In Association with

Choose another writer in this calendar:

by name:

by birthday from the calendar.

Credits and feedback

for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795)


Swedish poet-musician, "the master improviser," 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 youth Bellman wrote moralizing satirical verses and translated from German and French, without any inclination to enter the bohemian, artistic life.

Fattig, försupen,
i denna strupen
finns min rikedom.
I alla öden,
i bleka döden
läskar jag min gom
och i min sista stund
glaset för min mun.

(Fredmans epistel, n:o 23)

Carl Michael Bellman was born into a respectable middle-class family in the Södermalm district of Stockholm. His father, Johan Arndt Bellman (1797-1765), was a secretary at the King's office, and mother, Katarina Hermomia (1717-1765), was a daughter of a Lutheran minister. Bellman was the eldest of 15 children. He reveived a good education and learned several foreign languages. Claes Ennes, Bellman's private tutor, introduced him to the world of poetry. His his ability to express himself in rhyming verse was discovered in his childhood, but at the age of nineteen Bellman began to work as a trainee at the State bank.

Bellman lived in Stockholm his whole life except when he studied at Uppsala University for a short time, and when he ran away from creditors in 1763 to Norway. More or less due to the scandal, his father he left the King's office, sold the Lilla Daurerska house where his family had lived for 20 years and moved first to Årsta and then to Visbohammar.

After returning to Sweden, Bellman took a position at the Manufacturing Office, which was closed in 1766. He then worked at the General Customs Office until 1772. During this period and the following restless years Bellman transformed drinking songs into an art form. 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), about 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. Morever, Bellman was known as a talented mimic; one of his most famous tricks was to mimic twenty or thirty people at the same time.

Both of his parents died in 1765, and creditors took all what was left from the property. In 1766 Bellman established the so-called 'Bacchi Orden' (Order of Bacchus), which parodied contemporary fashionable knightly orders and celebrated the joys of wine in difficult times: "Does the grave to you seem far too deep? / Well, then take a drink, and then another one, / And then a second one, and then a third one, / and you will die with more peace." During the first half of the 1800s, the annual consumption of hard liquor was 40-50 liters per person per year. The members of the Order were not just average drunks but notorious drunks, who had been dismissed from their post. Bellman's good friend, the sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, made once a medallion portrait, in which the poet himself was portrayed as a Bacchus. Bellman's ambitious Bacchi tempel (1783) was a mixture of comic opera and mock-heroic poetry; this beautifully illustrated little book went almost unnoticed. 

Without abandoning Stockholm's underclass, Bellman managed to develop ties to the court of King Gustav III (1746-92), whose passion was theater and opera. The king liked Bellman's song, "Gustavs skål' (1772, Gustav's skoal), written some days after the bloodless coup d'etat that brought him to power:  "Gustafs Skål! / Gustavs skål! / Den bäste Kung, som Norden äger".  A toast to the king was a manifestation of loyalty – even when it was done by drunkards.

However, Bellman's contacts did not bring him the respect of the establishment, and when he fell in love with Wilhelmina Norman, her family opposed their marriage. In 1777 Bellman married Lovisa Fredrika Grönlund (1755/1757?-1847); they had four sons. Ignoring Bellman's nonexistent skills as a  bureacrat, the king appointed him in 1779 as a government official at the Lottery Office.

Despite Gustav III's appreciation and financial support – the King allotted him a pension from royal private funds and invited him to the palace on certain Wednesdays – Bellman's choice of subject matter made him an outsider in the literary scene. At the request of the King, Bellman also tried his hand at longer theatrical pieces, but they never gained a large audience; playwriting was not his forte. The poet remained a loyal supporter of 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, pastoral motifs, and descriptions of life's comic and tragic realities. Some songs, such as 'En Potifars hustru' (A Potiphar's wife) and 'Joachim uti Babylon'  (Joachim in Babylon) dealt gently with figures from the Old Testament. The most famous biblical parody was 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. He was instructed by the Stockholm consistory to "use his cleverness on such works which were useful and civil, without coming into conflict with religion." ('The Enlightenment and the Gustavian Age' by James Massengale, in A History of Swedish Literature, edited by Lars G. Warme, 1996, p. 126) But the circles in which Bellman moved were not appalled. Although Stockholm was still quite provincial with about 70,000 inhabitats, in that time it had 700 taverns."Let asses groan beneath the yoke, / Shrewd men scheme till their brains are broke; / Wine, girls, Fredman's fiddle-bow / Enchant the night!" (Sweden, the Nation's History by Franklin Daniel Scott, 1988, pp. 282-283)

1765 Bellman began producing a cycle of songs, but for a long period, he was unable to get his epistles into print. When the composer and publisher Olof Åhlström introduced a relatively inexpensive way of printing music and the King's permission was granted, Fredmans epistlar came out in 1790.

The title of the songbook alludes to the Pauline Epistles. Johan Henrik Kellgren, a highly influential critic and poet, who had attacked Bellman in 1778 in 'Mina Löjen,' wrote a warmhearted introduction to the book. Its central characters include Father Berg, Fredman, a watchmaker "without clocks, shop, or business," 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 Jean Fredman (1712/13-1767), who had taken care of chuch clocks, and had been a respected alderman, but who ended in the gutter. Ulla Winbland was Maria Kristina Kiellström (1744-1798) from a poor family. The first collection, which contained eighty-two poems, depicted mostly tavern life. It was followed by Fredmans sånger (1791), a varied collection containing drinking songs, bible travesties, and other pieces composed over a period of time.  Fredman has very little role in it. A major theme is the presence of death: Kom Kamrater låt oss stimma! / Punsch och Bischoff upp i skyn! / Til dess döden med sin dimma / Skymmer för vår syn." (Fredmans sånger, n:o 16) Bacchi tempel (1783), Bellman's first major work, had also some engravings. Bellman's songs brought him a membership of the Swedish Musical Academy, but he did not earn much money from them.

Drick ur ditt glass se, döden på dig väntar,
slipar sitt svärd och vid din tröskel står!
Bliv ej förskräckt: han blott på gravdörrn gläntar,
slår den igen  kanske än på ett är.
(Fredmans epistel, n:o 30)

In most of his songs, Bellman borrowed the tunes from minuets, folk songs, opera, and march music. Some of the melodies Bellman composed himself; he apparently sang in a high baritone or tenor voice, accompanying himself on the lutelike cittern, one of which was the instrument his grandfather had bought in Hamburg. 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. After being bailed out, Bellman sang "Drink out thy glass, see, Death awaits thee." (A Library of the World's Best Literature. Vol. IV: Bancroft-Birrell, edited by Charles Dudley Warner, 2008, p. 1766)

At the suggestion of his doctor, Anders Blad, Bellman began to write his autobiography, but he did not finish it, the poet's health was already broken. He had contracted tuberculosis and was depressed. He also suffered from gout during his final years. The original manuscript of his autobiography came into possession of H.F. Antell in 1887, later it was donated to the Finnish National Museum, with its end missing. Bellman died on February 11, 1795, in Stockholm. "Bellman was never really sober until upon his deathbed," said the editor and publisher Carl Christopher Gjörwell. (The Life and Songs of Carl Michael Bellman: Genius of the Swedish Rococo by Paul Britten Austin, 1967, p. 165) The location of Bellman's grave in the Klara Churchyard is now unknown.

Bellman's 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.

For further reading: Textkritiska studier till Fredmans epistlar by Bernhard Risberg (1938) The Last of the Troubadours: The Life and Music of Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) by Hendrik Willem Van Loon sand Grace Castagnetta (1939); Kring Fredmans epistlar by Olof Byström (1945); Bellman som musikalsk Digter by Torben Krogh (1945); Myt och bild by Nils Afzelius (1945, rev. ed. 1964); Kring Bellman, ed. by Lars-Göran Eriksson (1964); Bellmansforskning by A. Björkman (1964); Ordbok till Fredmans epistlar by Carl Larsson and Magdalena Hellquist (1967);  The Life and Songs of Carl Michael Bellman: Genius of the Swedish Rococo by Paul Britten Austin (1967); Bellman och Bacchus by Bo Nordstrand (1973); The Life and Songs of Carl Michael Bellman: Genius of the Swedish Rococo by Paul Britten Austin (1968); Ordindex till Fredmans Epistlar by Bo Nordstrand (1970); Bellman som bohem och parodiker by Alf Kjellén (1971); Tio forskare om Bellman, ed. by Horace Engdahl (1977); Handskrifterna till Fredmans epistlar by Magdalena Hellquist (1977); The musical-poetic method of Carl Michael Bellman by James Massengale (1979); I sällskap med Bellman by Torsten Ahlstrand (1981); I Zions tempel by Sven Thorén (1986);  Fredman's Epistles and Songs by Paul Britten Austin (1990-1999); Carl Michael Bellman by Lars Huldén (1994); Carl Michael Bellman: Sweden's Shakespeare of the Guitar Song by Paul Britten Austin (1998); Ljuva karneval!: om Carl Michael Bellmans diktning by Lars Lönnroth  (2005); Carl Michael Bellman: en biografi by Leif Landen (2008); Carl Michael Bellman: en biografi by Leif Landen (new ed., 2013); Bellman: biografin by Carina Burman (2019); Fukta din aska: C.M. Bellmans liv från början till slut by Ernst Brunner (2020); Bellman: diktare före sin tid by Tomas Blom (2021) - Suomeksi on julkaistu myös mm. Reino Hirvisepän kääntämä Laulava Bellman (1945). See also: Povel Ramel, Larin-Kyösti

Selected works:

  • Tankar om flickors ostadighet, 1758 (anon.)
  • Månan, 1760 (anon.)
  • Fyra stycken nyligen utkläckte, lustige wisor..., 1760-
  • Underwisning, lemnad af en fader åt sin son, som företager sig en lång resa..., 1768
  • Kärlekens beröm, samt flickornas önskan, uti fem helt nya och mycket behageliga sånger..., 1770-
  • Bacci soldaters källare-marsch..., 1770-
  • En spritt ny och öfwermåttan putslustig pålsk lång-dans rimwis författad..., 1770-
  • Öfver hans kongl. maj:ts tal på riks-salen d. 25 jun. 1771..., 1771
  • Twenne rätt wackra wisor..., 1772
  • Bacchanaliska qwäden. Första stycket, 1772 (anon.)
  • Pharao- och cambio-spelen, 1772 (anon.)
  • Trogna undersåtares frögde-qwäden, öfwer den lyckeliga regerings-förändringen i Swerige, som begyntes i Stockholm den 19 aug. 1772..., 1774
  • Betraktelser öfwer åtskillige evangeliske texter, 1780
  • Hwad behagas?, 1781
  • Bacchi tempel, öpnadt vid en hieltes död, 1783 (anon.)
  • Vid mademoiselle Ulrica Lidmans samt grosshandlaren herr Scharps äkta förening den 18 januarii 1784, 1874
  • En namnkunnig mans graf-skrift, 1875 (anon.)
  • Zions högtid, 1787
  • Canon på drottnings höga namsdag, sungen af en svensk besättning på Ulricksdahls redd, 1788
  • En wisa, Fougden skall liquidere, 1788
  • På första söndagen i adventet år 1788, 1788
  • Fäderneslandets försvar, 1788
  • Embarqueringen på kongl. Skeppsholmen den 23 junii 1788, 1788
  • Twänne nya kämpe-wisor öfwer segren wid Hogland. Den 17 julii 1788..., 1788
  • En ny krigs-wisa, Fougden skall liquiderer..., 1789
  • Fem nya kongl. fri-corpsens krigs-wisor..., 1789
  • Fredmans epistlar, 1790 (introduction by Johan Henrik Kellgren)
    - C. M. Fredmanin lauluja ja loiluja (suom. 1863) / Fredmanin epistoloita (suom. Unto Kupiainen, 1957) / Bellman, lauluja ja epistoloita (suom. Reino Hirviseppä, 1991)
    - Some Fredman's Epistles and Songs (tr. Edward Adams-Ray, 1954) / Fredman's Epistles and Songs (tr. Paul Britten Austin, 1990, 1999)
  • Fredman sånger, 1791
    - C. M. Fredmanin lauluja ja loiluja (suom. 1863) / Bellman, lauluja ja epistoloita (suom. Reino Hirviseppä, 1991)
  • Konungens död och minne, på klago-dagen, den 6 junii 1792, 1792
  • Bref til konglig secreteraren S öfver konungens bortresa, 1794
  • Fredmans handskrifter, 1813
  • C.M. Bellmans Skaldestycken, efter C.M. Völschows manuscripter första gången utgifna, 1814 (2 vols.)
  • Valda skrifter, 1835-36 (edited by Per Adolf Sondén)
  • Michael Bellmans samlade skrifter, 1836-38
  • 36 hittills otryckta sånger : (efter ett nyligen funnet manuskript), 1853
  • Poetiska arbeten till år 1772 sådana han då ämnade utgifta dem: efter skaldens egen handskrift: med mel. och pennritn, 1872
  • Skrifter: ny samling, efter skaldens egna handskrifter och andra samtida källor, 1876-77 (edited by C. Eichhorn)
  • Outgifna dikter: med en inledning, 1895 (edited by Richard Steffen)
  • Fredmans epistlar i urval, 1900 (edited by Richard Steffen)
  • Carl Michael Bellmans skrifter, 1921-80 (13 vols.)
  • Valda sånger, 1949
  • Bröllopsskrifter, 1959 (foreword by Olof Byström, illustrated by Lasse Lindberg)
  • Carl Michael Bellmamn, 1962 (edited by Björn Julén)
  • Fredman's Epistles & Songs, 1977 (edited by Paul Britten Austin)
  • Fredman sånger, 1997 (edited by Gunnar Hillbom)
  • Dikter i urval, 2002 (new ed.; edited by Olof Byström)
  • Sånger, dikter och epistlar, 2007 (edited by Olof Byström)
  • Dikter D. 1 Fredmans epistlar, 2016 (utgivna av Richard Steffen)
  • Dikter D. 2 Fredmans epistlar, 2016 (Kommentar / utgiven av Olof Byström)
  • Dikter D. 3 Fredmans epistlar, 2916 (Ordbok / utarbetad av Carl Larsson och Magdalena Hellquist)
  • Dikter D. 4 Fredmans epistlar, 2016 (Handskriftsstudier till Fredmans epistlar. 2, Variantförteckning / utarbetad av Magdalena Hellquist)

In Association with

Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. 2008-2020.


Creative Commons License
Authors' Calendar jonka tekijä on Petri Liukkonen on lisensoitu Creative Commons Nimeä-Epäkaupallinen-Ei muutettuja teoksia 1.0 Suomi (Finland) lisenssillä.
May be used for non-commercial purposes. The author must be mentioned. The text may not be altered in any way (e.g. by translation). Click on the logo above for information.