Sweden could welcome the French Revolution, at least in its early stages, for throughout the “Swedish Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century Swedish thought had been in tune with the French, and the King himself, Gustavus III (r. 1771–92), was a son of the French Illuminati and an admirer of Voltaire. But Gustavus made no obeisance to democracy; he considered a strong monarchy, then and there, the only alternative to rule by a landed aristocracy jealous of its traditional privileges. He looked upon the French States-General (May, 1789) as a kindred assemblage of estate owners, and in the developing conflict of this body with Louis XVI he felt a basic threat to all kings. So the liberal and enlightened Gustavus offered himself as the leader of the First Coalition against the Revolution. While he busied himself with plans for saving Louis XVI, some Swedish nobles plotted his assassination. On March 16, 1792, he was shot; on March 26 he died, and Sweden entered a period of political disorder that continued till 1810.
The reign of Gustavus IV (1792–1809) was unfortunate. He joined the Third Coalition against France (1805), which gave Napoleon an excuse for seizing Pomerania and Stralsund—Sweden’s last possessions on the mainland. In 1808 a Russian army crossed the Gulf of Bothnia on the ice and threatened Stockholm; Sweden was compelled to cede Finland as the price of peace. The Riksdag deposed Gustavus IV, restored the power of the aristocracy, and chose the King’s uncle, then sixty-one, as a manageable Charles XIII (r. 1809–18). As Charles was childless, an heir to the throne had to be chosen. The Riksdag asked Napoleon to let one of his ablest marshals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, accept election as crown prince. Napoleon consented, probably in the hope that Bernadotte’s wife—who had once been Napoleon’s fiancée, and was sister-in-law to Joseph Bonaparte—would be a pro-French influence in Sweden. So Bernadotte, in 1810, became Charles John, crown prince.
Within this frame of government the Swedish mind continued to keep pace with the march of education, science, literature, and art. The Universities of Uppsala, Åbo and Lund were among the best in Europe. Jöns Jakob Berzelius (1779–1848) was one of the founders of modern chemistry. By the careful examination of some two thousand compounds he arrived at a table of atomic weights far more accurate than Dalton’s, and differing only minutely from the table internationally established in 1917.6 He isolated many chemical elements for the first time. He revised Lavoisier’s system of chemical nomenclature. He made classical studies in the chemical action of electricity, and developed the dualistic system which studied elements as electrically positive or negative in chemical combinations. The textbook which he published in 1808, and the Jahresbericht (Annual Report) which he began to issue in 1810, became the gospel of chemists for a generation.
There were so many poets that they divided into two rival schools: the “Phosphorists,” who took their name from their magazine Phosphorus, and imported the more mystical elements of German Romanticism; and the “Gothics,” who strummed their lyres to heroic themes.
Esaias Tegnér began his literary career as a Gothic, but as he developed he so enlarged his scope that he seemed to sum up all the schools of Swedish poetry. Born in 1782, he was only seven years old when the greatest phosphorist of all—the French Revolution—spread its light and heat through Europe; and he was still but thirty-three when Napoleon left for St. Helena. Tegnér lived another thirty-one years, but he had already achieved eminence when, in 1811, the Swedish Royal Academy awarded him a prize for his poem Svea, which scolded his contemporaries for their failure to maintain the customs of their ancestors. He joined the “Gothic Union,” and ridiculed the Phosphorists as Romantic weaklings. At the age of thirty he became professor of Greek at the University of Lund; at forty-two he was made bishop of Växjö; and at forty-three (1825) he published the most celebrated poem in Swedish literature.
Frithjofs Saga is a series of legends taken from an old Norse cycle of lays. Some critics7 thought the epic too rhetorical—the poet could not discard the episcopal manner; but the splendor of the lyrics carried the work to enthusiastic acceptance, even abroad; by 1888 there were twenty-one translations into English, nineteen into German.
Tegnér seems to have consumed himself in his poem; after it his health declined. He still wrote occasional poems, one dedicated to a married woman of Växjö. Originally a liberal, he passed over to a dogmatic conservatism, and engaged in warm controversies with the liberal minority in the Riksdag. A stroke in 1840 was followed by a mental disorder, during which he continued to write good poetry. He died in Växjö in 1846.
Meanwhile, King Charles XIII being chronically ill, Crown Prince Charles John acted as regent, and assumed the responsibilities of government. He soon faced a choice between loyalties—to his native or to his adopted land. Since states are as acquisitive as their component citizens, and send out prehensile pseudopodia, called armies, to seize delectable objects, the Swedish government looked fondly at contiguous Norway, over which, at that time, and since 1397, Denmark claimed proprietary rights. The Crown Prince suggested to Napoleon that French consent to the Swedish absorption of Norway would strengthen the friendship between Sweden and France; Napoleon refused, for Denmark was one of his most faithful allies. In January 1812 Napoleon again seized Swedish Pomerania, on the ground that it allowed the import of British goods in violation of his Continental Blockade. Prince Charles John turned to Russia, which was also ignoring the embargo; Russia approved of Sweden’s absorption of Norway; Sweden confirmed the Russian absorption of Finland. In April 1812 Sweden signed an alliance with Russia, and opened its ports to British trade.
This was the situation in Sweden when Napoleon entertained kings at Dresden on his way to Moscow.