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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)

By Björnstjerne Björnson (1832–1910)

OF the two great writers who have, more than any others, made it possible for Norway to share in the comity of intellectual intercourse so characteristic of the modern literary movement, it must be granted that Björnson is, more distinctly than Ibsen, the representative of their common nationality. Both are figures sufficiently commanding to belong, in a sense, to the literature of the whole world, and both have had a marked influence upon the ideals of other peoples than that from which they sprung; but the wider intellectual scope of Ibsen has been gained at some sacrifice of the strength that comes from taking firm root in one’s native soil, and speaking first and foremost to the hearts of one’s fellow-countrymen. What we may call the cosmopolitan standpoint of the greater part of his work has made its author less typically a Norwegian than Björnson has always remained. It is not merely that the one writer has chosen to spend the best years of his life in countries not his own, while the other has never long absented himself from the scarred and storm-beaten shores of the land, rich in historic memories and “dreams of the saga-night,” that gave him birth and nurture. Turgenev lived apart from his fellow-countrymen for as many years as Ibsen has done, yet remained a Russian to the core. It is rather a difference of native intellectual bent that has left Björnson to stand as the typical representative of the Norwegian spirit, while the most famous of his contemporaries has given himself up to the pursuit of abstractions, and has been swept along by a current of thought resulting from the confluence of many streams. The intensely national character of Björnson’s manifold activity is well illustrated by a remark of Georg Brandes, to the effect that mention of Björnson’s name in the presence of any gathering of Norwegians is like running up the national flag. And it seems, on the whole, that the sum total of his literary achievement must be reckoned the greatest to be set down to the credit of any one Norwegian since Norway began to develop a literature of her own. Far nobler and finer than that of either Wergeland or Welhaven, the two most conspicuous of his predecessors, this achievement is challenged by that of Ibsen alone, and even then in but a single aspect. It is only as dramatists that suspense of judgment between the two men is for a moment admissible; as a poet the superiority of Björnson is unquestionable, while his rank as the greatest of Norwegian novelists is altogether beyond dispute.

The chief facts of Björnson’s life may be briefly set forth. The son of a parish priest, he was born December 8th, 1832, at Kvikne. When the boy was six years of age, his family removed to the Romsdal, and a few years later Björnstjerne was sent to school at Molde. His childhood was thus passed in the midst of the noblest scenery of Norway, and in regions of the richest legendary association. The austere sublimity of the Jötunheim—the home of the frost-giants—first impressed his childish sensibilities, but was soon exchanged for the more varied and picturesque but hardly less magnificent scenery of the western fjords. At the age of seventeen the boy was sent to school in Christiania, and in 1852 entered the University. Instead of devoting himself to his studies, he wrote a play called ‘Valborg,’ which was actually accepted by the management of the Christiania Theatre. The piece was, however, never printed or even performed; for the author became so conscious of its imperfections that he withdrew it from rehearsal. But it gave him the entrée of the playhouse, a fact which did much to determine the direction of his literary activities. He left the University with his course uncompleted, and for two or three years thereafter supported himself by journalism. In 1857, at the age of twenty-four, his serious literary career began with the publication of ‘Synnöve Solbakken,’ his first novel, and ‘Mellem Slagene’ (Between the Battles), his first printed dramatic work. In this year also, upon the invitation of Ole Bull, he went to Bergen, where he remained for two years as director of the theatre. In 1860 he secured from the government a traveling stipend, and spent the greater part of the next two years abroad, mostly in Rome, busily writing all the time. Returning to Norway, he has since remained there for the most part, although his winters have frequently been spent in other countries. For a long time he lived regularly in Paris several months of each year; one winter (1879–80) he was the guest of the Grand Duke of Meiningen; the following (1880–81) he spent in the United States, lecturing in many cities. Since 1874 his Norwegian home has been at Aulestad in the Gausdal, where he has an estate, and occupies a capacious dwelling—half farm-house, half villa—whose broad verandas look out upon the charming open landscape of Southern Norway. For the last twenty years he has been almost as conspicuous a figure in the political as in the literary arena, and the recognized leader of the Norwegian republican movement. Numerous kinds of social and religious controversy have also engaged his attention, and made his life a stirring one in many ways.

In attempting to classify Björnson’s writings for the purpose of rendering some critical account of the man’s work, the first impulse is to group them into the three divisions of fiction, lyric, and drama. But the most obvious fact of his long literary life is after all not so much that he has done great work in all three of these fundamental forms, as that the whole spirit and method of his work, whatever the form, underwent a radical transformation about midway in his career. For the first twenty years of his active life, roughly speaking, he was an artist pure and simple; during the subsequent twenty years, also roughly speaking, he has been didactic, controversial, and tendencious. (The last word is good Spanish and German and ought to be good English.) For the purpose of the following summary analysis, I have therefore thought it best to make the fundamental grouping chronological rather than formal, since the plays and the novels of the first period have much more in common with one another than either the plays or the novels of the first period have in common with the plays or the novels of the second.

Björnson’s work in lyrical and other non-dramatic poetry belongs almost wholly to the first period. It consists mainly of short pieces scattered through the idyllic tales and saga-plays that nearly make up the sum of his activity in its purely creative and poetic phase. Some of these lyrics strike the very highest and purest note of song, and have secured lasting lodgment on the lips of the people. One of them, indeed, has become pre-eminently the national song of Norway, and may be heard wherever Norsemen are gathered together upon festal occasions. It begins in this fashion:—

  • “Ay, we love this land of ours,
  • Crowned with mountain domes;
  • Storm-scarred o’er the sea it towers
  • With a thousand homes.
  • Love it, as with love unsated
  • Those who gave us birth,
  • While the saga-night, dream-weighted,
  • Broods upon our earth.”
  • Another patriotic song, hardly less popular, opens with the following stanza:—
  • “There’s a land where the snow is eternally king,
  • To whose valleys alone come the joys of the spring,
  • Where the sea beats a shore rich with lore of the past,
  • But this land to its children is dear to the last.”
  • The fresh beauty of such songs as these is, however, almost utterly uncommunicable in another language. Somewhat more amenable to the translator is the song ‘Over de Höje Fjelde’ (Over the Lofty Mountains), which occurs in ‘Arne,’ and which is perhaps the best of Björnson’s lyrics. An attempt at a version of this poem will be found among the illustrative examples appended to the present essay. The scattered verses of Björnson were collected into a volume of ‘Digte og Sange’ (Poems and Songs) in 1870, and in the same year was published ‘Arnljot Gelline,’ the author’s only long poem not dramatic in form. This uneven and in passages extraordinarily beautiful work is a sort of epic in fifteen songs, difficult to read, yet simple enough in general outline. Arnljot Gelline was a sort of freebooter of the eleventh century, whose fierce deeds were preserved in popular tradition. The ‘Heimskringla’ tells us how, grown weary of his lawless life, he joined himself to Olaf the Holy, accepted baptism, and fell at Stiklestad fighting for Christianity and the King. From this suggestion, the imagination of the poet has worked out a series of episodes in Arnljot’s life, beginning with his capture of the fair Ingigerd—whose father he slew, and who, struggling against her love, took refuge in a cloister—and ending with the day of the portentous battle against the heathen. It is all very impressive, and sometimes very subtle, while occasional sections, such as Ingigerd’s appeal for admission to the cloister, and Arnljot’s apostrophe to the sea, must be reckoned among the finest of Björnson’s inspirations. Since 1870 Björnson has published little verse, although poems of an occasional character and incidental lyrics have now and then found their way into print. ‘Lyset’ (The Light), a cantata, is the only recent example of any magnitude.

    Björnson first became famous as the delineator of the Norwegian peasant. He felt that the peasant is the lineal descendant of the man of the sagas, and that in him lies the real strength of the national character. The story of ‘Synnöve Solbakken’ (1857) was quickly followed by ‘Arne’ (1858), ‘En Glad Gut’ (A Happy Boy: 1860), and a number of small pieces in similar vein. They were at once recognized both at home and abroad as something deeper and truer of their sort than had hitherto been achieved in the Scandinavian countries, and perhaps in Europe. In their former aspect, they were a reaction from the conventional ideals hitherto dominant in Danish literature (which had set the pace for most of Björnson’s predecessors); and in their latter and wider aspect they were the Norwegian expression of the tendency that had produced the German and French peasant idyls of Auerbach and George Sand. They embodied a return to Nature in a spirit that may, with a difference, be called Wordsworthian. They substituted a real nineteenth-century pastoral for the sham pastoral of the eighteenth century. They reproduced the simple style of the sagas, and reduced life to its primitive elements. The stories of ‘Fiskerjenten’ (The Fisher Maiden: 1868), and ‘Brude Slaaten’ (The Bridal March: 1873), belong, on the whole, with this group; although they are differentiated by a touch of modernity from which a discerning critic might have prophesied something of the author’s coming development. These stories have been translated into many languages, and have long been familiar to English readers. It is worth noting that ‘Synnöve Solbakken,’ the first of them all, appeared in English a year after the publication of the original, in a translation by Mary Howitt. This fact seems to have escaped the bibliographers; which is not surprising, since the name of the author was not given upon the title-page, and the name of the story was metamorphosed into ‘Trust and Trial.’

    The inspiration of the sagas, strong as it is in these tales, is still more evident in the series of dramas that run parallel with them. These include ‘Mellem Slagene’ (Between the Battles: 1858), ‘Halte Hulda’ (Lame Hulda: 1858), ‘Kong Sverre’ (1861), ‘Sigurd Slembe’ (1862), and ‘Sigurd Jorsalfar’ (Sigurd the Jerusalem-Farer: 1872). The first two of these pieces are short and comparatively unimportant. ‘Kong Sverre’ is a longer and far more ambitious work; while in ‘Sigurd Slembe,’ a trilogy of plays, the saga-phase of Björnson’s genius reached its culmination. This noble work, which may almost claim to be the greatest work in Norwegian literature, is based upon the career of a twelfth-century pretender to the throne of Norway, and the material was found in the ‘Heimskringla.’ There are few more signal illustrations in literature of the power of genius to transfuse with its own life a bare mediæval chronicle, and to create from a few meager suggestions a vital and impressive work of art. One thinks instinctively, in seeking for some adequate parallel, of what Goethe did with the materials of the Faust legend, or of what Shakespeare did with the indications offered for ‘King Lear’ and ‘Cymbeline’ by Holinshed’s chronicle-history. And the two greatest names in modern literature are suggested not only by this general fact of creative power, but also more specifically by certain characters in the trilogy. Audhild, the Icelandic maiden beloved of Sigurd, has more than once been compared with the gracious and pathetic figure of Gretchen; and Earl Harald is one of the most successful attempts since Shakespeare to incarnate once again the Hamlet type of character, with its gentleness, its intellectuality, its tragic irony, and the defect of will which forces it to sink beneath the too heavy burden set upon its shoulders by fate. ‘Sigurd Jorsalfar,’ the last of the saga-plays, was planned as the second part of a dramatic sequence, of which the first was never written. Another work in this manner, having for its protagonist the great national hero, Olaf Trygvason, was also planned and even begun; but the author’s energy flagged, and he felt himself irresistibly impelled to devote himself to more modern themes dealt with in a more modern way. But before leaving this phase of Björnson’s work, mention must be made of ‘Maria Stuart i Skotland’ (1864), chronologically interjected among the saga-plays, and dealing with the more definite history of the hapless Queen of Scots in much of the saga-spirit. Björnson felt that the Scots had inherited no little of the Norse blood and temper, and believed that the psychology of his saga-heroes was adequate to account for the group of men whose fortunes were bound up with those of Mary Stuart in Scotland. He finds his key to the problem of her career in the fact that she was by nature incapable of yielding herself up wholly to a man or a cause, yet was surrounded by men who demanded of her just such whole-souled allegiance. Bothwell and Knox were pre-eminently men of this stamp; as were also, in some degree, Darnley and Rizzio. The theory may seem fanciful, but there is no doubt that Björnson’s treatment of this fascinating subject is one of the strongest it has ever received, and that his play takes rank with such European masterpieces as Scott’s novel, and Alfieri’s tragedy, and Swinburne’s great poetic trilogy.

    The late sixties and the early seventies were with Björnson a period of unrest and transformation. His previous work had been that of a genius isolated, comparatively speaking, and concentrated upon a small part of human life. His frequent journeys abroad and the wider range of his reading now brought him into the full current of European thought, and led to a substitution of practical ideals for those of the visionary. He felt that he must reculer pour mieux sauter, and for nearly a decade he produced little original work. Yet his first attempt at a modern problem-play, ‘De Nygifte’ (The Newly Married Pair), curiously enough, dates from as far back as 1865. This work was, however, a mere trifle, and has interest chiefly as a forerunner of what was to come. It was not until 1874 that Björnson became conscious that his new thought was ripe enough to bear fruit, and that he began with ‘Redaktören’ (The Editor) the series of plays dealing with social problems that have been the characteristic work of his second period. It is interesting to note, for comparison, the fact that the similar striking transformation of energy in Ibsen’s case dates from 1877, when ‘Samfundet’s Stötter’ (The Pillars of Society) was produced, and that this work had, like Björnson’s ‘Redaktören,’ a forerunner in ‘De Unges Forbund’ (The League of Youth), published in 1869. The list of Björnson’s problem-plays—many of which have been extraordinarily successful upon the stage, both in the Scandinavian countries and in Germany—includes in addition to ‘Redaktören,’ seven other pieces. They are: ‘En Fallit’ (A Bankruptcy: 1875), ‘Kongen’ (The King: 1877), ‘Leonarda’ (1879), ‘Det Ny System’ (The New System: 1879), ‘En Hanske’ (A Glove: 1883), ‘Over Ævne’ (Beyond the Strength: 1883), and ‘Geografi og Kjærlighed’ (Geography and Love: 1885). A sequel to ‘Over Ævne’ has also recently appeared. The most noteworthy of these works, considered as acting plays, are ‘Redaktören’ and ‘En Fallit.’ The one has for its subject the degradation of modern journalism; the other attacks the low standard of commercial morality prevailing in modern society. ‘En Hanske’ plants itself squarely upon the proposition that the obligations of morality are equally binding upon both sexes; a problem treated by Ibsen, after a somewhat different fashion, in ‘Gengangere’ (Ghosts). This play has occasioned much heated discussion, for its theme is of the widest interest, besides being pivotal as regards Björnson’s sociological views. ‘Over Ævne’ is a curiously wrought and delicate treatment of religious mysticism, fascinating to read, but not very definite in outcome. ‘Kongen’ is probably the most remarkable, all things considered, of this series of plays, and Björnson told me some years ago that he considered it the most important of his works. Taking frankly for granted that monarchy, whether absolute or constitutional, is an outworn institution, the play discusses the question whether it may not be possible so to transform the institution as to fit it for a prolongation of existence. The interest centers about the character of a king who is profoundly convinced that the principle he embodies is an anachronism or a lie, and who seeks to do away with the whole structure of convention, and ceremonial, and hypocrisy, that the centuries have built about the throne and its occupants. But his dearest hopes are frustrated by the forces of malice, and dull conservatism, and invincible stupidity; the burden proves too heavy for him, the fight too unequal, and he takes his own life in a moment of despair. The terrible satirical power of certain scenes in this play would be difficult to match were our choice to range through the whole literature of Revolt. Its production brought upon the author a storm of furious denunciation. He had outraged both throne and altar, and his sacrilegious hand had not spared things the most sacrosanct. But a less passionate judgment, while still deprecating something of the author’s violence, will recognize the fact that the core of the work is a noble idealism in both politics and religion, and will justify the hot indignation with which the author assails the shams that in modern society stifle the breath of free and generous souls.

    During all these years of writing for the stage Björnson did not, however, forget that he was also a novelist; and it is in fiction that he has scored the greatest of his recent triumphs. But the world of ‘Synnöve’ and ‘Arne’ is now far behind him. The transition from his earlier to his later manner as a novelist is marked by two or three stories delicate in conception but uncertain of utterance, and relatively unimportant. These books are ‘Magnhild’ (1877), ‘Kaptejn Mansana’ (1879), and ‘Stöv’ (Dust: 1882). They were, however, significant of a new development of the author’s genius, for they were the precursors of two great novels soon thereafter to follow. ‘Det Flager i Byen og paa Havnen’ (Flags are Flying in Town and Harbor) appeared in 1884. ‘Paa Guds Veje’ (In God’s Way) was published in 1889. These books are experiments upon a larger scale than their author had previously attempted in fiction, and neither of them exhibits the perfect mastery that went to the simpler making of the early peasant tales. They are somewhat confused and turbulent in style, and it is evident that their author is groping for adequate means of handling the unwieldy material brought to his workshop by so many currents of modern thought. The central theme of ‘Det Flager’ (in its English translation called, by the way, ‘The Heritage of the Kurts’) is the influence of heredity upon the life of a family group. The process of rehabilitation, resulting from the introduction of a healthy and vigorous strain into a stock weakened by the vices and passions of several generations, and aided by a scientific system of education, is carried on before our eyes, and the story of this process is the substance of the book. Regeneration is not wholly achieved, but the end leaves us hopeful 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 alone in the case of certain individuals, but also in the case of the whole community with which they are identified. If this book comes to be forgotten as a novel (which is not likely), it will have a fair chance of being remembered, along with ‘Levana’ and ‘Emile,’ as a sort of educational classic. ‘Paa Gud’s Veje’ is also strongly didactic in tone, yet it attains at its highest to a tranquillity of which the author seemed for many years to have lost the secret. The struggle it depicts is that between religious bigotry and liberalism as they contend for the mastery in a Norwegian town; and the moral is that “God’s way” is the way of people who order their lives aright and keep their souls sweet and pure, rather than the way of the Pharisee who pins his faith to observances and allows the letter of his religion to overshadow the spirit. Not an unchristian inculcation, surely; yet for it and for similar earlier utterances Björnson has been held up as Antichrist by the ministers of a narrow Lutheran orthodoxy, very much as the spokesmen of an antiquated caste-system of society have esteemed his ideas to be those of the most ruthless and radical of iconoclasts. But he is a stout fighter, and attacks of this sort only serve to arouse him to new energy. And so he toiled manfully on for the enlightenment of his people, knowing that his cause is the cause of civilization itself—of a rational social organization, an exalted ethical standard, and a purified religion. The last of Björnson’s novels was ‘Mary,’ a work less explicit in its teaching than the two great novels just summarized, but making up in art what it misses in didacticism. 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. As a triumph of sheer creation, her figure is hardly overmatched anywhere in the author’s portrait gallery of women.

    From the period when Björnson began to merge the artist in the thinker and prophet, his work gave a strong impetus to progress in religious, educational, and political affairs. As regards the first of these matters, it must be remembered that the sort of intolerance with which he had to contend more resembles that of eighteenth-century New England puritanism than anything we are familiar with in our own time. As for the second matter, all of his work may in a sense be called educational, while such a book as ‘Det Flager’ shows how closely he considered the subject of education in its special and even technical aspects. Finally, as a political thinker, he identified himself indissolubly with the movement for the establishment of an independent Norwegian Republic. The establishment of Norway as an independent kingdom relegated the realization of this dream to the uncertain future, but if it should ever become a fact, the name of Björnson will be remembered as that of one of the founders, although as the Mazzini rather than as the Cavour of the Norse Risorgimento.

    Björnson died in Paris, April 26th, 1910, He had been ill for several months but his extraordinarily robust constitution enabled him to keep his hold upon life when other men would have succumbed. 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.

    [The following selections are given in translations of my own, excepting ‘The Princess,’ which was made by Mr. Nathan Haskell Dole, and the last two, for which I am indebted to the edition of Björnson’s novels translated by Professor Rasmus B. Anderson, and published by Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. The extracts from ‘Sigurd Slembe’ are taken from my translation of that work published by the same firm.—W. M. P.]