Produced by Ted Garvin, Nicole Apostola and David Widger
By Edmund Gosse
CHAPTER I: CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
CHAPTER II: EARLY INFLUENCES
CHAPTER III: LIFE IN BERGEN (1852-57) CHAPTER IV: THE SATIRES (1857-67)
CHAPTER V: 1868-75
CHAPTER VI: 1875-82
CHAPTER VII: 1883-91
CHAPTER VIII: LAST YEARS
CHAPTER IX: PERSONAL CHARACTERISTICS CHAPTER X: INTELLECTUAL CHARACTERISTICS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Ibsen in 1868
Ibsen in Dresden, October, 1873
From a drawing by Gustav Laerum
Facsimile of Ibsen’s Handwriting
Ibsen. From the painting by Eilif Petersen Bust of Ibsen, about 1865
Numerous and varied as have been the analyses of Ibsen’s works published, in all languages, since the completion of his writings, there exists no biographical study which brings together, on a general plan, what has been recorded of his adventures as an author. Hitherto the only accepted Life of Ibsen has been _Et literaert Livsbillede_, published in 1888 by Henrik Jaeger; of this an English translation was issued in 1890. Henrik Jaeger (who must not be confounded with the novelist, Hans Henrik Jaeger) was a lecturer and dramatic critic, residing near Bergen, whose book would possess little value had he not succeeded in persuading Ibsen to give him a good deal of valuable information respecting his early life in that city. In its own day, principally on this account, Jaeger’s volume was useful, supplying a large number of facts which were new to the public. But the advance of Ibsen’s activity, and the increase of knowledge since his death, have so much extended and modified the poet’s history that _Et literaert Livsbillede_ has become obsolete.
The principal authorities of which I have made use in the following pages are the minute bibliographical _Oplysninger_ of J. B. Halvorsen, marvels of ingenious labor, continued after Halvorsen’s death by Sten Konow (1901); the _Letters of Henrik Ibsen_, published in two volumes, by H. Koht and J. Elias, in 1904, and now issued in an English translation (Hodder & Stoughton); the recollections and notes of various friends, published in the periodicals of Scandinavia and Germany after his death; T. Blanc’s _Et Bidrag til den Ibsenskte Digtnings Scenehistorie_ (1906); and, most of all, the invaluable _Samliv med Ibsen_ (1906) of Johan Paulsen. This last-mentioned writer aspires, in measure, to be Ibsen’s Boswell, and his book is a series of chapters reminiscent of the dramatist’s talk and manners, chiefly during those central years of his life which he spent in Germany. It is a trivial, naive and rather thin production, but it has something of the true Boswellian touch, and builds up before us a lifelike portrait.
From the materials, too, collected for many years past by Mr. William Archer, I have received important help. Indeed, of Mr. Archer it is difficult for an English student of Ibsen to speak with moderation. It is true that thirty-six years ago some of Ibsen’s early metrical writings fell into the hands of the writer of this little volume, and that I had the privilege, in consequence, of being the first person to introduce Ibsen’s name to the British public. Nor will I pretend for a moment that it is not a gratification to me, after so many years and after such surprising developments, to know that this was the fact. But, save for this accident of time, it was Mr. Archer and no other who was really the introducer of Ibsen to English readers. For a quarter of a century he was the protagonist in the fight against misconstruction and stupidity; with wonderful courage, with not less wonderful good temper and persistency, he insisted on making the true Ibsen take the place of the false, and on securing for him the recognition due to his genius. Mr. William Archer has his reward; his own name is permanently attached to the intelligent appreciation of the Norwegian playwright in England and America.
In these pages, where the space at my disposal was so small, I have not been willing to waste it by repeating the plots of any of those plays of Ibsen which are open to the English reader. It would please me best if this book might be read in connection with the final edition of _Ibsen’s Complete Dramatic Works_, now being prepared by Mr. Archer in eleven volumes (W. Heinemann, 1907). If we may judge of the whole work by those volumes of it which have already appeared, I have little hesitation in saying that no other foreign author of the second half of the nineteenth century has been so ably and exhaustively edited in English as Ibsen has been in this instance.
The reader who knows the Dano-Norwegian language may further be recommended to the study of Carl Naerup’s _Norsk Litteraturhistories siste Tidsrum_ (1905), a critical history of Norwegian literature since 1890, which is invaluable in giving a notion of the effect of modern ideas on the very numerous younger writers of Norway, scarcely one of whom has not been influenced in one direction or another by the tyranny of Ibsen’s personal genius. What has been written about Ibsen in England and France has often missed something of its historical value by not taking into consideration that movement of intellectual life in Norway which has surrounded him and which he has stimulated. Perhaps I may be allowed to say of my little book that this side of the subject has been particularly borne in mind in the course of its composition.
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
The parentage of the poet has been traced back to a certain Danish skipper, Peter Ibsen, who, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, made his way over from Stege, the capital of the island of Moeen, and became a citizen of Bergen. From that time forth the men of the family, all following the sea in their youth, jovial men of a humorous disposition, continued to haunt the coasts of Norway, marrying sinister and taciturn wives, who, by the way, were always, it would seem, Danes or Germans or Scotswomen, so that positively the poet had, after a hundred years and more of Norwegian habitation, not one drop of pure Norse blood to inherit from his parents. His grandfather, Henrik, was wrecked in 1798 in his own ship, which went down with all souls lost on Hesnaes, near Grimstad; this reef is the scene of Ibsen’s animated poem of Terje Viken. His father, Knud, who was born in 1797, married in 1825 a German, Marichen Cornelia Martie Altenburg, of the same town of Skien; she was one year his senior, and the daughter of a merchant. It was in 1771 that the Ibsens, leaving Bergen, had settled in Skien, which was, and still is, an important centre of the timber and shipping trades on the south-east shore of the country.
It may be roughly said that Skien, in the Danish days, was a sort of Poole or Dartmouth, existing solely for purposes of marine merchandise, and depending for prosperity, and life itself, on the sea. Much of a wire-drawn ingenuity has been conjectured about the probable strains of heredity which met in Ibsen. It is not necessary to do more than to recognize the slight but obstinate exoticism, which kept all his forbears more or less foreigners still in their Norwegian home; and to insist on the mixture of adventurousness and plain common sense which marked their movements by sea and shore. The stock was intensely provincial, intensely unambitious; it would be difficult to find anywhere a specimen of the lower middle class more consistent than the Ibsens had been in preserving their respectable dead level. Even in that inability to resist the call of the sea, generation after generation, if there was a little of the dare-devil there was still more of the conventional citizen. It is, in fact, a vain attempt to detect elements of his ancestors in the extremely startling and unprecedented son who was born to Knud and Marichen Ibsen two years and three months after their marriage.
This son, who was baptized Henrik Johan, although he never used the second name, was born in a large edifice known as the Stockmann House, in the centre of the town of Skien, on March 20, The house stood on one side of a large, open square; the town pillory was at the right of and the mad-house, the lock-up and other amiable urban institutions to the left; in front was Latin school and the grammar school, while the church occupied the middle of the square. Over this stern prospect the tourist can no longer sentimentalize, for the whole of this part of Skien was burned down in 1886, to the poet’s unbridled satisfaction. “The inhabitants of Skien,” he said with grim humor, “were quite unworthy to possess my birthplace.”
He declared that the harsh elements of landscape, mentioned above, were those which earliest captivated his infant attention, and he added that the square space, with the church in the midst of it, was filled all day long with the dull and droning sound of many waterfalls, while from dawn to dusk this drone of waters was constantly cut through by a sound that was like the sharp screaming and moaning of women. This was caused by hundreds of saws at work beside the waterfalls, taking advantage of that force. “Afterwards, when I read about the guillotine, I always thought of those saws,” said the poet, whose earliest flight of fancy seems to have been this association of womanhood with the shriek of the sawmill.
In 1888, just before his sixtieth birthday, Ibsen wrote out for Henrik Jaeger certain autobiographical recollections of his childhood. It is from these that the striking phrase about the scream of the saws is taken, and that is perhaps the most telling of these infant memories, many of which are slight and naive. It is interesting, however, to find that his earliest impressions of life at home were of an optimistic character. “Skien,” he says, “in my young days, was an exceedingly lively and sociable place, quite unlike what it afterwards became. Several highly cultivated and wealthy families lived in the town itself or close by on their estates. Most of these families were more or less closely related, and dances, dinners and music parties followed each other, winter and summer, in almost unbroken sequence. Many travellers, too, passed through the town, and, as there were as yet no regular inns, they lodged with friends or connections. We almost always had guests in our large, roomy house, especially at Christmas and Fair-time, when the house was full, and we kept open table from morning till night.” The mind reverts to the majestic old wooden mansions which play so prominent a part in Thomas Krag’s novels, or to the house of Mrs. Solness’ parents, the burning down of which started the Master-Builder’s fortunes. Most of these grand old timber houses in Norway have indeed, by this time, been so burned down.
We may speculate on what the effect of this genial open-handedness might have been, had it lasted, on the genius of the poet. But fortune had harsher views of what befitted the training of so acrid a nature. When Ibsen was eight years of age, his father’s business was found to be in such disorder that everything had to be sold to meet his creditors. The only piece of property left when this process had been gone through was a little broken-down farmhouse called Venstoeb, in the outskirts of Skien. Ibsen afterwards stated that those who had taken most advantage of his parents’ hospitality in their prosperous days were precisely those who now most markedly turned a cold shoulder on them. It is likely enough that this may have been the case, but one sees how inevitably Ibsen would, in after years, be convinced that it was. He believed himself to have been, personally, much mortified and humiliated in childhood by the change in the family status. Already, by all accounts, he had begun to live a life of moral isolation. His excellent sister long afterwards described him as an unsociable child, never a pleasant companion, and out of sympathy with all the rest of the family.
We recollect, in _The Wild Duck_, the garret which was the domain of Hedvig and of that symbolic bird. At Venstoeb, the infant Ibsen possessed a like retreat, a little room near the back entrance, which was sacred to him and into the fastness of which he was accustomed to bolt himself. Here were some dreary old books, among others Harrison’s folio _History of the City of London_, as well as a paint-box, an hour-glass, an extinct eight-day clock, properties which were faithfully introduced, half a century later, into _The Wild Duck_. His sister says that the only outdoor amusement he cared for as a boy was building, and she describes the prolonged construction of a castle, in the spirit of _The Master-Builder_.
Very soon he began to go to school, but to neither of the public institutions in the town. He attended what is described as a “small middle-class school,” kept by a man called Johan Hansen, who was the only person connected with his childhood, except his sister, for whom the poet retained in after life any agreeable sentiment. “Johan Hansen,” he says, “had a mild, amiable temper, like that of a child,” and when he died, in 1865, Ibsen mourned him. The sexton at Skien, who helped in the lessons, described the poet afterwards as “a quiet boy with a pair of wonderful eyes, but with no sort of cleverness except an unusual gift for drawing.” Hansen taught Ibsen Latin and theology, gently, perseveringly, without any striking results; that the pupil afterwards boasted of having successfully perused Phaedrus in the original is in itself significant. So little was talent expected from him that when, at the age of about fifteen, he composed a rather melodramatic description of a dream, the schoolmaster looked at him gloomily, and said he must have copied it out of some book! One can imagine the shocked silence of the author, “passive at the nadir of dismay.”
No great wild swan of the flocks of Phoebus ever began life as a more ungainly duckling than Ibsen did. The ingenuity of biographers has done its best to brighten up the dreary record of his childhood with anecdotes, yet the sum of them all is but a dismal story. The only talent which was supposed to lurk in the napkin was that for painting. A little while before he left school, he was found to have been working hard with water-colors. Various persons have recalled finished works of the young Ibsen–a romantic landscape of the ironworks at Fossum, a view from the windows at Venstoeb, a boy in peasant dress seated on a rock, the latter described by a dignitary of the church as “awfully splendid,” overmaade praegtigt. One sees what kind of painting this must have been, founded on some impression of Fearnley and Tidemann, a far-away following of the new “national” art of the praiseworthy “patriot- painters” of the school of Dahl.
It is interesting to remember that Pope, who had considerable intellectual relationship with Ibsen, also nourished in childhood the ambition to be a painter, and drudged away at his easel for weeks and months. As he to the insipid Jervases and Knellers whom he copied, so Ibsen to the conscientious romantic artists of Norway’s prime. In neither case do we wish that an Ibsen or a Pope should be secured for the National Gallery, but it is highly significant that such earnest students of precise excellence in another art should first of all have schooled their eyes to exactitude by grappling with form and color.
In 1843, being fifteen years of age, Ibsen was confirmed and taken away from school. These events marked the beginning of adolescence with a young middle-class Norwegian of those days, for whom the future proposed no task in life demanding a more elaborate education than the local schoolmaster could give. Ibsen announced his wish to be a professional artist, but that was one which could not be indulged. Until a later date than this, every artist in Norway was forced abroad for the necessary technical training: as a rule, students went to Dresden, because J. C. Dahl was there; but many settled in Duesseldorf, where the teaching attracted them. In any case, the adoption of a plastic profession meant a long and serious expenditure of money, together with a very doubtful prospect of ultimate remuneration. Fearnley, who had seemed the very genius of Norwegian art, had just (1842) died, having scarcely begun to sell his pictures, at the age of forty. It is not surprising that Knud Ibsen, whose to were in a worse condition than ever, refused even to consider a course of life which would entail a heavy and long-continued expense.
Ibsen hung about at home for a few months, then, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he apprenticed to an apothecary of the name of Mann, at the little town of Grimstad, between Arendal and Christianssand, on the extreme south-east corner of the Norwegian coast. This was his home for more than five years; here he became a poet, and here the peculiar color and tone of his temperament were developed. So far as the genius of a very great man is influenced by his surroundings, and by his physical condition in those surroundings, it was the atmosphere of Grimstad and of its drug-store which moulded the character of Ibsen. Skien and his father’s house dropped from him like an old suit of clothes. He left his parents, whom he scarcely knew, the town which he hated, the schoolmates and schoolmasters to whom he seemed a surly dunce. We find him next, with an apron round his middle and a pestle in his hand, pounding drugs in a little apothecary’s shop in Grimstad. What Blackwood’s so basely insinuated of Keats–“Back to the shop, Mr. John, stick to plasters, pills and ointment-boxes,” inappropriate to the author of _Endymion_, was strictly true of the author of _Peer Gynt_.
Curiosity and hero-worship once took the author of these lines to Grimstad. It is a marvellous object-lesson on the development of genius. For nearly six years (from 1844 to 1850), and those years the most important of all in the moulding of character and talent, one of the most original and far-reaching imaginations which Europe has seen for a century was cooped up here among ointment-boxes, pills and plasters. Grimstad is a small, isolated, melancholy place, connected with nothing at all, visitable only by steamer. Featureless hills surround it, and it looks out into the east wind, over a dark bay dotted with naked rocks. No industry, no objects of interest in the vicinity, a perfect uniformity of little red houses where nobody seems to be doing anything; in Ibsen’s time there are said to have been about five hundred of these apathetic inhabitants. Here, then, for six interminable years, one of the acutest brains in Europe had to interest itself in fraying ipecacuanha and mixing black draughts behind an apothecary’s counter.
For several years nothing is recorded, and there was probably very little that demanded record, of Ibsen’s life at Grimstad. His own interesting notes, it is obvious, refer only to the closing months of the period. Ten years before the birth of Ibsen of the greatest poets of Europe had written words which seem meant to characterize an adolescence such as his. “The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted; thence proceed mawkishness and a thousand bitters.”
It is easy to discover that Ibsen, from his sixth to his twentieth year, suffered acutely from moral and intellectual distemper. He was at war– the phrase is his own–with the little community in which he lived. And yet it seems to have been, in its tiny way, a tolerant and even friendly little community. It is difficult for us to realize what life in a remote coast-town of Norway would be sixty years ago. Connection with the capital would be rare and difficult, and, when achieved, the capital was as yet little more than we should call a village. There would, perhaps, be a higher uniformity of education among the best inhabitants of Grimstad than we are prepared to suppose. A certain graceful veneer of culture, an old-fashioned Danish elegance reflected from Copenhagen, would mark the more conservative citizens, male and female. A fierier generation–not hot enough, however, to set the fjord on flame–would celebrate the comparatively recent freedom of the country in numerous patriotic forms. It is probable that a dark boy like Ibsen would, on the whole, prefer the former type, but he would despise them both.
He was poor, excruciatingly poor, with a poverty that excluded all indulgence, beyond the bare necessities, in food and clothes and books. We can conceive the meagre advance of his position, first a mere apprentice, then an assistant, finally buoyed up by the advice of friends to study medicine and pharmacy, in the hope of being, some bright day, himself no less than the owner of a drug-store. Did Mr. Anstey know this, or was it the sheer adventure of genius, when he contrasted the qualities of the master into “Pill-Doctor Herdal,” compounding “beautiful rainbow-colored powders that will give one a real grip on the world”? Ibsen, it is allowable to think, may sometimes have dreamed of a pill, “with arsenic in it, Hilda, and digitalis, too, and strychnine and the best beetle-killer,” which would decimate the admirable inhabitants of Grimstad, strewing the rocks with their bodies in their go-to-meeting coats and dresses. He had in him that source of anger, against which all arguments are useless, which bubbles up in the heart of youth who vaguely feels himself possessed of native energy, and knows not how to stir a hand or even formulate a wish. He was savage in manners, unprepossessing in appearance, and, as he himself has told us with pathetic naivete, unable to express the real gratitude he felt to the few who would willingly have extended friendship to him if he had permitted it.
As he advanced in age, he does not seem to have progressed in grace. By the respectable citizens of Grimstad–and even Grimstad had its little inner circle of impenetrable aristocracy–he regarded as “not quite nice.” The apothecary’s assistant was a bold young man, who did not seem to realize his menial position. He was certainly intelligent, and Grimstad would have overlooked the pills and ointments if his manners had been engaging, but he was rude, truculent and contradictory. The youthful female sex is not in the habit of sharing the prejudices of its elders in this respect, and many a juvenile Orson has, in such conditions, enjoyed substantial successes. But young Ibsen was not a favorite even with the girls, whom he alarmed and disconcerted. One of the young ladies of Grimstad in after years attempted to describe the effect which the poet made upon them. They had none of them liked him, she said, “because”–she hesitated for the word–“because he was so _spectral_.” This gives us just the flash we want; it reveals to us for a moment the distempered youth, almost incorporeal, displayed wandering about at twilight and in lonely places, held in common esteem to be malevolent, and expressing by gestures rather than by words sentiments of a nature far from complimentary or agreeable.
Thus life at Grimstad seems to have proceeded until Ibsen reached his twenty-first year. In this quiet backwater of a seaport village the passage of time was deliberate, and the development of hard-worked apothecaries was slow. Ibsen’s nature was not in any sense precocious, and even if he had not languished in so lost a corner of society, it is unlikely that he would have started prematurely in life or literature. The actual waking up, when it came at last, seems to have been almost an accident. There had been some composing of verses, now happily lost, and some more significant distribution of “epigrams” and “caricatures” to the vexation of various worthy persons. The earliest trace of talent seems to been in this direction, in the form of lampoons or “characters,” as people called them in the seventeenth century, sarcastic descriptions of types in which certain individuals could be recognized. No doubt if these could be recovered, we should find them rough and artless, but containing germs of the future keenness of portraiture. They were keen enough, it seems, to rouse great resentment in Grimstad.
There is evidence to show that the lad had docility enough, at all events, to look about for some aid in the composition of Norwegian prose. We should know nothing of it but for a passage in Ibsen’s later polemic with Paul Jansenius Stub of Bergen. In 1848 Stub was an invalid schoolmaster, who, it appears, eked out his income by giving instruction, by correspondence, in style. How Ibsen heard of him does not seem to be known, but when, in 1851, Ibsen entered, with needless acrimony, into a controversy with his previous teacher about the theatre, Stub complained of his ingratitude, since he had “taught the boy to write.” Stub’s intervention in the matter, doubtless, was limited to the correction of a few exercises.
Ibsen’s own theory was that his intellect and character were awakened by the stir of revolution throughout Europe. The first political event which really interested him was the proclamation of the French Republic, which almost coincided with his twentieth birthday. He was born again, a child of ’48. There were risings in Vienna, in Milan, in Rome. Venice was proclaimed a republic, the Pope fled to Gaeta, the streets of Berlin ran with the blood of the populace. The Magyars rose against Jellalic and his Croat troops; the Czechs demanded their autonomy; in response to the revolutionary feeling in Germany, Schleswig-Holstein was up in arms.
Each of these events, and others like them, and all occurring in the rapid months of that momentous year, smote like hammers on the door of Ibsen’s brain, till it quivered with enthusiasm and excitement. The old brooding languor was at an end, and with surprising clearness and firmness he saw his pathway cut out before him as a poet and as a man. The old clouds vanished, and though the social difficulties which hemmed in his career were as gross as ever, he himself no longer doubted what was to be his aim in life. The cry of revolution came to him, of revolution faint indeed and broken, the voice of a minority appealing frantically and for a moment against the overwhelming forces of a respectable majority, but it came to him just at the moment when his young spirit was prepared to receive it with faith and joy. The effect on Ibsen’s character was sudden and it was final:
Then he stood up, and trod to dust
Fear and desire, mistrust and trust, And dreams of bitter sleep and sweet,
And bound for sandals on his feet Knowledge and patience of what must
And what things maybe, in the heat And cold of years that rot and rust
And alter; and his spirit’s meat
Was freedom, and his staff was wrought Of strength, and his cloak woven of thought.
We are not left to conjecture on the subject; in a document of extreme interest, which seems somehow to have escaped the notice of his commentators, the preface to the second (1876) edition of _Catilina_, he has described what the influences were which roused him out of the wretchedness of Grimstad; they were precisely the revolution of February, the risings in Hungary, the first Schleswig war. He wrote a series of sonnets, now apparently lost, to King Oscar, imploring him to take up arms for the help of Denmark, and of nights, when all his duties were over at last, and the shop shut up, he would creep to the garret where he slept, and dream himself fighting at the centre of the world, instead of lost on its extreme circumference. And here he began his first drama, the opening lines of which,
“I must, I must; a voice is crying to me From my soul’s depth, and I will follow it,”
might be taken as the epigraph of Ibsen’s whole life’s work.
In one of his letters to Georg Brandes he has noted, with that clairvoyance which marks some of his utterances about himself, the “full-blooded egotism” which developed in him during his last year of mental and moral starvation at Grimstad. Through the whole series of his satiric dramas we see the little narrow-minded borough, with its ridiculous officials, its pinched and hypocritical social order, its intolerable laws and ordinances, modified here and there, expanded sometimes, modernized and brought up to date, but always recurrent in the poet’s memory. To the last, the images and the rebellions which were burned into his soul at Grimstad were presented over and over again to his readers.
But the necessity of facing the examination at Christiania now presented itself. He was so busily engaged in the shop that he had, as he says, to steal his hours for study. He still inhabited the upper room, which he calls a garret; it would not seem that the alteration in his status, assistant now and no longer apprentice, had increased his social conveniences. He was still the over-worked apothecary, pounding drugs with a pestle and mortar from morning till night. Someone has pointed out the odd circumstance that almost every scene in the drama of _Catilina_ takes place in the dark. This was the unconscious result of the fact that all the attention which the future realist could give to the story had to be given in the night hours. When he emerged from the garret, it was to read Latin with a candidate in theology, a Mr. Monrad, brother of the afterwards famous professor. By a remarkable chance, the subject given by the University for examination was the Conspiracy of Catiline, to be studied in the history of Sallust and the oration of Cicero.
No theme could have been more singularly well fitted to fire the enthusiasm of Ibsen. At no time of his life a linguist, or much interested in history, it is probable that the difficulty of concentrating his attention on a Latin text would have been insurmountable had the subject been less intimately sympathetic to him. But he tells us that he had no sooner perceived the character of the man against whom these diatribes are directed than he devoured them greedily (_jeg slugte disse skrifter_). The opening words of Sallust, which every schoolboy has to read–we can imagine with what an extraordinary force they would strike upon the resounding emotion of such a youth as Ibsen. _Lucius Catilina nobili genere natus, magna vi et animi et corporis, sed ingenio malo pravoque_–how does this at once bring up an image of the arch-rebel, of Satan himself, as the poets have conceived him, how does it attract, with its effects of energy, intelligence and pride, the curiosity of one whose way of life, as Keats would say, is still undecided, his ambition still thick-sighted!
It was Sallust’s picture more than Cicero’s that absorbed Ibsen. Criticism likes to trace a predecessor behind every genius, a Perugino for Raffaelle, a Marlowe for Shakespeare. If we seek for the master-mind that started Ibsen, it is not to be found among the writers of his age or of his language. The real master of Ibsen was Sallust. There can be no doubt that the cold and bitter strength of Sallust; his unflinching method of building up his edifice of invective, stone by stone; his close, unidealistic, dry penetration into character; his clinical attitude, unmoved at the death-bed of a reputation; that all these qualities were directly operative on the mind and intellectual character of Ibsen, and went a long way to mould it while moulding was still possible.
There is no evidence to show that the oration of Cicero moved him nearly so much as the narratives of Sallust. After all, the object of Cicero was to crush the conspiracy, but what Ibsen was interested in was the character of Catiline, and this was placed before him in a more thrilling way by the austere reserve of the historian. No doubt, to a young poet, when that poet was Ibsen, there would be something deeply attractive in the sombre, archaic style, and icy violence of Sallust. How thankful we ought to be that the historian, with his long sonorous words–_flagitiosorum ac facinorosorum_–did not make of our perfervid apothecary a mere tub-thumper of Corinthian prose!
Ibsen now formed the two earliest friendships of his life. He had reached the age of twenty without, as it would seem, having been able to make his inner nature audible to those around him. He had been to the inhabitants of Grimstad a stranger within their gates, not speaking their language; or, rather, wholly “spectral,” speaking no language at all, but indulging in cat-calls and grimaces. He was now discovered like Caliban, and tamed, and made vocal, by the strenuous arts of friendship. One of those who thus interpreted him was a young musician, Due, who held a post in the custom-house; the other was Ole Schulerud (1827-59), who deserves a cordial acknowledgment from every admirer of Ibsen. He also was in the receipt of custom, and a young man of small independent means. To Schulerud and to Due, Ibsen revealed his poetic plans, and he seems to have found in them both sympathizers with his republican enthusiasms and transcendental schemes for the liberation of the peoples. It was a stirring time, in 1848, and all generous young blood was flowing fast in the same direction.
Since Ibsen’s death, Due has published a very lively paper of recollections of the old Grimstad days. He says:
His daily schedule admitted few intervals for rest or sleep. Yet I never heard Ibsen complain of being tired. His health was uniformly good. He must have had an exceptionally strong constitution, for when his financial conditions compelled him to practice the most stringent economy, he tried to do without underclothing, and finally even without stockings. In these experiments he succeeded; and in winter he went without an overcoat; yet without being troubled by colds or other bodily ills.
We have seen that Ibsen was so busy that he had to steal from his duties the necessary hours for study. But out of these hours, he tells us, he stole moments for the writing of poetry, of the revolutionary poetry of which we have spoken, and for a great quantity of lyrics of a sentimental and fanciful kind. Due was the confidant to whom he recited the latter, and one at least of these early pieces survives, set to music by this friend. But to Schulerud a graver secret was intrusted, no less than that in the night hours of 1848-49 there was being composed in the garret over the apothecary’s shop a three-act tragedy in blank verse, on the conspiracy of Catiline. With his own hand, when the first draft was completed, Schulerud made a clean copy of the drama, and in the autumn of 1849 he went to Christiania with the double purpose of placing _Catilina_ at the theatre and securing a publisher for it. A letter (October 15, 1849) from Ibsen, first printed in 1904–the only document we possess of this earliest period–displays to a painful degree the torturing anxiety with which the poet awaited news of his play, and, incidentally, exposes his poverty. With all Schulerud’s energy, he found it impossible to gain attention for _Catilina_ at the theatre, and in January, 1850, Ibsen received what he called its “death warrant,” but it was presently brought out as a volume, under the pseudonym of Brynjolf Bjarme, at Schulerud’s expense. Of _Catilina_ about thirty copies were sold, and it attracted no notice whatever from the press.
Meanwhile, left alone in Grimstad, since Due was now with Schulerud in Christiania, Ibsen had been busy with many literary projects. He had been writing an abundance of lyrics, he had begun a one-act drama called “The Normans,” afterwards turned into _Kaempehoejen_; he was planning a romance, _The Prisoner at Akershus_ (this was to deal with the story of Christian Lofthus); and above all he was busy writing a tragedy of _Olaf Trygvesoen. [Note: On the authority of the Breve, pp. 59, 59, where Halvdan Koht prints “Olaf Tr.” and “Olaf T.” expanding these to Tr[ygvesoen]. But is it quite certain that what Ibsen wrote in these letters was not “Olaf Li.” and “Olaf L.,” and that the reference is not to Olaf Liljekrans, which was certainly begun at Grimstad? Is there any other evidence that Ibsen ever started an _Olaf Trygvesoen_?
One of his poems had already been printed in a Christiania newspaper. The call was overwhelming; he could endure Grimstad and the gallipots no longer. In March, 1850, at the age of twenty-one, Ibsen stuck a few dollars in his pocket and went off to try his fortune in the capital.
In middle life Ibsen, who suppressed for as long a time as he could most of his other juvenile works, deliberately lifted _Catilina_ from the oblivion into which it had fallen, and replaced it in the series of his writings. This is enough to indicate to us that he regarded it as of relative importance, and imperfect as it is, and unlike his later plays, it demands some critical examination. I not know whether any one ever happened to ask Ibsen whether he had been aware that Alexandre Dumas produced in Paris a five-act drama of _Catiline_ at the very moment (October, 1848) when Ibsen started the composition of his. It is quite possible that the young Norwegian saw this fact noted in a newspaper, and immediately determined to try what he could make of the same subject. In Dumas’ play Catiline is presented merely as a demagogue; he is the red Flag personified, and the political situation in France is discussed under a slight veil of Roman history. Catiline is simply a sort of Robespierre brought up to date. There is no trace of all this in Ibsen.
Oddly enough, though the paradox is easily explained, we find much more similarity when we compare the Norwegian drama with that tragedy of _Catiline_ which Ben Jonson published in 1611. Needless to state, Ibsen had never read the old English play; it would be safe to lay a wager that, when he died, Ibsen had never heard or seen the name of Ben Jonson. Yet there is an odd sort of resemblance, founded on the fact that each poet keeps very close to the incidents recorded by the Latins. Neither of them takes Sallust’s presentment of the character of Catiline as if it were gospel, but, while holding exact touch with the narrative, each contrives to add a native grandeur to the character of the arch- conspirator, such as his original detractors denied him. In both poems, Ben Jonson’s and Ibsen’s, Catiline is–
Armed with a glory high as his despair.
Another resemblance between the old English and the modern Norwegian dramatist is that each has felt the solid stuff of the drama to require lightening, and has attempted to provide this by means, in Ben Jonson’s case, of solemn “choruses,” in Ibsen’s of lyrics. In the latter instance the tragedy ends in rolling and rhymed verse, little suited to the stage.
This is a very curious example, among many which might be brought forward, of Ibsen’s native partiality for dramatic rhyme. In all his early plays, his tendency is to slip into the lyrical mood. This tendency reached its height nearly twenty years later in _Brand_ and _Peer Gynt_, and the truth about the austere prose which he then adopted for his dramas is probably this, not that the lyrical faculty had quitted him, but that he found it to be hampering his purely dramatic expression, and that he determined, by a self-denying ordinance, to tear it altogether off his shoulders, like an embroidered mantle, which is in itself very ornamental, but which checks an actor’s movements.
The close of Ibsen’s _Catalina_ is, as we have said, composed entirely in rhyme, and the effect of this curious. It is as though the young poet could not restrain the rhythm bubbling up in him, and was obliged to start running, although the moment was plainly one for walking. Here is a fragment. Catiline has stabbed Aurelia, and left her in the tent for dead. But while he was soliloquizing at the door of the tent, Fulvia has stabbed him. He lies dying at the foot of a tree, and makes a speech which ends thus:–
See, the pathway breaks, divided! I will wander, dumb, To the left hand.
(appearing, blood-stained, at the door of the tent). Nay! the right hand! Towards Elysium.
O yon pallid apparition, how it fills me with remorse. ‘Tis herself! Aurelia! tell me, art thou living? not a corse?
Yes, I live that I may full thy sea of sorrows, and may lie With my bosom pressed a moment to thy bosom, and then die.
What? thou livest?
Death’s pale herald o’er my senses threw a pall, But my dulled eye tracked thy footsteps, and I saw, I saw it all, And my passion a wife’s forces to my wounded body gave; Breast to breast, my Catiline, let us sink into our grave.
[Note: In 1875 Ibsen practically rewrote the whole of this part of _Catilina_, without, however, improving it. Why will great authors confuse the history of literature by tampering with their early texts?
He had slipped far out of the sobriety of Sallust when he floundered, in this way, in the deep waters of romanticism. In the isolation of Grimstad he had but himself to consult, and the mind of a young poet who has not yet enjoyed any generous communication with life is invariably sentimental and romantic. The critics of the North have expended a great deal of ingenuity in trying to prove that Ibsen exposed his own temperament and character in the course of _Catilina_. No doubt there is a great temptation to indulge in this species of analysis, but it is amusing to note that some of the soliloquies which have been pointed out as particularly self-revealing are translated almost word for word out of Sallust. Perhaps the one passage in the play which is really significant is that in which the hero says:–
If but for one brief moment I could flame And blaze through space, and be a falling star; If only once, and by one glorious deed,
I could but knit the name of Catiline With glory and with deathless high renown,– Then should I blithely, in the hour of conquest, Leave all, and hie me to an alien shore, Press the keen dagger gayly to my heart, And die; for then I should have lived indeed.
This has its personal interest, since we know, on the evidence of his sister, that such was the tenor of Ibsen’s private talk about himself at that precise time.
Very imperfect as _Catilina_ is in dramatic art, and very primitive as is the development of plot in it, it presents one aspect, as a literary work, which is notable. That it should exist at all is curious, since, surprising as it seems, it had no precursor. Although, during the thirty-five years of Norwegian independence, various classes of literature had been cultivated with extreme diligence, the drama had hitherto been totally neglected. With the exception of a graceful opera by Bjerregaard, which enjoyed a success sustained over a quarter of a century, the only writings in dramatic form produced in Norway between 1815 and 1850 were the absurd lyrical farces of Wergeland, which were devoid of all importance. Such a thing as a three-act tragedy in blank verse was unknown in modern Norway, so that the youthful apothecary in Grimstad, whatever he was doing, was not slavishly copying the fashions of his own countrymen.
The principal, if not the only influence which acted upon Ibsen at this moment, was that of the great Danish tragedian, Adam Oehlenschlaeger. It might be fantastically held that the leading romantic luminary of Scandinavia withdrew on purpose to make room for his realistic successor, since Oehlenschlaeger’s latest play, _Kiartan and Gudrun_, appeared just when Ibsen was planning _Catilina_, while the death of the Danish poet (January 20, 1850) was practically simultaneous with Ibsen’s arrival in Christiania. In later years, Ibsen thought that Holberg and Oehlenschlaeger were the only dramatists he had read when his own first play was written; he was sure that he knew nothing of Schiller, Shakespeare or the French. Of the rich and varied dramatic literature of Denmark, in the generation between Oehlenschlaeger’s and his own, he must also for the present have known nothing. The influence of Heiberg and of Hertz, presently to be so potent, had evidently not yet begun. But it is important to perceive that already Norway, and Norwegian taste and opinion, were nothing to him in his selection of themes and forms.
It is not to be supposed that the taste for dramatic performances did not exist in Norway, because no Norwegian plays were written. On the contrary, in most of the large towns there were, and had long been, private theatres or rooms which could be fitted up with a stage, at which wandering troupes of actors gave performances that were eagerly attended by “the best people.” These actors, however, were exclusively Danes, and there was an accepted tradition that Norwegians could not act. If they attempted to do so, their native accents proved disagreeable to their fellow-citizens, who demanded, as an imperative condition, the peculiar intonation and pronunciation cultivated at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, as well as an absence of all native peculiarities of language. The stage, therefore–and this is very important in a consideration of the career of Ibsen–had come to be the symbol of a certain bias in political feeling. Society in Norway was divided into two classes, the “Danomaniacs” and the “Patriots.” Neither of these had any desire to alter the constitutional balance of power, but while the latter wished Norway to be intellectually self-productive, and leaned to a further isolation in language, literature, art and manners, the former thought that danger of barbarism lay in every direction save that of keeping close to the tradition of Denmark, from which all that was witty, graceful and civilized had proceeded.
Accordingly the theatre, at which exclusively Danish plays were acted, in the Danish style, by Danish actors and actresses, was extremely popular with the conservative class, who thought, by attendance on these performances, to preserve the distinction of language and the varnish of “high life” which came, with so much prestige, from Copenhagen. By the patriotic party, on the other hand, the stage was looked upon with grave suspicion as likely to undermine the purity of national feeling.
The earliest attempt at the opening of a National Theatre had been made at Christiania by the Swede, J. P. Stroemberg, in 1827; this was not successful, and his theatre was burned down in 1835. In it some effort had been made to use the Norwegian idiom and to train native actors, but it had been to no avail. The play-going public liked their plays to be Danish, and even nationalists of a pronounced species could not deny that dramas, like the great historical tragedies of Oehlenschlaeger, many of which dealt enthusiastically with legends that were peculiarly Norwegian, were as national as it was possible for poems by a foreign poet to be. All this time, it must be remembered, Christiania was to Copenhagen as Dublin till lately was to London, or as New York was half a century ago. It is in the arts that the old colonial instinct of dependence is most loath to disappear.
The party of the nationalists, however, had been steadily increasing in activity, and the universal quickening of patriotic pulses in 1848 had not been without its direct action upon Norway.
Nevertheless, for various reasons of internal policy, there was perhaps no country in Europe where this period of seismic disturbance led to less public turmoil than precisely here in the North. The accession of a new king, Oscar I, in 1844, had been followed by a sense of renewed national security; the peasants were satisfied that the fresh reign would be favorable to their rights and liberties; and the monarch showed every inclination to leave his country of Norway as much as possible to its own devices. The result of all this was that ’48 left no mark on the internal history of the country, and the fever which burned in youthful bosoms was mainly, if not entirely, intellectual and transcendental. The young Catiline from Grimstad, therefore, met with several sympathetic rebels, but found nobody willing to conspire. But what he did find is so important in the consideration of his future development that it is needful briefly to examine it.
Norway had, in 1850, been independent of Denmark for thirty-six years. During the greater part of that time the fiery excitements of a struggle for politic existence had fairly exhausted her mental resources, and had left her powerless to inaugurate a national literature. Meanwhile, there was no such discontinuity in the literary and scientific relations of the two countries as that which had broken their constitutional union. A tremendous effort was made by certain patriots to discover the basis of an entirely independent intellectual life, something that should start like the phoenix from the ashes of the old regime, and should offer no likeness with what continued to flourish south of the Skagarak. But all the efforts of the University of Christiania were vain to prevent the cultivated classes from looking to Copenhagen as their centre of light. Such authors as there were, and they were few indeed, followed humbly in the footsteps of their Danish brethren.
Patriotic historians of literature are not always to be trusted, and those who study native handbooks of Norwegian criticism must be on their guard when these deal with the three poets who “inaugurated in song the young liberties of Norway.” The writings of the three celebrated lyric patriots, Schwach, Bjerregaard and Hansen, will not bear to have the blaze of European experience cast upon them; their tapers dwindle to sparks in the light of day. They gratified the vanity of the first generation after 1815, but they deserve no record in the chronicles of poetic art. If Ibsen ever read these rhymes of circumstance, it must have been to treat them with contempt.
Twenty years after the Union, however, and in Ibsen’s early childhood, an event occurred which was unique in the history of Norwegian literature, and the consequences of which were far-reaching. As is often the case in countries where the art of verse is as yet little exercised, there grew up about 1830 a warm and general, but uncritical, delight in poetry. This instinct was presently satisfied by the effusion of a vast quantity of metrical writing, most of it very bad, and was exasperated by a violent personal feud which for a while interested all educated persons in Norway to a far greater degree than any other intellectual or, for the time being, even political question. From 1834 to 1838 the interests of all cultivated people centred around what was called the “Twilight Feud” (_Daemringsfejden_), and no record of Ibsen’s intellectual development can be complete without a reference to this celebrated controversy, the results of which long outlived the popularity of its skits and pamphlets.
Modern Norwegian literature began with this great fight. The protagonists were two poets of undoubted talent, whose temperaments and tendencies were so diametrically opposed that it seemed as though Providence must have set them down in that raw and inflammable civilization for the express purpose of setting the standing corn of thought on fire. Henrik Wergeland (1808-45) was a belated son of the French Revolution; ideas, fancies, melodies and enthusiasms fermented in his ill-regulated brain, and he poured forth verses in a violent and endless stream. It is difficult, from the sources of Scandinavian opinion, to obtain a sensible impression of Wergeland. The critics of Norway as persistently overrate his talents as those of Denmark neglect and ridicule his pretensions. The Norwegians still speak of him as _himmelstraevende sublim_ (“sublime in his heavenly aspiration”); the Danes will have it that he was an hysterical poetaster. Neither view commends itself to a foreign reader of the poet.
The fact, internationally stated, seems rather to be this. In Wergeland we have a typical example of the effects of excess of fancy in a violently productive but essential uncritical nature. He was ecstatic, unmeasured, a reckless improvisatore. In his ideas he was preposterously humanitarian; a prodigious worker, his vigor of mind seemed never exhausted by his labors; in theory an idealist, in his private life he was charged with being scandalously sensual. He was so much the victim of his inspiration that it would come upon him like a descending wind, and leave him physically prostrate. In Wergeland we see an instance of the poetical temper in its most unbridled form. A glance through the enormous range of his collected works is like an excursion into chaos. We are met almost at the threshold by a colossal epic, _Creation, Man and the Messiah_ (1830); by songs that turn into dithyrambic odes, by descriptive pieces which embrace the universe, by all the froth and roar and turbidity of genius, with none of its purity and calm. The genius is there; it is idle to deny it; but it is in a state of violent turmoil.
It is when the ruling talent of an age is of the character of Wergeland’s–
Thundering and bursting,
In torrents, in waves,
Carolling and shouting
Over tombs, over graves–
that delicate spirits, as in Matthew Arnold’s poem, sigh for the silence and the hush, and rise at length in open rebellion against Iacchus and his maenads, who destroy all the quiet of life and who madden innocent blood with their riot. Johan Sebastian Welhaven (1807-73) was a student at the University with Wergeland, and he remained silent while the latter made the welkin ring louder and louder with his lyric shrieks. Welhaven endured the rationalist and republican rhetoric of Wergeland as long as he could, although with growing exasperation, until the rhapsodical author of _Creation_, transgressing all moderation, accused those who held reasonable views in literature and politics of being traitors. Then it became necessary to deal with this raw and local parody of Victor Hugo. When, in the words of _The Cask of Amontillado_, Wergeland “ventured upon insult,” Welhaven “vowed he would be avenged.”
Welhaven formed as complete a contrast to his antagonist as could be imagined. He was of the class of Sully Prudhomme, of Matthew Arnold, of Lowell, to name three of his younger contemporaries. In his nature all was based upon equilibrium; his spirit, though full of graceful and philosophical intuitions, was critical rather than creative. He wrote little, and with difficulty, and in exquisite form. His life was as blamelessly correct as his literary art was harmonious. Wergeland knew nothing of the Danish tradition of his day, which he treated with violent and bitter contempt. Welhaven, who had moved in the circle of the friends of Rahbek, instinctively referred every literary problem to the tribunal of Danish taste. He saw that with the enthusiasm with which the poetry of Wergeland was received in Norway was connected a suspicion of mental discipline, a growing worship of the peasant and a hatred and scorn of Denmark, with all of which he had no sympathy. He thought the time had come for better things; that the national temper ought to be mollified with the improved economic situation of the country; that the students, who were taking a more and more prominent place, ought to be on the side of the angels. It was not unnatural that Welhaven should look upon the corybantic music of Wergeland as the source and origin of an evil of which it was really the symptom; he gathered his powers together to crush it, and he published a thunderbolt of sonnets.
The English reader, familiar with the powerlessness of even the best verse to make any impression upon Anglo-Saxon opinion, may smile to think of a great moral and ethical attack conducted with no better weapon than a paper of sonnets. But the scene of the fight was a small, intensely local, easily agitated society of persons, all keenly though narrowly educated, and all accustomed to be addressed in verse. Welhaven’s pamphlet was entitled _The Twilight of Norway_ (1834), and the sonnets of which it consisted were highly polished in form, filled with direct and pointed references to familiar persons and events and absolutely unshrinking in attack. No poetry of equal excellence had been produced in Norway since the Union. It is not surprising that this invective against the tendencies of the youthful bard over whose rhapsodies all Norway was growing crazy with praise should arrest universal attention, although in the _Twilight_ Welhaven adroitly avoided mentioning Wergeland by name. Fanaticism gathered in an angry army around the outraged standard of the republican poet, but the lovers of order and discipline had found a voice, and they clustered about Welhaven with their support. Language was not minced by the assailants, and still less by the defenders. The lovers of Wergeland were told that politics and brandy were their only pleasures, but those of Welhaven were warned that they were known to be fed with bribes from Copenhagen. Meanwhile Welhaven himself, in successive publications, calmly analyzed the writings of his antagonist, and proved them to be “in complete rebellion against sound thought and the laws of beauty.” The feud raged from 1834 to 1838, and left Norway divided into two rival camps of taste.
Although the “Twilight Feud” had passed away before Ibsen ceased to be a boy, the effect of it was too widely spread not to affect him. In point of fact, we see by the earliest of his lyric poems that while he was at Grimstad he had fully made up his mind. His early songs and complimentary pieces are all in the Danish taste, and if they show any native influence at all, it is that of Welhaven. The extreme superficiality of Wergeland would naturally be hateful to so arduous a craftsman as Ibsen, and it is a fact that so far as his writings reveal his mind to us, the all-popular poet of his youth appears to be absolutely unknown to him. What this signifies may be realized if we say that it is as though a great English or French poet of the second half of the nineteenth century should seem to have never heard of Tennyson or Victor Hugo. On the other hand, at one crucial point of a late play, _Little Eyolf_, Ibsen actually pauses to quote Welhaven.
In critical history the absence of an influence is sometimes as significant as the presence of it. The looseness of Wergeland’s style, its frothy abundance, its digressions and parentheses, its slipshod violence, would be to Ibsen so many beacons of warning, to be viewed with horror and alarm. A poem of three stanzas, “To the Poets of Norway,” only recently printed, dates from his early months in Christiania, and shows that even in 1850 Ibsen was impatient with the conventional literature of his day. “Less about the glaciers and the pine-forests,” he cries, “less about the dusty legends of the past, and more about what is going on in the silent hearts of your brethren!” Here already is sounded the note which was ultimately to distinguish him from all the previous writers of the North.
No letters have been published which throw light on Ibsen’s first two years in the capital. We know that he did not communicate with his parents, whose poverty was equalled by his own. He could receive no help from them, nor offer them any, and he refrained, as they refrained, from letter writing. This separation from his family, begun in this way, grew into a habit, so that when his father died in 1877 no word had passed between him and his son for nearly thirty years. When Ibsen reached Christiania, in March, 1850, his first act was to seek out his friend Schulerud, who was already a student. For some time he shared the room of Schulerud and his thrifty meals; later on the two friends, in company with Theodor Abildgaard, a young revolutionary journalist, lived in lodgings kept by a certain Mother Saether.
Schulerud received a monthly allowance which was “not enough for one, and starvation for two”; but Ibsen’s few dollars soon came to an end, and he seems to have lived on the kindness of Schulerud to their great mutual privation. Both young men attended the classes of a celebrated “crammer” of that day, H. A. S. Heltberg, who had opened in 1843 a Latin school where elder pupils came for a two-years’ course to prepare them for taking their degree. This place, known familiarly as “the Student Factory,” holds quite a prominent place in Norwegian literary history, Ibsen, Bjoernson, Vinje and Jonas Lie having attended its classes and passed from it to the University.
Between these young men, the leading force of literature in the coming age, a generous friendship sprang up, despite the disparity in their ages. Vinje, a peasant from Thelemark, was thirty-two; he had been a village schoolmaster and had only now, in 1850, contrived to reach the University. With Vinje, the founder of the movement for writing exclusively in Norwegian patois, Ibsen had a warm personal sympathy, while he gave no intellectual adherence to his theories. Between the births of Vinje and Bjoernson there stretched a period of fourteen years, yet Bjoernson was a student before either Ibsen or Vinje. That Ibsen immediately formed Bjoernson’s acquaintance seems to be proved from the fact that they both signed a protest against the deportation of a Dane called Harring on May 29, 1850. It was a fortunate chance which threw Ibsen thus suddenly into the midst of a group of those in whom the hopes of the new generation were centred. But we are left largely to conjecture in what manner their acquaintanceship acted upon his mind.
His material life during the next year is obscure. Driven by the extremity of need, it is plain that he adopted every means open to him by which he could add a few dollars to Schulerud’s little store. He wrote for the poor and fugitive journals of the day, in prose and verse; but the payment of the Norwegian press in those days was almost nothing. It is difficult to know how he subsisted, yet he continued to exist. Although none of his letters of this period seem to have been preserved, a few landmarks are left us. The little play called _Kaempehoeien_ (The Warrior’s Barrow), which he had brought unfinished with him from Grimstad, was completed and put into shape in May, 1850, accepted at the Christiania Theatre, and acted three times during the following autumn. Perhaps the most interesting fact connected with this performance was that the only female part, that of Blanka, was taken by a young debutante, Laura Svendsen; this was the actress afterwards to rise to the height of eminence as the celebrated Mrs. Gundersen, no doubt the most gifted of all Ibsen’s original interpreters.
It was a matter of course that the poet was greatly cheered by the acceptance of his play, and he immediately set to work on another, _Olaf Liljekrans_; but this he put aside when _Kaempehoeien_ practically failed. He wrote a satirical comedy called _Norma_. He endeavored to get certain of his works, dramatic and lyric, published in Christiania, but all the schemes fell through. It is certain that 1851 began darkly for the young man, and that his misfortunes encouraged in him a sour and rebellious temper. For the first and only time in his life he meddled with practical politics. Vinje and he–in company with a charming person, Paul Botten-Hansen (1824-69), who flits very pleasantly through the literary history of this time–founded a newspaper called _Andhrimner_, which lasted for nine months.
One of the contributors was Abildgaard, who, as we have seen, lived in the same house with Ibsen. He was a wild being, who had adopted the republican theories of the day in their crudest form. He posed as the head of a little body whose object was to dethrone the king, and to found a democracy in Norway. On July 7, 1851, the police made a raid upon these childish conspirators, the leaders being arrested and punished with a long imprisonment. The poet escaped, as by the skin of his teeth, and the warning was a lifelong one. He never meddled with politics any more. This was, indeed, as perhaps he felt, no time for rebellion; all over Europe the eruption of socialism had spent itself, and the docility of the populations had become wonderful.
The discomfort and uncertainty of Ibsen’s position in Christiania made him glad to fill a post which the violinist, Ole Bull, offered him during autumn. The newly constituted National Theatre in Bergen (opened Jan. 2, 1850) had accepted a prologue written for an occasion by the young poet, and on November 6, 1851, Ibsen entered into a contract by which he bound himself go to Bergen “to assist the theatre as dramatic author.” The salary was less than L70 a year, but it was eked out by travelling grants, and little as it might be, it was substantially more than the nothing-at-all which Ibsen had been enjoying in Christiania.
It is difficult to imagine what asset could be bought to the treasuries of a public theatre by a youth of three and twenty so ill-educated, so empty of experience and so ill-read as Ibsen was in 1851. His crudity, we may be sure, passed belief. He was the novice who has not learned his business, the tyro to whom the elements of his occupation are unknown. We have seen that when he wrote _Catilina_ he had neither sat through nor read any of the plays of the world, whether ancient or modern. The pieces which belong to his student years reveal a preoccupation with Danish dramas of the older school, Oehlenschlaeger and (if we may guess what _Norma_ was) Holberg, but with nothing else. Yet Ole Bull, one of the most far-sighted men of his time, must have perceived the germs of theatrical genius in him, and it is probable that Ibsen owed his appointment more to what this wise patron felt in his future than what Ole Bull or any one else could possibly point to as yet accomplished. Unquestionably, a rude theatrical penetration could already he divined in his talk about the stage, vague and empirical as that must have been.
At all events, to Bergen he went, as a sort of literary manager, as a Claretie or Antoine, to compare a small thing with great ones, and the fact was of inestimable value. It may even be held, without fear of paradox, that this was the turning-point of Ibsen’s life, that this blind step in the dark, taken in the magnificent freedom of youth, was what made him what he became. No Bergen in 1851, we may say, and no _Doll’s House_ or _Hedda Gabler_ ultimately to follow. For what it did was to force this stubborn genius, which might so easily have slipped into sinister and abnormal paths, and have missed the real humanity of the stage, to take the tastes of the vulgar into due consideration and to acquaint himself with the necessary laws of play-composition.
Ibsen may seem to have little relation with the drama of the world, but in reality he is linked with it at every step. There is something of Shakespeare in _John Gabriel Borkman_, something Moliere in _Ghosts_, something of Goethe in _Peer Gynt_. We may go further and say, though it would have made Ibsen wince, that there is something of Scribe in _An Enemy of the People_. Is very doubtful whether, without the discipline which forced him to put on the stage, at Bergen and in Christiania, plays evidently unsympathetic to his own taste, which obliged him to do his best for the popular reception of those plays, and which forced him minutely to analyze their effects, he would ever have been the world- moving dramatist which, as all sane critics must admit, he at length became.
He made some mistakes at first; how could he fail to do so? It was the recognition of these blunders, and perhaps the rough censure of them the local press, which induced the Bergen theatre to scrape a few dollars together and send him, in charge of some of the leading actors and actresses, to Copenhagen and Dresden for instruction. To go from Bergen to Copenhagen was like travelling from Abdera to Athens, and to find a species of Sophocles in J. A. Heiberg, who had since 1849 been sole manager of the Royal Theatre. Here the drama of the world, all the salutary names, all the fine traditions, burst upon the pilgrims from the North. Heiberg, the gracious and many-sided, was the centre of light in those days; no one knew the stage as he knew no one interpreted it with such splendid intelligence, and he received the crude Norwegian “dramatist-manager” with the utmost elegance of cordiality. Among the teachers of Ibsen, Heiberg ranks as the foremost. We may farther and say that he was the last. When Ibsen had learned the lesson of Heiberg, only nature and his own genius had anything more to teach him. [See Note below] In August, 1852, rich with the spoils of time, but otherwise poor indeed, Ibsen made his way back to his duties in Bergen.
[Note: Perhaps no author, during the whole of his career, more deeply impressed Ibsen with reverence and affection than Johan Ludvig Heiberg did. When the great Danish poet died (at Bonderup, August 25, 1860), Ibsen threw on his tomb the characteristic bunch of bitter herbs called _Til de genlevende_–“To the Survivors,” in which he expressed the faintest appreciation of those who lavished posthumous honor on Heiberg in Denmark:
In your land a torch he lifted;
With its flame ye scorched his forehead.
How to swing the sword he taught you, And,–ye plunged it in his bosom.
While he routed trolls of darkness,– With your shields you tripped and bruised him.
But his glittering star of conquest Ye must guard, since he has left you:
Try, at least, to keep it shining, While the thorn-crowned conqueror slumbers.]
LIFE IN BERGEN (1852-57)
Ibsen’s native biographers have not found much to record, and still less that deserves to recorded, about his life during the next five years. He remained in Bergen, cramped by want of means in his material condition, and much harassed and worried by the little pressing requirements of the theatre. It seems that every responsibility fell upon his shoulders, and that there was no part of stage-life that it was not his duty to look after. The dresses of the actresses, the furniture, the scene-painting, the instruction of raw Norwegian actors and actresses, the selection of plays, now to please himself, now to please the bourgeois of Bergen, all this must be done by the poet or not done at all. Just so, two hundred years earlier, we may imagine Moliere, at Carcassonne or Albi, bearing up in his arms, a weary Titan, all the frivolities and anxieties and misdeeds of a whole company of comedians.
So far as our very scanty evidence goes, we find the poet isolated from his fellows, so far as isolation was possible, during his long stay at Bergen. He was not accused, and if there had been a chance he would have been accused, of dereliction. No doubt he pushed through the work of the theatre doggedly, but certainly not in a convivial spirit. The Norwegians are a hospitable and festal people, and there is no question that the manager of the theatre would have unusual opportunities of being jolly with his friends. But it does not appear that Ibsen made friends; if so, they were few, and they were as quiet as himself. Even in these early years he did not invite confidences, and no one found him wearing his heart upon his sleeve. He went through his work without effusion, and there is no doubt that what leisure he enjoyed he spent in study, mainly of dramatic literature.
His reading must have been limited by his insensibility to foreign languages. All through his life he forgot the tongues of other countries almost faster than he gained them. Probably, at this time, he had begun to know German, a language in which he did ultimately achieve a fluency which was, it appears, always ungrammatical. But, as is not unfrequent with a man who is fond of reading but no linguist, Ibsen’s French and English came and went in a trembling uncertainty. As time passed on, he gave up the effort to read, even a newspaper, in either language.
The mile-stones in this otherwise blank time are the original plays which, perhaps in accordance with some clause in his agreement, he produced at his theatre in the first week of January in each year. A list of them cannot be spared in this place to the most indolent of readers, since it offers, in a nutshell, a resume of what the busy imagination of Ibsen was at work upon up to his thirtieth year. His earliest new-year’s gift to the play-goers of Bergen was _St. John’s Night_, 1853, a piece which has not been printed; in 1854 he revived _The Warrior’s Barrow_; in 1855 he made an immense although irregular advance with _Lady Inger at Oestraat_; in 1856 he produced _The Feast at Solhoug_; in 1857 a rewritten version of the early _Olaf Liljekrans_. These are the juvenile works of Ibsen, which are scarcely counted in the recognized canon of his writings. None of them is completely representative of his genius, and several are not yet within reach of the English reader. Yet they have a considerable importance, and must detain us for a while. They are remarkable as showing the vigor of the effort by which he attempted to create an independent style for himself, no less than the great difficulties which he encountered in following this admirable aim.
_Lady Inger at Oestraat_, written in the winter of 1854 but not published until 1857, is unique among Ibsen’s works as a romantic exercise in the manner of Scribe. It is the sole example of a theme taken by him directly from comparatively modern history, and treated purely for its value as a study of contemporary intrigue. From this point of view it curiously exemplifies a remark of Hazlitt: “The progress of manners and knowledge has an influence on the stage, and will in time perhaps destroy both tragedy and comedy. … At last, there will be nothing left, good nor bad, to be desired or dreaded, on the theatre or in real life.”
When Ibsen undertook to write about Inger Gyldenloeve, he was but little acquainted with the particulars of her history. He conceived her, as he found her in the incomplete chronicles he consulted, as a Matriarch, a wonderful and heroic elderly woman around whom all the hopes of an embittered patriotism were legitimately centred. Unfortunately, “the progress of knowledge,” as Hazlitt would say, exposed the falsity of this conception. A closer inspection of the documents, and further analysis of the condition of Norway in 1528, destroyed the fair illusion, and showed Ibsen in the light of an indulgent idealist.
Here is what Jaeger [Note: In _En literaert Livsbillede_] has to give us of the disconcerting results of research:
In real life Lady Inger was not a woman formed upon so grand a plan. She was the descendant of an old and noble family which had preserved its dignity, and she consequently was the wealthiest landowner in the country. This, and this alone, gives her a right to a place in history. If we study her life, we find no reason to suppose that patriotic considerations ever affected her conduct. The motive power of her actions was on a far lower plane, and seems to have consisted mainly in an amazingly strong instinct for adding to her wealth and her status. We find her, for instance, on one occasion seizing the estates of a neighbor, and holding them till she was actually forced to resign them. When she gave her daughters in marriage to Danish noblemen, it was to secure direct advantage from alliance with the most high-born sons-in- law procurable. When she took a convent under her protection, she contrived to extort a rent which well repaid her. Even for a good action she exacted a return, and when she offered harbor to the persecuted Chancellor, she had the adroitness to be well rewarded by a large sum in rose-nobles and Hungarian gulden.
All this could not fail to be highly exasperating to Ibsen, who had set out to be a realist, and was convicted by the spiteful hand of history of having been an idealist of the rose-water class. No wonder that he never touched the sequence of modern events any more.
There is some slight, but of course unconscious, resemblance to _Macbeth_ in the external character of _Lady Inger_. This play has something of the roughness of a mediaeval record, and it depicts a condition of life where barbarism uncouthly mingles with a certain luxury of condition. There is, however, this radical difference that in _Lady Inger_ there is nothing preternatural, and it is, indeed, in this play that Ibsen seems first to appreciate the value of a stiff attention to realism. The romantic elements of the story, however, completely dominate his imagination, and when we have read the play carefully what remains with us most vividly is the picturesqueness and unity of the scene. The action, vehement and tumultuous as it is, takes place entirely within the walls of Oestraat castle, a mysterious edifice, sombre and ancient, built on a crag over the ocean, and dimly lighted by
Magic casements opening on the foam Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn.
The action is exclusively nocturnal, and so large a place in it is taken by huge and portable candlesticks that it might be called the Tragedy of the Candelabra. Through the windows, on the landward side, a procession of mysterious visitors go by in the moonlight, one by one, each fraught with the solemnity of fate. The play is full of striking pictures, groups in light and shade, pictorial appeals to terror and pity.
The fault of the drama lies in the uncertain conception of the characters, and particularly of that of the Matriarch herself. Inger is described to us as the Mother of the Norwegian People, as the one strong, inflexible and implacable brain moving in a world of depressed and irritated men. “Now there is no knight left in our land,” says Finn, but–and this is the point from which the play starts–there is Inger Gyldenloeve. We have approached the moment of crisis when the fortunes and the fates of Norway rest upon the firmness of this majestic woman. Inger is driven forward on the tide of circumstance, and, however she may ultimately fail, we demand evidence of her inherent greatness. This, however, we fail to receive, and partly, no doubt, because Ibsen was still distracted at the division of the ways.
Oehlenschlaeger, if he had attempted this theme, would have made no attempt after subtlety of character painting and still less after correctness of historic color. He would have given small shrift to Olaf Skaktavl, the psychological outlaw. But he would have drawn Inger, the Mother of her People, in majestic strokes, and we should have had a great simplicity, a noble outline with none of the detail put in. Ibsen, already, cannot be satisfied with this; to him the detail is every thing, and the result is a hopeless incongruity between the cartoon and the finished work.
Lady Inger, in Ibsen’s play, fails to impress us with greatness. “The deed no less than the attempt confounds” her. She displays, from the opening scene, a weakness that is explicable, but excludes all evidence of her energy. The ascendency of Nils Lykke, over herself and over her singularly and unconvincingly modern daughter, Elima, in what does it consist? In a presentation of a purely physical attractiveness; Nils Lykke is simply a voluptuary, pursuing his good fortunes, with impudent ease, in the home of his ancestral enemies. In his hands, and not in his only, the majestic Inger is reduced from a queen to a pawn. All manhood, we are told, is dead in Norway; if this be so, then what a field is cleared where a heroine like Inger, not young and a victim to her passions, nor old and delivered to decrepit fears, may show us how a woman of intellect and force can take the place of man. Instead of this, one disguised and anonymous adventurer after another comes forth out of the night, and confuses her with pretensions and traps her with deceits against which her intellect protests but her will is powerless to contend.
Another feature in the conduct of _Lady Inger_ portrays the ambitious but the inexperienced dramatist. No doubt a pious commentator can successfully unravel all the threads of the plot, but the spectator demands that a play should be clearly and easily intelligible. The audience, however, is sorely puzzled by the events of this awful third night after Martinmas, and resents the obscurity of all this intrigue by candlelight. Why do the various persons meet at Oestraat? Who sends them? Whence do they come and whither do they go? To these questions, no doubt, an answer can be found, and it is partly given, and very awkwardly, by the incessant introduction of narrative. The confused and melodramatic scene in the banquet-hall between Nils Lykke and Skaktavl is of central importance, but what is it about? The business with Lucia’s coffin is a kind of nightmare, in the taste of Webster or of Cyril Tourneur. All these shortcomings are slurred over by the enthusiastic critics of Scandinavia, yet they call for indulgence. The fact is that _Lady Inger+ is a brilliant piece of romantic extravagance, which is extremely interesting in illuminating the evolution of Ibsen’s genius, and particularly as showing him in the act of emancipating himself from Danish traditions, but which has little positive value as a drama.
The direct result of the failure of _Lady Inger_–for it did not please the play-goers of Bergen and but partly satisfied its author–was, however, to send him back, for the moment, more violently than ever to the Danish tradition. Any record of this interesting phase in Ibsen’s career is, however, complicated by the fact that late in his life (in 1883) he did what was very unusual with him: he wrote a detailed account of the circumstances of his poetical work in 1855 and 1856. He denied, in short, that he had undergone any influence from the Danish poet whom he had been persistently accused of imitating, and he traced the movement of his mind to purely Norwegian sources. During the remainder of his lifetime, of course, this statement greatly confounded criticism, and there is still a danger of Ibsen’s disclaimer being accepted for gospel. However, literary history must be built on the evidence before it, and the actual text of _The Feast at Solhoug_, and of _Olaf Liljekrans_ must be taken in spite of anything their author chose to say nearly thirty years afterwards. Great poets, without the least wish to mystify, often, in the cant phrase, “cover their tracks.” Tennyson, in advanced years, denied that he had ever been influenced by Shelley or Keats. So Ibsen disclaimed any effect upon his style of the lyrical dramas of Hertz. But we must appeal from the arrogance of old age to the actual works of youth.
Henrik Hertz (1798-1870) was the most exquisite, the most delicate, of the Danish writers of his age. He was deeply impressed with the importance of form in drama, and at the height of his powers he began to compose rhymed plays which were like old ballads put into dialogue. His comedy of _Cupid’s Strokes of Genius_ (1830) began a series of tragi- comedies which gradually deepened in passion and melody, till they culminated in two of the acknowledged masterpieces of the Danish stage, _Svend Dyring’s House_ (1837) and _King Rene’s Daughter_ (1845). The genius of Hertz was diametrically opposed to that of Ibsen; in all Europe there were not two authors less alike. Hertz would have pleased Kenelm Digby, and if that romantic being had read Danish, the poet of chivalry must have had a niche in _The Broad Stone of Honour_. Hertz’s style is delicate to the verge of sweetness; his choice of words is fantastically exquisite, yet so apposite as to give an impression of the inevitable. He cares very little for psychological exactitude or truth of observation; but he is the very type of what we mean by a verbal artist.
Ibsen made acquaintance with the works, and possibly with the person, of Hertz, when he was in Copenhagen in 1852. There can be no doubt whatever that, while he was anxiously questioning his own future, and conscious of crude faults in _Lady Inger_, he set himself, as a task, to write in the manner of Hertz. It is difficult to doubt that it was a deliberate exercise, and we see the results in _The Feast at Solhoug_ and in _Olaf Liljekrans_. These two plays are in ballad-rhyme and prose, like Hertz’s romantic dramas; there is the same determination to achieve the chivalric ideal; but the work is that of a disciple, not of a master. Where Hertz, with his singing-robes fluttering about him, dances without an ungraceful gesture through the elaborate and yet simple masque that he has set before him to perform, Ibsen has high and sudden flights of metrical writing, but breaks down surprisingly at awkward intervals, and displays a hopeless inconsistency between his own nature and the medium in which he is forcing himself to write. As a proof that the similarity between _The Feast at Solhoug_ and _Svend Dyring’s House_ is accidental, it has been pointed out that Ibsen produced his own play on the Bergen stage in January, 1856, and revived Hertz’s a month later. It might, surely, be more sensibly urged that this fact shows how much he was captivated by the charm of the Danish dramatist.
The sensible thing, in spite of Ibsen’s late disclaimer, is to suppose that, in the consciousness of his crudity and inexperience as a writer, he voluntarily sat at the feet of the one great poet whom he felt had most to teach him. On the boards at Bergen, _The Feast at Solhoug_ was a success, while _Olaf Liljekrans_ was a failure; but neither incident could have meant very much to Ibsen, who, if there ever was a poet who lived in the future, was waiting and watching for the development of his own genius. Slowly, without precocity, without even that joy in strength of maturity which comes to most great writers before the age of thirty, he toiled on in a sort of vacuum. His youth was one of unusual darkness, because he had not merely poverty, isolation, citizenship of a remote and imperfectly civilized country to contend against, but because his critical sense was acute enough to teach him that he himself was still unripe, still unworthy of the fame that he thirsted for. He had not even the consolation which a proud confidence in themselves gives to the unappreciated young, for in his heart of hearts he knew that he had as yet done nothing which deserved the highest praise. But his imagination was expanding with a steady sureness, and the long years of his apprenticeship were drawing to a close.
Ibsen was now, like other young Norwegian poets, and particularly Bjoernson, coming into the range of that wind of nationalistic inspiration which had begun to blow down from the mountains and to fill every valley with music. The Norwegians were discovering that they possessed a wonderful hidden treasure in their own ancient poetry and legend. It was a gentle, clerically minded poet–himself the son of a peasant–Joergen Moe (1813-82), long afterwards Bishop of Christianssand, who, as far back as 1834, began to collect from peasants the folk-tales of Norway. The childlike innocence and playful humor of these stories were charming to the mind of Moe, who was fortunately joined by a stronger though less delicate spirit in the person of Peter Christian Asbjoernsen. Their earliest collection of folk-lore in collaboration appeared in 1841, but it was the full edition of 1856 which produced a national sensation, and doubtless awakened Ibsen in Bergen. Meanwhile, in 1853, M. B. Landstad had published the earliest of his collections of the folkeviser, or national songs, while L. M. Lindeman in the same years (1853-59) was publishing, in installments, the peasant melodies of Norway. Moreover, Ibsen, who read no Icelandic, was studying the ancient sagas in the faithful and vigorous paraphrase of Petersen, and all combined to determine him to make an experiment in a purely national and archaistic direction.
Ibsen, whose practice is always better than his theory, has given rather a confused account of the circumstances that led to the composition of his next play, _The Vikings at Helgeland_. But it is clear that in looking through Petersen for a subject which would display, in broad and primitive forms, the clash of character in an ancient Norwegian family, he fell upon “Volsungasaga,” and somewhat rashly responded to its vigorous appeal. He thought that in this particular episode, “the titanic conditions and occurrences of the ‘Nibelungenlied'” and other pro-mediaeval legends had “been reduced to human dimensions.” He believed that to dramatize such a story would lift what he called “our national epic material” to a higher plane. There is one phrase in his essay which is very interesting, in the light it throws upon the object which the author had before him in writing _The Vikings at Helgeland_. He says clearly–and this was intended as a revolt against the tradition of Oehlenschlaeger–“it was not my aim to present our mythic world, but simply our life in primitive times.” Brandes says of this departure that it is “indeed a new conquest, but, like so many conquests, associated with very extensive plundering.”
In turning to an examination of _The Vikings_, the first point which demands notice is that Ibsen has gained a surprising mastery over the arts of theatrical writing since we met with him last. There is nothing of the lyrical triviality of the verse in _The Feast at Solhoug_ about the trenchant prose of _The Vikings_, and the crepuscular dimness of _Lady Inger_ is exchanged for a perfect lucidity and directness. Whatever we may think about the theatrical propriety of the conductor of the vikings, there is no question at all as to what it is they do and mean. Ibsen has gained, and for good, that master quality of translucent presentation without which all other stage gifts are shorn of their value. When we have, however, praised the limpidity of _The Vikings at Helgeland_, we have, in honesty, to make several reservations in our criticism of the author’s choice of a subject. It is valuable to compare Ibsen’s treatment of Icelandic family-saga with that of William Morris; let us say, in _The Lovers of Gudrun_. That enchanting little epic deals with an episode from one of the great Iceland narratives, and follows it much more closely than Ibsen’s does. But we are conscious of a less painful effort and of a more human result. Morris does successfully what Ibsen unsuccessfully aimed at doing: he translates the heroic and half- fabulous action into terms that are human and credible.
It was, moreover, an error of judgment on the part of the Norwegian playwright to make his tragedy a mosaic of effective bits borrowed hither and thither from the Sagas. Scandinavian bibliography has toiled to show his indebtedness to this tale and to that, and he has been accused of concealing his plagiarisms. But to say this is to miss the mark. A poet is at liberty to steal what he will, if only he builds his thefts up into a living structure of his own. For this purpose, however, it is practically found that, owing perhaps to the elastic consistency of individual human nature, it is safest to stick to one story, embroidering and developing it along its own essential lines.
There is great vigor, however, in many of the scenes in _The Vikings_. The appearance of Hioerdis on the stage, in the opening act, marks, perhaps, the first occasion on which Ibsen had put forth his full strength as a playwright. This entrance of Hioerdis ought to be extremely effective; in fact, we understand, it rarely is. The cause of this disappointment can easily be discovered. It is the misfortune of The Vikings that it is hardly to be acted by mortal men. Hioerdis herself is superhuman; she has eaten the heart of a wolf, she claims direct descent from a race of fighting giants. There is a grandeur about the conception of her form and character, but it is a grandeur which might well daunt a human actress. One can faintly imagine the part being played by Mrs. Siddons, with such an extremity of fierceness and terror that ladies and gentlemen would be carried out of the theatre in hysterics, as in the days of Byron. Where Hioerdis insults her guests, and contrives the horrid murder of the boy Thorolf before their eyes, we have a stage- dilemma presented to us-either the actress must treat the scene inadequately, or else intolerably. _Ne pueros coram populo Medea trucidet_, and we shrink from Hioerdis with a physical disgust. Her great hands and shrieking mouth are like Bellona’s, and they smell of blood.
What is true of Hioerdis is true in less degree of all the characters in _The Vikings_. They are “great beautiful half-witted men,” as Mr. Chesterton would say:
Our sea was dark with dreadful ships Full of strange spoil and fire,
And hairy men, as strange as sin, With horrid heads, came wading in
Through the long low sea-mire.
This is the other side of the picture; this is how Oernulf and his seven terrible sons must have appeared to Kaare the peasant, and this is how, to tell the truth, they would in real life appear to us. The persons in _The Vikings at Helgeland_ are so primitive that they scarcely appeal to our sense of reality. In spite of all the romantic color that the poet has lavished upon them, and the majestic sentiments which he has put into their mouths, we feel that the inhabitants of Helgeland must have regarded them as those of Surbiton regarded the beings who were shot down from Mars in Mr. Wells’ blood-curdling story.
_The Vikings at Helgeland_ is a work of extraordinary violence and agitation. The personages bark at one another like seals and roar like sea-lions; they “cry for blood, like beasts at night.” Oernulf, the aged father of a grim and speechless clan, is sorely wounded at the beginning of the play, but it makes no difference to him; no one binds up his arm, but he talks, fights, travels as before. We may see here foreshadowed various features of Ibsen’s more mannered work. Here is his favorite conventional tame man, since, among the shouting heroes, Gunnar whimpers like a Tesman. Here is Ibsen’s favorite trick of unrequited self- sacrifice; it is Sigurd, in Gunnar’s armor, who kills the mystical white bear, but it is Gunnar who reaps the advantage. It is only fair to say that there is more than this to applaud in _The Vikings at Helgeland_; it moves on a consistent and high level of austere romantic beauty. Mr. William Archer, who admires the play more than any Scandinavian critic has done, justly draws attention to the nobility of Oernulf’s entrance in the third act. Yet, on the whole, I confess myself unable to be surprised at the severity with which Heiberg judged _The Vikings_ at its first appearance, a severity which must have wounded Ibsen to the quick.
The year 1857 was one of unsettlement in Ibsen’s condition. The period for which he had undertaken to manage the theatre at Bergen had now come to a close, and he was not anxious to prolong it. He had had enough of Bergen, to which only one chain now bound him. Those who read the incidents of a poet’s life into the pages of his works may gratify their tendency by seeing in the discussions between Dagny and Hioerdis some echo of the thoughts which were occupying Ibsen’s mind in relation to the married state. Since his death, the story has been told of his love- affair with a very young girl, Rikke Holst, who had attracted his notice by throwing a bunch of wild flowers in his face, and whom he followed and desired to marry. Her father had rejected the proposal with indignation. Ibsen had suffered considerably, but this was, after all, an early and a very fugitive sentiment, which made no deep impression on his heart, although it seems to have always lingered in his memory.
There had followed a sentiment much deeper and much more emphatic. A charming, though fragmentary, set of verses, addressed in January, 1856, to Miss Susannah Thoresen, show that already for a long while he had come to regard this girl of twenty as “the young dreaming enigma,” the possible solution of which interested him more than that of any other living problem. It was more than the conversation of a versifying lover which made Ibsen speak of Miss Thoresen’s “blossoming child-soul” as the bourne of his ambitions. In his dark way, he was already violently in love with her.
The household of her father, Hans Conrad Thoresen, was the most cultivated in Bergen. He himself, the rector of Holy Cross, was a bookish, meditative man of no particular initiative, but he had married, as his third wife, Anna Maria Kragh, a Dane by birth, and for a long time, with the possible exception of Camilla Collett, Wergeland’s sister, the most active woman of letters in Norway. Mrs. Thoresen was the step-mother of Susannah, the only child of her husband’s second marriage. Between Magdalene Thoresen and Ibsen a strong friendship had sprung up, which lasted to the end of their lives, and some of Ibsen’s best letters are those written to his wife’s step-mother. She worked hard for him at the Bergen theatre, translating plays from the French, and it was during Ibsen’s management of the theatre that several of her own pieces were produced. Her prose stories, in connection with which her name lives in Norwegian literature, were not yet written; so long as Ibsen was at her side, her ideas seem to have been concentrated on the stage. Constant communication with this charming woman only nine years his senior, and much his superior in conventional culture, must have been a school of refinement to the crude and powerful young poet. And now the wise Magdalene appeared to him in a new light, dedicating to him the best treasure of the family circle, the gay and yet mysterious Susannah.
While he was writing _The Vikings at Helgeland_, and courting Susannah Thoresen, Ibsen received what seemed a timely invitation to settle in Christiania as director of the Norwegian Theatre; he returned, thereupon, to the capital in the summer of 1857, after an absence of six years. Now began another period of six years more, these the most painful in Ibsen’s life, when, as Halvorsen has said, he had to fight not merely for the existence of himself and his family, but for the very existence of Norwegian poetry and the Norwegian stage. This struggle was an excessively distressing one. He had left Bergen crippled with debts, and his marriage (June 26, 1856) weighed him down with further responsibilities. The Norwegian Theatre at Christiania was, a secondary house, ill-supported by its patrons, often tottering at the brink of bankruptcy, and so primitive was the situation of literature in the country that to attempt to live by poetry and drama was to court starvation. His slender salary was seldom paid, and never in full. The only published volume of Ibsen’s which had (up to 1863) sold at all was _The Warriors_, by which he had made in all 227 specie dollars (or about L25).
The Christiania he had come to, however, was not that which he had left. In many directions it had developed rapidly. From an intellectual point of view, the labors of the nationalists had made themselves felt; the folk-lore of Landstad, Moe and Asbjoernsen had impressed young imaginations. In some of its forms the development was unpleasing and discouraging to Ibsen; the success of the blank-verse tragedies of Andreas Munch (_Salomon de Caus_, 1855; _Lord William Russell_, 1857) was, for instance, an irritating step in the wrong direction. The new- born school of prose fiction, with Bjoernson as its head (_Synnoeve Solbakken_, 1857; _Arne_, 1858), with Camilla Collett’s _Prefect’s Daughters_, 1855, as its herald; with Oestgaard’s sketches of peasant life and humors in the mountains (1852)–all this was a direct menace to the popularity of the national stage, offering an easy and alluring alternative for home-loving citizens. Was it certain that the classic Danish, which alone Ibsen cared to write, would continue to be the language of the cultivated classes in Norway? Here was Ivar Aasen (in 1853) showing that the irritating landsmaal could be used for prose and verse.
Wherever he turned Ibsen saw increased vitality, but in shapes that were either useless or antagonistic to himself, and all that was harsh and saturnine in his nature awakened. We see Ibsen, at this moment of his life, like Shakespeare in his darkest hour, “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” unappreciated and ready to doubt the reality of his own genius; and murmuring to himself:–
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d, Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope. With what I most enjoy contented least.
How little his greatness was perceived in the Christiania literary coteries may be gathered from the little fact that the species of official anthology of _Modern Norwegian Poets_, published in 1859, though it netted the shallows of national song very closely, contained not a line by the author of the lovely lyrics in _The Feast at Solhoug_. It was at this low and miserable moment that Ibsen’s talent suddenly took wings; he conceived, in the summer of 1858, what finally became, five years later, his first acknowledged masterpiece, and perhaps the most finished of all his writings, the sculptural tragedy of _The Pretenders_.
_The Pretenders_ (_Kongsemnerne_, properly stuff from which Kings can be made) is the earliest of the plays of Ibsen in which the psychological interest is predominant, and in which there is no attempt to disguise the fact. Nothing that has since been written about this drama, the very perfection of which is baffling to criticism, has improved upon the impression which Georg Brandes received from it when he first read it forty years ago. The passage is classic, and deserves to be cited, if only as perhaps the very earliest instance in which the genius of Ibsen was rewarded by the analysis of a great critic. Brandes wrote (in 1867):–
What is it that The Pretenders treats of? Looked at simply, it is an old story. We all know the tale of Aladdin and Nureddin, the simple legend in the Arabian Nights, and our great poet’s [Oehlenschlaeger’s] incomparable poem. In _The Pretenders_ two figures again stand opposed to one another as the superior and the inferior being, an Aladdin and a Nureddin nature. It is towards this contrast that Ibsen has hitherto unconsciously directed his endeavors, just as Nature feels her way in her blind preliminary attempts to form her types. Hakon and Skule are pretenders to the same throne, scions of royalty out of whom a king may be made. But the first is the incarnation of fortune, victory, right and confidence; the second–the principal figure in the play, masterly in its truth and originality–is the brooder, a prey to inward struggle and endless distrust, brave and ambitious, with perhaps every qualification and claim to be king, but lacking the inexpressible, impalpable somewhat that would give a value to all the rest–the wonderful Lamp. “I am a king’s arm,” he says, “mayhap a king’s brain as well; but Hakon is the whole king.” “You have wisdom and courage, and all noble gifts of the mind,” says Hakon to him; “you are born to stand nearest a king, but not to be a king yourself.”
To a poet the achievements of his greatest contemporaries in their common art have all the importance of high deeds in statesmanship and war. It is, therefore, by no means extravagant to see in the noble emulation of the two dukes in _The Pretenders_ some reflection of Ibsen’s attitude to the youthful and brilliant Bjoernson. The luminous self-reliance, the ardor and confidence and good fortune of Bjoernson- Hakon could not but offer a violent contrast with the gloom and hesitation, the sick revulsions of hope and final lack of conviction, of Ibsen-Skule. It was Bjoernson’s “belt of strength,” as it was Hakon’s, that he had utter belief in himself, and with this his rival could not yet girdle himself. “The luckiest man is the greatest man,” says Bishop Nicholas in the play, and Bjoernson seemed in these melancholy years as lucky as Ibsen was unlucky. But the Bishop’s views were not wide enough, and the end was not yet.
THE SATIRES (1857-67)
Temperament and environment combined at the period we have now reached to turn Ibsen into a satirist. It was during his time of _Sturm und Drang_, from 1857 to 1864, that the harshest elements in his nature were awakened, and that he became one who loved to lash the follies of his age. With the advent of prosperity and recognition this phase melted away, leaving Ibsen without illusions and without much pity, but no longer the scourge of his fellow-citizens. Although _The Pretenders_, a work of dignified and polished aloofness, was not completed until 1863, it really belongs to the earlier and more experimental section of Ibsen’s works, and is so completely the outcome and the apex of his national studies that it has seemed best to consider it with _The Vikings at Helgeland_, in spite of its immense advance upon that drama. But we must now go back a year, and take up an entirely new section which overlaps the old, namely, that of Ibsen’s satires in dramatic rhyme.
With regard to the adoption of that form of poetic art, a great difference existed between Norwegian and English taste, and this must be borne in mind. Almost exactly at the date when Ibsen was inditing the sharp couplets of his _Love’s Comedy_, Tennyson, in _Sea Dreams_, was giving voice to the English abandonment of satire–which had been rampant in the generation of Byron–in the famous words:–
I loathe it: he had never kindly heart, Nor ever cared to better his own kind, Who first wrote satire, with no pity in it.
What England repudiated, Norway comprehended, and in certain hands enjoyed. Polemical literature, if seldom of a high class, was abundant and was much appreciated. The masterpiece of modern Norwegian poetry was, still, the satiric cycle of Welhaven. In ordinary controversy, the tone was more scathing, the bludgeon was whirled more violently, than English taste at that period could endure. Those whom Ibsen designed to crush had not minced their own words. The press was violence itself, and was not tempered with justice; when the poet looked round he saw “afflicted virtue insolently stabbed with all manner of reproaches,” as Dryden said.
Yet it was not an age of gross and open vices; manners were not flagitious, they were merely of a nauseous insipidity. Ibsen, flown with anger as with wine, could find no outrageous offences to lash, and all he could invite the age to do was to laugh at certain conventions and to reconsider some prejudicated opinions. He had to be pungent, not openly ferocious; he had to be sarcastic and to treat the current code of morals as a jest. He found the society around him excessively distasteful to him, but there were no crying evils of a political or ethical kind to be stigmatized. What was open to him was what an old writer of our own defined as “a sharp, well-mannered way of laughing a folly out of countenance.”
Unfortunately, the people laughed at will never consent to think the way well mannered, and Ibsen was bitterly blamed for “want of taste,” that vaguest and most insidious of accusations. We are told that he began his enterprise in prose [Note: “_Svanhild_: a Comedy in three acts and in prose: 1860,” is understood to exist still in manuscript], but found that too stiff and bald a medium for a satire on the social crudity of Norway. In writing satire, it is all-important that the form should be adequate, and at this time Ibsen had not reached the impeccable perfection of his later colloquial prose. He started _Love’s Comedy_, therefore, anew, and he wrote it as a pamphlet in rhyme. It is not certain that he had any very definite idea of the line which his attack should take. He was very poor, very sore, very uncomfortable, and he was easily convinced that the times were out of joint. Then he observed that if there was anything that the Norwegian upper classes prided themselves upon it was their conduct of betrothal and marriage. Plato had said that the familiarity of young persons before marriage prevented enmity and disappointment in later years, that it was useful to know the peculiarities of temperament beforehand, and so, being accustomed to them, to discount them. But Ibsen was not of this opinion, or rather, perhaps, he did not choose to be. The extremely slow and public method of betrothal in the North gave him his first opportunity.
It is with a song, in the original one of the most delicious of his lyrics, that he opens the campaign. To a miscellaneous party of Philistines circled around the tea table, “all sober and all —-” the rebellious hero sings:–
In the sunny orchard-closes,
While the warblers sing and swing, Care not whether blustering Autumn
Break the promises of Spring;
Rose and white the apple-blossom
Hides you from the sultry sky;
Let it flutter, blown and scattered, On the meadow by and by.
In the sexual struggle, that is to say, the lovers should not pause to consider the worldly advantages of their match, but should fly in secret to each other’s arms. By the law of battle, the female should be snatched to the conqueror’s saddle-bow, and ridden away with into the night, not subjected to the jokes and the good advice and the impertinent congratulations of the clan. Young Lochinvar does not wait to ask the counsel of the bride’s cousins, nor to run the gantlet of her aunts; he fords the Esk river with her, where ford there is none. Ibsen is in favor of the _mariage de convenance_, which suppresses, without favor, the absurdity of love-matches. Above all, anything is better than the publicity, the meddling and long-drawn exposure of betrothal, which kills the fine delicacy of love, as birds are apt to break their own eggs if intruding hands have touched them.
This is the central point in _Love’s Comedy_, but there is much beside this in its reckless satire on the “sanctities” of domestic life. The burden of monogamy is frivolously dealt with, and the impertinent poet touches with levity upon the question of the duration of marriage:
With my living, with my singing,
I will tear the hedges down!
Sweep the grass and heap the blossom! Let it shrivel, pale and blown!
Throw the wicket wide! Sheep, cattle, Let them browse among the best!
_I_ broke off the flowers; what matter Who may graze among the rest!
_Love’s Comedy_ is perhaps the most diverting of Ibsen’s works; it is certainly the most impertinent. If there was one class in Norwegian society which was held to be above criticism it was the clerical. A prominent character in Ibsen’s comedy is the Rev. Mr. Strawman, a gross, unctuous and uxorious priest, blameless and dull, upon whose inert body the arrows of satire converge. This was never forgotten and long was unforgiven. As late as 1866 the Storthing refused a grant to Ibsen definitely on the ground of the scandal caused by his sarcastic portrait of Pastor Strawman. But the gentler sex, to which every poet looks for an audience, was not less deeply outraged by the want of indulgence which he had shown for all forms of amorous sentiment, although Ibsen had really, through his satire on the methods of betrothal, risen to something like a philosophical examination of the essence of love itself.
To Brandes, who reproached him for not recording the history of ideal engagements, and who remarked, “You know, there are sound potatoes and rotten potatoes in this world,” Ibsen cynically replied, “I am afraid none of the sound ones have come under my notice”; and when Guldstad proves to the beautiful Svanhild the paramount importance of creature comforts, the last word of distrust in the sustaining power of love had been said. The popular impression of Ibsen as an “immoral” writer seems to be primarily founded on the paradox and fireworks of _Love’s Comedy_.
Much might be forgiven to a man so wretched as Ibsen was in 1862, and more to a poet so lively, brilliant and audacious in spite of his misfortunes. These now gathered over his head and threatened to submerge him altogether. He was perhaps momentarily saved by the publication of _Terje Vigen_, which enjoyed a solid popularity. This is the principal and, indeed, almost the only instance in Ibsen’s works of what the Northern critics call “epic,” but what we less ambitiously know as the tale in verse. _Terje Figen_ will never be translated successfully into English, for it is written, with brilliant lightness and skill, in an adaptation of the Norwegian ballad-measure which it is impossible to reproduce with felicity in our language.
Among Ibsen’s writings _Terje Vigen_ is unique as a piece of pure sentimentality carried right rough without one divagation into irony or pungency. It is the story of a much-injured and revengeful Norse pilot, who, having the chance to drown his old enemies, Milord and Milady, saves them at the mute appeal of their blue-eyed English baby. _Terje Vigen_ is a masterpiece of what we may define as the “dash-away-a-manly- tear” class of narrative. It is extremely well written and picturesque, but the wonder is that, of all people in the world, Ibsen should have written it.
His short lyric poems of this period betray much more clearly the real temper of the man. They are filled full and brimming over with longing and impatience, with painful passion and with hope deferred. It is in the strident lyrics Ibsen wrote between 1857 and 1863 that we can best read the record of his mind, and share its exasperations, and wonder at its elasticity. The series of sonnets _In a Picture Gallery_ is a strangely violent confession of distrust in his own genius; the _Epistle to H. O. Blom_ a candid admission of his more than distrust in the talent and honesty of others. It was the peculiarity and danger of Ibsen’s position that he represented no one but himself. For instance, the liberty of many of the expressions in _Love’s Comedy_ led those who were beginning a movement in favor of the emancipation of women to believe that Ibsen was in sympathy with them, but he was not. All through his life, although his luminous penetration into character led him to be scrupulously fair in his analysis of female character, he was never a genuine supporter of the extension of public responsibility to the sex. A little later (in 1869), when John Stuart Mill’s _Subjection of Women_ produced a sensation in Scandinavia, and met with many enthusiastic supporters, Ibsen coldly reserved his opinion. He was always an observer, always a clinical analyst at the bedside of society, never a prophet, never a propagandist.
His troubles gathered upon him. Neither theatre consented to act _Love’s Comedy_, and it would not even have been printed but for the zeal of the young novelist Jonas Lie, who, to his great honor, bought for about L35 the right to publish it as a supplement to a newspaper that he was editing. Then the storm broke out; the press was unanimously adverse, and in private circles abuse amounted almost to a social taboo. In 1862 the second theatre became bankrupt, and Ibsen was thrown on the world, the most unpopular man of his day, and crippled with debts. It is true that he was engaged at the Christiania Theatre at a nominal salary of about a pound a week, but he could not live on that. In August, 1860, he had made a pathetic appeal to the Government for a _digter-gage_, a payment to a poet, such as is freely given to talent in the Northern countries. Sums were voted to Bjoernson and Vinje, but to Ibsen not a penny. By some influence, however, for he was not without friends, he was granted in March, 1862, a travelling grant of less than L20 to enable him to wander for two months in western Hardanger and the districts around the Sognefjord for the purpose of collecting folk-songs and legends. The results of this journey were prepared for publication, but never appeared. This interesting excursion, however, has left its mark stamped broadly upon _Brand_ and _Peer Gynt_.
All through 1863 his condition was critical. He determined that his only hope was to exile himself definitely from Norway, which had become too hot to hold him. Various private friends generously helped him over this dreadful time of adversity, earning a gratitude which, if it was not expansive, was lifelong. Very grudging recognition of his gifts was at length made by the Government in the shape of another trifling travelling grant (March, 1863), again a handsome sum being awarded to Bjoernson, his popular rival. In May Ibsen applied, in despair, to the King himself, who conferred upon him a small pension of L90 a year, which for the immediate future stood between this great poet and starvation. The news of it was received in Christiania by the press in terms of despicable insult.
But in June of this _annee terrible_ Ibsen had a flash of happiness. He was invited down to Bergen to the fifth great “Festival of Song,” a national occurrence, and he and his poems met with a warm reception. Moreover, he found his brilliant antagonist, Bjoernson, at Bergen on a like errand, and renewed an old friendship with this warm-hearted and powerful man of genius, destined to play through life the part of Hakon to Ibsen’s Skule. They spent much of the subsequent winter together. As Halvdan Koht has excellently said: “Their intercourse brought them closer to each other than they had ever been before. They felt that they were inspired by the same ideas and the same hopes, and they suffered the same bitter disappointments. With anguish they watched the Danish brother-nation’s desperate struggle against the superior power of Germany, and save a province with a population of Scandinavian race and speech taken from Denmark and incorporated in a foreign kingdom, whilst the Norwegian and Swedish kinsmen, in spite of solemn promises, refrained from yielding any assistance.” An attack on Holstein (December 22, 1863) had introduced the Second Danish War, to which a disastrous