Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen.

Essays on Scandinavian literature online

. (page 1 of 17)
Online LibraryHjalmar Hjorth BoyesenEssays on Scandinavian literature → online text (page 1 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


E-text prepared by Clare Boothby and the Project Gutenberg Online
Distributed Proofreading Team (http://www.pgdp.net/)



ESSAYS ON SCANDINAVIAN LITERATURE

by

HJALMAR HJORTH BOYESEN



* * * * *



BY THE SAME AUTHOR.


Goethe and Schiller. Their Lives and Works; with a commentary on "Faust."
Essays on German Literature.
Essays on Scandinavian Literature.
A Commentary on the Writings of Henrik Ibsen.
Literary and Social Silhouettes.
The Story of Norway.
Gunnar.
Tales from Two Hemispheres.
A Norseman's Pilgrimage.
Falconberg. A Novel.
Queen Titania.
Ilka on the Hill-top, and Other Tales.
A Daughter of the Philistines.
The Light of Her Countenance.
Vagabond Tales.
The Mammon of Unrighteousness.
The Golden Calf.
Social Strugglers.
Idyls of Norway, and Other Poems.


THE NORSELAND SERIES (JUVENILE).

The Modern Vikings: Stories of Life and Sport in the Northland.
Against Heavy Odds, and A Fearless Trio.
Boyhood in Norway.
Norseland Tales.



* * * * *



ESSAYS ON SCANDINAVIAN LITERATURE

by

HJALMAR HJORTH BOYESEN

Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures in
Columbia College







London
David Nutt, 270, Strand
1895.

Copyright, 1895, by Charles Scribner's Sons
for the United States of America
Printed by the Trow Directory, Printing and Bookbinding Company
New York, U. S. A.




PREFACE


Some twenty years ago the ambition seized me to write a History of
Scandinavian Literature. I scarcely realized then what an enormous
amount of reading would be required to equip me for this task. My
studies naturally led me much beyond the scope of my original intention.
There was a fascination in the work which lured me perpetually on, and
made me explore with a constantly increasing zest the great literary
personalities of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Thus my chapter on Henrik
Ibsen grew into a book of three hundred and seventeen pages, which was
published a year ago, and must be regarded as supplementary to the
present volume. The chapter on Björnstjerne Björnson was in danger of
expanding to similar proportions, and only the most heroic condensation
saved it from challenging criticism as an independent work. As regards
Norway and Denmark, I have endeavored to select all the weightiest and
most representative names. The Swedish authors Johan Ludvig Runeberg,
Mrs. Edgren, and August Strindberg, and the Dane Oehlenschlaeger,
necessity has compelled me to reserve for a future volume.

COLUMBIA COLLEGE, NEW YORK,

February, 1895.




CONTENTS


PAGE

BJÖRNSTJERNE BJÖRNSON, 3

ALEXANDER KIELLAND, 107

JONAS LIE, 121

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, 155

CONTEMPORARY DANISH LITERATURE, 181

GEORG BRANDES, 199

ESAIAS TEGNÉR, 219




BJÖRNSTJERNE BJÖRNSON


I

Björnstjerne Björnson 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. If he writes a
little song, hardly a year elapses before its phrases have passed into
the common speech of the people; composers compete for the honor of
interpreting it in simple, Norse-sounding melodies, which gradually work
their way from the drawing-room to the kitchen, the street, and thence
out over the wide fields and highlands of Norway. His tales, romances,
and dramas express collectively the supreme result of the nation's
experience, so that no one to-day can view Norwegian life or Norwegian
history except through their medium. The bitterest opponent of the poet
(for like every strong personality he has many enemies) is thus no less
his debtor than his warmest admirer. His speech has stamped itself upon
the very language and given it a new ring, a deeper resonance. His
thought fills the air, and has become the unconscious property of all
who have grown to manhood and womanhood since the day when his titanic
form first loomed up on the horizon of the North. It is not only as
their first and greatest poet that the Norsemen love and hate him, but
also as a civilizer in the widest sense. But like Kadmus, in Greek myth,
he has not only brought with him letters, but also the dragon-teeth of
strife, which it is to be hoped will not sprout forth in armed men.

A man's ancestry and environment, no doubt, account in a superficial
manner for his appearance and mental characteristics. Having the man, we
are able to trace the germs of his being in the past of his race and his
country; but, with all our science we have not yet acquired the
ingenuity to predict the man - to deduce him _a priori_ from the tangle
of determining causes which enveloped his birth. It seems beautifully
appropriate in the Elder Edda that the god-descended hero Helge the
Völsung should be born amid gloom and terror in a storm which shakes the
house, while the Norns - the goddesses of fate - proclaim in the tempest
his tempestuous career. Equally satisfactory it appears to have the
modern champion of Norway - the typical modern Norseman - born on the
bleak and wild Dovre Mountain,[1] where there is winter eight months of
the year and cold weather during the remaining four. The parish of
Kvikne, in Oesterdalen, where his father, the Reverend Peder Björnson,
held a living, had a bad reputation on account of the unruly ferocity
and brutal violence of the inhabitants. One of the Reverend Peder
Björnson's recent predecessors never went into his pulpit, unarmed; and
another fled for his life. The peasants were not slow in intimating to
the new pastor that they meant to have him mind his own business and
conform to the manners and customs of the parish; but there they
reckoned without their host. The reverend gentleman made short work of
the opposition. He enforced the new law of compulsory education without
heeding its unpopularity; and when the champion fighter of the valley
came as the peasants' spokesman to take him to task in summary fashion,
he found himself, before he was aware of it, at the bottom of the
stairs, where he picked himself up wonderingly and promptly took to his
heels.

[1] December 8, 1832.

During the winter the snow reached up to the second-story windows of the
parsonage; and the servants had to tunnel their way to the storehouse
and the stables. The cold was so intense that the little Björnstjerne
thought twice before touching a door knob, as his fingers were liable to
stick to the metal. When he was six years old, however, his father was
transferred to Romsdal, which is, indeed, a wild and grandly picturesque
region; but far less desolate than Dovre. "It lies," says Björnson,
"broad - bosomed between two confluent fjords, with a green mountain
above, cataracts and homesteads on the opposite shore, waving meadows
and activity in the bottom of the valley; and all the way out toward the
ocean, mountains with headland upon headland running out into the fjord
and a large farm upon each."

The feeling of terror, the crushing sense of guilt which Björnson has so
strikingly portrayed in the first chapters of "In God's Way," were
familiar to his own childhood. In every life, as in every race, the God
of fear precedes the God of love. And in Northern Norway, where nature
seems so tremendous and man so insignificant, no boy escapes these
phantoms of dread which clutch him with icy fingers. But as a
counterbalancing force in the young Björnson, we have his confidence in
the strength and good sense of his gigantic father, who could thrash the
strongest champion in the parish. He used to stand in the evening on the
beach "and gaze at the play of the sunshine upon fjord and mountain,
until he wept, as if he had done something wrong. Now he would suddenly
stop in this or that valley, while running on skees, and stand
spell-bound by its beauty and a longing which he could not comprehend,
but which was so great that in the midst of the highest joy he was
keenly conscious of a sense of confinement and sorrow."[2] "We catch a
glimpse in these childish memories," says Mr. Nordahl Rolfsen, "of the
remarkable character, we are about to depict: Being the son of a giant,
he is ever ready to strike out with a heavy hand, when he thinks that
anyone is encroaching upon what he deems the right. But this same
pugnacious man, whom it is so hard to overcome, can be overwhelmed by an
emotion and surrender himself to it with his whole being."

[2] Nordahl Rolfsen: Norske Digtere, pp. 450, 451.

At the age of twelve Björnson was sent to the Latin school at Molde,
where, however, his progress was not encouraging. He was one of those
thoroughly healthy and headstrong boys who are the despair of ambitious
mothers, and whom fathers (when the futility of educational chastisement
has been finally proved) are apt to regard with a resigned and
half-humorous regret. His dislike of books was instinctive, hearty, and
uncompromising. His strong, half-savage boy-nature could brook no
restraints, and looked longingly homeward to the wide mountain plains,
the foaming rivers where the trout leaped in the summer night, and the
calm fjord where you might drift blissfully along, as it were, suspended
in the midst of the vast, blue, ethereal space. And when the summer
vacation came, with its glorious freedom and irresponsibility, he would
roam at his own sweet will through forest and field, until hunger and
fatigue forced him to return to his father's parsonage.

After several years of steadily unsuccessful study, Björnson at last
passed the so-called _examen artium_, which admitted him to the
University of Christiania. He was now a youth of large, almost athletic
frame, with a handsome, striking face, and a pair of blue eyes which no
one is apt to forget who has ever looked into them. There was a certain
grand simplicity and _naïveté_ in his manner, and an exuberance of
animal spirits which must have made him an object of curious interest
among his town-bred fellow-students. But his University career was of
brief duration. All the dimly fermenting powers of his rich nature were
now beginning to clarify, the consciousness of his calling began to
assert itself, and the demand for expression became imperative. His
literary _début_ was an historic drama entitled "Valborg," which was
accepted for representation by the directors of the Christiania Theatre,
and procured for its author a free ticket to all theatrical
performances; it was, however, never brought on the stage, as Björnson,
having had his eyes opened to its defects, withdrew it of his own
accord.

At this time the Norwegian stage was almost entirely in the hands of the
Danes, and all the more prominent actors were of Danish birth.
Theatrical managers drew freely on the dramatic treasures of Danish
literature, and occasionally, to replenish the exchequer, reproduced a
French comedy or farce, whose epigrammatic pith and vigor were more than
half-spoiled in the translation. The drama was as yet an exotic in
Norway; it had no root in the national soil, and could accordingly in no
respect represent the nation's own struggles and aspirations. The
critics themselves, no doubt, looked upon it merely as a form of
amusement, a thing to be wondered and stared at, and to be dismissed
from the mind as soon as the curtain dropped. Björnson, whose patriotic
soul could not endure the thought of this abject foreign dependence,
ascribed all the existing abuses to the predominance of the Danish
element, and in a series of vehement articles attacked the Danish
actors, managers, and all who were in any way responsible for the
unworthy condition of the national stage. In return he reaped, as might
have been expected, an abundant harvest of abuse, but the discussion he
had provoked furnished food for reflection, and the rapid development of
the Norwegian drama during the next decade is, no doubt, largely
traceable to his influence.

The liberty for which he had yearned so long, Björnson found at the
International Students' Reunion of 1856. Then the students of the
Norwegian and Danish Universities met in Upsala, where they were
received with grand festivities by their Swedish brethren. Here the poet
caught the first glimpse of a greater and freer life than moved within
the narrow horizon of the Norwegian capital. This gay and careless
student-life, this cheerful abandonment of all the artificial shackles
which burden one's feet in their daily walk through a bureaucratic
society, the temporary freedom which allows one without offence to toast
a prince and hug a count to one's bosom - all this had its influence
upon Björnson's sensitive nature; it filled his soul with a happy
intoxication and with confidence in his own strength. And having once
tasted a life like this he could no more return to what he had left
behind him.

The next winter we find him in Copenhagen, laboring with an intensity of
creative ardor which he had never known before. His striking appearance,
the pithy terseness of his speech, and a certain _naïve_ self-assertion
and impatience of social restraints made him a notable figure in the
polite and somewhat effeminate society of the Danish capital. There was
a general expectation at that time that a great poet was to come, and
although Björnson had as yet published nothing to justify the
expectation, he found the public of Copenhagen ready to recognize in him
the man who was to rouse the North from its long intellectual torpor,
and usher in a new era in its literature. It is needless to say that he
did not discourage this belief, for he himself fervently believed that
he would before long justify it. The first proof of his strength he gave
in the tale "Synnöve Solbakken" (Synnöve Sunny-Hill), which he published
in an illustrated weekly, and afterward in book-form. It is a very
unpretending little story, idyllic in tone, but realistic in its
coloring, and redolent of the pine and spruce and birch of the Norwegian
highlands.

It had been the fashion in Norway since the nation regained its
independence to interest one's self in a lofty, condescending way in
the life of the peasantry. A few well-meaning persons, like the poet
Wergeland, had labored zealously for their enlightenment and the
improvement of their economic condition; but, except in the case of such
single individuals, no real and vital sympathy and fellow-feeling had
ever existed between the upper and the lower strata of Norwegian
society. And as long as the fellow-feeling is wanting, this zeal for
enlightenment, however laudable its motive, is not apt to produce
lasting results. The peasants view with distrust and suspicion whatever
comes to them from their social superiors, and the so-called "useful
books," which were scattered broadcast over the land, were of a
tediously didactic character, and, moreover, hardly adapted to the
comprehension of those to whom they were ostensibly addressed. Wergeland
himself, with all his self-sacrificing ardor, had but a vague conception
of the real needs of the people, and, as far as results were concerned,
wasted much of his valuable life in his efforts to improve, edify and
instruct them. It hardly occurred to him that the culture of which he
and his colleagues were the representatives was itself a foreign
importation, and could not by any violent process be ingrafted upon the
national trunk, which drew its strength from centuries of national life,
history, and tradition. That this peasantry, whom the _bourgeoisie_ and
the aristocracy of culture had been wont to regard with half-pitying
condescension, were the real representatives of the Norse nation; that
they had preserved through long years of tyranny and foreign oppression
the historic characteristics of their Norse forefathers, while the upper
classes had gone in search of strange gods, and bowed their necks to the
foreign yoke; that in their veins the old strong saga-life was still
throbbing with vigorous pulse-beats - this was the lesson which Björnson
undertook to teach his countrymen, and a very fruitful lesson it has
proved to be. It has inspired the people with renewed courage, it has
turned the national life into fresh channels, and it has revolutionized
national politics.

To be sure all this was not the result of the idyllic little tale which
marked the beginning of his career. But this little tale, although no
trace of what the Germans call "tendency" is to be found in it, is still
significant as being the poet's first indirect manifesto, and as such
distinctly foreshadowing the path which he has since followed.

First, in its purely literary aspect, "Synnöve Solbakken" was strikingly
novel. The author did not, as his predecessors had done, view the people
from the exalted pedestal of superior culture; not as a subject for
benevolent preaching and charitable condescension, but as a concrete
phenomenon, whose _raison d'étre_ was as absolute and indisputable as
that of the _bourgeoisie_ or the bureaucracy itself. He depicted their
soul-struggles and the incidents of their daily life with a loving
minuteness and a vivid realism hitherto unequalled in the literature of
the North. He did not, like Auerbach, construct his peasant figures
through laborious reflection, nor did he attempt by anxious
psychological analysis to initiate the reader into their processes of
thought and emotion. He simply depicted them as he saw and knew them.
Their feelings and actions have their immediate, self-evident motives in
the characters themselves, and the absence of analysis on the author's
part gives an increased energy and movement to the story.

Mr. Nordahl Rolfsen relates, _à propos_ of the reception which was
accorded Björnson's first book, the following amusing anecdote:

"'Synnöve Solbakken' was printed, and its author was anxious to have his
friends read it. But not one of them could be prevailed upon. At last a
comrade was found who was persuaded to attack it on the promise of a
bottle of punch. He entered Björnson's den, got a long pipe which he
filled with tobacco, undressed himself completely - for it was a hot
day - flung himself on the bed, and began to read. Björnson sat in the
sofa, breathless with expectation. Leaf after leaf was turned; not a
smile, not a single encouraging word! The young poet had good reason to
regard the battle as lost. At last the pipe, the bottle, and the book
were finished. Then the merciless Stoic rose and began to dress, and the
following little exclamation escaped him: 'That is, the devil take me,
the best book I have read in all my life.'"

Björnson's style was no less novel than his theme. It may or it may not
have been consciously modelled after the saga style, to which, however,
it bears an obvious resemblance. In his early childhood, while he lived
among the peasants, he became familiar with their mode of thought and
speech, and it entered into his being, and became his own natural mode
of expression. There is in his daily conversation a certain grim
directness, and a laconic weightiness, which give an air of importance
and authority even to his simplest utterances. This tendency to
compression frequently has the effect of obscurity, not because his
thought is obscure, but rather because energetic brevity of expression
has fallen into disuse, and even a Norse public, long accustomed to the
wordy diffuseness of latter-day bards, have in part lost the faculty to
comprehend the genius of their own language. As a Danish critic wittily
observed: "Björnson's language is but one step removed from pantomime."

In 1858 Björnson assumed the directorship of the theatre in Bergen, and
there published his second tale, "Arne," in which the same admirable
self-restraint, the same implicit confidence in the intelligence
of his reader, the same firm-handed decision and vigor in the
character-drawing, in fact, all the qualities which delighted the public
in "Synnöve Solbakken," were found in an intensified degree.

In the meanwhile, Björnson had also made his _début_ as a dramatist. In
the year 1858 he had published two dramas, "Mellem Slagene" (Between the
Battles) and "Halte-Hulda" (Limping Hulda) both of which deal with
national subjects, taken from the old sagas. As in his tales he had
endeavored to concentrate into a few strongly defined types the modern
folk-life of the North, so in his dramas the same innate love of his
nationality leads him to seek the typical features of his people, as
they are revealed in the historic chieftains of the past.

"Between the Battles" is a dramatic episode rather than a drama. During
the civil war between King Sverre and King Magnus in the twelfth
century, the former visits in disguise a hut upon the mountains where a
young warrior, Halvard Gjaela and Inga, his beloved, are living
together. The long internecine strife has raised the hand of father
against son, and of brother against brother. Halvard sympathizes with
Sverre; Inga, who hates the king because he has burned her father's
farm, is a partisan of Magnus. In the absence of her lover she goes to
the latter's camp and brings back with her a dozen warriors for the
purpose of capturing Halvard, and thereby preventing him from joining
the enemy. Sverre discovers the warriors, whom she has hidden in the
cow-stable, and persuading them that he is a spy for King Magnus sends
two of them to his own army for reinforcements. In the meanwhile he
reconciles the estranged lovers, makes peace between them and Inga's
father, and finally, in the last scene, as his men arrive, is recognized
as the king.

This is, of course, a venerable _coup de théâtre_. Whatever novelty
there is in the play must be sought, not in the situations, but in the
pithy and laconic dialogue, which has a distinct national coloring. This
was not the amiable diffuseness of Oehlenschlaeger, who had hitherto
dominated the Norwegian as well as the Danish stage; and yet it did not
by any means represent so complete a breach with the traditions of the
romantic drama as was claimed by Björnson's admirers. The fresh
naturalness and absence of declamation were a gain, no doubt; but there
are yet several notes remaining which have the well-known romantic
cadence. "Between the Battles," though too slight to be called an
achievement, was accepted as a pledge of achievement in future.

Björnson's next drama "Limping Hulda" ("Halte-Hulda") (1858) was a
partial fulfilment of this pledge. If it is not high tragedy, in the
ancient sense, it is of the stuff that tragedy is made of. Hulda is an
impressive stage figure in her demoniac passion and tiger-like
tenderness. Though I doubt if Björnson has, in this type, caught the
soul of a Norse woman of the saga age, he has come much nearer to
catching it than any of his predecessors. If Gudrun Osvif's Daughter, of
the Laxdoela Saga, was his model, he has modernized her considerably,
and thereby made her more intelligible to modern readers. Like her,
Hulda causes the murder of the man she loves; and there is a fateful
spell about her beauty which brings death to whomsoever looks too long
upon it. Though ostensibly a saga-drama, the harshness and grim ferocity
of that sanguinary period are softened; and a romantic illumination
pervades the whole action. A certain lyrical effusiveness in the love
passages (which is alien to all Björnson's later works) hints at the
influence of the Danish Romanticists, and particularly Oehlenschlaeger.

It would be unfair, perhaps, to take the author to task because this
youthful drama exhibits no remarkable subtlety in its conception of
character. It contains no really great living figure who stands squarely
upon his feet and lingers in the memory. A certain half-rhetorical
impulse carries you along; and the external effectiveness of the
situations keeps the interest on the alert. For all that "Limping
Hulda," like its predecessors and its successors, tended to stimulate
powerfully the national spirit, which was then asserting itself in every
department of intellectual activity. Thus a national theatre had, by the
perseverance and generosity of Ole Bull, been established in his native
city, Bergen; and it was almost a matter of course that an effort should
be made to identify Björnson with an enterprise which accorded so well
with his own aspirations. His connection with the Norwegian Theatre of


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryHjalmar Hjorth BoyesenEssays on Scandinavian literature → online text (page 1 of 17)