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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.


From the Swedish and Danish. Introductory Note

MR. LONGFELLOW spent the summer of 1835 in Sweden, where he occupied himself with the study of the language and literature, and with travel and observations of Swedish character. “The Swedish language,” he wrote, “is soft and musical, with an accent like the lowland Scotch. It is an easy language to read, but difficult to speak with correctness, owing to some grammatical peculiarities…. Sweden has one great poet, and only one. That is Tegnér, Bishop of Wexiö, who is still living. His noblest work is Frithiof’s Saga, a heroic poem, founded on an old tradition.” After his return to America, Mr. Longfellow wrote an article on the poem for the North American Review, giving in it the translations which are placed first in this section.

His friend Mr. Samuel Ward four years later urged him to translate another of Tegnér’s poems, of which Mr. Longfellow had shown him a brief specimen; and in reply Mr. Longfellow wrote, under date of October 24, 1841: “How strange! While you are urging me to translate Nattvardsbarnen [The Children of the Lord’s Supper] comes a letter from Bishop Tegnér himself, saying that of all the translations he has seen of Frithiof, my fragments are the only attempts ‘that have fully satisfied him.’ ‘The only fault,’ he says, ‘that I can find with your translation is, that it is not complete. I take the liberty of urging you to complete the task, that I may be able to say that Frithiof has been translated into at least one language.’ Highly complimentary is the Bishop to my humble endeavor…. After this kind letter, can I do less than over-set the Nattvardsbarnen?” In his willingness, he at once set about the translation, and wrote his friend, November 6th: “It is Saturday night, and eight by the village clock. I have just finished the translation of The Children of the Lord’s Supper; and with the very ink that wrote the last words of it, I commence this letter to you. That it is with the same pen, too, this chirography sufficiently makes manifest. With your permission I will mend that. The poem is indeed very beautiful; and in parts so touching that more than once in translating it I was blinded with tears. Perhaps my weakness makes the poet strong. You shall soon judge.” In the introduction to the volume containing the poem, Mr. Longfellow, made the following remarks regarding his translation:—

“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.’”