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Johan Olof Wallin

Johan Olof Wallin, (pronounced Valleen), the author of the "The Angel of Death ," was a native of Sweden, and was born in the parish of Stora Tuna, in the province of Dalarne (Dalecarlia), October 15, 1779. His father was a military man, and some time after Johan's birth became captain of the Dalecarlia regiment. The future poet and preacher was one of a large family, much larger than accorded well with the somewhat restricted means of the captain of a regiment.

At a very early age, young Johan evinced a taste for books, and for study generally; but the circumstances of his family were not such as to encourage the hope of an academic career. As has often happened in such circumstances, the talents of the boy commanded attention; and he was not left without a good primary education. At the early age of thirteen he began to help himself; and, by taking part in the education of others, he contrived to prolong his own studies, and acquired great proficiency in the classics, especially inLatin. When only seventeen years of age, he made his first public appearance at the Gymnasium of Westerås, and by the delivery of a poetical speech in Latin—a speech which is still preserved and which is remarkable for its literary merits—he astonished all his seniors. Henceforth Johan Olof Wallin was a marked man among his contemporaries.

It was not long after this triumph at the Gymnasium, that young Wallin felt discouraged for the want of funds. It was now desirable that he should give himself to the higher department of study under competent teachers; but money was needed, and he knew not where to find it. In his difficulty he felt strongly tempted to give up his studies, and to give himself to his father's profession. His delicate health, however, stood in the way; and, happily, a serviceable situation as teacher having offered itself, he was saved to literature. In the fall of 1799, after a most creditable examination, he was entered as student at the Upsala Academy. His career as a student was marked by great success, especially in literature and philosophy; and, in 1803, he took his Doctor's degree. In the same year, he obtained a prize from the Swedish Academy,[A] for poetical translations of four of the Odes of Horace. Wallin was now in his twenty-fourth year.

Encouraged by success, Johan tried the Academy again, and was successful in carrying off, in one session, three prizes, the largest number ever before awarded to one person, at one anniversary. One of them was the "Grand Prize," and was awarded to a poem, called "The Educator." Some of the lines give promise of the temple-orator that was to be:

"Thou sentinel on high! Will night not vanish soon?We doubt the sheen of stars and quiet path of moon;We placed our trust in Thee. Enlight the races striving!Will night yet long endure? Is morning's watch arriving."[B]

Other poems followed. By this time, Johan, who had, from an early period, shown a liking for the clerical profession, had passed all his preliminary examinations with honors, and been ordained to the pastoral office. He commanded attention, at once, as a preacher. But he clung to the muses, or the muses clung to him; and his lyre, having been tuned in harmony with his sacred calling, he soon began to distinguish himself as a writer of hymns. Some of the finest hymns of which the Swedish language can boast, are from the pen of Johan Olof Wallin. Nor were secular themes wholly neglected. On January 20, 1808, on the occasion of the unveiling of the statue of King Gustavus Third, he produced the famous Dithyramb, a song which has taken a permanent and honored place in Swedish literature. The same year he presented a similar poem to the Swedish Academy, and was rewarded with a prize of two hundred ducats, the highest prize ever given by the Academy.

In all great questions of a national or international character, Wallin took a deep and lively interest; and the powerful influence, which he exerted with tongue and pen, was always wielded in favor of the right. How well he knew how to seize upon and turn to account existing circumstances and passing events, is strikingly illustrated by his poem on George Washington; his Dithyramb celebrating the union of Sweden and Norway, and his splendid ode on the victories of the allies at Leipzig, Dennewitz and Grossbeeren. The last named composition had an immense success; and it was circulated by thousands among the soldiers of the Swedish army abroad.

Wallin was at home in the region of sublime and lofty thought; but his muse was not one-sided, or in any sense monotonous. Poems of a calm, reflective character flowed gracefully from his pen; and, when occasion called for the one or the other, he revealed rich veins of satire and humor. One great secret of his literary success, both as a poet and preacher, lay in the simplicity of his style. With him there was never any striving after effect. His thoughts, whether of a lofty or commonplace character, whether hortatory or didactic, whether satirical or humorous, always found natural and easy expression in language which was as direct as it was graceful and easily understood.

At the comparatively early age of thirty years, Wallin had taken his place in the front rank of the scholars and public men of his day; and whatever honors were in the gift of his admiring countrymen, were freely showered upon him. Of these honors we mention only a few.

In 1810, he was elected a member of the Swedish Academy; and on several occasions he was raised by acclamation to the proud position of chairman and orator of that learned body. In 1815, he was made Knight of the Royal Order of the North Star; and in the same year he became Dom-prost, an office next in order to the Bishop's, and was honored with a seat in Parliament. In 1818, he was made Pastor Primarius, and President of the Consistory of Stockholm; and about this time he became an active and useful member of the Royal Musical Academy. In 1824, he was raised to the dignity of Bishop of the Church, and became commander of the Royal Order of the North Star and honorary member of the Royal Academy of Literature, History and Antiquities. Of this high body he was four times elected Chairman. In 1828, he was elected member of the Royal Academy of Sciences; ten years later he was made Praeses. In 1830, he was elected Court Preacher, and Praeses or President of the Royal Consistory. In 1837, his honors culminated. He was elected a member of the Upsala association for the promotion of Science; also member of the Serafimer Order, a distinction rarely conferred except on royal persons and princes of the blood, when he adopted as his motto, "In Omnipotenti Vinces." In the same year, he became archbishop of Sweden and pro-chancellor of the University of Upsala.

The "Angel of Death ," singularly characteristic of the author, immediately after its publication took its place in the front rank of the poetic productions of the language. The poem has never ceased to be popular. It is issued each successive year in thousands, and in all sorts of editions,—some of the recent editions de luxe  are marvels of costly taste and typographic skill. His poetic productions are numerous, and they are all of a high order of merit. The "Angel of Death ," however, partly on account of the undying interest of the subject, and partly, also, because of its bold and daring thought and vigorous expression, is that by which he is best known, and with which his name is destined to be indissolubly linked.

Wallin is remembered as a great churchman, as well as scholar and poet. As a preacher, he had few if any equals. Of dignified aspect, gifted with a rich sonorous voice, and visibly impressed at all times with the solemn character of his mission, he presented the very ideal of the pulpiteer; and, whenever and wherever he appeared, he was attended by admiring crowds composed of all ranks and classes of the people.[C] As a hymn-writer he had also great success; and to his taste and skill, the Swedish Church is indebted for its finest collection of sacred songs.[D] How gracefully Tegner refers to him in his poem, "The Children of the Lord's Supper," every reader of Longfellow is well aware:

"Hark! then roll forth at once the mighty tones of the organ,Hover like voices from God, aloft like invisible spirits;Like as Elias in heaven, when he cast from off him his mantle,So cast off the soul its garment of earth, and with one voice,Chimed in the congregation, and sang an anthem immortal Of the sublime Wallin, of David's Harp in the North-land."

For thirty-one years, Wallin occupied a place, prouder, in many respects, than the Swedish throne itself,—recognized and honored by his countrymen as their greatest scholar, their greatest preacher, and one of their greatest poets. In June, 1839, in his sixtieth year, the angel of death, of whom he had written so well, approached him with his sad summons; and, amid the regrets and sorrows of a whole nation, his lofty spirit took its flight to those purer regions, in which, in imagination, it already long had dwelt. He was buried in the new cemetery in Stockholm, which he himself had consecrated; and his grave is adorned with a large and appropriate monument.

At the first anniversary meeting of the Swedish Academy, after his death, Bishop Tegner read a memorial poem highly eulogistic of the deceased, and which ended as follows:

"And, tire, as it speeds along,The lightly flying Swedish song;Then let its weary wings be rested,Against thy grave—and soar anew To starry realms again, to you,With prestige by the Learned Circle vested,Thou bard like few! Prime speaker uncontested!"[E]

[A]The Swedish Academy is composed of eighteen men, selected from among the most learned and literary men of the country, and is the highest tribunal to pass upon the merits of poetical essays and works of literature in general; and the very fact, that a person has been awarded a prize by this Academy, is alone sufficient to insure for him an imperishable name in the annals of Swedish literature.


"Du väktare i skyn! Är natten ännu lång?Vi tro ej stjernans ljus, ej månans stilla gång Vi trodde uppå dig. Så upplys jordens slägten!Är natten ännu lång? Och kommer morgonväkten?"

[C]His great popularity with the masses naturally caused them to apply to him for all sorts of information and advice, with full confidence that he knew how to assist and advise in all matters. As an example of his oft peculiar way of treating queer questions, and yet satisfying the questioner, the following may be related: For about twenty years a number of writs and fore-tellings had frightened credulous people with the prediction that the world would perish on a certain given date. As the time drew near that date Wallin was besieged for information as to the validity of the said prediction. To the constantly repeated question, "Is it true, Bishop, that the world shall perish on Thursday?" Wallin had always the same answer: "Please call again on Friday, and I will let you know." The questioner withdrew consoled.

[D]Wallin not only revised completely the old hymn-book of the church, but composed a very large number of the divinely beautiful and universally celebrated songs, of which the present Swedish hymn-book is composed.

[E]The literal translation of the last two lines (impossible to retain while maintaining the original meter) is:

Thou first voice in the Literary Circle!Thou poet as few! Thou orator as none!