The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 28 - Green Things Growing

Knowing how deeply immersed in lofty themes was Swedenborg's mind at this time, how incessantly his fingers were closed around his quill pen and his back bent over a writing table, it is with a real sense, of pleasure that we turn a leaf and find quite a different picture of the man. For the scholar was also a gardener. It may have been in France, in some elegant little garden, whose owner proudly led his guest from terrace to glowing terrace, that Swedenborg first conceived the idea of planting a garden in his own little plot on Hornsgatan,, or it may have been that the idea occurred to him in Holland, where the most colorful gardens in the world, row upon row, teemed with tulips and hyacinths. Swedenborg returned from Europe in the spring of 1750 with an assortment of seeds and interested in growing things.

In those days almost every person of rank made a hobby of forming a firsthand acquaintance with Nature. Nature was to that aesthetic generation what cars and movies are to us. The dainty queen of France played shepherdess. Rousseau gave lessons in botany to aristocratic young ladies. Sir Hans Sloane sorted specimens from every corner of the globe. The green world opened up! Natural science was no longer the exclusive domain of old men with books in hand. From his home in Hammarby Linneaus, "the flower king," followed by eager students, sallied forth into the fields and forests to discover new wonders. His students explored the gardens and jungles of the world from New Hebrides to Cathay and brought back unheard-of birds and amazing new species of plants. One went to New Spain, another with Captain Cook to Tahiti, and the tall Swedish Finn Pehr Kalm sailed to America.

All this was a part of Swedenborg's world. He too has been called an adventurer, but as he was a spiritual "Columbus," his new realm could best be explored in the quiet of a comfortable retreat. Swedenborg's garden was situated on the high cliff across the channel from the city proper in the district called Södermalm or South Stockholm. When, standing on this height he had on his left the inland Lake Malar and on his right the open waterway to the Baltic Sea. Below him, in front, to the north, lay the older city including the Palace, the House of Nobles, and other public buildings, and farther on were the newer houses of North Stockholm. The whole panorama was dotted with the steeples of churches and lined with the masts of sailing boats.

Swedenborg's lot was rectangular, measuring 336 feet from east to west and 156 feet from north to south, a little more than an acre in all. It was completely enclosed by a wooden fence and then divided into two parts by another fence with gates, which separated the eastern third of the lot containing the dwelling houses and the stables from the western two thirds comprising the lawns, the orchard, the vegetable garden and the summer house.

Click for drawing of Swedenborg's house and garden

It was not a fashionable neighborhood - on the one hand lived Cheesemonger Kempe, and on the other Ropemaker Nyman - but there were a number of fine estates, such as the Gyllenborgs' and the Totties.' The property was neat; it had belonged to a jeweler before it was owned by the city official from whom Swedenborg bought it in 1743. His intimate friend, Carl Robsahm, director of the City Bank, owned an estate nearby, and on the same street lived Swedenborg's associate of former days, Christopher Polhem.

The original homestead was a small country house fronting on Hornsgatan, and near it a stable and cow shed, opening into a fenced-off service alley. Every morning a boy would round up the cows of the neighborhood and drive them out to pasture on the common. All the buildings were painted red and roofed over with tile.[385] During the first three years, while Swedenborg was absent abroad, Nils Ahlstedt, his wife and three daughters lived there and took care of the estate. When Swedenborg returned home, the living quarters were too small to accommodate them all. Besides, he wanted space for his growing things. So in 1752 he engaged a carpenter, and his "window-tax" went up from 4 windows to 13. A marginal note on the draft of 25 loads of boards, doors, windows, glass, hinges, locks, nails, a tile stove Arcana Coelestia lists expenses for 80 beams, 12 loads of fine planks, and workers' pay.[386]

It must have been then that he erected the high wooden fence which completely enclosed his lot, and built for his own use the interesting house that stood south of the original homestead facing the garden, which was entered through a massive carved gateway designed in the style of the French baroque. (Appendix E). Swedenborg's dwelling, simple but ample, measured about 57 feet in length and 48 feet in width, was 9 feet to the eaves and covered with a tiled mansard roof. It was constructed of solid logs, covered with panels painted a bright ochre, with dark red molding under the eaves and gutters, and white window frames. There was first a double door, then three windows, and at the farthest end a small door, opening under a covered way which continued into the garden.

On entering the double door a step led down into the hall out of which, straight in front, ran a winding staircase lighted by a window in the gable end of the house. To the right was the parlor, lighted by two of the front windows and heated by a blue tile-stove. It was elegantly furnished. There stood Swedenborg's inlaid marble table, his organ, and probably a cupboard holding his silver and his white teacups.[386a]

Beyond this room was the bedroom, where his portrait is said to have hung. From there a door opened into the "writing cabinet," a small chamber in the southeast corner where a fire was always kept burning, on which the scholar cooked his coffee. This room contained no books except his Hebrew and Greek Bibles and Indexes. His table was always full of manuscript pages.

The large upper room was well lighted and warmed by stoves and used by Swedenborg as a conservatory, "orangerie," as it was then called. A skylight opened from it. into the room below. Here our philosopher grew his boxes of seedlings and harbored his tropical plants during the winter. Joachim Wretman wrote from Amsterdam, discussing an order for seeds:

The Mallium Sana which you wish is not known here at all; at least it is not kept for sale; but they have promised to inquire for it. As soon as I receive even a small quantity of it, it shall be forwarded to you together with the melon seeds; but I am at a loss to know what you mean by cocombes, unless you intend it for concombre seed. [He did indeed mean cucumbers, and mallium was the regular name for chamomile, sana designating its medicinal use.] I shall therefore delay executing your order until I receive more detailed instructions. The tulip, hyacinth, and other bulbs must be put into the ground in autumn, before the frost begins; for if they be planted in spring all will not come up; the flowers must be left or the bulbs will die . . . "[387] (Amsterdam, February 10, 1750).

Some years ago a little Almanac for the year 1752 turned up in the Royal Library of Stockholm, its margins filled with notes in Swedenborg's handwriting, most of them records of the sending of pages of the Arcana to the printer in London. Each time he notes the last few words on the page, for example:

To John Lewis, p. 205, 206, 207, 208 in number 4700
Ecclesia, non autem apud illos qui

On the reverse side of the interfoliated pages Swedenborg made a note of what seeds he has planted in his boxes and where, in his garden, he has put the spinach, the parsley and the beets. We see with satisfaction that he got his chamomile.

First box - crown artichokes
Second box - lemons; in the center mallium; after that the cypresses.

There are many notes as to where he planted larkspur, scarlet-sage; violets, sweet pease, sweet-William, flax and scabiosa. Over by the little tree grew cat-mint, bleeding-heart and spurry. Stocks were plentiful. In the rose-garden by the bird house grew long-stemmed pinks and sweet-smelling white roses, three kinds of canterbury bells and "blue roses that came up in the new garden."[388]

"If thou hast two coats, sell one and buy a flower to feed thy soul," says an old Chinese proverb. It may be that Swedenborg's interest in flowers was purely aesthetic. According to one of his friends, "He loved Flora's variegated and beautifully colored children as if they were his own." Then, again, he may have been interested in such problems as fertilization, the basis for his attitude towards the Linnaean system of sexes in plants.389

On April 19, 1752 - the very year of the Almanac, and perhaps just when the tulips were in bloom - the gardener's daughter, Maria, celebrated her marriage. We like to think of her amiable patron honoring the wedding with his presence. Perhaps then he perceived in spirit a "nuptial garden" such as he has described seeing in heaven, where all the shrubs and flowers grew in pairs![390]

A few days later he made an entry that is of particular interest:

Planted this afternoon American seeds in three of the long boxes on the farthest side-mulberry seed in all of them. In the fourth box, to this end of the garden, planted a kind of pod-bearing tree from America, three seeds . . . in the center buttonwood and beech and three trees of American dogwood. American maize on all four sides of two pease beds, ten of two kinds. In the upper square box put three kinds of seeds that were among the American melons; in the center of the box, a smooth, shiny black seed [watermelon?]. Back of the young trees, one seed of African melons.[391]

Where did Swedenborg get his American seeds? To get bulbs from Holland was scarcely less complicated then than now, but America was an almost incredible distance away and some special agency must have played a part in securing mulberry, beech and dogwood for a garden in Stockholm.

It so happens that in 1745 the Swedish Academy of Sciences- of which Swedenborg was a member - sent a botanist to America to secure seeds of some new plants hardy enough to thrive on Swedish soil. He was the amiable Finn, Pehr Kalm, in whose honor was named our beautiful mountain laurel, Kalmia. His printed report of the trip contains some interesting high lights. On September 5, 1748, he was in Philadelphia.

"I realized that I had arrived in a new land," he says, "for almost everywhere I cast my eyes I saw plants that I did not know, and some species that I had never seen before. Whenever I saw a tree I had to stop and ask my companions its name . . . The first two days I just walked around and stared at the vegetation without venturing a closer acquaintance."[392]

Soon, however, Kalm presented letters of introduction to prominent Philadelphians, among them Mr. Benjamin Franklin, who gave him all necessary information and did him manifold favors. He also mentions meeting an old gentleman of ninety-one whose father was one of the Swedes first sent over here to settle and cultivate this land and who recalled the time when the site of Philadelphia was one vast forest.

Kalm was back in Stockholm on August first, 1751, with his packages of seeds for the members of the Academy, some of them for Swedenborg, who was evidently a contributor to the expedition. "Unconsciously I came near to bringing a great misfortune on Europe," Kahn relates in his journal. "I brought with me a small package of sweet pease that looked very good and sound. I opened the package and found all the pease worm-eaten. From a hole in each pea an insect was peeping out and some crawled into the open intending to try out the new climate. I was glad to close the package instantly and thus prevent the escape of these destructive creatures."

* * * * *

To come back to Swedenborg. The garden was for him, after all, a form of recreation. How much he needed this diversion is plain if we consider the extent of his literary output. Every year he was sending to the printer in London the copy for a new volume of Arcana Coelestia. In eight years he produced eight quarto volumes - making twelve octavo volumes in translation - and besides this he wrote an equal amount of texts not printed. His method was to write out a draft and then a clean copy for the printer. It is fortunate that this first draft has been preserved, because the original edition of the Arcana contains a number of printer's errors. Swedenborg, of course, had no opportunity to correct the proofs, but the errors have been corrected by scholars in subsequent editions by a careful comparison with the existing drafts.[393]

Such profound studies required perfect quiet at all times in his home, but Swedenborg was by no means a recluse. Samuel Sandels, co-member in the Academy of Sciences, describes him as of a pleasant and cheerful disposition and fond of company. Carl Robsahm says that he often had the privilege of being in Swedenborg's home and of meeting him in company at his own house, and at the houses of relatives:

As a recreation from his severe labors, Swedenborg enjoyed intercourse with intelligent persons by whom he was always well received and much respected. Our Swedenborg remained, during the whole of his life, unmarried. But this was not owing to any indifference to the sex, for he esteemed the company of a fine and intelligent woman as one of the purest sources of delight.[394]

So it happened, sometimes, that an elegant carriage would come to a halt on Hornsgatan, and a gentleman in lace and satin would step out to give his hand to a fine lady in feathers and farthingale. They would pause a moment admiring the lovely flower-beds in front of Assessor Swedenborg's dwelling and perhaps they might smile at one another and beat time to the last measures of a Bach melody pouring out from their friend's sitting room. For in the late afternoon of a northern summer's day, our scholar might pause in his labors to spend an hour at his organ.[395]

Let us imagine that the visitors, Count Frederick Gyllenborg and his wife, are received by Swedenborg in his living room and served with coffee from the silver pot that was a gift to the learned assessor from the Duke of Blankenburg. Laughter would alternate with serious words in the talk that followed. His friends were glad to have their beloved assessor with them in Stockholm, and surely Sweden was a pleasant country to live in! The people were making progress there, too, in many ways. Only recently they had changed over to the Gregorian calendar from the old one that put Sweden eleven days behind most of Europe.

Beautiful buildings there were now, like the new palace which King Adolf Frederick and his Prussian queen had finally been able to move into, after many years of waiting. If only poor Queen Lovisa Ulrika were more happy in her adopted country! The royal power had, indeed, been greatly curtailed. And that, of course, was no cure for her homesickness for Prussia and her brother Frederick's court, to which she seemed much more attached than to the court of Sweden. Of course few of the aristocracy wanted to see the king have the unlimited power that Charles XII had so greatly abused. The peasants and priests, as usual, sided with the king against the nobles; That was to be expected. But the country was still divided between the "Hat" and the "Cap" parties. Swedenborg thought that all parties could quickly agree if each member of a faction did not have some private axe to grind and if the good of the country were everyone's first consideration.

As they conversed, the assessor would lead his guests out toward the larger garden to inspect his latest improvements. They might pause at the wooden gate to listen, for this garden was brimful of song. Besides the birds trilling their vespers from the limes and apple trees on the right, there came an answering chorus from captive songsters in the birdhouse on the left. Advancing, they would see a lawn divided into four parts by intersecting paths which met at a small pavilion. As his guests entered this central pavilion, Swedenborg might explain that it was a copy of one he had seen in an English gentleman's garden. It was made of trellis-work with a flat roof and decorative cornice, and furnished with comfortable benches.

The western path led to Swedenborg's beautiful little summer house. This was square and, like his dwelling, covered on the outside with yellow painted panels and crowned by a turret surmounted with small golden balls and stars. In this snug room the Assessor did much of his writing during the warm season. A passage led from it to a small room that housed his library.

The path running south from the central pavilion led through the rose-garden and ended at the volière, a large bird-cage built of coarse brass wire. Here his guests would enjoy the sight of a great variety of small and large birds hopping about on their perches and swings. In the fall the assessor would take his feathered darlings into the big upper story of his house, where they could weather the Swedish winter and warble the longing of their little hearts for spring.

When the departing couple bade farewell to their amiable neighbor, the retired assessor, it was to a friend of long standing, who had chosen to spend his time in bachelor solitude, delving into the secrets of nature and writing learned tomes on philosophy and anatomy. That they had also been visiting a man who was consciously living in two worlds at once, holding converse with the souls of the dead, they had not the slightest suspicion. There was nothing in Swedenborg's outward demeanor that could make them suspect him of being the author of "Heavenly Mysteries." He was in this state for fifteen years before the Swedish public became aware of it.

It may have been on some such occasion as this that the Countess Gyllenborg - Elizabeth Stjerncrona - presented her friend with a thick brown quarto volume, bound in calfskin, entitled, Mary's the Better Part. It bore no author's name, but Elizabeth had written it for the edification of the pious, because she firmly believed that "the one thing needful for the simple in heart is to contemplate our duties and obligations toward the Christian faith, and to meditate on the words of Scripture." Swedenborg, knowing the deeply religious sentiments of this distinguished lady, seems to have been sincerely moved by her desire to lead people to reverence the teachings of God's Word. He wrote his name in the volume which has come down to our own time: "Em. Swedenborg."[396]

Elizabeth died in 1769, ten years after Frederick Gyllenborg, whose character is fully described in The Spiritual Diary. Legend attributes to Swedenborg the statement that there awaited him in the spiritual world, as his future mate, a lady known in the world as the Countess Gyllenborg.[397]

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