The parentage of the poet has been traced back to a certain Danish skipper, Peter Ibsen, who, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, made his way over from Stege, the capital of the island of Möen, and became a citizen of Bergen. From that time forth the men of the family, all following the sea in their youth, jovial men of a humorous disposition, continued to haunt the coasts of Norway, marrying sinister and taciturn wives, who, by the way, were always, it would seem, Danes or Germans or Scotswomen, so that positively the poet had, after a hundred years and more of Norwegian habitation, not one drop of pure Norse blood to inherit from his parents. His grandfather, Henrik, was wrecked in 1798 in his own ship, which went down with all souls lost on Hesnaes, near Grimstad; this reef is the scene of Ibsen’s animated poem of Terje Viken. His father, Knud, who was born in 1797, married in 1825 a German, Marichen Cornelia Martie Altenburg, of the same town of Skien; she was one year his senior, and the daughter of a merchant. It was in 1771 that the Ibsens, leaving Bergen, had settled in Skien, which was, and still is, an important centre of the timber and shipping trades on the south-east shore of the country.
It may be roughly said that Skien, in the Danish days, was a sort of Poole or Dartmouth, existing solely for purposes of marine merchandise, and depending for prosperity, and life itself, on the sea. Much of a wire-drawn ingenuity has been conjectured about the probable strains of heredity which met in Ibsen. It is not necessary to do more than to recognize the slight but obstinate exoticism, which kept all his forbears more or less foreigners still in their Norwegian home; and to insist on the mixture of adventurousness and plain common sense which marked their movements by sea and shore. The stock was intensely provincial, intensely unambitious; it would be difficult to find anywhere a specimen of the lower middle class more consistent than the Ibsens had been in preserving their respectable dead level. Even in that inability to resist the call of the sea, generation after generation, if there was a little of the dare-devil there was still more of the conventional citizen. It is, in fact, a vain attempt to detect elements of his ancestors in the extremely startling and unprecedented son who was born to Knud and Marichen Ibsen two years and three months after their marriage.
This son, who was baptized Henrik Johan, although he never used the second name, was born in a large edifice known as the Stockmann House, in the centre of the town of Skien, on March 20, The house stood on one side of a large, open square; the town pillory was at the right of and the mad-house, the lock-up and other amiable urban institutions to the left; in front was Latin school and the grammar school, while the church occupied the middle of the square. Over this stern prospect the tourist can no longer sentimentalize, for the whole of this part of Skien was burned down in 1886, to the poet’s unbridled satisfaction. “The inhabitants of Skien,” he said with grim humor, “were quite unworthy to possess my birthplace.”
He declared that the harsh elements of landscape, mentioned above, were those which earliest captivated his infant attention, and he added that the square space, with the church in the midst of it, was filled all day long with the dull and droning sound of many waterfalls, while from dawn to dusk this drone of waters was constantly cut through by a sound that was like the sharp screaming and moaning of women. This was caused by hundreds of saws at work beside the waterfalls, taking advantage of that force. “Afterwards, when I read about the guillotine, I always thought of those saws,” said the poet, whose earliest flight of fancy seems to have been this association of womanhood with the shriek of the sawmill.
In 1888, just before his sixtieth birthday, Ibsen wrote out for Henrik Jaeger certain autobiographical recollections of his childhood. It is from these that the striking phrase about the scream of the saws is taken, and that is perhaps the most telling of these infant memories, many of which are slight and naive. It is interesting, however, to find that his earliest impressions of life at home were of an optimistic character. “Skien,” he says, “in my young days, was an exceedingly lively and sociable place, quite unlike what it afterwards became. Several highly cultivated and wealthy families lived in the town itself or close by on their estates. Most of these families were more or less closely related, and dances, dinners and music parties followed each other, winter and summer, in almost unbroken sequence. Many travellers, too, passed through the town, and, as there were as yet no regular inns, they lodged with friends or connections. We almost always had guests in our large, roomy house, especially at Christmas and Fair-time, when the house was full, and we kept open table from morning till night.” The mind reverts to the majestic old wooden mansions which play so prominent a part in Thomas Krag’s novels, or to the house of Mrs. Solness’ parents, the burning down of which started the Master-Builder’s fortunes. Most of these grand old timber houses in Norway have indeed, by this time, been so burned down.
We may speculate on what the effect of this genial open-handedness might have been, had it lasted, on the genius of the poet. But fortune had harsher views of what befitted the training of so acrid a nature. When Ibsen was eight years of age, his father’s business was found to be in such disorder that everything had to be sold to meet his creditors. The only piece of property left when this process had been gone through was a little broken-down farmhouse called Venstöb, in the outskirts of Skien. Ibsen afterwards stated that those who had taken most advantage of his parents’ hospitality in their prosperous days were precisely those who now most markedly turned a cold shoulder on them. It is likely enough that this may have been the case, but one sees how inevitably Ibsen would, in after years, be convinced that it was. He believed himself to have been, personally, much mortified and humiliated in childhood by the change in the family status. Already, by all accounts, he had begun to live a life of moral isolation. His excellent sister long afterwards described him as an unsociable child, never a pleasant companion, and out of sympathy with all the rest of the family.
We recollect, in The Wild Duck, the garret which was the domain of Hedvig and of that symbolic bird. At Venstöb, the infant Ibsen possessed a like retreat, a little room near the back entrance, which was sacred to him and into the fastness of which he was accustomed to bolt himself. Here were some dreary old books, among others Harrison’s folio History of the City of London, as well as a paint-box, an hour-glass, an extinct eight-day clock, properties which were faithfully introduced, half a century later, into The Wild Duck. His sister says that the only outdoor amusement he cared for as a boy was building, and she describes the prolonged construction of a castle, in the spirit of The Master-Builder.
Very soon he began to go to school, but to neither of the public institutions in the town. He attended what is described as a “small middle-class school,” kept by a man called Johan Hansen, who was the only person connected with his childhood, except his sister, for whom the poet retained in after life any agreeable sentiment. “Johan Hansen,” he says, “had a mild, amiable temper, like that of a child,” and when he died, in 1865, Ibsen mourned him. The sexton at Skien, who helped in the lessons, described the poet afterwards as “a quiet boy with a pair of wonderful eyes, but with no sort of cleverness except an unusual gift for drawing.” Hansen taught Ibsen Latin and theology, gently, perseveringly, without any striking results; that the pupil afterwards boasted of having successfully perused Phaedrus in the original is in itself significant. So little was talent expected from him that when, at the age of about fifteen, he composed a rather melodramatic description of a dream, the schoolmaster looked at him gloomily, and said he must have copied it out of some book! One can imagine the shocked silence of the author, “passive at the nadir of dismay.”
No great wild swan of the flocks of Phoebus ever began life as a more ungainly duckling than Ibsen did. The ingenuity of biographers has done its best to brighten up the dreary record of his childhood with anecdotes, yet the sum of them all is but a dismal story. The only talent which was supposed to lurk in the napkin was that for painting. A little while before he left school, he was found to have been working hard with water-colors. Various persons have recalled finished works of the young Ibsen — a romantic landscape of the ironworks at Fossum, a view from the windows at Venstöb, a boy in peasant dress seated on a rock, the latter described by a dignitary of the church as “awfully splendid,” overmaade praegtigt. One sees what kind of painting this must have been, founded on some impression of Fearnley and Tidemann, a far-away following of the new “national” art of the praiseworthy “patriot- painters” of the school of Dahl.
It is interesting to remember that Pope, who had considerable intellectual relationship with Ibsen, also nourished in childhood the ambition to be a painter, and drudged away at his easel for weeks and months. As he to the insipid Jervases and Knellers whom he copied, so Ibsen to the conscientious romantic artists of Norway’s prime. In neither case do we wish that an Ibsen or a Pope should be secured for the National Gallery, but it is highly significant that such earnest students of precise excellence in another art should first of all have schooled their eyes to exactitude by grappling with form and color.
In 1843, being fifteen years of age, Ibsen was confirmed and taken away from school. These events marked the beginning of adolescence with a young middle-class Norwegian of those days, for whom the future proposed no task in life demanding a more elaborate education than the local schoolmaster could give. Ibsen announced his wish to be a professional artist, but that was one which could not be indulged. Until a later date than this, every artist in Norway was forced abroad for the necessary technical training: as a rule, students went to Dresden, because J. C. Dahl was there; but many settled in Düsseldorf, where the teaching attracted them. In any case, the adoption of a plastic profession meant a long and serious expenditure of money, together with a very doubtful prospect of ultimate remuneration. Fearnley, who had seemed the very genius of Norwegian art, had just (1842) died, having scarcely begun to sell his pictures, at the age of forty. It is not surprising that Knud Ibsen, whose to were in a worse condition than ever, refused even to consider a course of life which would entail a heavy and long-continued expense.
Ibsen hung about at home for a few months, then, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he apprenticed to an apothecary of the name of Mann, at the little town of Grimstad, between Arendal and Christianssand, on the extreme south-east corner of the Norwegian coast. This was his home for more than five years; here he became a poet, and here the peculiar color and tone of his temperament were developed. So far as the genius of a very great man is influenced by his surroundings, and by his physical condition in those surroundings, it was the atmosphere of Grimstad and of its drug-store which moulded the character of Ibsen. Skien and his father’s house dropped from him like an old suit of clothes. He left his parents, whom he scarcely knew, the town which he hated, the schoolmates and schoolmasters to whom he seemed a surly dunce. We find him next, with an apron round his middle and a pestle in his hand, pounding drugs in a little apothecary’s shop in Grimstad. What Blackwood’s so basely insinuated of Keats —“Back to the shop, Mr. John, stick to plasters, pills and ointment-boxes,” inappropriate to the author of Endymion, was strictly true of the author of Peer Gynt.
Curiosity and hero-worship once took the author of these lines to Grimstad. It is a marvellous object-lesson on the development of genius. For nearly six years (from 1844 to 1850), and those years the most important of all in the moulding of character and talent, one of the most original and far-reaching imaginations which Europe has seen for a century was cooped up here among ointment-boxes, pills and plasters. Grimstad is a small, isolated, melancholy place, connected with nothing at all, visitable only by steamer. Featureless hills surround it, and it looks out into the east wind, over a dark bay dotted with naked rocks. No industry, no objects of interest in the vicinity, a perfect uniformity of little red houses where nobody seems to be doing anything; in Ibsen’s time there are said to have been about five hundred of these apathetic inhabitants. Here, then, for six interminable years, one of the acutest brains in Europe had to interest itself in fraying ipecacuanha and mixing black draughts behind an apothecary’s counter.
For several years nothing is recorded, and there was probably very little that demanded record, of Ibsen’s life at Grimstad. His own interesting notes, it is obvious, refer only to the closing months of the period. Ten years before the birth of Ibsen of the greatest poets of Europe had written words which seem meant to characterize an adolescence such as his. “The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted; thence proceed mawkishness and a thousand bitters.”
It is easy to discover that Ibsen, from his sixth to his twentieth year, suffered acutely from moral and intellectual distemper. He was at war — the phrase is his own — with the little community in which he lived. And yet it seems to have been, in its tiny way, a tolerant and even friendly little community. It is difficult for us to realize what life in a remote coast-town of Norway would be sixty years ago. Connection with the capital would be rare and difficult, and, when achieved, the capital was as yet little more than we should call a village. There would, perhaps, be a higher uniformity of education among the best inhabitants of Grimstad than we are prepared to suppose. A certain graceful veneer of culture, an old-fashioned Danish elegance reflected from Copenhagen, would mark the more conservative citizens, male and female. A fierier generation — not hot enough, however, to set the fjord on flame — would celebrate the comparatively recent freedom of the country in numerous patriotic forms. It is probable that a dark boy like Ibsen would, on the whole, prefer the former type, but he would despise them both.
He was poor, excruciatingly poor, with a poverty that excluded all indulgence, beyond the bare necessities, in food and clothes and books. We can conceive the meagre advance of his position, first a mere apprentice, then an assistant, finally buoyed up by the advice of friends to study medicine and pharmacy, in the hope of being, some bright day, himself no less than the owner of a drug-store. Did Mr. Anstey know this, or was it the sheer adventure of genius, when he contrasted the qualities of the master into “Pill-Doctor Herdal,” compounding “beautiful rainbow-colored powders that will give one a real grip on the world”? Ibsen, it is allowable to think, may sometimes have dreamed of a pill, “with arsenic in it, Hilda, and digitalis, too, and strychnine and the best beetle-killer,” which would decimate the admirable inhabitants of Grimstad, strewing the rocks with their bodies in their go-to-meeting coats and dresses. He had in him that source of anger, against which all arguments are useless, which bubbles up in the heart of youth who vaguely feels himself possessed of native energy, and knows not how to stir a hand or even formulate a wish. He was savage in manners, unprepossessing in appearance, and, as he himself has told us with pathetic naïveté, unable to express the real gratitude he felt to the few who would willingly have extended friendship to him if he had permitted it.
As he advanced in age, he does not seem to have progressed in grace. By the respectable citizens of Grimstad — and even Grimstad had its little inner circle of impenetrable aristocracy — he regarded as “not quite nice.” The apothecary’s assistant was a bold young man, who did not seem to realize his menial position. He was certainly intelligent, and Grimstad would have overlooked the pills and ointments if his manners had been engaging, but he was rude, truculent and contradictory. The youthful female sex is not in the habit of sharing the prejudices of its elders in this respect, and many a juvenile Orson has, in such conditions, enjoyed substantial successes. But young Ibsen was not a favorite even with the girls, whom he alarmed and disconcerted. One of the young ladies of Grimstad in after years attempted to describe the effect which the poet made upon them. They had none of them liked him, she said, “because”— she hesitated for the word —“because he was so spectral.” This gives us just the flash we want; it reveals to us for a moment the distempered youth, almost incorporeal, displayed wandering about at twilight and in lonely places, held in common esteem to be malevolent, and expressing by gestures rather than by words sentiments of a nature far from complimentary or agreeable.
Thus life at Grimstad seems to have proceeded until Ibsen reached his twenty-first year. In this quiet backwater of a seaport village the passage of time was deliberate, and the development of hard-worked apothecaries was slow. Ibsen’s nature was not in any sense precocious, and even if he had not languished in so lost a corner of society, it is unlikely that he would have started prematurely in life or literature. The actual waking up, when it came at last, seems to have been almost an accident. There had been some composing of verses, now happily lost, and some more significant distribution of “epigrams” and “caricatures” to the vexation of various worthy persons. The earliest trace of talent seems to been in this direction, in the form of lampoons or “characters,” as people called them in the seventeenth century, sarcastic descriptions of types in which certain individuals could be recognized. No doubt if these could be recovered, we should find them rough and artless, but containing germs of the future keenness of portraiture. They were keen enough, it seems, to rouse great resentment in Grimstad.
There is evidence to show that the lad had docility enough, at all events, to look about for some aid in the composition of Norwegian prose. We should know nothing of it but for a passage in Ibsen’s later polemic with Paul Jansenius Stub of Bergen. In 1848 Stub was an invalid schoolmaster, who, it appears, eked out his income by giving instruction, by correspondence, in style. How Ibsen heard of him does not seem to be known, but when, in 1851, Ibsen entered, with needless acrimony, into a controversy with his previous teacher about the theatre, Stub complained of his ingratitude, since he had “taught the boy to write.” Stub’s intervention in the matter, doubtless, was limited to the correction of a few exercises.
Ibsen’s own theory was that his intellect and character were awakened by the stir of revolution throughout Europe. The first political event which really interested him was the proclamation of the French Republic, which almost coincided with his twentieth birthday. He was born again, a child of ‘48. There were risings in Vienna, in Milan, in Rome. Venice was proclaimed a republic, the Pope fled to Gaeta, the streets of Berlin ran with the blood of the populace. The Magyars rose against Jellalic and his Croat troops; the Czechs demanded their autonomy; in response to the revolutionary feeling in Germany, Schleswig-Holstein was up in arms.
Each of these events, and others like them, and all occurring in the rapid months of that momentous year, smote like hammers on the door of Ibsen’s brain, till it quivered with enthusiasm and excitement. The old brooding languor was at an end, and with surprising clearness and firmness he saw his pathway cut out before him as a poet and as a man. The old clouds vanished, and though the social difficulties which hemmed in his career were as gross as ever, he himself no longer doubted what was to be his aim in life. The cry of revolution came to him, of revolution faint indeed and broken, the voice of a minority appealing frantically and for a moment against the overwhelming forces of a respectable majority, but it came to him just at the moment when his young spirit was prepared to receive it with faith and joy. The effect on Ibsen’s character was sudden and it was final:
Then he stood up, and trod to dust
Fear and desire, mistrust and trust,
And dreams of bitter sleep and sweet,
And bound for sandals on his feet
Knowledge and patience of what must
And what things maybe, in the heat
And cold of years that rot and rust
And alter; and his spirit’s meat
Was freedom, and his staff was wrought
Of strength, and his cloak woven of thought.
We are not left to conjecture on the subject; in a document of extreme interest, which seems somehow to have escaped the notice of his commentators, the preface to the second (1876) edition of Catilina, he has described what the influences were which roused him out of the wretchedness of Grimstad; they were precisely the revolution of February, the risings in Hungary, the first Schleswig war. He wrote a series of sonnets, now apparently lost, to King Oscar, imploring him to take up arms for the help of Denmark, and of nights, when all his duties were over at last, and the shop shut up, he would creep to the garret where he slept, and dream himself fighting at the centre of the world, instead of lost on its extreme circumference. And here he began his first drama, the opening lines of which,
“I must, I must; a voice is crying to me
From my soul’s depth, and I will follow it,”
might be taken as the epigraph of Ibsen’s whole life’s work.
In one of his letters to Georg Brandes he has noted, with that clairvoyance which marks some of his utterances about himself, the “full-blooded egotism” which developed in him during his last year of mental and moral starvation at Grimstad. Through the whole series of his satiric dramas we see the little narrow-minded borough, with its ridiculous officials, its pinched and hypocritical social order, its intolerable laws and ordinances, modified here and there, expanded sometimes, modernized and brought up to date, but always recurrent in the poet’s memory. To the last, the images and the rebellions which were burned into his soul at Grimstad were presented over and over again to his readers.
But the necessity of facing the examination at Christiania now presented itself. He was so busily engaged in the shop that he had, as he says, to steal his hours for study. He still inhabited the upper room, which he calls a garret; it would not seem that the alteration in his status, assistant now and no longer apprentice, had increased his social conveniences. He was still the over-worked apothecary, pounding drugs with a pestle and mortar from morning till night. Someone has pointed out the odd circumstance that almost every scene in the drama of Catilina takes place in the dark. This was the unconscious result of the fact that all the attention which the future realist could give to the story had to be given in the night hours. When he emerged from the garret, it was to read Latin with a candidate in theology, a Mr. Monrad, brother of the afterwards famous professor. By a remarkable chance, the subject given by the University for examination was the Conspiracy of Catiline, to be studied in the history of Sallust and the oration of Cicero.
No theme could have been more singularly well fitted to fire the enthusiasm of Ibsen. At no time of his life a linguist, or much interested in history, it is probable that the difficulty of concentrating his attention on a Latin text would have been insurmountable had the subject been less intimately sympathetic to him. But he tells us that he had no sooner perceived the character of the man against whom these diatribes are directed than he devoured them greedily (jeg slugte disse skrifter). The opening words of Sallust, which every schoolboy has to read — we can imagine with what an extraordinary force they would strike upon the resounding emotion of such a youth as Ibsen. Lucius Catilina nobili genere natus, magna vi et animi et corporis, sed ingenio malo pravoque — how does this at once bring up an image of the arch-rebel, of Satan himself, as the poets have conceived him, how does it attract, with its effects of energy, intelligence and pride, the curiosity of one whose way of life, as Keats would say, is still undecided, his ambition still thick-sighted!
It was Sallust’s picture more than Cicero’s that absorbed Ibsen. Criticism likes to trace a predecessor behind every genius, a Perugino for Raffaelle, a Marlowe for Shakespeare. If we seek for the master-mind that started Ibsen, it is not to be found among the writers of his age or of his language. The real master of Ibsen was Sallust. There can be no doubt that the cold and bitter strength of Sallust; his unflinching method of building up his edifice of invective, stone by stone; his close, unidealistic, dry penetration into character; his clinical attitude, unmoved at the death-bed of a reputation; that all these qualities were directly operative on the mind and intellectual character of Ibsen, and went a long way to mould it while moulding was still possible.
There is no evidence to show that the oration of Cicero moved him nearly so much as the narratives of Sallust. After all, the object of Cicero was to crush the conspiracy, but what Ibsen was interested in was the character of Catiline, and this was placed before him in a more thrilling way by the austere reserve of the historian. No doubt, to a young poet, when that poet was Ibsen, there would be something deeply attractive in the sombre, archaic style, and icy violence of Sallust. How thankful we ought to be that the historian, with his long sonorous words — flagitiosorum ac facinorosorum — did not make of our perfervid apothecary a mere tub-thumper of Corinthian prose!
Ibsen now formed the two earliest friendships of his life. He had reached the age of twenty without, as it would seem, having been able to make his inner nature audible to those around him. He had been to the inhabitants of Grimstad a stranger within their gates, not speaking their language; or, rather, wholly “spectral,” speaking no language at all, but indulging in cat-calls and grimaces. He was now discovered like Caliban, and tamed, and made vocal, by the strenuous arts of friendship. One of those who thus interpreted him was a young musician, Due, who held a post in the custom-house; the other was Ole Schulerud (1827-59), who deserves a cordial acknowledgment from every admirer of Ibsen. He also was in the receipt of custom, and a young man of small independent means. To Schulerud and to Due, Ibsen revealed his poetic plans, and he seems to have found in them both sympathizers with his republican enthusiasms and transcendental schemes for the liberation of the peoples. It was a stirring time, in 1848, and all generous young blood was flowing fast in the same direction.
Since Ibsen’s death, Due has published a very lively paper of recollections of the old Grimstad days. He says:
His daily schedule admitted few intervals for rest or sleep. Yet I never heard Ibsen complain of being tired. His health was uniformly good. He must have had an exceptionally strong constitution, for when his financial conditions compelled him to practice the most stringent economy, he tried to do without underclothing, and finally even without stockings. In these experiments he succeeded; and in winter he went without an overcoat; yet without being troubled by colds or other bodily ills.
We have seen that Ibsen was so busy that he had to steal from his duties the necessary hours for study. But out of these hours, he tells us, he stole moments for the writing of poetry, of the revolutionary poetry of which we have spoken, and for a great quantity of lyrics of a sentimental and fanciful kind. Due was the confidant to whom he recited the latter, and one at least of these early pieces survives, set to music by this friend. But to Schulerud a graver secret was intrusted, no less than that in the night hours of 1848-49 there was being composed in the garret over the apothecary’s shop a three-act tragedy in blank verse, on the conspiracy of Catiline. With his own hand, when the first draft was completed, Schulerud made a clean copy of the drama, and in the autumn of 1849 he went to Christiania with the double purpose of placing Catilina at the theatre and securing a publisher for it. A letter (October 15, 1849) from Ibsen, first printed in 1904 — the only document we possess of this earliest period — displays to a painful degree the torturing anxiety with which the poet awaited news of his play, and, incidentally, exposes his poverty. With all Schulerud’s energy, he found it impossible to gain attention for Catilina at the theatre, and in January, 1850, Ibsen received what he called its “death warrant,” but it was presently brought out as a volume, under the pseudonym of Brynjolf Bjarme, at Schulerud’s expense. Of Catilina about thirty copies were sold, and it attracted no notice whatever from the press.
Meanwhile, left alone in Grimstad, since Due was now with Schulerud in Christiania, Ibsen had been busy with many literary projects. He had been writing an abundance of lyrics, he had begun a one-act drama called “The Normans,” afterwards turned into Kaempehöjen; he was planning a romance, The Prisoner at Akershus (this was to deal with the story of Christian Lofthus); and above all he was busy writing a tragedy of Olaf Trygvesön. [Note: On the authority of the Breve, pp. 59, 59, where Halvdan Koht prints “Olaf Tr.” and “Olaf T.” expanding these to Tr[ygvesön]. But is it quite certain that what Ibsen wrote in these letters was not “Olaf Li.” and “Olaf L.,” and that the reference is not to Olaf Liljekrans, which was certainly begun at Grimstad? Is there any other evidence that Ibsen ever started an Olaf Trygvesön?
One of his poems had already been printed in a Christiania newspaper. The call was overwhelming; he could endure Grimstad and the gallipots no longer. In March, 1850, at the age of twenty-one, Ibsen stuck a few dollars in his pocket and went off to try his fortune in the capital.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56