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Norwegian Literature

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Norway had been united to Denmark for four Centuries until Napoleon's wars changed the map of Europe. At that critical period Denmark came into conflict with England in defense of her merchant marine, and in alarm for her own safety, attached herself to victorious France. After the battle of Waterloo the allied powers punished her for this, by forcing her to resign Norway to Sweden. The Norwegians attempted to defend their own independence under a Danish hereditary Prince, but the Swedish army advanced on Christiania, and the brave people were obliged to yield. Norway is still governed by a Swedish King, but has her own Constitution and a separate Parliament. Prior to the year 1814 Norway shared the intellectual life of Denmark. For many years after that writers aimed to celebrate the virtues of the free and independent peasant, and to glorify the rocks and waterfalls of their native land. Two distinct parties were formed, the clash of whose arguments may still be heard.

Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845) was the son of a patriotic clergyman, but had imbibed the views of Rousseau, and his lyrical dramatic poem, "The Creation, Man, and Messiah," was an expression of the fermentation of French ideas of the Eighteenth Century. Though lengthy and tedious, it contained passages of great beauty and majesty; and the author was hailed as the first exponent of a distinctly Norwegian literature. Wergeland had a marked personality, and used his great powers in defending the welfare of the common people, and in waging war against everything having a Danish origin. He became the leader of the political party called Ultra-Norwegians. It was through his influence that the Seventeenth of May, the date of the adoption of the Norwegian Constitution, was made a national holiday. His zealous labors in poetry and politics did not cease till his death in 1845.

Wergeland's opponent was Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven, and those who gathered to his standard distinguished themselves as "Intelligence." In 1834 Welhaven, in the preface to a series of sonnets, pointed out that a national literature cannot be constructed from nothing; and that for many years Norway must depend on Denmark for art, culture, and literary style; but that in time she would be able to evolve a distinct culture of her own, based on the study of her antiquities, and on an expression of individual life. These sonnets caused a tremendous sensation. "Intelligence" rallied around Welhaven, while Wergeland and his adherents shouted "Treason!" The violent literary feud which ensued has hardly yet been healed. Welhaven continued his career as author and university professor until his death in 1873. By his lectures on Danish literature, and his romances, founded on popular traditions, he proved himself faithful to those principles which he had advocated as the leader of "Intelligence."

Andreas Munch (1810-1863) professor in the University of Christiania, wrote poetry and dramas which are echoes of Oehlenschläger's, and tales after the fashion of Welhaven. His poems of "Sorrow and Consolation" are dear to all Scandinavians. His prose masterpiece is the "History of the Norwegian People" (1851-64).

The two greatest poets of the North are the Norwegians Björnson and Ibsen. The former is a writer of stories, songs, and dramas for his people; the latter is the author of the most remarkable psychological plays ever portrayed by pen or presented upon the stage. Björnsjerne Björnson, the son of a clergyman, was born among the barren Dovre Mountains in 1832, and removed with his family at the age of six, to Komsdal, the region of all Norway most celebrated for its beauty. To this may be attributed Björnson's magnificent descriptions of natural scenery. In his early years he devoted himself to folk-tales and became a passionate admirer of Wergeland. He commenced his life's work by writing poems and dramas, but his first important book was "Synnöve Solbakken," a story of peasant life which captivated the hearts of his countrymen. It was followed by other tales, poems and dramas in quick succession. The Scandinavians were then setting up barriers between themselves and the thought of Europe. All streams were muddy save the rivers of the pure North. A modern intellectual movement began in Denmark in 1871 and penetrated to Norway, and Björnson was the first to profit by it. He read every variety of work, in every language, and he thus describes the influence on himself : "I am Norseman. I am human. Of late I have been subscribing myself : man." His latest dramas, therefore, are full of the broadest humanitarianism. His modern plays are "The Bankrupt," "The Editor," "The King." The best of his later novels is a profound and exquisitely written story called "Dust" Among all the shorter compositions of Björnson's the most remarkable is the monologue "Bergliot," the lamentations of a chieftain's wife over her murdered husband and son. Björnson's great struggle is for freedom and modern enlightenment. Personally he is a genial giant, with a charming and joyous presence. He has the reputation of being the most eloquent and convincing political orator in Norway.

Henrik Ibsen, the dramatist of pessimism, was born at Skien, in Norway, in 1828. His connections were people of the highest standing in the place, but his father became a bankrupt, and the boy worked in one menial capacity after another. He was twenty-two years old before he had means or leisure for study. His desolate youth, in which he often did not have enough to eat, unquestionably soured his disposition. For many years he toiled unsuccessfully as a newspaper publisher, a theater manager, and a writer of poems and dramas which were misunderstood. Ibsen led a wild life, as a young man, and was disliked and shunned in consequence. At the time of the Schleswig-Holstein troubles in 1864, he fell into a pro-found melancholy because Sweden and Norway failed to stand by Denmark in her war with Prussia and Austria. Denouncing his countrymen as cowardly, he turned his back on his native land, and has since lived in Dresden, Munich, or Italy, a friendless and isolated man. He is always well received, in a public way, in any city where he happens to reside. His powerful and gloomy dramas have at last brought him fame and fortune; and the North is proud to acknowledge his genius as her own.

His best known dramas are "Brand," "Peer Gynt," "A Model Home" (also called The Doll's House), "The Pillars of Society," "Apparitions," "Hedda Gabler," and "Little Eyeolf." Ibsen would hurl all existing institutions off the face of the earth. Nothing is right. A sense of duty founded upon the conventional claims of others upon us, and our conventional claims on them, he finds intolerable. Like the early Romanticists he insists on each man's right to live, think and act as he pleases, with little regard for others. His dramas have caused an intellectual tumult throughout Europe.

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