skuldror dyra,
När Dygden genom Dig feck hela Landet styra.

Nordenflycht expresses herself with poetic elegance and with deep insight into the classical understanding of the concept of virtue. In an erudite poem to Holberg, she asks with concern what will become of virtue if the credibility of the soul’s immortality is disputed, as it had been by the Englishman John Locke. Not being afraid to engage in the great philosophical and religious debates of her era, Mrs Nordenflycht provides her own Platonic answer to her question: enlightened thinking’s search for truth shows that there is a divine spark of light in humankind, although we can make mistakes along the difficult path of understanding.

While Mrs Nordenflycht, like Plato, sees wisdom as a cardinal virtue, Anna Maria Lenngren assigns wisdom to the man and virtue to the woman. In the poem “Dygden och visheten” (1794; Virtue and Wisdom), a young male narrator tells of how his father has admonished him to cultivate wisdom, whereas his mother urges him to seek virtue. The young man is dissatisfied, however, both with the wisdom he learns about at school and the virtue he knows from his home.

Wisdom did not become me,
I was tired of reading its words;
It suffered from gout and consumption.
Virtue’s only eye was filled with tears,
And its snuff-adorned nose
Was utterly insufferable to me.

Visheten ej stod mig an,
Jag var trött hans gloser läsa;
Gickt och tvinsot hade han.
Dygdens enda öga rann,
Och dess snusbeprydda näsa
Högst odräglig jag fann.

He encounters true virtue and wisdom away from both school and home. He is captivated by the young, shy Hilda:

The innocence of your gaze
Brought rapture to my heart,
My soul was filled with joy,
In Hilda’s bright angelic shape
Virtue’s divine provenance I felt;
It won my eternal adoration.

Oskulden uti din blick
Kjusning i mit hjerta tände,
Glädjen up for själen gick,
Jag i Hildas änglaskick
Dygdens gudaursprung kände;
Evigt den min dyrkan fick.

He learns about true wisdom of the heart from the beautiful girl’s brother. By means of poetic strategy, Lenngren has virtue ascribed to the woman, and the concept of virtue replaced by a new concept of innocence. In Lenngren’s poem “Rosalie” (1794), a poverty-stricken young woman defies the expectation of virtue and becomes a prostitute. She remains unaffected by injunctions to virtuousness, and the first-person voice must concede in surprise: “And no earthquake soon destroyed, / And no lightning the offender struck, / Who this doctrine prosecuted.”

Even though this poem is unique to Lenngren’s output, it is nonetheless remarkable that her virtuous first-person’s rhetoric loses its force entirely with regard to the fallen Rosalie. But a new concept of innocence is beginning to usurp power and sway in her writing. Loss of innocence might be the cross that could have caused Rosalie to falter, but Lenngren does not let the virtuous ‘I’ use that particular notion. Innocence is primarily a feature of her idyllic poetry.

In Lenngren’s work, a rhetoric of virtue loses ground to a Rousseau-inspired concept of innocence; thirty years earlier, however, in Charlotta Dorothea Biehl’s Danish plays, a rhetoric of virtue was still in fine form – principally as a highly specific use of language that, by naming the tender heart, intimacy, reason, and selflessness, results in a slightly modernised rewrite of Plato’s old concept of virtue as a concord between the various elements of the mind. In purely dramatical terms, surprisingly little actually happens in Biehl’s plays. The action takes place in the language. The virtuous, sensitive national tongue talks its way to victory over the ornate and stilted language of the false suitors, and in Anna Catharina von Passow’s play about Mariane eller det frie Val (1757; Mariane, or the Free Choice), the heroine asks her egoistic suitors to keep quiet so that she can get a word in and thereby display the full richness of her language.

oseph Highmore, Pamela och Mr. B i lusthuset, c. 1743.

In Englishman Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740-42), which had such significance for the Danish writers and authors of the day, the shady Mr B. and the impoverished servant girl Pamela are engaged in a veritable verbal duel. To begin with, Mr B. gains some advantage by declaring that all Pamela’s virtuous assurances are wretched hypocrisy and cunning seductive trickery. “Come in, said he, you little villain!—for so he called me. (Good sirs! what a name was there!) — who is it you put your tricks upon? I was resolved never to honour your unworthiness, said he, with so much notice again; and so you must disguise yourself to attract me, and yet pretend, like an hypocrite as you are——” (Volume One, Letter XXIV) Mr B. says to Pamela. Her trick is to carry on speaking. She sticks to her virtuous rhetoric and talks, as it were, Mr B. straight into virtue. “Why stops my dear Pamela?—Why does she not proceed? I could dwell upon your words all the day long,” (Volume One, Letter XXXII) says Mr B. once he has achieved a degree of moral improvement. Pamela seduces Mr B. to virtue, and uses language as a resource by which to gain power.

With Goethe and Rousseau, a new concept of innocence becomes pressing, for women authors too. In respect of the female sex, Rousseau does indeed maintain the old concept of duty and “la vertu”, but when depicting his mistress Mme de Warens in Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire (1776-78; Reveries of a Solitary Walker), he stresses that she manages to let him briefly experience a state in which “[…] love and innocence inhabit the same heart together. […] During those few years, loved by a very gentle and obliging woman, I did what I wanted to do, I was what I wanted to be and […] helped by her teaching and example, I was able to give my still simple and naïve soul the form which was better suited to it”.

“What a simple and affecting sight is that of a simple and well regulated house in which order peace and innocence prevail, in which without show, without pomp, everything is assembled which is in conformity with the true end of man!”

Rousseau in La nouvelle Héloïse, 1761

In Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther), Lotte is a muse to the male soul. She is referred to not as virtuous, but as sacred, innocent, and yet indefinable. “She is to me a sacred being. All passion is still in her presence: I cannot express my sensations when I am near her. I feel as if my soul beat in every nerve of my body.” Lotte does not generate a virtuous concord of the mind; on the contrary, she spreads the male mind in different directions. Unlike Rousseau’s Mme de Warens, she is not good and understanding. She is enchanting and, in her ambiguity, she is a perfect focus for male fantasy. Perhaps this is what caused Danish women writers to react so forcefully and negatively against Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – not so much Werther’s intensity and dramatic suicide as Lotte’s patent lack of traditional female virtue.

“This night I tremble at the avowal–I held her in my arms, locked in a close embrace: I pressed her to my bosom, and covered with countless kisses those dear lips which murmured in reply soft protestations of love. My sight became confused by the delicious intoxication of her eyes. Heavens! is it sinful to revel again in such happiness, to recall once more those rapturous moments with intense delight? Charlotte! Charlotte! I am lost! My senses are bewildered, my recollection is confused, mine eyes are bathed in tears […].”

When innocence takes over virtue’s role as the most important quality in a woman, then loss of innocence and lost power of enchantment become her guaranteed fate, unless the woman is constantly able to ‘re-conjure’ herself, restore her ‘allure’. Anna Maria Lenngren’s work includes a number of translations of French erotic poems on the theme of innocence and ‘re-conjuring’. Lenngren recreates de Pezay’s poem “La Mâitresse que j’aurais” as “Til min tilkomne älskarinna” (1780; To My Future Mistress), in which the lover advises the mistress:

Learn how to find out new delays
And practice a little tyranny:
The felicity of conquering you
Will be that much more precious.
Rarely deign to be moved by my pleas;
Deny what you just promised:
Kiss me willingly now and then,
But otherwise refuse me.

Förstå at nya upskof finna
Och öfva litet tyranni:
Den sällhet at dig öfvervinna
Skal då mig mera dyrbar bli.
Lät sällan dig min bön beveka;
Förbjud hvad du mig lofvat nyss:
Gif sjelfmant då och då en kyss,
Men mera ofta den mig neka.

But in “Könets fyra åldrar” (1790; The Four Ages of Woman), which is also based on a French poem, Lenngren allegorically depicts the way in which sexual experience sets a limit on the woman’s ability to ‘re-conjure’ her innocence. On the first day of love, the young shepherdess Doris is given a hundred lambs in exchange for just one kiss, but on the fourth day of pastoral love she has to offer her entire flock and all her dogs just to get one kiss from the shepherd. “She wanted to offer dogs and flock / for a kiss […] but – cruel torment –/ Lise, now received them at no cost She wanted to offer dogs and flock / for a kiss […] but – cruel torment –/ Lise, now received them at no cost”.

A number of the French poems translated by Lenngren come from a contemporaneous anthology containing, among other styles, erotic poetry, Le Portefeuille d’un homme de goût (1765; The Portfolio of a Man of Taste).

At the end of her writing career, Mrs Nordenflycht – who had so elegantly, insightfully, and intelligently set out quite a lot of virtuous didacticism in her poems – had to witness her concept of virtue lose meaning and significance. In her final poem, the héroïde fragment “Hildur til Adil” (Hildur to Adil), published 1774, she assumes the role of Hildur and describes her agonies of love in relation to her young beloved Johan Fischerström. Hildur experiences love as an invincible triumphal god who has taken possession of her heart:

You who have ventured to touch Hildur’s heart.
That heart loves now whose stronghold was
Virtue, friendship, wisdom, experience and sorrow.
No mortal can resist any longer
When these weapons are powerless against love.

Du, som än dristat dig, at Hildurs hjerta röra.
Det hjertat älskar nu, som hade til sin borg,
Dygd, wänskap, wisshets ro, förfarenhet och sorg.
Ej någon dödlig mer, må sig til motvärn ställa,
När dessa wapens magt, mot kärlek intet gälla.

Neither Hildur’s virtue nor her “mental gifts” are of any help in the face of love. Hildur’s poet’s harp falls silent when Adil first uses the word love, and she shamefacedly asks herself if Adil “loves me out of elsker mig tenderness or virtue”. Hildur feels shame because she finds Adil’s love preferable to his tenderness, virtue, and compassion for her. She worries that Adil has withdrawn from her because she has been too fast and straightforward in abandoning herself to him. ”My Adil, does one grow cold to what is so effortlessly gained?”

With energy and poetic mastery, Nordenflycht’s poems had extolled the platonic eros: the power of love that can provide humankind with the opportunity for true enlightenment and insight in perfect beauty, eros, the precondition of which is virtue. In the héroïde fragment, Hildur no longer reaches for the light and the idea. Love of Adil puts her on the path to the body, death, the soil, and the dark and silent grave. The fire that might nonetheless shine in the darkness and silence is fed by her own love, sorrow, and power.

In Mrs Nordenflycht’s fragment, we are told of Hildur:

When Adil first
Opened his heart,
When his lips first
Uttered words of love.
Enchanted, astonished, speechless,
I saw my destiny totter
And pass to me anew
The torch of exhausted pleasure.

At the end of the same fragment, we read the following:

My life has already expired,
For everything life gives,
Just one more little step
And Hildur shall be no more.
In obscurity and in earth
Her essence shall be buried:
Hushed whispers will pity
But eventually forget her.
Nothing is eternal here;
Both shame and honour flee:
And never can they break
The silence of the grave.

With great personal pain and suffering, but also force, Nordenflycht witnessed the concept of virtue lose strength and meaning, but the ideal of virtue continued its advance, in a far less philosophically and existentially stringent version, in late-eighteenth-century women’s journal literature and moral prose.

In Denmark, German-speaking Friederike Brun was one of the first to take on board the consequence of this change – the concept of virtue being gradually replaced by a notion of innocence – as depicted by Lenngren in some of her poems. Friederike Brun set to work on drawing up a programme for “[e]arly gentle moral training and nourishment of the soul with noble spiritual fare” in her treatise on the upbringing of her daughter Ida, Idas ästhetische Entwickelung, (1824; Ida’s Aesthetic Development). Innocence soon became a question of aesthetics, sexuality and edification.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch