From An Claidheamh Soluis, 14-21 July, 1906. Published under the psuedonym ‘R. O’K.’
‘Is example nothing? It is everything. Example is the school of mankind and they will learn at no other.’ These words of a great Irishman, Europe’s soundest political philosopher, should make us sometimes turn our eyes abroad.
And surely there is no country in the world to-day which has taught the world a deeper lesson than Norway, the little country of the North. Bound to Ireland by old ties, when Skald swore brotherhood with File, and learnt, by the study of a fellow-poet’s art, perfection in his own; in those long three hundred years when the war-delighting Gael met his warlike brother from the North, and learnt to fight at Fontenoy from the heroes of Clontarf; when Irish missionary built church and school in the far Northern land, heaping coals of fire on his old invader’s head,—Norway claims the attention of every Irishman who cares for history. The history of Norway is linked with that of Ireland. Norwegian scholars know what saga owes to sgéal, and the best Norwegian scholars study Irish. Her historians are aware what Norway learnt for the battles of her country’s freedom from Irish arms and Irish valour; how in poetry, arms, and the civilising influence of Christianity, Norway felt the Irish influence. And Patrick, Malachi, and Irish File are bright names in Norwegian story.
To-day, Norway has taught the world a Lesson, and has set Ireland an example. She has taught the world anew the ancient lesson that men are civilised where they are free, that freedom alone can civilise a nation, awake it in the world’s history, a civilising force. A small nation Norway, having set to work to cultivate her own resources—spiritual and material—has done the best for herself, and had influence on the world outside altogether out of proportion to her size. With the characteristics of the Norwegian spirit we have nothing here to do. Each nation has its own. We, too, have our own standards of perfection, which make the imitation of any foreign race—Latin, Teuton, Slav, or any other in the world—contemptible. But the example and success of Norway in the development of her own life may encourage us in our work also for the development of those gifts which are at once Irish and our own.
Her people, hardy, temperate, and bold, having striven long for freedom with the sword, to-day have won it by the sword. She was determined, were there need, to use the sword. But national unity gave her strength, and made it unnecessary for her to unsheathe the sword. After a peaceful revolution she stands forth to-day ‘a nation once again,’ having broken last year the last letter of external domination,—youngest of all European nations.
Let it be remarked well also that Norway is the smallest of European nations. She is, in the number of her citizens, smaller than Greece, smaller than Switzerland. Yet her dramatists are known throughout the civilised world. They are the mainstay of the German stage, and their works are acted throughout the villages of drama-loving Russia. Her music—her old National Song, as interpreted by Kjerulf and by Grieg—is the common property of Europe. Her painters—and in her beautiful land almost everyone has turned his hand to painting—are well-known in France, and Germany, and Italy. In Christiana there is a fine and extensive collection of national art—controlled by the State, and filled with pictures painted in, and of, and for, Norway by Norwegians. Her jurists and doctors of medicine are renowned for their knowledge and their skill. And among her democratic people, education is so good that the peasant loves his Bjornson, and the timber-floater over his fire will tell tales from the old sagas, or incidents of his old country’s history.
Moreover, it is only in recent years that there began her National Resurrection. In 1814, with a constitution of her own, her energies were turned within, and she set about to make the best of all there was within her, to clothe, as Bjornson hints in ‘Arne,’ her naked land with foilage and trees. Her literature was foreign. Except in the past, she had none of her own. Her national life seemed dead. The influence of Dane and Swede—nations more successful than herself—had supplanted for the first time her native culture. But Wergeland—in many ways like Moore—struck up again the note of old Norwegian song, and—a great poet—laid the foundations of a poetry made at home, and for the homes of his own nation. Other poets grouped round him and followed him, developing the seed he had sown. Ashbjornson joined the great patriotic bishop, Jorgen Moe, and hunted throughout the land for old tales and folklore, the publication of which marked an era in Norwegian literature. After this long and steady preparation, the result to be expected happened. Two poets of the first rank—the first fruits of the National Revival—dawned upon the world, whose names are known wherever poetry is known—Bjornson and Ibsen. Bjornson began his famous career with a collection of short stories of peasant life. His lyrics were heard and sung throughout Norway. His novels and dramas,—the latest product of his genius—all are well known in the world. Ibsen too has added lovely flowers to the garland of Norwegian lyric verse. And his poetic dramas, some think his finest work—Brand and Peer Gynt—are filled with the spirit of Norwegian life, as seen by his own eyes. Grieg, the great musician and composer, worked hand in hand with him, and for these dramas created some of his best melodies—adding to Norwegian poetry, Norwegian song.
Yet Ibsen, temperamentally lacking faith and hope, left his country, and spent the larger part of his life in exile in Germany and Rome. Exile did not mend his hopes. Nor did he find the social life of the countries he spent his life in better than that of the little country he had left. He turned the force of his genius to the criticism of modern civilisation, exposing its shams, revealing the grim and awful gaps within it—a destructive critic of immense range and power. Who shall say that he lost the Ollamh’s pure idea? Ibsen was an idealist and remained one to the end. But the poet may destroy, as well as build. If the last task be the higher, the other may be needed too. Ibsen was called mainly by the latter. His biting satires might enable us to call him the Athairne of modern civilisation—our Irish satirist whose circuit through the land was dreaded. And Ibsen, too, passed homelessly form land to land, criticising, satirising, all that he saw and met. So that many still would buy him off, fear him, and would keep him out, victims—often justly, for their meanness and hypocrisy,—of his revenge and wrath.
Bjornson remained in his country—developing in genius, and year by year—a patriot-poet like our Davis—devoted his life to building up his land. He planted no new or foreign trees in it. But, with shoots from the trees of his own country—birch, and pine, and fir—planted the bare and desolated places, till Norway became, under his guiding hand, clad—from mountain top to valley—in its own native culture once again. Bjornson is the great patriot-poet of his country. His life, no less than his work, makes him in the estimation of his countrymen, of all Norwegians first. Ibsen may be better known in Germany, and on the Continent. Bjornson is loved supremely by his own. Both have done much for Norway. They were friends and worked together; the one at home, the other abroad. They point a contrast but their work was one. Bjornson met Ibsen once, and said to him: ‘Ibsen, in all your work you never forget you are a good Norwegian.’ Ibsen returned: ‘Neither do you, Bjornson, in your work for Norway, ever forget you are a good European.’ And surely that is our own ideal, first to be good Irishmen, and be ourselves; nor to forget that in developing our nationhood, we add, and may bring a great gift to, the civilisation of the world.
To be Irishmen, and bringing our own unique gift to the common treasure—that is our ideal. For just as a man should give his own life for his country, so his country should give all that is best within her to the civilisation of the world.
We have spoken of the past. Ibsen is dead. And one stage in the Norwegian National Revival is now closed. Ibsen was brought up under old Danish influences. The philosopher whose gloomy outlook is expressed in Ibsen’s art was the philosopher who influenced him as a child—Kierkegaard, a Dane. Ibsen wrote in Danish. Living his life abroad, he was less susceptible to newer movements, which Bjornson, though a man of his own generation, himself has been profoundly influenced by. For the publication of the old stories of Ashbjornson and Moe gave an impulse to the national movement in another still more important sphere. It turned men’s minds to the old Norwegian language—still spoken throughout the country valleys, though Danish, the legacy of the long Danish conquest, was the language of the towns. Danish was the language of Ibsen and all his generation of Bjornson in his early work, and was spoken, with only a difference of accent, in all Norwegian towns. But on the publication of the National folk-tales by the patriot-bishop Moe, a band of men sprung up, who turned their attention to the language—the old Norwegian tongue—still spoken throughout the country districts—kindred to Danish just as Dutch is kindred, but a language different and quite distinct. This language, called in Norway the ‘Lands-maal,’ is the direct descendant of the language spoken in Norway before Dane or Swede had entered it, that language spoken by the Norwegians who long before left their country, and went to colonise and live in Iceland. Headed by Ivar Aasen, the philologist and scholar, who compiled with great pains and labour the first large dictionary of the ‘Maal,’ these men urged the study of the native tongue, and sought to make men use the fine Norwegian language, and abandon Danish. Ibsen from his foreign home in Rome laughed at these men, and satirised their aspirations in ‘Peer Gynt.’ He mocked at their endeavours to substitute what he thought a ‘barbarous jargon’ for the classical Danish, in the style a Mahaffy might use in speaking of Gaelic. Whether Ibsen was qualified, by understanding or knowledge of the language he so vigorously criticised, to speak as he did is not reported. But in truth Ibsen’s mind had long been formed under the influence of the Danish Kierkegaard; his style—the classical Danish—was formed and set. At Rome the influence of the movement could not reach him. And his attack on the Norwegian language movement was largely inspired by ignorance and prejudice. An English critic of the last century, in one of the few books on Norway written by Englishmen, alludes to the question, taking Ibsen’s side, and his book published many years ago has induced the majority of English-speaking people who are interested in Norway to think the opposition of Ibsen had settled the question.
But the movement towards the National language has immensely influenced all the writers of the younger generation. Bjornson himself has been largely influenced by it. At first, sharing Ibsen’s view, he held aloof. But the language of his later works has been largely modified, and Norwegian forms and words have been introduced in the old Danish. His language is richer, more national, and more expressive than of old. There is no younger writer in Norway whose style has not been profoundly influenced by the new movement. All have felt it, and whether men write in the ‘Maal’ or not, the language of the Norwegian poet of to-day is more national, native, and Norwegian than in the time of Ibsen, and the generation that has passed away. The most distinguished Norwegian poet of to-day—Arne Garborg—writes in the ‘Maal.’ His dramas and lyrics are the delight of all Norwegians. His language is like that of the old sagas, and a crowd of young men follow in his footsteps.
If the national awakening of Norway has taught the world a lesson, it is instructive above all to Irishmen. Norway to-day is a ‘nation once again.’ She sails under her own flag, makes her own laws, controls her own industry and trade. She has her own army and her own fleet. She is the equal, and the friend, of the two neighbouring nations, who of old sought to impose their will upon her. Long free from the external control of the Dane, she won her freedom from the Swede last year. Long may the three neighbouring countries—Norway, Sweden, Denmark—each minding its own, each labouring in the peaceful work of developing its own spiritual and material resources from within, live in harmony and friendship with each other, co-operators in the civilisation of the world!
Not only are her laws her own, her literature is her own. A people which makes its own ballads will make its own laws. The patriotic efforts of the great Bishop Moe, and of the patriot-poet Bjornson, freed the country from the more insidious control of the foreigner within. They recalled her to her native culture, planted her own fir and birch in the desolate places. She wore once more her own beautiful and simple dress, and sought no more the finery of foreign nations. She lost the world with its gaudy attractions, but gained her own soul. Thrown upon himself, each Norwegian citizen took a hand in his country’s work. Priest, poet, musician, painter, jurist, statesman, scientist, historian, felt each his individual impulse strengthened by the consciousness that in working for the good of mankind he worked first for the good of his own kin. His country called him, needed him. He gave her, each in his own sphere, his best. The poetry of Norway which we know (which ‘cosmopolitans’ fondly praise)—her music which we so well know, all that makes Norway an European name, arose from the vigour of her national spirit, calling on each man in the nation to do his best, bring out the best that was in him for his own land.
And finally, Irishmen should not be blind to the language—the National Language Movement of the North. The parallel is not exact, but the principle is the same. The Norwegian, with his own laws, and his own literature, turns to his own ways of speech. His language too shall be national, individual, unique. His soul is his own. So too shall be his language the expression of his soul. And the poet of Norway who might interest Irishmen best is Arne Garborg, the poet of the ‘Maal.’’ He is the poet of the people, the poet of the country, not the town. If Skald in the old days once swore brotherhood with File, perhaps in these modern days an Irish File may still learn some lesson from the study of a brother-poet’s labours in the Norway of to-day.