Linnaeus as a genius in the service of society
”To Archiater Linnæus” by Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht
This poem is found in Linnaeus’ own Journey to Västergötland. He may have commissioned Nordenflycht to write it. To us it makes little difference whether Nordenflycht is writing straight from the heart or is composing a panegyric at Linnaeus’ behest. She is speaking to her own time. And this is when we can pose questions: How does she choose to praise Linnaeus? Who is he presented as? What things are appreciated in the middle of the 18th century? Let’s read an excerpt from the poem:
A science with darkness besot
With sweat and toil he enlightens;
How can he in Sweden be forgot?
When the sound of His worthy name
Doth learned Societies grace,
Acclaim and wonder do now
The envy of foreigners replace.
Arise, and hasten, Sweden’s brightest!
To a noble challenge be spurred,
Without envy Linnaeus honour,
Lest his voice alone be heard!
Linnaeus is presented here as one of the learned men who make Sweden renowned and admired by other countries. But what made his inventory-taking journeys so admirable?
For one thing, people had started to think that scientists shouldn’t listen to what others had said so much, but rather make their own discoveries and think for themselves. And that’s precisely what Linnaeus did. He went out and saw with his own eyes and then sorted out all of his impressions according to a system of his own devising.
Another reason was that natural science was regarded as more important than language, art, and history at this time. This was because the purpose of science was seen as finding practical applications for knowledge. The best thing was to be able to improve the material well-being of people—for example, finding out when to sow your rye to get the largest possible harvest. People were much more dependent on agriculture in the 18th century compared with today. A poor harvest meant going hungry.
In Linnaeus’ day farmers used sometimes follow the advice of an almanac or constellations of stars when figuring the best time to sow. Linnaeus thought that, instead, they ought to keep an eye on the signs that nature provided—when the leaves came out on trees, for instance. Making observations in nature the way Linnaeus did was thus useful for the sustenance of society.
Nordenflycht urges Swedes to be inspired by Linnaeus. Envy him if you must, but do not for that sake forget to seek fame yourself. Learn from Linnaeus so that Sweden will acquire more geniuses. In other words, she assumes that certain people have the wherewithal to attain a higher level of wisdom, to become geniuses. Then the rest of us can admire them. And it is precisely Swedish geniuses she is looking for so that Swedish citizens can be proud of their country. In the middle of the 18th century Sweden was in fact known to be one of the leading research nations in Europe, after Britain and France.
To speak, as Nordenflycht does, of geniuses with such adoration may seem alien to us today. Something must have changed in the 250 years that have passed since the poem was written. But what? Do we even talk about geniuses today? Maybe it’s only the word ‘genius’ that we don’t use? What people do we admire? Sports stars? Successful executives? Musicians? Why?
The author Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht
Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht (1718–1763) was one of the literary pioneers of the 1750s. She was extremely active in the learned society the Order of the Mind-Builders and had a literary salon in her home that many of the writers of the time attended to exchange ideas and poems. Nordenflycht’s specialty was lyrical poetry.
Even as a young girl she thought a lot about life and was more interested in studying than in learning ‘women’s work.’ Her parents allowed her to study a little under her brother’s tutor, but it was of course out of the question for a girl to devote her life to books.
Luckily, the family had employed Johan Tideman, a young mechanic, who was also very interested in the philosophical and literary discussions of the day, and Hedvig Charlotta could converse with him. When her father lay dying—she was only sixteen—he expressed a wish that his daughter might marry this Tideman. At first Hedvig Charlotta didn’t want to, because “He was equally dear as a philosopher to listen to as he was obnoxious to see as a suitor.” Be that as it may, they did get married.
Hedvig Charlotta was to have bad luck with the men in her life. Johan Tideman died after only three years together with her. So she was a widow by the age of nineteen. The following year she met the fifteen-years-older Jakob Fabricius, who was a clergyman in Stockholm. Because one of her brothers—“a spendthrift and a wobbler”—ruined the family, her marriage had to be postponed. For three years the fiancés corresponded. When Jakob landed a position as admiralty pastor in Karlskrona, they could get married, but once they were wed Jakob died within a year.
By now Hedvig Charlotta was beginning to think life was troublesome indeed, and she settled in a crofter’s cottage in Stockholm. She sat there, sick and tired of living. And that was when she found consolation in writing lyrical poetry. Two years later her friend and cousin Karl Klingenberg helped her publish some of her poems under the title The Mourning Turtledove. This launched her career as a writer. In the following years she published a long series of collections of poetry. Nature was a common theme, and mythology and morals common features. Her best-known poems today are the more sensitive and pious ones, like “Lonesomeness,” “Calm,” and “On a Hyacinth.”
She was still involved in the philosophical questions of the time. They were about life and knowledge: Is knowledge good for humankind? Is the soul immortal? Are right and wrong inborn ideals that are always the same or are they practical rules that are shaped by our lives? Does the soul live on to face punishment or rewards in an afterlife, or is everything limited to this life?
On a personal level, however, her trials were not over. Nordenflycht’s house burned down, and many manuscripts were lost. Klingenberg died, and when she was more than forty years old she fell in love with the twenty-years-younger Johan Fischerström, but encountered both rivalry and wrenching disappointment. Rumor even had it that Nordenflycht tried to drown herself in connection with this, but that rumor was denied by her friends. Nevertheless, she died in 1763, not long after these events.
Literature about Nordenflycht
Illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria, utgiven av Henrik Schück och Karl Warburg (Stockholm, 1927)
John Kruse, Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht: Ett skaldinneporträtt från Sveriges rococotid (1895)
Sven G. Hansson, Satir och Kvinnokamp i Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflychts diktning: Några konflikter, motståndare och anhängare (Stockholm, 1991)
Nordisk Kvinnolitteraturhistoria del 1: I Guds namn 1000–1800, redaktion: Eva Hættner Aurelius och Anne-Marie Mai (1993)