Swedenborg's Hobby

Cyriel Ljungberg Odhner

New Church Life 43.2 (February 1923): 65–72

Swedenborg's Property in Stockholm

Surmised plot plan of the property of Emanuel Swedenborg in Stockholm. Drawing by Harold T. Carswell. Click on image for a larger version.

A young boy, eagerly ambitious for success, once visited Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the learned doctor showed him his carpenter-shop in the cellar. He told him to forget about his poetry and books, but to remember that, when he got to be a man, he would need a hobby.

If Swedenborg should come among us now—the august, reverend character that we know—if he were to walk along our paths and sit at our table, would there be anything that we should find in common, besides the big theological topics? Times have changed since his day—clothes, manners, houses; everything is different. Yes, there would be one thing that we would have in common—his hobby and ours—flowers, gardening! This gentle task was his delight; and, as he tells us, good spirits are with man in the affection of gardening, and have their dwelling in it. He loved, as we, the turning up of the moist earth, the feel of crumbling clods beneath the fingers, the patting-in of seeds, the giving of drink to thirsty roots, the measuring of growth.

Whether at home, working on his profound expositions, or traveling in Holland, land of tulips, or in England, country of roses, between sessions of the Senate and meetings of learned academies—wherever he might be, his precious flowers were ever in mind. Is it not interesting to reflect on this, and to visit him a moment in his seed hunting and garden planning? No man is so great that he cannot stoop over a flower, whose innocent face is raised to One who bade us "consider the lilies of the field."

A change seems to have come in Swedenborg's life around 1744–5, having its external as well as its internal effects. He was then about 56 years of age, and his life mission was just beginning. The Index of the Bible and the Adversaria, or Commentary on the Bible, were his daily occupation, and he was beginning to note down remarkable spiritual experiences in his Diary. A desire for a quiet retreat and comfortable establishment led him to invest in the property on Hornsgatan, to the south of Stockholm, situated upon a high cliff overlooking Lake Mälar, on the one hand, and the Salt Sea on the other, with the Royal Castle and gardens in front. There was a fence or house wall all around it, and probably only two buildings there to begin with—his own dwelling and a house for the gardener. This piece of land was 336 feet from east to west, and 156 feet, north to south. He at first divided it into two portions, with a wooden fence and gate between. About two thirds, to the west, were for the orchard, lawns and vegetable gardens, while the eastern third contained his own house, greenhouses and barn, the stables, and the gardener's cottage. In the summer-time, he moved into the orchard section, and wrote in the so-called "summer house," connected by a passage with a library room. In the eastern section, not far from the dwelling house, was the conservatory, or "orangerie," a large building well provided with furnaces.

Several years ago, a little Almanac for the year 1752 was discovered in the Royal Library of Stockholm, the margins of which are filled with notes in Swedenborg's handwriting. Most of these are records of the sending of pages of the Arcana Coelestia to the printer, noting each time the last few words on the page; for example:

To John Lewis, p. 205, 206, 207, 208 in number 4700,
Ecclesia, non autem apud illos qui.

But the reverse sides of the interfoliated pages tell quite a different story—what plants he had put into his greenhouse, and where. There were in the

First box—crown artichokes.
Second box—lemons; in the centre mallium; after that cypresses.
Third box—gilliflowers of three kinds, with white ones in the middle.

Altogether, three boxes of artichokes and many different kinds of gilliflowers were noted, but as to what mallium meant (here translated marsh mallows), we are as much in doubt now as was Swedenborg's intimate friend, Joachim Wretman, his seed-purveyor in Amsterdam, who in a letter to Swedenborg, then at Aix-la-Chapelle, wrote:

. . . The Mallium Sana which you wish is not known here at all; at least, it is not kept for sale; but they have promised to inquire for it. As soon as I receive even a small quantity of it, it shall be forwarded to you, together with the melon seeds; but I am at a loss to know what you mean by cocombes, unless you intend it for cucumber seed [cock's-comb, perhaps].
. . . The bulbs of tulips, hyacinths, and others must be put into the ground in autumn, before the frosts begin; for if they be planted in spring all will not come up.

Referring again to the Almanac, we read that, in the "big section high up on the right side," he planted, near the greenhouse, lemon seeds, cypress seeds, and carnations; in the bed next to it, sweet-pease, and in the third and fourth beds, parsley roots and beets.

In the rose garden, there were "various kinds of roses, such as long Adonis roses, scarlet-beans, larkspur, violet-roses, and plants with white and yellow leaves around the edges" [perhaps coleus].

In the "big section farther down on the right" were "blue roses that come up in the new garden," violets, lichnis, chalcedonica (?), sweet-William of two kinds, sweet-pease, and "in the large bed towards the wall, spinach"; in one bed was parsley, and in another rose bed "a large kind of sweet-smelling white roses," flaxseed, scabiosa, and field-roses.

In the "large section to the left," in the rose garden by the bird-house, were three kinds of canterbury bells (?) and by the little tree, farther over, cat-mint (?), lichnis, calcedonica, and finally spurry. These notes are opposite the month of February.

Under March, we have the note that "by the current bush there were old roses, marsh mallows, and gilliflowers of a curious kind; parsley and beets, spinach and carrots. In the rose bed were African roses and velvet roses, and beside them lilies, rose-mallows, and sunflowers." And always the notes about printing the Arcana run on; as, for instance:

to John Lewis, p. 345, 346, 347, 348, transp. in number 5135 usum: haec bona et vera in interiori naturali.

It may be that Swedenborg's interest in the flowers was purely an aesthetic one, in the spirit of the old Chinese legend: "If thou hast two coats, sell one and buy a flower to feed thy soul." Possibly he was interested in the problem of fertilization, the basis for his decided stand against the theories of Linnaeus.

But was Swedenborg entirely alone in the enjoyment of this beautiful place? Who helped him to trim and tend the roses? It seems that there were three little girls—Maria, Magdalena, and Catharina—living there. Mr. F. G. Lindh, of Stockholm, who has been diligently engaged in collecting the records of Swedenborg's contemporaries, tells us that "the first gardener, Nils Ahlstedt, at the time of his moving in, had three little daughters, 15, 12, and 10 years old, who surely delighted the learned master with their childish pranks." The oldest, Maria, celebrated her marriage on April 19th, 1752, the very year of the Almanac, perhaps just when the tulips were in bloom; and, of course, their amiable patron would have honored the wedding with his presence. It makes one think of the "wedding gardens" he saw in the other world where all the shrubs and flowers grew in pairs.

At the very end of the Almanac is an entry of special interest:

American seeds planted this afternoon in three of the long boxes on the farthest side—mulberry seeds in all of them. April 23, 1752.
In the fourth box, to this end of the garden, planted a kind of pod-bearing tree from America [catalpa?] three seeds . . . in the centre, buttonwood and beech, and three trees of American dogwood.
American maize on all four sides of two pease-beds, 10 of two kinds.
In the upper square box put 3 kinds of seeds that were among the American melons; in the centre of the box, a smooth, shiny black seed. [Water melon?]
Back of the young trees one seed of African melons.

Our curiosity is naturally aroused as to where Swedenborg got his American seeds. To get bulbs from Holland was quite a common thing then, as now, but America was an almost incredible distance away, and some especial fortune must have played its part in the securing of these seeds. What if we could prove, not only how they came, but even that some of them were gathered not far from Philadelphia?

Recently, an article was published in the American Scandinavian Review describing the journey of Pehr Kalm to North America. The article states: "About 1745, the Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to send a representative to America to gather seeds of new herbs and plants hardy enough to thrive on Swedish soil. The successful candidate for this mission was Pehr Kalm, a scholar of undisputed ability and diplomacy, a pupil of Linnè." From his printed report of the trip, En Resa til Norra America, it appears that the explorations extended to Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Southern Canada. To quote:

Sept. 5, 1748. In Philadelphia. I realized that I had arrived in a new land, for almost everywhere I cast my eyes I saw plants that I did not know, and some species that I had never seen before. Whenever I saw a tree, I had to stop and ask my companions its
name. . . . The first two days I just walked around and stared at the vegetation without venturing a closer acquaintance.

Soon, however, Kalm presented letters of introduction to prominent Philadelphians, among them Mr. Benjamin Franklin, who gave him all necessary information and did him manifold favors. He speaks of meeting an old gentleman of 91, whose father was one of the Swedes sent over here to settle and cultivate this land, and who recalled the time when the site of Philadelphia was one large forest.

"I myself came unconsciously near bringing a great misfortune upon Europe," Kalm relates. "At my departure from America, I brought with me a small package of sweet-pease that looked very good and sound. On August 1, 1751, some time after I had arrived in Stockholm, I opened the package and found all the pease worm-eaten. From a hole in each pea an insect was peeping out, and some crawled into the open, intending to try the new climate. I was glad to close the package instantly and thus prevent the escape of these destructive creatures."

It is very easy to conclude that Swedenborg's interest in the Academy of Sciences was strong enough to secure him some of the seeds. He may even have been a contributor to the financing of the expedition, which conjecture brings us into touch with the much discussed problem of his connection with Linnè. It was in 1740 that Linnè proposed Swedenborg for membership in the Academy.

Fashionable people at this time were very fond of plantations of boxwood, and Swedenborg seems to have shared the admiration of his age for these exotic plants; for we know that his garden contained "singular Dutch figures of animals cut in box-tree." Wretman wrote in 1760:

"I was very much pleased to learn from your favor of June 21 that the pyramids of box-tree which I forwarded to you arrived safely, and that they meet with your approval. . . ." The bill was for "four figures of box-tree, packed in baskets, at 5 florins 5 stivers," the whole, with custom charges and transportation, making 24 florins. "You must not think that they are dear," he writes, "because they require several years' growth and watchful care before they are so far ready as to do service in the field, and I hope also that, like faithful grenadiers, they will stick to their posts."

Six years later, Wretman still showed an interest in his friend's garden. "My chief object in making this communication is to have the opportunity of presenting to you some of the seed of the well-known egg-plant or tree, which must be sown as soon as the frost is out of the ground. I shall be glad to hear of their doing well, and of your being pleased with them."

Swedenborg was pleased with them, without a doubt, as he was with everything growing. One biographer says that he loved Flora's variegated and beautifully colored children as if they were his own. His interior delight in them, he himself expresses when he says, "Often when I have been in gardens, and have there looked at the trees, fruits, flowers, and vegetables, I have observed the correspondences of heaven. . . . The rational man is like a garden. The memory is the soil, scientific truths and knowledges are the seeds, the light and heat of heaven produce them."

It was probably this flower garden, in the east, that Swedenborg referred to in these beautiful words:

Once, when I awoke after daybreak, I went out into the garden before the house, and saw the sun rising in splendor, and round about him a halo, at first faint, and afterwards more distinct, shining as if from gold, and under its border a cloud ascending which glittered like a carbuncle from the flame of the sun. And then I fell into meditation respecting the fables of the ancients, that they feigned Aurora with wings of silver feathers, in her face displaying the luster of gold. When my mind was delighted in these things, I became in the spirit.

We have not described half of the things that were in the large orchard behind the wooden gate; and however much we guess at them from the written descriptions, mere words are all that remain of the lovely spot, and we wander about in them, lost, like the little children wandering in the maze that was constructed there for their amusement. In the middle of it, however, we would see a small house with a balcony all around it, and doors opening in every direction, from which radiated stone-flagged paths. Fruit trees, berry bushes, and lovely, tall lime-trees were there, also a kitchen garden, and a bird-house made of brass wire. There was a Dutch cellar for storing vegetables; a house with three sides and a long mirror, where little girls could be shown an angel; the library; and the familiar "summer house" or study, with its dim, religious light suitable for contemplation. Once, in London, Swedenborg dreamed of his garden: "I have sometimes observed in sleep that in my garden at Stockholm there were various abodes of doves."

Such a pleasant picture of the philosopher is given in his introduction to the Worship and Love of God, that we cannot resist giving it here as the closing thought:

Walking once alone in a pleasant grove, for the sake of composing my thoughts, and observing that the trees were shedding their foliage, and that the falling leaves were flying in all directions—for autumn at that time took its turn in the revolution of the year, and dispersed the decorations of summer—from being sad I became serious, because I recollected the gratifications which that grove, from the beginning of spring even to this season, had communicated, and so often diffused throughout my whole mind. But on seeing this change of scene, I began to revolve on the vicissitudes of times; and it occurred to me whether all things relating to time do not also pass through similar vicissitudes, that is, whether this is not the case not only with forests, but also with our lives and ages; for it is evident that they, in like manner, commencing from a kind of spring and blossom, and passing through their summer, sink rapidly into their old age, the image of autumn.

Surely, in that heavenly paradise whose general delight is smelled as the odor of a garden, the prophesy must have been richly fulfilled that, "he shall be as a tree planted by streams of water, which yieldeth his fruit in his time; his leaf also shall not fall, and all that he doeth shall prosper."

[The following references were numbered in the original article, but it must be noted that no corresponding numbers were placed in the text.]

1. Divine Providence, 40.
2. Documents I, p. 390.
3. Nya Kyrkans Tidning, July and September, 1903.
4. Documents II, pp. 226, 227, 234, 263, 714.
5. A reproduction of the Almanac may be consulted in the Academy Library.
6. "Swedenborg som Söderbo," by F. G. Lindh in Nya Kyrkans Tidning, Nov., Dec., 1921.
7. Conjugial Love 316.
8. "Pehr Kalm's Journey to North America," by A. B. Benson in The American Scandinavian Review.
9. Heaven and Hell 109, 464e; True Christian Religion 112; Diary 3624, 4142; Life 86.
10. Introduction to the Worship and Love of God.