Verner von Heidenstam Essay - Critical Essays


Verner von Heidenstam came of age as a writer when he organized and defined his thoughts about literature in Renässans and Pepitas bröllop. These essays stimulated a new literary and cultural movement in Sweden, one that rejected the doctrines and methodology of naturalism and the philosophical pessimism that Heidenstam saw as its product. Heidenstam called for a new national literature, developing out of and expressing the Swedish national character. Its impulse was to come from Swedish sources, particularly Esaias Tegnér and Victor Rydberg, along with the classical idealism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, and was to unite realism with the “subjectivethe imagination, the sense of the beautiful.” In Pepitas bröllop, Heidenstam asks if Mephistopheles and Peer Gynt do not exist with the same intense reality as some of the shadows we talk to on the street corner: “It is not only the purely concrete that comprises reality!”

For Heidenstam, the creative power of the imagination—not the ability to imitate everyday life—was the essence of artistic expression. Heidenstam placed his faith in the insight of the poet; his gifts were more lyric thannarrative. His career as a poet began with the publication of Vallfart och vandringsår; the work that marks the beginning of Heidenstam’s mature period is also a collection of poems, Dikter; and Nya dikter, perhaps his greatest work, ends his literary production. Between the two volumes of poetry that mark his mature period, however, Heidenstam wrote three historical novels, The Charles Men, Heliga Birgittas pilgrimsfärd, and The Tree of the Folkungs, works that rank Heidenstam among major historical novelists. Historical fiction provided the form Heidenstam needed to express his ideas and offer an alternative to the pessimism and decadence he saw as characteristic of the literature of his time. By writing about the past, Heidenstam believed, he could revitalize traditional values and illustrate aspects of the Swedish national character that he hoped would lead to a humanism based on classical ideals.

Heidenstam’s first work, the collection of poems Vallfart och vandringsår, added a fresh, vivid, exotic flavor to Swedish poetry. Not only did Heidenstam draw on his travels to provide an exotic setting for many of his poems, but also the lively tone and dynamic, colorful imagery, as well as the themes glorifying youth, beauty, and pleasures of the moment, were a shocking antidote to readers accustomed to the darker settings and themes of naturalism.


Heidenstam’s first novel, Endymion, worked similar ground; the reader enters a world of harems, baths, Bedouin caravans, and bazaars. Although viewed from a foreigner’s perspective, the scenes have vitality because they are seen through the eyes of a sensitive, receptive protagonist. Heidenstam depicts the decline of Arabic culture and, with it, the life spirit that had characterized that ancient culture. Although some critics dismissed Heidenstam’s first prose work as a travel book disguised as a novel, “a romanticized Baedeker,” in this work Heidenstam raised the issues of cultural nationalism and the tragic role of national heroes that he later successfully developed in his major novels.

Hans Alienus

Hans Alienus is a more original book, interesting for its insights into Heidenstam’s evolving philosophy, but a chaotic blend of verse and prose—more a book of thoughts than a successfully wrought novel. The protagonist, Hans Alienus, is a stranger in his own time, searching for an ideal image of humanity, a meaning for which he can live. He travels freely through time and space, studying, experiencing, and ultimately rejecting the life philosophies he encounters in places ranging from the Vatican to the court of Sardanapalus to Hades. The last section of the book, strongly autobiographical, finds Hans Alienus in Sweden, reconciled with his father and embracing a belief in beauty and the imagination. The father, however, takes his own life, and the novel ends with Hans Alienus isolated, resigned, and wanting to die.

Despite the novel’s obvious autobiographical elements, Heidenstam, fortunately, moved beyond the despair and spiritual bankruptcy that defeat Hans Alienus. In his remaining novels, he turned to the history of the Swedish nation to discover and illustrate those values and beliefs with which to face life and give it meaning.

The Charles Men

In his desire to create a new literature based on Sweden’s cultural heritage, Heidenstam looked to the historical past to find subjects capable of infusing a literary national consciousness. In the figure of King Charles XII, Heidenstam found a character whose complexity and stature could express the Swedish national character. Heidenstam read diaries and original documents to gain an accurate sense of the period about which he was writing, but his most important source was Anders Fryxell’s history of Charles XII and the men who served under him. Heidenstam’s reliance on historical sources, however, was to provide a framework and background for his sketches of the king and of the fates of individual Swedes on campaign during the long war years. Heidenstam depicts these characters, representative of the Swedish people, in revealing anecdotes, which he believed to be the building blocks of historical fiction. The novelist, Heidenstam argued, must select anecdotes of dramatic power and arrange them in an order that most effectively expresses the conception of the novel as a unified whole.

Unity, however, is not easily achieved, as The Charles Men demonstrates....

(The entire section is 2369 words.)