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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven (1807–1873)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
UP to the year 1814, when Norway obtained a constitution of her own and a political separation from Denmark, her literature had been so merged in that of the latter country that it may hardly be said to have had an identity of its own. Copenhagen had been, from the time of Holberg and before, the literary center of both Denmark and Norway; and nearly all the men of conspicuous talent had at one time or another found their way to the common capital of the two nations. But with the semi-independence achieved by Norway in 1814, the current of national sentiment grew so strong that it was bound to find expression in a national literature; and such a literature, surprising in its richness and vitality, has grown up during the past three quarters of a century.  1
  When we begin, then, to deal with Norwegian as distinct from Danish literature, as we must do from the thirties onward, we are at once confronted with the two significant names of Wergeland and Welhaven. Henrik Wergeland, born in 1808, became at an early age a profuse writer of somewhat shapeless verse, abounding in the faults that characterize an impulsive and ill-regulated mind, yet seething with patriotism of the emotional sort, and displaying at its best the true lyrical impulse. His extraordinary lyrical drama, ‘Skabelsen, Mennesket, og Messias’ (The Creation, Man, and Messiah), published in 1830, offers the starting-point for a discussion of the subject of the present article; for it was by a critical attack upon that work that Welhaven first became known. Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven was born in Bergen in 1807, thus being one year Wergeland’s senior. He went to Christiania for study, and as a professor in the national university remained afterwards identified with the capital. An anonymous poem addressed to Wergeland, and soon followed by a pamphlet ‘Om Henrik Wergelands Digtekunst og Polemik’ (Upon Henrik Wergeland’s Poetry and Polemics), opened a critical warfare that raged for several years, and divided literary circles into two hostile camps. Wergeland represented the impulsive principle in poetry, the spontaneous lyric cry unfettered by rule or historical tradition; Welhaven stood for the academic view, for reflection and the canons of æsthetics. The attack on Wergeland was so unsparing in its exposure of the poet’s weak spots and defects of taste, and so scornful withal in its calm analysis, that it caused great excitement in literary circles; and for a time poems and pamphlets upon the matter in dispute flew thick and fast from the press. Viewing the controversy from this distance, it is easy to see that the stars in their courses fought with Welhaven; for it was his part to stand as champion of the reflective reason as opposed to the sentimental impressionism of his opponents. And time, while it has winnowed an immense amount of chaff from the grain of Wergeland’s voluminous output, has preserved the body of Welhaven’s work as of lasting value, both on the critical and the creative side.  2
  That work, which fills eight volumes in the standard edition, is about equally divided between prose and poetry. The prose includes the controversial matter already mentioned, an important critical study of the eighteenth-century literature of Denmark, and a great variety of public addresses, sketches of travel, memorial studies and reviews. As a whole, these writings give to Welhaven the highest place among Norwegian critics, and may still be read with profit. Their polished style, their conservative tendencies, and their recognition of the fact that criticism is a very different thing from the expression of personal likes and dislikes, are the qualities that give to any critical prose a lasting influence; and they are all highly characteristic of Welhaven’s writing. Like Heiberg and Brandes in Denmark, he brought to bear upon criticism a carefully conceived and well-tested method, and his trained and penetrating mind revealed whatever it dealt with in the dry objective light which should shine upon the phenomena of literature and of life. It may be interesting to view them in other kinds of light, but it is not safe; and those critics do the best service who guard us against garish colors and iridescent diffractions.  3
  Welhaven’s poetry consists wholly of short pieces,—lyrics, ballads, and essays in occasional verse,—unless we regard as a single long poem the cycle of sonnets which formed his first poetical publication of importance. This work, entitled ‘Norges Dæmring’ (Norway’s Dawn), strikes the chord of a noble indignation when it deals with the follies and the passions of the nation, and then in prophetic strain sings of a spiritual dawn yet to come, and fairer far than the dawn, already broken, of merely external political freedom. Seriousness is the prevailing note of Welhaven’s poetry; although the sense of humor is by no means lacking, and often finds expression in forms that inevitably suggest the work of Heine. He has given to Norwegian literature what is probably its most finished and exquisite body of verse, excepting that which we owe to Björnson and Ibsen. It is the verse of a scholarly and finely cultured mind, rather than of a nature of decided lyrical endowment. In this respect, it often suggests the poetry of Matthew Arnold; and makes, to the ears fitted to hear it, an appeal altogether disproportionate to the degree of its acceptance by the general public.  4
 
 
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