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Linnaeus as a priest of nature

  ”Linnaea” by Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom

The dark trees shudder
From the gray mountain’s hat;
Silently asking sprites and elves,
If the heat does stifle still.
And coolness conjures them out
And through the woods there passes
A light and clear divine thought,
In the Nordic summer’s night.
Oh, tall conifer forest! Dreadful
To many is your sandy heath;
To me you are only lovely,
A home of unbroken peace.
Does this time belong to the night?
To me it seems, on all the water’s
Pleasure waves, rays form
Another airy bridge.

That is how the poem “Linnaea” (“Twinflower”) begins. It is one of eleven poems Atterbom published in his own journal Poetic Calendar in 1812. (Other flowers given a chance to express themselves are the sunflower and the butterfly orchid). The background to this poem is that Atterbom and a couple of other young men—the Romantics—had reacted strongly against the typical 18th-century manner of writing poetry. They felt it was all too stiff and colorless and that it also did not do justice to life itself.

“Linnaea” is an atmospheric poem that takes place in a dark pine and spruce forest in the night. And it is nature herself who speaks through one of her flowers. The Romantics had grown tired of the 18th century’s talk about light and utility, wishing instead to celebrate darkness and exciting things. The Linnaea is a flower that thrives precisely in dark conifer forests, and by choosing it as the voice of the poem, Atterbom claims the support of nature for such thoughts. “Oh, tall conifer forest! Dreadful to many is your sandy heath; To me you are only lovely, A home of unbroken peace.”

Reality has a soul, according to the Romantics, and the duty of the poet was to describe the world soul as it manifests itself in nature. There are symbols there for how everything is permeated by something living and how everything is one. It is not enough, therefore, simply to look at nature and describe it—nature must be interpreted.

To Atterbom, Linnaeus was not a natural scientist who observed nature, but indeed a priest of nature who interpreted it and understood it. And the linnaea flower still perceives his presence in the forest:

What hovers over the woods,
With the song-thrushes final call?
A venerable shadow, faithful
To the pleasures of his former home;
The seer who read me
And adorned me with his name;
The priest of nature with his pious
And happy countenance!

Atterbom has Linnaeus support the idea that the world of human beings has become unfeeling. The linnaea continues to speak:

Han tyckes vilja stanna
Vid Nordens midnattsfest;
Men snart med mulnad panna
Ser bort den höge gäst.
Han suckar: "Svenska jorden
Är ej förändrad vorden;
Men ack! det svenska hjärtat,
Finns därav kvar en rest?"

Literature tips:
Gunnar Eriksson, Romantikens världsbild speglad i 1800-talets svenska vetenskap (1969)

Carl Santesson, Atterboms ungdomsdiktning (1929)

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