Henrik Wergeland (June 17, 1808–July 12, 1845) was a Norwegian poet and prose writer, born in Kristiansand. He was the eldest son of Nikolai Wergeland (1780–1848), who had been a member of the constitutional assembly which proclaimed the independence of Norway in 1814 at Eidsvold. The father was himself pastor of Eidsvold and the poet was thus brought up in the very holy of holies of Norwegian patriotism.
He entered the University of Christiania in 1825 to study for the church and graduated in 1829. That year, he became a symbol of the fight for celebration of the constitution at May 17. Later to become the Norwegian National Day. He became a public hero after the infamous "battle of the Square" in Christiania, which came to pass because any celebration of the national day was forbidden by royal decree. Wergeland was, of course, present and became renowned for standing up against the local governors. Later, he became the first to give a public address on behalf of the day and thus he was given credit as the one who "initiated the day". His grave and statues are decorated by students and school children every year. Notably, the Jewish community of Oslo pays their respects at his grave on May 17, in appreciation of his efforts to allow Jews into Norway. During the Second World War, the Nazi occupants forbid any celebration of Wergeland. They even put out a warrant for him, just in case.
In 1829 he published a volume of lyrical and patriotic poems, Digte, første Ring (poems, first circle), which attracted the liveliest attention to his name. In this book we find his ideal love, the heavenly Stella, which can be described as a Wergeland equivalent to Beatrice in Dante`s poem Divina Commedia. Stella is in fact based on four girls, whom Wergeland fell in love with (two of whom he wooed), and never got really close to. The character of Stella also inspired him to endeavour on the great epic Skabelsen, Mennesket og Messias (Creation, Man and the Messiah). It was remodeled in 1845 as Mennesket (Man). In these works, Wergeland shows the history of Man and God's plan for humanity. The works are clearly platonic-romantic, and is also based on ideals from the enlightenment and the French revolution. Thus, he criticizes abuse of power, and notably evil priests and their manipulation of people's minds. In the end, his credo goes like this:
- Heaven shall no more be split
- after the quadrants of altars,
- the earth no more be sundered and plundered
- of tyrant's sceptres.
- Bloodstained crowns, executioner's steel
- torches of thralldom and pyres of sacrifice
- no more shall gleam over earth.
- Through the gloom of priests, through the thunder of kings,
- the dawn of freedom,
- bright day of truth
- shines over the sky, now the roof of a temple,
- and descends on earth,
- who now turns into an altar
- for brotherly love.
- The spirits of the earth now glow
- in freshened hearts.
- Freedom is the heart of the spirit, Truth the spirit's desire.
- earthly spirits all
- to the soil will fall
- to the eternal call:
- Each in own brow wears his heavenly throne.
- Each in own heart wears his altar and sacrificial vessel.
- Lords are all on earth, priests are all for God.
At the age of twenty-one he became a power in literature, and his enthusiastic preaching of the doctrines of the revolution of July made him a force in politics also. Meanwhile he was tireless in his efforts to advance the national cause. He established popular libraries, and tried to alleviate the widespread poverty of the Norwegian peasantry. He preached the simple life, denounced foreign luxuries, and set an example by wearing Norwegian homespun clothes. He strived for enlightenment and greater understanding of the constitutional rights his people had been given. Thus, he became increasingly popular among common people.
Critics, especially Johan Sebastian Welhaven, claimed his earliest efforts in literature were wild and formless. He was full of imagination, but without taste or knowledge. Therefore, from 1830 to 1835 Wergeland was subjected to severe attacks from J. S. Welhaven and others. Welhaven, being a classicist, could not tolerate Wergeland's explosive way of writing, and published an essay about Wergeland's style. As an answer to these attacks, Wergeland published several poetical farces under the pseudonym of "Siful Sifadda". Welhaven showed no understanding of Wergeland's poetical style, or even of his personality. On one hand, the quarrel was personal, on the other, cultural and political. What had started as a mock-quarrel in the Norwegian Student's Community soon blew out of proportion and became a long lasting newspaper dispute for nearly two years. Sadly, Welhaven's criticism, and the slander produced by his friends, created a lasting prejudice against Wergeland and his early productions. Recently, this has been debated, and his early poetry has been more favorably recognized.
Wergeland's poetry can in fact be regarded as strangely modernistic. From early on, he wrote poems in free style, without occurring rhymes or metre. His use of metaphors are vivid, and complex, and many of his poems quite long. He challenges the reader to contemplate his poems over and over, but so does his contemporaries Byron and Shelley, or even Shakespeare. The free form and multiple interpretations especially offended Welhaven, who held an aesthetical view of poetry as appropriately concentrated on one topic at a time.
In 1840 he married Amalie Sofie Bekkevold, and she became en inspiration for a new book of love-poems, filled with flowers, where his love-poems from the earlier stage had been filled with stars. Amalie was the daughter of a ferryman.
His nationalist political propaganda lacked knowledge and system. His partisans were alienated by his inconsistent admiration for King Carl Johan, by his unpopular advocacy of the Jewish cause, and by the extravagance of his methods generally. His popularity waned as his poetry improved, and in 1840 he found himself a really great lyric poet, but an exile from political influence. In that year he became keeper of the royal archives. The following year, be moved from Damstredet to Grotten. He died of pneumonia, July 12,. 1845. His statue stands between the Royal Palace and Storting by Oslo's main street, his back turned to Nationalteateret. On Norwegian Constitution Day, it receives an annual wreath of flowers from students at the University of Oslo.
Wergeland's Jan van Huysums Blomsterstykke (Flower-piece by Jan van Huysum, 1840), Svalen (The Swallow, also translated to English, 1841), Jøden (the Jew 1842), Jødinden (the Jewess 1844) and Den Engelske Lods (the English sea-guide 1844), form a series of narrative poems in short lyrical metres which remain the most interesting and important of their kind in Norwegian literature. He was less successful in other branches of letters; in the drama neither his Campbellerne (the Campbells 1839), Venetianerne (the Venetians 1843), nor Søkadetterne (the navymen 1837), achieved any lasting success; while his elaborate contribution to political history, Norges Constitutions Historie (the history of the Norwegian Constitution 1841-1843, still is regarded as an important source. The poems of his later years include many lyrics of great beauty, which are among the permanent treasures of Norwegian poetry. The erroneous belief that he really became a muslim, derives from a letter to his father, written May 17, 1845, where he, during the letter, mentions God as Allah once, though he returns to the word God for the rest of the letter. In the letters written after this, the word Allah is never mentioned again, but the letters to his father often ends with the sentence God bless you. The frase I die a deist, an honest worshiper of Allah, may point to his religious tolerance, and the fact that Christian arabs in the Middle East use the word Allah for the christian god, as does the indonesian bible. As a matter of fact, Wergeland always set christianity first of the religions, although he once proclaimed: All religions have a gentle and loving heart. However Muslims and leftist-intellectuals have claimed that the word God often is used of Muslims meaning Allah and perceive Wergeland to have converted to Islam.
Wergeland became a symbol for the Norwegian Left-wing movement, and embraced by many later Norwegian poets, even up until today. Thus, a great number of later poets owe him allegiance in one way or another. His birth-day is commemorated each year, with a flower-parade, and by showing his plays and reciting his poems. His most prominent poetical symbols are the flower and the star, symbolizing heavenly and earthly love, nature and beauty.
Wergeland's Samlede Skrifter ("Collected Works", 9 vols., Christiania, 1852–1857) were edited by H. Lassen, the author of Henrik Wergeland og hans Samtid (1866), and the editor of his Breve ("Letters", 1867).
Wergeland's younger sister was Camilla Collett.
Wergeland in English
The Army of Truth, selected Poems by Henrik Wergeland, University of Wisconsin press, 2003. Translations by Anne Born, G. M. Gathorne-Hardy and I. Grøndahl. Contains mostly poems from the Jew and the Jewess.
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