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 and humiliating termination was brought in the following August.
In April, 1864, Ibsen took the momentous step of quitting his native country. He entered Copenhagen at the dark hour when Schleswig as well as Holstein had been abandoned, and when the citadel of Duepper alone stood between Denmark and ruin. His agonized sympathy may be read in the indignant lyrics of that spring. A fortnight later he set out, by Luebeck and Trieste, for Rome, where he had now determined to reside. He reached that city in due time, and sank with ineffable satisfaction into the arms of its antique repose. "Here at last," he wrote to Bjoernson, "there is blessed peace," and he settled himself down to the close contemplation of poetry.
The change from the severities of an interminable Northern winter to the glow and splendor of Italy acted on the poet's spirit like an enchantment. Ibsen came, another Pilgrim of Eternity, to Rome's "azure sky, flowers, ruins, statues, music," and at first the contrast between the crudity he had left and the glory he had found was almost intolerable. He could not work; all he did was to lie in the flushed air and become as a little child. There has scarcely been another example of a writer of the first class who, deeply solicitous about beauty, but debarred from all enjoyment of it until his thirty-seventh year, has been suddenly dipped, as if into a magic fountain, into the heart of unclouded loveliness without transition or preparation. Shelley and Keats were dead long before they reached the age at which Ibsen broke free from his prison-house of ice, while Byron, in the same year of his life, was closing his romantic career.
Ibsen's earliest impressions of what these poets had become accustomed to at a ductile age were contradictory and even incoherent. The passion of pagan antiquity for a long while bewildered him. He wandered among the vestiges of antique art, unable to perceive their relation to modern life, or their original significance. He missed the impress of the individual on classic sculpture, as he had missed it—the parallel is strange, but his own—on the Eddaic poems of ancient Iceland. He liked a lyric or a statue to speak to him of the man who made it. He felt more at home with Bernini among sculptors and with Bramante among architects than with artists of a more archaic type. Shelley, we may remember, labored under a similar heresy; to each of these poets the attractiveness of individual character overpowered the languid flavor of the age in which the artist had flourished. Ibsen's admiration of a certain overpraised monument of Italian architecture would not be worth recording but for the odd vigor with which he adds that the man who made that might have made the moon in his leisure moments.
During the first few months of Ibsen's life in Rome all was chaos in his mind. He was plunged in stupefaction at the beauties of nature, the amenities of mankind, the interpenetration of such a life with such an art as he had never dreamed of and could yet but dimly comprehend. In September, 1864, he tells Bjoernson that he is at work on a poem of considerable length. This must have been the first draft of Brand, which was begun, we know, as a narrative, or as the Northerns call it, an "epic" poem; although a sketch for the Julianus Apostata was already forming in the back of his head, as a subject which would, sooner or later, demand poetic treatment. He had left his wife and little son in Copenhagen, but at the beginning of October they joined him in Rome. The family lived on an income which seems almost incredibly small, a maximum of 40 scudi a month. But it was a different thing to be hungry in Christiania and in Rome, and Ibsen makes no complaints. A sort of blessed languor had fallen upon him after all his afflictions. He would loll through half his days among the tombs on the Via Latina, or would loiter for hours and hours along the Appian Way. It took him weeks to summon energy to visit S. Pietro in Vincoli, although he knew that Michelangelo's "Moses" was there, and though he was weary with longing to see it. All the tense chords of Ibsen's nature were loosened. His soul was recovering, through a long and blissful convalescence, from the aching maladies of its youth.
He took some part in the society of those Scandinavian writers, painters and sculptors who gathered in Rome through the years of their distress. But only one of them attracted him strongly, the young Swedish lyrical poet, Count Carl Snoilsky, then the hope and already even the glory of his country. There was some quaint diversity between the rude and gloomy Norwegian dramatist, already middle-aged, and the full-blooded, sparkling Swedish diplomatist of twenty-three, rich, flattered, and already as famous for his fashionable bonnes fortunes as Byron. But two things Snoilsky and Ibsen had in common, a passionate enthusiasm for their art, and a rebellious attitude towards their immediate precursors in it. Each, in his own way, was the leader of a new school. The friendship of Ibsen and Snoilsky was a permanent condition for the rest of their lives, for it was founded on a common basis.
A few years later the writer of these pages received an amusing impression of Ibsen at this period from the Danish poet, Christian Molbech, who was also in Rome in 1865 and onwards. Ibsen wandering silently about the streets, his hands plunged far into the pockets of his invariable jacket of faded velveteen, Ibsen killing conversation by his sudden moody appearances at the Scandinavian Club, Ibsen shattering the ideals of the painters and the enthusiasms of the antiquaries by a running fire of sarcastic paradox, this is mainly what the somewhat unsympathetic Molbech was not unwilling to reproduce. He painted a more agreeable Ibsen when he spoke of his summer flights to the Alban Hills, planned on terms of the most prudent reference to resources which seemed ever to be expected and never to arrive. Nevertheless, under the vines in front of some inn at Genzano or Albano, Ibsen would duly be discovered, placid and dreamy, always self-sufficient and self-contained, but not unwilling to exchange, over a flask of thin wine, commonplaces with a Danish friend. It was at Ariccia, in one of these periods of villegiatura, during the summer and autumn of 1865, that Brand, which had long been under considerature, suddenly took final shape, and was written throughout, without pause or hesitation. In July the poet put everything else aside to begin it, and before the end of September he had completed it.
Brand placed Ibsen at a bound among the greatest European poets of his age. The advance over the sculptural perfection of The Pretenders and the graceful wit of Love's Comedy was so great as to be startling. Nothing but the veil of a foreign language, which the best translations are powerless to tear away from noble verse, prevented this mastery from being perceived at once. In Scandinavia, where that veil did not exist, for those who had eyes to see, and who were not blinded by prejudice, it was plain that a very great writer had arisen in Norway at last. Bjoernson had seemed to slip ahead of Ibsen; his Sigurd Slembe (1862) was a riper work than the elder friend had produced; but Mary Stuart in Scotland (1864) had marked a step backward, and now Ibsen had once more shot far ahead of his rival. When we have admitted some want of clearness in the symbolism which runs through Brand, and some shifting of the point of view in the two last acts, an incoherency and a turbidity which are natural in the treatment of so colossal a theme, there is very little but praise to be given to a poem which is as manifold in its emotion and as melodious in its versification as it is surprising in its unchallenged originality. In the literatures of Scandinavia it has not merely been unsurpassed, but in its own peculiar province it has not been approached. It bears some remote likeness to Faust, but with that exception there is perhaps nothing in the literature of the world which can be likened to Brand, except, of course, Peer Gynt.
For a long while it was supposed that the difficulties in the way of performing Brand on the public stage were too great to be overcome. But the task was attempted at length, first in Stockholm in 1895; and within the last few years this majestic spectacle has been drawn in full before the eyes of enraptured audiences in Copenhagen, Berlin, Moscow and elsewhere. In spite of the timid reluctance of managers, wherever this play is adequately presented, it captures an emotional public at a run. It is an appeal against moral apathy which arouses the languid. It is a clear and full embodiment of the gospel of energy which awakens and upbraids the weak. In the original, its rush of rhymes produces on the nerves an almost delirious excitement. If it is taken as an oration, it is responded to as a great civic appeal; if as a sermon, it is sternly religious, and fills the heart with tears. In the solemn mountain air, with vague bells ringing high up among the glaciers, no one asks exactly what Brand expounds, nor whether it is perfectly coherent. Witnessed on the living stage, it takes the citadel of the soul by storm. When it is read, the critical judgment becomes cooler.
Carefully examined, Brand is found to present a disconcerting mixture of realism and mysticism. Two men seem at work in the writing of it, and their effects are sometimes contradictory. It has constantly been asked, and it was asked at one, "Is Brand the expression of Ibsen's own nature?" Yes, and no. He threw much of himself into his hero, and yet he was careful to remain outside. Ibsen, as we have already pointed out, was ready in later life to discuss his own writings, and what he said about them is often dangerously mystifying. He told Georg Brandes that the religious vocation of Brand was not essential. "I could have applied the whole syllogism just as well to a sculptor, or a politician, as to a priest." (He was to deal with each of these alternations later on, but with what a difference!) "I could quite as well," he persisted, "have worked out the impulse which drove me to write, by taking Galileo, for instance, as my hero—assuming, of course, that Galileo should stand firm and never concede the fixity of the earth—or you yourself in your struggle with the Danish reactionaries." This is not to the point, since in fact neither Georg Brandes nor Galileo, as hero of a mystical drama, could have produced such a capacity for evolution as is presented by the stern priest whose absolute certitude, although founded, one admits, on no rational theory of theology, is yet of the very essence of religion.
Brand becomes intelligible when we regard him as a character of the twelfth century transferred to the nineteenth. He has something of Peter the Hermit in him. He ought to have been a crusading Christian king, fighting against the Moslem for the liberties of some sparkling city of God. He exists in his personage, under the precipice, above the fjord, like a rude mediaeval anchorite, who eats his locusts and wild honey in the desert. We cannot comprehend the action of Brand by any reference to accepted creeds and codes, because he is so remote from the religious conventions as hardly to seem objectively pious at all. He is violent and incoherent; he knows not clearly what it is he wants, but it must be an upheaval of all that exists, and it must bring Man into closer contact with God. Brand is a king of souls, but his royal dignity is marred, and is brought sometimes within an inch of the ridiculous, by the prosaic nature of his modern surroundings. He is harsh and cruel; he is liable to fits of anger before which the whole world trembles; and it is by an avalanche, brought down upon him by his own wrath, that he is finally buried in the ruins of the Ice-Church.
The judicious reader may like to compare the character of Brand with that extraordinary study of violence, the Abbe Jules of Octave Mirbeau. In each we have the history of revolt, in a succession of crises, against an invincible vocation. In each an element of weakness is the pride of a peasant priest. But in Ibsen there is fully developed what the cynicism of Octave Mirbeau avoids, a genuine conception of such a rebel's ceaseless effort after personal holiness. Lammers or Lammenais, what can it matter whether some existing priest of insurrection did or did not set Ibsen for a moment on the track of his colossal imagination? We may leave these discussions to the commentators; Brand is one of the great poems of the world, and endless generations of critics will investigate its purpose and analyze its forms.
There is, however, another than the priestly side. The poem contains a great deal of superficial and rather ephemeral satire of contemporary Scandinavian life, echoes of a frightened Storthing in Christiania, of a crafty court in Stockholm, and of Denmark stretching her bleeding hands to her sisters in an agony of despair. There is the still slighter local strain of irony, which lightens the middle of the third act. Here Ibsen comes not to heal but to slay; he exposes the corpse of an exhausted age, and will bury it quickly, with sexton's songs and peals of elfin laughter, in some chasm of rock above a waterfall. "It is Will alone that matters," and for the weak of purpose there is nothing but ridicule and six feet of such waste earth as nature carelessly can spare from her rude store of graves. Against the mountain landscape, Brand holds up his motto "All or Nothing," persistently, almost tiresomely, like a modern advertising agent affronting the scenery with his panacea. More truculently still, he insists upon the worship of a deity, not white-bearded, but as young as Hercules, a scandal to prudent Lutheran theologians, a prototype of violent strength.
Yet Brand's own mission remains undefined to him—if it ever takes exact shape—until Agnes reveals it to him:—
Choose thy endless loss or gain! Do thy work and bear thy pain.... Now (he answers) I see my way aright. In ourselves is that young Earth, Ripe for the divine new-birth.
And it is in Agnes—as the marvellous fourth act opens where her love for the little dear dead child is revealed, and where her patience endures all the cruelties of her husband's fanaticism—it is in Agnes that Ibsen's genius for the first time utters the clear, unembittered note of full humanity. He has ceased now to be parochial; he is a nursling of the World and Time. If the harsh Priest be, in a measure, Ibsen as Norway made him, Agnes and Einar, and perhaps Gerd also, are the delicate offspring of Italy.
Considerable postponements delayed the publication of Brand, which saw the light at length, in Copenhagen, in March, 1866. It was at once welcomed by the Danish press, which had hitherto known little of Ibsen, and the poet's audience was thus very considerably widened. The satire of the poem awakened an eager polemic; the popular priest Wexels preached against its tendency. A novel was published, called The Daughters of Brand, in which the results of its teaching were analyzed. Ibsen enjoyed, what he had never experienced before, the light and shade of a disputed but durable popular success. Four large editions of Brand were exhausted within the year of its publication, and it took its place, of course, in more leisurely progress, among the few books which continued, and still continue, steadily to sell. It has always been, in the countries of Scandinavia, the best known and the most popular of all Ibsen's writings.
This success, however, was largely one of sentiment, not of pecuniary fortune. The total income from four editions of a poem like Brand, in the conditions of Northern literary life forty years ago, would not much exceed L100. Hardly had Ibsen become the object of universal discussion than he found himself assailed, as never before, by the paralysis of poverty. He could not breathe, he could not move; he could not afford to buy postage stamps to stick upon his business letters. He was threatened with the absolute extinction of his resources. At the very time when Copenhagen was ringing with his praise Ibsen was borrowing money for his modest food and rent from the Danish Consul in Rome.
In the winter of 1865 he fell into a highly nervous condition, in the midst of which he was assailed by a malarious fever which brought him within sight of the grave. To the agony of his devoted wife, he lay for some time between life and death, and the extreme poverty from which they suffered made it difficult, and even impossible, for her to provide for him the alleviations which his state demanded. He gradually recovered, however, thanks to his wife's care and to his own magnificent constitution, but the springs of courage seemed to have snapped within his breast.
In March, 1866, worn out with illness, poverty and suspense, he wrote a letter to Bjoernson, "my one and only friend," which is one of the most heart-rending documents in the history of literature. Few great spirits have been nearer the extinction of despair than Ibsen was, now in his thirty-ninth year. His admirers, at their wits' end to know what to advise, urged him to write directly to Carl, King of Sweden and Norway, describing his condition, and asking for support. Simultaneously came the manifest success of Brand, and, for the first time, the Norwegian press recognized the poet's merit. There was a general movement in his favor; King Carl graciously received his petition of April 15, and on May 10 the Storthing, almost unanimously, voted Ibsen a "poet's pension," restricted in amount but sufficient for his modest needs.
The first use he made of his freedom was to move out of Rome, where he found it impossible to write, and to settle at Frascati among the hills. He hired a nest of cheap rooms in the Palazzo Gratiosi, two thousand feet above the sea. Thither he came, with his wife and his little son, and there he fitted himself up a study; setting his writing table at a window that overlooked an immensity of country, and Mont Soracte closing the horizon with its fiery pyramid. In his correspondence of this time there are suddenly noticeable a gayety and an insouciance which are elements wholly new in his letters. The dreadful burden was lifted; the dreadful fear of sinking in a sea of troubles and being lost for ever, the fear which animates his painful letter to King Carl, was blown away like a cloud and the heaven of his temper was serene. At Frascati he knew not what to be at; he tried that subject, and this, waiting for the heavenly spark to fall. It seems to have been at Tusculum, and in the autumn of 1866, that the subject he was looking for descended upon him. He hurried back to Rome, and putting all other schemes aside, he devoted himself heart and soul to the composition of Peer Gynt, which he described as to be "a long dramatic poem, having as its chief figure one of the half-mythical and fantastical personages from the peasant life of modern Norway."
He wrote this work slowly, more slowly than was his wont, and it was a whole year on the stocks. It was in the summer that Ibsen habitually composed with the greatest ease, and Peer Gynt did not trove smoothly until the poet settled in the Villa Pisani, at Casamicciola, on the island of Ischia. His own account was: "After Brand came Peer Gynt, as though of itself. It was written in Southern Italy, in Ischia and at Sorrento. So far away from one's readers one becomes reckless. This poem contains much that has its origin in the circumstances of my own youth. My own mother—with the necessary exaggeration—served as the model for Ase." Peer Gynt was finished before Ibsen left Sorrento at the end of the autumn, and the MS. was immediately posted to Copenhagen. None of the delays which had interfered with the appearance of Brand now afflicted the temper of the poet, and Peer Gynt was published in November, 1867.
In spite of the plain speaking of Ibsen himself, who declared that Peer Gynt was diametrically opposed in spirit to Brand, and that it made no direct attack upon social questions, the critics of the later poem have too often persisted in darkening it with their educational pedantries. Ibsen did well to be angry with his commentators. "They have discovered," he said, "much more satire in Peer Gynt than was intended by me. Why can they not read the book as a poem? For as such I wrote it." It has been, however, the misfortune of Ibsen that he has particularly attracted the attention of those who prefer to see anything in a poem except its poetry, and who treat all tulips and roses as if they were cabbages for the pot of didactic morality. Yet it is surprising that after all that the author said, and with the lovely poem shaking the bauble of its fool's cap at them, there can still be commentators who see nothing in Peer Gynt but the "awful interest of the universal problems with which it deals." This obsession of the critic to discover "problems" in the works of Ibsen has been one of the main causes of that impatience and even downright injustice with which his writings have been received by a large section of those readers who should naturally have enjoyed them. He is a poet, of fantastic wit and often reckless imagination, and he has been travestied in a long black coat and white choker, as though he were an embodiment of the Nonconformist conscience.
Casting aside, therefore, the spurious "lessons" and supposititious "problems" of this merry and mundane drama, we may recognize among its irregularities and audacities two main qualities of merit. Above everything else which we see in Peer Gynt we see its fun and its picturesqueness. Written at different times and in different moods, there is an incoherency in its construction which its most whole-hearted admirers cannot explain away. The first act is an inimitable burst of lyrical high spirits, tottering on the verge of absurdity, carried along its hilarious career with no less peril and with no less brilliant success than Peer fables for himself and the reindeer in their ride along the vertiginous blade of the Gjende. In the second act, satire and fantasy become absolutely unbridled; the poet's genius sings and dances under him, like a strong ship in a storm, but the vessel is rudderless and the pilot an emphatic libertine. The wild impertinence of fancy, in this act, from the moment when Peer and the Girl in the Green Gown ride off upon the porker, down to the fight with the Boeig, gigantic gelatinous symbol of self deception, exceeds in recklessness anything else written since the second part of Faust. The third act, culminating with the drive to Soria Moria Castle and the death of Ase, is of the very quintessence of poetry, and puts Ibsen in the first rank of creators. In the fourth act, the introduction of which is abrupt and grotesque, we pass to a totally different and, I think, a lower order of imagination. The fifth act, an amalgam of what is worst and best in the poem, often seems divided from it in tone, style and direction, and is more like a symbolic or mythical gloss upon the first three acts than a contribution to the growth of the general story.
Throughout this tangled and variegated scene the spirits of the author remain almost preposterously high. If it were all hilarity and sardonic laughter, we should weary of the strain. But physical beauty of the most enchanting order is liberally provided to temper the excess of irony. It is, I think, no exaggeration to say that nowhere to the dramatic literature of the world, not by Shakespeare himself, is there introduced into a play so much loveliness of scenery, and such varied and exquisite appeal to the eyes, as there is in Peer Gynt. The fifth act contains much which the reader can hardly enjoy, but it opens with a scene so full of the glory of the mountains and the sea that I know nothing else in drama to compare with it. This again is followed by one of the finest shipwrecks in all poetry. Scene after scene, the first act portrays the cold and solemn beauty of Norwegian scenery as no painter's brush has contrived to do it. For the woodland background of the Saeter Girls there is no parallel in plastic art but the most classic of Norwegian paintings, Dahl's "Birch in a Snow Storm." Pages might be filled with praise of the picturesqueness of tableau after tableau in each act of Peer Gynt.
The hero is the apotheosis of selfish vanity, and he is presented to us, somewhat indecisively, as the type of one who sets at defiance his own life's design. But is Peer Gynt designed to be a useful, a good, or even a successful man? Certainly Ibsen had not discovered it when he wrote the first act, in which scarcely anything is observable except a study, full of merriment and sarcasm, of the sly, lazy and parasitical class of peasant rogue. This type was not of Ibsen's invention; he found it in those rustic tales, inimitably resumed by Asbjoernson and Moe, in which he shows us that his memory was steeped. Here, too, he found the Boeig, a monster of Norse superstition, vast and cold, slippery and invisible, capable of infinite contraction and expansion. The conception that this horror would stand in symbol for a certain development of selfish national instability seems to have seized him later, and Peer Gynt, which began as a farce, continued as a fable. The nearest approach to a justification of the moral or "problem" purpose, which Ibsen's graver prophets attribute to him, is found in the sixth scene of the fifth act, where, quite in the manner of Goethe, thoughts and watchwords and songs and tears take corporeal form and assail the aged Peer Gynt with their reproaches.
Peer Gynt was received in the North with some critical bewilderment, and it has never been so great a favorite with the general public as Brand. But Ibsen, with triumphant arrogance, when he was told that it did not conform to the rules of poetic art, asserted that the rules must be altered, not Peer Gynt. "My book," he wrote, "is poetry; and if it is not, then it shall be. The Norwegian conception of what poetry is shall be made to fit my book." There was a struggle at first against this assumption, but the drama has become a classic, and it is now generally allowed, that so long as poetry is a term wide enough to include The Clouds and the Second Part of Faust, it must be made wide enough to take in a poem as unique as they are in its majestic intellectual caprices.
[Note.—By far the most exhaustive analysis of Peer Gynt which has hitherto been given to the world is that published, as I send these pages to the press, by the executors of Otto Weininger, in his posthumous Ueber die letzte Dinge (1907). This extraordinary young man, who shot himself on October 4, 1903, in the house at Vienna where Beethoven died, was only twenty-three years of age when he violently deprived philosophical literature in Europe of by far its most promising and remarkable recruit. If I confess myself unable to see in Peer Gynt all that Weininger saw in it, the fault is doubtless mine. But in Ibsen, unquestionably, time will create profundities, as it has in Shakespeare. The greatest works grow in importance, as trees do after the death of the mortal men who planted them.]
Ibsen's four years in Italy were years of rest, of solitude, of calm. The attitude of Ibsen to Italy was totally distinct from that of other illustrious exiles of his day and generation. The line of pilgrims from Stendhal and Lamartine down to Ruskin and the Brownings had brought with them a personal interest in Italian affairs; Italian servitude had roused some of them to anger or irony; they had spent nights of insomnia dreaming of Italian liberty. Casa Guidi Windows may be taken as the extreme type of the way in which Italy did not impress Ibsen. He sought there, and found, under the transparent azure of the Alban sky, in the harmonious murmurs of the sea, in the violet shadows of the mountains, above all in the gray streets of Rome, that rest of the brain, that ripening of the spiritual faculties, which he needed most after his rough and prolonged adolescence in Norway. In his attitude of passive appreciation he was, perhaps, more like Landor than like any other of the illustrious exiles—Landor, who died in Florence a few days after Ibsen settled in Rome. There was a side of character, too, on which the young Norwegian resembled that fighting man of genius.
When, therefore, on September 8, 1867, Garibaldi, at Genoa, announced his intention of marching upon Rome, an echo woke in many a poet's heart "by rose hung river and light-foot rill," but left Ibsen simply disconcerted. If Rome was to be freed from Papal slavery, it would no longer be the somnolent and unupbraiding haunt of quietness which the Norwegian desired for the healing of his spleen and his moral hypochondria. In October the heralds of liberty crossed the Papal frontier; on the 30th, by a slightly prosaic touch, it was the French who entered Rome. Of Ibsen, in these last months of his disturbed sojourn—for he soon determined that if there was going to be civil war in Italy that country was no home for him—we hear but little. This autumn, however, we find him increasingly observant of the career of Georg Brandes, the brilliant and revolutionary Danish critic, in whom he was later on to find his first great interpreter. And we notice the beginnings of a difference with Bjoernson, lamentable and hardly explicable, starting, it would vaguely seem, out of a sense that Bjoernson did not appreciate the poetry of Peer Gynt at its due value. Clemens Petersen, who, since the decease of Heiberg, had been looked upon as the doyen of Danish critics—had pronounced against the poetry of Peer Gynt, and Ibsen, in one of his worst moods, in a bearish letter, had thrown the blame of this judgment upon Bjoernson.
All through these last months in Rome we find Ibsen in the worst of humors. If it be admissible to compare him with an animal, he seems the badger among the writers of his time, nocturnal, inoffensive, solitary, but at the rumor of disturbance apt to rush out of its burrow and bite with terrific ferocity. The bite of Ibsen was no joke, and in moments of exasperation he bit, without selection, friend and foe alike. Among other snaps of the pen, he told Bjoernson that if he was not taken seriously as a poet, he should try his "fate as a photographer." Bjoernson, genially and wittily, took this up at once, and begged him to put his photography into the form of a comedy. But the devil, as Ibsen himself said, was throwing his shadow between the friends, and all the benefits and all the affection of the old dark days were rapidly forgotten. They quarrelled, too, rather absurdly, about decorations from kings and ministers; Bjoernson having determined to reject all such gewgaws, Ibsen announced his intention of accepting (and wearing) every cross and star that was offered to him. At this date, no doubt, the temptation was wholly problematical in both cases, yet each poet acted on his determination to the end. But Bjoernson's hint about the comedy seems to have been, for some years, the last flicker of friendship between the two. On this Ibsen presently acted in a manner very offensive to Bjoernson.
In March, 1868, Ibsen was beginning to be very much indeed incensed with things in general. "What Norway wants is a national disaster," he amiably snarled. It was high time that the badger should seek shelter in a new burrow, and in May we find him finally quitting Rome. There was a farewell banquet, at which Julius Lange, who was present, remarks that Ibsen showed a spice of the devil, but "was very witty and amiable." He went to Florence for June, then quitted Italy altogether, settling for three months at Berchtesgaden, the romantic little "sunbath" in the Salzburg Alps, then still very quiet and unfashionable. There he started his five-act comedy, The League of Youth. All September he spent in Munich, and in October, 1868, took root once more, this time at Dresden, which became his home for a considerable number of years. Almost at once he sank down again into his brooding mood of isolation and quietism, roaming about the streets of Dresden, as he hail haunted those of Rome, by night or at unfrequented hours, very solitary, seeing few visitors, writing few letters, slowly finishing his "photographic" comedy, which he did not get off his hands until March, 1869. Although he was still very poor, he refused all solicitations from editors to write for journals or magazines; he preferred to appear before the public at long intervals, with finished works of importance.
It is impossible for a critic who is not a Norwegian, or not closely instructed in the politics and manners of the North, to take much interest in The League of Youth, which is the most provincial of all Ibsen's mature works. There is a cant phrase minted in the course of it, de lokale forhold, which we may awkwardly translate as "the local conditions" or "situation." The play is all concerned with de lokale forhold, and there is an overwhelming air of Little Pedlington about the intrigue. This does not prevent The League of Youth from being, as Mr. Archer has said, "the first prose comedy of any importance in Norwegian literature," [Note: It is to be supposed that Mr. Archer deliberately prefers The League of Youth to Bjoernson's The Newly Married Couple (1865), a slighter, but, as it seems to me, a more amusing comedy.] but it excludes it from the larger European view. Oddly enough, Ibsen believed, or pretended to believe, that The League of Youth was a "placable" piece of foolery, which could give no annoyance to the worst of offenders by its innocent and indulgent banter. Perhaps, like many strenuous writers, he underestimated the violence of his own language; perhaps, living so long at a distance from Norway and catching but faintly the reverberations of its political turmoil, he did not realize how sensitive the native patriot must be to any chaff of "de lokale forhold." When he found that the Norwegians were seriously angry, Ibsen bluntly told them that he had closely studied the ways and the manners of their "pernicious and lie-steeped clique." He was always something of a snake in the grass to his poetic victims.
Mr. Archer, whose criticism of this play is extraordinarily brilliant, does his best to extenuate the stiffness of it. But to my own ear, as I read it again after a quarter of a century, there rise the tones of the stilted, the unsmiling, the essentially provincial and boringly solemn society of Christiania as it appeared to a certain young pilgrim in the early seventies, condensing, as it then seemed to do, all the sensitiveness, the arrogance, the crudity which made communication with the excellent and hospitable Norwegians of that past epoch so difficult for an outsider—so difficult, in particular, for one coming freshly from the grace and sweetness, the delicate, cultivated warmth of Copenhagen. The political conditions which led to the writing of The League of Youth are old history now. There was the "liberal" element in Norwegian politics, which was in 1868 becoming rapidly stronger and more hampering to the Government, and there was the increasing influence of Soeren Jaabaek (1814-94), a peasant farmer of ultra-socialistic views, who had, almost alone, opposed in the Storthing the grant of any pensions to poets, and whose name was an abomination to Ibsen.
Now Bjoernson, in the development of his career as a political publicist, had been flirting more and more outrageously with these extreme ideas and this truculent peasant party. He had even burned incense before Jaabaek, who was the accursed Thing. Ibsen, from the perspective of Dresden, genuinely believed that Bjoernson, with his ardor and his energy and his eloquence, war, becoming a national danger. We have seen that Bjoernson had piqued Ibsen's vanity about Peer Gynt, and nothing exasperates a friendship more fatally than public principle grafted on a private slight. Moreover, the whole nature of Bjoernson was gregarious, that of Ibsen solitary; Bjoernson must always be leading the majority, Ibsen had scuples of conscience if ten persons agreed with him. They were doomed to disagreement. Meanwhile, Ibsen burned his ships by creating the figure of Stensgaard, in The League of Youth, a frothy and mischievous demagogue whose rhetoric irresistibly reminded every one of Bjoernson's rolling oratory. What Bjoernson, not without dignity, objected to was not so much the personal attack, as that the whole play attempted "to paint our young party of liberty as a troop of pushing, phrase-mongering adventurers, whose patriotism lay solely in their words." Ibsen acknowledged that that was exactly his opinion of them, and what could follow for such a disjointed friendship but anger and silence?
The year 1869, which we now enter, is remarkable in the career of Ibsen as being that in which he travelled most, and appeared on the surface of society in the greatest number of capacities. He was enabled to do this by a considerable increase in his pension. First of all, he was induced to pay a visit of some months to Stockholm, being seized with a sudden strong desire to study conditions in Sweden, a country which he had hitherto professed to dislike. He had a delightful stay of two months, received from King Carl the order of the Wasa, was feted at banquets, renewed his acquaintance with Snoilsky, and was treated everywhere with the highest distinction. Ibsen and Bjoernson were how beginning to be recognized as the two great writers of Norway, and their droll balance as the Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat of letters was already becoming defined. It was doubtless Bjoernson's emphatic attacks on Sweden that at this moment made Ibsen so loving to the Swedes and so beloved. He was in such clover at Stockholm that he might have lingered on there indefinitely, if the Khedive had not invited him, in September, to be his guest at the opening of the Suez Canal. This sudden incursion of an Oriental potentate into the narrative seems startling until we recollect that illustrious persons were invited from all countries to this ceremony. The interesting thing is to see that Ibsen was now so fatuous as to be naturally so selected; the only other Norwegian guest being Professor J. D. C. Lieblein, the Egyptologist.
The poet started for Egypt, by Dresden and Paris, on September 28. The League of Youth was published on the 29th, and first performed on October 18; Ibsen, therefore, just missed the scandal and uproar caused by the play in Norway. In company with eighty-five other people, all illustrious guests of the Khedive, and under the care of Mariette Bey, Ibsen made a twenty-four days' expedition up the Nile into Nubia, and then back to Cairo and Port Said. There, on November 17, in the company of an empress and several princes of the blood, he saw the Canal formally opened and graced a grand processional fleet that sailed out from Port Said towards Ismaila. But on the quay at Port Said Ibsen's Norwegian mail was handed to him, and letters and newspapers alike were full of the violent scenes in the course of which The League of Youth had been hissed down at Christiania. Then and there he sent his defiance back to Norway in At Port Said, one of the most pointed and effective of all his polemical lyrics. A version in literal prose must suffice, though it does cruel injustice to the venomous melody of the original:
The dawn of the Eastern Land Over the haven glittered; Flags from all corners of the globe Quivered from the masts. Voices in music Bore onward the cantata; A thousand cannon Christened the Canal.
The steamers passed on By the obelisk. In the language of my home Came to me the chatter of news. The mirror-poem which I had polished For masculine minxes Had been smeared at home By splutterings from penny whistles.
The poison-fly stung; It made my memories loathsome. Stars, be thanked!— My home is what is ancient! We hailed the frigate From the roof of the river-boat; I waved my hat And saluted the flag.
To the feast, to the feast, In spite of the fangs of venomous reptiles! A selected guest Across the Lakes of Bitterness! At the close of day Dreaming, I shall slumber Where Pharaoh was drowned— And when Moses passed over.
In this mood of defiance, with rage unabated, Ibsen returned home by Alexandria and Paris, and was in Dresden again in December.
The year of 1870 drove him out of Dresden, as the French occupation had driven him out of Rome. It was essential for him to be at rest in the midst of a quiet and alien population. He was drawn towards Denmark, partly for the sake of talk with Brandes, who had now become a factor in his life, partly to arrange about the performance of one of his early works, and in particular of The Pretenders. No definite plan, however, had been formed, when, in the middle of June, war was declared between Germany and France; but a fortnight later Ibsen quitted Saxony, and settled for three months in Copenhagen, where his reception was charmingly sympathetic. By the beginning of October, after the fall of Strasburg and the hemming in of Metz, however, it was plain on which side the fortunes of the war would lie, and Ibsen returned "as from a rejuvenating bath" of Danish society to a Dresden full of French prisoners, a Dresden, too, suffering terribly from the paralysis of trade, and showing a plentiful lack of enthusiasm for Prussia.
Ibsen turned his back on all such vexatious themes, and set himself to the collecting and polishing of a series of lyrical poems, the Digte of 1871, the earliest, and, indeed, the only such collection that he published. We may recollect that, at the very same moment, with far less cause to isolate himself from the horrors of war, Theophile Gautier was giving the last touches to Emaux et Camees. In December, 1870, Ibsen addressed to Fru Limnell, a lady in Stockholm, his "Balloon-Letter," a Hudibrastic rhymed epistle in nearly 400 lines, containing, with a good deal that is trivial, some striking symbolical reminiscences of his trip through Egypt, and some powerful ironic references to the caravan of German invaders, with its Hathor and its Horus, which was then rushing to the assault of Paris under the doleful colors of the Prussian flag. Ibsen's sarcasms are all at the ugliness and prosaic utilitarianism of the Germans; "Moltke," he says, "has killed the poetry of battles."
Ibsen was now greatly developing and expanding his views, and forming a world-policy of his own. The success of German discipline deeply impressed him, and he thought that the day had probably dawned which would be fatal to all revolt and "liberal rebellion" for the future. More than ever he dreaded the revolutionary doctrines of men like Jaabaek and Bjoernson, which would lead, he thought, to bloodshed and national disaster. The very same events were impressing Goldwin Smith at the very same moment with his famous prophecy that the abolition of all dynastic and aristocratic institutions was at hand, with "the tranquil inauguration" of elective industrial governments throughout the world. So history moves doggedly on, propheten rechts, propheten links, a perfectly impassive welt-kind in the middle of them. In Copenhagen Ibsen had, after all, missed Brandes, delayed in Rome by a long and dangerous illness; and all he could do was to exchange letters with this still unseen but increasingly sympathetic and beloved young friend. To Brandes Ibsen wrote more freely than to any one else about the great events which were shaking the face of Europe and occupying so much of both their thoughts:—
The old, illusory France has collapsed [he wrote to Brandes on December 20, 1870, two days after the engagement at Nuits]; and as soon as the new, real Prussia does the same, we shall be with one bound in a new age. How ideas will then come tumbling about our ears! And it is high time they did. Up till now we have been living on nothing but the crumbs from the revolutionary table of last century, a food out of which all nutriment has long been chewed. The old terms require to have a new meaning infused into them. Liberty, equality and fraternity are no longer the things they were in the days of the late-lamented Guillotine. This is what the politicians will not understand, and therefore, I hate them. They want their own special revolutions—revolutions in externals, in politics and so forth. But all this is mere trifling. What is all-important is the revolution of the Spirit of Man.
This revolution, as exemplified by the Commune in Paris, did not satisfy the anticipations which Ibsen had formed, and Brandes took advantage of this to tell him that he had not yet studied politics minutely enough from the scientific standpoint. Ibsen replied that what he did not possess as knowledge came to him, to a certain degree, as intuition or instinct. "Let this be as it may, the poet's essential task is to see, not to reflect. For me in particular there would be danger in too much reflection." Ibsen seems, at this time, to be in an oscillating frame of mind, now bent on forming some positive theory of life out of which his imaginative works shall crystallize, harmoniously explanatory; at another time, anxious to be unhampered by theories and principles, and to represent individuals and exceptions exactly as experience presents them to him. In neither attitude, however, is there discernible any trace of the moral physician, and this is the central distinction between Tolstoi and Ibsen, whose methods, at first sight, sometimes appear so similar. Tolstoi analyzes a morbid condition, but always with the purpose, if he can, of curing it; Ibsen gives it even closer clinical attention, but he leaves to others the care of removing a disease which his business is solely to diagnose.
The Poems, after infinite revision, were published at length, in a very large edition, on May 3, 1871. One reason why Ibsen was glad to get this book off his hands was that it enabled him to concentrate his thoughts on the great drama he had been projecting, at intervals, for seven years past, the trilogy (as he then planned it) on the story of Julian the Apostate. At last Brandes came to Dresden (July, 1871) and found the tenebrous poet plunged in the study of Neander and Strauss, Gibbon unfortunately being a sealed book to him. All through the autumn and winter he was kept in a chronic state of irritability by the intrigues and the menaces of a Norwegian pirate, who threatened to reprint, for his own profit, Ibsen's early and insufficiently protected writings. This exacerbated the poet's dislike to his own country, where the very law courts, he thought, were hostile to him. On this subject he used language of tiresome over-emphasis. "From Sweden, from Denmark, from Germany, I hear nothing but what gives me pleasure; it is from Norway that everything bad comes upon me." It was indicated to would-be Norwegian visitors that they were not welcome at Dresden. Norwegian friends, he said, were "a costly luxury" which he was obliged to deny himself.
The First Part of Julian was finished on Christmas Day, but it took over a year more before the entire work, as we now possess it, was completed. "A Herculean labor," the author called it, when he finally laid down a weary pen in February, 1873. The year 1872 had been very quietly spent in unremitting literary labor, tempered by genial visits from some illustrious Danes of the older generation, as particularly Hans Christian Andersen and Meyer Aron Goldschmidt, and by more formal intercourse with a few Germans such as Konrad Maurer and Paul Heyse; all this time, let us remember, no Norwegians—"by request." The summer was spent in long rambles over the mountains of Austria, ending up with a month of deep repose in Berchtesgaden. The next year was like unto this, except that its roaming, restless summer closed with several months in Vienna; and on October 17, 1873, nonum in annum, after the Horatian counsel, the prodigious masterpiece, Emperor and Galilean, was published in Copenhagen at last.
Of all the writings of Ibsen, his huge double drama on the rise and fall of Julian is the most extensive and the most ambitious. It is not difficult to understand what it was about the most subtle and the most speculative of the figures which animate the decline of antiquity that fascinated the imagination of Ibsen. Successive historians have celebrated the flexibility of intelligence and firmness of purpose which were combined in the brain of Julian with a passion for abstract beauty and an enthusiasm for a restored system of pagan Hellenic worship. There was an individuality about Julian, an absence of the common purple convention, of the imperial rhetoric, which strongly commended him to Ibsen, and in his perverse ascetic revolt against Christianity he offered a fascinating originality to one who thought the modern world all out of joint. As a revolutionary, Julian presented ideas of character which could not but passionately attract the Norwegian poet. His attitude to his emperor and to his God, sceptical, in each case, in each case inspired by no vulgar motive but by a species of lofty and melancholy fatalism, promised a theme of the most entrancing complexity. But there are curious traces in Ibsen's correspondence of the difficulty, very strange in his case, which he experienced in forming a concrete idea of Julian in his own mind. He had been vaguely drawn to the theme, and when it was too late to recede, he found himself baffled by the paradoxes which he encountered, and by the contradictions of a figure seen darkly through a mist of historical detraction.
He met these difficulties as well as he could, and as a prudent dramatic poet should, by close and observant study of the document. He endeavored to reconcile the evident superiority of Julian with the absurd eccentricities of his private manners and with the futility of his public acts. He noted all the Apostate's foibles by the side of his virtues and his magnanimities. He traced without hesitation the course of that strange insurrection which hurled a coarse fanatic from the throne, only to place in his room a literary pedant with inked fingers and populous beard. He accepted everything, from the parasites to the purple slippers. The dangers of so humble an attendance upon history were escaped with success in the first instalment of his "world drama." In the strong and mounting scenes of Caesar's Apostacy, the rapidity with which the incidents succeed one another, their inherent significance, the innocent splendor of Julian's mind in its first emancipation from the chains of false faith, combine to produce an effect of high dramatic beauty. Georg Brandes, whose instinct in such matters was almost infallible, when he read the First Part shortly after its composition, entreated Ibsen to give this, as it stood, to the public, and to let The Emperor Julian's End follow independently. Had Ibsen consented to do this, Caesar's Fall would certainly take a higher place among his works than it does at present, when its effect is somewhat amputated and its meaning threatened with incoherence by the author's apparent volteface in the Second Part.
It was a lifelong disappointment to Ibsen that Emperor and Galilean, on which he expended far more consideration and labor than on any other of his works, was never a favorite either with the public or among the critics. With the best will in the world, however, it is not easy to find full enjoyment in this gigantic work, which by some caprice of style defiant of analysis, lacks the vitality which is usually characteristic of Ibsen's least production. The speeches put into the mouths of antique characters are appropriate, but they are seldom vivid; as Bentley said of the epistles of Julian's own teacher Libanius, "You feel by the emptiness and deadness of them, that you converse with some dreaming pedant, his elbow on his desk." The scheme of Ibsen's drama was too vast for the very minute and meticulous method he chose to adopt. What he gives us is an immense canvas, on which he has painted here and there in miniature. It is a pity that he chose for dramatic representation so enormous a field. It would have suited his genius far better to have abandoned any attempt to write a conclusive history, and have selected some critical moment in the life of Julian. He should rather have concentrated his energies, independent of the chroniclers, on the resuscitation of that episode, and in the course of it have trembled less humbly under the uplifted finger of Ammianus.
Of Emperor and Galilean Ibsen afterwards said: "It was the first" (but he might have added "the only") "poem which I have written under the influence of German ideas." He was aware of the danger of living too long away from his own order of thought and language. But it was always difficult for him, once planted in a place, to pull up his roots. A weariness took possession of him after the publication of his double drama, and he did practically nothing for four years. This marks a central joint in the structure of his career, what the architects call a "channel" in it, adding to the general retrospect of Ibsen's work an aspect of solidity and resource. During these years he revised some of his early writings, made a closer study of the arts of sculpture and painting, and essayed, without satisfaction, a very brief sojourn in Norway. In the spring of 1875 he definitely moved with his family from Dresden to Munich.
The brief visit to Christiania in 1874 proved very unfortunate. Ibsen was suspicious, the Norwegians of that generation were constitutionally stiff and reserved; long years among Southern races had accustomed him to a plenitude in gesture and emphasis. He suffered, all the brief time he was in Norway, from an intolerable malaise. Ten years afterwards, in writing to Bjoernson, the discomfort of that experience was still unallayed. "I have not yet saved nearly enough," he said, "to support myself and my family in the case of my discontinuing my literary work. And I should be obliged to discontinue it if I lived in Christiania.... This simply means that I should not write at all. When, ten years ago, after an absence of ten years, I sailed up the fjord, I felt a weight settling down on my breast, a feeling of actual physical oppression. And this feeling lasted all the time I was at home; I was not myself under the stare of all those cold, uncomprehending Norwegian eyes at the windows and in the streets."
Ibsen had now been more than ten years am exile from Norway, and his sentiments with regard to his own people were still what they were when, in July, 1872, he had sent home his Ode for the Millenary Festival. That very striking poem, one of the most solid of Ibsen's lyrical performances, had opened in the key of unmitigated defiance to popular opinion at home. It was intended to show Norwegians that they must alter their attitude towards him, as he would never change his behavior towards them. "My countrymen," he said:—
My countrymen, who filled for me deep bowls Of wholesome bitter medicine, such as gave The poet, on the margin of his grave, Fresh force to fight where broken twilight rolls,— My countrymen, who sped me o'er the wave, An exile, with my griefs for pilgrim-soles, My fears for burdens, doubts for staff, to roam,— From the wide world I send you greeting home.
I send you thanks for gifts that help and harden, Thanks for each hour of purifying pain; Each plant that springs in my poetic garden Is rooted where your harshness poured its rain; Each shoot in which it blooms and burgeons forth It owes to that gray weather from the North; The sun relaxes, but the fog secures! My country, thanks! My life's best gifts were yours.
In spite of these sardonic acknowledgments. Ibsen's fame in Norway, though still disputed, was now secure. In Denmark and Sweden it was almost unchallenged, and he was a name, at least, in Germany. In England, since 1872, he had not been without a prophet. But in Italy, Russia, France—three countries upon the intelligence of which he was presently to make a wide and durable impression—he was still quite unknown.
Meanwhile, in glancing over the general literature of Europe, we see his figure, at the threshold of his fiftieth year, taking greater and greater prominence. He had become, in the sudden exinction of the illustrious old men of Denmark, the first living writer of the North. He was to Norway what Valera was to Spain, Carducci to Italy, Swinburne or Rossetti to England, and Leconte de Lisle to France. These were mainly lyrical poets, but it must not be forgotten that Ibsen, down at least till 1871, was prominently illustrious as a writer in metrical form. If, in the second portion of his career, he resolutely deprived himself of all indulgence in the ornament of verse, it was a voluntary act of austerity. It was Charles V at Yuste, wilfully exchanging the crown of jewels for the coarse brown cowl of St. Jerome. And now, after a year or two of prayer and fasting, Ibsen began a new intellectual career. CHAPTER VI
While Ibsen was sitting at Munich, in this climacteric stage of his career, dreaming of wonderful things and doing nothing, there came to him, in the early months of 1875, two new plays by his chief rival. These were The Editor and A Bankruptcy, in which Bjoernson suddenly swooped from his sagas and his romances down into the middle of sordid modern life. This was his first attempt at that "photography by comedy" which he had urged on Ibsen in 1868. It is not, I think, recorded what was Ibsen's comment on these two plays, and particularly on A Bankruptcy, but it is written broadly over the surface of his own next work. It is obvious that he perceived that Bjoernson had carried a very spirited raid into his own particular province, and he was determined to drive this audacious enemy back by means of greater audacities.