William Morton Payne
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by William Morton Payne, LL.D.
Translator of Björnson's "Sigurd Slembe" and Jaeger's "Ibsen," Author of "Little Leaders," Etc.
When the date of Björnson's seventieth birthday drew near
at the close of 1902, the present writer, who had been from
boyhood a devoted admirer of the great Norwegian, wished to
make an American contribution to the world-wide tribute of
gratitude and affection which the then approaching anniversary
was sure to evoke. The outcome of that wish was an essay,
summarizing Björnson's life and work, published in "The
International Quarterly," March, 1903. The essay then written
forms the substance of the present publication, although several
additions have been made in the way of translation, anecdote,
and the consideration of Björnson's later productions. So
small a book as this is, of course, hopelessly inadequate to
make more than the most superficial sort of survey of the
life work of that masterful personality whose recent death is
so heavy a loss to all mankind.
W. M. P.
Chicago, May, 1910.
Eight years ago, taking a bird's-eye view of the mountain
peaks of contemporary literature, and writing with particular
reference to Björnson's seventieth birthday, it seemed
proper to make the following remarks about the most famous
European authors then numbered among living men. If one
were asked for the name of the greatest man of letters still
living in the world, the possible claimants to the distinction
would hardly be more than five in number. If it were a
question of poetry alone, Swinburne would have to be named
first, with Carducci for a fairly close second. But if we
take literature in its larger sense, as including all the
manifestations of creative activity in language, and if we
insist, furthermore, that the man singled out for this
preëminence shall stand in some vital relation to the
intellectual life of his time, and exert a forceful influence
upon the thought of the present day, the choice must rather
be made among the three giants of the north of Europe, falling,
as it may be, upon the great-hearted Russian emotionalist
who has given us such deeply moving portrayals of the life
of the modern world; or upon the passionate Norwegian idealist
whose finger has so unerringly pointed out the diseased spots
in the social organism, earning by his moral surgery the name
of pessimist, despite his declared faith in the redemption of
mankind through truth and freedom and love; or, perchance,
upon that other great Norwegian, equally fervent in his devotion
to the same ideals, and far more sympathetic in his manner of
inculcating them upon his readers, who has just rounded out
his scriptural tale of three score years and ten, and, in
commemoration of the anniversary, is now made the recipient
of such a tribute of grateful and whole-souled admiration
as few men have ever won, and none have better deserved.
It would be certainly invidious, and probably futile, to
attempt a nice, comparative estimate of the services of these
three men to the common cause of humanity; let us be content
with the admission that Björnstjerne Björnson is _primus inter
pares_, and make no attempt to exalt him at the expense of his
great contemporaries. Writing now eight years later, at the
time when Björnson's death has plunged his country and the
world in mourning, it is impressive to note that of the five men
constituting the group above designated, Tolstoy alone survives
to carry on the great literary tradition of the nineteenth century.
It will be well, however, to make certain distinctions between
the life work of Björnson and that of the two men whom a common
age and common aims bring into inevitable association with him.
These distinctions are chiefly two,--one of them is that while
Tolstoy and Ibsen grew to be largely cosmopolitan in their outlook,
Björnson has much more closely maintained throughout his career the
national, or, at any rate, the racial standpoint. The other is
that while Tolstoy and Ibsen presently became, the one indifferent
to artistic expression, and the other baldly prosaic where he was
once deeply poetical, Björnson preserved the poetic impulse of his
youth, and continued to give it play even in his envisagement of
the most practical modern problems. Let us enlarge a little upon
these two themes. Ernest Renan, speaking at the funeral of
Tourguénieff, described the deceased novelist as "the incarnation
of a whole people." Even more fittingly might the phrase be applied
to Björnson, for it would be difficult to find anywhere else in
modern literature a figure so completely and profoundly representative
of his race. In the frequently quoted words of Dr. Brandes, to speak
the name of Björnson in any assembly of his countrymen is like
"hoisting the Norwegian flag." It has been maliciously added that
mention of his name is also like flaunting a red flag in the sight
of a considerable proportion of the assembly, for Björnson has always
been a fighter as well as an artist, and it has been his self-imposed
mission to arouse his fellow countrymen from their mental sluggishness
no less than to give creative embodiment to their types of character
and their ideal aspirations. But whatever the opposition aroused by
his political and social radicalism, even his opponents have been
constrained to feel that he was the mouthpiece of their race as no
other Norwegian before him had been, and that he has voiced whatever
is deepest and most enduring in the Norwegian temper. Powerful as
has been his appeal to the intellect and conscience of the modern
world at large, it has always had a special note of admonition or
of cheer for his own people. With reference to the second of our
two themes, it is sufficient to say that, although the form of verse
was almost wholly abandoned by him during the latter half of his life,
the breath of poetry never ceased to exhale from his work, and the
lyric exuberance of his later prose still recalls to us the singer
of the sixties.
Few productions of modern literature have proved as epoch-
making as the modest little volume called "Synnöve Solbakken,"
which appeared in the book shops of Christiania and Copenhagen
in 1857. It was a simple tale of peasant life, an idyl of the
love of a boy and a girl, but it was absolutely new in its
style, and in its intimate revelation of the Norwegian character.
It must be remembered that until the year 1814, Norway had
for centuries been politically united with Denmark, and that
Copenhagen had been the common literary centre of the two
countries. To that city Norwegian writers had gravitated as
naturally as French writers gravitate to Paris. There had
resulted from this condition of things a literature which,
although it owed much to men of Norwegian birth, was essentially
a Danish literature, and must properly be so styled. That
literature could boast, at the beginning of the nineteenth
century, an interesting history comparable in its antiquity
with the greater literatures of Europe, and a brilliant history
for at least a hundred years past. But old literatures are
sure to become more or less sophisticated and trammelled by
traditon, and to this rule Danish literature was no exception.
When the constitution of Eidsvold, in 1814, separated Norway
from Denmark, and made it into an independent kingdom (save for
the forced Swedish partnership), the country had practically
no literary tradition save that which centred about the Danish
capital. She might claim to have been the native country of
many Danish writers, even of Ludvig Holberg, the greatest
writer that the Scandinavian peoples have yet produced, but she
could point to nothing that might fairly be called a Norwegian
literature. The young men of the rising generation were
naturally much concerned about this, and a sharp divergence of
opinion arose as to the means whereby the interests of Norwegian
literature might be furthered, and the aims which it should have
in view. One party urged that the literature should break loose
from its traditional past, and aim at the cultivation of an
exclusively national spirit. The other party declared such a
course to be folly, contending that literature must be a
product of gradual development rather than of set volition,
and that, despite the shifting of the political kaleidoscope,
the national literature was so firmly rooted in its Danish past
that its natural evolution must be an outgrowth from all that
had gone before.
Each of these parties found a vigorous leader, the cause of
ultra-Norwegianism being championed by Wergeland, an erratic
person in whom the spark of genius burned, but who never found
himself, artistically speaking. The champion of the conservatives
was Welhaven, a polished writer of singular charm and much force,
philosophical in temper, whose graceful verse and acute criticism
upheld by both precept and practice the traditional standards
of culture. Each of these men had his followers, who proved in
many cases more zealous than their leaders. The period of the
thirties and forties was dominated by this Wergeland-Welhaven
controversy, which engendered much bitterness of feeling, and
which constitutes the capital fact in Norwegian literary history
before the appearance of Ibsen and Björnson upon the scene. A
sort of parallel might be drawn for American readers by taking
two such men as Whitman and Longfellow, opposing them to one
another in the most outspoken fashion, assuming for both a
sharply polemic manner, and ranging among their respective
followers all the other writers of their time. Then imagine the
issue between them to be drawn not only in the field of letters,
but also in the pulpit, the theatre, and the political arena, and
some slight notion may be obtained of the condition of affairs
which preceded the advent of Björnson and the true birth of
Norwegian literature with "Synnöve Solbakken."
The work which was thus destined to mark the opening of a new
era in Norwegian letters was written in the twenty-fifth year of
its author's life. The son of a country pastor, Björnstjerne
Björnson was born at Kvikne, December 8, 1832. At the age of
six, his father was transferred to a new parish in the Romsdal,
one of the most picturesque regions in Norway. The impression
made upon his sensitive nature by these surroundings was deep
and enduring. Looking back upon his boyhood he speaks with strong
emotion of the evenings when "I stood and watched the sunlight
play upon mountain and fiord, until I wept, as if I had done
something wrong, and when, borne down upon my ski into one valley
or another I could stand as if spellbound by a beauty, by a longing
that I could not explain, but that was so great that along with
the highest joy I had, also, the deepest sense of imprisonment
and sorrow." This is the mood which was to be given utterance in
that wonderful lyric, "Over the Lofty Mountains," in which all the
ardor and the longings of passionate and impatient youth find the
most appealing expression. The song is found in "Arne," and may be
thus reproduced, after a fashion, in the English language.
"Often I wonder what there may be
Over the lofty mountains.
Here the snow is all I see,
Spread at the foot of the dark green tree;
Sadly I often ponder,
Would I were over yonder.
"Strong of wing soars the eagle high
Over the lofty mountains,
Glad of the new day soars to the sky,
Wild in pursuit of his prey doth fly;
Pauses, and, fearless of danger,
Scans the far coasts of the stranger.
"The apple-tree, whose thoughts ne'er fly
Over the lofty mountains,
Leaves, when the summer days draw nigh,
Patiently waits for the time when high
The birds in its boughs shall be swinging,
Yet will know not what they are singing.
"He who has yearned so long to go
Over the lofty mountains--
He whose visions and fond hopes grow
Dim, with the years that so restless flow--
Knows what the birds are singing,
Glad in the tree-tops swinging.
"Why, oh bird, dost thou hither fare
Over the lofty mountains?
Surely it must be better there,
Broader the view and freer the air;
Com'st thou these longings to bring me;
These only, and nothing to wing me?
"Oh, shall I never, never go
Over the lofty mountains!
Must all my thoughts and wishes so
Held in these walls of ice and snow
Here be imprisoned forever?
Till death shall I flee them never?
"Hence! I will hence! Oh, so far from here,
Over the lofty mountains!
Here 't is so dull, so unspeakably drear;
Young is my heart and free from fear--
Better the walls to be scaling
Than here in my prison lie wailing.
"One day, I know, shall my soul free roam
Over the lofty mountains.
Oh, my God, fair is thy home,
Ajar is the door for all who come;
Guard it for me yet longer,
Till my soul through striving grows stronger."
At the age of eleven Björnson's school days began at Molde,
and were continued at Christiania in a famous preparatory
school, where he had Ibsen for a comrade. He entered the
university in his twentieth year, but his career was not
brilliant from a scholastic point of view, and he was too much
occupied with his own intellectual concerns to be a model student.
From his matriculation in 1852, to the appearance of his first
book in 1857, he was occupied with many sorts of literary
experiments, and became actively engaged in journalism. The
theatre, in particular, attracted him, for the theatre was one
of the chief foci of the intellectual life of his country (as
it should be in every country), and he plunged into dramatic
criticism as the avowed partisan of Norwegian ideals, holding
himself, in some sort, the successor of Wergeland, Who had died
about ten years earlier. Before becoming a dramatic critic, he
had essayed dramatic authorship, and the acceptance by the theatre
of his juvenile play, "Valborg," had led to a somewhat unusual
result. He was given a free ticket of admission, and a few
weeks of theatre-going opened his eyes to the defects of his own
accepted work, which he withdrew before it had been inflicted
upon the public. The full consciousness of his poetical calling
came to him upon his return from a student gathering at the
university town of Upsala, whither he had gone as a special
correspondent. "When I came home from the journey," 'he says,
"I slept three whole days with a few brief intervals for eating and
conversation. Then I wrote down my impressions of the journey,
but just because I had first lived and then written, the account
got style and color; it attracted attention, and made me all the
more certain that the hour had come. I packed up, went home,
thought it all over, wrote and rewrote `Between the Battles' in
a fortnight, and travelled to Copenhagen with the completed piece
in my trunk; I would be a poet." He then set to writing "Synnöve
Solbakken," published it in part as a newspaper serial, and then
in book form, in the autumn of 1857. He had "commenced author"
in good earnest.
The next fifteen years of Björnson's life were richly productive.
Within a single year he had published "Arne," the second of his
peasant idyls and perhaps the most remarkable of them all, and had
also published two brief dramas, "Halte-Hulda" and the one already
mentioned as the achievement of fourteen feverish days. The
remaining product of the fifteen years includes two more prose
idyls, "A Happy Boy" and "The Fisher Maiden" (with a considerable
number of small pieces similar in character); three more plays
drawn from the treasury of old Norse history, "King Sverre,"
"Sigurd Slembe," and "Sigurd Jorsalfar"; a dramatic setting of
the story of "Mary Stuart in Scotland"; a little social comedy,
"The Newly Married Couple," which offers a foretaste of his later
exclusive preoccupation with modern life; "Arnljot Gelline," his
only long poem, a wild narrative of the clash between heathendom
and the Christian faith in the days of Olaf the Holy; and, last
but by no means least, the collection of his "Poems and Songs."
Thus at the age of forty, Björnson found himself with a dozen
books to his credit books which had stirred his fellow countrymen
as no other books had ever stirred them, arousing them to the
full consciousness of their own nature and of its roots in their
own heroic past. He had become the voice of his people as no
one had been before him, the singer of all that was noble in
Norwegian aspiration, the sympathetic delineator of all that
was essential in Norwegian Character. He had, in short, created
a national literature where none had before existed, and he was
still in his early prime.
The collected edition of Björnson's "Tales," published in 1872,
together with "The Bridal March," separately published in the
following year, gives us a complete representation of that phase
of his genius which is best known to the world at large. Here
are five stories of considerable length, and a number of
slighter sketches, in which the Norwegian peasant is portrayed
with intimate and loving knowledge. The peasant tale was no
new thing in European literature, for the names of Auerbach
and George Sand, to say nothing of many others, at once come
to the mind. In Scandinavian literature, its chief representative
had been the Danish novelist, Blicher, who had written with
insight and charm of the peasantry of Jutland. But in the
treatment of peasant life by most of Björnson's predecessors
there had been too much of the _de haut en bas_ attitude; the
peasant had been drawn from the outside, viewed philosophically,
and invested with artificial sentiment. Björnson was too near
to his own country folk to commit such faults as these; he was
himself of peasant stock, and all his boyhood life had been
spent in close association with men who wrested a scanty
living from an ungrateful soil. Although a poet by instinct,
he was not afraid of realism, and did not shrink from giving
the brutal aspects of peasant life a place upon his canvas. In
emphasizing the characteristics of reticence and _naïveté_ he
really discovered the Norwegian peasant for literary purposes.
Beneath the words spoken by his characters we are constantly
made to realize that there are depths of feeling that remain
unexpressed; whether from native pride or from a sense of the
inadequacy of mere words to set forth a critical moment of
life, his men and women are distinguished by the most laconic
utterance, yet their speech always has dramatic fitness and
bears the stamp of sincerity. Jaeger speaks of the manifold
possibilities of this laconic method in the following words:--
"It is as if the author purposely set in motion the reader's
fancy and feeling that they might do their own work. The
greatest poet is he who understands how to awaken fancy and
feeling to their highest degree of self-activity. And this
is Björnson's greatness in his peasant novels, that he has
poured from his horn of plenty a wealth of situations and
motives that hold the reader's mind and burn themselves into
it, that become his personal possession just because the author
has known how to suggest so much in so few words."
In some respects, the little sketch called "The Father" is
the supreme example of Björnson's artistry in this kind. There
are only a few pages in all, but they embody the tragedy of a
lifetime. The little work is a literary gem of the purest water,
and it reveals the whole secret of the author's genius , as
displayed in his early tales. It is by these tales of peasant
life that Björnson is best known outside of his own country; one
may almost say that it is by them alone that he is really familiar
to English readers. A free translation of "Synnöve Solbakken"
was made as early as 1858, by Mary Howitt, and published under
the title of "Trust and Trial." Translations of the other tales
were made soon after their original appearance, and in some
instances have been multiplied. It is thus a noteworthy fact
that Björnson, although four years the junior of Ibsen, enjoyed
a vogue among English readers for a score of years during which
the name of Ibsen was absolutely unknown to them. The whirligig
of time has brought in its revenges of late years, and the long
neglected older author has had more than the proportional share
of our attention than is fairly his due.
In his delineation of the Norwegian peasant character, Björnson
was greatly aided by the study of the sagas, which he had read
with enthusiasm from his earliest boyhood. Upon them his style
was largely formed, and their vivid dramatic representation
of the life of the early Norsemen impressed him profoundly,
shaping both his ideals and the form of their expression. The
modern Scandinavian may well be envied for his literary
inheritance from the heroic past. No other European has
anything to compare with it for clean-cut vigor and wealth of
romantic material. The literature which blossomed in Iceland
and flourished for two or three centuries wherever Norsemen
made homes for themselves offers a unique intellectual phenomenon,
for nothing like their record remains to us from any other
primitive people. This
"Tale of the Northland of old
And the undying glory of dreams,"
proved a lasting stimulus to Björnson's genius, and, during the
early period of his career, which is now under review, it made
its influence felt alike in his tales, his dramas, and his
songs. "To see the peasant in the light of the sagas and the
sagas in the light of the peasant" he declared to be the
fundamental principle of his literary method.
It has been seen that during the fifteen years which made
Björnson in so peculiar a sense the spokesman of his race, he
wrote no less than five saga dramas. The first two of these
works, "Between the Battles" and "Halte-Hulda," are rather
slight performances, and the third, "King Sverre," although a
more extended work, is not particularly noteworthy. The
grimness of the Viking life is softened by romantic coloring,
and the poet has not freed himself from the influence of
Oehlenschlaeger. But in "Sigurd Slembe" he found a subject
entirely worthy of his genius, and produced one of the noblest
masterpieces of all modern literature. This largely planned
and magnificently executed dramatic trilogy was written in
Munich, and published in 1862. The material is found in the
"Heimskringla," but the author has used the prerogative of the
artist to simplify the historical outline thus offered into a
superb imaginative creation, rich in human interest, and
powerful in dramatic presentation. The story is concerned
with the efforts of Sigurd, nicknamed "Slembe," to obtain
the succession to the throne of Norway during the first half
of the twelfth century. He was a son of King Magnus Barfod,
and, although of illegitimate birth, might legally make this
claim. The secret of his birth has been kept from him until
he has come to manhood, and the revelation of this secret by
his mother is made in the first section of the trilogy, which
is a single act, written in blank verse. Recognizing the futility
of urging his birthright at this time, he starts off to win
fame as a crusader, the sort of fame that haloed Sigurd
Jorsalfar, then king of Norway. The remainder of the work is
in prose, and was, in fact, written before this poetical prologue.
The second section, in three acts, deals with an episode in the
Orkneys, five years later. Sigurd has not even then journeyed
to the Holy Land, but he has wandered elsewhere afar, thwarted
ambition and the sense of injustice ever gnawing at his heart.
He becomes entangled in a feudal quarrel concerning the rule of
the islands. Both parties seek to use him for their purposes,
but in the end, although leadership is in his grasp, he tears
himself away, appalled by the revelation of crime and treachery
in his surroundings. In this section of the work we have the
subtly conceived and Hamlet-like figure of Earl Harald, in
whose interest Frakark, a Norse Lady Macbeth, plots the murder
of Earl Paul, only to bring upon Harald himself the terrible
death that she has planned for his brother. Here, also, we
have the gracious maiden figure of Audhild, perhaps the
loveliest of all Björnson's delineations of womanhood, a figure
worthy to be ranked with the heroines of Shakespeare and Goethe,
who remains sweet and fragrant in our memory forever after.
With the mutual love of Sigurd and Audhild comes the one hour
of sunshine in both their lives, but the love is destined to
end in a noble renunciation and to leave only a hallowed memory
in token of its brief existence.
Ten more years as a crusader and a wanderer over the face of
the earth pass by before we meet with Sigurd again in the
third section of the trilogy. But his resolution is taken.
He has returned to his native land, and will claim his own.
The land is now ruled by Harald Gille, who is, like Sigurd
Slembe, an illegitimate son of Magnus Barfod, and who, during
the last senile years of Sigurd Jorsalfar's life, had won the
recognition that Sigurd Slembe might have won had he not missed
the chance, and been acknowledged as the king's brother. When
the king died, he left a son named Magnus, who should have been
his successor, but whom Harald Gille seized, blinded, and
imprisoned that he might himself occupy the throne. The five
acts of this third section of the trilogy cover the last two
years of Sigurd Slembe's life, years during which he seeks to
gain his end, first by conciliation, and afterwards, maddened
by the base treachery of the king and his followers, by
assassination and violence. He has become a hard man, but,
however wild his schemes of revenge, and however desperate
his measures, he retains our sympathy to the end because we
feel that circumstances have made him the ravager of his country,
and that his underlying motive all along has not been a merely
personal ambition, but an immense longing to serve his people,
and to rule them with justice and wisdom. The final scene
of all has a strange and solemn beauty. It is on the eve of
the battle in which Sigurd is to be captured and put to death
by his enemies. The actual manner of his death was too horrible
even for the purposes of tragedy; and the poet has chosen the
better part in ending the play with a foreshadowing of the outcome.
Sigurd has made his last stand, his Danish allies have deserted
him, and he well knows what will be the next day's issue.
And here we have one of the noblest illustrations in all
literature of that _Versöhnung_ which is the last word of
tragic art. For in this supreme hour the peace of mind which
he has sought for so many years comes to him when least expected,
and all the tempests of life are stilled. That reconciliation
which the hour of approaching death brings to men whose lives
have been set at tragic pitch, has come to him also; he now
sees that this was the inevitable end, and the recognition
of the fitness with which events have shaped themselves brings
with it an exaltation of soul in which life is seen revealed
in its true aspect. No longer veiled in the mists which have
hitherto hidden it from his passionate gaze, he takes note of
what it really is, and casts it from him. In this hour of
passionless contemplation such a renunciation is not a thing
torn from the reluctant soul, but the clear solution, so long
sought, of the problem so long blindly attempted. That which
his passion enslaved self has so struggled to avert, his
higher self, at last set free, calmly and gladly accepts.
"What miracle is this? for in the hour I prayed, the prayer
was granted! Peace, perfect peace! Then I will go to-morrow
to my last battle as to the altar; peace shall at last be mine
for all my longings.
"How this autumn evening brings reconciliation to my soul!
Sun and wave and shore and sea flow all together, as in the
thought of God all others; never yet has it seemed so fair to
me. But it is not mine to rule over this lovely land. How
greatly I have done it ill! But how has it all so come to
pass? for in my wanderings I saw thy mountains in every sky,
I yearned for home as a child longs for Christmas, yet I
came no sooner, and when at last I came, I gave thee wound
"But now, in contemplative mood, thou gazest upon me, and
givest me at parting this fairest autumn night of thine;
I will ascend yonder rock and take a long farewell."
The action of "Sigurd Slembe," is interspersed with several
lyrics, the most striking of which is herd translated in
exact reproduction of the original form:
"Sin and Death, at break of day,
Spoke together with bated breath;
'Marry thee, sister, that I may stay,
In thy house,' quoth Death.
"Death laughed aloud when Sin was wed,
And danced on the bridal day:
But bore that night from the bridal bed,
The groom in a shroud away.
"Death came to her sister at break of day,
And Sin drew a weary breath;
'He whom thou lovest is mine for aye,
Mine he is,' quoth Death."
One more saga drama was to be written by Björnson, but
"Sigurd Slembe" remains his greatest achievement in this
field of activity. Its single successor, "Sigurd Jorsalfar,"
was not published until ten years later, and may not be
compared with it for either strength or poetic inspiration.
The author called it a "folkplay," and announced the intention,
which was never fulfilled, of making several similar experiments
with scenes from the sagas, "which should appeal to every eye
and every stage of culture, to each in its own way, and at
the performance of which all, for the time being, would
experience the joy of fellow feeling." The experiment proves
interesting, and is carried out without didacticism or straining
after sensational effects; the play is vigorous and well
planned, but for the reader it has little of the dramatic
impressiveness of its predecessor, although as an acting drama
it is better fitted for the requirements of the stage.
The two volumes which contain the greater part of Björnson's
poetry not dramatic in form were both published in 1870. One
of them was the collection of his "Poems and Songs," the other
was the epic cycle, "Arnljot Gelline," the only long poem
that he has written. The volume of lyrics includes many pieces
of imperfect quality and slight value,--personal tributes and
occasional productions,--but it includes also those national
songs that every Norwegian knows by heart, that are sung upon
all national occasions by the author's friends and foes alike,
and that have made him the greatest of Norway's lyric poets.
No translation can ever quite reproduce their cadence or their
feeling; they illustrate the one aspect of Björnson's many-sided
genius that must be taken on trust by those who cannot read his
language. A friend once asked him upon what occasion he had
felt most fully the joy of being a poet. His reply was as follows:--
"It was when a party from the Right in Christiania came to my
house and smashed all my windows. For when they had finished
their assault, and were starting home again, they felt that
they had to sing something, and so they began to sing, 'Yes, we
love this land of ours'--they couldn't help it. They had to sing
the song of the man they had attacked."
Into this collection were gathered the lyrics scattered through
the peasant tales and the saga dramas, thus making it completely
representative of his quality as a singer. A revised and
somewhat extended edition of this volume was published about
ten years later. Björnson has had the rare fortune of having
his lyrics set to music by three composers--Nordraak, Kjerulf,
and Grieg--as intensely national in spirit as himself, and no
festal occasion among Norwegians is celebrated without singing
the national hymn, "Yes, We Love This Land of Ours," or the
noble choral setting of "Olaf Trygvason." The best folk-singer
is he who stands in the whirling round of life, says the poet,
and he reveals the very secret of his power when he tells us
that life was ever more to him than song, and that existence,
where it was worth while, in the thick of the human fray,
always had for him a deeper meaning than anything he had written.
The longest poem in Björnson's collection is called "Bergliot,"
and is a dramatic monologue in which the foul slaying of her
husband Ejnar Tambarskelve and their son Ejndride is mourned
by the bereaved wife and mother. The story is from the saga
of Harald Haardraada, and is treated with the deepest tragic
"Odin in Valhal I dare not seek
For him I forsook in my childhood.
And the new God in Gimle?
He took all that I had!
Revenge:--Who says revenge?--
Can revenge awaken my dead
Or shelter me from the cold?
Has it comfort for a widow's home
Or for a childless mother?
Away with your revenge: Let be!
Lay him on the litter, him and the son.
Come, we will follow them home.
The new God in Gimle, the terrible, who took all,
Let him also take revenge, for he understands it!
Drive slowly: Thus drove Ejnar ever;
--Soon enough shall we reach home."
It was also to the "Heimskringla" that Björnson turned for
the subject of his epic cycle, "Arnljot Gelline." Here we
read in various rhythms of Arnljot the outlaw, how the hands
of all men are against him; how he offers to stay his wrath
and end the blood feud if the fair Ingigerd, Trand's daughter,
may be bestowed upon him; how, being refused, he sets fire
to Trand's house and bears Ingigerd away captive; how her
tears prevail upon him to release her, and how she seeks
refuge in a southern cloister; how Arnljot wanders restless
over sea and land until he comes to King Olaf, on the eve
of the great battle, receives the Christian faith, fights
fiercely in the vanguard against the hosts of the heathen,
and, smiling, falls with his king on the field of Stiklestad.
One song from this cycle, "The Cloister in the South" is
here reproduced in an exact copy of the original metre, in
the hope that even this imperfect representation of the poem
may be better than none at all.
"Who would enter so late the cloister in?"
"A maid forlorn from the land of snow."
"What sorrow is thine, and what thy sin?"
"The deepest sorrow the heart can know.
I have nothing done
Yet must still endeavor,
Though my strength be none,
To wander ever.
Let me in, to seek for my pain surcease,
I can find no peace."
"From what far-off land hast thou taken flight?"
"From the land of the North, a weary way."
"What stayed thy feet at our gate this night?"
"The chant of the nuns, for I heard them pray,
And the song gave peace
To my soul, and blessed me;
It offered release
From the grief that oppressed me.
Let me in, so if peace to give be thine,
I may make it mine."
"Name me the grief that thy life hath crossed."
"Rest may I never, never know."
"Thy father, thy lover, thou hast then lost?"
"I lost them both at a single blow,
And all I held dear
In my deepest affection;
Aye, all that was near
To my heart's recollection.
Let me in, I am failing, I beg, I implore,
I can bear no more."
"How was it that thou thy father lost?"
"He was slain, and I saw the deed."
"How was it that thou thy lover lost?"
"My father he slew, and I saw the deed.
I wept so bitterly
When he roughly would woo me,
He at last set me free,
And forbore to pursue me.
Let me in, for the horror my soul doth fill.
That I love him still."
_Chorus of nuns within the Church._
"Come child, come bride,
To God's own side,
From grief find rest
On Jesus' breast.
Rest thy burden of sorrow.
On Horeb's height;
Like the lark, with to-morrow
Shall thy soul take flight.
Here stilled is all yearning,
No passion returning;
No terror come near thee
When the Saviour can hear thee.
For He, if in need be
Thy storm-beaten soul,
Though it bruised as a reed be,
Shall raise it up whole."
Despite the power and beauty of an occasional manifestation
of his genius during the late sixties and early seventies,
the poetic impulse that had made Björnson the most famous of
Norwegian authors seemed, toward the close of the fifteen-year
period just now under review, to be well nigh exhausted. Even
among those who had followed his career most closely there were
few who could anticipate the splendid new outburst of activity
for which he was preparing. These years seemed to be a dead
time, not only in Björnson's life, but also in the general
intellectual life of the Scandinavian countries. Dr. Brandes
thus describes the feelings of a thoughtful observer during
that period of stagnation. "In the North one had the feeling
of being shut off from the intellectual life of the time.
We were sitting with closed doors, a few brains struggling
fruitlessly with the problem of how to get them opened... With
whole schools of foreign literature the cultivated Dane had
almost no acquaintance; and when, finally, as a consequence
of political animosity, intellectual intercourse with Germany
was broken off, the main channel was closed through which
the intellectual developments of the day had been communicated
to Norway as well as Denmark. French influence was dreaded
as immoral, and there was but little understanding of either
the English language or spirit." But an intellectual renaissance
was at hand, an intellectual reawakening with a cosmopolitan
outlook, and, Björnson was destined to become its leader, much
as he had been the leader of the national movement of an earlier
decade. During these years of seeming inactivity, comparatively
speaking, he had read and thought much, and the new thought of
the age had fecundated his mind. Historical and religious criticism,
educational and social problems, had taken possession of his
thought, and the philosophy of evolution had transformed the
whole tenor of his ideas, shaping them to, deeper issues and
more practical purposes than had hitherto engaged them. He had
read widely and variously in Darwin, Spencer, Mill, Müller, and
Taine; he had, in short, scaled the "lofty mountains" that had so
hemmed in his early view, and made his way into the intellectual
kingdoms of the modern world that lay beyond. The _Weltgeist_
had appealed to him with its irresistible behest, just as it
appealed at about the same time to Ibsen and Tolstoy and Ruskin,
and had made him a man of new interests and ideals.
One might have found foreshadowings of this transformation in
certain of his earlier works,--in "The Newly Married Couple,"
for example, with its delicate analysis, of a common domestic
relation, or in "The Fisher Maiden," with its touch of modernity,
--but from these suggestions one could hardly have prophesied
the enthusiasm and the genial force with which Björnson was to
project his personality into the controversial arena of modern life.
The series of works which have come from his pen during the past
thirty-five years have dealt with most of the graver problems
which concern society as a whole,--politics, religion, education,
the status of women, the license of the press, the demand of the
socialist for a reconstruction of the old order. They have also
dealt with many of the delicate questions of individual ethics,
--the relations of husband and wife, of parent and child, the
responsibility of the merchant to his creditors and of the employer
to his dependants, the double standard of morality for men and
women, and the duty devolving upon both to transmit a vigorous
strain to their offspring. These are some of the themes that
have engaged the novelist and dramatist; they have also engaged
the public speaker and lay preacher of enlightenment, as well
as themes of a more strictly political character, such as the
separation of Norway from the Dual Monarchy, the renewal of
the ancient bond between Norway and Iceland, the free development
of parliamentary government, the cause of Pangermanism, and the
furtherance of peace between the nations. An extensive
programme, surely, even in this summary enumeration of its
more salient features, but one to which his capacity has not
proved unequal, and which he has carried out by the force of
his immense energy and superabundant vitality. The burden of
all this tendencious matter has caused his art to suffer at times,
no doubt, but his inspiration has retained throughout much
of the marvellous freshness of the earlier years, and the
genius of the poet still flashes upon us from a prosaic
environment, sometimes in a lovely lyric, more frequently,
however, in the turn of a phrase or the psychological
envisagement of some supreme moment in the action of the story
or the drama.
The great transformation in Björnson's literary manner and
choice of subjects was marked by his sending home from abroad,
in the season of 1874-75, two plays, "The Editor" and "A
Bankruptcy." It was two years later that Ibsen sent home from
abroad "The Pillars of Society," which marked a similar turning
point in his artistic career. It is a curious coincidence that
the plays of modern life produced during this second period by
these two men are the same in number, an even dozen in each case.
Besides the two above named, these modern plays of Björnson are,
with their dates, the following: "The King" (1877), "Leonarda" (1879),
"The New System" (1879), "A Glove" (1883), "Beyond the
Strength I." (1883), "Geography and Love" (1885), "Beyond the
Strength II." (1895), "Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg" (1898),
"Laboremus" (1901), and "At Storhove" (1902). Since the
cessation of Ibsen's activity, Björnson has outrun him in
the race, adding "Daglannet" (1904), and "When the New Wine
Blooms" (1909) to the list above given. Besides these
fourteen plays, however, he has published seven important
volumes of prose fiction during the last thirty-five years.
The titles and dates are as follows: "Magnhild" (1877),
"Captain Mansana" (1879), "Dust" (1882), "Flags Are Flying
in City and Harbor" (1884), "In God's Ways," (1889),
"New Tales" (1894), (of which collection "Absalom's Hair"
is the longest and most important), and "Mary" (1906). The
achievement represented by this list is all the more
extraordinary when we consider the fact that for the greater
part of the thirty-five years which these plays and novels
cover, their author has been, both as a public speaker and
as a writer for the periodical press, an active participant
in the political and social life of his country.
Most of these books must be dismissed with a few words in
order that our remaining space may be given to the four or
five that are of the greatest power and significance. "The
Editor," the first of the modern plays, offers a fierce
satire upon modern journalism, its dishonesty, its corrupt
and malicious power, its personal and partisan prejudice.
The character of the editor in this play was unmistakeably
drawn, in its leading characteristics, from the figure of a
well known conservative journalist in Christiania, although
Björnson vigorously maintained that the protraiture was typical
rather than personal.
"In various other countries than my own, I have observed
the type of journalist who is here depicted. It is characterized
by acting upon a basis of sheer egotism, passionate and
boundless, and by terrorism in such fashion that it frightens
honest people away from every liberal movement, and visits
upon the individual an unscrupulous persecution."
This play was not particularly successful upon the stage,
but the book was widely read, and occasioned much excited
personal controversy. "A Bankruptcy," on the other hand,
proved a brilliant stage success. Its matter was less
contentious, and its technical execution was effective and
brilliant. It was not in vain that Björnson had at different
times been the director of three theatres. This play has
for its theme the ethics of business life, and more
especially the question of the extent to which a man whose
finances are embarrassed is justified in continued speculation
for the ultimate protection of himself and his creditors.
Despite its treatment of this serious problem, the play is
lighter and more genial in vein than the author's plays
are wont to be, and the element of humor is unusually
conspicuous. Jaeger remarks that "A Bankruptcy" did two
new things for Norwegian dramatic literature. It made money
affairs a legitimate subject for literary treatment, and
it raised the curtain upon the Norwegian home. "It was with
'A Bankruptcy' that the home made its first appearance upon
the stage, the home with its joys and sorrows, with its
conflicts and its tenderness."
Two years later appeared "The King, which is in many
respects Björnson's greatest modern masterpiece in dramatic
form. He had by this time become a convinced republican,
but he was also an evolutionist, and he knew that republics
are not created by fiat. He believed the tendency toward
republicanism to be irresistible, but he believed also that
there must be intermediate stages in the transition from
monarchy. Absolutism is succeeded by constitutionalism,
and that by parliamentarism, and that in the end must
be succeeded by a republicanism that will free itself from
all the traditional forms of symbol and ceremonial. He had
also a special belief that the smaller peoples were better
fitted for development in this direction than the larger and
more complex societies, although, on the other hand, he thought
that the process of growth into full self-government was likely
to be slower among the Germanic than among the Latin races.
In the deeply moving play now to be considered, we have, in
the character of the titular king, an extraordinary piece of
psychological analysis. The king, is young, physically
delicate, and of highly sensitive organization. When he
comes to the throne he realizes the hollowness and the
hypocrisy of the existence that prescription has marked
out for him; he realizes also that the very ideal of
monarchy, under the conditions of modern European
civilization, is a gigantic falsehood. For a time after his
accession, he leads a life of pleasure seeking and revelry,
hoping that he may dull his sense of the sharp contrast that
exists between his station and his ideals. But his conscience
will give him no peace, and he turns to deliberate contemplation
of the thought, not indeed of abdicating his, false position,
but of transforming it into something more consonant with
truth and the demands of the age. He will become a citizen
king, and take for wife a daughter of the people; he will do
away with the pomp and circumstance of his court, and attempt
to lead a simple and natural life, in which the interests of
the people shall be paramount in his attention. But in this
attempt he is thwarted at every step. All the forces of
selfishness and prejudice and ignorance combine against him;
even the people whom he seeks to benefit are so wedded to their
idols that their attitude is one of suspicion rather than
of sympathy. He loves a young woman of strong and noble
character, and wins her love in return, but she dies on the
very eve of their union. His oldest and most confidential
friend, the wealthiest man in the kingdom, but a republican,
is murdered by a radical associate of the _intransigeant_ type,
and the king is left utterly bereaved by his twofold loss.
This brings us to the closing scene of the drama, in which the
king, his nerves strained to the breaking point, confronts the
group of officials and others who bring to him the empty phrases
of a conventional condolence:--
The King. Hush! Have a little respect for the truth that
should follow death! Understand me rightly: I do not mean
that any of you would lie. But the very air about a king
is infected. It was of that-a word or two. My time is short.
But a testament. ...
The Priest. Testament.
The King. Neither the Old nor the New! Greet what is
called Christianity here in this land-greet it from me!
I have thought much about Christian folk of late.
The Priest. That rejoices me.
The King. How your tone cuts me! Greet it from me,
what is called Christianity here in this land. Nay,
do not crane your necks and bend your backs as if the
wisdom of the ages were now forthcoming. (_aside_) Can
there be any use in saying something seriously? (_aloud_)
You are Christians?
The General. God forbid the doubt! Faith is exceedingly
The King. For discipline. (_to the Sheriff_) And you?
The Sheriff. From my blessed ancestors I received the faith.
The King. So _they_ are blessed also. Why not?'
The Sheriff. They brought me strictly up to fear
God, to honor the king.
The King. And love your fellowmen. You are a State
individual, sheriff. And such are Christians nowadays.
(_to the Merchant_) And you?
The Merchant. I have not been able to go to church very
much of late because of my cough. And in the foul air. ...
The King. You go to sleep. But are you a Christian?
The. Merchant. That goes without saying.
The King. (_to the Priest._) And you are naturally one?
The Priest. By the grace of Jesus I hope that I am.
The King. That is the formula, boys, that is the
accepted thing to say. Therefore, you are a Christian
community, and it is no fault of mine if such a community
will not deal seriously with what concerns Christianity.
Greet it from me, and say that it must have an eye to the
institution of monarchy.
The Priest. Christianity has nothing to do with such
matters. It searches _the inner man_.
The King. That tone! I know it--it does not search the
air in which the patient lives, but the lungs. There you
have it! Nevertheless, Christianity must have an eye to
the monarchy--must pluck the lie from it--must not follow
it to its coronation in the church, as an ape follows a
peacock. I know what I felt in that situation. I had gone
through with a rehearsal the day before--ho, ho! Ask the
Christianity in this land, if it be not time to concern
itself with the monarchy. It should hardly any longer, it
seems to me, let the monarchy play the part of the
seductive wanton -who turns the thoughts of all citizens
to war--which is much against the message of Christianity
--and to class distinctions, to luxury, to show and vanity.
The monarchy is now so great a lie that it compels the
most upright man to share in its falsehood."
The conversation that follows is in a vein of bitterness on
the one side, and of obtuse smugness on the other; the tragic
irony of the action grows deeper and deeper, until in the end
the king, completely disheartened and despairing, goes into
an adjoining room, and dies by his own hand, to the
consternation of the men from whom he has just parted. They
give utterance to a few polite phrases, charitably accounting
for the deed by the easy attribution of insanity to the king,
and the curtain falls.
It may well be imagined that "The King" made a stir in
literary and social circles, and quite noticeably fluttered the
dovecotes of conventionality and conservatism. Such plain
speaking and such deadly earnestness of conviction were indeed
far removed from the idyllic simplicity of the peasant tales
and from the poetical reconstructions of the legendary past.
Eight years later, Björnson prefaced a new edition of this
work with a series of reflections upon "Intellectual Freedom"
that constitute one of the most vigorous and remarkable examples
of his serious prose. The central ideas of his political faith
are embodied in the following sentences from this preface:--
"Intellectual Freedom. Why is not attention called over and
over again to the fact that for the great peoples, who have so
many compensating interests, the free commerce of ideas is one
condition of life among many others; while for us, the small
peoples, it is absolutely indispensable. A people numerically
large may attain to ways of thought and enterprise that no
political censure can reduce to a minimum; but under narrower
conditions it may easily come about that the whole people will
fall asleep. A powerful propaganda of enlightenment under the
conditions of free speech is for us of the first and the last
importance. When I wrote this piece it was my chief aim to
enlarge the bounds of free thought. I have later made the
same attempt in matters of religion and morals. When my
opponents seek to sum up my character in a few words, they
are apt to say: 'He attacks the throne and the altar.' It
seems to me that I have served the freedom of the spirit,
and in the interests of that cause I now beg leave to reply.
(1) _Concerning the attack on Christianity._ It may be worth
while in a country with a state church to recall now and
then the meaning of Christianity. It is not an institution,
still less a book, and least of all it is a house or a seminary.
It is the godly life according to the precepts and example of
Jesus. There may be men who think they are attacking
Christianity when they investigate the historical origin or
the morality of some dogma; I do not think so. Honest
investigation can result only in growth. Christianity, with
or without its whole apparatus of dogma, will endure in its
essence for thousands of years after us; there will always
be spiritually-minded people who will be ennobled by it, and
some made great. I honor all the noble. I have friends among
the Christians, whom I love, and never for a moment have I
thought of attacking their Christianity. I have no higher
wish than to see them by its help transform certain aspects
of our society into seriousness. (2) _Concerning the attack
on monarchy._ Monarchy is, on the other hand, an institution,
here the circumstances are naturally different. I have
attacked monarchy, and I will attack it. But--and to
this 'but' I call the closest attention. Shortly before
the July Revolution, when its first signs were declared,
Chateaubriand was talking with the King, who asked what
it all meant. 'It is monarchy that is done with,' replied
the royalist, for he was also a seer. Certainly there have
been in France both kingdom and empire since that day. If
there should be no more hereafter, they still exist in other
lands, and will endure for generations after us. But 'done
with' are they none the less; notice was given them by the
French Revolution. It does not concern them all simultaneously;
it fixes terms, different for the different kingdoms, and far
removed for the kingdoms based upon conquest. But the face of
civilization is now turned toward the republic, and every
people has reached the first, second, or third stage of the way.
"If a work of the mind is born of Norse conditions and stands
before the ethical judgment seat--let it have its full action;
otherwise it will not produce its full reaction. If the faith
that gave shape to the piece is not the strongest force in the
society that gave it birth, it will evoke an opposing force of
greater strength. Thereby all will gain. But to ignore it, or
seek to crush it--that in a large society may not greatly matter,
so rich are the possibilities of other work taking its place;
but in a small society it may be equivalent to destroying the
sight of its only eye."
In the clean-cut phrases and moral earnestness of this _apologia
pro vita sua_, which deserves to be reproduced at greater length,
we have the modern Björnson, no longer poet alone, but poet and
prophet at once, the champion of sincere thinking and worthy
living, the Sigurd Slembe of our own day, happier than his
prototype in the consciousness that the ambition to serve his
people has not been; altogether thwarted, and that his
beneficent activity is not made sterile even by the bitterest
Only a rapid glance may be taken at the books of the five
years following upon the publication of "The King." The
story of "Magnhild," planned several years earlier, represents
Björnson's return to fiction after a long dramatic interlude.
There are still peasants in this story, but they are different
from the figures of the early tales, and the atmosphere of the
work is modern. It turns upon the question of the mutual duties
of husband and wife, when love no longer unites them. The
solution seems to lie in separation when union has thus become
essentially immoral. "Captain Mansana" is a story of Italian
life, based, so the author assures us, on actual characters and
happenings that had come within the range of his observation during
his stay abroad. Its interest does not lie in any particular
problem, but rather in the delineation of the titular figure,
a strong and impetuous person whose character suggests that of
Ferdinand Lassalle, as the author himself points out to us in a
prefatory note. "Dust" is a pathetic little story having for
its central idea what seems like a pale reflection of the idea
of Ibsen's "Ghosts," which had appeared a few months before.
It is the dust of the past that settles upon our souls, and clogs
their free action. The special application of this thought is to
the religious training of children:--
"When you teach children that the life here below is nothing to
the life above, that to be visible is nothing in comparison with
being invisible, that to be a human being is nothing in comparison
with being dead, that is not the way to teach them to view life
properly, or to love life, to gain courage, strength for work,
and love of country."
In the play, "Leonarda," and again in the play, "A Glove," the
author recurs to the woman question; in the one case, his theme
is the attitude of society toward the woman of blemished
reputation; in the other, its attitude toward the man who in his
relation with women has violated the moral law. "Leonarda" is a
somewhat inconclusive work, because the issue is not clearly
defined, but in "A Glove" (at least in the acting version of the
play, which differs from the book in its ending) there is no lack
of definiteness. This play inexorably demands the enforcement of
the same standard of morality for both sexes, and declares the
unchaste man to be as unfit for honorable marriage as the unchaste
woman. Upon the theme thus presented a long and violent discussion
raged; but if there be such a thing as an immutable moral law in
this matter, it must be that upon which Björnson has so squarely
and uncompromisingly planted his feet. The other remaining work
of this five-year period is the play called "The New System." The
new system in question is a system of railway management, and it is
a wasteful one. But the young engineer who demonstrates this fact
has a hard time in opening the eyes of the public. He succeeds
eventually, but not until he has encountered every sort of
contemptible opposition and hypocritical evasion of the plain truth.
The social satire of the piece is subtle and sharp; what the author
really aims at is to illustrate, by a specific example, the
repressive forces that dominate the life of a small people, and
make it almost impossible for any sort of truth to triumph
Since the production of "A Glove," twenty years ago, eight more
plays have come from Björnson's prolific pen. Of these by far
the most important are the two that are linked by the common
title, "Beyond the Strength." The translation of this title is
hopelessly inadequate, because the original word means much more
than strength; it means talent, faculty, capability, the sum total
of a man's endowment for some particular purpose. The two pieces
bearing this name are quite different in theme, but certain
characters appear in both, and both express the same thought,
--the thought that it is vain for men to strive after the
unattainable, for in so doing they lose sight of the actual
possibilities of human life; the thought that much of the best
human energy goes to waste because it is devoted to the pursuit
of ideals that are indeed beyond the strength of man to realize.
In the first of the two plays, this superhuman ideal is religious,
it is that of the enthusiast who accepts literally the teaching
that to faith all things are possible; in the second, the ideal is
social, it is that of the reformer who is deluded to believe that
one resounding deed of terror and self-immolation for the cause of
the people will suffice to overthrow the selfish existing order,
and create for the toiling masses a new heaven upon earth. No
deeper tragedies have been conceived by Björnson than these two,
the tragedy of the saintlike Pastor Sang, who believes that the
miracle of his wife's restoration to health has at last in very
truth been wrought by his fervent prayer, and finds only that
the ardor of his faith and hers has brought death instead of life
to them both,--the tragedy of his son Elias, who dies like Samson
with his foes for an equally impossible faith, and by the very
violence of his fanaticism removes the goal of socialist endeavor
farther than ever into the dim future. Björnson has written
nothing more profoundly moving than these plays, with their
twofold treatment of essentially the same theme, nor has he
written anything which offers a clearer revelation of his own
rich personality, with its unfailing poetic vision, its deep
tenderness, and its boundless love for all humankind. The play,
"Geography and Love," which came between the two just described,
is an amusing piece, in the vein of light and graceful comedy,
which satirizes the man with a hobby, showing how he unconsciously
comes to neglect his wife and family through absorption in his
work. The author was, in a way, taking genial aim at himself
in this piece, a fact which his son Bjorn, who played the principal
part, did not hesitate to emphasize. "Paul Lange and Tora
Parsberg," the next play, deals with the passions engendered
by political controversy, and made much unpleasant stir in
Norwegian society because certain of the characters and situations
were unmistakeably taken from real life. After these plays
came "Laboremus" and "At Storhove," both concerned with
substantially the same theme, which is that of the malign
influence exerted by an evil-minded and reckless woman upon the
lives of others. From a different point of view, we may say that
the subject of these plays is the consecration of the home.
This has always been a favorite theme with Björnson, and he has
no clearer title to our gratitude than that which he has earned
by his unfailing insistence upon the sanctity of family life,
its mutual confidences, and its common joys. Completing the
list, we have "Daglannet," another domestic drama of simple
structure, and "When the New Wine Blooms," a study of modernity
as exemplified in the young woman of to-day, of the estrangement
that too often creeps into married life, and of the stirrings
that prompt men of middle age to seek to renew the joys of youth.
During the years that have passed since the publication of
"Dust," Björnson has produced four volumes of fiction,--his two
great novels, a third novel of less didactic mission, and a
second collection of short stories. The first of the novels,
"Flags Are Flying in City and Harbor," saw the light during
the year following the publication of "A Glove," and the
teaching of that play is again enforced with uncompromising
logic in the development of the story. The work has two other
main themes, and these are heredity and education. So much
didactic matter as this is a heavy burden for any novel to
carry, and a lesser man than Björnson would have found the
task a hopeless one. That he should have succeeded even in
making a fairly readable book out of this material would have
been remarkable, and it is a pronounced artistic triumph that
the book should prove of such absorbing interest. For
absorbingly interesting it is, to any reader who is willing
that a novel should provide something more than entertainment;
and who is not afraid of a work of fiction that compels him to
think as he reads. The principal character is a man descended
from a line of ancestors whose lives have been wild and lawless,
and who have wallowed in almost every form of brutality and vice.
The four preceding generations of the race are depicted for us
in a series of brief but masterly characterizations, in which
every stroke tells, and we witness the gradual weakening of the
family stock. But with the generation just preceding the main
action of the novel, there has been introduced a vigorous strain
of peasant blood, and the process of regeneration has begun.
It is this process that goes on before our eyes. It does not
become a completed process, but the prospect is bright for the
future, and the flags that fly over town and harbor in the closing
chapter have a symbolical significance, for they announce a victory
of spirit over sense, not only in the cases of certain among the
individual participants in the action, but also in the case of
the whole community to which they belong. So much for the book
as a study in heredity. As an educational tract, it has the
conspicuous virtue of remaining in close touch with life while
embodying the spirit of modern scientific pedagogy. The hero
of the book,--the last descendant of a race struggling for
moral and physical rehabilitation,--throws himself into the
work of education with an energy equal to that which his
forbears had turned into various perverse channels. He
organizes a school, more than half of the book, in fact, is
about this school and its work,--and seeks to introduce a
system of training which shall shape the whole character
of the child, a school in which truth and clean living shall
be inculcated with thoroughness and absolute sincerity, a school
which shall be the microcosm of the world outside, or rather
of what that world ought to be. Björnson's interest in
education has been life-long; for many years it had gone
astray in a sort of Grundtvigian fog, but at the time when
this book came to be written, it had worked its way out into
the clear light of reason. If the future should cease to
care for this work as a piece of literature, it will still
look back to it as to a sort of nineteenth century "Emile,"
and take renewed heart from its inspiring message.
"In God's Ways," the second of the two great novels, is a
work of which it is difficult to speak in terms of measured
praise. With its delicate and vital delineations of character,
its rich sympathy and depth of tragic pathos, its plea for
the sacredness of human life, and its protest against the
religious and social prejudice by which life is so often
misshapen, this book is an epitome of all the ideas and
feelings that have gone to the making of the author's
personality, and have received such manifold expression in
his works. It is a simple story, concerned mainly with four
people, in no way outwardly conspicuous, yet here united
by the poet's art into a relationship from which issue
some of the deepest of social questions, and which
enforces in the most appealing terms the fundamental
teaching of all the work of his mature years. First of
all, we have the boyhood of the two friends who are
afterwards to grow apart in their sympathies; the one alert
of mind, imaginative, open to every intellectual influence,
also impetuous and hot-blooded; the other shy and
intellectually stolid, but good to the very core, and moved
by the strongest of altruistic impulses. In accordance with
their respective characters, the first of these youths becomes
a physician, and the other a clergyman. Then we have the
sister of the physician, who becomes the wife of the
clergyman, a noble, proud, self-centred nature, finely
strung to the inmost fibre of her being. Then we have a
woman of the other sort, clinging, abnormally sensitive, a
child when the years of childhood are over, and made the
victim of a shocking child-marriage to a crippled old man.
She it is whom the physician loves, and persuades to a
legal dissolution of her immoral union. After some years,
he makes her his wife, and their happiness would be complete
were it not for the social and religious prejudice aroused.
The clergyman, whom years of service in the state church
have hardened into bigotry, is officially, as it were,
compelled to condemn the friend of his boyhood, and even the
sister, for a time grown untrue to her own generous nature,
shares in the estrangement. In vain does the physician seek
to shelter his wife from the chill of her environment. She
droops, pines away, and finally dies, gracious, lovable, and
even forgiving to the last. Then the death angel comes close
to the clergyman and his wife, hovering over their only child,
and at last the barrier of formalism and prejudice and
religious bigotry is swept away from their minds. Their
natural sympathies, long repressed, resume full sway, and they
realize how deeply they, have sinned toward the dead woman.
The sister seeks a reconciliation with her brother, but he
repulses her, and gives her his wife's private diary to read.
In this _journal intime_ she finds the full revelation of the
gentle spirit that has been done to death, and she feels that
the very salvation of her life and soul depend upon winning her
brother's forgiveness. The closing chapter, in which the final
reconciliation occurs, is one of the most wonderful in all
fiction; its pathos is of the deepest and the most moving, and
he must be callous of soul, indeed, who can read it with dry eyes.
If we were to search the whole of Björnson's writings for the
single passage which should most completely typify his message
to his fellowmen,--not Norwegians alone, but all mankind,--the
choice would have to rest upon the words spoken from the pulpit
by the clergyman of this novel, on the Sunday following the
certainty of his child's recovery.
"To-day a man spoke from the pulpit of the church about what he
"Namely, about what first concerns us all.
"One forgets it in his strenuous endeavor, a second in his zeal
for conflict, a third in his backward vision, a fourth in the
conceit of his own wisdom, a fifth in his daily routine, and we
have all learned it more or less ill. For should I ask you who
hear me now, you would all reply thoughtlessly, and just because
I ask you from this place, 'Faith is first.'
"No, in very truth, it is not. Watch over your child, as it
struggles for breath on the outermost verge of life, or see
your wife follow the child to that outermost verge, beside
herself for anxiety and sleeplessness,--then love will teach
you that _life comes first_. And never from this day on will
I seek God or God's will in any form of words, in any sacrament,
or in any book or any place, as if He were first and foremost to
be found there; no, life is first and foremost--life as we win
it from the depths of despair, in the victory of the light, in
the grace of self-devotion, in our intercourse with living
human kind. God's supreme word to us is life, our highest
worship of Him is love for the living. This lesson, self-evident
as it is, was needed by me more than by most others. This it
is that in various ways and upon many grounds I have hitherto
rejected,--and of late most of all. But never more shall
words be the highest for me, nor symbols, but the eternal
revelation of life. Never more will I freeze fast in doctrine,
but let the warmth of life melt my will. Never will I condemn
men by the dogmas of old time justice, unless they fit with our
own time's gospel of love. Never, for God's sake! And this
because I believe in Him, the God of Life, and His never
ending revelation in life itself."
Here is a gospel, indeed, one that needs no church for its
promulgation, and no ceremonial for the enhancement of its
impressiveness. It is a gospel, moreover, that is based upon no
foundation of precarious logic, but finds its premises in the
healthy instincts of the natural man. It is no small thing to
have thus found the way, and to have helped others likewise to
find the way, out of the mists of superstition, through the
valleys of doubt and despondency, athwart the thickets of
prejudice and bigotry with all their furtive foemen, up to
these sunlit heights of serenity.
"Mary" is less explicit in its teaching than the two great
novels just summarized, but what it misses in didacticism it
more than gains in art. The radiant creature who gives her
name to the book is one of Björnson's most exquisite figures.
She is the very embodiment of youthful womanhood, filled with
the joy of life, and bringing sunshine wherever she goes. Yet
this temperament leads to her undoing, or what would be the
undoing of any woman less splendid in character. But the
strength that impels her to the misstep that comes so near to
having tragic consequences is also the strength that saves her
when chastened by suffering. In her the author "gives us the
common stuff of life," says an English critic, "gives it us
simple and direct. There is nothing here of Ibsen's pathology.
We are in the sun. Her most hideous blunder cannot undo a
woman's soul. Björnson knows that the deed is nothing at all.
It is the soul behind the deed that he sees. Not everything
that cometh out of a man defileth a man. At all events, so it
is here: triumph and joy built upon an act that--as the
Philistines would say--has defiled forever." As a triumph of
sheer creation, this figure is hardly overmatched anywhere in
the author's portrait gallery of women.
If Björnson's essential teaching may be found in a single
page, as has above been suggested, his personality evades all
such summarizing. In the present essay, he has been considered
as a writer merely,--poet, dramatist, novelist,--but the man
is vastly more than that. His other activities have been
hinted at, indeed, but nothing adequate has been said about
them. The director of three theatres, the editor of three
newspapers and the contributor to many others, the promoter
of schools and patriotic organizations, the participant in
many political campaigns, the lay preacher of private and
public morals, the chosen orator of his nation for all great
occasions,--these are some of the characters in which we must
view him to form anything like a complete conception of his
many-sided individuality. Take the matter of oratory alone,
and it is perhaps true that he has influenced as many people
by the living word as he has by the printed page. He has
addressed hundreds of audiences in the three Scandinavian
countries and in Finland, he has spoken to more than twenty
thousand at a time, and his winged speech has gone straight
home to his hearers. All who ever heard him will agree that
his oratory was of the most persuasive and vital impressiveness.
Jaeger attempts to describe it in the following words:--
"It is eloquence of a very distinctive type; its most
characteristic quality is its wealth of color; it finds
expression for every mood, from the lightest to the most serious,
from the most vigorous to the most delicate and tender. Now
his words ring like the voice of doom, filled with thunder and
lightning, now they become soft and persuasive with smiling mien.
With a single cadence, or a play of the facial muscles, or a
slight gesture, he can portray a person, a situation, or an
object, so that it appears living in the sight of his hearers.
And what the word alone cannot do, is accomplished in the most
brilliant manner by the virtuosity of his delivery. He does
not speak his words, he presents them; they take bodily form
and seem alive."
In his more intimate relationships, on the other hand, in
face to face conversation or in the home circle, the man
takes on a quite different aspect; the prophet has become
the friend, the impassioned preacher has become the genial
story teller, and shares the gladsome or mirthful mood of
the hour. Such a personality as this may be analyzed; it
defies any concise synthesis. One resorts to figures of
speech, and they were abundantly resorted to by those who
paid him the tribute of their admiration and love upon the
occasion of his seventieth anniversary. Let us take an
instance at random from one of these tributes.
"The cataract that roars down to the free foaming sea.
The mountain with its snowclad peaks towering up into the
immensity of the starry heavens. The rustling of the
woodland above the blossom-spangled and smiling meadows,
the steep uptowering, the widely growing, and the joyously
smiling. At once the soft melody that stirs the heart and
the strong wind that sweeps over the Northern lands."
This concourse of metaphors gives some slight idea of the
way in which Björnson's personality affected those who came
into contact with it. The description may be supplemented
by a few bits of anecdote and reminiscence. The composer
Grieg contributes the following incident of the old days
"It was Christmas eve of 1868 at the Björnsons in Christiania.
They lived then in the Rosenkrantzgade. My wife and I were,
as far as I can remember, the only guests. The children were
very boisterous in their glee. In the middle of the floor
an immense Christmas tree was enthroned and brightly lighted.
All the servant-folk came in, and Björnson spoke, beautifully and
warmly, as he well knows how to do. 'Now you shall play a hymn,
Grieg,' he said, and although I did not quite like the notion
of doing organist's work, I naturally complied without a murmur.
It was one of Grundtvig's hymns in 32--thirty-two verses. I
resigned myself to my fate with stoicism. At the beginning I
kept myself awake, but the endless repetitions had a soporific
effect. Little by little I became as stupid as a medium. When
we had at last got through with all the verses, Björnson said:
'Isn't that fine. Now I will read it for you!' And so we got
all thirty-two verses once more. I was completely overawed."
When the poet purchased his country estate which was his home
from the late seventies to the end of his life, his coming was
looked forward to with mingled feelings by the good country folk
of the neighborhood. Kristofer Janson thus tells the story of
"His coming was anticipated with a certain anxiety and
apprehension, for was he not a 'horrid radical'? The dean in
particular thought that he might be a menace to the safe
spiritual slumber of the village. As the dean one day was
driving through the village in his carriole, just where the
road turns sharply by the bridge below Aulestad, he met another
carriole which was rapidly driving that way and in it a man who,
without respect for the clerical vehicle, shouted with all the
strength of his lungs: 'Half the road!' The dean turned aside,
saying with a sigh: 'Has Björnson come to the Gausdal at last?'
"It was indeed so, and he showed his colors at the start.
The same dean and Björnson became the best of friends afterwards,
and found much sport in interchanging genial jests whenever they met."
Frits Thaulow, the painter, thus wrote to Björnson reminding him
of a festive gathering of students:
"The manager came in and announced with a loud voice that it was
past twelve. Then you sprang up.
"'Bring champagne! Now I will speak of what comes after twelve
o'clock! of all that lies beyond the respectable hour for
retiring! For the hour when fancy awakens and fills us with
longings for the world of wonderland; then the painter sees only
the dim outline in the moonlight, then the musician hears the
silence, then the poet after his thoughtful day feels sprouting
the first shoots of the next. After twelve freedom begins. The
day's tumult is stilled, and the voice within becomes audible.'
"Thus you spoke, and 'after twelve' became a watchword with us.
"Many a spark has been kindled in your soul by the quiet evening
time. But later in life, when you become a chieftain in the
battle, broad daylight also made its demands upon you. Like
the sun you shone upon us and made the best that was in us
to grow, but I shall always keep a deep artistic affection for
what comes 'after twelve.'"
Henrik Cavling tells the following story of the poet in Paris:
"It was one of Björnson's peculiarities to go out as a rule
without any money in his pocket. He neither owned a purse
nor knew the French coins. His personal expenditures were
restricted to the books he bought, and now and then a theatre
ticket. One day he carne excitedly into the sitting-room,
"'Who took my five franc piece?' It was a five franc piece
that he had got somewhere or other and had stuck in his pocket
to buy a theatre ticket with. It turned out that the maid had
found it and given it to Fru Björnson. For it seemed quite
unthinkable to her that the master should have any money to
take out with him.
"This complete indifference of Björnson to small matters
sometimes proved annoying. In this connection I may tell
of a little trip he once took with Jonas Lie.
"The two poets, who did not live far apart, had long counted
with pleasure upon a trip to Père Lachaise, where they wished
to visit Alfred de Musset's grave. At last the day came,
and with big soft hats on their heads, and engaged earnestly
in conversation, they drove away through Paris.
"When they came to Père Lachaise, and wanted to enter the
cemetery, the driver stopped them and asked for his pay.
Then it appeared that neither had any money, which they
smilingly explained, and asked him in bad French to wait
and drive them home again. But the two gentlemen with the big
soft hats had not inspired the driver with any marked degree
of confidence. He made a scene, and attracted a great crowd
of the boys, loafers, and well-dressed Frenchmen who always
collect on critical occasions. The end of the affair was that
the poets had to get into their cab again and drive all the long
way back without having had a glimpse of the grave. When they
reached Lie's lodgings, Lie went in to get some money, while
Björnson sat in the cab as a hostage. Nevertheless, both poets
maintained that they had had a pleasant expedition. A Norwegian
question, which had accidentally come up between them, had
made them forget all about Alfred de Musset."
Finally, a story may be given that is told by Björnson himself.
"I had a pair of old boots that I wanted to give to a beggar.
But just as I was going to give them to him, I began to wonder
whether Karoline had not some use for them, since she usually
gave such things to beggars. So I took the boots in my hand,
and went downstairs to ask her, but on the way I got a little
worked up because I did not quite dare to give them to the beggar
myself. And the further I went down the steps, the more wrathful
I got, until I stood over her. And then I was so angry that I had
to bluster at her as if she had done me a grievous wrong. But
she could not understand a word of what I said, and looked at me
with such amazement, that I could not keep from bursting into laughter."
From his early years, Björnson kept in touch with the modern
intellectual movement by mingling with the people of other lands
than his own. Besides his visits to Denmark, Sweden, and Finland,
he made many lengthy sojourns in the chief continental centres
of civilization, in Munich, Rome, and Paris. The longest of
his foreign journeys was that which brought him to the United
States in the winter of 1880-81, for the purpose of addressing
his fellow countrymen in the Northwest. His home for the last
thirty years and more has been his estate of Aulestad in the
Gausdal, a region of Southern Norway. Here he has been a
model farmer, and here, surrounded by his family,--wife,
children, and grandchildren,--his patriarchal presence has
given dignity to the household, and united its members in a
common bond of love. Hither have come streams of guests,
friends old and new, to enjoy his generous hospitality. There
has been provision for all, both bed and board, and the heartiest
of welcomes from the host. And the stranger from abroad has
been greeted, as like as not, by the sight of his own country's
flag streaming from a staff before the house, and foreshadowing
the personal greeting that awaited him upon the threshold.
Björnson died in Paris (where he had been spending the
winter, as was his custom for many years past), April 26, 1910.
He had been ill for several months, and only an extraordinarily
robust constitution enabled him to make a partial recovery from
the crisis of the preceding February, when his death had been
hourly expected. The news of his death occasioned demonstrations
of grief not only in his own country, but also throughout the
civilized world. Every honor that a nation can bestow upon
its illustrious dead was decreed him by King and Storthing;
a warship was despatched to bear his remains to Christiania,
and the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral acclaimed the
sense of the nation's loss.
LIST OF WORKS.
SYNNÖVE SOLBAKKEN. Fortaelling, 1857
MELLEM SLAGENE. Drama, 1858
ARNE. Fortaelling, 1858
HALTE-HULDA. Drama, 1858
EN GLAD GUT. Fortaelling, 1860
KONG SVERRE. 1861
SIGURD SLEMBE. 1862
MARIA STUART I SKOTLAND. Skuespil, 1864
DE NYGIFTE. Komedie, 1865
FISKERJENTEN. Fortaelling, 1868
DIGTE OG SANGE. 1870
ARNLJOT GELLINE. 1870
SIGURD JORSALFAR. Skuespil, 1872
FORTAELLINGER I-II, 1872
BRUDE-SLAATTEN. Fortaelling, 1873
REDAKTÖREN. Skuespil, 1874
EN FALLIT. Skuespil, 1874
MAGNHILD. Fortaelling, 1877
KAPTEJN MANSANA. Fortaelling fra Italien, 1879
LEONARDA. Skuespil, 1879
DET NY SYSTEM. Skuespil, 1879
EN HANDSKE. Skuespil, 1883
OVER AEVNE. Förste Stykke, 1883
DET FLAGER I BYEN OG PAA HAVNEN, 1884
GEOGRAFI OG KJAERLIGHED. 1885
PAA GUDS VEJE. 1889
NYE FORTAELLINGER. 1894
LYSET. En Universitetskantate, 1895
OVER AEVNE. Andet Stykke, 1895
PAUL LANGE OG TORA PARSBERG. 1898
TO FORTAELLINGER. 1901
PAA STORHOVE. Drama, 1904
TO TALER. 1906.
MARY. Fortaelling, 1906
VORT SPROG. 1907
NAAR DEN NY VIN BLOMSTRER. 1909
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