Biography Carl Michael Bellman

Carl Michael Bellman

photo of Carl Michael Bellman
  • Time Period1740 - 1795
  • Place
  • CountrySweden

Poet Biography

A Swedish poet-musician, whose songs have remained very popular in Scandinavia. Beginning as a writer of Bacchanalian songs, Bellman produced over seventeen hundred poems, most set to music. In his early youth Bellman published religious and satirical works and translations from German and French, without any inclination to lead a Bohemian life.

Carl Michael Bellman was born into a respectable middle-class family in Söder in Stockholm. His father, Johan Arndt Bellman, was a secretary at the King's office and mother, Katarina Hermomia, was a daughter of a priest. Bellman was educated at a private school. He lived in Stockholm his whole life except when he studied at Uppsala University for a short time and when he in 1763 ran away from creditors to Norway. More or less due to the scandal his father left the King's office, sold the house where his family had lived for 20 years and moved first to Årsta and then to Visbohammar. After returning to Sweden Bellman could not continue in his post at the National Bank. In the following restless years he started to write drinking songs. Bellman was first time dead drunk in 1759 when he had too much French red wine, but poems had written earlier. Among these works is 'Tankar om Flickors ostadighet' (1758), a poem about the girls' fickleness.

By the late 1760s Bellman had already became famous with his songs and biblical parodies, which circulated by word of mouth, and in handwritten copies and printed sheets. After his parents died in 1765, creditors took all what was left from the property. In 1766 Bellman established his 'Bacchi Orden' which parodied contemporary fashionable knightly orders and celebrated the joys of wine. The members of the Order were notorious drunks, who had been dismissed from their post.

The poet developed ties to the court of King Gustav III (1746-92), a devoted patron of the arts, without forgetting Stockholm's underclass. In spite of his contacts, he was considered as a lowly clown, generally despised, and when he fell in love with Wilhelmina Norman, her family opposed their marriage. In 1777 Bellman married Lovisa Fredrika Grönlund; they had four sons. He was appointed in 1779 as a government official at the Lottery Office. Despite Gustav III's appreciation and financial support, Bellman's choice of subject matter made him an outsider at court. However, the poet was a loyal supporter his royal benefactor, even during the years before his murder in 1792 when opposition against the King grew stronger.

Bellman combined in his works the classical allusions, elevated metaphors, and pastoral motifs so loved by the Enlightenment with perceptive descriptions of life's comic and tragic realities. Some songs dealt with figures from the Old Testament. The most famous is about Noah:

Gubben Noach, Gubben Noach
Var en hedersman
När han gick ur arken
Plantera han på marken
Mycket vin, ja mycket vin, ja
Detta gjorede han.

(Old Man Noah, Old Man Noah / Was a gentleman...)

With this song Bellman became a celebrity, although he arose much indignation among the clergy. 1765 Bellman began producing a cycle of songs, FREDMANS EPISTLAR, the title alluding to the Pauline Epistles. Among the central characters are Father Berg, Fredman, a watchmaker, Mollberg who wants revive of the past glory of Sweden, Movitz, a musician, and Ulla Winblad, the nymph and priestess of the temple of Bacchus. Fredman was originally the clockmaker Jean Fredman, who took care of chuck clocks. Ulla Winbland was Maria Kristina Kiellström (1744-1798), who came from a poor family. The poems depicted mostly tavern life. They were followed by FREDMANS SÅNGER (1791), also a varied collection containing mainly drinking songs. BACCHI TEMPEL (1783) contained some songs and engravings.

In most of his songs, Bellman borrowed the tunes from minuets, folk songs, opera, and march music. Some of the melodies Bellman composed himself. In 1794 Bellman started to write his autobiography, but he did not finish it. Bellman was imprisoned in 1794 for ten weeks because of unpaid debts to Enoch Nobelius, but was soon released with the help of his friends. According to rumors, Nobelius wanted to revenge when Bellman's wife did not respond to his attention. However, the poet's health was already broken. He died of tuberculosis on February 11, 1795.
Bellman plays were published posthumously. Adolf Bellman, the poet's youngest son, later wrote his father's biography and depicted the warm relationship between his parents in spite of the constant financial problems that troubled the family.