Continuing with the spirit of National Poetry Month, I am sharing my explorations so far on Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard’s most beloved companion, Dr. Agnes Mathilde Wergeland.
In 1890, at the age of 33, Agnes Mathilde Wergeland became the first Norwegian woman to earn her doctorate. Having left Norway to accomplish the feat by studying at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, Wergeland then left Europe altogether for opportunities in the United States. Despite already having attained her doctorate, she continued her studies at Bryn Mawr College as a Graduate Fellow in History. After pursuing further study of architecture in Germany, Dr. Wergeland began to lecture at the University of Illinois and then the University of Chicago.
Yet her dreams of attaining a permanent position at the University of Chicago proved impossible. Overcome with poverty and facing homelessness, an opportunity out West presented itself to teach History and French at the University of Wyoming.
By 1902, when Dr. Wergeland accepted the position at the University of Wyoming, Dr. Hebard had been with the university for eleven years. At the time of her appointment, Dr. Hebard sat on the Board of Trustees and on the committee for hiring. Surely, Dr. Hebard helped to bring Wergeland West as she advocated for the university to hire more women. As the paid secretary for the board, Dr. Hebard also controlled the University finances– using her position to advocate for equal pay to the new women professors. Beyond the economic equality awaiting Dr. Wergeland, Wyoming would also be the first place to offer equality of citizenship, granting her open access to the ballot and public office.
Looking forward to her new position, Dr. Wergeland wrote to a friend, “The salary is better than I have formerly had; I can be free from cares for the necessaﬁes of life which is a great progress, especially when I reflect how these cares have tortured me ever since the day I reached years of age and discretion; and what is more interesting: Wyoming is one of the few free states where the question of the vote once for all has been satisfactorily settled. Now I have an opportunity to see this state of affairs at first hand. Wyoming is also praised for its fine climate and that is just what “poor me” needs most of all: delightful mountain air. I have thus had two great joys in succession: my position and one of my articles at last printed in a leading paper in Norway. Not all people can lay claim to so much!” (pg. 89, Glimpses)
Before coming to Wyoming, Dr. Wergeland’s life is described as lonely and melancholic. Two portraits of her as a small child seem to confirm this account. A childhood friend reminisced about being Wergeland’s only friend at the time, the rest of her time spent in solitude. This childhood experience helped to shaped Dr. Wergeland into a reserved and private person. For instance, while growing up in Norway Dr. Wergeland studied under famous composer Edvard Grieg and became a talented musician on both the piano and the zither. Despite her talent, she refused to play music for anyone but her most intimate friends and even then, preferred to be alone. Her closest friend at Bryn Mawr College and also the first female professor at the University of Illinois, Katherine Merrill wrote “Had she been less critical of self, less sensitive to adverse criticism, less persistent in maintaining her own standards, and more readily adaptable to her surroundings—she might have changed much the unhappiness of her condition and proved able to use more fully and profitably the large gifts and attainments she possessed, but unfortunately from babyhood on, a great weight of melancholy rested upon her, a strong family characteristic possessed alike by both Nicolai Wergeland and Camilla Collett. In spite of all adversity she finally triumphed.” (pg. 85-86, Glimpses)
Wyoming would be Dr. Wergeland’s triumph and Dr. Hebard her companion and cure for loneliness.
With optimism, Dr. Wergeland moved to Wyoming in 1902 where she made a fast home of the university library. “I spent this morning in the library. I like to be there. I like the books and the view.” (pg. 93, Glimpses) There, it is suggested, is where she also first met and grew close with university librarian, Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard.
Ultimately, the two women would not have long together just twelve short years, but the time they did have was spent together. Quickly, they became inseparable. While acquaintances characterized Dr. Wergeland as quiet and shy, and Dr. Hebard as outspoken and charming the two women actually shared quite a bit in common. They struggled with their health through their childhoods and developed a lifelong passion for learning. Both women were also described as having high personal standards and exacting natures. They shared a passion for woman suffrage and equality, as well as, a desire to see it spread beyond the borders of Wyoming. Dr. Wergeland shared her love of music, history, and birds with Dr. Hebard who gave back to her golf, hikes, and marksmanship. Biographer Maren Michelet paints a scene of Dr. Hebard and Dr. Wergeland on long tramps through the mountains, carrying a rifle between them, and both becoming excellent shots.
In late 1905, Dr. Wergeland realized her dreams of owning a home when she and Dr. Hebard bought a lot to build their shared home called, The Doctor’s Inn. They broke ground early the next year, eagerly checking the progress each day on the two-story home. They each created their own personal sanctuaries on the second floor. Dr. Hebard’s rooms overlooked the Snowy Range with large windows and plenty of light for her extensive library. Dr. Wergeland’s front rooms claimed the balcony, filling it with flowers. A love for birds gave her cause to spend many happy hours, reading on her balcony and listening to their songs. She created a private place to play her piano, still preferring to play alone but leaving her door ajar for Dr. Hebard to hear as she hurried about her own work in the other room.
Beaming with the pride of homeownership, the two women planted trees, flowers, and vegetables. They lovingly named their trees: planting a crabapple tree named Martha and two spruce trees named Norway and Aasta Hansteen. Protective of her birds, they hung birdhouses, naming each one, and put out food during the winter
At home, Dr. Wergeland was able to explore the artist she always wanted to be. While still pursuing her other scholarly work, she began penning poetry in Norwegian. A translated poem for her home and her companion shares the satisfaction she found in this life with Dr. Hebard:
“But—praise be to God—
When I come in, there’s one who welcomes me:
One who’s my help in more than household tasks;
One who makes all my burdens seem more light.
For we know well what life with strangers means,
What crumbs of care the grudging world lets fall,
So two pull best up these long hills of life.
Well, while the meal is eaten, there is talk:
The day reviewed together—friend with friend.
A frugal meal—professors are not rich,
Unless in Germany—we spin no silk;
But every well-earned crumb tastes sweet.
My flowers now—I next must cuddle them.
I weed and water, toiling in the dirt;
For I do love the mould and all that grows,
And if a sprout shoots up the world must see.
The small birds know me—know I am their friend,
Do I not scold the cat and threaten him
With angry words and watering pot upraised?”
(Translated by Helen Randle Fish)
As professors, they may have not been rich but the salary must not have been too meager because in 1908 Dr. Wergeland paid cash for 40 acres in the Snowy Range by Libby Creek, where two other Norwegians had been building log cabins in the style of their European homeland.
Dr. Wergeland bought one of these cabins, calling her acreage “Little Norway” and carving a sign for her cabin dubbing it, “Enebo” or “The Hermitage.” Here, she and Dr. Hebard spent their summers secluded away from the rest of the world. The timing was perfect for Dr. Hebard who, no doubt, could use an escape after weathering a scandal and investigation in 1907. Often the first in their fields, the two women met with plenty of retractors. The claims in 1907 were particularly cruel, accusing Dr. Hebard of graft and claiming her degree a fake. The investigation cleared her name and spoke highly of her service to the university, but even still, her name had been dragged through the mud in newspapers across the state depending on their party affiliation. Dr. Hebard weathered the onslaught with public silence, but no doubt, Dr. Wergeland proved to be a comfort for her. Unfortunately, cruel words have been attributed to Dr. Wergeland concerning the 1907 scandal, with Wergeland advising Dr. Hebard to take up the pursuit of history as a better hobby than being the “boss of everyone.” Most recently, the claim of this exchange was made by Mike Mackey, but following his footnote to Janell Wenzel’s 1961, Master’s Thesis, it appears that these words are from a letter between two former students gossiping about the scandal and Dr. Hebard’s turn toward history–two people who were likely never invited to Enebo.
Enebo, nestled in a grove of aspen trees, earshot from Libby Creek, and overlooking distant mountain ranges, is where Dr. Wergeland composed her poetry. She wrote odes to America, singing the praises of a grateful immigrant and giving lush detail to her adopted landscapes. She wrote of her love for work, mourning the end of a day. Some poems take on a scholarly tone of the poet engaging in typical and great poetry traditions. While others take on more of a congenial tone as she converses with a bird, landing close to her with a wobbling sorrowful song. Another poem, “Your Hand,” looks admiringly to Dr. Hebard. In 1912, Dr. Wergeland published her collection of poetry in Norwegian, “Amerika Og Andre Digte” dedicated “Til G.R.H.”
In their honor society magazine, Dr. Hebard wrote a review for the poems. She emphasized Dr. Wergeland’s status as a voting citizen for the past ten years, Wyoming still among the only states where this was possible. This patriotic emphasis also served as a balance to Dr. Wergeland’s love for her Norwegian homeland and the landscapes in Wyoming that reminded her of birth home. Concerning her poem, “Your Hand”, Dr. Hebard wrote broadly, “Among them are some character pieces for the poet loves to study people and give their philosophy of self as she thinks they mean themselves to be. Some phase of their life will probably make them unveil themselves as she has done for them. Her varied experience with human character has brought to her much light which she has expressed in that most difficult form, verse.” She closed with a brief biography for Dr. Wergeland, focusing on her family’s artistic traditions and celebrating her feminist relative. With her summary of the poems in mind, Hebard acknowledged that most of the audience reading this review would not be able to then read the poems written in Norwegian, “a circumstance which will compel the reviewer to say more about the publication than she would otherwise feel at liberty to do.” (The Arrow of Phi Beta Pi, November 1912, page 81)
“Your Hand,” written for Dr. Hebard describes a concert the two women attended. As Dr. Hebard became enraptured with the music, Wergeland lost focus of all else, but Hebard’s hand. With extended thoughts about hands as the tools of action, turning our interior selves out for the world to see, Wergeland wrote of Dr. Hebard’s strength of character and determination in the face of harsh critique. She longed to kiss Hebard’s “adorable flower stalks” and hold her hand. Her poem finishes back at the concert, reasoning Dr. Hebard’s musical escape.
A year after her book of poems published, Dr.Wergeland’s health faltered. Dr. Hebard decided to take her on a trip west in hopes of improving Wergeland’s vigor. They visited the Grand Canyon, studied for several weeks at Berekely University in California, and visited rose gardens in Oregon. Enjoying their time together, Dr. Wergeland still expressed her desire to go back to their own little home in Laramie.
When they returned home that fall, Dr.Wergeland’s health seemed to have improved. In a congenial mood, she even danced with friends and told expressive stories from her recent travels. That winter, she and Dr. Hebard spent their last Christmas together. Christmas was Dr. Wergeland’s favorite holiday. She engaged in a massive mid-winter cleaning from cellar to attic: windows washed, curtains and bedding changed, rugs shaken, silver polished, and a good dusting. She decorated with seasonal blooms, wreaths, and twinkle lights. Her spirit of giving extended to her much loved birds, hanging a sheaf of grain. Christmas was more than a religious holiday, it was another chance for Dr. Wergeland to bring her Norway home to Wyoming. Dr. Hebard had never had a Christmas tree until she celebrated with Dr. Wergeland. Their first Christmas together at The Doctor’s Inn, they decorated a small fir tree reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s. For their last, Dr. Hebard surprised Dr.Wergeland with a second tree on the dining room table and small fir tree candles at each place setting. They shared their joy with friends and acquaintances, delivering food, flowers, and small gifts before taking tobacco to the county hospital to visit with the old men there. They spent their Christmas eve with family and friends, opening gifts one by one to prolong the joy. Dr. Hebard reminisced about that last holiday, “Was not this all strangely prophetic, that her last Christmas should be her best, happiest, and brightest? Did she know it was to be her last? I sometimes think she did.” (Glimpses, pg. 175)
The harsh winter and Dr. Wergeland’s tendency to overwork herself quickly wore her down. Dr. Hebard wrote of that late winter. “… but her heart would ache and she would be so tired, so weary. Then she was vaccinated, which seemed a necessity at the time because of an epidemic, and she gradually lost strength. Four weeks before she died she realized that rest must soon come to her. The last time she attended her duties at the University the thermometer was 24° below zero.” (pg. 227, Glimpses)
At her request, Dr.Wergeland stayed home until her last day, March 6, 1914. “In her last hours she begged those attending her to draw her bed nearer the open window. The gently falling snowflakes caressed the snow-driven hair and kissed lovingly the calm face. Serenely with a smile on her lips she passed away ‘in the arms of the loving friend who had been devoted and faithful to the last.” (pg. 230, Glimpses) Dr. Wergeland was buried in her doctorate regalia and with the silk American flag, she received with her American citizenship. Today, the two women are buried side by side, sharing a headstone at Greenhill Cemetery in Laramie, but in 1914 Dr. Hebard would live another twenty-two years without her most cherished companion.
Some of the ways that Dr. Hebard mourned Dr. Wergeland were obvious– she set up scholarship funds in Laramie and Norway. She published another book of Dr. Wergeland’s poetry posthumously. She put up a memorial plaque in the library, flanking Wergeland’s portrait with her much-loved mentor Edvard Grieg and poet Henrik Ibsen, then hanging Dr.Wergeland’s favorite art pieces above it all. She stopped listening to music. No one could compare to her talented and reserved housemate. In 1915, Dr. Hebard took a trip across Wyoming following the trails–one she had planned with Dr. Wergeland. Her journal of the trip reflects the pain of her loss. In Cheyenne, her guests brought to a music recital. “This is the first time that I have had to listen to instrumental music since A.M.W. left me. I think it will be a long time before I can appreciate average music or even wish to hear it.” (pg 3, Journal of a Trip In Wyoming, Accession Number 400008, Box 12, Folder 10, Grace Raymond Hebard Papers, University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center)
Perhaps, her other means of mourning took on a more subtle form, such as writing to her sister with certainty that in the next life she would be a bluebird, preening herself on a fence post in the rain– the favorite of her beloved companion.
I close with Dr. Wergeland’s poem for Dr. Hebard. Helen Randle Fish’s translation published in 1916, is the first and only translation that I know of for this poem. Unfortunately, Fish’s translation relies on heavy use of thou and thy in the grand tradition of translating poetry to an older English. Fish also changed questions to statements and omitted colorful imagery, such as that of a dream-spider weaving the music. For this version, I tried to blend this 1916 translation with the translation given by Google. My intent was to capture the emotion and meaning in the words, reflecting more of a direct translation when it comes to her thought structure. One note on the card wielded by Dr. Hebard in stanza 6, line 4. I believe this is in reference to the sharp metal card, used to disentangle and clean wool, which metaphorically aligns with Dr. Hebard’s role in the university controversy of 1907. I have not learned Norwegian yet, but if I find Dr. Wergeland’s diaries, I have a feeling I will need to.
Hie pietatis honos?
A hand, a hand! What is a hand?
Isn’t it the real person,
whose thoughts will, yes, be made deed,
as if by sudden transformation,
a flash of lightning reveals,
what before us was not a clue:
the person we live with–?
Isn’t it that fine instrument
which, in a delicate and careful showing,
with leap–and movement–
implies ability untapped,
points out a soul’s soul or the low pressure
of eagerness, desire, dynamic will,
and comes in that unseen character
in range, facility, manner,
what it benefits from,
of good zeal, of evil used,
what must flow
in holy work, mighty deed–?
A tie, a clue
from self to others–?
The piano played a toccata,
was it Scarlatti or Chaminade?
I do not remember, only know, where I sat,
I listened to a jumble, voices, tones,
that wandered endlessly and sincerely out and into
swirling paths, in rippling streams,
and ended with a leap into an open plain,
overlooking the sea, the violet-blue sea.
Summer night’s warm rest, cool silence wafted in–
everything was shame and gentleness.
You sat with your hand under your cheek,
and dreamed as you drank music in:
listening to its dream-spider,
its image weaving, was always Your greatest happiness.
Your soul was twenty, the piece was a masterpiece:
It was so cool to walk there,
easy to slumber under those high trees,
wander about and glide with
towards perhaps timeless glory,
towards the bliss in,
loss of self — of overbearing mind.
The music ended? What do I know!
I forgot it and other things, only Your hand
I saw, the small hand, the fine hand,
the gentle throne of Your gentle spirit,
Your strong, beautiful, powerful profile,
Your fire-soul and your roguish smile –
a working hand, the white hand
with firm fingers,
the safe bond
between the work and the spirit of the work,
Your wise, clear will!
O this hand, what has it not accomplished
all by little and great things, with loving care interweaving
the thousand fine strands that connect
us human beings and make us find each other
in good counsel and helpfulness – and ease
the long road for many brave feet,
gave the concerned renewed courage,
and helped, helped; repaired,
in a thousand ways, soon hint, soon this
for foe as well as for friend (in noble oblivion this!)
O there is no end to those services!
It is our support, friend and driver,
our Caesar, Hannibal, the little hand that
now touches Your cheek.
And I would like to kiss these adorable flower stalks
that are almost completely hidden by lace and silk,
and I would like to hold it in mine,
the warm hand that shows us Your beautiful mind.
O it has never hurt a creature,
deceived no one, nor led a dagger,
which in the dark do many people,
though it has led a card*,
and fought like a man with bumps and fists
for justice and for what was greater:
for the future – in self-defense!
sent the enemy well done.
Though this does not end here:
You’re not just aggressive —
ruining someone else’s snare, being a diplomat,
with some counter-move to the food,
deftly brushing away the loose knife –
they understand that game, both Your hands.
No build – build up and build on,
and slowly, safely sprouted now
and nowhere to see the wall crack,
but mighty, free, it all stands–
for there is nothing accomplished, small as great,
that is not already conceived, the plan, scratched,
in every object clear and straightforward
the foundation laid, before you, with the rest, go away
and to lay stone upon stone in day-to-day wear,
and beam over beam in selfless diligence–
to finally one living organic thing
arises from almost nothing,
no longer thought and vapor,
but safe and well-considered art.
Such is Your work and great it is
–but greater still, because You suffer
always contending with:
The heavy bucket of work and pain
Your hand has ruled, whereby in rose and sand
You without complaint,
without any sign of bitterness, in the sun like rain,
day in and day out, with smiles on the mouth
and warm, clear eyes, every waking moment
has plowed the hard, hard ground.
And You did not ask for thanks
for anything You have done, that dream You – alas!
have long since given up; You think, believe
that a person should be: great
in purpose as in life, in work as in words.
And that’s why, I think, as you listen to the music,
you forget every slight and the criticism,
and glide along the many long paths that,
against an ape-hearted ball, liberate
towards the quiet plains, gold and amber of the evening red,
and far away waving the open sea.