The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 4 - To England and the Continent

The young man who now made his first voyage westward was full of energy and bristling with ambition. Our knowledge of Swedenborg's visit to England and the continent is drawn from his letters and a short passage in one of his journals.

"On the way to London I was four times in danger of my life," he says. The ship ran into a sandbank and later was boarded by French privateers searching for contraband. The following afternoon, at twilight, an English patrol boat mistook the Swedish vessel for a privateer, and fired a broadside into it, fortunately without doing much damage.

A more serious danger for Emanuel came when they arrived in the port of London. The news having reached England that plague had broken out in Sweden, the, Gothenburg boat with all on board was ordered to remain in quarantine for six weeks. Some Swedes, however, approached in a yacht and persuaded our young traveler to go with them to the city. A search was made for the quarantine breaker, and Emanuel was apprehended. "I was saved from the rope," he wrote, "but with the reservation that no other person would thereafter escape it who ventured to do the like."[28]

It was a dangerous predicament and this youthful disregard of consequences might have ended in disaster. The escape may have been facilitated by prominent persons in England to whom Swedenborg had letters of introduction. Among them was the Swedish ambassador, Count Carl Gyllenborg, to whom Bishop Swedberg had sent a letter. There was also an intimate friend, Bishop James Robinson, a former resident of Stockholm, whom Emanuel visited at his London residence, Somerset House. Then, too, Swedenborg's father had jurisdiction over the Swedish congregation in London as he had over the Swedish settlements in the American colonies.

At that time visitors to London often took lodgings with tradespeople. Swedenborg boarded first with a watchmaker, then with a cabinet maker and later with a maker of brass instruments. "I steal their arts, which some day will be of use to me," he says. He waited until he had acquired some proficiency in the English language before looking up the men of learning to whom he had introductions. In the meantime he bought a small collection of books and began an intensive study of the works of Newton and other English scientists.

Emanuel at times was homesick for his native land.

"Were you to ask me about myself, dear brother, I should say I know that I am alive, but not happy, for I miss you and my home. Should I be so fortunate as to get a letter from you, you would almost carry me back to my country . . .

"I send you a few verses addressed to Sophia Brenner, the Sappho of our age. You may polish and improve them, if you find they require correction, and thus corrected, you may communicate them to her. "(London, October, 1710.)

(Sophia Brenner was greatly admired in those days for her longwinded poems, but had a present-day eulogist written a tribute in her honor, he might have mentioned as her greatest accomplishment the mothering of seventeen children, all but two of them her own!)

In December, Emanuel's loneliness was broken by the arrival from Sweden of his cousins Andreas and Gustaf Hesselius, who were passing through London on their way to the Pennsylvania settlements. Bishop Swedberg had appointed Andreas pastor to the Swedish congregations on the Delaware. His brother Gustaf was to win fame in the New World as the first American artist of note. From a fragment of the diary of Andreas Hesselius it may be gathered that the three young men went sight-seeing together in the fascinating metropolis:

"There is no necessity for me here to note down my remarks about this renowned city, the largest and the most populous in the whole Christian world, since it is too extensive a subject to describe, inasmuch as it cannot be adequately described either by books or by travelers. Let it only be stated that he who has a desire to see the whole world's races, riches, glory and grandeur in miniature may see it in London, on the Royal Exchange and the Custom House, not to mention innumerable other places . . ."[29]

Swedenborg, too, commented on the many strange things he observed, as for instance, at Charing Cross "monstrous animals and apes from Africa and America ... Whatever is worthy of being seen in the town, I have already examined. The magnificent St. Paul's cathedral was finished a few days ago in all its parts" (London, October 13, 1710).

The London of Swedenborg's first visit was a new city, just risen from the ashes of the great fire, in the full glory of Christopher Wren's beautiful buildings. Not all, however, was happy and sweet. The air was rent with the shrill voices of street criers; from gutters and drains arose offensive smells; footpads and pickpockets made the badly lighted streets dangerous to walk in, especially after dark. Samuel Johnson mentions the mountains of filth that obstructed traffic. Fine people were carried about in litters, while poor barefooted, misshapen specimens of humanity crept humbly along the obscure lanes.

The Swedish visitors were greatly impressed by the freedom of writing and speaking that everyone enjoyed, a feature noticeably absent in their own country, and indeed in all other parts of the world. There were other compensations. January in London was like May in Sweden, with lilies and other flowers blooming in the garden of Dr. Edzardus, pastor of the Swedish church, whose home lay five miles out of town and was often visited by Emanuel and his friends. Hesselius describes a day he spent with Count Gyllenborg, securing his pass for the journey to America. He saw Governor William Penn, who gave him a letter to the resident Governor of Pennsylvania.

Emanuel purchased instruments such as telescope tubes, quadrants, prisms, and so forth, and hoped that, after settling his accounts, he would have sufficient money left to buy an air-pump.

"You encourage me to go on with my studies in science," he wrote to Benzelius somewhat later, "but it is something that I ought rather to be discouraged in, as I have an immoderate desire for them, especially for astronomy and mechanics" (London, April, 1711).

He visited daily the best mathematicians in the city. One in particular, with whom he spent the greater part of his time during the first year, was the celebrated royal astronomer of England, the Rev. John Flamsteed, director of the observatory in Greenwich, some nine miles out of London town. This mature and experienced astronomer seems to have enjoyed his association with the twenty-two-year-old Swedish student, for they had long talks together about Flamsteed's observations and calculations. What thrills the young scientist must have felt as, for the first time, he watched the starry heavens unfolding under the newly perfected telescopes that revealed depth on depth of undreamed-of spaces!

Attention at that time was centered on the problem of determining longitude at sea, a matter of vital importance to England, whose commerce was expanding to all parts of the globe, demanding a constantly growing fleet. The government had offered a large reward for the best solution for finding the longitude at sea, and scientists everywhere were competing for it. Young Swedenborg, not abashed by his own inexperience, threw himself into an intensive study of the problem. In August, 1711, he wrote to Benzelius:

"With regard to astronomy I have made good progress, and discovered much which I think will be useful in this subject. Although in the beginning it greatly puzzled my brain, yet now lengthy speculations no longer seem hard to me. I have closely examined all the propositions for determining the terrestrial longitude, but found they would not serve. I have therefore thought up a method by means of the moon which is infallible, and I am sure that it is the best that can be given. In a short time I will inform the Royal Society that I have a proposition to submit on this subject, giving such and such points. If I find the gentlemen favorable I will publish it here; if not, in France. I have also discovered many new methods for observing the planets, the moon and the stars . . . I am now busy working my way through algebra and higher geometry, and I intend to make such progress in these subjects as to be able, in time, to continue Polhem's inventions."[30]

Emanuel's admiration for Polhem persisted. He had not renounced, but only postponed, the idea of a visit to him.

A letter from Benzelius brought the welcome news that in Upsala the plague was receding and that there had been no deaths among the teachers. Since the University lectures necessarily had to be suspended during the plague, some of the professors, at Benzelius' invitation, had taken advantage of the enforced leisure to meet in the library and form a society whose aim was the investigation of nature and the publication of their results. To further their object he requested Emanuel to purchase for them various books and apparatus including a. microscope and a twenty-four-foot telescope. Emanuel gladly complied, assembling besides a large number of books on scientific subjects at his own expense.

In Upsala, they were interested in hearing what the learned English mathematicians thought of Newton's newly published theory of gravitation. That one planetary body could be attracted to another by gravity seemed to these Cartesians unsubstantiated speculation. Swedenborg replied that no one ought to ask an Englishman's opinion on that question, because they are blind where their own countrymen are concerned.

"I do not expect to come home before 1715," he declared. He longed very much to see the Bodleian Library at Oxford, but his funds were running low. "Here I remain, still in want of money. I wonder that my father does not take better care of me than to let me live now for almost sixteen months upon 200 riksdalers when he knows that, in a letter, I promised not to embarrass him by drawing a bank draft. The iron [shipment] does not arrive here before three or four months' time. It is hard to live like the wench of Skĺne, without food or drink." (The reference was to a girl who allegedly lived for twenty years without eating, and whose case the Bishop himself had examined.) (London, August, 1711)

The sixteenth of January, 1712, was a day of thanksgiving in England. Peace had been concluded with France. "On the morning of the same day, Mr. Emanuel Swedberg left us to travel to Oxford," writes Hesselius. Evidently the long-awaited funds had arrived! In Oxford Emanuel continued his work in mathematics. He had conferences with the astronomer Edmund Halley, famous for his charts showing the latitude and longitude of the English colonies in America. By August Swedenborg had returned to London, tired out from his intense studies and rather discouraged. "As regards my discovery for finding the terrestrial longitude by means of the moon, I am convinced that it is the only one that can be given, that it is also the easiest, and in fact the right method. The only objection that can be raised against it is that the orbit of the moon is not yet thoroughly reduced to lunar tables; but Flamsteed promises me these, and he has shown me very good ones that he has made. They will absolutely and without error serve to show the moon's motion. If this be true I have won, the whole game and I make bold to say - after well considering the matter - that none of the others who have attempted to find the longitude by means of the moon have won it. Presuming only that the motions of the moon be rectified, no other method, of those that have been proposed by others, can be used except this one, and least of all Dr. Halley's - as he admitted to me, orally. But I have not met with much encouragement here in England, among this civil and proud people, so I have laid this aside for some other land. When I tell them I have a project regarding the longitude, they treat it as a thing absolutely impossible, so I do not wish to discuss it here."

He was quite willing to postpone further work in mathematics. His ambition sought a new channel; he turned to poetry.

As my speculations have made me for a time less sociable than is serviceable and useful for me, and as my spirits are somewhat exhausted, I have taken refuge for a short time in the study of poetry, that I might be refreshed by it. I intend to gain a little reputation in this study during the year . . . but time will perhaps be the judge of that. After a while, however, I intend to take up scientific studies again . . . If I am encouraged I intend to make more discoveries in that subject than anyone else in the present age, but without encouragement this would be merely self-torment-like ploughing with stubborn steers" (London, August, 1712).[31]

Whether Emanuel met the literary lights of the day in Oxford we do not know, but we know that he found "the eminent English poets, Dryden, Spenser, Waller, Milton, Cowley, Beaumont and Fletcher, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and so forth, well worth reading for the sake of their imagination alone." These undoubtedly served as models for the Latin verses which now came from Swedenborg's pen. His "Delia in Nige Ambulans" is a Latinization of an English poem Chlois Walking in the Snow." [32] The following "Lines to a Poetess - Why her Songs give Pleasure" and its sequel, even though we may miss the full flavor of them in translation, nevertheless suggest the style of the English poetry of that time:

To a Poetess - Why her Songs give Pleasure

Tell me wherefore the string which is touched by a beautiful maiden
Gives a sound so much fuller in meaning and thrills of delight? 
Why she instills in her verses a certain Nymphean nectar?
Why does the voice sound sweeter that comes from a beautiful mouth?

True, all that she loves to say comes through the mouth of her saying it;
Each little word she utters is touched by her beautiful lips:
But love is the partner in singing, for not alone words nor the lips, 
But the voice of her singing sweetly is what one loves so to hear.

      To the Same that She may Answer Me

No! 't is not the fingers, the tongue, nor the lips of the eloquent player,
Fain as I gladly on these would my kisses bestow,
But on whatever thou movest when thou dost utter thy songs,
For 't is thy whole moving body, as moved by thee, that I love.
Happy indeed, should our love by chance be the cause of producing
A new little muse, or at least bring me forth a short letter.[33]

Swedenborg's poems were well regarded by his contemporaries. "In his youth he was a great poet," says one. "I have in my possession some remnants of his Latin poetry which Ovid would not have been ashamed to own."[34] This may have been too high praise. No English translations have been made that would give an adequate basis for judgment. Emanuel turned to poetry in his hours of discouragement or when exhausted with studies. He did this in Brunsbo, in Oxford, and later in Greifswalde. That these exercises helped to develop his clear, expressive Latin style there can be no doubt.

The whole stay in England had a broadening effect on Swedenborg's mind. Besides giving him a wider perspective than his native land could possibly have afforded, it acquainted him with many of the world's great thinkers. The English visit showed him how useful, to the life of man's spirit, is the freedom of speech and of the press to which he often later alluded. This period Swedenborg recognized as the beginning of his preparation for his life's work. "I was first introduced by the Lord into the natural sciences and thus prepared; and this from the year 1710 to 1744."[35]

The beginning of the year 1713 found Swedenborg in Holland,, the English sojourn having lasted about two and a half years. In Utrecht a conference was in progress to draft a treaty for settling inter-European affairs. Swedenborg met ambassadors assembled from all parts, among them Bishop Robinson, who was Britain's representative to the conference. The young man was drawn into lively discussion on the issues of the day, a good preparation for the time when he was to take his place as a member of the Swedish parliament. He saw much of the Swedish representative, Baron Johan Palmqvist, a great algebraist, and they had long talks on mathematics in his home, nearly every day. The statesman found Emanuel's company so enjoyable that he was loath to see him depart.

In Leyden, Swedenborg was impressed by the splendid observatory. If only he could have used it for the lunar observations necessary to complete his work on longitude! There is no indication that this desire was attained, but in that famous glass-making center Emanuel added to his other accomplishments the art of lens-grinding and purchased all the necessary instruments and equipment for this purpose.

Shortly after his arrival in Paris, he was taken ill and had to refrain from his studies and other occupations for some six weeks. He says nothing about the nature of this indisposition, the only one of which there is any explicit record. Swedenborg was remarkably free from sickness all through his life.

Upon recovery, he looked up the men of learning in Paris as he had done in London. The Abbé Bignon, one of the most cultured men of his age and a great patron of the sciences, received Emanuel cordially and seemed impressed with his work. The Abbé gave him a letter of introduction to the celebrated mathematician, Professor Paul Varignon, who, in turn, sent him to the astronomer, De La Hire. But it seems that in Paris, too, the young enthusiast was thwarted in his endeavor to convince scientists of the efficacy of his lunar method, and not until many years later did he present it to the British Royal Society.

He labored incessantly and avoided the company of fellow Swedes and all who could distract him from his studies. Even letter writing suffered. "You may rest assured that I feel greater love and veneration for you, than for anyone else in the world," he writes Benzelius, "so do not take amiss my silence and tardiness in writing. It is occasioned by my studies, on which I am so intent as to neglect what is more necessary. Hail and farewell! Even unto death, your most faithful Emanuel Swedberg" (Paris, 1713).[36]

Before the close of his stay in Paris, however, the young student allowed himself a general sight-seeing tour of the city in the company of some friends.

Toward the end of August, 1714, homeward bound, Emanuel sent another letter to his brother-in-law from the quiet little Hanseatic port of Rostock: "I am right glad to have come to a place where I have peace and time to gather together all my works and ideas which up to now have been without order, scattered here and there on slips of paper. Hitherto all I have lacked was a place and the time to arrange them. This I now have begun to do and will soon have it completed."

An amazing list of fourteen mechanical inventions follows which the young man says he has developed and is illustrating by drawings and descriptions. He hoped to print them on his return to Sweden. Unfortunately his father mislaid the drawings and they were lost. A few items on the list are:

"The plan of a certain ship which, with its men, can go under the surface of the sea, wherever it chooses, and do great damage to the fleet at the enemy."

"A universal musical instrument, by means of which one who is quite unacquainted with music may execute all kinds of airs, that are marked on paper by notes."

"A flying carriage, or the possibility of remaining suspended in the air, and of being conveyed through it."

"A method of ascertaining the desires and affections of the mind by analysis."

"I am affected with a certain sense of shame," he says, "when I reflect that I have said so much about my plans and ideas, and as yet have exhibited nothing."[37]

These inventions, with their striking likeness to the submarine, the airplane, and others - including even a method of psychoanalysis - probably resembled the modern achievements in these lines mainly in being directed at the same objectives. They are, however, witnesses to Emanuel's brilliant mind and ambitious inventiveness.

The stay in Rostock gave him an opportunity also to bring his latest poetical productions into order. He wrote a number of allegorical "fables like those of Ovid, under cover of which are concealed all that has been going on in Europe during the past fourteen or fifteen years." The scene is laid in Versailles, and the theme is wholly consistent with rococo times. This poem, entitled The Northern Muse,[38] gives an account of the Swedish race and a forecast of its future under the leadership of the great Charles XII, "Phoenix of the ancient Gothic nation and Monarch of the North."

To print this and another collection of poems called Heliconian Sports[39] Swedenborg traveled to Greifswalde. Political events, however, were not keeping up with the young man's exuberance. The Russians had carried a campaign of terror into Swedish Finland, and it was expected that at any time a Russian fleet might attack the Swedish coast to burn and destroy. King Charles, disappointed in not having been able to get the Turks involved in a war with Russia, was on his way home through Europe.

This and more Emanuel learned from Bernard Cederholm and other fellow countrymen whom he met at Greifswalde and who were returning home from Turkey. As a matter of fact, the "Monarch of the North," attended by only two companions, was at that very moment riding on horseback, incognito, at breakneck speed, to reach Pomerania. After a record-breaking journey of only twenty days, King Charles arrived at Stralsund on the night of November 10. Dead tired and with feet so swollen that his boots had to be cut off him, he had made the last thousand-mile stretch in eight days, a unique feat of horsemanship!

All this fired the imagination of our young poet to compose his Festive Ode "in celebration of the king's arrival in his own Pomerania,"[40] describing Charles's longing to return to his native land, his sufferings and the people's joy at his home-coming. "Though the people be worn out, yet when they shall hear that thou hast returned they will again take breath and get new life." "The earth shall bid her flowers to bloom again, and gladness shed over the land again." This prose poem has been considered one of Swedenborg's finest. Why, then, was no copy of it known until two hundred years later when an American scholar discovered two copies in a Greifswalde library? Was it because so much ill-fortune befell Sweden between the time when the Ode was written and the time of its intended distribution that the laudatory verses would have sounded ridiculous? Did Emanuel quietly consign the entire edition of this, his most elaborate panegyric, to the flames one chilly day, after his return to Sweden?

For Swedenborg too, after an absence of over four years, began to feel a longing to set foot on his native soil. There was nothing of great worth in Greifswalde. The Academy was "scurvy," the professor of mathematics "fit for any study but that one." He longed to get down to work on his mechanical devices, and again his mind turned toward Christopher Polhem.

"I have now a very great desire to return home to Sweden and take all Polhem's inventions in hand, make drawings of them, and furnish descriptions, and relate them with physics, mechanics, hydrostatics and hydraulics, and likewise supply algebraic calculations, and publish them in Sweden rather than anywhere else, and to set up for ourselves the beginning of a scientific society, for which there is so fine a foundation in Polhem's inventions. I wish that mine also could serve thereto." (Rostock, September 8, 1714.)

He is thinking tenderly of his relatives. "Greetings a thousandfold to sister Anna. I hope she is not alarmed at the approach of the Russians. I have a great longing to see little brother Erik again. Perhaps by this time he is able to make a triangle for me, if I bring him a little ruler." (He ought to have been - had Emanuel forgotten that Erik was now nine years old?)

There was further reason for hastening his return. Pomerania had become an undesirable abode for a student. Only twenty-five miles, away, at Stralsund, the king was now closely hemmed in by the combined forces of Denmark, Prussia, and Hanover. "When the siege was about to begin, I succeeded, under the Divine Providence , in obtaining a passage home in a yacht," Swedenborg wrote later, "in company with Madame Feiff [wife of the Councillor of War], after having been abroad for more than four years" (nearly five, as a matter of fact, since this occurred in May or June, 1715).[41]

Bit by bit the defenses of Stralsund were shot away and in December Charles escaped in a rowboat and was taken on board a waiting galley lying at anchor outside the harbor. He landed at Trelleborg, in southern Sweden, after an absence from his country of fifteen years, beaten and exhausted, but with his haughty spirit still unbroken, Charles was a stubborn man, unable to take advice and, in spite of his unquestionable bravery, he had brought disaster to his country. The last bit of soil that Sweden owned on the other side of the Baltic was thus lost to her. The home country was in a perilous state, bled white by conscription and financially ruined by the cost of the war. The huge sums of money that Sweden owed to foreign states exceeded her own yearly income. It took her twenty-four years to pay what she owed to Turkey alone.

One there was who had foreseen where things were leading, one who had tried to advise the tempestuous monarch, - his grandmother, the well-beloved Dowager Queen, Hedwig Eleonora. Had Charles listened to her advice and made peace, even at the sacrifice of some provincial territory, the outcome would have been very different. Her death a year later inspired Emanuel to write the following commemorative poem which served as a dirge for the country as well as for the queen and illustrates the dignity of Swedenborg's verse.[42]


Haste, Sappho, haste, thy tuneful lyre unstring
     Nor wake its soul-inspiring chords in vain;
Without such aid 'tis now for thee to sing
    The solemn strain!
Herald of fame! that oft on vigorous plume
    Hast sped through Europe, echoing Sweden's praise,
Bend for a moment oer yon regal tomb,
    With sorrowing gaze.
Goddess of Glory! oft with laurels crowned,
    Weep for the dead; and 'stead of victory's leaf,
Be round thy brow the cypress chaplet bound,
    Emblem of grief.

* * * * *

Soldier of Sweden, too, attend the bier
    With arms inverted to its last long rest;
With downward looks, in sorrow's weeds appear
    And beat thy breast.

Sweden, of ancient Goths thou parent land,
    Weep! Nurse of nations and of warriors brave,
With locks and garments torn by frantic hand,
    Weep o'er yon grave!

to Chapter 5