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Hendrik (Arnold) Wergeland (1808-1845)


Norway's national poet, symbol of Norway's independence. Wergeland's opposition to pro-Danish "intelligentsija" made him one of the ideological leaders of the patriotic movement in the early 1800s. As a national leader Wergeland was called "Folkelærer," a teacher and educator of the people. The writer Björnstjerne Björnson once said that in Wergeland and in his visions of the future were combined a worker and king, criminal and legislator, fool and sage, into one great unity.

--Angst! o Angst! Jeg overvældes
af himmlske Syner og Verdens Storhed,
--af Livets brogede Hvirvel.
Altet med talløsese Toner ombruser mig,
--forvirrer med Synernes Mængde,
saa J e g, der skulde midti dets Zenith
--sidde liig eensomt ur ørlige Øje,
henhvirvles selv som et Fnug mellem Fnug.

(from 'Digteren vil kvaede om Himmel og Jord')

Henrik Wergeland was born in Kristiansand. His father, Nicolai Wergeland, was a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1814. Three years later he became a Protestant minister at Eidsvoll, where the convention had been held. His mother was Alette Dorothea Thaulow, a daughter of a civil servant. Nicolai Wergeland supported Rousseau's educational ideas but was also a conservative pedagogue who crystallized his ideas in a small book entitled Henrikopædie. Kortfattede Love for Opdragelsen fra den spædeste Alder. The children in the family grew up in relative spiritual freedom. Wergeland's sister became a writer under the name Camilla Collett, and later depicted vividly in her memoir their happy childhood in the vicarage.

In 1825 Wergeland entered the University of Christiania (now Oslo), where he studied theology, history and botany. He graduated in 1829 with a degree in theology and then started his career as a free-lance writer. Christiania at that time was a small bourgeois town of some 20,000 people, without much cultural activity. Wergeland entered the city like a hurricane, and already in 1827 was dominating its literary scene. He made patriotic speeches, sat drinking and discussing with his friends throughout the night, and focused on his studies erratically. "I was quite a dare-devil at that time," he later confessed. Among his acquaintances was the poet Johan S.C. Welhaven (1807-1873), supporter of the "l'art pour l'art' idea, who later became Wergeland's leading opponent. "Din Rang du sikred dig med tusind Stemmer, / Rang blandt Parnassets Daarekistelemmer!" was Welhaven's early attack on Wergelang in which he guaranteed him the place of honor among the lunatics of Parnassus.

Wergeland's dramatic Creation epic, Skabelsen, Mennesket og Messias was published in 1830 and was intended to rival John Milton's Paradise Lost. Wergeland considered it his major work. It describes the development of humanity as a battle between light and darkness, and expresses the poet's optimistic world-view. Wergeland was on the side of light and he saw that poets have a crucial role in the struggle. During this early period Wergeland also composed his 'Stella poems,' which expressed his feelings of love and joy of life.

Gud os et Scepter af Stjerners
Straaler lægger i Haanden,
Stella! Stella!
Gud os befaler at vogte
Jordens eskende Hjerter,
Stella! Stella!

In 1831 Wergeland travelled from England to France. Revolutionary enthusiasm especially marked his poem 'Det befriade Europe' and 'Caesaris,' which was inspired by the uprising in Poland against Russian oppression. As an advocate of the enlightenment of the common man, Wergeland became involved in the battle for social equality. He founded and edited two journals, For Almuen (1830-1839), and For Arbeiderklassen (1839-45), and also edited a third, Statsborgeren. He gave lectures, distributed books, and established lending libraries. He also defended the rights of Jews to settle in Norway, fighting for the cause in his poem Jøden (1842, The Jew) and Jødinden (1844).

Wergeland's cultural and political agitation gave rise to controversy. Among his opponents was Johan Welhaven, whom Wergeland satirized in two farces under the pseudonym Siful Sifadda. The debate marked the beginning of an ideological conflict that persisted throughout the century. Welhaven attacked Wergeland in his study Henrik Wergelands digtekunst (1832) in which he condemned the poet and his writings. Welhaven's series of sonnets, 'Norges Daemring' was also aimed at Wergeleand although he did not mention his opponent by name.

In 1839 Wergeland married Amalie Bekkenvold and next year he was appointed an archivist in government service. He also received a pension from the king. This was considered by Wergeland's supporters a betrayal of his ideals. Wergeland, who honestly deserved the pension, expressed his disappointment in the poem 'Mig selv'. "Jeg i slet Lune, Morgenblad? / Jeg, son kun behøver et Glimt av Solen / for at briste i høi Latter af en Glæde, / jeg ikke kan forklare mig!" Wergeland at first did not believe that his friends were serious with their accusations of opportunism. After the newspaper Morgenbland did not publish his writings he lost this illusion. He published a bitter farce, Vinægers Fjeldeventyr, in which Vinæger and his associates try to torment the poet Leontodon. Vinæger is so poisonous that a snake dies when it bites him. When the foundation stone of the new university building was laid, and Wergeland tried to make a speech, he was openly mocked. "He cried like a baby," recounted later one of the invited guests.

Of Wergeland's large and varied output, his poetry is considered the most enduring. Among these works are Digte. Første Ring (1829), Spaniolen (1833), and the narrative poems Jan van Huysums Blomsterstykke (1840). Some of Wergeland's best-loved books were written during his final illness, which lasted for more than a year. These included Den engelske Lods (1844) and his Hassel-Nødder, an autobiographical piece. Wergeland died in Christiania on July 12, 1845.

For further reading: Mig selv: en biografi om Henrik Wergeland by Odd Arvid Storsveen (2008); Et verdensdyp av frihet: Henrik Wergeland: liv, diktning, verdensbilde by Geir Uthaug (2008); Voldens blomster?: Henrik Wergelands Blomsterstykke i estetikkhistorisk lys by Frode Helland (2003); Wergeland og republikken by Rune Kippersund (1999); Den engelske Lods av Henrik Wergeland by Ragnhild M. Wang (1997); Poetisk uttrykk i Henrik Wergelands revolusjonsdiktning by Reidun Skoge (1997); Henrik Wergeland: en biografi by Yngvar Ustvedt (1994); Fantasiens regnbuebro by Rolf Nyboe Nettum (1992); Kjærlighet og logos by Dagne Groven Myhren (1991); Henrik Wergelands literaturgeschichtliche Stellung by von Annelie Schreiber (1988); Henrik Wergeland: en psykiatrisk studie by Kristen Austarheim (1966-1974); Wergeland by Aage Kabell (1956-1957); Henrik Wergeland och de svenska judarna: en tidsbild från liberalismens genombrottsår by Hugo Valentin (1923); Henrik Wergeland by Jacob B. Bull (1912); Henrik Wergeland by O. Skavlan (1892); Henrik Wergeland og hans Samtid by H. Lassen (1866)

Selected works:

  • Ah! Farce av Siful-Sifadda, 1827
  • Irreparabile Tempus, 1828
  • Sinclars Død,  et Sörgespil i tre Acter, 1828
  • Digte. Første Ring, 1829 (Poems, first cycle)
  • Skabelsen, Mennesket og Messias: Et Digt, 1830 (Creation, Humanity, and Messias)
  • Opium: Skuespil i tre Acter, 1831 (play)
  • Sifuliner til Studenten Jahn Welhaven, 1832
  • Spaniolen, et Digt, 1833 (The Spaniard)
  • Digte. Anden Ring, 1834 (poems)
  • Papagøjen, 1835 (play)
  • Barnemordersken: Sörgespil i fire Acter, 1835 (play)
  • Den indiske Cholera: Drama, 1835 (play)
  • De sidste Kloge: Farce af Siful Sifadda, 1835 (play)
  • For Menigmand, 1836
  • Nogle Ord fra Prækestolen, 1836
  • Søkadetterne iland, 1837 (play)
  • Diverse Figurer, 1837
  • Diverse Politiske Fabler, 1837
  • Kong Carl Johans Historie: Hvad Tidsrummet fra hans Valg til svensk Thronfølger betræffer Den Konstitutionelle, 1837
  • Den første Gang, 1838
  • Poesier, 1838
  • Campbellerne eller den hjemkomne Søn, 1838 (play)
  • Smukke Skyer, 1839
  • Lyv ikke! eller Dompapen, 1840
  • Verden tilhører Os Jurister!, 1840
  • Jan van Huysums Blomsterstykke, 1840 
    - Jan Van Huysum's Flower Piece, 2008 (translated from the Norwegian by John Irons, introduction by Ali Smith, biographical note by tom Lotherington) 
  • Svalen, 1841 (The Swallow)
  • Norges Konstitutions Historie, 1841-43
  • Langeleiken, 1842
  • Judarne i deras närvarande ställning inom samhället, med afseende på deras emancipation; jemte Förslaget till upphäfvande af 2 §., sista momentet, uti Norges grundlag, 1842
  • Jøden, 1842 (The Jew)
  • Ole Bull, 1843
  • Venetianerne eller Venskab og Kjærlighed, 1843 (play)
  • Jødinden, 1844
  • Hans Jacobsens Ost, 1844
  • Auktion over Grotten, 1844
  • Den engelske Lods, 1844 (The English pilot)
    -  The Army of Truth: Selected Poems: In the Historic Fight to Obtain Equal Rights for Jews in Nineteenth-Century Norway (edited by Ragnhild Galtung, translated by Anne Born, G.M. Gathorne-Hardy, and I. Grøndahl, 2003)
  • Til min Gyldenlak, 1845
  • Mennesket, 1845
  • Fjeldstuen, 1848
  • Henrik Wergelands Samlede Skrifter, 1852-57 (9 vols., ed. Hartvig Lassen)
  • Udvalgte Skrifter, 1859
  • Samlede skrifter, 1918-40 (23 vols.)
  • Poems, 1929 (reprinted in 1979, translated by G. M. Gathorne-Hardy, Jethro Bithell and I. Grøndahl)
  • Eagle Wings: Poetry by Bjørnson, Ibsen, and Wergeland, 1943 (translated by Axel Gerhard Dehly)  
  • Wergeland for hvermann. Lyrikk og prosa, 1947 (edited by Harald Beyer)
  • Henrik Wergelands skrifter. Folkeutgaven, 1957-1962 (8 vols., edited by Leiv Amundsen)
  • Henrik Wergeland: brevene til Amalie, 1974 (edited by Leiv Amundsen)
  • Vesle-Hans's Eventyr i Skogen, 1982
  • Intet andet end digter, 1994
  • Henrik Wergelands skrifter 1-8, 2008 (edited by Leiv Amundsen, Didrik Arup Seip)

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