Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Wergeland, Henrik

  • NorwegianLiterature (fictional prose/drama)Literature (poetry/verse)
  • Author:
    Gerven, Tim van
  • VIAF ID:
  • Title:
    Wergeland, Henrik
  • Text:

    Henrik Arnold Thaulow Wergeland (Christianssand 1808 – Christiania 1845) has been called Norway’s only true Romantic. In many ways the personification of the typical poète maudit tormented by unfulfilled desires, restless passions and a divine calling to create art, he is today as much remembered for his humanitarian activism as for his adventurous Romantic poetry.

    Born a son of pastor Nicolai Wergeland, who in 1814 had been member of the Eidsvoll convention responsible for drafting Norway’s Constitution, the young Henrik graduated in theology in 1829. His pastoral career failed to materialize owing to a difficult, rebellious character and scandalous reputation (following several lawsuits as well as accusations of alcoholism and public misconduct). He ultimately, in 1836, obtained the position of librarian at the University of Christiania; in 1840, he was appointed head of the national archive at Akershus castle, a position he would hold until a few months before his early death.

    Wergeland’s official debut as a poet came in 1829 with the publication of Digte: Første ring (“Poems: First circle”), a collection of lyrical and patriotic verse that is most renowned for its love poems dedicated to one Stella, Wergeland’s ideal love compounded from four adolescent crushes. The figure of Stella also inspired him to what he himself saw as his major work, Skabelsen, mennesket og Messias (“Creation, mankind and Messiah”, 1830), a monumental epic poem of no less than 700 pages expounding Wergeland’s views of, among other things, human history.

    Wergeland’s experimental style and high-minded sentimentality failed to meet with unanimous enthusiasm in a literary climate dominated by classical taste. The poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven, Wergeland’s senior by six months, became Wergeland’s most dedicated critic, calling his work tasteless, formless, immoral and bereft of both meaning and beauty.

    Wergeland and Welhaven became the figureheads of two factions – the “Patriots” and “Intelligents”, respectively – and their personal quarrel soon spiralled into a culture war that split the Norwegian literary world for nearly a decade; it was fought out in newspaper articles, in pamphlets, but also in poetry and on the stage of the theatre. Writing under the pen name Siful Sifadda (which he reserved for his satirical enterprises), Wergeland dedicated many a farce to the issue, perhaps most notably Papegøien (“The parrot”, 1835), a response to Welhaven’s poem cycle Norges dæmring (“The dawn of Norway”, 1834), which had polemically targeted Wergeland’s father. The culmination came in early 1838 during a staging of Wergeland’s Singspiel Campbellerne (“The Campbells”) at the newly opened Christiania Theater. Wergeland’s opponents had shown up in great number and, armed with small trumpets and pipes, disrupted the performance. In the ensuing “Campbell Battle”, the majority of the audience turned against the troublemakers, who were ultimately chased out of the theatre.

    The conflict between the Patriots and the Intelligents also had an important national-programmatic component. Whereas Welhaven and his supporters wanted to retain strong cultural ties with Denmark, considering them essential for the progress of Norwegian society, Wergeland and the Patriots championed an independent Norwegian culture free from Danish influences. Famous in this context is Wergeland’s metaphor for Norwegian history as consisting of two half-rings, being the glorious medieval state and post-1814 Constitution Norway; the period separating the two – the four centuries of Danish rule – he described as a “poor piece of welding” that needed to be removed. The bygone glories needed to be restored through history-writing, the creation of a truly national literature and the propagation of the native language. Wergeland accordingly attempted to bring spoken Norwegian to the theatre stage, which at the time was still dominated by Danish actors. This linguistic activism was marginal at the time but would in later years become all-dominant in Norwegian society.

    The celebration of the country’s unofficial national holiday – the anniversary of the Constitution on 17 May – was another key issue for him and he resented the ban the Swedish government had initially issued against the organization of festivities.

    In 1831 Wergeland travelled via England to Paris where he witnessed the backwash of the July Revolution from up close. His short stay in England would later inspire the epic poem Den engelske lods (“The English Pilot”, 1844), a melodrama in the tradition of the Gothic novel.

    Wergeland initiated the periodicals For almuen (“For the people”, 1830-39), Folkebladet (“The people’s magazine”, 1831-33) and For arbeidsklassen (“For the working classes”, 1839-45) as part of his commitment to popular education. Throughout his life he worked assiduously to combat social injustice and improve the living conditions of the lower strata in society. He also stimulated the peasant party to play a more active part in the political arena. In addition, he ventured to get a discriminatory paragraph removed from the Constitution. This paragraph denied Jews and Jesuits residence in Norway. When the proposal for amendment was brought before parliament in 1842, Wergeland presented each member with a copy of his poem collection Jøden (“The Jew”), attempting to raise sympathy for the Jews’ plight. Although the proposal failed to receive the necessary two-third majority at the time, the amendment would come into force in 1851, six years after Wergeland had passed away.

    Wergeland died at the early age of 37, having spent the larger part of his last year in bed suffering from what was either tuberculosis or lung cancer. In his short life Wergeland had built an impressively extensive oeuvre, spanning a wide range of genres. From his final sickbed, he produced another 1500 pages, including some of his finer Romantic poems like Til min gyldenlakk (“To my wallflower”) and Til foraaret (“To spring”), his autobiography Hassel-nødder (“Hazelnuts”) and a revised, more accessible edition of his early magnum opus Skabelsen, mennesket og Messias, now simply titled Mennesket. A crowd of thousands attended the funeral procession from Wergeland’s home to his final resting place. In 1849, a group of Swedish and Danish Jews raised a monument at the cemetery in his honour.

    Word Count: 979

  • Article version:
  • Direct URL:
  • DOI:
  • Kydland, Anne Jorunn; Groven Myhren, Dagne; Ystad, Vigdis (eds.) (2008). Henrik Wergeland: Såmannen (Oslo: H. Ascheohoug & Co) [H.W.: The Sower]

    Ustvedt, Yngvar (1994). Henrik Wergeland: En biografi (Oslo: Gyldendal) [H.W.: A biography]

    Witoszek, Nina (2011). The origins of the “Regime of Goodness”: Remapping the cultural history of Norway (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget)

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Gerven, Tim van, 2021. "Wergeland, Henrik", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 10-06-2021, consulted 23-10-2021.