A Celebration of Women Writers

"Henrik Ibsen and Björnstjerne Björnson." by Mrs. Nicoline Bech-Meyer.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 243-248.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 243] 

HENRIK IBSEN AND BJORNSTJERNE BJORNSON.

By MRS. NICOLINE BECH-MEYER.

MRS. NICOLINE BECH-MEYER.
It is said about great men that they create their own age or a coming age. In one sense of the word this is not true. Man cannot create a leaf on the tree, much less a coming age. It is the eternal spirit of life, existing from times unknown, that spirit which constitutes the light of our eye and the strength of our hand, which is leading humankind along inexplicable roads toward one and the same aim–fulfillment of all promises, perfection of all possibilities. The spirit of humankind, being at the same time contents and form, must work through outward forms; undividable as it is, the spirit of all mankind works at the same time, through the single individual. There are times for rest and for consummation of what was given; and there are times where burning tides of spirit sweep across the world, where it makes way for itself and bursts forth through man and woman.

Thus our great men and women are created by the accumulated forces of past and present generations. Hence we in great poets, philosophers, musicians and artists find the standard progress of their age. "He was ahead of his time," some say. Not so. But the hidden forces of the time were to such a degree personified in one individual that it seemed to those hitherto blind as a revelation. Great minds have ears which hear the voices of by-gone ages and catch the unspoken prophecies of times to come; they have eyes which look through the covers of their own time and through the curtain of the future. Time and eternity is through them brought together in unity. There are times where the pressure of the spirit is so powerful that no single individual could give vent to it; then we see two or more kindred spirits raise side by side, revealing the same facts, though each in his own way. So in the Roman nations in the days of the renaissance, and the same again in Germany, when Göethe and Schiller represented the spirit of their time.

The Norsemen, those contributors to the common treasury of mankind, unequaled among occidental nations, had for centuries appeared to be asleep. It seemed as if the creating spirit of mankind had left the icebergs and taken its abode in warmer climates.

Those northern people who, in "the old and the young Edda," gave to the world [Page 244]  what the Bible and Homer was to the southerners, were through climatic and geographical conditions so excluded from the rest of the world that it seemed as if all they could do was to preserve the treasures from the childhood of the nation. Denmark, being the country closest connected with the continent, had its great minds of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, none of whom, however, being wide enough to become universal, except Hans Christian Andersen.

Norway, during its "four hundred years of sleep," seemed to have lost its power of production; but those who looked with eyes undimmed by the cover of time would have seen a work going on deep in the life of the nation. The folk-lore bursting with tales about brownies, hobgoblins, spirits of icebergs, waters and mountains, the sagas of their warriors and kings, were there, though unknown to the world. Whenever the eternal spirit was revealed to man through man, it has been in the garb of the nation in which it appeared. In the childhood of the race the outward forms attracted the eyes more than the contents. Thus the early literature became objective more than subjective. It was descriptive and picturesque, as in Homer. With the growth of the nations the subjective element appeared, until it, as in the German school of philosophers and poets, threatened to run into abstraction.

The present time brings the dawning idea of universal unity, of the oneness of soul and body, of man and woman, of nation and nation; therefore, the great minds of our age must represent the objective and subjective element as inseparably one.

The ancient times, with their intense love of life and beauty in outward forms, must be united with the search for eternal principles revealed in those forms. And when it comes to that, where could we expect to find the intense desire for individuality–that is, the one as a world, the world in one–more than in the nation which, during centuries, had the echoes from the Edda's sounding in its ears.

When at last the spirit burst forth, astonishing the world, locating itself in old Norway, there were such uncontrolled forces to gather, such walls to be broken, such floods of light to be dealt out in all directions, that one individual would be insufficient as medium. And the nation saw Henrik Ibsen and Björnstjerne Björnson arise side by side. Through their work is sounding the words from the Edda:

See, it is rising,
The sunken land;
Green as a springtime,
It grows from the ocean.
* * * *
Harvest shall come
From fields unsown.
Weak and strong together inhabit
Abode eternal.
Do you understand this?
* * * *

As children we only saw half of a table; only a corner of a room at a time was brought to the consciousness of our mind. Growing up, we slowly commenced uniting fragments, and with surprise we saw a whole grow out of them. Thus with the evolution of the human race. At a time only body was acknowledged; at a time only soul; humankind has been divided into races, into nations, into men and women and children. The leaders of the spiritual life of this generation would, according to the laws of evolution, have to represent the unity of one and the unity of all. Therefore, it is said about the newest literature, that its peculiar feature is its striving to solve individual and social problems, while the greatest minds of the German school mainly were dealing with philosophical problems. Ibsen's mission might be defined as the seeking to find "God in one;" Björnson's as the seeking to find "God in all." Thus the two are completing each other. Ibsen's book, "Brand," was the first work to carry his name all over the brother countries. [Page 245] 

Brand is a preacher who, in his search for truth above all things, leaves the orthodox church, refuses a sure income, sees his child die and his wife suffer through all the hardships to which they are exposed in his self-chosen working place. "Nothing or all " is his motto.

If you wish the name of soul,
You must be an entire whole.
* * * *
Not in fractions, not in halves;
Be a whole, or thou art doomed.
* * * *
It is not martyrdom to perish
In suffering on a cross of wood;
But are you willing thus to die?
Willing in suffering of flesh,
Willing in agony of mind,
Willing to conquer in the strife?
Your will shall be your crown of life.

He came seeking individuality in a society where public opinion was the opinion of each single individual, where everybody acted as the rest acted; hence there at times was almost bitterness in his view of society. In the poem, "The Miner," he says:

Down below, down below,
That is where I want to go;
There is peace from chaos sleeping.
Break my way, thou heavy hammer,
To the treasures safe in keeping.

Hammer blow on hammer blow,
Till the hours of life are waning;
Here no morning star is shining;
Here the sun of hope is hidden.
* * * *

And in the song, "On the Heights:"

Now I am stalwart;
I follow the call
Which tells me the heights to explore.
Here on the mountains is freedom and God;
Down below they are groping in darkness.
* * * * *

Sorrow and joy are really expressions of the same kind of feeling; they are both born of the longing for life in its fullness. They are lying close together, the element of sorrow being an intense desire to embrace joy and become one with it. Göethe has felt this when he said:

"Wer nie die kummervollen Nächte
Auf seinem Bette weinend sasz,
Wer nie sein Brod mit Thränen asz,
Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte!"

(He who never through the live-long nights)
(Sat weeping on his bedside,)
(He who never ate his bread with tears,)
(He does not know ye, ye heavenly powers!)

Thus he who has the clearest conception of the ideal set before us; he who with a burning will wants to see this ideal established among us–he will feel with the deep- [Page 246]  est sorrow how far from perfection both he and the rest of humankind still is standing; with sorrow; and with bitterness if he realizes that society at a given time is deaf to his expostulations. But never was Ibsen despairing; never did he in his war against privileged fractions and halves reach the point where he lost his faith in life and truth as the triumphing powers at last. He who sees the ideal in its beauty, but despairs of its ever being realized among mankind, will lay down his weapons and prefer death to a life without meaning.

From the time when Henrik Ibsen in "Brand" showed colors, he never has ceased to declare the same over and over again: the necessity of each individual being an entire whole, if we ever want a society which represents an entire whole.

He is solemnly earnest in his way of working, and his force is so great that he is always above his subject. Whenever his muse happens to carry him into sunnier regions it moves us strangely; a smile on a very earnest face has a beauty of its own never to be resisted. The poem, "Thanks," shows how far he can reach in peaceful, heart-felt lyric:

            THANKS.

Her sorrow was each trouble
   Which met me on my way;
Her happiness the spirits
   Which came to me to stay.

Her home must be located
   On liberty's main,
Where the verses of the poet
   Their force and freedom gain.

The character and features
   That silently step in
To take their seats around me,
   Are her family and kin.

Her aim it is to lighten
   All darkness in a glow,
To be my strength in stillness
   That the world should never know.

But just because she always
   Not even thanks awaits,
I sing her now and print her
   A song of thanks and praise.

As the storm purifying the air, and the sun afterward calling forth life, thus do the two Norwegian poets complete each other. To the present generation is revealed a wider understanding of the word love.

Punishment, condemnation, temptations, are words slowly dying out of the language of intelligent men and women. This universal love is the Alpha and Omega of Björnson's teachings. In him was personified the hope and strength of a new human belief, from the moment when he in his first youth sang out:

Lift thy head, thou youthful lad;
Even if hopes are crushed, be glad;
Others greet thee in the sky,
Fraught with blessings from on high.

* * * * * *
Lift thy head and look around;
Don't you hear the joyful sound–
How it with a million tongues
In the air around thee sings? [Page 243] 

Lift thy head and sing it out;
Thou canst not kill the springtime sprout.
Where there is power to burst and grow,
Next year's spring sun will it show.

At the same time he says, in one of the poems in "Arne":

He who was longing for twenty years
Over the mountains high and steep,
He who knows that he never will reach,
Feels himself smaller year after year,
Hears a bird on the mountain singing,
As it sits on the birch-tree swinging.

Once I know that it shall go forth
'Way over the mountains high,
Perhaps thy door is opened now.
O Lord, my God, thy home is fair;
Still, for awhile leave thou it shut,
And let me strive in my longings.

It is the never-ceasing thirst of a soul craving for knowledge, for light, in which to solve the problems of life. Before us is an ocean of wisdom, its invisible sources are located in eternity; the life of the oldest human being will only be sufficient for a few draughts.

Though Björnson claims to be intently national in his works as well as in personal inclination, he yet, without realizing it, is compelled to represent internationalism. He intends to say, Norway first and last; but his soul reaches too far, and he could not be a true medium for the spirit of his age, were not internationalism to leave its traces in his work. One of the most beautiful national songs ever written in any language is to be found in his novel, "The Fisher-girl."

I shall guard thee, my land;
I shall build up my land;
I shall love it through life in my prayer and my child;
I shall work for its good;
I shall look for its wants,
From its borders and out to the fisherman's yarn.

We have plenty of sun;
We have plenty of soil;
Only we, only we could have plenty of love.
Here is creating power
Through the work of the hour;
We could lift up this land, if we lifted as one.
* * * * * *

This home-land is ours,
And we worship it for
What it was, what it is, what it will be again;
And as love shall grow forth
From the soil of our earth,
That shall grow from the seeds of our love, in it laid.

When we get this kind of national hymn instead of boasts about conquering nations, and nonsense about being the first and the only ones, then the first step toward internationalism is taken.

The subjective national hymn, appealing to the will and work of the single individual, to the creating love instead of the contemplating love, is in its nature so wide-reaching, that it, even without realizing it, will sow the seeds of internationalism, [Page 248]  will carry us toward those higher regions where the earth is our fatherland, all mankind our countrymen.

Cosmopolitanism is the feeling with which the wayward soul regards the different nations, they are all of equal value to him, for the reason that he has home nowhere. Internationalism is a feeling growing out of the deepest love to the spot where we are born–through loving that, we slowly reach farther toward loving the whole earth.

In correspondence with that tendency to internationalism, which Björnson does not–or at least did not some years ago–acknowledge himself, Björnson is an ardent friend of the Pease-cause, in favor of which a great deal of his talent as orator has been used.

In their view of that omnipotent power, love between man and woman, Björnson and Ibsen are true representatives of the present generation. This age, which has understood the identity of soul and body, does not loose itself in contemplation of outward forms, as forms alone, but seeks at every place the contents of those forms. The objective element has ceased to be the ruling one in the analysis of love. In Björnson's and Ibsen's works true love is measured by the degree of strength it gives to the self. Reasoning thus, Norah came to the conclusion that her marriage with Helmer had on both sides been without true love.

Ibsen's bitter satire on love between man and woman, as practiced in publicly sanctified engagements and later on in marriage, awoke such hissing wrath in his fatherland that he for ten years lived abroad.

Norwegian society was not yet ready to understand that it was not love between man and woman which Ibsen denied and attacked, it was the social ideal of this love.

Björnson, believing, full of hope, optimist in the most beautiful sense of that word, as he is, attacked this established ideal by painting one completely different. His "Flags are hoisted in city and at port," teaches the new social moral, that ignorance is not identical with innocence. He wants mothers to teach their boys and girls about the laws of life, that they may no more need to go to playmates or servants to get questions answered in a way which may injure them for lifetime. We must have mothers who bend their knees in reverence to the laws of nature, the beautiful and sacred; mothers who realize that nature is good and pure and true in all her ways; first then will the houses of prostitution be things unknown among us, buried with mistakes of the past. Some six or seven years ago Björnson traveled in Denmark, lecturing about his favorite subject, true love between man and woman. He only recognizes that union between man and woman which rests upon a unity of soul and body; no decree of society, neither clerical nor civil, can establish such a union, nor can it destroy it. They who look forward to those reforms of society, needed so sorely, yet so little acknowledged, will especially appreciate one feature common to both Ibsen and Björnson. We may pile up before us every book written by them, not on one page, not in a single expression, will we find charity lauded. Those two men never bent their proud heads to money, never changed their opinion for the sake of wealth or rank; to them the charity of society is only a simple duty as long as it is a deplorable necessity. They both believe in a ruling justice in life, the justice involved in the fact that certain causes have certain effects as sure as a splash follows the stone thrown into the water. By the lover of this justice Ibsen was at last acknowledged by his countrymen; by the same justice the heart of the Norwegian nation went out to Björnson from the time when his first idyls from Norwegian peasant life appeared.

Around these two representatives of the best in our own age, those prophets of a still better future, gather all who believe in the old prophecy: "Your sons and your daughters shall see sights, and the spirit shall descend to all mankind." The structure of future society shall have the word "justice " written over its portals with flaming letters; charity shall be buried deep in the ground, and the two Norwegian poets, nay, poets of the world, shall be counted among those who wrote its funeral march.

When Ibsen's teachings about "God in one," and Björnson's about "God in all," have reached their aim, then the poet, be it woman or man, shall arise among us, who shall sing about "All in God."


[Page 243] 

Nicoline Bech was born on the heaths of Jutland, where her father was a teacher. She was educated in her home by studying the Bible, the old Gothic sagas and the folk-lore of the Northern nations. Later she went to Copenhagen and registered in Natalie Zahle's college for public teachers. She took a diploma with the highest degree. She there took up her pen as writer to the best Scandinavian illustrated weekly, "Nutiden." She became engaged to Axel Meyer, of Copenhagen. The young man went to Kansas, and about a year after she followed him. They were married in Stockton, Rooks County, Kansas. In the seventh year of her married life some of the leaders of the reform party in Denmark wanted Mrs. Bech-Meyer to come home and lecture about the United States. She went with her children, her husband moving to Chicago. For half a year she remained in Denmark, lecturing. Her books, "Sketches from Kansas" and "Divided Opinions," a novel, were published in Copenhagen. Toward the fall of 1891 she with her children set sail for Chicago again, where she engaged in writing for several papers: "The Parthenon," "The Union Signal," "Goodform" and "The Sculptor News." In 1893 her native country entrusted her with the honor of representing Denmark at the Woman's Congress and at the Peace Congress. Her postoffice address is Chicago.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom