Henrik Ibsen, by Edmund Gosse

Chapter IX

Personal Characteristics

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 café. 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, Sören 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.


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