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By Verner Von Heidenstam

Translated and introduced by Charles Wharton Stork
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919
159 pages

Bob Corbett
December 2014


Charles Wharton points out that von Heidenstam’s poems are quite visual. Further he doesn’t like naturalism and repudiates pessimism and sentimentalism.

Further he holds that “Heidenstam seeks not external fact but underlying truth. Yet he also allows that he is “. . . intense, colorful and abrupt.”


“The Fig Tree” is a prose poem which immediately drew and engulfed me. I was reading it aloud to myself alone, and the musicality of the meter was just lovely. It is the story of the last supper and events immediately following. Verner Von Heidenstam definitely does not like Judas!!

“Then, arose, unobserved, Judas, the Jew of Jews. His well-tended hands and feet were white as marble, and the nails carefully polished. He did not wipe the sweat from his forehead with a fold of his garment as did the other disciples, but drew out always a long Roman handkerchief. His clean-shaven, prosperous-looking face with its small, sedate, intelligent eyes was altogether that of the sober, discreet man of property.

He stole away softly behind the cottage on the road to Jerusalem, while his greet head-cloth fluttered among the twisted black olive trees. He smote himself on the forehead and spoke half-aloud, and it was not difficult to divine his thoughts.”

He moves from the time of Jesus to Hindu lands and ancient Egypt with history, showing an ease of transition and delicate verse. He demonstrates a wide and deep knowledge of history.

“The Fickle Man” is another prose poem and quite funny. He tells of a man, not terribly learned, but always having an opinion. However, he changes his views nearly daily and with delight, always revealing his openness and unpredictability. It is a cute concept and very engagingly told. “The Happy Artists” seems to capture a constant theme in von Heidenstam’s work – seeking the moment, pleasure, joy, and freedom. He glories in his art-student buddies, yet in the end he rejects the groups of pleasure to return to Paris for a more serious life-form.

In “Nameless and Immortal” von Heidenstam has the poet declare that it is not the fame of his “name” for which he works, but for the lastingness of his work. He has the artist holding this view, and when pressed by his lover, this particular architect does not put his name on a famous statue he has created.

“He turned, he shot at her a keen, quick glance,
But when she sat there calmly as before,
Twisting the flax into an even thread
He bent him down impulsively and took
The biggest sledge; his knuckles were distended
And then grew white as wax, so hard he gripped
Upon the haft. The lifted sledge descended.
It scattered sparks from out the column’s side,
And at his feet the steps were sprinkled o’er
With rain of pointed shards. From that time forth
The temple bore the artist’s name no more.”

In “Thoughts of Loneliness” he bawls out God:

“If the Lord of the World from an evening cloud
Should thunder, ‘Obey!’ with menacing loud,
I would answer: ‘Lower your voice God, pray,
And perhaps I shall hear what you say."

A later interesting insight is about insight itself:

“I’ve searched half the world over everywhere
For a place that I fairest might call.
So lovely, though, were they all
That none could well be most fair.

Take all that is mine or mine can be,
But leave me my one best gift!
That scenes may delight me, uplift,
Which another scarcely would see!”

I can certainly understand the second verse in that poem, but it does not seem to follow the one above. I think I share his view in the second verse that I seem to find utter delight in things that others don’t notice or care for, yet, I can never think back on my life and say that all place and events would be equally “most fair.” I have my memorable favorites and much less favorites, albeit, that don’t often match with most other’s peoples similar lists.

I especially liked the very short poem of a man to his beloved. It is only six lines, yet it captures three very separate periods of their love and strongly conveys the continuity of their love over time.

I’m fairly sure my comment of the poem is more words than the poem itself!


Love-dazed, on rosy paths I sought thee far;
That was the spring, my gay and stormy prime.
Then I encountered thee with smiles and war;
Those were the manhood years of summer-time.
I thank thee for the joy thy presence gave;
That was in autumn, when the bed’s the grave.”

“The Slumbering Sister” was a surprising political poem. Virtually all the poems in this collection up to this one had been sort of rural, romantic, fixed on people and their ways. But, “The Slumbering Sister” of this poem is Sweden herself, yet her “sister” Norway, in the west is rising. Ah me, I wish I knew more of the historical situation of those two countries at the time of his writing.

In another political and nostalgic poem “The People” he mourns the passing of Sweden’s greatest days and his sadness of the present:

“But when it’s time that for people and king
Our blood on the snow shall run,
They don’t tie a man with a money-bag string,
For then, young or old, the man’s the thing.
All right, then, comrades. Strike up and sing!
We’ll be as one people, as one.

We’ll be as an eagle, faithful and dumb
Mid petty clamor and clangor.
When the thunder rolls at the beat of the drum,
Then between the gray crags our banner shall come.
We’ll be heard when we swoop from our rocky home
And yell with the might of anger.”

The pursuit of wealth and the division of classes is, on the poet’s view, bringing Sweden down. His anger lashes out at the pursuit of wealth rather national pride and worthwhile values.

“Ye sing, but your joy is hollow.
Ye rather would dance in silk, forsooth,
Than solve your own riddle truly,
Ye might awake to the deeds of your youth
In the night when ye sorrow newly.”

Overall I enjoyed the poetry of Verner Von Heidenstam. These poems seem to represent a view of his poetry over many years. He certainly changed in his later years, becoming less specific and rural, and more centered on the political changes in Sweden and his unhappiness in this change. I enjoyed my couple of weeks reading aloud to myself each morning before breakfast, then sitting back and letting it all run around in my mind for a while before even making tea.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett