Wergeland, Henrik Arnold

(1808-1845)
   A Norwegian poet, prose writer, and dramatist, Wergeland is recognized as the greatest poet of his country. Raised in Kristiansand and Eidsvoll, he attended Christiania (now Oslo) Cathedral School and the University of Oslo, from which he received a degree in theology in 1829. But Wergeland's personal life was too undisciplined and disorderly for him to be given a living, and he was plagued by financial problems. He nevertheless stood at the center of Norway's public discourse for most of his short life.
   To many of Wergeland's contemporaries, his lack of discipline marked both his politics and his art. What Wergeland saw as personal liberty could also be seen as a lack of restraint, and his favoring increased personal freedom was regarded as inimical to a sense of civic duty and social order. What he perceived as his personal genius, for which he claimed complete sovereignty within his personal artistic precincts, his enemies saw as evidence of both bad taste and lack of responsibility. The debate between Wergeland's friends and his opponents became particularly bitter both because it took place within a relatively young nation (the Norwegian constitution dates back only to 1814) and because Christiania was a rather small town where events, however minor, could be quickly blown out of proportion.
   At issue were the related questions of whether political power in Norway should rest with the upper middle class, consisting mostly of government servants, large land owners, and merchants, or if it should be shared with farmers and other previously disenfranchised groups. A related issue was the cultural question of whether the new nation should emphasize the creative potential of the indigenous population, particularly the farmers, or foster continuity with the literary culture of Denmark, the political union which had been severed in 1814. A subissue of the latter was the extent to which Norway should accept the political leadership of Sweden in the recently established union with that country. In all these matters, Wergeland and other progressives were bitterly opposed by the traditionalists.
   In his early youth Wergeland wrote poetry that celebrated Norway's potential for social and political change, including the significance of its recently established constitution, and that expressed his own grappling with such central personal questions as beauty and love. The imagery in these poems is exceptionally rich and testifies to the greatness of Wergeland's genius, but their form is, mildly stated, unorthodox, and that was very offensive to those who, like his contemporary Johan Sebastian Welhaven, prized the classical qualities of balance, organization, and adherence to established form. When Welhaven attacked Henrik Wergeland for violating the dictates of reason, his father Nicolai Wergeland came to his aid, and a bitter and lasting feud ensued. Wergeland's political radicalism joins his disdain for conventional poetics in his major work, a world-historical poem entitled Skabelsen, Mennesket og Messias (1830; Creation, Man, and the Messiah), which offers a ringing defense for the ideas of the Enlightenment and, heavily influenced by the philosophy of Plotinus, establishes a cosmic context for human life.
   Wergeland was extremely productive, and his marriage to Amalie Sofie Bekkevold in 1839 brought increased order into his life. He was strongly committed to popular education and produced great quantities of educational materials for the common people, many of them published in his paper For Arbeidsklassen (1840-1845; For the Working Class). He polemicized against his political opponents in a long series of plays, some of which were lighthearted and others bitingly satirical. But he also produced the imaginative and lyrical Jan van Huysums Blomsterstykke (1840; tr. Jan van Huysum's Flower Piece, 1960), a great poetic cycle about the nature of art and the connection between art and life.
   Wergeland's concern with justice manifests itself in his dislike of the fact that the Norwegian constitution prevented Jews from entering Norway, and when the Norwegian parliament debated the issue in 1842 and 1844, he published two collections of poetry designed to influence public opinion, Jøden (1842; The Jew) and Jødinden (1844; The Jewess). Another major work is the poetry cycle Den engelske Lods (1844; The English Pilot), which despite its melodramatic tone also contains superb nature poetry. Ill with consumption, he revised Skabelsen, Mennesket og Messias for publication with the title Mennesket (1845; Man). While on his deathbed, he produced many of his best-loved poems.

Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. . 2006.

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