Verner von Heidenstam: An Overview
By Lennart Svensson
Author’s Note: Verner von Heidenstam is well known in Sweden. And some of his books are available in English too. When he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1916 some titles were translated. — Hereby an overview of Heidenstam’s life and works.
There are many ways of treating the Swedish author and Nobel Prize winner Verner von Heidenstam (1859-1940). One of them is to look at the nationalist strain in his writings. It’s not so far-fetched, not even in a 21st century setting. The newly published biography by Per I. Gedin (Verner von Heidenstam – ett liv, Bonniers 2006) also notes this and makes a fair evaluation of it, particularly of what nationalism meant in the mid 19th century, before it became en vogue. It’s true that Heidenstam didn’t make his debut in 1888 as a model nationalist, this feature becoming more prominent in him around 1900. However, the positive, affirmative trait in which nationalism thrives was definitely part of Heidenstam’s condition when he put his unforgettable mark on Swedish literature at the dawn of the 1890’s.
The mid 19th century Nordic variety of nationalism, Gedin says, was a populist movement, driven by liberals, and only eventually the movement came to include both workers and the elite, the latter in the form of high society, aristocracy and the royal family. This was indeed the case: in the early 1800’s no royal family, including the Swedish, was what we would call nationalists. For example, the elite sentiment that prevailed in Sweden around 1830 was the Russian-friendly; Tsar Nicholas I was seen as the guarantor of order. Nationalism for the then elite was equal to lawless rebellion, as had been seen in France and Poland.
The same was the case in Germany. The year 1848, for example, saw efforts of German unification: the small, separate kingdoms should merge and form a unified Vaterland, the liberal insurgents meant. But all these aspirations were crushed by the forces of reaction. Only in 1871, when Prussia had become Germany’s leading power, was German nationalism also embraced by the elite in question, by the current right-wing.
We saw the same here in Sweden: not until the 1870’s was nationalism adopted by the pillars of society. Still, nationalism wasn’t even by then a Leitkultur in Sweden. It took some time to be more firmly anchored, to be adopted even by the artistic elite, and Heidenstam was instrumental in this. Gedin for his part describes Heidenstam’s debut, Pilgrimage and Journeyman Years from 1888, as something of a boost to the Swedish soul. At the time the Swedish cultural scene was steeped in nihilism and ”grey weather prose”, 1880’s literature being occupied with naturalistic depictions of urban misery. Typical book titles at this time were Greycold and Poverty (= Gråkallt; Fattigdom). This was thought to attract the audience. Realism prevailed and the poetry was harmless versifications. Now all this, with Heidenstams’s example, was replaced by imagination, colour and dance. Heidenstam paved the way for writers like Selma Lagerlöf, Fröding, Karlfeldt and Ellen Key, and for a renewal in painting, indeed, for nationalism in general. As for literature proper Heidenstam gave the Swedish language a new poetic feeling with influences from Byron, Heine and Turgenev. By this a more freeform verse was established in Swedish.
Heidenstam quickly became No. 1, becoming the colour-bearer for the new literature, Gedin says. With his debut in 1888 Heidenstam had won a clear-cut victory: he triumphed over a worn out, dilapidated literary scene. Heidenstam himself said in a letter to Ellen Key, in 1897: ”The constant painting of grey on grey I killed in this country in two years.”
Bold words, but true…! Heidenstam at the time of his debut was something of a force of nature, yet playful and human.
In the subject of Heidenstam I’ve also read Kring Verner von Heidenstam (= About Verner vonHeidenstam) by Gudmund Fröberg (editor; Carlsson bokförlag, 1993). The book counteracts the devaluation the Swedish left made of Heidenstam in the period 1910-1990. Essays by Staffan Björk, Olle Holmberg, Magnus von Platen and Pär Lagerkvist sketches a broad, sympathetic portrait of the author. As for the person Heidenstam we find quoted on page 270 the words of John Landquist:
He had blue, kindly inquiring eyes but they also had a mysterious depth. He had a dark voice with a soft sound (…) He was genteel but without mannerisms. He sported a quiet kindness. He listened to what you said. His own speech was effortlessly improvised but then, out of the blue, there came a fitting poetic image, this being the natural movement of his though. You felt at ease with him.
Heidenstam, then, had his sympathetic traits. At the same time he could, in official contexts, be rather pompous. He liked playing the role of poet laurate. This backfired on him in the Strindberg feud in 1910, when Strindberg attacked Heidenstam for a few things. And the assaults found their target, even though Heidenstam kept a brave face and declined to answer the slights. You can say: Heidenstam in this process became a victim of the role he created for himself.
Gedin depicts this Strindberg feud in his bio. Plus everything else like Heidenstam’s upbringing, his women and his career, in all its variations. Gedin as intimated does a good job and his book can be recommended for those who like cradle-to-grave, life-and-letters-biographies. If you can handle the book’s physical weight, that is…! This 672 pages book can hardly be read lying down, as I prefer. It should be read at a table.
Inspired by Gedin’s book, and of Fröbergs anthology, I now feel like going through Heidenstam’s important works. I begin with novels and prose and end with poems, in the form of New Poems from 1915. Then I round it off by talking about a few additional things.
Hans Alienus (1892)
This is a novel with some essential passages in verse. The overall setting is bold and compelling, mixing realism with fantasy. The hero, Hans Alienus, lives in Rome as an official to the pope. Then Alienus ventures out on a journey through the East and then under the earth, all the time experiencing a few things. It’s like a Swedish version of Dante’s Inferno and Goethe’s Faust; Heidenstam broke some new ground with this book, ”Going boldly where no man has gone before” as we had it in Star Trek. For example Swedish literary scholars have always loved this book; there’s much to deliberate on here. I myself am a little skeptical of the conceptual content. It’s lacking something. Heidenstam was a great poet but not so profound when it came to ontology and spiritual essence. He was like, go and meet the devil, talk to angels, then go home; there’s only a semblance of depth in this book, to be sure. Its style and atmosphere is great but it doesn’t really convince you on a formal level. Then again, even Dante wasn’t always so profound.
A figure that Alienus encounters in his cosmic journey is a haggard lady, Her Archaic Holiness (= Den Gamla Heliga; Den Gamla Människan). This is, as Gedin suggests, a Jungian ”shadow”, this horrifying witch who is sorrow and misery whereas Alienus’ dandy lifestyle is all about beauty and joy.
This could lead somewhere. But Heidenstam is incapable, as Jung advocates, to integrate this shadow with his own essence. The shadows haunt him all the way, until the final scene in Sweden. But Alienus have no defense against this voice from the deep. The novel culminates in sentimental lines of reconciliation with the father. Heidenstam as I said was never profound as thinker; he never reached the esoteric levels that Viktor Rydberg, Per Atterbom or Stagnelius reached. But Heidenstam at least had a feeling of what life had to offer, he understood that it is a mystery. And he could show it in his novels and poems. ”Mystery, fairytale, light of day, your depth no one can fathom” as he wrote in the late poem If I Were A Child.
A King and His Campaigners (1897, in English 1902)
This is a living classic, a still readable exposé of characters during the Great Northern War 1700-1718. Many of the texts are like short stories with protagonists only appearing once, but we also have Charles XII appearing in fateful circumstances throughout the book.
This is not a naturalistic novel. Many of the texts has a touch of theater. It’s not always stories we get, sometimes we’re only given static scenes. And the lines sound a little unnatural; all speak in the same fashion, from coachmen to generals. That said, the book has power and color, motion and verve. The book’s merit is the width; you become fascinated even by minor characters such as Mazeppa’s ambassador, Lina Andersdotter, Måns Fransyske and others. And that is the sign of a masterpiece, how even the supporting roles are well cast.
The Tree of the Folkungs (1905, in English 1925)
This is a romance set in the 11th century, sporting scenes from both the archaic farmer’s life, the life of early medieval Swedish kings and of Swedes serving in the imperial guard in Constantinople. I here refer to the first part, Folke Filbyter; the second part, about the 13th century, is a tinge bit more ordinary, more Walter Scottish.
There is archaic feeling here; we meet the last remnants of Asatru and we meet nature religion and shamanism. Heidenstam had a keen eye for life in the woods, for the yearning of the Swede to venture out in the forest and feel the presence of brownies, fairies and nixes. As a poet Heidenstam filled this novel with many a poetic prose passage. But it’s still eminently readable as a novel, the first part that is, beginning as it does with Folke returning from a Viking raid, approaching Swedish land on the east coast and, having landed, marching off into the Ostrogotian woods in order to stake out a farm for himself. This was Heidenstam’s image of the founding father of the Folkung dynasty, who ruled Sweden 1250-1319.
The Swedes and Their Chieftains (1908, in English 1925)
Here we are given many alluring stories out of Swedish history and myth, such as Ura Kaippa, The Shield Maiden, The Watchdog of the Greek–king and others from the early middle ages. They are unsought tales about norsemen- and women, clear-cut images of a vital era, the era of Asatru, archaic climes and heroism. But also from the high and late Middle ages we get good narratives, like Karl Knutsson and the Piper. This is almost Shakespearean: the rise and fall of a king, mirrored in the role of a beggar-cum-piper who watches it all from his corner of the world.
In all this is an absolutely incomparable book about Swedish history, on the border between fact and fiction. Intended as a school book it can be read by everyone. Gedin in his bio denigrates it but he’s wrong.
Nya dikter (= New Poems, 1915)
Heidenstam as intimated began his career as a poet. In his debut in 1888 (Pilgrimage and Journeyman Years), he painted with variegated colors, he told tales, he discussed, he drew pictures, all in the form of poems, short and long. So that one is still worth reading. But his NewPoems from 1915 in my opinion is the epitome of his writings; here we get the eternal existensial questions treated in a tighter, more succinct fashion.
The prospect of death is treated with open eyes, as in Begun Journey. It depicts a dead man, a departed soul that looks back on the ground he has left: ”I already wander on the bridge, leading / from the Earth to the unknown / and what used to be near becomes distant”… He’s free, he throws away his shoes and his staff, and when he sees himself buried down on the distant earth, then he can barely recognize the name they mumble around the coffin. – This is visionary powers: to see oneself as dead, the soul wandering off into the unknown.
When New Poems was published Heidenstam was 55. He would live for another 25 years. Yet he speaks of himself as ”an old man, sitting by the fire brooding”. It’s in If I Were A Child, about what you would do if you were a child again; the poet sits and remembers, noting that most of his friends are dead. It ends:
Mystery, fairytale, light of day,
your depth no one can fathom.
Yet the same child am I still
and bliss is here to stay.
This demonstrates a heartwarming, everyday piety which is always viable. This poem sports my overall aesthetic ideal: simple but not simplistic. A similar everyday esoterism we meet in We Human Beings. It says that we’ll all die one day, it is what ”we human beings” have in common. Some kind of kitchen-sink wisdom, really; I’m lacking a more spiritual outlook. Still, I like the opening lines of this poem, having etched themselves into my being,
We, who meet for a few brief moments,
children of the same soil and the same wonder,
on the storm-ridden ness of life!
Another poignant poem is The Burial of Gustaf Fröding. It’s written in memory of the Swedish poet colleague who lived from 1860 to 1911. The poem portrays how Fröding, while he lived, was sitting at his Bible while his hair turned white. From this the poem becomes universal in scope, ”wondrously large is a human fate,” but man is like a reed in the wind: ”Die, die, this he constantly hears / when creating, asking, searching for truth.” Then the key changes in the following lines: ”All is vain, / all things earthly die, die, / but he himself becomes the work that he fashions.”
Speaking about dying Heidenstam for his own grave created this epitaph, being congenial and saying everything about la condition humaine: ”Here lies the dust of an old man. Gratefully, he praised the incomprehensible fact, that it was granted him to live a life on earth as a man.” Truly majestic, simple but not simplistic.
Heidenstam practically stopped writing after New Poems. Authors who thus ”retire” are said to be uncommon. But Heidenstam admitted to acquaintances that his creative powers simply had run out. With all due respect you could say that he became senile. He built himself an estate at Lake Vättern, Övralid, not far from Motala. It looks like a cross between a 17th century Swedish mansion and Goethe’s house in Weimar. The immediate model was the estate Odinshöj in Denmark, where he lived for a while with his partner Kate Bang. Övralid is very stylish, bordering on the sterile. No park or garden would surround it; the lawn would imperceptibly blend into wilderness and the view of the water would be free and unhindered. Only a so-called ornamental tree would provide shade.
The critic Klara Johanson said that Heidenstam’s role in life was the same as the reindeers at Skansen: to offer an easily recognizable profile against the sky. And certainly Heidenstam was a little vain, indeed he liked to pose. He liked, as indicated, to play the role of poet laurate. However, he was also well-liked. Maybe Selma Lagerlöf (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils,1907) was more beloved by the people but Heidenstam could also tell tales and spin yarns. His historical reader for the elementary school, The Swedes and Their Chieftains, as I’ve said, has many witty stories. Astrid Lindgren, for example, testified how she was arrested by the introductory short story about Ura Kaipa and the Stone Age. Heidenstam could paint evocative scenes, as in the story of Ura Kaipa, in the poem ”Tiveden” and the excursions in the archaic forests of The Tree of the Folkungs.
Lagerlöf and Heidenstam died the same year, in 1940. This was commemorated by an anthology called Mårbacka and Övralid, the writers’ respective mansions symbolizing them in the title. Here is given a suggestive anecdote from Heidenstam’s actual writing of A King and His Campaigners. To say that he met the ghost of Charles XII when he composed the chapter on the death of the king may sound unbelievable, but this is what this memory book says. In case it’s worth telling it was like this: in 1897 Heidenstam lived as a guest of the mansion Nor in Uppland, south of Uppsala. He was in the final stages of the Charles XII book. One particular night he stayed up late, working with quill in the lamplight. Just as he had portrayed how Charles XII had fallen by Fredrikshald he heard a sound – the rattle of a bunch of keys. Then he heard the clink of spurs. Then steps coming up the stairs.
The steps approached the den. Finally he stood there, Charles XII, and eyed the author. The king sat down on a chair with his sword resting on his knee. And then he said, ”Remember, I prayed to God the last night I was alive!”
Heidenstam noted all this. Becoming dazed he bowed his head, with his hand to his eyes. When he looked up the figure was gone. No sounds were heard of steps withdrawing. There was a sepulchral silence. Heidenstam remained seated at the table, confused. In the morning he was taken care of by servants. He was bedridden for several days. Then he got up and decided to change his script of the Charles XII book he was writing, A King and His Campaigners. A little research brought him to a certain ”Charles’s prayer before the battle at Narva”. This he edited slightly and inserted in the portrayal of the king’s last days. A few more additions were made in the book so that the religious element in Charles’s life better would come into its own.
I’m a nationalist of sorts. I savour books about the traditional ways of Sweden, my native country. Then the books may also be artistically high standing as well. And this is readily achieved with Heidenstam’s writings. We live today in a time when the ”elite” of my land often is hostile against all things traditionally Swedish, when it bashes the customary image of Sweden. In this fight, you can’t always, as a defense, offer up ”high-class, immortal works of art” – but with Heidenstam on board you get this. So if you see a book by Heidenstam, buy it. I have an inkling that his books in English are rare and hard to find but they definitely exist. He got the Nobel Prize in 1916 and after that there were some translations made, some of them mentioned above.
Svensson, Lennart. “Verner von Heidenstam — An Overview.” Tankesmedjan Motpol, 9 January 2015. <http://www.motpol.nu/princip/2015/01/09/verner-von-heidenstam-an-overview/ >.