Home / General / Erik Visits a Non-American Grave, Part 1,275

Erik Visits a Non-American Grave, Part 1,275

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This is the grave of Henrik Wergeland.

Born in 1808 in Kristiansand, Norway, which was then still part of Denmark, Wergeland grew up in the religious and political elite of the nation. His father was an important Lutheran minister and also was one of the people at the Norwegian Constituent Assembly in 1814 that started the process of unloosing their nation from the vile Danes. So Wergeland grew up in this milieu of religion and nationalism.

Wergeland entered college in 1825 at The Royal Frederick University. He got a reputation as a young nationalist almost immediately. On May 17, 1829, shortly before he graduated, he was part of the Battle of the Square, which was a fight between Norwegian nationalists like himself and the military of the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway. May 17 was Norwegian Constitution Day and the king had banned any public celebration of this, as the Swedish king was trying to hold the union together against Norwegian nationalism. But Wergeland led a group of students to celebrate it anyway. No one died in this “battle,” but it was a raucous affair and is celebrated in Norway today.

The same year, Wergeland published his first book, a group of nationalist and romantic poems titled Digte, første Ring (Poems, First Circle in English) that revolved around an idealized female national and romantic lead named Stella. The thing was vaguely based on Dante’s Inferno, and Wergeland really liked that kind of big sweeping epic style. In 1845, he published probably his most famous work, Creation, Man, and the Messiah, which sounds like a quasi-scholarly 60s book that would have been read in the homes of people who subscribe to The New York Review of Books (guilty as charged your honor!), but in fact is one of Norway’s most famous epic poems with two spirits arguing over the creation of the Earth, then a long discussion between Adam and Eve that follows the early part of Genesis, and then a final part on the return of Christ. This sounds absolutely terrible to me, but then I’m not reading any early 19th century epic poetry, not to mention that composed by Lutheran nationalists.

All of this made Wergeland pretty controversial within the literary community. Those who were more formulist types of writers did not like his lack of discipline and explosive style; I know I am shocked to hear of a Lutheran establishment being outraged over someone using emotion in their work. Interestingly, despite the fact that he was a nationalist, he was still writing in Danish at this time. Even today, it’s not like there’s a ton of difference between the languages, but he was among those calling for a newly developed Norwegian language that he could write in, so clearly this fact bothered him.

Wergeland was also an interesting guy politically. These romantic poet types could fall a couple of ways. They could be really personally conservative. Or they could be fighters for justice. Think of Lord Byron, who died in the Greek independence struggle. Wergeland was in the latter. He was a hot-tempered young man (one thinks of Poe in the American context here) and he liked to fight. Sometimes, those were just fist fights, but sometimes they were to make life better for people. He is highly honored in the Norwegian Jewish community today, for instance, for his staunch support of Jewish rights. Given that the rise of nationalism brought about the rise of more organized anti-Semitism in Europe, such a connection was by no means guaranteed and Wergeland deserves a ton of credit for it. He also often represented small farmers in their legal struggles against the capitalists and big landowners seeking to throw them off their land, often using legally questionable ways.

This made Wergeland hated among the Norwegian upper classes, who saw him as a class traitor. In 1837, he wrote a play titled The Campbells that was a satire and attack on inequality in Norway. It proved immediately popular among the regular people of the nations. So a whole bunch of rich guys decided to buy up a lot of the seats for an early performance and disrupt it with noise. While this did indeed disrupt the play, after it was over, the audience beat the shit out of them, threw tomatoes in their faces, dragged them around, and generally shamed them in society.

Wergeland married a working class woman named Amalie Sofie Bekkevold, the daughter of a minister to a poor community. They were devoted to each other, even though it seems that Wergeland was impotent and they did not have children. They did adopt one though. Later, after his death, she remarried and had eight children, so the problem was definitely not her.

All of this made Wergeland pretty poor actually. It was hard to live on writing, as it is today. Because of his politics, no one would hire him to good jobs. He was qualified to be a Lutheran minister but couldn’t get a job because of the politics he brought into it. He worked as a clerk and taught. Finally, in 1838, as he was pretty famous and perhaps to try to bring him under some authority, King Carl Johan gave him a small stipend, which allowed him to marry. One can see why he would take the money, but many of his comrades saw him as a sell-out. Who could claim to be a Norwegian nationalist and republican supporter of revolution and then take money from the king? It’s a fair question though it’s hard to turn down the cash. He blew it anyway, getting involved in legal issues that cost him his house.

In the end, the serious stress that Wergeland was under may have caused him to die young. Or it may have just been that he was coming down with tuberculosis and then had pneumonia on top of it. He died in 1845, after a long period of wasting away in which he wrote as much as he could, at the age of 37. The Norwegian elite still hated him, but over the years, his reputation has risen in the annals of Norwegian literature. Today, he’s something of a hero in the left-leaning Norwegian literary community.

Henrik Wergeland is buried in Our Savior’s Cemetery, Oslo, Norway.

Well, I certainly don’t expect anyone to fund a European trip to visit more 19th century poets, but if you would like this series to visit some American 19th century poets, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Samuel Henry Dickson is in Philadelphia and Nathaniel Parker Willis is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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