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- Poems and Songs - 2/44 -

but also in the enrichment of the music of his rhymed verse in modern forms. Conciseness of style in thought and word permitted no lyrical elaboration of figures or descriptions; it restricted the poet to brief hints of the ways his spirit would go, and along which he wished to guide that of the hearer or reader. Herein is the source of much of the power of Björnson's patriotic songs and poems of public agitation. Those who read or hear or sing them are made to think, or at least to feel, the unwritten poetry between the lines. Scarcely less notable is this paucity in the expression of wealth of thought and feeling in the memorial and other more individual poems.

Björnson's diction corresponds to the quality of style thus briefly characterized. The modern Norwegian language has no considerable, highly developed special vocabulary for poetic use. From the diction of prose the poet must quarry and carve the verbal material for his verse. It sometimes seems, indeed, as if it were hard for Björnson to find the right block and fit it, nicely cut, into his line. In describing his diction critics have used the figures of hewing and of hammer-strokes, but then have said that it is not so much laborious effort we hear as the natural falling into place of words heavy with thought and feeling. Here it is that translation must so often come short of faithful reproduction. The choice of words in relation to rhythm and euphony is a mystery difficult to interpret even in the poet's own language. If we try to analyze the verse of great poets, we frequently find, beyond what is evidently the product of conscious design, effects of suggestion and sound which could not be calculated and designed. The verbal material seems hardly to be amenable to the poet's control, but rather to be chosen, shaped, and placed involuntarily by the thought and the mood. _The Ocean_ is a good example of the distinctive power and beauty of Björnson's diction.

Such, then, in melody, rhythm, style, and diction is the form of Björnson's verse: compact, reticent, suggestive, without elaborate verbal ornamentation, strong with "the long-vibrating power of the deeply felt, but half-expressed." It challenges and stimulates the soul of the hearer or reader to an intense activity of appropriation, which brings a fine reward.


What, now, is the content that finds expression in this form? As we turn the pages from the beginning, we first meet lyrics that may be called personal, not utterances of Björnson's individual self, but taken from his early tales and the drama _Halte Hulda_, with strains of love, of religious faith, of dread of nature, and of joy in it, of youthful longing; then after two patriotic choral songs and a second group of similar personal poems from _A Happy Boy_ follow one on a patriotic subject with historical allusions, a memorial poem on J. L. Heiberg, and one descriptive, indeed, of the ocean, but filled with the human feelings and longings it arouses; then come a lyric personal to Björnson, and one that is not. As we progress, we pass through a similar succession of descriptive, personal, or memorial poems, some of religious faith, historical ballads, lyrical romances, patriotic and festival choral songs, poems in celebration of individual men and women, living or dead, and towards the end poems, like the _Psalms_, of deep philosophic thought suffused with emotion.

Now these subjects may be gathered into a small number of groups: love, religious faith and thought, moods personal to the poet, patriotism,--love of country, striving for its welfare, pride in Norway's history, and joy in the beauty and grandeur of its scenery. The occasional songs and poems in celebration of great personalities, --whether they were of high station and renown, or lowly and unfamed, --or for festivals, earnest or jovial, are nearly all conceived in the spirit of patriotism,--love of Norway, its historic past, its present, its future. They may be social songs memorial or political poems, ballads or lyrical romances,--all are inspired by and inspire love of country.

Not very many of Björnson's lyrics have love as their subject. From his tales, novels, and dramas we know that his understanding of love was comprehensive and subtle, yet this volume contains but few of the love-lyrics of strong emotion, which Björnson must have felt, if not written. He was a man of will and action with altruistic ideals; sexual love could not be the whole nor the center of life for him.

Nor are the purely religious poems numerous, although Christian faith is at once the ground and the atmosphere of his lyrics in the earlier period, and some of the latest are expressions of a broad and deep philosophy of life. "Love thy neighbor!" and "Light, Love, Life" in deeds were characteristic of Björnson, rather than the utterance of passive meditations of a theoretic nature on God and man's relation to Him.

Björnson's unfailing bent towards activity in behalf of others could not favor either the lyric outpouring of other purely personal moods. Such purely personal poems are then also relatively rare. Some of them, however, are most beautiful and deeply moving. Generally he frees himself in an epic or dramatic way from subjective introspection; he projects his feeling into another personality or sends it forth in choral song in terms of "we" and "our." The moods he does express more directly for himself are vague youthful longing for the great and the instant, joyous trustfulness even in adversity and under criticism, love of parents, wife, family, and friends, faith in the future and in the power of the good to prevail.

By far the largest number of the _Poems and Songs_ have as their subject patriotism in the broadest sense, a theme at once simple and complex. It is in them that the skald and chieftain so typically blend in one. Of this group the influence has been widest and deepest. In his oration at the unveiling of the statue of Wergeland in Christiania, Björnson spoke of him and of Norway's constitution as growing up together; with reference to this it has been maintained that we have still greater right to say that Björnson and Norway's full freedom and independence grew up together. The truth of the statement is very largely due to Björnson's patriotic poems. Through them the poet-prophet interpreted for his nation the historic past and the evolving present, and forecast the future. Simplifying the meaning of life, he accomplished the mission which he himself made the ideal of _The Poet_, and became for his own people the liberalizing teacher and molder, leading them to freedom in thought and action, in social and political life. Of this large and seemingly complex group of patriotic lyrics,--whether they be on its history, or on contemporaneous events and deeds of individuals with political significance; or on men, both known and unknown to fame, who had made and were making Norway great; or on historical, political, and other national festivals; or on the country, its land and sea and fjords and forests and fields and cities, in aspects more genial or more stern, --whether they be poems of the individual or social and choral songs, manorial poems or ballads or lyrical romances, or descriptions of Norway's scenery,--the unifying simple theme is Norway to be loved and labored for.

Not a single poem is, however, merely descriptive of external nature. Björnson's relation to nature is indeed more intimate than that of any other Norwegian writer of his time, but here also he is epic and dramatic rather than subjectively lyrical. He sees and hears through what is external, and his feeling for and with nature is but a profounder looking into the soul of his nation or the inner life of other human beings. For him Norway's scenery is filled with the glory of the nation's past, the promise of its future, or the needs of the present. The poems that contain nature descriptions are primarily patriotic. In the national hymn _Yes, We Love_, it is the nation, its history and its future, which with the land towers as a whole before his vision; in _Romsdal_ the scenery frames the people, their character and life. More personal poems, as _To Molde_ or _A Meeting_, are not merely descriptive; in the former childhood's memories and the love of friends fill the scene, while in the latter the freshly and tenderly drawn snow-landscape is but the setting for a vivid picture of a deceased friend.

The contents of this volume befit the verse-form, as if each were made by and for the other. The subjects are simple, large, weighty; the form is compact, strong, suggestive. Björnson is distinctly not subjectively lyrical, but has a place in the first rank "as a choral lyric poet and as an epic lyric poet." (Collin.) Georg Brandes wrote of him many years ago: "In few [fields] has he put forth anything so individual, unforgettable, imperishable, as in the lyric field."



Have thanks for all from our childhood's day, Our play together in woodland roaming. I thought that play would go on for aye, Though life should pass to its gloaming.

I thought that play would go on for aye, From bowers leading of leafy birches To where the Solbakke houses lay, And where the red-painted church is.

I sat and waited through evenings long And scanned the ridge with the spruces yonder; But darkening mountains made shadows throng, And you the way did not wander.

I sat and waited with scarce a doubt: He'll dare the way when the sun's descended. The light shone fainter, was nearly out, The day in darkness had ended.

My weary eye is so wont to gaze, To turn its look it is slow in learning; No other landmark it seeks, nor strays, Beneath the brow sorely burning.

They name a place where I help may find, And fain to Fagerli church would guide me; But try not thither to move my mind; He sits there ever beside me.

--But good it is, that full well I know, Who placed the houses both here and yonder, Then cut a way through the woods so low And let my eye on it wander.

But good it is that full well I know, Who built the church and to pray invited,

Poems and Songs - 2/44

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