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Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam (1859-1940)


Swedish poet and prose writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1916. Heidenstam represented literary reaction to naturalism, scientific world view, bourgeois culture, and technology. He often chose patriotic themes for his novels; his great neoromantic rival was Selma Lagerlöf, the winner of the Nobel Prize in 1909. Much of his life Heidenstam spent restlessly traveling. However, his works do not show that he was especially interested in new literary currents.

Jag vet ej, varför jag vaken sitter,
fast dagen ingen glädje skänkt,
men allt i mitt liv, som likt solar blänkt,
och allt, som i mörker och kval blev sänkt,
det darrari natt i en flod av glitter.

(from 'Månljuset')

Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam was born at Ölshammar, his grandmother's estate on the shores of Lake Vättern, into an aristocratic and wealthy family. In his childhood Heidenstam got used to being center of attention and self-assertion became part of his perrsonality. When he dressed as a king, his grandmother told household servants to play his underlings. At school Heidenstam was lazy, and his educations was superficial – he had troubles in grammatical correctness, he was mostly alone or spent time with female relatives or friends who let him dominate the scene. At the age of sixteen his parents sent him on a journey to Middle East, Greece, and Italy with his cousin Ernst von Heidenstam. On the second journey his companion was Carlo Landberg, a linguistic. The travels in the Mediterranean influenced Heidenstam's first poems, which formed a colorful contrast to the prevailing gloomy mood in literature.

Colonel Gustaf von Heidenstam had tried in vain to change his son's aimless life style, and eventually sent him to Paris to study art under Jean Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux Arts. There Heidenstam boasted with his great plans, emphasized his aristocratic background, but actually did not show any ambitions to become an artists. After returning to Sweden in 1880, he married against his father's wishes Emilia Uggla, a Swiss woman. During the following years Heidenstam lived with his wife in Italy, France, and Norway.

Heidenstam sent his early poems to the Finnish writer Zachris Topelius, who encouraged him to continue. In 1886 the Heidenstams leased a medieval castle in northern Switzerland. The regular visitors there included the writer August Strindberg, with whom Heidenstam later disputed. Strindberg, who joined him on a tour of the Tyrol and Italy, was horrified by Rome – he dismissed the splendours of the city as bloodstained monuments of an oppressive society. While spending some time in the Scandinavian artists' colony at Grez-sur-Loing, Strindberg tried to lure Heidenstam there with the promise of orgies (however, without naked women).

Heidenstam returned to Sweden in 1887 and settled on the family estate. His relationship with his father had improved, but facing an incurable illness Gustaf von Heidenstam committed suicide. He never witnessed the appearance of his son's first collection of poems, Pilgrimage and Wander Years, (1888), which was an immediate success, but nowadays its Arabian Nights vision of the Middle East as a place of exotic pleasures is considered outdated. Strindberg was provoked Heidenstam's manifesto  Renässans (1889), in which he rejected social realism in favour of imagination. 

During the next decade Heidenstam's output was prolific. Endymion (1889), a novel set in Damascus, expressed the author's fear of the decline of Orient culture due to European influences and materialism. It was followed by a  prose-and-verse novel Hans Alienus  (1892), in which the protagonist, a wanderer, depicts his problematic relationship with his father, and Dikter (1895), in which the declamatory and recitative tone do not hide Heidenstam's hopes to gain the status of a national poet.

"Oh Sweden, Sweden, native land,
Our earthly home, the haven of our longing!"

The 1890s saw an upsurge in neoromantic historical fiction in response to a growing nationalism. Heidenstam, a self-appointed leader of the new movement, called for renewed national pride, arguing that the Swedish temperament is "Scandinavia's richest and most interesting – although undervalued by our neighboring nations and denied by its own tongue." In the summer of 1907, he made speeches at the great youth rallies held at Mösseberg and Ransäter, prophesying a glorious future for Sweden which will take her  natural and predetermined place in the North. 

Heidenstam's closest associate was the critic and author Oscar Leverting, who combined in his work passionate Swedish patriotism with humane cosmopolitanism. When Heidenstam's  definition of the Swede's national traits reflected his own aristocratic values, his friend Ellen Key, argued that "the true Swedish character is presently found less among the upper classes than among the common folk." 

In his essays, of which Renaissance is perhaps the most famous, Heidenstam called for a rejection of the treatment of social problems – or "shoemaker's realism" – and advocated a return to imagination, sense of beauty, and wit. In Hans Alienus, in which the protagonist visits the Underworld, he exploited the exoticism of the Near East, like in the short story 'The Lion's Cage', a mixture of historical fantasy and philosophizing. In the story the Sultan wants to wipe out the Brotherhood of the Truthtellers. Num Eddaula, their leader, decides to sacrifice himself in order to save the other truthtellers. He goes to the camp of the Sultan, where he meets the King of Sweden, who is half prisoner and half guest of honour. The King has lost his visions after his defeat in a battle. Num Eddaula tells him to complete his work as a hero: "Thou has command over they features; have command also over thyself. Thou art capable of better things than those thou hast accomplished, and God never forgives a hero for acting thus." Num Eddaula is executed on the following morning, but the King in the story is without doubts Charles XII (1682-1718), Heidenstam's hero, who was defeated at Poltava in the Ukraine, and forced to take refuge in the Turkey until 1714. Four years later he was killed while besieging Fredrikshall, Norway.

Heidenstam interest in Swedish history gave inspiration to his most popular novel  Karolinerna (1897-1898, The Charles Men). It is a series of stories connected by the life of Charles XII and his troops. Heidenstam's common soldiers occasionally express their belief in patriotic ideals, but the thoughts of officers are psychologically more complex. The author also visited in the mid-1890s the battle grounds in Poltava, where he picked deeply moved flowers and sent them to the Swedish poet and diplomat Carl Snoilsky. Heidenstam saw in The Charles Men the King as a tragic character and when his sarcophagi was opened in 1917, Heidenstam was present. However, when the book appeared, Heidenstam was first accused of having smeared his idol.

"Bort gå de,
stumma skrida de
en efter en till skuggornas värld.
Klockorna dåna. Tungt slå de,
mullra och kvida de,
sjunga sin sång till dödas färd."

(from 'Gustaf Frödings jordafärd')

After the death of his first wife in 1893, whom he had treated coldly, Heidenstam married Olga Wiberg, but the marriage soon ended to divorce. However, their weddings was a colorful event: the guests were dressed in Roman togas, and the artists Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn had designed a special journal, Evoi, for the occasion.

In 1900 Heidenstam married Greta Sjöberg, who was nearly twenty years his junior – the marriage was also short-lived. Heidenstam's interest in the Swedish past continued in Heliga Birgittas pilgrimsfärd (1901), in which St. Birgitta becomes the author's alter ego, Folkungaträdet (2 vols., 1905-1907), describing the foundation of the kingdom of Sweden, and Svenskarna och deras hövdingar (1908-1910), originally meant to be a pedagogic textbook. In the 1910s, when Heidenstam had abandoned his radical ideals and defended strongly the aristocracy, he was labelled as "the Junkers poet" according to the conservative, militaristic landowners of Prussia.

Heidenstam's later works include a collection of poems Nya dikter (1915), in which he returned to ideals of beauty of his earlier poems, and När kastanjerna blommade, in which he again wrote admiringly about his father. The book came out  posthumously in 1941.

In the so-called Strindberg Feud of 1910-12, a press polemic on art, politics, and religion, Heidenstam become one of Strindberg's targets, with the rest of Sweden. Strindberg called Heidenstam "Sweden's most unintelligent man" and described Heidenstam's friend, the critic and author Oscar Levertin as his "greatest enemy" in his Occult Diary. After receiving the Nobel Prize, Heidenstam fell silent as an author. In the 1920s Heidenstam had designed and constructed a home at Övralid, near Lake Vättern, where he lived quietly. "O Man, you will become wise only when you reach the summit of the evening-cool heights where all the earth is beheld." Heidenstam did not publish further works, and his physical and mental health gradually deteriorated. During this period his companion was Kate Bang, whose two children became close to him. Heidenstam died on May 20, 1940. In the Swedish Social Democratic society Heidenstam's reputation declined gradually to the point of eclipse for decades. Moreover, he was suspected of as having been a Nazi sympathizer.

For further reading: Sweden's Laureate by C.W. Stork (1919); Six Scandinavian Novelists by A. Gustafson (1940); Den unge Heidenstam by Hugo Kamras (1942); Vägen till Övralid by Kate Bang (1945); Heidenstam och sekelskiftets Sverige by Staffan Björk (1946); Verner von Heidenstam by Fredrik Böök (1945-46, rev. edition 1959); Diktaren och elden by G. Axberger (1959); Verner Heidenstam och Ellen Belfrage by Helge Gullberg (1960); A History of Swedish Literature by A. Gustafson (1961); Nationalskalden: Heidenstam och politiken från och med 1909 by Jan Stenkvist (1982); Älskade Verner by Karin Österling (1989); Verner von Heidenstam och Emilia Uggla: ett äktenskap by Magnus von Platen (1994); A History of Swedish Literature, ed. by Lars G. Warme (1996); 'Scandinavian Novel', by George C. Schoolfield, in Encyclopedia of the Novel, Vol. 2 (1998); Verner von Heidenstam: ett liv by Per I. Gedin (2008); Ryktbarhetens ansikte: Verner von Heidenstam, medierna och personkulten i sekelskiftets Sverige by Andreas Nyblom (2008)

Selected writings:

  • Vallfart och vandringsår, 1888
  • Från Col di Tenda till Blocksberg: Reseskisser, 1888
  • Endymion, 1889
  • Renässans, 1889
  • Pepitas bröllop, 1890
  • Hans Alienus, 1892
  • Dikter, 1895
  • Om svenskarnas lynne, 1896
  • Karolinerna, 1897-98 (2 vols.)
    - A King and His Campaigners (translated by A. Tegnier, 1902) / The Charles Men (translated by C.W. Stork, 1920)
    - Karoliinit: kertomuksia (osittain suom. Santeri Ingman, 1897-1898) / Karoliinit (suom. Martti J. Raitio, 1927)
  • Klassicitet och germanism, 1898
  • Tankar och teckningar, 1899
  • Ett folk, 1899
  • Sankt Göran och draken: berättelser, 1900
  • Heliga Birgittas pilgrimsfärd, 1901
    - Pyhän Birgitan vaellus (suomentanut Y. H., 1913)
  • Skogen susar: berättelser och sagor, 1904
  • Folkungaträdet, 1905-07 (2 vols.: Folke Filbyter; Bjälboarvet)
    - The Tree of the Folkungs (translated by A.G. Chater, 1925)
    - Folkungien suku (suom. Yrjö Kaijärvi, 1937)
  • Svenskarna och deras hövdingar, 1908-10
    - The Swedes and Their Chieftains (translated by C.W. Stork, 1925)
    - Kansa ja sen kuninkaat: kertomuksia nuorten ja vanhain luettavaksi (suomentanut Vihtori Lehtonen, 1909)
  • Dagar och händelser. Tal, inlägg och fantasier, 1909
  • Samlade skrifter, 1909-1912 (16 vols.)
  • Proletärfilosofiens upplösning och fall. Några ord vid det nya århundradets tröskel, 1911
  • Nya dikter, 1915
  • Sweden's Laureate: Selected Poems of Verner von Heidenstam, 1919 (translated by C.W. Stork)
  • The Soothsayer, 1919 (translated by K.M. Knudsen)
  • The Birth of God, 1919 (translated by K.M. Knudsen)
  • Uppsatser: tal och fantasier, 1929
  • Tankar och utkast, 1941 (edited by Kate Bang and Fredrik Böök)
  • När kastanjerna blommade: minnen från Olshammar, 1941 (edited by Kate Bang and Fredrik Böök)
  • Sista dikter, 1942 (edited by Kate Bang and Fredrik Böök)
  • Samlade verk, 1943-45 (23 vols.;  ed. Kate Bang and Fredrik Book)
  • Brev, 1949 (ed. by Kate Bang and Fredrik Böök)
  • Ur Verner von Heidenstams diktning, 1955 (edited by Örjan Lindberger and Nils Sylvan)
  • Fragment och aforismer: otryckta diktutkast och strötanker utgivna till 100-årsdagen den 6 juli 1959, 1959 (edited by Carl Fehrman)
  • Brev och dikter / Verner von Heidenstam, Ellen Belfrage, 1960 (edited by Helge Gullberg)
  • Paradisets timma och andra dikter, 1969 (selected by Sven Lindner) 
  • Det befästa huset, 1986
  • Brev 1884-1890 / Verner von Heidenstam, August Strindberg, 1999 (edited by Gudmund Fröberg)
  • Dikter, 2007 (contains Vallfart och vandringsår; Dikter; Ett folk; Nya dikter)

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