1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Björnson, Björnstjerne

BJÖRNSON, BJÖRNSTJERNE (1832–1910), Norwegian poet, novelist and dramatist, was born on the 8th of December 1832 at the farmstead of Björngen, in Kvikne, in Österdal, Norway. In 1837 his father, who had been pastor of Kvikne, was transferred to the parish of Noesset, in Romsdal; in this romantic district the childhood of Björnson was spent. After some teaching at the neighbouring town of Molde, he was sent at the age of seventeen to a well-known school in Christiania to study for the university; his instinct for poetry was already awakened, and indeed he had written verses from his eleventh year. He matriculated at the university of Christiania in 1852, and soon began to work as a journalist, especially as a dramatic critic. In 1857 appeared Synnöve Solbakken, the first of Björnson’s peasant-novels; in 1858 this was followed by Arne, in 1860 by A Happy Boy, and in 1868 by The Fisher Maiden. These are the most important specimens of his bonde-fortaellinger or peasant-tales—a section of his literary work which has made a profound impression in his own country, and has made him popular throughout the world. Two of the tales, Arne and Synnöve Solbakken, offer perhaps finer examples of the pure peasant-story than are to be found elsewhere in literature.

Björnson was anxious “to create a new saga in the light of the peasant,” as he put it, and he thought this should be done, not merely in prose fiction, but in national dramas or folke-stykker. The earliest of these was a one-act piece the scene of which is laid in the 12th century, Between the Battles, was written in 1855, but not produced until 1857. He was especially influenced at this time by the study of Baggesen and Ochlenschläger, during a visit to Copenhagen 1856–1857. Between the Battles was followed by Lame Hulda in 1858, and King Sverre in 1861. All these efforts, however, were far excelled by the splendid trilogy of Sigurd the Bastard, which Björnson issued in 1862. This raised him to the front rank among the younger poets of Europe. His Sigurd the Crusader should be added to the category of these heroic plays, although it was not printed until 1872.

At the close of 1857 Björnson had been appointed director of the theatre at Bergen, a post which he held, with much journalistic work, for two years, when he returned to the capital. From 1860 to 1863 he travelled widely throughout Europe. Early in 1865 he undertook the management of the Christiania theatre, and brought out his popular comedy of The Newly Married and his romantic tragedy of Mary Stuart in Scotland. Although Björnson has introduced into his novels and plays songs of extraordinary beauty, he was never a very copious writer of verse; in 1870 he published his Poems and Songs and the epic cycle called Arnljot Gelline; the latter volume contains the magnificent ode called “Bergliot,” Björnson’s finest contribution to lyrical poetry. Between 1864 and 1874, in the very prime of life, Björnson displayed a slackening of the intellectual forces very remarkable in a man of his energy; he was indeed during these years mainly occupied with politics, and with his business as a theatrical manager. This was the period of Björnson’s most fiery propaganda as a radical agitator. In 1871 he began to supplement his journalistic work in this direction by delivering lectures over the length and breadth of the northern countries. He possessed to a surprising degree the arts of the orator, combined with a magnificent physical prestige. From 1873 to 1876 Björnson was absent from Norway, and in the peace of voluntary exile he recovered his imaginative powers. His new departure as a dramatic author began with A Bankruptcy and The Editor in 1874, social dramas of an extremely modern and realistic cast.

The poet now settled on his estate of Aulestad in Gausdal. In 1877 he published another novel, Magnhild—an imperfect production, in which his ideas on social questions were seen to be in a state of fermentation, and gave expression to his republican sentiments in the polemical play called The King, to a later edition of which he prefixed an essay on “Intellectual Freedom,” in further explanation of his position. Captain Mansana, an episode of the war of Italian independence, belongs to 1878. Extremely anxious to obtain a full success on the stage, Björnson concentrated his powers on a drama of social life, Leonardo (1879), which raised a violent controversy. A satirical play, The New System, was produced a few weeks later. Although these plays of Björnson’s second period were greatly discussed, none of them (except A Bankruptcy) pleased on the boards. When once more he produced a social drama, A Gauntlet, in 1883, he was unable to persuade any manager to stage it, except in a modified form, though this play gives the full measure of his power as a dramatist. In the autumn of the same year, Björnson published a mystical or symbolic drama Beyond our Powers, dealing with the abnormal features of religious excitement with extraordinary force; this was not acted until 1899, when it achieved a great success.

Meanwhile, Björnson’s political attitude had brought upon him a charge of high treason, and he took refuge for a time in Germany, returning to Norway in 1882. Convinced that the theatre was practically closed to him, he turned back to the novel, and published in 1884, Flags are Flying in Town and Port, embodying his theories on heredity and education. In 1889 he printed another long and still more remarkable novel, In God’s Way, which is chiefly concerned with the same problems. The same year saw the publication of a comedy, Geography and Love, which continues to be played with success. A number of short stories, of a more or less didactic character, dealing with startling points of emotional experience, were collected in 1894; among them those which produced the greatest sensation were Dust, Mother’s Hands, and Absalom’s Hair. Later plays were a political tragedy called Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg (1898), a second part of Beyond our Powers (1895), Laboremus (1901), At Storhove (1902), and Daglannet (1904). In 1899, at the opening of the National theatre, Björnson received an ovation, and his saga-drama of Sigurd the Crusader was performed.

A subject which interested him greatly, and on which he occupied his indefatigable pen, was the question of the bonde-maal, the adopting of a national language for Norway distinct from the dansk-norsk (Dano-Norwegian), in which her literature has hitherto been written. Björnson’s strong and sometimes rather narrow patriotism did not blind him to the fatal folly of such a proposal, and his lectures and pamphlets against the maal-straev in its extreme form did more than anything else to save the language in this dangerous moment. Björnson was one of the original members of the Nobel committee, and was re-elected in 1900. In 1903 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Björnson had done as much as any other man to rouse Norwegian national feeling, but in 1903, on the verge of the rupture between Norway and Sweden, he preached conciliation and moderation to the Norwegians. He was an eloquent advocate of Pan-Germanism, and, writing to the Figaro in 1905, he outlined a Pan-Germanic alliance of northern Europe and North America. He died on the 26th of April 1910.

See Björnson’s Samlede Vaerker (Copenhagen, 1900–1902, 11 vols.); The Novels of Björnstjerne Björnson (1894, &c.), edited by Edmund Gosse; G. Brandes, Critical Studies (1899); E. Tissot, Le drame norvégien (1893); C. D. af Wirsén, Kritiker (1901); Chr. Collin, Björnstjerne Björnson (2 vols., German ed., 1903), the most complete biography and criticism at present available; and B. Halvorsen, Norsk Forfatter Lexikon (1885).  (E. G.)