Legendary Poet - Bellman´s Epistles

"If Carl Michael Bellman, a unique figure in world literature, has been as unknown to the world at large as he has been perennially popular in Scandinavia, it has been due to the untranslatability of poetry. His great song-cycle Fredman´s Epistles, a genre 'which had no forerunners and cannot have any successors', is perhaps the only great work of poetic art to be concieved throughout to music. In Sweden it has been the means of preserving a whole treasure trove of lovely melodies which once delighted Europe.

A brilliant mimic and improviser, Bellman was chiefly appreciated by his contemporaries as an entertainer who conjured up for them a drastic picture of the low-life of Stockholm. Subsequent generations have found in him a poet of almost shakespearean dimensions."

The Swedish Academy is not just a bunch of old farts admiring each other, occasionally pulling themselves together to choose the next recipient of the Nobel Prize of Literature, even though some may think so. They actually do quite a lot of work for the preservation and promotion of Swedish literature. In their latest newsletter they have brought Bellman - in English! to the world. (You can read the whole thing right there on the website, page-turning arrows on the left side of the page.)

If Nationalmuseum presents the image of Sweden, then Bellman is surely providing the soundtrack. He lived in the 18th Century, and was patroned by king Gustav III (whose leisure ship the Amphion I blogged about a few weeks ago). 

On youtube I found several performances from two of our most legendary Bellman interpreters: Fred Åkerström and Cornelis Vreesvijk.

Epistle 82, Vila vid denna källa (= Come now, ourselves reposing)

Epistle 81, Märk hur vår skugga (= So to her rest)

The translations are really interpretations - some are quite far from the original text, I find. And I suppose this is how it often is with poetry. The interpretation becomes an artwork of itself, close perhaps, but not quite the same. I wonder how big Shakespeare really would have been if he hadn´t been lucky enough to write in a language that would become the dominant lingua franca of our time. And I wonder how many literary treasures have been forgotten as peoples and their languages have died out.

One song all Swedish children sing at graduation (or at least they used to, it would be a crime if they didn´t still), is "Fjäriln vingad syns på Haga" (= the butterfly is seen in Haga). Haga was one of the king´s favourite palaces, and is now the residence of the crown-princess Victoria and her family. While Bellman used a lot of traditional melodies for his songs, this is one that he did compose himself. I found this English version:

Another part of Swedish childhoods are the Bellman jokes, which are rather childish jokes with Bellman competing in some way - and coming out on top - with two other guys, often just named a German, a Dane, or a Frenchman. From the beginning Bellman jokes were obscene jokes about court life, and I found this one that may be as old as from the early 19th Century: 
Bellman went to the Queen and asked if she wanted to make a bet.
- I would, said the Queen. What bet would Bellman like to make?
- I bet fifty crowns that the Queen has a birthmark on her left buttocks.
- That was easy money, said the Queen, lifted her skirt and pulled down her underpants.
- Now you lost fifty crowns, Bellman, she said.
- That may be, said Bellman. But look out the window. The King is looking in and I bet him a thousand crowns that the Queen would show me her arse...

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