The Swedenborg epic

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Chapter 3 - Brunsbo Interlude

Bishop Swedberg wished his son to have the advantage of foreign travel and study, to finish his education. So while he was in Stockholm, in May, 1709, he applied to the king's secretary for a traveler's pass for Emanuel. The graduation over, the bishop, accompanied by his son and four-year-old grandson, Eric Benzelius, proceeded to Brunsbo, whence Emanuel intended to leave for England about the first of August. Writing to his brother-in-law, he asks for letters of introduction to some of the members of the Royal Society in London, so that he might profit by their work in physics and the natural sciences. (Brunsbo, July 13, 1709.)[21]

In preparation for his departure, Emanuel states that in order to increase and perfect his knowledge of science, he has undertaken to collect all that he can find on the subject, and is most anxious to get hold of the work of the great Swedish inventor and mechanical genius, Christopher Polhem who, he, says, ought to be urged to publish an account of his inventions "before anything mortal overtakes him." Polhem's material, Emanuel thinks, would be a great ornament to his own prospective work on "mathematics."

Some years were to pass, however, before his purpose could be accomplished. The journey to England had to be postponed. Instead of the expected fourteen days, Emanuel was delayed in Skara a whole year, since Sweden was at war and Denmark, one of her enemies, commanded the seas, making a journey to England then almost impossible. Another reason was the condition of the homeland. Not only was Sweden straining every nerve to supply her armies in foreign fields, but pestilence had broken out. Continual reverses and crop failures had worn out the people and when the bubonic plague, advancing from the southeast through northern Europe, approached Sweden, the soil that had borne so meager a crop of food was well prepared for a rich harvest of death. In 1710 the Swedish government issued an order that ships coming from infected ports should be held in quarantine for forty days. In spite of all precautions, however, the deadly boils appeared and the epidemic spread to various parts of the land. In Stockholm alone it took its toll of 20,000 people, one third of the city's population. "On the thirteenth of January, 1711, 1 ventured down into the city," wrote Dr. Rhyzelius who then lived in the southern quarter. "Wherever I went it was empty and void. My acquaintances were either dead or had moved away. Houses and workshops were deserted." [22]

To make the calamity complete, news arrived that the king had been defeated in a decisive battle at Pultava, in Russia. As Swedenborg's early life was intimately bound up with the fortunes of his native land, it seems desirable to present briefly the events that led up, to the disaster, for it is part of the -background out of which Swedenborg's figure emerges.

After the death of King Charles XI in 1697, the nobles had voted to recognize his son Charles, a fifteen-year-old boy, as successor to the throne. They hoped to find so young a lad easy to manage and thus be able to regain their tax-free estates which they had lost under his father. But instead of reaping the rewards of their loyal devotion, they found themselves involved in war. For Sweden's enemies, seeing a country weakened by years of famine and ruled by an inexperienced boy, thought this the opportune moment to attack her and take the Baltic provinces which they claimed as rightfully theirs. Peter the Great of Russia, plotting with the king of Poland, formed an alliance against Sweden, later joined by Frederick II of Denmark. These three nations together were ten times as powerful in men- and resources as Sweden.

But the young king's energy and ability soon turned the tide of events. In a swift campaign against Denmark, Charles XII was victorious and compelled her to make a favorable peace. He then proceeded against the forces threatening his Baltic possessions. A strong Russian army laid siege to Naxva in Estonia. It was bravely defended by a small Swedish garrison. Charles marched to the relief of the besieged city and on November 20, 1700, won a brilliant victory over vastly superior forces. Tales of the young king's prowess and military skill flew over the world like lightning and "The Lion of the North" received congratulations from all parts of Europe. Had he stopped then and made peace with Russia on such terms as he could get, all might have been well. Instead he made the fatal mistake of invading the Ukraine. Up to this time Charles had known only triumph, but, little by little he led his forces on to the fateful plains of Pultava where he was defeated and forced to retreat over the Bessarabian steppes to Turkish possessions on the Black Sea. The Turks interned him as a kind of honorary prisoner.

Sweden, now deprived of her king, was again attacked by the Danes who hoped to recover the southernmost province, Scania, once the possession of Denmark. When the Danish king made a sudden descent on the town of Helsingborg and took it, the Swedes were thoroughly aroused. The poverty of the country was great and the burdens of war were fearfully hard, but the people, brave and patient, were willing to sacrifice everything for their homes and the young hero-king who had taken their hearts by storm. An army of peasants, inflamed with patriotic zeal and armed largely with scythes and pitchforks, under Magnus Stenbock, defeated the Danes and drove them out of the country.

Young Swedenborg did not take part in this exploit, but the victory inspired him to compose his Triumphal Ode to Stenbock..[23] During his year of waiting in Brunsbo, he wrote and published several other poems, learned the art of binding books, and practiced his music so that he was able to take the organist's place in church. He renewed his acquaintance with his former teacher, Johan Moreaus, now back from France with a medical degree and once more a resident in Bishop Swedberg's home. He examined a huge skeleton that Moreaus unearthed in the neighborhood, and arranged for these "bones of a medieval giant" to be transferred to the Upsala museum. The fact that the authorities there pronounced them to be the remains of a fossil whale only deepened the mystery, inasmuch as the skeleton had been found 124 miles inland.[24]

The enforced leisure was not to Emanuel's liking. Brunsbo offered little incentive to scientific pursuits. "I have very little desire to remain in this place any longer," he complains, "since I am spending my time almost in vain."

It is to his friend Benzelius he looks for escape. Benzelius, a leader in the movement for freer methods of research, was fast becoming one of the foremost scholars of his day. Emanuel's affection for him is strikingly expressed in one of the many letters that passed between them: "I not only love you more than my own brothers, but I even love and revere you as my father." His brother-in-law reciprocated this affection and held Emanuel in high esteem, for among the eighteen volumes of his correspondence with learned Europeans Benzelius preserved no less than fifty of the letters he received from Swedenborg, which constitute the most valuable biographical material that has come down to us from that period.

"My chief desire now is to get a little information about the plan here under discussion of my staying with Polhem," Emanuel wrote in March, 1710. "If my foreign journey must be postponed until next spring - then I am quite content to be with him for some time, seeing that I can probably reap more benefit there in summer than in winter, and everything will be so much more lively and pleasant there, and my mind in a better condition." [25]

Christopher Polhem[26] was destined to play a leading role in Swedenborg's early career. Deprived of his parents at an early age, Polhem, after many trying childhood experiences, finally showed such aptitude for repairing machines that he had become famous for his ingenuity. He was constantly confronted with problems that could be solved only by mathematics, but all the text-books on this subject were written in Latin, a language he did not know. Past school age and without means, Polhem nevertheless determined to learn the classic tongue. The turning point of his life came one day when the chaplain on the estate where he was employed asked him to make a clock. The young man promised him a clock that would strike the hours, the half hours and the quarters and tell the day and date besides, if the chaplain would teach him Latin. He later completed his studies at Upsala.

Polhem applied his remarkable gifts to mining, an industry of the greatest importance to Sweden then as now. He invented a machine for raising ore, carrying it to the smelting house, emptying the barrels and returning them to the shaft, all in one operation worked by water power. He constructed new machines of all kinds without preliminary drawings. In time, Germany sent her mining experts to Polhem for instruction, and offered him great inducements, as did also England, if he would settle there. But Polhem preferred his native land with all her poverty and inability to requite him properly. He helped Charles XII's army very greatly by designing useful field equipment, such as hand-mills for grinding grain.

Polhem was in the habit of boarding a few students to give them instruction, in some cases receiving a considerable fee in return. At Emanuel's request, Benzelius wrote to a friend of his, the Rev. Jacob Troilius, asking him to speak to Polhem about taking young Swedenborg as a pupil. Polhem replied that he and his wife had resolutely made up their minds not to take any more strangers into their home. Nevertheless he might be induced to take Herr Swedberg as a very great favor. The first one to approach Polhem on the subject of Emanuel's visit, however, seems to have been Bishop Swedberg himself who, although not an enthusiast for science, was too broadminded to oppose his son's natural inclination. He says that he never interfered with his children's choice of a profession, and this is borne out by a letter written by Polhem, who seems not to have relished having so much pressure brought to bear on him, first from the bishop, then from Benzelius in combination with his local pastor. Nevertheless he looked forward to Emanuel's visit. A clever and intelligent pupil would be able to help him with experiments.[27]

Swedenborg's visit to Polhem did not take place, however, at this time. Hearing of a captain who was planning a voyage to England in spite of the risk of capture by the Danes, then at war with Sweden, and in spite of possible molestation by the French, at war with England, young Emanuel engaged passage on the boat and late in April or early in May, 1710, embarked for England. Swedenborg's introduction to science was not to be made through the medium of mechanics. His practical work on docks and canals was reserved for a later date after he had made the acquaintance of some of the greatest scientists and thinkers of his day.

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