Henrik Ibsen: His Early Career as Poet and Play-Wright
CURIOUSLY enough, Henrik Ibsen, who has been rightly characterized as “most distinctively and decidedly Norwegian ” in genius and temperament, has not, so far as it is possible to trace his genealogy, a drop of Norwegian blood in his veins. It is true, as we shall see, that Norwegian blood may have been introduced at several points through the females of his line, but there is no positive proof, and only in one case even a probability of it.
His great - great - grandfather, Peter Ibsen, was a Danish seaman, who, in 1720, emigrated from the island of Möen to Bergen, and became a citizen of this enterprising and picturesque seaboard town, where he married the daughter of a German immigrant. No information is given as to the nationality of the mother of the bride. Peter Ibsen’s son, Henrik Petersen Ibsen, who also followed the sea, took to wife the daughter of a Scotchman named Dishington, who had established himself in business and been admitted to citizenship in Bergen. Here, too, it is uncertain whether Mrs. Dishington was Norwegian or Scotch. Henrik Petersen Ibsen died during the first year of his wedded life. Soon after his death his widow gave birth to a son, and the posthumous child was christened Henrik, in memory of the deceased father. Henrik Ibsen wedded the daughter of a merchant named Plesner, in Skien, whither his mother had removed after her second marriage. Both Plesner and his wife were of German descent. Henrik Ibsen was, like his father, a seafarer, and perished, with the ship of which he was the captain and owner, on the coast at Hesnaes, near Grimstad. Only a few fragments of the wreck, and among them the name of the vessel, drifted ashore to tell the tale of disaster. This unfortunate mariner left one son, Knud Ibsen, who married Maria Cornelia Altenbnrg, the daughter of a wealthy merchant of German extraction, residing in Skien. The maiden name of the bride’s mother was Paus, and her family must have been either Danish or Norwegian, probably the latter. Knud Ibsen’s eldest child, the poet Henrik Ibsen, was born in Skien, March 20, 1828.
This mixture of foreign elements, Danish, Scotch, a possible Norwegian tinge, and a threefold German strain, in the blood of a man whose Norwegianism is quite as intense, though not so turbulent and aggressive, as that of his fellow-countryman, the typical Norseman. poet, and tribune, Björnstjerne Björnson, would seem to indicate that what we call national character is in a less degree the product of lineage than of environment. In other words, the qualities which an individual possesses in common with the people to which he belongs are due, not so much to the race of which he is born as to the social, political, educational, geographical, and climatic conditions into which he is born. The characteristics which distinguish the fine breed are such as have been formed and fixed by a long course of fine breeding. It is not the mere accident of parentage that makes a man an American or an Englishman, but the impress of the peculiarly American or English culture which he has received; the multifarious and complex influences which have unconsciously moulded his character; in short, the moral and intellectual atmosphere which has surrounded and sustained him, and in which he has lived, moved, and had his being from earliest infancy.
In nomadic society consanguinity alone constitutes tribal membership, and furnishes a tie sufficiently strong to hold the vagrant community together; but with the transition to sedentary life and the permanent occupation of the soil, geographical propinquity becomes a matter of greater moment than genealogical propinquity ; nearness of kin, as a bond of union, yields its claims to the more pressing and imperative demands of territorial nearness; kindness, as an emotion, overleaps the barriers of etymology, and no longer confines itself to kind ; and a wider sympathy and solidarity of interests, gradually growing up, give rise to larger political aggregations, whose members recognize each other as countrymen instead of mere clansmen.
It has been suggested that the unrelenting severity with which Ibsen insists upon “ the categorical imperative,” and the high ethical standard which he sets up as a rule of conduct, as well as his somewhat pessimistic attitude towards human life as he finds it, are heirlooms of the Puritanism and idealism which have played such a decisive part in Scotch history, and left such a deep and lasting impress upon Scotch philosophy. On the other hand, his taste and talent for purely abstract and speculative reasoning, and his predilection and faculty for rigorously logical and systematic thinking, might naturally enough be regarded as German hereditaments. Indeed, it may be said of him, in the language of Kant, that two things fill his soul with ever new and increasing admiration and awe the oftener he contemplates them : the starry heavens above him and the moral law within him. In both cases it is the same sort of “ cosmic emotion ” which the phenomena excite; but of the two sublime and eternal revelations of the supremacy of universal and inviolable laws, it is the microcosm, or psychical world within, that appeals to him more strongly and interests him more deeply than the macrocosm, or physical world without. It is not the poetic or romantic, but the mystical or metaphysical, side of nature that attracts him. There is no landscape-painting in his dramas. He never introduces descriptions of scenery for their own sake, but only as symbols of human thought and aspiration and heroic endeavor; as, for example, the allusions to the glaciers and the “ ice-church,” the misty mountain-tops and the stormy fiord, in Brand. He has the love of an old Norse salt for “ the fierce, conflicting brine,” but it is the mysteriousness and unfathomableness of the restless water, type of the seething passions of the soul (that “sealet” within, according to Grimm’s etymology of the word), which fascinate him, and suggest psychological problems darker than the ocean’s waves and deeper than did ever plummet sound,” as in The Lady of the Sea.
But we need not go so far away as Scotland or Germany in quest of causes to account for the idiosyncrasies of the Norwegian poet. They lay around in his infancy at Skien. Sixty years ago, this place of his birth was by no means the prosy town and mere commercial mart it is to-day. Its inhabitants comprised many persons of wealth and superior culture, and several families of distinction resided in the city, or dwelt permanently on their estates in the immediate vicinity. As these families were, for the most part, connected by nearer or remoter ties of kinship, the social life was exceedingly intimate and animated ; and dinner-parties, picnics, balls, and musical entertainments followed each other in almost unbroken succession, summer and winter. These gayeties were greatly enhanced by the primitive and generous manner in which the rites of hospitality were then exercised in Skien; very much as they are at the present time in Iceland. There were, properly speaking, no inns in the city for the accommodation of travelers, who took up their quarters with friends or relations, or were lodged by those to whom they brought letters of introduction. “We had,” says Ibsen, “strangers visiting us at nearly every season of the year; and especially at Christmas and during the annual fair, which was held in February, and lasted a whole week, our large and roomy house was full of people, and the table spread from morning till night.”
The Ibsen family belonged to the aristocracy of Skien, and their spacious mansion was one of the chief social centres of the city. The head of the household was a quick-witted and freehanded man, genial and good-humored, and never so happy as when entertaining crowds of guests.
It was doubtless due in part to this liberal and rather reckless hospitality that, when Henrik Ibsen was eight years of age, his father became a bankrupt, and, after satisfying the claims of his creditors, had nothing left but a small and hitherto neglected farmhouse, not far from the city, to which he retired with his family, and where he spent the next six years in a state of poverty and seclusion, which formed a striking contrast to his former life of affluent ease and constant festivity. The “ aristocratic ” circles of which Knud and Cornelia Ibsen had been the brilliant ornaments were now closed to them, and this sudden change could hardly fail to make a deep and abiding impression upon the precociously thoughtful and susceptible mind of their eldest child. The lesson thus taught by his early experience of the utter selfishness and insincerity of society was such as could never be forgotten, especially as his subsequent larger knowledge of the world only served to enforce and confirm it.
Ibsen’s youth seems to have been very lonely and sad. He seldom shared the sports of other boys, or even played with his own brothers and sisters. His most vivid reminiscences of his native town are of the old city hall, with its subterranean jail, and a dark and dingy cell in which lunatics were confined; the church, with its associations of gloomy piety ; the pillory and the public whipping-post, at which criminals and runaway serfs were cruelly scourged. More cheerful memories of his childhood are of the hours which he used to spend in a small room next to the kitchen, poring over old volumes full of engravings. This closet-like retreat could not be heated, and was often fearfully cold; but he could fasten it with a hook inside and shut out all intruders, and this advantage outweighed any considerations of mere physical comfort. The scene in the third act of The Wild Duck, where Hedwig is absorbed in Harryson’s History of London, and, not. being able to read the text, learns what it is all about from the numerous pictures, is one of his youthful recollections.
He had a decided talent for drawing, and was diligent in the use of pencil and brush. He was particularly fond of painting figures, representing different characters in appropriate costume, on pasteboard, which he then cut out and set upon wooden blocks, so that they could stand alone. These puppets he arranged in groups and moved to and fro on the table, and by improvising dialogues, in which he attained remarkable facility, represented dramatically the historical incidents he had read about. Sometimes he would build a castle or fortress, taking great, pains with every part of it, so that it seemed to the younger children a wonderful work of art; but no sooner was it finished than he took it by storm, and laid it level with the ground. Here, too, the main object he had in view was the dramatization of some historical event which had appealed to his imagination ; and the careful and conscientious manner in which the boy constructed an edifice which he intended to demolish was significant of his strong artistic sense and the thoroughness with which he carried to completion whatever he undertook, qualities which have always characterized the literary labors of the man.
Until he was fourteen years of age Ibsen attended a school kept by two theological students at Skien, where he received instruction in the elementary branches of knowledge and also learned a little Latin. One of his school-mates describes him as having a fine head, remarkable quickness of conception, an excitable and somewhat ebullient temper, a sharp tongue, and a satirical turn of mind, but as being withal a sincere friend and a good comrade. Intellectually, he stood head and shoulders above his fellows. He read history, especially that of Greece and Rome, with uncommon avidity and appreciation, and showed an exceptional interest in the religious instruction which, as a rule, the pupils considered a bore and were inclined to shirk. “ I remember,” says the same informant, “ how still it was once in the class, when Ibsen read a composition in which he related a dream, substantially as follows : —
“ ‘As I was journeying, with several companions, over a high mountain, we were suddenly overtaken by night, and being very weary we lay down to sleep, like Jacob, with stones for our pillows. My comrades were soon wrapped in slumber, and, after a long time, excessive fatigue compelled me also to close my eyes. Then an angel appeared to me in a dream, and said, “ Arise and follow me ! ” “ Whither wilt thou conduct me in this darkness? ” I asked. “Come,” he replied, “ I will show thee a vision of human life as it really is.” Then I followed him with fear and trembling, and we descended as it were a flight of enormous steps, until the rocks rose in huge arches over our heads, and before us lay a vast city of the dead, a whole world of pallid corpses and bleached skeletons in endless succession ; and over them all a dim, crepuscular light, which the church walls and the white crosses of tombs seemed to emit and cast over the illimitable graveyard. Icy terroi seized me at the sight, and the angel who stood at my side said, “ Here, thou seest, all is vanity.” Then there came a rushing sound, like the first faint breathings of a rising storm, the low moan composed of a thousand sighs, and it grew to a howling tempest, so that the dead moved and stretched out their arms towards me. And I awoke with a shriek, damp with the cold dew of the night.’ ”
This is certainly not a kind of writing common with school-boys of fourteen. It strikes, in fact, the keynote which vibrates in various modulations through all his dramas, and reaches its highest pitch in Ghosts. Ibsen states that his recollection of this incident is quite distinct, because the teacher got it into his head that the composition was taken from some book, and expressed this surmise in the class; “ whereupon,” adds the author, “ I set him right in a more energetic manner than was pleasing to him or perhaps proper in me.”
This literary production was the utterance of thoughts and feelings fostered by the peculiar experiences of his childhood. and shows only, so far as it may have been influenced by his reading, how strongly his youthful imagination had been touched by the visions of Hebrew prophets, the pessimism of the Preacher’s philosophy of life, and the doctrine of the nothingness and transitoriness of all earthly things fundamental to Christianity and mystically revealed in the Apocalypse.
Ibsen wished to be an artist, and had circumstances permitted the realization of this desire he would have been, undoubtedly, the peer of his countrymen, Hellqvist and Grönvold, although his genius and style would have made him nearer akin to the latter than to the former. In all probability he would have been more thoroughly original than either. Of the one thing needful he would have had no lack, namely, ideas. It is this inborn and incurable deficiency that renders many an artist, with whose technique no fault can be found, hopelessly dull and intolerably commonplace. Ibsen has always preserved a lively and appreciative interest in art; the final preference for the pen has not robbed him of his fondness for the pencil, nor of a skill in the use of it far above the reach of mere dilettanteism. But the financial stress of the family forced him to choose a profession that would be immediately lucrative, or at least pay his way to competency. While waiting for his laurels to grow he must diligently cultivate some humble esculent,
For human nature’s daily food.”
At the age of sixteen he left his native town, and entered upon his apprenticeship in an apothecary’s shop at Grimstad, where he remained until he was twentytwo. Grimstad was at that time a little seaport of eight hundred inhabitants, mostly ship - owners and wharfingers, whose interest in literature was confined to Lloyd’s list, and who were even more provincial and Philistine than the Skieners. In such a place the apothecary’s shop competes with the barber’s shop as a loafers’ resort and a sort of social exchange, where all the gossip and scandal afloat are quoted, discounted, or stamped with the seal of general acceptance and put into circulation. It is difficult for those not “to the manner born ” to form a proper conception of the intellectual depression exerted by the atmosphere of such a town. Every transgression of local customs and conventionalities is denounced as a dangerous excess ; strong personal peculiarities are deemed personal defects ; society shakes its empty noddle over all enthusiasms or ideas out of the common run ; every vigorous expression of thought or emotion is eyed askance as an unaccountable eccentricity, and to be eccentric is to be either crazy or criminal.
That Ibsen soon came into collision with people of this sort it needs no “ Scottish gift of second-sight ” to foresee. It was discovered that the young man had an ambition above making pills and mixing pharmaceutical preparations, and that he intended to enter the university and study medicine; and this was a bad sign. What was still worse, he wrote poetry in the intervals of leisure left from dispensing drugs. Worst of all, he glorified in glowing verse the revolutionary movements of 1848, celebrated the heroic deeds of the Magyars, and called upon the Scandinavians to come up to the help of their kinsfolk in the Danish-German war. What impudence for a callow stripling to instruct his elders in their political duties, and to tell the nations what they ought to do !
Meanwhile, during this storm-andstress period of his intellectual development, the young poet was diligently preparing himself for his examen artium, or examination for entering the university. Among other works, he read with eager interest Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and Cicero’s Catilinarian Orations, and thought that, under the mask of the historian’s trite moral indignation and through the phrases of the orator, he caught a glimpse of the true character of the old Roman nihilist and anarchist, which these adversaries had sadly travestied. This conception he embodied in a drama entitled Catilina, and, failing to get it either represented or published, he had it printed, by the financial aid of a devoted and believing friend, at his own expense at Christiania, early in 1850, under the pseudonym of Brynjolf Bjarme.
Ibsen accepts what Cicero and Sallust relate concerning Catiline’s lawless and licentious life, and endows him, as a dramatis persona, with uncurbed passions, which furnish the tragic element in his career, and lead directly and inevitably to his destruction. On the other hand, he is not a mere vulgar adventurer and selfish exciter of sedition, but a man of liberal ideas, a sincere patriot and lover of the people, who would free his country from the tyranny of a pampered and plutocratic Senate, and revive the old Roman civic virtue; a spirit, in this respect, akin to Cato, whose memory, in one instance, he invokes. In short, Catiline is politically the author’s ideal of a revolutionist, and embodies in his utterances much of the poet’s enthusiasm for liberty excited by the events of 1848. Corresponding to the double nature of the hero, and personifying it, as it were, are the two women, Aurelia, his wife and good genius, and the Vestal Virgin Fulvia, his evil genius, who loves him, and yet plots his ruin when she discovers that he was the seducer of her sister Silvia, who had hidden her shame under the waters of the Tiber.
The interest of the drama is chiefly psychological, although there are a few intensely dramatic scenes in it; as, for example, that in the temple of Vesta, where Fulvia makes Catiline, whom she knows only as Lucius, swear to avenge her sister’s wrong, and when he asks the name of her betrayer answers, “Catiline.” He then confesses that he is the guilty one. In its original form, the play was a rather crude piece of work ; but Ibsen rewrote and republished it in 1875, and, without changing it substantially, gave it a highly artistic finish, and introduced it again to the public with an exceedingly interesting autobiographical preface.1
In March, 1850, Ibsen went to Christiania to attend the school of Heltherg, who had the reputation of being an exceedingly rapid coach, and is said to have been able to convey a youth from the farm or the shop to the doors of the university with quite incredible speed. Among other pupils whom he met there was Björnstjerne Björnson, who in a sprightly poem entitled Old Heltherg has described Ibsen at that time as “ languid and lean, with a complexion like gypsum behind an immense coalblack beard: ” —
Bag et kul-sort, umadeligt Skjäg Henrik Ibsen,” —
lines which recall the description of the Mantuan apothecary : —
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones.”
Under Heltherg’s high-pressure system, Ibsen was able to pass his examination in a few months, and did so with credit to himself in Latin and all the other branches except Greek and mathematics, in which he was a little weak.
While still engaged in his preparatory studies, he appeared again before the public: first, as the vindicator of personal liberty, and, secondly, as the author of a new drama. A South Jutlander named Harro Harring, who had led an adventurous life, fighting for Greek independence and taking part in other revolutions, came to Norway in 1849. In the following year he published a play entitled The Testament of America, which, in the opinion of the authorities, contained legacies that it would be better for the Norwegian people not to know anything about. Harring was accordingly arrested by the police, and placed under guard on board of a steamer lying at the wharf, to be expelled from the country. No sooner had this event become known than an indignation meeting was held, and a protest against such an arbitrary act of tyranny drawn up and signed by one hundred and forty citizens, and presented to the city council. The protesters then marched in procession to the ship, and sent a committee on board to express their sympathies to Harring, who, when he appeared on deck, was received with three cheers for himself and loud huzzas for freedom and fatherland. Two of the most zealous leaders of this improvised demonstration were Ibsen and Björnson.
About the same time, during the Whitsuntide holidays, Ibsen wrote a play in one act, called Kaempehöjen (The Hero’s Mound), which was represented September 26, 1850, in the Christiania theatre. It is the story of a viking, Audun by name, who in a predatory expedition on the coast of Normandy had been left behind, severely wounded. A young Norman girl, Blanka, who had survived the general slaughter, finds and nurses him. After recovery, he builds a hut, adopts her as his daughter, and through her influence is converted to Christianity. As a sign of this change of faith, he buriesh his sword and armor, and erects a mound over them. Years afterwards, his son Gandalf comes to avenge the supposed death of his father. His first impulse is to slay the old hermit and the maiden, but he is disarmed by their gentle words. As he is thus led to neglect the duty of vengeance and to break his oath, he is about to turn his sword against his own breast, when Audun makes himself known. Gandalf returns to Norway, with Blanka as his bride; but the father prefers to remain where he is, and to end his days in his hermitage.
Ibsen’s success with this piece, which was received with applause on the stage and favorably criticised by the press, determined him to abandon the idea of studying medicine, and to devote himself exclusively to literature. He gave up all thoughts of a university career, and was never matriculated as Civis Academicus, but had the honorary degree of Ph. D. conferred upon him after he had won his fame as a poet. He lived with his friend, the law-student Ole Sehulerud, the same who had furnished the necessary funds for the publication of Catilina, in a modest quarter of the Norwegian capital. His income was exceedingly small and uncertain, the revenues of Sehulerud were usually at a low ebb, and there was no knowing when a happy conjunction of affairs would bring in a flood tide. It often happened that the whole amount of their money was insufficient to pay for a simple dinner, but lest other persons in the house should suspect their real condition they went out at noon, and, after wandering about as long as it would have taken them to eat a good meal, returned, and appeased the pangs of hunger with bread and coffee. “ At this period,” says Botten-Hansen, “ I saw them almost every day, but they were always in such excellent humor, and succeeded so well in concealing their pecuniary stress, that for a long time I did not have the slightest inkling of it.” The good cheer which their table lacked was supplied by their stout hearts and hopeful spirits. Only thirty copies of Catilina had been disposed of, and one evening, when their pantry, their purses, and their paunches were equally empty, they remembered the goodly amount of stock on hand, and resolved to “send it to Bucklersbury,” as Ben Jonson expresses it, where they were sure the green-grocer would appreciate the quality of the paper. “ For several days afterwards,” says Ibsen, with characteristic conciseness, “we were not in want of any of the necessaries of life.”
He wrote also for an organ of the labor movement edited by Abildgaard and Thrane, who, after a time, were arrested and the contributions to the journals seized. As Ibsen’s articles were among them, he expected to share the fate of the editors, but escaped through the shrewd sense of the manager, who, when the policeman came to the office, threw a bundle of the most compromising manuscripts on the floor, and affected to conceal others of a perfectly harmless character. The police, with the overweening conceit of the bureaucratic mind, fell into the trap, demanded imperiously the hidden papers, and bore them off in triumph, paying no attention to those which had been so ostentatiously flung at their feet. Abildgaard and Thrane were sentenced to several years of hard labor in the penitentiary.
In connection with Paul Botten-Hansen and Aasnumd Olafsson Vinje, he began, on January 1, 1851, the publication of a weekly political sheet, which, from the vignette on the title-page, was popularly known as Man. It was strongly radical, and represented the opposition in the Storthing. With the suppression of the revolution and the setting in of a general reaction in Europe, the Norwegian oppositionists grew feeble-kneed, to the intense disgust of Ibsen, who satirized them in a spirited travesty of Bellini’s opera, entitled Norma, or the Love of a Politician ; a Musical Tragedy in Three Acts, anti changed the political into a literary weekly, called Andhrimner, after the cook who served the gods and heroes of Valhalla with their daily food, but which, it is to be hoped, was able to offer its readers a more varied bill of fare than that furnished by the mythical Scandinavian chef, whose culinary functions seem to have been confined to boiling over the same inconsumable old boar. However this may have been, the periodical was financially a failure; the number of its subscribers never reached a hundred, and it expired with the fulling of the autumn leaves in the year of its birth.
Although the pecuniary returns of Ibsen’s literary activity during the eighteen months of his life in Christiania were a mere pittance, and he was never free from “ necessity’s sharp pinch,” the lyrics, dramas, satires, and criticisms he had published had won for him the reputation of being something more than a prolific scribbler who “ writes to dine; ” and when, chiefly through the untiring energies of Ole Ball, a new theatre had been established at Bergen, Ibsen was appointed dramaturgist and dramatic poet. His salary was about four hundred dollars a year, to which was added, at the outset, the sum of two hundred and twenty-five dollars to defray his traveling expenses abroad for three months, in order that he might visit foreign theatres and acquire a practical knowledge of stage management. For this favor he bound himself to retain his position and perform the duties of “ theatrical instructor ” for five years.
Though the income was moderate, this was just the place Ibsen needed at this stage of his literary career. Alexandre Dumas fils, in the preface to Un Père Prodigue, makes the remark that it is possible to become a painter, a sculptor, or a musician by study, but not a dramatic poet; a man is so either at once or never, as he is blonde or brown, and cannot help it.” “ If this be true,” says Henrik Jäger, who quotes the observation, “ then the genius of the dramatic poem must form a remarkable exception to the general laws of evolution, to which all manifestations of physical and intellectual life are subject.” In fact, the statement is preëminently absurd ; and never was the principle of nascitur, non fit, more unfittingly applied. Indeed, it is far less true of the dramatic than of the lyric poet, whose effusions are intensely subjective and inward, and therefore in a greater degree independent of external circumstances. The dramatist portrays historical or social life, which he cannot know by intuition ; nor is he born with a technical knowledge of the stage, without which his works may be read with pleasure, but can never be effectively represented. In this respect, the greatest genius may learn something from the manager or the mechanician of a theatre, or even from an experienced scene-shifter. The lively duet between Papageno and Papagena, in the second act of The Magic Flute, owes its present character to the suggestions of the old stage - director Schikaneder ; as Mozart first composed it, the performance was exceedingly tame. A very slight circumstance may determine whether the laugh comes in at the right or wrong place; and upon this trivial event often depends the success of a play.
Ibsen remained in Bergen from 1852 to 1857, and during this period not only put more than a hundred plays of various kinds on the stage, but also conscientiously produced a drama of his own on January 2 of each year, namely, Midsummer Night (Sankthausnatten), a revision of The Hero’s Mound, Dame Inger of Oestrat, The Feast at Solhaug (Gildet på Solhaug), and Olaf Liljekrans. All these dramas have been printed except the first and the last.2 From 1857 to 1864 Ibsen was “artistic director ” of the new Norwegian (in distinction from the old Danish) theatre in Christiania. This theatre, like that in Bergen, was a product of the strong enthusiasm for a purely national art and literature, which had been excited by the popular poems and sagas and other treasures of folk-lore brought to light by the labors of Asbjörnsen and Moe, who, in this province of research, did for Norway what the brothers Grimm had already done for Germany. It is certain that, Dumas to the contrary notwithstanding, the indisputable eminence of Ibsen as a master in dramatic technique is due in a great measure to his twelve years’ theatrical experience in Bergen and Christiania.
As regards the aforementioned national movement, Ibsen threw himself into the fray with truly Berserker ardor and energy, and organized with Björnson, November 22, 1859, the Norwegian Society, the chief purpose of which was to nationalize the Norwegian stage by getting rid of the Danish influences that had taken exclusive possession of it. Another expressed object of the society, which sounds funny enough nowadays, was to oppose the Düsseldorf school of painting; showing how prominent this school was thirty years ago as a representative of foreign art, although even then it had lost much of its relative importance.
It was under the impulse of this movement that Ibsen wrote his interesting essay On Heroic Song and its Significance for Artistic Poesy (Om Kämpevisen og dens Betydning for Kunstpoesien. Illustreret Nyhedsblad, 1857, Nos. 19 and 20), and applied the principles therein set forth in his drama The Warriors at Helgeland (Haermaendene på Helgoland) ; and that Björnson publislied his tales of Norwegian peasant life, Synnöve Solbakken, Arne, A Happy Boy, and other shorter stories. These productions were not merely works of art, but also parts of a political programme, a genesis, however, which does not prejudice in the least their literary character. The refusal of the Danish theatre in Christiania to represent The Warriors at Helgeland provoked a bitter controversy, which was waged in the press, and finally led to the utter defeat of the Danish party, and the fusion of the Norwegian with the Danish theatre on a national basis. The piece was first given in 1861, and has remained a stock play there ever since.
During this period Ibsen wrote two other dramas, wholly diverse in theme and technical treatment, — Love’s Comedy (Kjärlighedens Komedie, 1863) and The Pretenders (Kongsemnerne, literally King-candidates, 1864). The topic treated in the first of these dramas had been already touched upon in Midsummer Night, the scene of which is laid in a farmhouse, where young ladies and students are assembled to dance on the feast of St. John, and, at the same time, to celebrate the betrothal of two couples, for which purpose punch is served in the garden. The kobold Nisse — a mischievous and sprightly elf, near akin to Shakespeare’s Puck — squeezes into the punch the juice of a magical herb which has the fatal effect of endowing those who drink it with the power of seeing things as they really are, stripped of all beneficent illusions. One can readily imagine what havoc this faculty makes in the relations of the lovers.
The perfectly correct feeling that a drama of modern social life ought not to be written in verse led Ibsen to work out the first draught of Love’s Comedy in prose; but the result proved unsatisfactory. His thoughts had been so long accustomed to move in rhythmic measure, or in the somewhat stiff and stilted style of the sagas, that he found it difficult to hit the free and easy tone of ordinary conversation. He therefore recast the play in pentametric iambics, which have seldom been surpassed for compactness and strength, lightness and elasticity, and melodiousness of metrical expression; realizing in these respects what would seem to be the highest capabilities of dramatic dialogue in rhyme.
“Is marriage incompatible with love?” is a question said to have been submitted to a jury of noble ladies in a mediæval cour d’amour, and to have been decided by them unanimously in the affirmative. Essentially the same problem is presented for solution in Ibsen’s drama, where, of all the fresh and sparkling rivulets of love that are merged and swallowed up in the sea of matrimony,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute.”
The widow Halm, whose mission in life it is to find among her lodgers suitable husbands for seven nieces and two daughters; the country parson, Strohmann (nomen et omen), and spouse, —
A slattern now, with shoes down at the
with twelve children in occupancy and one in expectancy ; the ministerial copyist and secretary, Styrer, affianced for seven years to Miss Skäre (“ Magpie,’ with the qualities characteristic of this bird) ; and the theological student, Lind, who in the first act becomes engaged to Anna Halm, all exemplify, in a greater or less degree, how impossible it is for love to resist the vulgarizing effect of matrimony, or even of betrothal. In Lind’s relations to Anna we see the first fresh budding and blossoming of tender romantic sentiment, but it is like the rose,
Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour.”
No sooner is their engagement made known than four meddlesome aunts and troops of officious friends seize upon it, strip it of all its poesy, and scatter its delicate aroma to the winds, until the young lovers are forced, in sheer selfdefense, to hide their passion from these desecrating minds. In the play, the critical attitude is taken by Falk, a young author, still in the first fumy and rather turbid stages of poetic fermentation, who vents his sarcastic humor on the self-complacent, commonplace couples, and finds a congenial spirit in Swanhild Halm. In Falk and Swanhild are two hearts evidently made for each other, two kindred souls drawn together by the irresistible forces of elective affinity into perfect and indissoluble unity. The scene in the beginning of the third act would seem to indicate in them a reserve of passionate capabilities strong enough to defy all adverse fate and inauspicious stars ; as a matter of fact, they have not strength sufficient to overcome the petty social prejudices which they had joined hands in protesting against. A few common-sense remarks by the merchant Guldstad, who looks at matrimony from a baldly practical point of view, suffice to dissipate their illusions. Swanhild, at Falk’s suggestion, takes off her engagement ring and flings it into the fiord ; they part in order that their love may remain pure, ideal, and eternal as a memory. That Guldstad should lead Swanhild to the altar doubtless takes the gentle reader somewhat by surprise. Think of Juliet calmly accepting the hand of County Paris, because he promises to be a stout and trusty staff to her through life, a sort of everpresent and permanent gold-sticlc in waiting! But the complete solution of the psychological problem presented in the drama necessitated this sacrifice. Falk, meanwhile, disappears with a band of students, swinging his hat and shouting Excelsior ! Philistinism keeps the field, and celebrates its victory by dancing on the green to the prosy thrumming of a piano and the popping of champagne corks. Sic transit gloria amoris !
Love’s Comedy, in which matrimony, so far from being assailed, is defended and upheld, even in its least alluring form of mariage de convenance, “ roused a storm of indignation more violent and extended,” says Ibsen, “ than most books can boast of in a land in which the majority of the inhabitants do not concern themselves in literary events.” The critics of the Christiania press were loud in their denunciations of it, as “ not only untrue and immoral, but also as unpoetical, as all views of life must be that represent the ideal and the real as irreconcilable.” One writer even suspected that the author “must be drifting towards Catholicism, since the whole tendency of the piece is to commend celibacy.”
Ibsen declares that he was not at all surprised at the manner in which the drama was received. It was regarded as a wanton assault upon the sanctities of love and the institution of marriage, which all sentimentalists and good citizens would naturally resent. “ The majority of those who read and pass judgment upon books,” he says, “ possess only in a very inadequate degree the discipline and training of thought necessary to discern such errors. But it is not my business to give them a course of instruction.”
Love’s Comedy was the product of three years’ labor, and the net profits on the copies sold a little exceeded one hundred dollars ; and yet this paltry sum was more than as much again as he had received for any of his plays hitherto published. So severe was his pecuniary stress at this time that his friends thought seriously of endeavoring to secure for him a subordinate position in the custom-house, where he might earn a meagre subsistence by weighing boxes of sugar and sacks of coffee, as Robert Burns had done by gauging pipes and puncheons of whiskey.
Fortunately, the greatest of Norwegian dramatists was saved from the sordid fate of the greatest of Scotch lyric poets. An application to the government for a traveling stipend was, after violent opposition from the University of Christiania, finally granted. With this viaticum, which amounted to a little less than seven hundred dollars a year, but was somewhat increased by the thoughtful generosity of a private gentleman, he left his native land, with his wife, April 2, 1804, going first to Berlin, and then via Trieste to Rome.
This event brought to a close the formative period of his development as poet and playwright, which it has been the purpose of this paper to sketch, and without a knowledge of which it is impossible fully to appreciate his literary character and to understand his later career as a dramatic poet.
E. P. Evans.
- A Finnish critic, Valfrid Vasenins, in his Æsthetic Researches (Henrik Ibsens dramatiska diktning i dess första skede, Helsingfors, 1879, page 50) has endeavored to show that Ibsen gives a truer portraiture of Catiline as an historical personage than the caricature of the conspirator which has been handed down to us by tradition. That his political programme was, in a great measure, socialistic is unquestionable, and that he was honest in his aims we have no sufficient reason to doubt. Cicero says of him that he (Catiline) asserted that no one could he a faithful defender of the poor unless he were poor himself (negavit miserorum fidelem defensorem inveniri posse, nisi eum, qui ipse miser esset). This remark, which is intended as a reproach and a proof of demagogism, would seem rather to indicate a sympathetic appreciation of the feelings of the proletarian classes and an ability to put himself in their place.↩
- It was in Bergen, too, that Ibsen met the lady to whom he was wedded on June 18, 1858, Miss Susanna Thoresen. daughter of the provost of the collegiate church in that city, and step-daughter of the well-known novelist and dramatic poetess, Magdalene Thoresen. The fruit of this marriage has been one son, Sigurd, for some time connected with the Swedish embassy in Washington, and at present Swedish secretary of legation in Vienna.↩