Heidenstam, Verner von (6 July 1859 - 20 May 1940)

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Verner von Heidenstam (6 July 1859 - 20 May 1940)

Ann-Charlotte Gavel Adams
University of Washington

1916 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation






BOOKS: Vallfart och vandringsår: Dikter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1888);

Från Col di Tenda till Blocksberg: Reseskizzer (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1888);

Endymion (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1889);

Renässans: Några ord om en annalkande ny brytningstid inom litteraturen (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1889);

Pepitas bröllop: En literaturanmälan, by Heidenstam and Oscar Levertin (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1890);

Hans Alienus (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1892);

Modern Barbarism: Några ord mot restaurerandet af historiska byggnader (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1894);

Dikter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1895);

Om svenskarnes lynne (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1897);

Karolinerna: Berättelser, 2 volumes (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1897, 1898); translated by Axel Tegnier as A King and His Campaigners (London: Duckworth, 1902); translated by Charles Wharton Stork as The Charles Men, 2 volumes (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1920; London: Cape, 1933); selections translated by Agnes A. Allnutt in a bilingual edition as Five Stories Selected from The Karolines/Fem berättelser hämtade från “Karolinerna” (London: Harrap / New York: Brentano’s, 1922);

Klassicitet och germanism: Några ord om världsstriden (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1898);

Tankar och teckningar (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1899);

Sankt Göran och draken: Berättelser (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1900)—comprises “Sankt Göran och draken,” “Bröderna,” “Spåmannen,” and “Guds födelse”; “Spåmannen” translated by Karoline M. Knudsen as The Soothsayer (Boston: Four Seas, 1919); “Guds födelse” translated by Knudsen as The Birth of God (Boston: Four Seas, 1920);

Heliga Birgittas pilgrimsfärd: Berättelse (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1901);

Ett folk (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1902);

Skogen susar: Berättelser och sagor (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1904);

Folkungaträdet: Folke Filbyter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1905); translated by Arthur Chater as The Tree of the Folkungs I: Folke Filbyter (London: Gyldendal, 1925; New York: Knopf, 1925);

Folkungaträdet: Bjälboarfvet (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1907); translated by Chater as The Tree of the Folkungs II: The Bellbo Heritage (London: Gyldendal, 1925; New York: Knopf, 1925);

Svenskarna och deras hövdingar: Berättelser för unga och gamla, 2 volumes (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1908, 1910); translated by Stork as The Swedes and Their Chieftains (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1925);

Dagar och händelser: Tal, inlägg och fantasier (Stockholm, 1909); republished as Uppsatser, tal och fatasier (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1929);

Samlade skrifter, 14 volumes in 4 (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1909–1912);

Proletärfilsofiens upplösning och fall: Några ord vid det nya århundradets tröskel (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1911);

Drottning Omma (Stockholm: Åhlen & Åkerlund, 1914);

Nya dikter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1915);

Skissbok: Reseminnen 1876-1877 (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1939);

När kastanjerna blommade: Minnen från Olshammar, edited by Kate Bang and Fredrik Böök (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1941);

Tankar och utkast, edited by Bang and Böök (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1941);

Sista dikter, edited by Bang and Böök (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1940).

Editions and Collections: Samlade Verk, 23 volumes in 11, edited by Kate Bang and Fredrik Böök (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1943-1944);

Verner von Heidenstam: Poesi ochprosa i urval, edited by Carl Olof Josephson (Hedemora: Gidlunds, Alla Tiders Klassiker, 1996).

Editions in English: “The Spark,” “The Crucifix,” “The Heart’s Secret,” and “The Home,” in Under the Swedish Colours: A Short Anthology of Modern Swedish Poets, translated by Francis Arthur Judd (London: Elkin Mathews, 1911);

“The Little Sister,” English edition of Julstämning (Chicago & Göteborg, 1912);

“The Shadow,” British Review, 4 (1913): 429-431;

“Midsummer Play,” translated by Jacob Wittmer Hartmann, American-Scandinavian Review, 2 (1914): 26-27;

“A Clean White Shirt,” translated by N. Tourneur, American-Scandinavian Review, no. 3 (1915): 339-341;

“The Boundary Stone,” translated by Anna E. B. Fries, American-Scandinavian Review, no. 4 (1916): 212-215;

“Home Land,” “Fellow Citizens,” “My Life,” “Starting on the Journey,” “A Man’s Last Word to a Woman,” “Sweden,” “The Dove of Thought,” “Grant that We Die Young,” “Moonlight,” “Invocation and Promise,” “A Day,” “The Burial of Gustaf Fröding,” “At the End of the Way,” “Nameless and Immortal,” “Alone by the Lake,” “Home,” and “How easily men’s cheeks are hot with wrath,” in Anthology of Swedish Lyrics from 1750 to 1915, translated by Charles Wharton Stork (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation / London: Oxford University Press, 1917);

Sweden’s Laureate: Selected Poems of Verner von Heidenstam, translated by Charles Wharton Stork (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919; London: Milford, 1919);

“When the Bells Ring,” “The Fortified House,” “The Queen of the Marauders,” and “Captured,” in Modern Swedish Masterpieces, translated by Stork (New York: Dutton, 1923);

“Sigrid the Haughty and Her Wooers,” translated by Stork, American-Scandinavian Review, no. 12 (1924);

“A Statue of the Virgin at Heda,” translated by Stork, American-Scandinavian Review, no. 13 (1925);

“The Shield-Maiden” and “A Clean White Shirt,” translated by Stork, in Sweden’s Best Stories: An Introduction to Swedish Fiction, edited by Hanna Astrup Larsen (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation / Norton, 1928);

“Nameless and Immortal,” “What place on earth shall I fairest call?” “At the End of the Road,” “After a Thousand Years,” “Kindling of Stars,” “The Hour of Paradise,” and “A Friendly Farm,” translated by C. D. Locock, in A Selection from Modern Swedish Poetry (New York: Macmillan, 1929);

“The Tenant of Brasse,” translated by E. Sprigge and C. Napier, in Modern Swedish Short Stories (London: Cape, 1934);

“A Wish,” “Night,” and “The Cloud,” translated by Locock, in Modern Swedish Poetry: Part II (London: H. &W Brown, 1936);

Christmas Eve at Finnstad, translated by Margaret Sperry (Stockholm: Published by arrangement with the Heidenstam Foundation by B. Russak, 1950);

“The Haunted Room at Ingvaldboda: A Short Story,” translated by Signild V. Gustafson, American-Scandinavian Review, no. 41 (1953);

“Gunnel the Stewardess,” translated by Stork, in An Anthology of Scandinavian Literature, selected and edited by Hallberg Hallmundsson (New York: Collier, 1965).

Swedish writer Verner von Heidenstam was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1916. The citation from the Swedish Academy read: “in recognition of his significance as the leading representative of a new era in our literature.” No one contests Heidenstam’s importance as the most influential poet and introducer of the neo-Romantic, nationalistic movement of the 1890s in Sweden. He was much honored in his lifetime, but since his death in 1940, the literary worth of his works has been debated. Pär Lagerkvist, his successor in chair number 8 in the Swedish Academy and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951, characterized him as a “fantast, en högt spänd människa, problematisk och ytterlig” (dreamer, a high-strung man, problematic, and extreme) in his introductory speech at the Swedish Academy. Today, his name is primarily kept alive through the prestigious Övralid Prize, named after the estate where he lived during the last twenty-five years of his life. The prize, substantially funded by the Nobel Prize money, is awarded every year on Heidenstam’s birthday, 6 July, to a prominent Swedish author.

Heidenstam is no longer a widely read author, except among literary scholars and students of literature, although a few poems have become classics in Swedish literature. His name is most often associated with patriotic poems, such as “Sverige” (Sweden), which is played on Swedish National Radio every New Year’s Eve, set to music by composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, or his two-volume historical epos, Karolinerna (1897, 1898; translated as A King and His Campaigners, 1902, and as The Charles Men, 1920), which was on the required-reading list in public schools in Sweden during the first part of the twentieth century. Most Swedes can recognize Heidenstam’s aristocratic facial profile in photos or paintings, perhaps mainly because of the two well-known and often-reproduced portraits by painter Hanna Hirsch Pauli, one from 1896 and another from the last year of the author’s life. Many of his poems and novels, however, seem dated and forced to modern readers.

Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam was born on 6 July 1859 at his maternal grandmother’s summer estate, Olshammar, by Lake Vättern. He was the only child of Nils Gustaf von Heidenstam and his wife, Magdalena Charlotta Rütterskiöld, both belonging to families of old Swedish nobility. His childhood home was in Stockholm, where he attended the prestigious private school Beskowska skolan from 1869 to 1875. The most influential periods of his childhood were the summers, spent at the Olshammar estate with his mother, grandmother, and two elderly unmarried aunts, who did their best to spoil the boy. His father was an enterprising man, stoic in nature and financially successful. Nils Gustaf von Heidenstam had the title of colonel in a government department, corresponding to the Army Corps of Engineers, and was much respected for his constructions of lighthouses along the Swedish coast. The colonel was dissatisfied with his son’s upbringing and education, and he rarely joined the family at Olshammar. Father and son were not close.

The alley leading up to the Olshammar manor house was lined with chestnut trees. Heidenstam’s posthumously published memoir of his childhood was given the title När kastanjerna blommade: Minnen från Olshammar (1941, When the Chestnut Trees Bloomed: Memories from Olshammar), an allusion to his grandmother’s standing invitation: “Welcome to Olshammar when the chestnuts bloom.” He enjoyed playing fantasy games, like most children, and dreamed of being king of the imaginary country of Lajsputta, perhaps an allusion to the island Laputta in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726); the doting women around him played along with his games.

Young Verner’s health was poor, and he had little interest in school, so he was allowed to quit at the age of sixteen. The family was well-to-do and could afford to send their son abroad to complete his education. On his first trip, to Italy, Greece, and the Middle East (1876-1877), Verner was accompanied by his cousin Ernst von Heidenstam. On his second trip, to Athens, Beirut, Jerusalem, and Cairo (1877-1878), he traveled with the linguist and orientalist Carlo Landberg, who later was elevated to count in Italy. Landberg called his young charge “Hopeful” and wrote to his father: “Allow Hopeful to be educated in freedom, then he can become something great, otherwise not. He has sufficient character to resist the temptations of the world.” The exoticism of the Middle East made a deep impression on young Verner, and the Orient became an important motif in his first literary works. During these early travels, he drew, painted, and kept a diary. He spent much of 1879 and 1880 in Rome, for the purpose of learning painting.

On 20 October 1880 Heidenstam married Emilie Uggla. She also belonged to a family of Swedish nobility. Both families objected initially to the marriage; Heidenstam was only twenty-one years old, had no income of his own, and had no clear ambitions or plans for the future. The newlyweds traveled to Rome for the winter, where Heidenstam planned to pursue art studies under Swedish painter Julius Kronberg. The young couple, financially supported by Heidenstam’s father, spent more time being tourists than studying. Established Scandinavian painters in Rome viewed Heidenstam with irony and amusement, considering him somewhat pompous, rather naive, and secretive regarding his own paintings. Nobody was allowed to see the grand paintings that he supposedly was creating. In July 1881 Heidenstam and his wife moved to Paris, where his wealth and noble family background had gained him acceptance into Ecole des Beaux-Arts as a student of the famous painter and sculptor Gérôme. The discipline at the school did not suit him, and he soon gave up the idea of painting. After some encouragement from Finnish-Swedish author Zacharias Topelius, Heidenstam decided to try his hand at writing instead.

In July 1882 Heidenstam and his wife returned to Scandinavia to see his mother. The most urgent reason for the trip was to assure continued financial support, now that he had abandoned painting. He had no intention of visiting his father, who—he was sure—would disapprove of his plans. In October 1882 the young couple returned to France with new funds in their pockets, first to Paris and then to the French Riviera. For the next four and a half years, until spring 1887, they lived a rather ambulatory life in Europe.

In 1884 Heidenstam met the radical Swedish author August Strindberg. The ensuing friendship with Strindberg stimulated his thinking and writing and expanded his intellectual horizons. It was the first time that Heidenstam had entered into a close artistic friendship with an older, recognized author, with whom he could debate both social and creative ideas. At this time, Strindberg and Heidenstam had similar sympathies and antipathies: they boasted about their liberated ideas and competed in making shocking statements. They proclaimed themselves freethinkers and reveled in cynical ideas of atheism, polygamy, and egotism, in formulations that today sound embarrassingly juvenile. In a letter to Strindberg (5 September 1885) Heidenstam writes that he intends to “stryka skorna af fötterna och pådra de polygama österländska tofflorna” (take off his shoes and put on his oriental, polygamous slippers). He signed this letter as many others: “Verner Hundhedning” (Verner Heathen Dog). Their correspondence often took on a puerile tone, something both writers later abandoned. On 1 May 1886 the Heidenstams rented the castle Schloss Brunegg in Switzerland, and Strindberg settled with his family in the nearby Otmarsingen. They often got together, and Heidenstam later described their meetings and discussions in his collection of travel essays Från Col di Tenda till Blocksberg (1888, From Col di Tenda to Blocksberg), as Strindberg had done in his autobiography Tjänstekvinnans son (1886; translated as The Son of a Servant, 1913).

During the summer of 1886 Heidenstam became ill with typhoid, resulting in chronic stomach problems. The doctors advised him to move to the milder climate of the French Riviera. In spring 1887 Heidenstam was called back to his parents’ home in Sweden. His father was seriously ill with kidney disease and suffered constant, severe pain. Father and son had not seen each other for seven years. His father had even refused to read Heidenstam’s letters home. Although father and son had had a chilly relationship, they seem to have reconnected during the last part of the father’s illness. However, on 2 June 1887, his sixty-fifth birthday, the colonel committed suicide by shooting himself in the temple.

In the spring of 1888 Heidenstam’s first collection of poetry, Vallfart och vandringsår (Pilgrimages and Wander Years), was published. It created quite a stir in literary circles in Sweden but was initially met with more surprise than admiration. The form was new: a mixture of verse and prose with predominantly oriental motifs and colorful visual imagery. The motifs and images seemed highly exotic and somewhat peculiar at a time when realism and naturalism were the styles of writing in vogue in Scandinavia. However, the Orient of Heidenstam’s poetic world had little relationship to the real Middle East of the time; it was a kind of sensual and wishful dream, more a symbol for imagination, joy of life, and personal freedom. Examples of this depiction are evident in the poems “Muhails aftonbön” (Muchail’s Evening Prayer), “Djufars visa” (Djufar’s Song), and “Isissystrarna’s bröllop” (The Wedding of the Sisters of Isis). In “Ensamhetens tankar” (Thoughts in Solitude), another series of short personal poems in the collection, Heidenstam presents himself as more introspective and humble. He also reveals a deep love for the natural Swedish environment around his childhood summer home, Olshammar. In one often-quoted— but also often-ridiculed (by critics and fellow writers, including Strindberg)—poem, he writes:

Jag längtar hem sen åtta långa år.
I själva sömnen har jag längtan känt.
Jag längtar var jag går
–men ej till människor! Jag längtar marken,
jag längtar stenarna där barn jag lekt.

(I’ve longed for home for eight long years.
In sleep as well as through the day, I long.
I long for home wherever I go-
But not for people! I long for the fields where I would
And for the stones where as a child I used to play.)

The same year that Vallfart och vandringsår appeared, Heidenstam also brought forth Från Col di Tenda till Blocksberg. In a letter to Strindberg (3 August 1888) he characterized his new book as “unimportant, partly already published travel prose.” It became a critical and popular success, however, and with that success came all kinds of other attentions.

Heidenstam was a stately man, aristocratic, and a good conversationalist. Women were charmed by him, something he took advantage of as the opportunities presented themselves. In May 1888, while still married to Uggla, he started sending love poems to another young woman of the nobility, Ellen Belfrage, daughter of the lord chancellor of King Oscar II. The love poems led to a relationship, which resulted in a pregnancy. This situation did not seem to concern Heidenstam. In November 1888 he decided to travel to Davos, Switzerland, for reasons of health, accompanied by his wife. He wrote a goodbye letter/poem to Belfrage. In March 1889 Belfrage gave birth in Rouen, France, to a son, Nils Oluf, the only surviving child Heidenstam ever had. However, claiming bad health and his deteriorating financial position, Heidenstam told Belfrage that a divorce from his wife was out of the question and that he could not afford to support two women at the same time. Surprisingly, Belfrage seems to have accepted his response. She never wrote anything critical either to or about Heidenstam, and she brought up her son alone, with love and pride. Heidenstam never took an interest in Nils Oluf and even refused to meet him. Heidenstam did write a series of five poems, called “Gullebarns vaggsanger” (Cradle Songs of Goldilocks), as a reflection on his son’s birth. They were included as part of his second important book of poems, Dikter (1895, Poems). In 1893 Heidenstam and his wife divorced, though she, like Belfrage, remained devoted to Heidenstam for the rest of her life.

Heidenstam followed his first two books with a novel, Endymion (1889), which takes place in Damascus, Syria. It is Heidenstam’s most detailed and in-depth description of oriental culture. Critics and scholars differ in their opinions: some call it a trivial work, and others consider it the most underestimated novel in Heidenstam’s production. The main theme of the novel is the clash/contrast between Western civilization and oriental culture. The main characters are an American writer, Mr. Harven, a Mark Twain of sorts, and his daughter Nelly. Father and daughter have traveled to Damascus to collect material for Harven’s humorous stories. Nelly accompanies her father because of a general cultural interest. Harven and Nelly represent the Western lifestyle and civilization. Another character, Dr. von Blumenbach, represents the materialistic/capitalistic interests of the West. His main ambition is to earn money and gain a position of power. Two themes are woven together in the novel, a love story and a political/religious conflict. Nelly falls in love with a young, romantic Arab nationalist, Emin, and their love represents an attempt to bridge the gap between the two cultures. Heidenstam’s affair with Belfrage is said to be the inspiration for the relationship between Emin and Nelly. Emin becomes the leader of an uprising against the Western/Christian influence in the Middle East; but when the uprising is crushed, Emin is sentenced to death, and Nelly is forced to accept the Western way of life. In the end, Dr. von Blumenbach’s materialistic way of life wins. Harven gets the final words: “An unyielding conviction is in my eyes equal to a hardened heart, one that is not receptive to arguments of people of other persuasions.” He urges his daughter to try to live an oriental lifestyle in the West.

On 21 September 1889 Heidenstam finished the manuscript to Renässans: Några ord om en annalkande ny brytningstid inom litteraturen (Renaissance: Some Words about the Approaching New Breakthrough in Literature), and he was eager to get the pamphlet published as soon as possible. The essay was short (forty-five pages), but he insisted on having it published as a book because it included his entire aesthetic program, as he wrote to his publisher, Albert Bonnier. He called for a rejection of the pedantic “shoemaker realism” and naturalism and advocated a return to the joy of life and beauty. Another important point of his program was the return to nationalism and focus on things Swedish. The pamphlet was met with criticism by many of his contemporaries, and polemics broke out in the newspapers. The following year, he developed his aesthetic program further in collaboration with poet and critic Oscar Levertin, when they published Pepitas bröllop: En literaturanmälan (1890, Pepita’s Wedding: A Literary Review), a fictitious review of a Spanish novel. These two essays caused the first rift in the friendship with Strindberg. From a twenty-first-century perspective, Renässans and Pepitas bröllop did indeed usher in a new era, because they were the first to break with naturalism and to introduce neo-Romanticism–the cult of beauty, the joy of life–and nationalism into Swedish literature.

Hans Alienus (1892) is an ambitious, but uneven, autobiographical-ideological work in verse and prose in three parts and amost seven hundred pages. It was Heidenstam’s largest work to date and an attempt to explain his aesthetic program and view of life. A hedonistic lifestyle is pitted against a more reflective, melancholy way of life. Hans Alienus (Hans the Alienated) is Heidenstam’s alter ego. Part 1, “Löftet” (The Promise), takes place in Rome. Hans, a young papal librarian at the Vatican, and his friends take an oath to pursue a full year of pleasure, promiscuity, and instant gratification. The point seems to be a glorification of a Dionysian lifestyle and a critique of the modern, industrialized, materialistic Europe. The ideal seems to have been that man should pursue all kinds of erotic pleasures, without concern for other people’s happiness or suffering, and selfishly follow his own instincts and cravings.

In Part 2, titled “Hades,” the Pope has sent Hans Alienus as nuncio to King Sardanapal of Assyria. This part is more of a fantasy or a dream than a realistic narrative. At first, Hans marries simultaneously the three daughters of a weaver and gets their mother in the bargain. In his meeting with Sardanapal, the emptiness of the self-centered, pleasure-seeking life is revealed, in spite of all the luxury and opulence. Critics generally agree that “Hades” is particularly uneven as a literary composition. The allegories seem forced, and it is difficult to decipher what the symbols might stand for. The first two parts of this massive novel reveal that Heidenstam was not only uninformed about life in the Vatican, but he also lacked an understanding of the Muslim world he wrote about.

Part 3, “Hemkomsten” (The Return Home), is the strongest of the three parts. Hans Alienus returns to an estate by Lake Vättern and is reunited with his father, gaining his trust and friendship. As in Heidenstam’s own life, Hans’s father commits suicide. “Hemkomsten” is introduced by a poem, “Pilgrimens julsång” (The Pilgrim’s Yule Song), expressing melancholy and loneliness. The pursuit of pleasure and beauty as the meaning of life has proven false:

Kedjad vid livet min stav jag bär
Rolös kring världen jag ledes.
Längtar dit där jag icke är
Fxämmande allestädes.

(Fettered to life I roam the earth,
Driven without cessation,
Seeking, but finding only dearth,
Stranger/alienated in every nation.)

With his 1895 volume, Dikter, Heidenstam wrote what several critics consider to be his most important poetic work. Fredrik Böök has called it “drömmens och inbillningens uppror mot den nyktra och gråa verkligheten” (the rebellion of dreams and imagination against the sober, gray reality). The imagery is concrete and striking. Several poems, such as “Malatestas morgonsång” (The Morning Song of Malatesta), reveal a romantic disdain for life, which is reminiscent of George Gordon, Lord Byron. There are also poems in a more classic style, such as “Hur lätt bli människornas kinder heta” (How easily men’s cheeks are hot with wrath). In this collection, Heidenstam’s poetry has gained in both power and clarity. This development may in part have to do with the fact that he has abandoned the oriental motifs from earlier works and picked up motifs from Swedish nature and nostalgia for home, as in “Ett Hem” (A Home):

Ett hem! Det är det fästet,
Vi rest med murar trygga
–vår egen värld–den enda
vi mitt i världen bygga.

(A home! How firm its base is
By walls secuxely shielded
–oux woxld–the only one
we in this world can build.)

In addition to the longing for a home, love of the natural beauty of his home province, and respect for memories and old traditions, themes of patriotism and nationalism also take on more importance in this collection. Sweden is described as “Den sovande system” (A Slumbering Sister) who must be awakened. This national awakening became Heidenstam’s most fervent goal for the rest of the 1890s. In Om svenskarnes lynne (1897, On the Swedish Temperament) he preached against what he saw as his countrymen’s exaggerated enthusiasm and unwarranted respect for everything that came from abroad. In Klassicitet och germanism: Några ord om världsstriden (1898, Classicism and Germanism: Some Words about the World Struggle), Heidenstam places Swedish culture on a pedestal between the rivaling Eastern and Western civilizations. The poetry collection Ett folk (One People) was the culmination of Heidenstam’s patriotic ambitions, and it established him as the national poet of Sweden. Ett folk was first published in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on 22 September 1899 and later appeared as a booklet of fourteen pages in 1902. This collection includes the important poems “Sverige,” which he submitted unsuccessfully to a competition for a new national anthem, and “Medborgarsången” (Fellow Citizens), in which he argued for universal suffrage–some twenty years before it became a reality in Sweden.

In 1896, three years after his divorce from Uggla, Heidenstam married a twenty-four-year-old woman named Olga Matilda Wiberg. The wedding took place on an island, Blå Jungfrun in the Baltic, and was turned into quite a spectacle, with groom and groomsmen draped in Greek togas. This marriage lasted for five years. The couple separated in 1901, and the divorce became final on 18 April 1903.

Heidenstam’s best-known epic work is Karolinerna. It is a series of short stories about King Charles XII of Sweden and his men during his unsuccessful campaign to defend Sweden’s position as a great empire at a time when Denmark, Poland, and Russia had entered an alliance to attack Sweden in 1700. The motifs for the stories are mainly taken from the last years of national humiliation, after the defeat at the battle of Poltava in Russia on 28 June 1709. In the first part of the book, the portrayal of King Charles XII is rather critical. He is described as a man who has caused suffering and deprivation for his people and constantly demands too many sacrifices from his men. In the second part, patriotism and nationalistic exaltations take on a more prominent role. The stories are tableau-like, rather different in style and content, but one motif unites them: the honorable common man and woman, who are ennobled by their sacrifice and suffering and through their faithful service to the king. The prominent position in Swedish literature of Karolinerna is partly because of the fact that it was on the required-reading lists in most public schools during the first part of the twentieth century.

In 1900 Heidenstam published a less important prose work, Sankt Göran och draken (1900, Saint George and the Dragon), consisting of several shorter pieces such as “Spimånnen” and “Guds födelse,” which have been translated into English as The Soothsayer (1919) and The Birth of God (1920) respectively. His next historical novel of rank is Heliga Birgittas pilgrimsfärd (1901, St. Birgitta’s Pilgrimage), which focuses on Birgitta Birgersdotter, Swedish visionary and religious writer, canonized as a saint in 1391. Heidenstam was quite familiar with the life and reputation of Birgitta, since she was born and raised in Östergötland, the same province as he. In Heidenstam’s family there were also legends that she had lived at Olshammar and that she had mounted her horse from a big stone by the manor house before setting out on one of her pilgrimages. Heidenstam was not religious, but he had a certain respect for Birgitta. What seemed to fascinate him most of all was her personality: strong, lonely, and tragic. In some respects, he created Birgitta to his own likeness and drew on some of his own personality traits, however unflattering. His intentions were not to create an historically accurate portrait of the saint. He presents her as a rather ruthless person, a fanatic, most of all interested in achieving glory. But Birgitta is as merciless to herself as she is to others. Her own daughter, Karin, is forced to leave her husband, who is ill in Sweden, and accompany Birgitta to Rome. When Karin’s husband dies, Karin exclaims bitterly: “Övergivna hem och nyskottade gravar ropa efter henne, hur långt hon än vallfärdar” (Deserted homes and newly-dug graves call after her, however far she travels on her pilgrimages).

On 12 October 1903, six months after his divorce from Wiberg, Heidenstam married Anna Margaretha (Greta) Sjöberg. She was seventeen years old, and he was forty-four. Heidenstam was an acquaintance of Greta’s father and had been a frequent guest in her home since she was fifteen. In her eyes, Heidenstam appeared as an exciting and romantic figure: a famous poet, rich, twice married, and a real ladies’ man. Their affair began after he seduced the sixteen-year-old Greta on a bearskin rug by the fireplace in his home in Djursholm, a suburb of Stockholm. With the girl’s mother as an accomplice, Heidenstam and Greta set out on a trip through Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France, under the pretext that Greta was attending a finishing school in Switzerland. Greta’s father eventually found out what was going on and demanded that Heidenstam marry his daughter. The couple settled on the estate of Naddö by Lake Vättern. Heidenstam had bought the estate earlier in the year and was having it remodeled. Greta was addressed by servants, neighbors, and family as “Lilla hennes nåd” (Her little Ladyship). In September 1904 Greta gave birth to a son, Dag, who was stillborn. The couple separated two years later, in 1906, after it was discovered that Greta had had an extramarital encounter with an old boyfriend. She continued to live at Naddö until the formal divorce on 6 June 1916, after which she married Anders Österling, another poet and later a member of the Swedish Academy.

During his third marriage, Heidenstam worked on what became his masterpiece of historical fiction: Folkungaträdet, volume one, titled Folke Filbyter (1905; translated as The Tree of the Folkungs I: Folke Filbyter, 1925), and volume two, titled Bjälboarfuet (1907; translated as The Tree of the Folkungs II: The Bellbo Heritage, 1925). These two works are considered by some Swedish critics to be the most important historical novels ever written in Swedish.

Folkungaträdet is a medieval chronicle, set in Heidenstam’s home province of Östergötland. It is a work in which Heidenstam merges myth with history. Part 1 focuses on Folke Filbyter, a heathen, brutal, greedy Viking chieftain, who lives only for increasing his wealth and the size of his farm, Folketuna. Folke’s only redeeming quality is his great love for his grandson. When the grandson is kidnapped by a Christian priest, Folke sets out to find him. Year after year, Folke rides on his horse from place to place, searching for his grandson. In his determination to find the boy, Folke achieves a kind of tragic greatness. After many years, he finds his sons and grandson–at the court of the Christian King Inge. There is no happy reunion, however; his sons and grandson neither want to recognize him nor admit that they are related to him. Folke Filbyter is rejected as an uncouth heathen. He bequeaths all his accumulated riches to his sons and grandson, but the one thing he had come to value most–his children’s love–he is denied.

In Part 2, Bjälboarfuet, Heidenstam continues the family saga of the Folkung dynasty, which ruled Sweden from 1250 to 1364. This volume required more historical research, and Heidenstam often had to travel up to Stockholm to consult historical works and sources at the Royal Library. The central focus of Bjälboarfvet is on Birger Jarl’s sons Valdemar (king 1266–1275) and Magnus (king 1275–1290). A main substory is that of young Jutta, who has come up from Denmark to visit her sister, the queen, and ends up becoming the lifelong lover and mistress of King Valdemar. As in his earlier works, Heidenstam let his personal affairs and experiences color the love story between Valdemar and Jutta. Heidenstam had probably intended to continue the chronicle up to the last king of the dynasty, Magnus Eriksson (1332–1364), and tie it together with Saint Birgitta and her eventual curse on the Folkung dynasty for their immorality. However, other projects got in the way, and Heidenstam never continued the chronicle.

Soon after finishing Bjälboarfuet, Heidenstam received a commission from Bonnier and a prominent educator, Alfred Dalin, to write a history reader to be used in public schools. The two-volume result, Svenskarna och deras hövdingar: Berättelser för unga och gamla (1908, 1910, translated as The Swedes and Their Chieftains, 1925), is a series of short stories that critics agree do not live up to the inspired and colorful scenes in Folkungaträdet.

At his fiftieth birthday, in 1909, Heidenstam was at the top of his career. He was celebrated as a national poet and the foremost writer of Sweden. He received an honorary doctorate from Stockholm University on 7 December 1909. In 1912 he was elected into the Swedish Academy.

In 1910 the so-called Strindberg Feud broke out, which was the beginning of the questioning of Heidenstam’s importance as a national monument. It began with an article by Strindberg called “Faraon-dyrkan” (Pharaoh Worship), published in the leftist liberal newspaper Afton-Tidningen on 29 April 1910. The article was an attack on what he considered to be the cult of King Charles XII, with an obvious address to Heidenstam. This article started a fierce public debate in the newspapers that lasted until 1912. The debate, dealing with topics from the religious and the political to the literary and aesthetic, divided the country into two camps. Strindberg came to represent the liberal-socialist side, while Heidenstam stood for the conservative side. Heidenstam kept quiet at first but felt eventually compelled to respond. He did so with the pamphlet Proletärfilosofiens upplösning och fall (1911, The Decline of the Proletarian Philosophy), which includes a rather sharp attack on Strindberg’s barbarism, his lack of morals, and his artistic faults. This interchange put an end the friendship between the two authors.

Heidenstam published only one additional collection of poetry in his lifetime after the Strindberg Feud: Nya dikter (1915, New Poems). This collection is counted among his best. Nya dikter was not so “new,” in spite of its title. It includes poems he had written during the past twenty-year period, ever since 1895. In these poems, he no longer revels in the colorful, the pompous, and the exotic motifs of the earlier Dikter and focuses more on short, reflective, still, and simple poems, articulated in a quiet tone, similar to the “Ensamhetens tankar” from 1895. This volume was a main reason that Heidenstam was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1916. The turmoil of World War I made 1916 a difficult year to award the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although Heidenstam was a member of the Swedish Academy, which might have posed a conflict, he was already showing signs of mental deterioration, and his conservative and admiring friends in the Academy decided to honor him for having ushered in neoRomanticism and nationalism in Swedish literature. (Österling, who had married Heidenstam’s former wife Greta Sjöberg, was not yet a member of the Academy.) Because of the war, the 1916 award ceremonies did not have the usual pomp and circumstance.

Shortly after the publication of Nya dikter, Heidenstam met a Danish woman, Kate Bang, thirty-three years his junior. She became his confidante, secretary, and companion for the rest of his life. After some years of traveling, they settled in 1925 at Övralid, an estate that Heidenstam himself had designed. In a letter to Bang at the end of March 1925, he described the house:

Om du tänker dig ett strängt gammalt biskopshus, som vandrat upp till en säter bland skogar och små stugor och där i en dröm om en italiensk villa avlat barn med en svensk herrgård, då får du ett enkelt rätlinjigt hus, ett trähus, men ett förnämt, som ser ut som ett slott både utan och innan.

(Imagine an old austere-looking bishop’s residence, which has moved up on a meadow among forested areas and small cottages, and there, in a dream of an Italian villa, conceived a Swedish manor house, then you can imagine this manor house, with clean lines and straight angles, but very distinguished looking, like a castle both inside and out.)

Bang wrote two books on her life with Heidenstam during his last decades: Vägen till Övralid (1945, The Road to Övralid) and Övralid: Drömmens verklighet (1946, Övralid: The Dream Becomes Reality). These books are the most important sources of information about his later years, when he withdrew from public life. The man who in his earlier years had enjoyed flamboyance and spectacle now found peace his greatest wish: in Övralid, Bang quotes him as saying, “Att i tyst hus i ett tyst landskap föra ett tyst och kontemplativt liv, det är för mig den största tänkbara lycka” (To live a quiet and contemplative life in a silent house in silent landscape/nature, that is for me the greatest imaginable happiness).

During the last twenty-five years of his life, Heidenstam was able to complete only a handful of poems, which were published posthumously as Sista dikter (Last Poems) in 1942. Writing became increasingly difficult for Heidenstam, as early signs of senility or dementia started showing. Bang wrote:

When he was thinking or forming his ideas, he paced back and forth on the floor. Almost always, he held a book in his hand, usually the Concise Dictionary of Swedish Academy (Svenska Akademiens Ordlista). It was not a coincidence that it was precisely that book. He was very unsure when it came to spelling and he looked up even the most common words. The dictionary was so worn by the end of the year, that I always gave him a new copy as my annual Christmas present.

Scholars have debated the cause of Heidenstam’s problems with spelling, which were evident as early as the 1880s in his letters to Strindberg, in which he apologized for his errors. Editors and printers frequently helped him, as did Bang later in his career. Some scholars have argued that he was dyslexic; others have suggested that his six years of schooling were too short for him to learn Swedish orthography, and that this deficiency showed up in his later writings. Later scholars, who have examined his letters, doubt both diagnoses. They think that Heidenstam suffered from early stages of senility or Alzheimer’s disease during his last twenty-five years, and that the disease made him forget the spelling of even the most common words.

Visitors to Övralid (now a museum) are surprised when they learn that the books in the library are arranged according to color rather than according to author or genre. Heidenstam wanted the afternoon sun to illuminate the gold lettering on the backs of the books on the east wall of the library. Bang wrote that the books were arranged by an artist rather than a bibliophile or librarian. Heidenstam and Bang read aloud to each other, taking turns, starting before dinner and continuing after dinner. Eventually, Bang had to take over all the reading. When Heidenstam turned seventy-three years old in 1932, it became increasingly difficult for him to pay attention and follow along, even when Bang read, and he would fall asleep.

From 1928 to 1935 Heidenstam tried to work on an autobiography. After writing the first longer pieces of text on his childhood at Olshammar, he lost his inspiration. He did agree that the book could be edited and published even if he did not have time to complete it himself. By 1935 his mental capacity was exhausted, and the hope that he might finish the book had to be abandoned. In 1941 När kastanjerna blommade was published, edited by Bang and literary historian Böök. This book remains one of Heidenstam’s best works and perhaps the easiest for present-day readers to enjoy.

Verner von Heidenstam died on 20 May 1940 at the age of eighty-one from complications of the flu, followed by pneumonia. The epitaph on his tombstone, which he had composed himself, includes the lines: “Mig förunnades det ofattbara / Att som människa / Få leva några år på jorden” (I was granted the unfathomable experience / To live a couple of years on this earth / as a human being).


Brev: I urval och med förklaringar, edited by Kate Bang and Fredrik Böök (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1949);

Heidenstam and August Strindberg, Brev: 1884–1890, edited by Gudmund Fröberg (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1999).


Allan Ranius, Verner von Heidenstam: En bibliografi (Linköping: A. Ranius, 2002).


Kate Bang, Vägen till Övralid (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1945);

Fredrik Böök, Verner von Heidenstam, 2 volumes (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1945-1946);

Bang, Övralid: Drömmens verklighet (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1946);

Staffan Björk, Verner von Heidenstam (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1959);

Sven Stolpe, Verner von Heidenstam (Stockholm: Askild & Kärnekull, 1980);

Karin Österling, Älskade Verner! En romantisk biografi on Heidenstam (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1989).


Ingmar Algulin, “Poetry at the Turn of the Century: Heidenstam, Fröding, Karlfeldt, Ekelund,” in A History of Swedish Literature, translated by John Weinstock (Stockholm: Swedish Institute, 1989), pp. 138-143;

Gunnar Axberger, Diktaren och elden: Den Heidenstamstudie (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1959);

Staffan Björk, Heidenstam och sekelskiftets Sverige: Studier I hans nationella och sociala författarskap (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1946);

Susan Brantley, “Heidenstam’s Karolinerna and the Fin de Siècle,” in Fin(s) de Siècle in Scandinavian Perspective: Studies in Honor of Harald S. Naess, edited by Faith Ingwersen, Mary Kay Norseng, and others (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993);

Brantley, “Into the Twentieth Century: 1890–1950,” in A History of Swedish Literature, edited by Lars G. Warme (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), pp. 277–279;

Ulla Callmander, “Verner von Heidenstam,” in Aspects of Modern Swedish Literature, edited by Irene Scobbie (Norwich: Norvik Press, 1988), pp. 57-63;

Gudmund Fröberg, Inifrån det svenska”: Studier i Heidenstams roman Folke Filbyter (Stockholm: Carlssons 1994);

Fröberg, ed., Kring Verner von Heidenstam (Stockholm: Carlssons, 1993);

Helge Gullberg, Gullebarns levnadssaga: Verner von Heidenstams och Ellen Belfrages son, föräldrarna och gudmodern in samtida dokument (Göteborg: Rundqvist, 1983);

Magnus Halldin, “Några tankar kring Heidenstams Renässans,” Parnass, no. 4 (1999): 8–11;

Hugo Kamras, Den unge Heidenstam: Personlighet och idéutveckling (Stockholm: Gebers, 1942);

Martin Kylhammar, Maskin och idyll: Teknik och pastorala ideal hos Strindberg och Heidenstam, (Stockholm: Liber, 1985);

Bo Ollén, Heidenstam som barnboksförfattare: Om Svenskarna och deras hövdingar (Hedemora: Svenska barnboksinstitutet, 1992);

Parnass, special Heidenstam issue, no. 4 (2000);

Magnus von Platen, Verner von Heidenstam och Emilia Uggla: Ett äktenskap (Stockholm: Fischer, 1994).


Verner von Heidenstam’s papers and literary remains, the “Övralidsarkivet” (Övralid Archives), are located at Stifts-och Landsbiblioteket in Linköping, Sweden.

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Heidenstam, Verner von (6 July 1859 - 20 May 1940)

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