Henrik Ibsen
by Edmund Gosse
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It is Irene who describes herself as dead, but awakening in the society of Rubek, whilst Maia, the little gay soulless creature whom the great sculptor has married, and has got heartily tired of, goes up to the mountains with Ulpheim the hunter, in pursuit of the free joy of life. At the close, the assorted couples are caught on the summit of an exceeding high mountain by a snowstorm, which opens to show Rubek and Irene "whirled along with the masses of snow, and buried in them," while Maia and her bear-hunter escape in safety to the plains. Interminable, and often very sage and penetrating, but always essentially rather maniacal, conversation fills up the texture of the play, which is certainly the least successful of Ibsen's mature compositions. The boredom of Rubek in the midst of his eminence and wealth, and his conviction that by working in such concentration for the purity of art he merely wasted his physical life, inspire the portions of the play which bring most conviction and can be read with fullest satisfaction. It is obvious that such thoughts, such faint and unavailing regrets, pursued the old age of Ibsen; and the profound wound that his heart had received so long before at Gossensass was unhealed to his last moments of consciousness. An excellent French critic, M. P. G. La Chesnais, has ingeniously considered the finale of this play as a confession that Ibsen, at this end of his career, was convinced of the error of his earlier rigor, and, having ceased to believe in his mission, regretted the complete sacrifice of his life to his work. But perhaps it is not necessary to go into such subtleties. When We Dead Awaken is the production of a very tired old man, whose physical powers were declining.

In the year 1900, during our South African War, sentiment in the Scandinavian countries was very generally ranged on the side of the Boers. Ibsen, however, expressed himself strongly and publicly in favor of the English position. In an interview (November 24, 1900), which produced a considerable sensation, he remarked that the Boers were but half-cultivated, and had neither the will nor the power to advance the cause of civilization. Their sole object had come to be a jealous exclusion of all the higher forms of culture. The English were merely taking what the Boers themselves had stolen from an earlier race; the Boers had pitilessly hunted their precursors out of house and home, and now they were tasting the same cup themselves. These were considerations which had not occurred to generous sentimentalists in Norway, and Ibsen's defence of England, which he supported in further communications with irony and courage, made a great sensation, and threw cold water on the pro-Boer sentimentalists. In Holland, where Ibsen had a wide public, this want of sympathy for Dutch prejudice raised a good deal of resentment, and Ibsen's statements were replied to by the fiery young journalist, Cornelius Karel Elout, who even published a book on the subject. Ibsen took dignified notice of Elout's attacks (December 9, 1900), repeating his defence of English policy, and this was the latest of his public appearances.

He took an interest, however, in the preparation of the great edition of his Collected Works, which appeared in Copenhagen in 1901 and 1902, in ten volumes. Before the publication of the latest of these, however, Ibsen had suffered from an apoplectic stroke, from which he never wholly recovered. It was believed that any form of mental fatigue might now be fatal to him, and his life was prolonged by extreme medical care. He was contented in spirit and even cheerful, but from this time forth he was more and more completely withdrawn from consecutive interest in what was going on in the world without. The publication, in succession, of his juvenile works (Kaempehoejen, Olaf Liljekrans, both edited by Halvdan Koht, in 1902), of his Correspondence, edited by Koht and Julius Elias, in 1904, of the bibliographical edition of his collected works by Carl Naerup, in 1902, left him indifferent and scarcely conscious. The gathering darkness was broken, it is said, by a gleam of light in 1905; when the freedom of Norway and the accession of King Hakon were explained to him, he was able to express his joyful approval before the cloud finally sank upon his intelligence.

During his long illness Ibsen was troubled by aphasia, and he expressed himself painfully, now in broken Norwegian, now in still more broken German. His unhappy hero, Oswald Alving, in Ghosts, had thrilled the world by his cry, "Give me the sun, Mother!" and now Ibsen, with glassy eyes, gazed at the dim windows, murmuring "Keine Sonne, keine Sonne, keine Sonne!" At the table where all the works of his maturity had been written the old man sat, persistently learning and forgetting the alphabet. "Look!" he said to Julius Elias, pointing to his mournful pothooks, "See what I am doing! I am sitting here and learning my letters—my letters! I who was once a Writer!" Over this shattered image of what Ibsen had been, over this dying lion, who could not die, Mrs. Ibsen watched with the devotion of wife, mother and nurse in one, through six pathetic years. She was rewarded, in his happier moments, by the affection and tender gratitude of her invalid, whose latest articulate words were addressed to her—"min soede, kjaere, snille frue" (my sweet, dear, good wife); and she taught to adore their grandfather the three children of a new generation, Tankred, Irene, Eleonora.

Ibsen preserved the habit of walking about his room, or standing for hours staring out of window, until the beginning of May, 1906. Then a more complete decay confined him to his bed. After several days of unconsciousness, he died very peacefully in his house on Drammensvej, opposite the Royal Gardens of Christiania, at half-past two in the afternoon of May 23, 1906, being in his seventy-ninth year. By a unanimous vote of the he was awarded a public funeral, which the King of Norway attended in person, while King Edward VII was represented there by the British Minister. The event was regarded through out Norway as a national ceremony of the highest solemnity and importance, and the poet who had suffered such bitter humiliation and neglect in his youth was carried to his grave in solemn splendor, to the sound of a people's lamentation.



During the latest years of his life, which were spent as a wealthy and prosperous citizen of Christiania, the figure of Ibsen took forms of legendary celebrity which were equalled by no other living man of letters, not even by Tolstoi, and which had scarcely been surpassed, among the dead, by Victor Hugo. When we think of the obscurity of his youth and middle age, and of his consistent refusal to advertise himself by any of the little vulgar arts of self-exhibition, this extreme publicity is at first sight curious, but it can be explained. Norway is a small and a new country, inordinately, perhaps, but justly and gracefully proud of those—an Ole Bull, a Frithjof Nansen, an Edvard Grieg—who spread through the world evidences of its spiritual life. But the one who was more original, more powerful, more interesting than any other of her sons, had persistently kept aloof from the soil of Norway, and was at length recaptured and shut up in a golden cage with more expenditure of delicate labor than any perverse canary or escaped macaw had ever needed. Ibsen safely housed in Christiania!—it was the recovery of an important national asset, the resumption, after years of vexation and loss, of the intellectual regalia of Norway.

Ibsen, then—recaptured, though still in a frame of mind which left the captors nervous—was naturally an object of pride. For the benefit of the hundreds of tourists who annually pass through Christiania, it was more than tempting, it was irresistible to point out, in slow advance along Carl Johans Gade, in permanent silence at a table in the Grand Cafe, "our greatest citizen." To this species of demonstration Ibsen unconsciously lent himself by his immobility, his regularity of habits, his solemn taciturnity. He had become more like a strange physical object than like a man among men. He was visible broadly and quietly, not conversing, rarely moving, quite isolated and self-contained, a recognized public spectacle, delivered up, as though bound hand and foot, to the kodak-hunter and the maker of "spicy" paragraphs. That Ibsen was never seen to do anything, or heard to say anything, that those who boasted of being intimate with him obviously lied in their teeth—all this prepared him for sacrifice. Christiania is a hot-bed of gossip, and its press one of the most "chatty" in the world. Our "greatest living author" was offered up as a wave-offering, and he smoked daily on the altar of the newspapers.

It will be extremely rash of the biographers of the future to try to follow Ibsen's life day by day in the Christiania press from, let us say, 1891 to 1901. During that decade he occupied the reporters immensely, and he was particularly useful to the active young men who telegraph "chat" to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Berlin. Snapshots of Ibsen, dangerous illness of the playwright, quaint habits of the Norwegian dramatist, a poet's double life, anecdotes of Ibsen and Mrs.——, rumors of the King's attitude to Ibsen—this pollenta, dressed a dozen ways, was the standing dish at every journalist's table. If a space needed filling, a very rude reply to some fatuous question might be fitted in and called "Instance of Ibsen's Wit." The crop of fable was enormous, and always seemed to find a gratified public, for whom nothing was too absurd if it was supposed to illustrate "our great national poet." Ibsen, meanwhile, did nothing at all. He never refuted a calumny, never corrected a story, but he threw an ironic glance through his gold-rimmed spectacles as he strolled down Carl Johan with his hands behind his back.

His personal appearance, it must be admitted, formed a tempting basis upon which to build a legend. His force of will had gradually transfigured his bodily forms until he thoroughly looked the part which he was expected to fill. At the age of thirty, to judge by the early photographs, he had been a commonplace-looking little man, with a shock of coal-black hair and a full beard, one of those hirsute types common in the Teutonic races, which may prove, on inquiry, to be painter, musician, or engraver, or possibly engineer, but less probably poet. Then came the exile from Norway, and the residence in Rome, marked by a little bust which stands before me now, where the beard is cut away into two round whiskers so as to release the firm round chin, and the long upper lip is clean-shaved. Here there is more liveliness, but still no distinction. Then comes a further advance—a photograph (in which I feel a tender pride, for it was made to please me) taken in Dresden (October 15, 1873), where the brow, perfectly smooth and white, has widened out, the whiskers have become less chubby, and the small, scrutinizing eyes absolutely sparkle with malice. Here, you say at last, is no poet, indeed, but an unusually cultivated banker or surprisingly adroit solicitor. Here the hair, retreating from the great forehead, begins to curl and roll with a distinguished wildness; here the long mouth, like a slit in the face, losing itself at each end in whisker, is a symbol of concentrated will power, a drawer in some bureau, containing treasures, firmly locked up.

Then came Munich, where Ibsen's character underwent very considerable changes, or rather where its natural features became fixed and emphasized. We are not left without precious indication of his gestures and his looks at this time, when he was a little past the age of fifty. Where so much has been extravagantly written, or described in a journalistic key of false emphasis, great is the value of a quiet portrait by one of those who has studied Ibsen most intelligently. It is perhaps the most careful pen-sketch of him in any language.

Mr. William Archer, then, has given the following account of his first meeting with Ibsen. It was in the Scandinavia Club, in Rome, at the close of 1881:—

I had been about a quarter of an hour in the room, and was standing close to the door, when it opened, and in glided an undersized man with very broad shoulders and a large, leonine head, wearing a long black frock-coat with very broad lapels, on one of which a knot of red ribbon was conspicuous. I knew him at once, but was a little taken aback by his low stature. In spite of all the famous instances to the contrary, one instinctively associates greatness with size. His natural height was even somewhat diminished by a habit of bending forward slightly from the waist, begotten, no doubt, of short-sightedness, and the need to peer into things. He moved very slowly and noiselessly, with his hands behind his back—an unobtrusive personality, which would have been insignificant had the head been strictly proportionate to the rest of the frame. But there was nothing insignificant about the high and massive forehead, crowned with a mane of (then) iron-gray hair, the small and pale but piercing eyes behind the gold-rimmed spectacles, or the thin lipped mouth, depressed at the corners into a curve indicative of iron will, and set between bushy whiskers of the same dark gray as the hair. The most cursory observer could not but recognize power and character in the head; yet one would scarcely have guessed it to be the power of a poet, the character of a prophet. Misled, perhaps, by the ribbon at the buttonhole, and by an expression of reserve, almost of secretiveness, in the lines of the tight-shut mouth, one would rather have supposed one's self face to face with an eminent statesman or diplomatist.

With the further advance of years all that was singular in Ibsen's appearance became accentuated. The hair and beard turned snowy white; the former rose in a fierce sort of Oberland, the latter was kept square and full, crossing underneath the truculent chin that escaped from it. As Ibsen walked to a banquet in Christiania, he looked quite small under the blaze of crosses, stars and belts which he displayed when he unbuttoned the long black overcoat which enclosed him tightly. Never was he seen without his hands behind him, and the poet Holger Drachmann started a theory that as Ibsen could do nothing in the world but write, the Muse tied his wrists together at the small of his back whenever they were not actually engaged in composition. His regularity in all habits, his mechanical ways, were the subject of much amusement. He must sit day after day in the same chair, at the same table, in the same corner of the cafe, and woe to the ignorant intruder who was accidentally beforehand with him. No word was spoken, but the indignant poet stood at a distance, glaring, until the stranger should be pierced with embarrassment, and should rise and flee away.

Ibsen had the reputation of being dangerous and difficult of access. But the evidence of those who knew him best point to his having been phlegmatic rather than morose. He was "umbrageous," ready to be discomposed by the action of others, but, if not vexed or startled, he was elaborately courteous. He had a great dislike of any abrupt movement, and if he was startled, he had the instinct of a wild animal, to bite. It was a pain to him to have the chain of his thoughts suddenly broken, and he could not bear to be addressed by chance acquaintances in street or cafe. When he was resident in Munich and Dresden, the difficulty of obtaining an interview with Ibsen was notorious. His wife protected him from strangers, and if her defences broke down, and the stranger contrived to penetrate the inner fastness, Ibsen might suddenly appear in the doorway, half in a rage, half quivering with distress, and say, in heartrending tones, "Bitte um Arbeitsruhe"—"Please let me work in peace!" They used to tell how in Munich a rich baron, who was the local Maecenas of letters, once bored Ibsen with a long recital of his love affairs, and ended by saying, with a wonderful air of fatuity, "To you, Master, I come, because of your unparalleled knowledge of the female heart. In your hands I place my fate. Advise me, and I will follow your advice." Ibsen snapped his mouth and glared through his spectacles; then in a low voice of concentrated fury he said: "Get home, and—go to bed!" whereat his noble visitor withdrew, clothed with indignation as with a garment.

His voice was uniform, soft and quiet. The bitter things he said seemed the bitterer for his gentle way of saying them. As his shape grew burly and his head of hair enormous, the smallness of his extremities became accentuated. His little hands were always folded away as he tripped upon his tiny feet. His movements were slow and distrait. He wasted few words on the current incidents of life, and I was myself the witness, in 1899, of his sang-froid under distressing circumstances. Ibsen was descending a polished marble staircase when his feet slipped and he fell swiftly, precipitately, downward. He must have injured himself severely, he might have been killed, if two young gentlemen had not darted forward below and caught him in their arms. Once more set the right way up, Ibsen softly thanked his saviours with much frugality of phrase—"Tak, mine Herrer!"—tenderly touched an abraded surface of his top-hat, and marched forth homeward, unperturbed.

His silence had a curious effect on those in whose company he feasted; it seemed to hypnotise them. The great Danish actress, Mrs. Heiberg, herself the wittiest of talkers, said that to sit beside Ibsen was to peer into a gold-mine and not catch a glitter from the hidden treasure. But his dumbness was not so bitterly ironical as it was popularly supposed to be. It came largely from a very strange passivity which made definite action unwelcome to him. He could never be induced to pay visits, yet he would urge his wife and his son to accept invitations, and when they returned he would insist on being told every particular—who was there, what was said, even what everybody wore. He never went to a theatre or concert-room, except on the very rare occasions when he could be induced to be present at the performance of his own plays. But he was extremely fond of hearing about the stage. He had a memory for little things and an observation of trifles which was extraordinary. He thought it amazing that people could go into a room and not notice the pattern of the carpet, the color of the curtains, the objects on the walls; these being details which he could not help observing and retaining. This trait comes out in his copious and minute stage directions.

Ibsen was simplicity itself; no man was ever less affected. But his character was closed; he was perpetually on the defensive. He was seldom confidential, he never "gave way"; his emotions and his affections were genuine, but his heart was a fenced city. He had little sense of domestic comfort; his rooms were bare and neat, with no personal objects save those which belonged to his wife. Even in the days of his wealth, in the fine house on Drammensvej, there was a singular absence of individuality about his dwelling rooms. They might have been prepared for a rich American traveller in some hotel. Through a large portion of his career in Germany he lived in furnished rooms, not because he did not possess furniture of his own, which was stored up, but because he paid no sort of homage to his own penates. He had friends, but he did not cultivate them; he rather permitted them, at intervals, to cultivate him. To Georg Brandes (March 6, 1870) he wrote: "Friends are a costly luxury; and when one has devoted one's self wholly to a profession and a mission here in life, there is no place left for friends." The very charming story of Ibsen's throwing his arms round old Hans Christian Andersen's neck, and forcing him to be genial and amiable, [Note: Samliv med Ibsen.] is not inconsistent with the general rule of passivity and shyness which he preserved in matters of friendship.

Ibsen's reading was singularly limited. In his fine rooms on Drammensvej I remember being struck by seeing no books at all, except the large Bible which always lay at his side, and formed his constant study. He disliked having his partiality for the Bible commented on, and if, as would sometimes be the case, religious people expressed pleasure at finding him deep in the sacred volume, Ibsen would roughly reply: "It is only for the sake of the language." He was the enemy of anything which seemed to approach cant and pretension, and he concealed his own views as closely as he desired to understand the views of others. He possessed very little knowledge of literature. The French he despised and repudiated, although he certainly had studied Voltaire with advantage; of the Italians he knew only Dante and of the English only Shakespeare, both of whom he had studied in translations. In Danish he read and reread Holberg, who throughout his life unquestionably remained Ibsen's favorite author; he preserved a certain admiration for the Danish classics of his youth: Heiberg, Hertz, Schack-Steffelt. In German, the foreign language which he read most currently, he was strangely ignorant of Schiller and Heine, and hostile to Goethe, although Brand and Peer Gynt must owe something of their form to Faust. But the German poets whom he really enjoyed were two dramatists of the age preceding his own, Otto Ludwig (1813-65) and Friedrich Hebbel (1813-63). Each of these playwrights had been occupied in making certain reforms, of a realistic tendency, in the existing tradition of the stage, and each of them dealt, before any one else in Europe did so, with "problems" on the stage. These two German poets, but Hebbel particularly, passed from romanticism to realism, and so on to mysticism, in a manner fascinating to Ibsen, whom it is possible that they influenced. [Note: It would be interesting to compare Die Niebelungen, the trilogy which Hebbel published in 1862, in which the struggle between pagan and Christian ideals of conduct is analyzed, with Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean.] He remained, in later years, persistently ignorant of Zola, and of Tolstoi he had read, with contemptuous disapproval, only some of the polemical pamphlets. He said to me, in 1899, of the great Russian: "Tolstoi?—he is mad!" with a screwing up of the features such as a child makes at the thought of a black draught.

If he read at all, it was poetry. His indifference to music was complete; he had, in fact, no ear whatever, and could not distinguish one tune from another. His efforts to appreciate the music which Grieg made for Peer Gynt were pathetic. But for verse his sense was exceedingly delicate, and the sound of poetry gave him acute pleasure. At times, when his nerves were overstrained, he was fatigued by the riot of rhymes which pursued him through his dreams, and which his memory vainly strove to recapture. For academic philosophy and systems of philosophic thought he had a great impatience. The vexed question of what he owed to the eminent Danish philosopher, Soeren Kierkegaard, has never been solved. Brandes has insisted, again and again, on the close relation between Brand and other works of Ibsen and the famous Either-Or of Kierkegaard; "it actually seems," he says, "as though Ibsen had aspired to the honor of being called Kierkegaard's poet." Ibsen, however, aspired to no such honor, and, while he never actually denied the influence, the relation between him and the philosopher seems to be much rather one of parallelism than of imitation. Ibsen was a poetical psychologist of the first order, but he could not bring himself to read the prose of the professional thinkers.

In his attitude both to philosophical and poetical literature Ibsen is with such apparently remote figures as Guy de Maupassant and Shelley; in his realism and his mysticism he is unrelated to immediate predecessors, and has no wish to be a disciple of the dead. His extreme interest in the observation of ethical problems is not identified with any curiosity about what philosophical writers have said on similar subjects. Weininger has pointed out that Ibsen's philosophy is radically the same as that of Kant, yet there is no evidence that Ibsen had ever studied or had even turned over the pages of the Criticism of Pure Reason. It is not necessary to suppose that he had done so. The peculiar aspect of the Ego as the principal and ultimately sole guide to truth was revealed anew to the Norwegian poet, and references to Kant, or to Fichte, or to Kierkegaard, seem, therefore, to be beside the mark. The watchword of Brand, with his cry of "All or Nothing," his absolute repudiation of compromise, was not a literary conception, but was founded, without the help of books, on a profound contemplation of human nature, mainly, no doubt, as Ibsen found it in himself. But in these days of the tyranny of literature it is curious to meet with an author of the first rank who worked without a library.

Ibsen's study of women was evidently so close, and what he writes about them is usually so penetrating, that many legends have naturally sprung up about the manner in which he gained his experience. Of these, most are pure fiction. As a matter of fact, Ibsen was shy with women, and unless they took the initiative, he contented himself with watching them from a distance: and noting their ways in silence. The early flirtation with Miss Rikke Hoist at Bergen, which takes so prominent a place in Ibsen's story mainly because such incidents were extremely rare in it, is a typical instance. If this young girl of sixteen had not taken the matter into her own hands, running up the steps of the hotel and flinging her posy of flowers into the face of the young poet, the incident would have closed in his watching her down the street, while the fire smouldered in his eyes. It was not until her fresh field-blossoms had struck him on the cheek that he was emboldened to follow her and to send her the lyrical roses and auriculas which live forever in his poems. If we wish to note the difference of temperament, we have but to contrast Ibsen's affair with Rikke Holst with Goethe's attitude to Christiana Vulpius; in doing so, we bring the passive and the active lover face to face.

Ibsen would gladly have married his flower of the field, a vision of whose bright, untrammelled adolescence reappears again and again in his works, and plainly in The Master-Builder. But he escaped a great danger in failing to secure her as his wife, for Rikke Holst, when she had lost her girlish freshness, would probably have had little character and no culture to fall back upon. He waited, fortunately for his happiness, until he secured Susannah Thoresen. Mrs. Ibsen, his faithful guide, guardian and companion for half a century, will live among the entirely successful wives of difficult men of genius. In the midst of the spiteful gossip of Christiania she had to traverse her via dolorosa, for it was part of the fun of the journalists to represent this husband and wife as permanently alienated. That Ibsen was easy to live with is not probable, but his wife not merely contrived to do it, but by her watchfulness, her adroitness, and, when necessary, by her firmness of decision, she smoothed the path for the great man whom she adored, and who was to her a great wilful child to be cajoled and circumvented. He was absolutely dependent on her, although he affected amusing airs of independence; and if she absented herself, there were soon cries in the house of "My Cat, My Cat!" the pet name by which he called his wife. Of their domestic ways little is yet known in detail, but everything can be imagined.

To the enigma of Ibsen's character it was believed that his private correspondence might supply a key. His letters were collected and arranged while he was still alive, but he was not any longer in a mental condition which permitted him to offer any help in comment to his editors. His son, Mr. Sigurd Ibsen, superintended the work, and two careful bibliographers, Mr. Halvdan Koht and Mr. Julius Elias, carried out the scheme in two volumes [Note: Breve fra Henrik Ibsen, Gyldendalske Boghadel, 1904.], with the execution of which no fault can be suggested. But the enigma remained unsolved; the sphinx spoke much, but failed to answer the questions we had been asking. These letters, in the first place, suffer from the fact that Ibsen was a relentless destroyer of documents; they are all written by him; not one single example had been preserved of the correspondence to which this is the reply. Then Ibsen's letters, as revealers of the unseen mood, are particularly unsatisfactory. With rare exceptions, he remains throughout them tightly buttoned up in his long and legendary frock-coat. There is no laughter and no tears in his letters; he is occasionally extremely angry, and exudes drops of poison, like the captive scorpion which he caught when he was in Italy, and loved to watch and tease. But there is no self-abandonment, and very little emotion; the letters are principally historical and critical, "finger-posts for commentators." They give valuable information about the genius of his works, but they tell almost less about his inner moral nature than do his imaginative writings.

In his youth the scorpion in Ibsen's heart seems to have stung him occasionally to acts which afterwards filled him with embarrassment. We hear that in his Bergen days he sent to Lading, his fellow-teacher at the theatre, a challenge of which, when the mood was over, he was greatly ashamed. It is said that on another occasion, under the pressure of annoyance, maddened with fear and insomnia, he sprang out of bed in his shirt and tried to throw himself into the sea off one of the quays in the harbor. Such performances were futile and ridiculous, and they belong only to his youth. It seems certain that he schooled himself to the suppression of such evidences of his anger, and that he did so largely by shutting up within his breast all the fire that rose there. The Correspondence—dark lantern as it is—seems to illuminate this condition of things; we see before us Ibsen with his hands clenched, his mouth tightly shut, rigid with determination not to "let himself go," the eyes alone blazing behind the gleaming spectacles.

An instance of his suppression of personal feeling may be offered. The lengthiest of all Ibsen's published letters describes to Brandes (April 25, 1866) the suicide, at Rome, of a young Danish lawyer, Ludvig David, of whom Ibsen had seen a good deal. The lad threw himself head-foremost out of window, in a crisis of fever. Ibsen writes down all the minutest details with feeling and refinement, but with as little sympathetic emotion as if he was drawing up a report for the police. With this trait may be compared his extreme interest in the detailed accounts of public trials; he liked to read exactly what the prisoner said, and all the evidence of the witnesses. In this Ibsen resembled Robert Browning, whose curiosity about the small incidents surrounding a large event was boundless. When Ibsen, in the course of such an investigation, found the real purpose of some strange act dawn upon him, he exhibited an almost childish pleasure; and this was doubled when the interpretation was one which had not presented itself to the conventional legal authorities.

In everything connected with the execution of his own work there was no limit to the pains which he was willing to take. His handwriting had always been neat, but it was commonplace in his early years. The exquisite calligraphy which he ultimately used on every occasion, and the beauty of which was famous far and wide, he adopted deliberately when he was in Rome in 1862. To the end of his life, although in the latest years the letters lost, from the shakiness of his hand, some of their almost Chinese perfection, he wrote his smallest notes in this character. His zeal for elaboration as an artist led him to collect a mass of consistent imaginary information about the personages in his plays, who became to him absolutely real. It is related how, some one happening to say that Nora, in A Doll's House, had a curious name, Ibsen immediately replied, "Oh! her full name was Leonora; but that was shortened to Nora when she was quite a little girl. Of course, you know, she was terribly spoilt by her parents." Nothing of this is revealed in the play itself, but Ibsen was familiar with the past history of all the characters he created. All through his career he seems to have been long haunted by the central notion of his pieces, and to have laid it aside, sometimes for many years, until a set of incidents spontaneously crystallized around it. When the medium in which he was going to work became certain he would put himself through a long course of study in the technical phraseology appropriate to the subject. No pains were too great to prepare him for the final task.

When Mr. Archer visited Ibsen in the Harmonien Hotel at Saeby in 1887 he extracted some valuable evidence from him as to his methods of composition:—

It seems that the idea of a piece generally presents itself before the characters and incidents, though, when I put this to him flatly, he denied it. It seems to follow, however, from his saying that there is a certain stage in the incubation of a play when it might as easily turn into all essay as into a drama. He has to incarnate the ideas, as it were, in character and incident, before the actual work of creation can be said to have fairly begun. Different plans and ideas, he admits, often flow together, and the play he ultimately produces is sometimes very unlike the intention with which he set out. He writes and rewrites, scribbles and destroys, an enormous amount before he makes the exquisite fair copy he sends to Copenhagen.

He altered, as we have said, the printed text of his earlier works, in order to bring them into harmony with his finished style, but he did not do this, so far as I remember, after the publication of Brand. In the case of all the dramas of his maturity he modified nothing when the work had once been given to the world.



Having accustomed ourselves to regard Ibsen as a disturbing and revolutionizing force, which met with the utmost resistance at the outset, and was gradually accepted before the close of his career, we may try to define what the nature of his revolt was, and what it was, precisely, that he attacked. It may be roughly said that what peculiarly roused the animosity of Ibsen was the character which has become stereotyped in one order of ideas, good in themselves but gradually outworn by use, and which cannot admit ideas of a new kind. Ibsen meditated upon the obscurantism of the old regime until he created figures like Rosmer, in whom the characteristics of that school are crystallized. From the point of view which would enter sympathetically into the soul of Ibsen and look out on the world from his eyes, there is no one of his plays more valuable in its purely theoretic way than Rosmersholm. It dissects the decrepitude of ancient formulas, it surveys the ruin of ancient faiths. The curse of heredity lies upon Rosmer, who is highly intelligent up to a certain point, but who can go no further. Even if he is persuaded that a new course of action would be salutary, he cannot move—he is bound in invisible chains. It is useless to argue with Rosmer; his reason accepts the line of logic, but he simply cannot, when it comes to action, cross the bridge where Beate threw herself into the torrent.

But Ibsen had not the ardor of the fighting optimist. He was one who "doubted clouds would break," who dreamed, since "right was worsted, wrong would triumph." With Robert Browning he had but this one thing in common, that both were fighters, both "held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better," but the dark fatalism of the Norwegian poet was in other things in entire opposition to the sunshiny hopefulness of the English one. Browning and Ibsen alike considered that the race must be reformed periodically or it would die. The former anticipated reform as cheerily as the sower expects harvest. Ibsen had no such happy certainty. He was convinced of the necessity of breaking up the old illusions, the imaginative call for revolt, but his faith wavered as to the success of the new movements. The old order, in its resistance to all change, is very strong. It may be shaken, but it is the work of a blind Sampson, and no less, to bring it rattling to the ground. In Rosmersholm, all the modern thought, all the vitality, all the lucidity belong to Rebecca, but the decrepit formulas are stoutly intrenched. In the end it is not the new idea who conquers; it is the antique house, with its traditions, its avenging vision of white horses, which breaks the too-clairvoyant Rebecca.

This doubt of the final success of intelligence, this obstinate question whether, after all, as we so glibly intimate, the old order changeth at all, whether, on the contrary, it has not become a Juggernaut car that crushes all originality and independence out of action, this breathes more and more plainly out of the progressing work of Ibsen. Hedda Gabler condemns the old order, in its dulness, its stifling mediocrity, but she is unable to adapt her energy to any wholesome system of new ideas, and she sinks into deeper moral dissolution. She hates all that has been done, yet can herself do nothing, and she represents, in symbol, that detestable condition of spirit which cannot create, though it sees the need of creation, and can only show the irritation which its own sterility awakens within it by destruction. All Hedda can actually do, to assert her energy, is to burn the MS. of Loevborg, and to kill herself with General Gabler's pistol. The race must be reformed or die; the Hedda Gablers which adorn its latest phase do best to die.

We have seen that Ibsen's theory was that love of self is the fundamental principle of all activity. It is the instinct of self-preservation and self-amelioration which leads to every manifestation of revolt against stereotyped formulas of conduct. Between the excessive ideality of Rebecca and the decadent sterility of Hedda Gabler comes another type, perhaps more sympathetic than either, the master-builder Solness. He, too, is led to condemn the old order, but in the act of improving it he is overwhelmed upon his pinnacle, and swoons to death, "dizzy, lost, yet unupbraiding." Ibsen's exact meaning in the detail of these symbolic plays will long be discussed, but they repay the closest and most reiterated study. Perhaps the most curious of all is The Lady from the Sea, which has been examined from the technically psychological view by a learned French philosopher, M. Jules de Gaultier. For M. de Gaultier the interest which attaches to Ibsen's conception of human life, with its conflicting instincts and responsibilities, is more fully centred in The Lady from the Sea than in any other of his productions.

The theory of the French writer is that Ibsen's constant aim is to reconcile and to conciliate the two biological hypotheses which have divided opinion in the nineteenth century, and which are known respectively by the names of Cuvier and Lamarck; namely, that of the invariability of species and that of the mutability of organic forms. In the reconciliation of these hypotheses Ibsen finds the only process which is truly encouraging to life. According to this theory, all the trouble, all the weariness, all the waste of moral existences around us comes from the neglect of one or other of these principles, and true health, social or individual, is impossible without the harmonious application of them both. According to this view, the apotheosis of Ibsen's genius, or at least the most successful elucidation of his scheme of ideological drama, is reached in the scene in The Lady from the Sea where Wangel succeeds in winning the heart of Ellida back from the fascination of the Stranger. It is certainly in this mysterious and strangely attractive play that Ibsen has insisted, more than anywhere else, on the necessity of taking physiology into consideration in every discussion of morals. He refers, like a zooelogist, to the laws which regulate the formation and the evolution of species, and the decision of Ellida, on which so much depends, is an amazing example of the limitation of the power of change produced by heredity. The extraordinary ingenuity of M. de Gaultier's analysis of this play deserves recognition; whether it can quite be accepted, as embraced by Ibsen's intention, may be doubtful. At the same time, let us recollect that, however subtle our refinements become, the instinct of Ibsen was probably subtler still.

In 1850, when Ibsen first crept forward, with the glimmering taper of his Catilina, there was but one person in the world who fancied that the light might pass from lamp to lamp and in half a century form an important part of the intellectual illumination of Europe. The one person who did suspect it was, of course, Ibsen himself. Against all probability and common-sense, this apothecary's assistant, this ill-educated youth who had just been plucked in his preliminary examination, who positively was, and remained, unable to pass the first tests and become a student at the University, maintained in his inmost soul the belief that he was born to be "a king of thought." The impression is perhaps not uncommon among ill-educated lads; what makes the case unique, and defeats our educational formulas, is that it happened to be true. But the impact of Ibsen with the social order of his age was unlucky, we see, from the first; it was perhaps more unlucky than that of any other great man of the same class with whose biography we have been made acquainted. He was at daggers drawn with all that was successful and respectable and "nice" from the outset of his career until near the end of it.

Hence we need not be surprised if in the tone of his message to the world there is something acrimonious, something that tastes in the mouth like aloes. He prepared a dose for a sick world, and he made it as nauseous and astringent as he could, for he was not inclined to be one of those physicians who mix jam with their julep. There was no other writer of genius in the nineteenth century who was so bitter in dealing with human frailty as Ibsen was. By the side of his cruel clearness the satire of Carlyle is bluster, the diatribes of Leopardi shrill and thin. All other reformers seem angry and benevolent by turns, Ibsen is uniformly and impartially stern. That he probed deeper into the problems of life than any other modern dramatist is acknowledged, but it was his surgical calmness which enabled him to do it. The problem-plays of Alexandre Dumas fils flutter with emotion, with prejudice and pardon. But Ibsen, without impatience, examines under his microscope all the protean forms of organic social life and coldly draws up his diagnosis like a report. We have to think of him as thus ceaselessly occupied. We have seen that, long before a sentence was written, he had invented and studied, in its remotest branches, the life-history of the characters who were to move in his play. Nothing was unknown to him of their experience, and for nearly two years, like a coral-insect, he was building up the scheme of them in silence. Odd little objects, fetiches which represented people to him, stood arranged on his writing table, and were never to be touched. He gazed at them until, as if by some feat of black magic, he turned them into living persons, typical and yet individual.

We have recorded that the actual writing down of the dialogue was often swift and easy, when the period of incubation was complete. Each of Ibsen's plays presupposes a long history behind it; each starts like an ancient Greek tragedy, in the full process of catastrophe. This method of composition was extraordinary, was perhaps, in modern times, unparalleled. It accounted in measure for the coherency, the inevitability, of all the detail, but it also accounted for some of the difficulties which meet us in the task of interpretation. Ibsen calls for an expositor, and will doubtless give occupation to an endless series of scholiasts. They will not easily exhaust their theme, and to the last something will escape, something will defy their most careful examination. It is not disrespectful to his memory to claim that Ibsen sometimes packed his stuff too closely. Criticism, when it marvels most at the wonder of his genius, is constrained to believe that he sometimes threw too much of his soul into his composition, that he did not stand far enough away from it always to command its general effect. The result, especially in the later symbolical plays, is too vibratory, and excites the spectator too much.

One very curious example of Ibsen's minute care is found in the copiousness of his stage directions. Later playwrights have imitated him in this, and we have grown used to it; but thirty years ago such minuteness seemed extravagant and needless. As a fact, it was essential to the absolutely complete image which Ibsen desired to produce. The stage directions in his plays cannot be "skipped" by any reader who desires to follow the dramatist's thought step by step without losing the least link. These notes of his intention will be of ever-increasing value as the recollection of his personal wishes is lost. In 1899 Ibsen remarked to me that it was almost useless for actors nowadays to try to perform the comedies of Holberg, because there were no stage directions and the tradition was lost. Of his own work, fortunately, that can never be said. Dr. Verrall, in his brilliant and penetrating studies of the Greek Tragedies, has pointed out more than once the "undesigned and unforeseen defect with which, in studying ancient drama, we must perpetually reckon," namely, the loss of the action and of the equivalent stage directions. It is easy to imagine "what problems Shakespeare would present if he were printed like the Poetae Scenici Graeci," and not more difficult to realize how many things there would be to puzzle us in Ghosts and The Wild Duck if we possessed nothing but the bare text.

The body of work so carefully conceived, so long maintained, so passionately executed, was far too disturbing in its character to be welcome at first. In the early eighties the name of Ibsen was loathed in Norway, and the attacks on him which filled the press were often of an extravagant character. At the present moment any one conversant with Norwegian society who will ask a priest or a schoolmaster, an officer or a doctor, what has been the effect of Ibsen's influence, will be surprised at the unanimity of the reply. Opinions may differ as to the attractiveness of the poet's art or of its skill, but there is an almost universal admission of its beneficial tendency. Scarcely will a voice be found to demur to the statement that Ibsen let fresh air and light into the national life, that he roughly but thoroughly awakened the national conscience, that even works like Ghosts, which shocked, and works like Rosmersholm, which insulted the prejudices of his countrymen, were excellent in their result. The conquest of Norway by this dramatist, who reviled and attacked and abandoned his native land, who railed at every national habit and showed a worm at the root of every national tradition, is amazing. The fierce old man lived long enough to be accompanied to his grave "to the noise of the mourning of a nation," and he who had almost starved in exile to be conducted to the last resting place by a Parliament and a King.

It must always be borne in mind that, although Ibsen's appeal is to the whole world—his determination to use prose aiding him vastly in this dissemination—yet it is to Norway that he belongs, and it is at home that he is best understood. No matter how acrid his tone, no matter how hard and savage the voice with which he prophesied, the accord between his country and himself was complete long before the prophet died. As he walked about, the strange, picturesque little old man, in the streets of Christiania, his fellow-citizens gazed at him with a little fear, but with some affection and with unbounded reverence. They understood at last what the meaning of his message had been, and how closely it applied to themselves, and how much the richer and healthier for it their civic atmosphere had become. They would say, as the soul of Dante said in the New Life:—

e costui Che viene a consolar la nostra mente, Ed e la sua tanto possente, Ch'altro pensier non lascia star con nui.

No words, surely, could better express the intensity with which Ibsen had pressed his moral quality, his virtu, upon the Norwegian conscience, not halting in his pursuit till he had captured it and had banished from it all other ideals of conduct. No one who knows will doubt that the recent events in which Norway has taken so chivalric, and at the same time so winning and gracious, an attitude in the eyes of the world, owe not a little to their being the work of a generation nurtured in that new temper of mind, that spiritel nuovo d'amore which was inculcated by the whole work of Ibsen.


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