The Norwegian national poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1903 “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”. He was also one of the first Norwegian celebrities to be hunted by photographers. Here is a brief story and some famous portraits of the Norwegian national poet.
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was born at the farmstead of Bjørgan in Kvikne, a secluded village in the Østerdalen district, some sixty miles south of Trondheim. In 1837 Bjørnson’s father Peder Bjørnson, who was the pastor of Kvikne, was transferred to the parish of Nesset, outside Molde in Romsdal. It was in this scenic district that Bjørnson spent his childhood, living at the Nesset Parsonage.
Related: A Norwegian Heritage
Bjørnson was a poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, editor, public speaker, theatre director, and one of the most prominent public figures in Norway of his day. He is generally known, together with Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland, and Jonas Lie, as one of “the four great ones” of 19th-century Norwegian literature. His poem “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” (“Yes, We Love This Land”) is the Norwegian national anthem (music by Rikard Nordraak).
From his breakthrough in 1857 until his death in 1910, Bjørnstjerne Martinius Bjørnson was a national celebrity and pop star in Norway, the Nordic countries and Europe. He became famous and infamous for all he stood for, poet, nation builder and peacemaker. And a party pooper, troublemaker and womanizer. But in the many photographs of him, there is mostly only one Bjørnson who appears.
After a few years studying in Molde, Bjørnson was sent at the age of 17 to Heltberg Latin School (Heltbergs Studentfabrikk) in Christiania to prepare for university. This was the same school that trained Ibsen, Lie, and Vinje.
From the start, his writing was marked by clearly didactic intent; he sought to stimulate national pride in Norway’s history and achievements and to present ideals. For the first 15 years of his literary career, he drew his inspiration from the sagas and from his knowledge of contemporary rural Norway. He exploited these two fields in what he described as his system of “crop rotation”: saga material was turned into plays, contemporary material into novels or peasant tales. The early products of this system were the peasant tale Synnøve Solbakken (1857; Trust and Trial, Love and Life in Norway, and Sunny Hill), the one-act historical play Mellem slagene (1857; “Between the Battles”), and the tales Arne (1858) and En glad gut (1860; The Happy Boy) and the play Halte-Hulda (1858; “Lame Hulda”).
The first pictures of Bjørnson originate from the childhood of photography. Taking a picture at the time was a laborious process, and the poet had full control over the photographic situation.
After he had matriculated at the University of Oslo in 1852, he soon embarked upon a career as a journalist, focusing on criticism of drama.
At the close of 1857 Bjørnson had been appointed director of the theatre at Bergen, a post which he held for two years, when he returned to Christiania.
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 De Nygifte (The Newly Married) and his romantic tragedy of Mary Stuart in Scotland. He married the actress Karoline Reimers in 1858 and also became the editor of the Bergenposten. Partly because of his activity with this paper, the Conservative representatives were defeated in 1859 and the path was cleared for the formation of the Liberal Party a short time later.
After traveling abroad for three years, Bjørnson became director of the Christiania Theatre, and, from 1866 to 1871, he edited the Norsk Folkeblad.
Bjørnson was a leader of the spirit who wanted to change Norway as a nation and change Europe based on the avlues of the Nordic countries. He was very strong in his convictions, and he posed in a way that built up under that image.
Between 1864 and 1874, Bjørnson displayed a slackening of the intellectual forces very remarkable in a man of his energy; he was mainly occupied with politics and with his business as a theatrical manager. This was the period of Bjørnson’s most fiery propaganda as a radical agitator. In 1871 he began to supplement his journalistic work by delivering lectures throughout Scandinavia.
Bjørnson’s political battles and literary feuds took up so much of his time that he left Norway in order to write. The two dramas that brought him an international reputation were thus written in self-imposed exile: En fallit (1875; The Bankrupt) and Redaktøren (1875; The Editor). Both fulfilled the then current demand on literature (stipulated by the Danish writer and critic Georg Brandes) to debate problems, as did the two dramas that followed: Kongen (1877; The King) and Det ny system (1879; The New System).
It is easy to recognize Bjørnson’s hair style in the portraits of him. The hair is somehow straight up in front of the head. His comrades called his hair Romsdalshorn, after the mountain. He is often depicted wearing glasses on his nose, a bow around his neck and a watch chain over his chest. Always a hat on if he was out, Bjørnson liked hats very much.
In the 1870’s Bjørnson and the composer Edvard Grieg, who shared his interests in Norwegian self-government, became friends. Grieg set several of his poems to music, including Landkjenning and Sigurd Jorsalfar. Eventually they decided on an opera based on King Olav Trygvason, but a dispute as to whether music or lyrics should be created first, led to Grieg being diverted to working on incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, which naturally offended Bjørnson . Eventually their friendship was resumed.
He died on 26 April 1910 in Paris, where for some years he had spent his winters, and was buried at home with every mark of honor. The Norwegian coastal defence ship Norge was sent to convey his remains back to his own land.
Portraits of the Norwegian National Poet, written by Tor Kjolberg