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Charles Wharton Stork, "Verner von Heidenstam" American-Scandinavian Review, 49: 1 (March, 1961), 39-43

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Among the recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature more than half are practically unknown to readers of English . Of these there are surely few that would be more rewarding discoveries than Verner Von Heidenstam , the Swedish poet and novelist who received the award in 1916 and whose centennial was celebrated two years ago . Equally a master of prose and verse , he recreates the glory of Sweden in the past and continues it into the present . In the following sketch we shall present a brief outline of his life and let him as much as possible speak for himself .

Heidenstam was born in 1859 , of a prosperous family . On his father's side he was of German descent , on his mother's he came of the old Swedish nobility . The family estate was situated near Vadstena on Lake Vattern in south central Sweden . It is a lonely , rather desolate region , but full of legendary and historic associations . As a boy in a local school he was shy and solitary , absorbed in his fondness for nature and his visions of Sweden's ancient glory . He liked to fancy himself as a chieftain and to dress for the part . Being somewhat delicate in health , at the age of sixteen he was sent to Southern Europe , for which he at once developed a passion , so that he spent nearly all of the following ten years abroad , at first in Italy , then in Greece , Egypt , Asia Minor , and Palestine . In one of his summers at home he married , to the great disapproval of his father , who objected because of his extreme youth .

Deciding to become a painter , he entered the studio of Gerome in Paris , where he enjoyed the life of the artists , but soon found that whatever talent he might have did not lie in that direction . He gives us an account of this in his lively and humorous poem , `` The Happy Artists '' . `` I scanned the world through printed symbol swart , And through the beggar's rags I strove to see The inner man . I looked unceasingly With my cold mind and with my burning heart '' . In this final line , we have the key to his nature . Few writers have better understood their deepest selves . Heidenstam could never be satisfied by surface . It may , however , be noted that his gift for color and imagery must have been greatly stimulated by his stay in Paris .

The first result of Heidenstam's long sojourn abroad was a volume of poems , Pilgrimage And Wander-Years ( Vallfart och Vandringsar ) , published in 1888 . It was a brilliant debut , so much so indeed that it aroused a new vitality in the younger poets , as did Byron's Childe Harold . Professor Fredrik Book , Sweden's foremost critic of the period , acclaims it as follows : `` In this we have the verse of a painter ; ; strongly colorful , plastic , racy , vivid . In a bold , sometimes careless , form there is nothing academic ; ; all is seen and felt and experienced , the observation is sharp and the imagination lively . The young poet-painter reproduces the French life of the streets ; ; he tells stories of the Thousand and One Nights , and conjures up before us the bazaars of Damascus . In the care-free indolence of the East he sees the last reflection of the old happy existence , and for that reason he loves it . And yet amid all the gay hedonism in Pilgrimage And Wander-Years is a cycle of short poems , `` Thoughts In Loneliness '' , filled with brooding , melancholy , and sombre longing '' .

Of the longer pieces of the volume none is so memorable as `` Nameless And Immortal '' , which at once took rank among the finest poems ever written in the Swedish language . It celebrates the unknown architect who designed the temple of Neptune at Paestum , next to the Parthenon the noblest example of Grecian classic style now in existence . On the eve of his return to their native Naxos he speaks with his wife of the masterpiece which rises before them in its completed perfection . The supreme object of their lives is now fulfilled , says the wife , her husband has achieved immortality . Not so , he answers , it is not the architect but the temple that is immortal . `` The man's true reputation is his work '' .

The short poems grouped at the end of the volume as `` Thoughts in Loneliness '' is , as Professor Book indicated , in sharp contrast with the others . It consists of fragmentary personal revelations , such as `` The Spark '' : `` There is a spark dwells deep within my soul . To get it out into the daylight's glow Is my life's aim both first and last , the whole . It slips away , it burns and tortures me . That little spark is all the wealth I know , That little spark is my life's misery '' . A dominant motive is the poet's longing for his homeland and its boyhood associations : `` Not men-folk , but the fields where I would stray , The stones where as a child I used to play '' . He is utterly disappointed in himself and in the desultory life he has been leading . What he really wants is to find `` a sacred cause '' to which he can honestly devote himself . This restless individualism found its answer when he returned to live nearly all the rest of his life in Sweden . His cause was to commemorate the glory of her past and to incite her people to perpetuate it in the present .

He did not , however , find himself at once . His next major work , completed in 1892 , was a long fantastic epic in prose , entitled Hans Alienus , which Professor Book describes as a monument on the grave of his carefree and indolent youth . The hero , who is himself , is represented as a pilgrim in the storied lands of the East , a sort of Faustus type , who , to quote from Professor Book again , `` even in the pleasure gardens of Sardanapalus can not cease from his painful search after the meaning of life . He is driven back by his yearning to the wintry homeland of his fathers in the forest of Tiveden '' .

From this time on Heidenstam proceeded to find his deeper self . By the death of his father in 1888 he had come into possession of the family estate and had re-assumed its traditions . He did not , however , settle back into acquiescence with things as they were . Like his friend and contemporary August Strindberg he had little patience with collective mediocrity . He saw Sweden as a country of smug and narrow provincialism , indifferent to the heroic spirit of its former glory . Strindberg's remedy for this condition was to tear down the old structures and build anew from the ground up . Heidenstam's conception , on the contrary , was to revive the present by the memories of the past .

Whether in prose or poetry , all of Heidenstam's later work was concerned with Sweden . With the first of a group of historical novels , The Charles Men ( Karolinerna ) , published in 1897-8 , he achieved the masterpiece of his career . In scope and power it can only be compared to Tolstoy's War And Peace . About one-third as long , it is less intimate and detailed , but better coordinated , more concise and more dramatic . Though it centers around the brilliant and enigmatic figure of Charles 12 , , the true hero is not finally the king himself . Hence the title of the book , referring to the soldiers and subjects of the king ; ; on the fatal battlefield of Poltava , to quote from the novel , `` the wreath he twined for himself slipped down upon his people '' .

The Charles Men consists not of a connected narrative but of a group of short stories , each depicting a special phase of the general subject . Somewhat uneven in interest for an average reader , eight or ten of these are among the finest of their kind in literature . They comprise a great variety of scene and interest : grim episodes of war , idyllic interludes , superb canvases of world-shaking events , and delightfully humorous sketches of odd characters . The general effect is tragic . Almost nothing is said of Charles' spectacular victories , the central theme being the heroic loyalty of the Swedish people to their idolized king in misfortune and defeat .

To carry out this exalted conception the author has combined the vivid realism and imaginative power we have noticed in his early poetry and carried them out on a grand scale . His peculiar gift , as had been suggested before , is his intensity . George Meredith has said that fervor is the core of style . Of few authors is this more true than of Heidenstam . The Charles Men has a tremendous range of characters , of common folk even more than of major figures . The career of Charles 12 , is obviously very similar to that of Napoleon . His ideal was Alexander of Macedon , as Napoleon's was Julius Caesar . His purpose , however , was not to establish an empire , but to assert the principle of divine justice . Each aspired to be a god in human form , but with each it was a different kind of god . Each failed catastrophically in an invasion of Russia and each brought ruin on the country that worshipped him . Each is still glorified as a national hero .

The first half of The Charles Men , ending on the climax of the battle of Poltava in 1709 , is more dramatically coherent than the second . After the collapse of that desperate and ill-fated campaign the character of the king degenerated for a time into a futility that was not merely pitiable but often ridiculous . Like Napoleon , he was the worst of losers . There are , however , some wonderful chapters at the beginning of the second part , concerning the reactions of the Swedes in adversity . Then more than ever before did they show their fortitude and patient cheerfulness . This comes out in `` When The Bells Ring '' , which describes the rallying of the peasants in southern Sweden to repel an invasion by the Danes .

In `` The King's Ride '' , Charles breaks out of a long period of petulance and inertia , regains his old self , escapes from Turkey , and finally reaches his own land after an absence of eighteen years . He finds it in utter misery and desolation . All his people ask for is no more war . But he plunges into yet another , this time with Norway , and is killed in an assault on the fortress of Fredrikshall , being only thirty-six years of age when he died . He had become king at fifteen .

Then suddenly there was a tremendous revulsion of popular feeling . From being a hated tyrant and madman he was now the symbol of all that was noblest and best in the history of Sweden . This is brought out in the next to last chapter of the book , `` A Hero's Funeral '' , written in the form of an impassioned prose poem . Slowly the procession of warriors and statesmen passes through the snow beside the black water and into the brilliantly lighted cathedral , the shrine of so many precious memories . The guns are fired , the hymns are sung , and the body of Charles is carried down to the vault and laid beside the tombs of his ancestors . As he had longed to be , he became the echo of a saga .

Heidenstam wrote four other works of fiction about earlier figures revered in Swedish memory . Excellent in their way , they lack the wide appeal of The Charles Men , and need not detain us here . It is different with his volume The Swedes And Their Chieftains ( Svenskarna och deras Hovdingar ) , a history intended for the general reader and particularly suited for high school students . Admirably written , it is a perfect introduction to Swedish history for readers of other countries . Some of the earlier episodes have touches of the supernatural , as suited to the legendary background . These are suggestive of Selma Lagerlof . Especially touching is the chapter , `` The Little Sister '' , about a king's daughter who became a nun in the convent of St. Birgitta . The record teems with romance and adventure . Gustaf Vasa is a superb example , and Charles 10 , , the conqueror of Denmark , hardly less so . Of Gustavus Adolphus and Charles 12 , it is unnecessary to speak .