Marco Montagnin

“As a tribute to his noble, magnificent and versatile poetry, which has always been distinguished by both the freshness of its inspiration and the rare purity of its spirit”

     Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903.

     Bjørnson was born in 1832 in a small Norwegian village, but Norway was not independent at the time: after about four hundred years of unity with Denmark (Four Hundred Years of Darkness), in 1814, it was surrendered to the Kingdom of Sweden after a five-year invasion. It was only in 1905 that Norway gained its own sovereignty.

      Bjørnson was the son of an Evangelical pastor, therefore religion influenced his life and work. He felt the incompatibility of Christianity’s point of view, of the load of blind obedience to religious authorities with his own inclinations; he felt impatient with the tyranny of dogma. It is worth remembering that the Christianisation of the Viking territories took place through their fragmentation and with the formation of various feudal kingdoms: the transition between the two religions (from Paganism to Christianity) was not immediate, and despite the considerable adaptive transformation of the image of Christ (implemented to facilitate conversion), the pagan spirit of these peoples was never completely eliminated.

Believe in human thought, live in truth!

     During Bjørnson’s time, the rural environments, which had survived centuries of cultural colonisation, still carried the deepest soul of Norway. In 1857, the writer met Danish historian, theologian and poet, Nicolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig in Copenhagen. Bjørnson embraced ‘Grundtvigianism’, which professed a tolerant religiousness open to more modern stimuli.

     It was not until the 19th century that Norway witnessed a literary and artistic renaissance; the literary proponents were first Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven and Henrik Arnold Wergeland and later Bjørnson and Henrik Johan Ibsen. Bjørnson and Ibsen, the Dioscuri of literature, were the most important contemporary Norwegian writers; and unlike their predecessors, they were not in competition with each other: their common inspiration found its diversification in each one’s own expression and interpretation.

     The former Bjørnson was a consciously romantic writer (in northern Europe literary tendencies arrived with a certain delay), nature, the bonde [1], the ancient Nordic sagas and ideologies of Wergeland. He was an author who was against the upper social class (the original wealthy and Danish-speaking one, which was subjected to the king’s powers in every field of interest) and who hoped for a national rebirth: Nature and Truth, an essential combination in which external, ephemeral and vacuous beauty are favoured over the quest for/need for truth. After giving up his studies, he went to Sweden and Denmark, where he wrote his first remaining works and obtained the position of artistic director in Bergen, hence succeeding Ibsen.

     It was thanks to his trip to Italy and his long stay in Rome that Bjørnson adopted an aesthetic inspired by the papal and Latin traditions, but reinterpreted in a Nordic way. After Romanticism he embraced Realism, leaving Norway for Denmark, which he considered his homeland that was not yet ready for his works; and it was at this time that the long friendship between Bjørnson and Ibsen ended. Even though a reconciliation took place later on, their friendship was never as close as before: they were known only to be the two greatest Norwegian writers.

     In 1885, Ibsen published his five-act play entitled Brand, which Bjørnson considered to be a puzzling and forced work; what was unethical to it was the romantic play Peer Gynt (written a year after Brand, in 1867, but published earlier, in 1876). Despite his friend’s praises, the negative comments read between the lines led Ibsen to create a faithful caricature character of Bjørnson in The Young Men’s League, thus exposing him to public satire.

     After his return to Norway, Bjørnson felt the need to restore a national identity and, at the same time, to open up to Europe in order to allow his own country to adapt to the times. He also felt this same necessity towards himself, and for this reason he decided to return to Italy where he finally understood the importance of not withdrawing into the frame of minds and prejudices of the past to which he could never return.
Grundtvig’s death dampened his fervour as a follower and the subsequent discovery of Positivism and the study of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin led him to a new position: “Believe in human thought, live in truth!“.

     In his 1879 play Leonarda, the various phases created by the writer are reminiscent of a wave’s motion: they converge and repel within the play.
The play is about an event that turns Mrs Falk’s (Leonarda) life upside down: her niece (Aagot) decides to marry the man (Hagbart) who previously had criticised Mrs Falk’s conduct as immoral in public. Repenting his harsh judgement due to a fallacious and partial interpretation of the facts and the strong religious values of his upbringing, after meeting Aagot and later her aunt (Mrs Falk), he understands the strictness of the dogma. Strictness personified in the Bishop (Hagbart’s uncle), a character counterbalanced by the Bisavola (Hagbart’s great-grandmother) who represents the lost past and is the person who best understands her great-grandson’s choice.
Mrs Falk is in her own right the romantic element of the play: she sacrifices her own love and rejects happiness for the sake of her granddaughter.
The work is imbued with realism, with criticism of a society anchored in a past that no longer belongs to it.

THE GREAT-GRANDMOTHER: I have seen so many generations… so many customs. In my time there was tolerance. [2]

Bjørnson, strong in his new positivist belief, rails against Providence that paralyses the will and mystifies it. The miracle is nothing more than suggestion, or better a particular event that turns against those who place their hopes in it; it is positivism that in the end prevails over faith.

THE BISHOP: I condemned her too hastily and too severely. It’s a common sin of ours. I’ve been too concerned about men, and so little about love that gives courage. She, whom I thought I had to bend to my bidding, taught me that.


That is why I sat down with you, Hagbart, to ask your forgiveness. And ask her, too! I owe it to the community I must lead. For even in it, the good are the most; if they had come with me, I would have had the courage to go on. [3]

     Bjørnson was an essayer: in faith, in philosophy, in literary currents and especially in genres.
He wrote plays, poems, novels, short stories, articles, essays and songs.
He also wrote the lyrics of the Norwegian anthem during the Swedish occupation, paying homage to his homeland, which in turn, after independence, paid homage to Bjørnson and established him as Norway’s greatest writer.

[1] Farmer

[2] Translated on behalf of La Livella Magazine’s translator from Leonarda, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, collana Scrittori del mondo: i Nobel, UTET, Torino 1979, p. 31

[3] Ibidem, p. 64

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