The world’s literature has been magnificently enriched by Norse genius. This genius for poetry and history was early displayed. Tactitus, the Roman historian, who visited the Germans in the first century of our era (99 A. D.), found that they knew something of the art of poetry. There is no reason to doubt that their northern kinsmen, the Scandinavians, also cultivated this art. As the Germans of the time of Tacitus did not know the art of writing, none of the literary productions of that time have been pre-served. Even after the Scandinavians learned the Runes, they did not use them for the preservation of literary products. They were mainly used for short inscriptions on wood or stone, no doubt on account of the lack of proper writing materials.
We have some reason for believing in the existence of literary products in Norway, in the early centuries of the Christian era. Here and there on old monumental stones there are snatches of verse in Old Runic, as on the famous Tune Stone, found in southeastern Norway, the language of which is so archaic as to place it in the prehistoric period 400-600. But we know nothing of complete poems and their authors until the historical Viking Age. These products are of such a nature in respect to both poetic form and content that one is forced to the conclusion that the art of poetry had long been practised. One of the best-known of these poems is on the genealogy of the Norse kings, an indication that poetry was early a hand-maid of history. The alliterative lines of this old poetry were a powerful aid to the memory in the retention of historical knowledge. The oldest of these poems belong to the beginning of the ninth century. They contain, however, little that is of general interest.
But there is a collection of old Norse poems, known as the Elder Edda, composed mainly during the tenth century, that are of very great importance in the history of literature. The name Edda, as applied to this old manuscript of poems, is a fortuitous one, and means poetics. The name was originally applied to a work on poetry by the Icelandic poet and historian, Snorri Sturlason; this work is now known as the Younger Edda, or Prose Edda, while the former is called the Elder Edda, or Poetic Edda, and some-times, but incorrectly, Saemund’s Edda.
There is no doubt about the fact that the Younger Edda is mainly the work of Snorri Sturlason, and hence is an Icelandic product. The home of the Edda poems, however, is not so evident. On account of their very great literary and cultural significance, there has been much discussion as to their origin. It was once thought that they were much older than they really are, and that they were the lyric outburst of the primitive Teutons in the early centuries of our era. Philologists soon saw the ridiculousness of this assumption. It took no account of the fact that the language of the Scandinavians had, during the period from 600 to 800, undergone great and radical changes. It had become so simplified that a poem of the ninth century would take many more words to satisfy the meter than a poem of the seventh century. In other words, it is absolutely certain that the Edda poems could not have been written before 800 A. D. Then, for a time, it was thought that these poems were the common possession of the Scandinavians. But keen literary criticism soon annihilated that assumption. It soon became evident that they belonged either to the Norwegians or their colonists, or both. One of the very greatest scholars of our day in Norway, Professor Sophus Bugge, has devoted years to the study of the Edda poems, and contends that they were written by Norsemen in the British Isles, and that they bear many traces of the contact of the authors with British, especially Celtic, civilization. This was a severe blow to many enthusiastic Norwegians, who had looked upon the Edda poems as an expression of Scandinavian culture. Bugge’s authority was so great, however, that for a time it was conceded that he must be right.
But vigorous protests soon came, especially from German scholars. And, finally, in a great work on the history of old Norse literature, the well-known Icelander, Finnur Jonsson, professor at the University of Copenhagen, a most competent and conscientious scholar, makes emphatic and sweeping denial of Professor Bugge’s theories. Of the thirty-nine Edda poems he assigns, definitely and unequivocally, thirty-one of them to Norway, six to Greenland, and only two to Iceland, his own native country.
If Professor Jonsson’s position proves impregnable, and there is abundant reason to believe that it will, he has done Norway the greatest service imaginable. To demonstrate that Norwegian poets of the tenth-century were the authors of most of the Edda poems is the greatest possible compliment to the intellectual genius of the Norsemen of the Viking Age. For these poems are the high-water mark of pre-Christian civilization, not only in Scandinavia, but in all of the Teutonic countries.
The poems of the Elder Edda have no special connection with each other ; some are complete, others fragmentary, dividing themselves, however, into two classes, one class treating principally of the ancient gods (mythology), and the other treating of the heroes of antiquity, such as the heroes of the Nibelung story as found chiefly in the Volsunga Saga. The form of these poems, like the early poetry of the other Teutonic races, is alliterative verse. The mythic poems do not give any systematic presentation of Norse mythology, the heathen faith. That system has been constructed from them in connection with the mythological stories of the Younger Edda. Many of the poems are huge fragments, wrecks of their former selves, the inevitable result of having been carried down to the age of writing on the lips of skalds or bards. But, as they are practically our only source of Norse mythology, they are of inestimable value.
We are apt to think of the Norsemen of the Viking Age as warriors, and pirates. A study of the Edda poems would convince us, as Longfellow has phrased it, that “the ancient skald smote the strings of his harp with as bold a hand as the Berserk smote his foe.”
We cannot go into a detailed characterization of the Elder Edda. The reader is referred to the chapter on “Books to Read” for references. We submit, how-ever, one quotation from a learned German scholar, the man who did so much many years ago to arouse his countrymen to an appreciation of the great German poem called Das Niebeluugenlied. He says.
“If any monument of the primitive northern world deserves a place among the earlier remains of the South, the Old Norse Edda must be deemed worthy of that distinction. The spiritual veneration for Nature, to which the Greek was an entire stranger, gushes forth in the mysterious language and prophetic traditions of the Edda, with a full tide of enthusiasm and inspiration sufficient to endure for centuries, and to supply a whole race of future bards with a precious and animating elixir.”
This is sufficient to indicate that the Edda lays are very remarkable productions. And, indeed, they do possess a rugged and virile strength and fiery spirit. A mighty passion pulsates through their strainspassions of men and women that are universal and permanent. There are in them titanic strength, profoundest pathos and deepest tragedy.
The old parchment manuscript containing these poems was found in Iceland during the seventeenth century, and was presented by the Icelandic Bishop Brynjolf to the king of Denmark, and hence it is known to scholars as Codex Regius (the royal manuscript). It is still the proud possession of the great royal library of Copenhagen. The manuscript was written during the latter part of the thirteenth century, in Iceland; but this fact is, of course, no proof that the poems were produced there. It is, moreover, certain that the present manuscript is a copy of an older one, now lost.
A complete translation into English prose of the Edda poems may be found in a very learned work on old Norse poetry, entitled Corpus Poeticum Boreale, published by Vigfusson and Powell of Oxford. Extracts in metrical translation may be found in the
various works on Norse mythology.
We cannot undertake in this brief chapter to give an adequate account of the contents of the Elder Edda; they are too vast and varied for a brief treatment. But a mere glimpse is worth something. Here is a prose translation of some selected stanzas from a poem entitled Havamal (The High Song). It is full of wise and pithy saws, and treats of the conduct of life, the duty of hospitality, etc. Odin himself is represented as the speaker.
“A man that travels far needs his wits about him ; anything will pass at home. He that knows nought makes himself a gazing-stock when he sits among wise folk. . . . The wary guest who comes to his meal keeps a watchful silence.
But he that gabbles over a meal, little knows but that his baying will bring his foes upon him. . . . No man can bear better baggage on his way than wisdom; in strange places it is better than wealth. It is the wretched man’s comfort. . . . No man can bear better bag-gage on his way than wisdom; no worse wallet can he carry on his way than ale-bibbing.
He that never is silent talks much folly. A glib tongue, unless it be bridled, will often talk a man into trouble. . Chattels die; kinsmen pass away ; one dies oneself ; but good report never dies from the man that gained it.
Anything is better than to be false ; he is no friend who only speaks to please. . The fool thinks he shall live forever if he keep out of battle ; but old age gives him no quarter, though the spears may. . A fool thinks all that smile on him are his friends; but when he goes into court he shall find few advocates. . . . Every man of foresight should use his power with moderation ; for he will find when he comes among valiant men that no man is peerless. . A man should be merry at home and cheerful with his guests, genial, of good manners and ready speech, if he will be held a man of good parts. A good man is in every one’s mouth. Arch dunce is he who can speak nought, for that is the mark of a fool. . . . Tell one man [thy secret] but not two; what three know all the world knows. . . . He should rise be-times that would win. The slumbering wolf seldom gets a joint; nor the sleeping man victory. . Go on! Be not a guest ever in the same house. Welcome becomes Wearisome if he sit too long at another’s table.”
Another poem has these wise words:
“I counsel thee : Never let a bad man know thy mishaps; for of a bad man thou shalt never get good reward for thy sincerity. . . . Be not the first to break off with thy friend. Sorrow will eat thy heart if thou lackest a friend to open thy heart to. . . . Never bandy words with mindless apes, for thou wilt never get good reward from an ill man’s mouth ; but a good man will make thee strong in good favor and man’s good will.”
This will indicate that the Edda poems do not all deal with mythologygods and demi-gods. And here
is a fine bit of verse which shows how well our old Norse cousins understood the feeling for “Home, Sweet Home” :
“A homestead is best Though it be small ; A man is master at home. Though he has but two goats And a straw-thatched roof, It is better far than begging.”
“Early should rise He who has few workers And go at once to his work; Many things hinder Him who sleeps in the morning. Half one’s wealth depends on activity.”
And, again, here is another bit of the same poem, celebrating the responsibilities of hospitality on the part of a man who does have a home.
“Hail my host ! A guest has come in ; Where shall he sit? In hot haste he Who has to try His luck on snow-shoes.
Fire is needed By him who comes in Benumbed in his knees. Food and clothes Are needed by one Who has traveled over the mountain.
Water is needed By the one Who comes to the meal, A towel and hearty welcome, Good-will If he can get it ; Talk and answer.”
This is, in brief, the conclusion of one poet’s observations–evidently it grew directly out of life experience in a land of long winters: ___
“Fire is the best thing Among the sons of men ; And the light of the sun ; His good health If a man can keep it; And a blameless life.”
In this chapter we can only mention the Sagas, for they belong almost wholly to Iceland. They are of great importance to Norway, however, as much of early Norwegian history was written by the Icelanders. “The Sagas of the Norse Kings,” by Snorri Sturlason is of especial interest. and importance. It covers a period from the earliest times to the year 1177. It was written by a man who had a genius for the dramatic presentation of events ; it is one of the great history-books of the world. The lives of other Norse kings were written by other competent Icelandic historians, so that Norway, thanks mainly to the Icelanders, has a comprehensive and reliable record of her ancient history.
The period of greatest literary activity in Norway was during the epoch 850 to 1100. The two succeeding centuries were the greatest in Icelandic literary history. That is, these were the two principal creative periods of Old Norse literature. Much was done in Iceland after 1300, but nothing of vital importance in the way of original production. One of the great works of Old Norse literature was, however, written in Norway about the middle of the thirteenth century. It is of much cultural significance, as it gives a peep into many of the finer phases of civilization in ancient Norway. The author was a sort of Chesterfield of the thirteenth century, and undertakes, in the form of a dialogue between father and son, to give instruction in morals and manners, and other useful knowledge. The title of the work, The King’s Mirror, (Speculum Regale, in Latin), indicates that the work was intended quite as much for princes and kings, as for merchants and peasants. The work is the product of a well-disciplined man of much and varied experience, and of good common-sense. It is worthy of being much better known even in Norway than it now is.
The King’s Mirror is a fitting conclusion to Nor-way’s ancient literature. Something over a century afterwards Norway became united with Denmark, when, as we have shown in a previous chapter, the old Norse language as a literary language gradually went out of use, much as Anglo-Saxon in England began to decline as a result of the Norman invasion.
The four centuries of the union with Denmark are the Dark Age of Norway’s intellectual life, due, no doubt, to some extent, to the stifling effect of the political situation, but quite as much to internal causesa sort of disintegration of the national spirit after the devastating effects of the internecine wars of previous centuries. But this age was not entirely one of darkness and intellectual stagnation. In spite of all that has been said against this period, historians are beginning to understand, as time goes on, that the national stagnation of the union-period had its recompenses. But for the isolation that the valleys of Norway experienced before the beginning of the nineteenth century, modern Norway might not have had anything of importance either in the way of folk-music or folk-literature. As it is, the folk-music and folk-literature of Norway far surpass those of England, France or Germany. Denmark and Sweden have a finer ballad literature than Norway, but Norway’s folk-songs and folk-lore stories are superior to those of Denmark and Sweden. But for the preservation of Norway’s folk-music, the characteristic Norwegian flavor and coloring of Edvard Grieg’s modern compositions would have been impossible.
Before the great awakening that took place in Nor-way in 1814, there were very few literary men that lived and wrote in Norway. During the latter part of the seventeenth century, however, there lived in one of the northern provinces (Nordland) a Norwegian poet-priest by the name of Petter Dass, who broke the long silence by a work which he significantly called Nordlands Trompet. It was written in Danish and was for those times a spirited and pleasing description in verse of home scenery, life and customs. It became immensely popular, and is, in fact, still a favorite with many old-fashioned readers. He wrote a large number of occasional poems, and also versified paraphrases of Bible history and Luther’s Catechism. His works were not published until after his death (1708). During his life they were circulated in manuscript copies.
After Petter Dass, Norway produced a literary genius, Ludvig Holberg, whose work was of the very greatest importance in the development of Danish literature. He was reared in Norway, but lived and wrote in Copenhagen, where he became a professor at the university. He is called the father of modern Danish literature. The great task that he took upon himself was to free the Danes from a paralyzing foreign influence in their intellectual life. This he did through his comedies. He was a man of great linguistic talent, broad learning, extensive travel, inimitable wit, and unusual good sense. His works are still read in Norway and Denmark with the keenest zest. He died in 1754 at the age of seventy. The square in Bergen (Holberg’s birthplace), from which we look across to Valkendorf Tower (Position 52) was named for Holberg.
Christian Tullin (1728-1765) was the second poet of any importance, who, during the union period, belonged entirely to Norway. He lived in Christiania. He wrote lyric poems of a high order of merit. In fact, Dana-Norwegian lyric poetry begins with him.
During the latter quarter of the eighteenth century there were many talented young Norwegians in Copenhagen. Norway had no university (the University of Christiania was not established until 1811), and so these young men went to Copenhagen to study. Among them were a number who made their mark in literature. Johan Nordahl Brun wrote the first original tragedy that was played at the Copenhagen theatre ; but he was better known as a lyric poet than as a dramatist. He was the author of some ringing patriotic songs that are still sung. Later he became a famous preacher, in Bergen, and wrote some fine hymns. But the greatest of the Norwegian writers of this period was Johan Herman Wessel (1742-1785). In many respects he was a shiftless fellow, but he was highly gifted as a satirist, and won lasting fame by a comedy entitled Love Without Stockings, a brilliant parody on the French tragedies much in vogue in Copenhagen at that time.
The separation of Norway and Denmark came in 1814, the result of political machinations during the Napoleonic wars. The Norwegians were prepared for the change, and wrote a free constitution that still is the fundamental law of the land. It has vouchsafed to Norway a democratic form of government second to none in the world. Under the circumstances it was but natural that Norway should develop along political, social and literary lines independent of Den-mark. During the first years after the separation, Norwegian poets sang of their new-found liberty with the bombastic exuberance of youth. Then, from 1830 to 1840, there followed a period of fierce literary controversy between two intellectual giants, Wergeland and Welhaven, the former standing for Norwegian literary independence, and the latter urging the necessity of keeping up the intellectual ties with Denmark. Wergeland, like Bjornson, was an ardent patriot, a poet of the people, and a thoroughly democratic spirit, while Welhaven, like Ibsen, was a keen and scathing critic, and a born aristocrat in spirit. But the clash between the two tendencies that they represented did much to clear the air and pave the way for the new literature that was to come. Wergeland died in 1844, at the early age of thirty-six, but he was, nevertheless, one of the most prolific writers that the Scandinavian north has ever produced, and, withal, a genius of monumental proportions. Modern Norwegian literature begins with Henrik Wergeland. He is the first poet of the regenerated nation. And he is also the most significant personage in the generation that succeeded the adoption of the free constitution of 1814. He is not only the lark that ushers in the new day, but he appears also in the more prosy role of being the first to bare his arm for the work of pre-paring the common people for the new citizenship, and he succeeded in doing more than any other man in the way of banishing ignorance and superstition. For when he appeared on the scene, Norway was, as he says in one of his poems, “a neglected field, full of tares.” Wergeland’s name is not revered by the people of Norway on account of his greatest literary productions (poems like “The Swallow” and “The Flower Piece”), but for his lyrics, and especially for the fact that he was the enthusiastic and untiring teacher and guide of his peoplea tocsin in the watch-tower of the new nation.
One of Wergeland’s best-known poems, “The English Pilot,” contains the following description of that beautiful country district of which we have a few glimpses when we visit Odde (Stereographs 39-41).
“If a spot on earth be found Where, responsive to the alluring Voice of Nature, so beguiling, Grief will cease to be enduring, Then that spot must be forever In fair, beautiful Hardanger.
If there be a place so blest, Where from lonely, flower-clad valley Mountains rear their silvery crest Toward high heaven majestically; And where, from behind the screen Of a birch-wood may be seen Peeping out a cottage lowly, O, where find you so much grace, Such exemption from all clangour, Such retreats, such peaceful ways, Say, where is there such a place But in beautiful Hardanger?”
Welhaven’s first poetical works were polemical, directed against his great contemporary. But later in life his poems were romantic and lyrical in tone and temper. He was a master of form; there was in his smooth array of phrase almost painful accuracy in meter and diction. Some of his later poems are among the very finest products of Norwegian literary genius, and they are still widely read. Welhaven was born a century ago (1807) and died in 1873. He was for many years a professor in the University of Christiania.
When the intellectual combat of the 30′s, surcharged more or less with political ideas and aspirations, was waning, a new literary movement set in, known as national romanticism. Some scholars had found that the Norwegian peasantry was in possession of a seemingly inexhaustible fund of popular ballads and folk-lore stories. Competent literary men devoted themselves to garnering these rich treasuresand none too soon. Another generation might have been too late, for the railroad, telegraph and telephone are not conservers of such things. Here then were new themes for poet and artist, and they have been utilized to the fullest extent.
The man who did the most to rescue ballad literature was the minister and hymnologist, Magnus B. Landstad, while the two men who applied themselves to the collecting of folk-lore stories were P. C. Asbjornsen and Jurgen Moe. They did a great cultural work for the country in a most masterful way. It required good judgment, indefatigable zeal, and great literary discernment and skill to select and properly present these stories. The measure of their success may be indicated by the fact that the great German folk-lorist, Jacob Grimm, once declared that the Norwegian stories collected by Asbjornsen and Moe were the best folklore stories in the world. They are well known to English and American readers, as most of them have been translated. (See the last chapter for references.)
In connection with the interest in ballads and folk-lore stories there was an intense interest in Norwegian scenery and popular life in general. This romantic movement lasted until about 1870 (which date marks the advent of modern realism), and found its best expression in Bjornson’s peasant stories, of which we shall speak later.
We have tried in the foregoing to say something to indicate the early movements in Norwegian literature, without attempting anything comprehensive. We have felt compelled to pass over the discussion of such important names as P. A. Munch, the author of a great work on Norwegian history, an original investigator of marvelous ability and attainments; Camilla Collett, the sister of Henrik Wergeland, a fine writer, and the first champion of woman’s rights in Norway; Ivar Aasen (whom we have spoken of as a philologist), the first poet to write in the peasant language or Landsmaal; and Aasmund O. Vinje, who, like Aasen, wrote mainly in Landsmaal. As a poet Vinje was more gifted than Aasen. He had a full vein of grim Norse humor, and was strikingly original and erratic. Some of his poems are among the finest gems of Norwegian literature.
The two greatest names of modern Norwegian literature are, of course, Henrik Ibsen and Bjornstjerne Bjornson. We shall tell something of the lives of these intellectual giants, but there are others that deserve mention. In fact, modern Norway has produced a host of writers, several of whom would have been more conspicuous in the eyes of the world but for the overshadowing influence of Ibsen and Bjornson. There is Jonas Lie, born in 1833, only a year younger than Bjornson, a most prolific novelist, who has long held high rank. His first book The Visionary, or more correctly translated, The Man of Second Sight, was a mature story and won immediate success. The scene is laid in a region at that time new to literature, the mystic nature of the melancholy norththe arctic world of northern Norway. The Pilot and His Wife is the one of his novels best known to American readers. The list of his works is a long one. He is now an old man, but has not yet dropped his pen. Alexander Kielland, the second great modern novelist, was more brilliant than Lie His first novelettes (1879) attracted immediate attention, on account of their elegant diction; they showed him a skilled artist, and novel upon novel, picturing phases of modern life, followed in quick succession. His Skipper Worse (1882), a study in the psychology of fanaticism, is possibly the best-told story in Norwegian literature. Some of his novelettes have been translated by William Archer in a volume entitled Tales of Two Countries. Skipper Worse has been published in England, but not in this country. Kiel-land died in April, 1906.
Arne Garborg, too, is a writer of commanding importance. Garborg was born in 1851, the son of a very pietistic peasant. He is the greatest living representative of the Landsmaal movement, and has written mainly in that language, although he writes equally well in Dana-Norwegian. He is a literary artist of great skill. It is not too much to say that he has shown a wider range of power than any of the other great writers of Norway. He not only is a creative artist with vivid fancy, but he has the critical and controversial faculty in equally high degree. In a comparatively few years he has run the gamut of all the principal phases of our complicated modern literary movements from romanticism to mysticism. His principal works are stories and novels, but one of them, Haugtussa (1895), a story in verse, is a work of such lyric loveliness that it places Garborg worthily by the side of Bjornson as a poet. Indeed, as a creative artist and an intellectual force, he ranks with Ibsen, Bjornson, Lie and Kielland. In recent years Garborg has taken to religious speculation, much in the manner of Tolstoi. His last work, published in 1906, is entitled Jesus Messias.
And now we must turn again to Ibsen and Bjornson, the two men who have done more than all others to make the name of Norway honored and respected abroad. They are not only great as Norwegians, but also in a cosmopolitan sense. In the realm of creative literature they rank with the greatest minds of the nineteenth century. Some critics place Ibsen’s dramas at the very head of all Europe’s creative literature of the last century.
Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien, down in southern Norway, in 1828. At the age of sixteen, he left his home to shift for himself. His father had once been a prosperous merchant, but reverses came when the son was eight years of age. It was young Ibsen’s ambition to be a painter, but stern necessity landed him in an apothecary shop in a small seaport town in southern Norway. Here he remained five years, during which time he won some local fame as a writer of verse, and produced his first drama, Catilina, based on his studies in Latin. In 1850, at the age of twenty-two, he went tip to Christiania, intending to study medicine. While preparing for the university examinations, he wrote a drama in the romantic vein, which was accepted by the Christiania theatre. After having passed the university examinations he decided not to become a student, but entered journalism instead. In Christiania he had made the acquaintance of Ole Bull, and in 1851 he was called to Bergen as artistic director of Ole Bull’s theatre. In this position he remained until 1857, during which time he wrote five dramas. In 1858, after his return to Christiania to take charge of the theatre, he wrote an historical drama called The Warriors of Helgeland, an excellent piece of dramatic composition, indicative of the serious literary work he had done while in Bergen. The language of it was direct and pithy as that of an old Norse saga, instinct with rugged and virile strength. The public was, however, not prepared for the appreciation of such a dramatic masterpiece. Bjornson’s peasant stories were more to their liking. Although a younger man, Bjornson was the first to win public recognition. Not even Ibsen’s two succeeding works, Love’s Comedy (1862) and The Pretenders (1864), both of a high order of literary merit, gave him either reputation or a livelihood. His prospects seemed dark indeed. He felt that if he was to continue in a literary career it was necessary for him to get away from Norway and see the great, wide world, so as to get new impulses. Conscious of his own artistic powers, he applied to the government for a traveling stipend, and this, after much opposition, was finally granted in 1864, whereupon he began that period of voluntary exile that continued, with the exception of two brief visits, until 1891; then he returned to Christiania, where he remained until his death, in May, 1906.
The years of Ibsen’s long sojourn abroad were spent mainly in Italy and Germany. He first went to Rome, where he was pinched with poverty. But during these months of spiritual struggle he wrote one of his greatest works, namely, Brand. Soon after its publication he felt the need of further financial aid, in order to continue his literary work. In dire distress he petitioned the king of Norway and Sweden; in his letter he tells something of the aim of his life:
“It is not for a care-free existence I am fighting, but for the possibility of devoting myself to the task which I believe and know has been laid upon me by Godthe work which seems to me more needful and important in Norway than any other, that of arousing the nation and leading it to think great thoughts.”
His first notable successes were Brand (published in 1866) and Peer Gynt (1867), both dramatic studies of universal import, cast in vigorous and original poetic form. Critics, indeed, were by no means agreed in recognizing the poetic quality of his work, but concerning Peer Gynt he wrote to Bjornson, undismayed by the disapproval of conservatives:
“My book is poetry. If it is not, then it will be. The conception of poetry shall be made to conform to the book. . . . I will and shall have a victory some day.”
As he explained in another of his letters, recently published (in 1905) :
“Most critical fault finding, when reduced to its essentials, simply amounts to reproach of the author, because he is himselfthinks, feels, sees and creates, as himself, instead of seeing and creating in the way the critic would have doneif he had been able. The great thing, therefore, is to hedge about what is one’s own-to keep it free and clear from everything outside that has no connection with it; and, furthermore, to be extremely careful in discriminating between what one has observed and what one has experienced, because only this last can be the theme for creative work. If we attend strictly to this, no everyday, commonplace subject will be too prosaic to be sublimated into poetry.”
A number of dramas written previous to the success of Brand and Peer Gynt have since gained a wide reading, notably The Banquet at Solhaug; Mis
tress Inger at Ostraat; The Warriors at Helgeland; Love’s Comedy, and The Pretenders. The best known of his works were written after the production of
Brand and Peer Gynt, and, as were these, during a long absence on the continent. Emperor and Galilean, published in 1873, was the outgrowth of study and re-search in Italy, but the social plays (written in prose)
take their themes from contemporary Norse life, and together constitute a masterly study of human nature. The titles and dates of his social dramas in prose are:
The Young Men’s Union, (1869) Pillars of Society, (1877) A Doll’s House, (1879) Ghosts, (1881) An Enemy of the People, (1882) The Wild Duck, (1884) Rosmersholm, (1886) The Lady from the Sea, (1888) Hedda Gabler, (1890) Architect Solness, (1892) Little Eyolf, (1894) John Gabriel Borkman, (1896) When We Dead Awake, (1899)
The editors of Ibsen’s Letters, published during the last year of the author’s life, say:”The degree in which Ibsen has impressed himself on the national consciousness as an artistic and intellectual power has varied very much in different countries. But a poet of world-wide fame he has undoubtedly become at lastthe Norwegian author whose struggle was at first such a hard one.”
Many people have been deterred from giving respectful consideration to Ibsen on account of the sweeping denunciation that he so often has been subjected to. And this is not strange; for, as a rule, great and original genius, especially in literature, is recognized and respected only after a desperate struggle. Ibsen had more than one such struggle. And surely no other author was ever so well equipped to bear opposition. Adversity never succeeded in cowing him. In the matter of opposition he fared as badly at home as abroad. But the attitude of the public gradually changed. When Ibsen, on the 20th of March, 1898, celebrated his seventieth birthday, he received such homage from both countrymen and foreigners as no writer ever before or since has received. The occasion gave ample evidence of the fact that as a poet, as a literary and dramatic artist, and as a man, he had attained eminent distinction.
Bjornstjerne Bjornson is not the greatest poet that Norway has produced; in certain lines of literary activity Ibsen far surpassed him. Henrik Wergeland was a greater genius than either, but the wings of his poetic fancy too often carried him into ethereal realms, where it was possible for but few to follow. Wergeland is often called “the poet of liberty,” and he earned the title. Bjornson is in a peculiar sense the intellectual child of Wergeland. And yet Bjornson, not Wergeland, is the national poet, and in a deeper and truer sense than most national poets. As a young man he wrote a national hymn that superseded all the older ones ; it is one of the finest national songs in the world, and everybody in Norway is familiar with its ringing words. He has written many other poems to fire the patriotic spirit of his people. To promote their welfare he has unweariedly applied all the powers of his great genius.
Four hundred years of foreign rule left its mark on the Norwegian people. The efforts of patriotic poets, historians and statesmen of the nineteenth century were to arouse the people to a realization of the in-dependent national life of old, and, on the basis of this awakened consciousness, to build a new national lifein politics, in literature, in music and in art. And these efforts bore a golden harvest; national in-dependence, a free constitution, no nobility, freedom of the press, free schools, an enlightened and patriotic peoplethese are the achievements of less than a century. As a result there is a vigor, charm and “open-eyed modernness” about Norway’s intellectual life that has attracted the attention of the world. It reads her literature, plays her music, appreciates her art, and approves her politics. As William Archer of England has said:”It is surely no hyperbole to describe as marvellous the spiritual efflorescence which, from the small beginnings of national life in 1814, has produced the Norway of to-day.”
No one man has contributed more toward this glad consummation than Bjornson. He has not been a mere poet and dreamer. He thinks it useless to have high and noble ideals unless we seek to put them into practice. This he has conscientiously and persistently sought to do. He has not held himself aloof from the people. He has personally, with tongue and pen, taken conspicuous part in every political, social and literary combat of his timesand they have been fierce and numerous. Through his ardent advocacy of re-form movements he has brought upon himself the wrath of many, but the gratitude of more. Impelled by a spirit of rugged manliness, and in spite of the evil prophecies of his opponents, Bjornson has gone steadily on, and to-day his crown of fame shines with brighter lustre than ever before. There can be no better proof of this than the honor that was shown him both at home and abroad in December, 1902, on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of his birth. There were carping critics here and there, and the clergy, in view of his attitude toward the church, maintained a dignified silence ; but considering the numerous and vehement combats in which he has been engaged, the all-but unanimous sentiments of recognition and good-will were phenomenal, and touched the old poet deeply.
It is in Bjornson’s oratory that all the great powers of his richly endowed nature have most strikingly revealed themselves. He has more of the qualities that go to make a great orator than any man living. He has the gift of speech, the voice, the personality and address, the magnetic power, the originality-of presentation, and a fund of earnest and forceful thought that mark the great orator. In addition to these rare qualities, he is a born actor, a lyric poet, a novelist, a dramatisttalents that enhance and illumine his oratorical gifts. Pleading the cause of truth and justice before a large audience, he is irresistible. Born and reared in a small country, speaking a language that is understood by but few, his oratorical powers have not had adequate scope for their greatest possibilities. If he had had the great questions to grapple with that Webster and Lincoln had, he would doubt-less have been known to the world as an orator, rather than as a poet. But he has used well the opportunities that his nation has presented. There are but few of his countrymen that have not been stirred by his mighty eloquence.
Bjornson was born December 8, 1832, in Kvikne parish, in Osterdal, a valley in eastern Norway. Most of his childhood was spent in Romsdal, in the west-ern part of the country. He went to school at Molde, and later studied at the University of Christiania. But, as had been the case with Ibsen, he soon gave up his studies and entered actively into journalism, where he made his influence distinctly felt. From the early ’50′s to the present time he has been a constant contributor to the daily press; the amount of his work in the journalistic field is enormous. At different times he has edited papers in both Christiania and Bergen. He has also been director of the theatres in both of these cities.
Even before he began to write for the newspapers, Bjornson had begun to write short stories. His first novel, Synnove Solbakken, appeared in 1857, and proved epoch-making in Scandinavian literature. Its theme was the simplest thing in the world, the development of a raw, rough country boy into a man and the part played by love in his transformation. Two other peasant stories followed, now widely known both in the original and in translations: Arne (1858), and A Happy Boy (1860). These stories brought the thoughts and aspirations of the Norwegian peasantry into literature. Possibly more than anything else literary, they have been a source of pleasure and profit to the Norwegian people. Peasants have read them and have learned to know their better selves. City folk have read them and have learned to know the peasants, and to appreciate the fact that under the coarse homespun of the peasant there may be a heart that beats warmly for the high and noble things of life. Thus a distinct and beneficent result has been wrought by these simple tales.
Edmund Gosse, the English critic, has said of them:
“Through these little romances there blows a wind as fragrant and refreshing as the odor of the Trondhjem balsam willows blown out to sea to welcome the new comer; and just as this rare scent is the first thing that tells the traveler of Norway, so the purity of Bjornson’s novelettes is usually the first thing to attract a foreigner to Norwegian literature.”
Bjornson’s later novels are mostly studies of the somber and tragic aspects of life. They deal with the great questions of education, religion and public and domestic duties. He discusses these modern themes, not to satisfy a cynical frame of mind, but to enlighten, rectify and improve. Here is a list of them:
The Fisher Maiden, (1868) Magnhild, (1877) Captain Mansana, (1879) Flags are Flying in City and Harbor, (1884) In the Paths of God, (1886) Absalom’s Hair, (1894) Mary, (1906)
Painful as certain of these stories are in the reading, their essential nobility of spirit is always evident. Bjornson loves his country as few other Norsemen have ever loved it, and, when he pictures drearily or sordidly evil conditions in Norwegian society, he does it not merely as an artist, concerned only with the technique of his own work, but as a surgeon, laboring to further, by means of fine technique, a needed amelioration of the facts.
The same statement holds with certain of his published plays, though these do not all deal with con-temporary life in Norway. Several are historic, taking their themes from the heroic traditions of old Norse Sagas. Comparatively few of the dramas are readily accessible in English. The order of their production has been as follows:
Between the Battles, (1857) Lame Hulda, (1858) King Sverre, (1861) Sigurd Slembe, (1862) Mary Stuart in Scotland,(1864) The Newly Married, (1865) Sigurd Jorsalfar, (1873) The Editor (1875) Bankruptcy (1875) The King, (1877) Leonardo, (1879) The New System (1879) A Gauntlet, (1883) Over Evne, (1883) Love and Geography, (1885) Over AEvne II, (1895) Laboremus, (1901) At Storhove, (1902)
It is perhaps Bjornson’s verse that most endears him to his own people. There are some charming lyrics set in his country story of Arne. This is one of them:
“Through the forest the boy wends all day long For there he has heard such a wonderful song;
He carved him a flute of the willow tree And tried what the tune within it might be.
The tune came out of it, sad and gay, But while he listened, it passed away.
He fell asleep and once more it sung, And over his forehead it lovingly hung.
He thought he would catch it, and wildly woke, And the tune in the pale night faded and broke.
`O, God, my God, take me up to Thee, For the tune Thou hast made is consuming me.
And the Lord God said, “Tis a friend divine; Though never one hour shalt thou hold it thine,
Yet all other music is poor and thin By the side of this which thou never shalt win.”‘
Others of his works in verse are household words among well educated Norse people, just like Long-fellow’s poems in American households ; unfortunately not many of them have been translated into English. This fragment is quite characteristic:
“‘Tis April tunes my lyre ! Then all that’s old is falling; The new life loud is calling, Who heeds the storm and clatter? Than peace there’s something better, The ardor of desire!”
The author once said of himself and his verses:
“People have a notion that a poet is a long-haired man, who sits on the top of a tower and plays upon a harp, while his hair streams in the wind. A fine kind of poet is that ! NoI am a poet not primarily because I can write verse (there are lots of people who can do that), but by virtue of seeing more clearly and feeling more truly than the majority of men. All that concerns humanity concerns me.”
Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen, who was a personal friend and great admirer of Bjornson, said in his Essays on Scandinavian Literature:
“Bjornstjerne Bjornson is the first Norwegian poet who can in any sense be called national. The national genius, with its limitations as well as its virtues, has found its living embodiment in him. Whenever he opens his mouth, it is as if the nation itself were speaking. His tales, romances and dramas express collectively the supreme result of the nation’s experiences, so that no one to-day can view Norwegian life or Norwegian history except through their medium.”
Bjornson’s home, Aulestad, in Gausdal, a valley in eastern Norway, is one of the finest estates in the country. It has become so through the inspirational idealism of the poet and the practical energy of his son Erling. Forty years ago the father wrote in a poem :”Every acre that we add to our fields, every ship that we launch on the sea, every child’s soul that we unfold, every illuminating thought that we express, every deed that augments and preserves, is an added province to our domainthe staunch vanguard of our freedom.” This he has preached, and this he has practised. Thirty years ago he bought the farm Aulestad, beautifully situated on the mountain-side, with a grand view of the broad valley below ; but it was covered with copse and stones. He resolved to make it productive and beautifula model farm and home. When the peasants saw how perseveringly his laborers worked year after year, hauling away stones, they shook their heads and wondered if it would pay, conceding, however, that he was himself practising what he had been preaching in his poems and in his speeches.
At the turn of the century, after years of well-directed effort, all possibilities for the improvement of the estate seemed to have been realized. The peasants wondered what the poet now would do. But father and son continued to dream and plan and work. Across one edge of the farm flowed a little mountain stream. Where it shot over a slight precipice, it had served as a much-used shower bath. But the thought occurred to the poet that possibly this seemingly in-significant stream, which had murmured and rippled down the mountain-side for thousands of years, was like the spade and ax and nut in the Norwegian folklore story that were “waiting for you”opportunity waiting for the man.
The first thought was the important thing. The rest was easy enough. Three years afterwards the noisy brook was transformed into electric light, so that Aulestad at night seems now like a fairyland to the wondering peasants.
But this is not all. Besides furnishing a flood of light for the houses and barns and stables, and an are light for the courtyard, this stream now furnishes the power for threshing the grain, and grinding feed for the whole neighborhood; it saws all the wood for the farm, and, moreover, cuts and planes all the lumber needed at Aulestad and in the whole surrounding district. It was not strange that the peasants had wondered at the possibilities of this brook, which had been simply humming and singing for centuries “and thinking of everything and nothing.”
The practical American needs not to be told of the work and money necessary to bring about such fine results. He will immediately suspect that there is a good head of water in some adjacent mountain lake. But this needed to be dammed up, so that the supply could be regulated. The course of the stream had to be changed, so as to obtain an effective fall. The practical American also knows that all this labor and expense would make costly light for one farm, which was the first object of the enterprise, so that the next step was to make the plant a direct source of income by serving the public.
Can any one doubt that this dreaming, yet in-tensely practical poet, is an inspiration to his country-men? And is it strange that a modern poet is content to live in the country under such conditions? “I am never so happy,” he says, “as when, after having been abroad for a season, I return to Aulestad. To me it is the finest place in the world. There, and only there, I feel at home.”
Aulestad is one of the best-known places in Norway. It is annually visited by hundreds of sight-seers and tourists from all parts of the world, and Bjornson, in good old Norwegian fashion, dispenses generous hospitality to all.