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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Björnstjerne Björnson
By Georg Brandes (1842–1927)
 
From ‘Eminent Authors of the Nineteenth Century’: Translation of Rasmus Björn Anderson

IT is only necessary to bestow a single glance upon Björnson to be convinced how admirably he is equipped by nature for the hot strife a literary career brings with it in most lands, and especially in the combat-loving North. Shoulders as broad as his are not often seen, nor do we often behold so vigorous a form, one that seems as though created to be chiseled in granite.  1
  There is perhaps no labor that so completely excites all the vital forces, exhausts the nerves, refines and enervates the feelings, as that of literary production. There has never been the slightest danger, however, that the exertions of Björnson’s poetic productiveness would affect his lungs as in the case of Schiller, or his spine as in the case of Heine; there has been no cause to fear that inimical articles in the public journals would ever give him his death-blow, as they did Halvdan, the hero of his drama ‘Redaktören’ (The Editor); or that he would yield, as so many modern poets have yielded, to the temptation of resorting to pernicious stimulants or to dissipation as antidotes for the overwrought or depleted state of the nervous system occasioned by creative activity. Nothing has injured Björnson’s spine; his lungs are without blemish; a cough is unknown to him; and his shoulders were fashioned to bear without discomposure the rude thrusts which the world gives, and to return them. He is perhaps the only important writer of our day of whom this may be said. As an author he is never nervous, not when he displays his greatest delicacy, not even when he evinces his most marked sensibility.  2
  Strong as the beast of prey whose name [Björn = Bear] occurs twice in his; muscular, without the slightest trace of corpulence, of athletic build, he looms up majestically in my mind, with his massive head, his firmly compressed lips, and his sharp, penetrating gaze from behind his spectacles. It would be impossible for literary hostilities to overthrow this man, and for him there never existed that greatest danger to authors (a danger which for a long time menaced his great rival Henrik Ibsen), namely, that of having his name shrouded in silence. Even as a very young author, as a theatrical critic and political writer, he had entered the field of literature with such an eagerness for combat that a rumbling noise arose about him wherever he appeared. Like his own Thorbjörn in ‘Synnöve Solbakken,’ he displayed in early youth the combative tendency of the athlete; but like his Sigurd in ‘Sigurd Slembe,’ he fought not merely to practice his strength, but from genuine though often mistaken love of truth and justice. At all events, he understood thoroughly how to attract attention.  3
  An author may possess great and rare gifts, and yet, through lack of harmony between his own personal endowments and the national characteristics or the degree of development of his people, may long be prevented from attaining a brilliant success. Many of the world’s greatest minds have suffered from this cause. Many, like Byron, Heine, and Henrik Ibsen, have left their native land; many more who have remained at home have felt forsaken by their compatriots. With Björnson the case is quite different. He has never, it is true, been peacefully recognized by the entire Norwegian people; at first, because the form he used was too new and unfamiliar; later, because his ideas were of too challenging a nature for the ruling, conservative, and highly orthodox circles of the land; even at the present time he is pursued by the press of the Norwegian government and by the leading official society with a fury which is as little choice in its selection of means as the bitterness which pursues the champions of thrones and altars in other countries. In spite of all this, Björnstjerne Björnson has his people behind him and about him as perhaps no other poet has, unless it be Victor Hugo. When his name is mentioned it is equivalent to hoisting the flag of Norway. In his noble qualities and in his faults, in his genius and in his weak points, he as thoroughly bears the stamp of Norway as Voltaire bore that of France. His boldness and his naïveté, his open-heartedness as a man and the terseness of his style as an artist, the highly wrought and sensitive Norwegian popular sentiment, and the lively consciousness of the one-sidedness and the intellectual needs of his fellow-countrymen that has driven him to Scandinavianism, Pan-Teutonism, and cosmopolitanism—all this in its peculiar combination in him is so markedly national that his personality may be said to offer a résumé of the entire people.  4
  None of his contemporaries so fully represent this people’s love of home and of freedom, its self-consciousness, rectitude, and fresh energy. Indeed, just now he also exemplifies on a large scale the people’s tendency to self-criticism; not that scourging criticism which chastises with scorpions, and whose representative in Norway is Ibsen, in Russia Turgenev, but the sharp bold expression of opinion begotten of love. He never calls attention to an evil in whose improvement and cure he does not believe, or to a vice which he despairs of seeing outrooted. For he has implicit faith in the good in humanity, and possesses entire the invincible optimism of a large, genial, sanguine nature.  5
  As to his character, he is half chieftain, half poet. He unites in his own person the two forms most prominent in ancient Norway—those of the warrior and of the scald. In his intellectual constitution he is partly a tribune of the people, partly a lay preacher; in other words, he combines in his public demeanor the political and religious pathos of his Norwegian contemporaries, and this became far more apparent after he broke loose from orthodoxy than it was before. Since his so-called apostasy he has in fact been a missionary and a reformer to a greater degree than ever.  6
  He could have been the product of no other land than Norway, and far less than other authors could he thrive in any but his native soil. In the year 1880, when the rumor spread through the German press that Björnson, weary of continual wrangling at home, was about to settle in Germany, he wrote to me:—“In Norway will I live, in Norway will I lash and be lashed, in Norway will I sing and die.”  7
  To hold such intimate relations with one’s fatherland is most fortunate for a person who is sympathetically comprehended by that fatherland. And this is the case with Björnson. It is a matter dependent on conditions deeply rooted in his nature. He who cherishes so profound an enthusiasm for the reserved, solitary Michelangelo, and who feels constrained, as a matter of course, to place him above Raphael, is himself a man of a totally different temperament: one who is never lonely, even when most alone (as he has been since 1873 on his gård in remote Gausdal), but who is social to the core, or, more strictly speaking, a thoroughly national character. He admires Michelangelo because he reveres and understands the elements of greatness, of profound earnestness, of mighty ruggedness in the human heart and in style; but he has nothing in common with the great Florentine’s melancholy sense of isolation. He was born to be the founder of a party, and was therefore early attracted to enthusiastic and popular party leaders, such as the Dane Grundtvig and the Norwegian Wergeland, although wholly unlike either in his plastic, creative power. He is a man who needs to feel himself the centre, or rather the focus of sympathy, and insensibly he forms a circle about him, because his own nature is the résumé of a social union.  8
 
 
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