Ibsen’s native biographers have not found much to record, and still less that deserves to recorded, about his life during the next five years. He remained in Bergen, cramped by want of means in his material condition, and much harassed and worried by the little pressing requirements of the theatre. It seems that every responsibility fell upon his shoulders, and that there was no part of stage-life that it was not his duty to look after. The dresses of the actresses, the furniture, the scene-painting, the instruction of raw Norwegian actors and actresses, the selection of plays, now to please himself, now to please the bourgeois of Bergen, all this must be done by the poet or not done at all. Just so, two hundred years earlier, we may imagine Molière, at Carcassonne or Albi, bearing up in his arms, a weary Titan, all the frivolities and anxieties and misdeeds of a whole company of comedians.
So far as our very scanty evidence goes, we find the poet isolated from his fellows, so far as isolation was possible, during his long stay at Bergen. He was not accused, and if there had been a chance he would have been accused, of dereliction. No doubt he pushed through the work of the theatre doggedly, but certainly not in a convivial spirit. The Norwegians are a hospitable and festal people, and there is no question that the manager of the theatre would have unusual opportunities of being jolly with his friends. But it does not appear that Ibsen made friends; if so, they were few, and they were as quiet as himself. Even in these early years he did not invite confidences, and no one found him wearing his heart upon his sleeve. He went through his work without effusion, and there is no doubt that what leisure he enjoyed he spent in study, mainly of dramatic literature.
His reading must have been limited by his insensibility to foreign languages. All through his life he forgot the tongues of other countries almost faster than he gained them. Probably, at this time, he had begun to know German, a language in which he did ultimately achieve a fluency which was, it appears, always ungrammatical. But, as is not unfrequent with a man who is fond of reading but no linguist, Ibsen’s French and English came and went in a trembling uncertainty. As time passed on, he gave up the effort to read, even a newspaper, in either language.
The mile-stones in this otherwise blank time are the original plays which, perhaps in accordance with some clause in his agreement, he produced at his theatre in the first week of January in each year. A list of them cannot be spared in this place to the most indolent of readers, since it offers, in a nutshell, a résumé of what the busy imagination of Ibsen was at work upon up to his thirtieth year. His earliest new-year’s gift to the play-goers of Bergen was St. John’s Night, 1853, a piece which has not been printed; in 1854 he revived The Warrior’s Barrow; in 1855 he made an immense although irregular advance with Lady Inger at Östraat; in 1856 he produced The Feast at Solhoug; in 1857 a rewritten version of the early Olaf Liljekrans. These are the juvenile works of Ibsen, which are scarcely counted in the recognized canon of his writings. None of them is completely representative of his genius, and several are not yet within reach of the English reader. Yet they have a considerable importance, and must detain us for a while. They are remarkable as showing the vigor of the effort by which he attempted to create an independent style for himself, no less than the great difficulties which he encountered in following this admirable aim.
Lady Inger at Östraat, written in the winter of 1854 but not published until 1857, is unique among Ibsen’s works as a romantic exercise in the manner of Scribe. It is the sole example of a theme taken by him directly from comparatively modern history, and treated purely for its value as a study of contemporary intrigue. From this point of view it curiously exemplifies a remark of Hazlitt: “The progress of manners and knowledge has an influence on the stage, and will in time perhaps destroy both tragedy and comedy. . . . At last, there will be nothing left, good nor bad, to be desired or dreaded, on the theatre or in real life.”
When Ibsen undertook to write about Inger Gyldenlöve, he was but little acquainted with the particulars of her history. He conceived her, as he found her in the incomplete chronicles he consulted, as a Matriarch, a wonderful and heroic elderly woman around whom all the hopes of an embittered patriotism were legitimately centred. Unfortunately, “the progress of knowledge,” as Hazlitt would say, exposed the falsity of this conception. A closer inspection of the documents, and further analysis of the condition of Norway in 1528, destroyed the fair illusion, and showed Ibsen in the light of an indulgent idealist.
Here is what Jaeger [Note: In En literaert Livsbillede] has to give us of the disconcerting results of research:
In real life Lady Inger was not a woman formed upon so grand a plan. She was the descendant of an old and noble family which had preserved its dignity, and she consequently was the wealthiest landowner in the country. This, and this alone, gives her a right to a place in history. If we study her life, we find no reason to suppose that patriotic considerations ever affected her conduct. The motive power of her actions was on a far lower plane, and seems to have consisted mainly in an amazingly strong instinct for adding to her wealth and her status. We find her, for instance, on one occasion seizing the estates of a neighbor, and holding them till she was actually forced to resign them. When she gave her daughters in marriage to Danish noblemen, it was to secure direct advantage from alliance with the most high-born sons-in- law procurable. When she took a convent under her protection, she contrived to extort a rent which well repaid her. Even for a good action she exacted a return, and when she offered harbor to the persecuted Chancellor, she had the adroitness to be well rewarded by a large sum in rose-nobles and Hungarian gulden.
All this could not fail to be highly exasperating to Ibsen, who had set out to be a realist, and was convicted by the spiteful hand of history of having been an idealist of the rose-water class. No wonder that he never touched the sequence of modern events any more.
There is some slight, but of course unconscious, resemblance to Macbeth in the external character of Lady Inger. This play has something of the roughness of a mediaeval record, and it depicts a condition of life where barbarism uncouthly mingles with a certain luxury of condition. There is, however, this radical difference that in Lady Inger there is nothing preternatural, and it is, indeed, in this play that Ibsen seems first to appreciate the value of a stiff attention to realism. The romantic elements of the story, however, completely dominate his imagination, and when we have read the play carefully what remains with us most vividly is the picturesqueness and unity of the scene. The action, vehement and tumultuous as it is, takes place entirely within the walls of Östraat castle, a mysterious edifice, sombre and ancient, built on a crag over the ocean, and dimly lighted by
Magic casements opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn.
The action is exclusively nocturnal, and so large a place in it is taken by huge and portable candlesticks that it might be called the Tragedy of the Candelabra. Through the windows, on the landward side, a procession of mysterious visitors go by in the moonlight, one by one, each fraught with the solemnity of fate. The play is full of striking pictures, groups in light and shade, pictorial appeals to terror and pity.
The fault of the drama lies in the uncertain conception of the characters, and particularly of that of the Matriarch herself. Inger is described to us as the Mother of the Norwegian People, as the one strong, inflexible and implacable brain moving in a world of depressed and irritated men. “Now there is no knight left in our land,” says Finn, but — and this is the point from which the play starts — there is Inger Gyldenlöve. We have approached the moment of crisis when the fortunes and the fates of Norway rest upon the firmness of this majestic woman. Inger is driven forward on the tide of circumstance, and, however she may ultimately fail, we demand evidence of her inherent greatness. This, however, we fail to receive, and partly, no doubt, because Ibsen was still distracted at the division of the ways.
Oehlenschläger, if he had attempted this theme, would have made no attempt after subtlety of character painting and still less after correctness of historic color. He would have given small shrift to Olaf Skaktavl, the psychological outlaw. But he would have drawn Inger, the Mother of her People, in majestic strokes, and we should have had a great simplicity, a noble outline with none of the detail put in. Ibsen, already, cannot be satisfied with this; to him the detail is every thing, and the result is a hopeless incongruity between the cartoon and the finished work.
Lady Inger, in Ibsen’s play, fails to impress us with greatness. “The deed no less than the attempt confounds” her. She displays, from the opening scene, a weakness that is explicable, but excludes all evidence of her energy. The ascendency of Nils Lykke, over herself and over her singularly and unconvincingly modern daughter, Elima, in what does it consist? In a presentation of a purely physical attractiveness; Nils Lykke is simply a voluptuary, pursuing his good fortunes, with impudent ease, in the home of his ancestral enemies. In his hands, and not in his only, the majestic Inger is reduced from a queen to a pawn. All manhood, we are told, is dead in Norway; if this be so, then what a field is cleared where a heroine like Inger, not young and a victim to her passions, nor old and delivered to decrepit fears, may show us how a woman of intellect and force can take the place of man. Instead of this, one disguised and anonymous adventurer after another comes forth out of the night, and confuses her with pretensions and traps her with deceits against which her intellect protests but her will is powerless to contend.
Another feature in the conduct of Lady Inger portrays the ambitious but the inexperienced dramatist. No doubt a pious commentator can successfully unravel all the threads of the plot, but the spectator demands that a play should be clearly and easily intelligible. The audience, however, is sorely puzzled by the events of this awful third night after Martinmas, and resents the obscurity of all this intrigue by candlelight. Why do the various persons meet at Östraat? Who sends them? Whence do they come and whither do they go? To these questions, no doubt, an answer can be found, and it is partly given, and very awkwardly, by the incessant introduction of narrative. The confused and melodramatic scene in the banquet-hall between Nils Lykke and Skaktavl is of central importance, but what is it about? The business with Lucia’s coffin is a kind of nightmare, in the taste of Webster or of Cyril Tourneur. All these shortcomings are slurred over by the enthusiastic critics of Scandinavia, yet they call for indulgence. The fact is that Lady Inger+ is a brilliant piece of romantic extravagance, which is extremely interesting in illuminating the evolution of Ibsen’s genius, and particularly as showing him in the act of emancipating himself from Danish traditions, but which has little positive value as a drama.
The direct result of the failure of Lady Inger — for it did not please the play-goers of Bergen and but partly satisfied its author — was, however, to send him back, for the moment, more violently than ever to the Danish tradition. Any record of this interesting phase in Ibsen’s career is, however, complicated by the fact that late in his life (in 1883) he did what was very unusual with him: he wrote a detailed account of the circumstances of his poetical work in 1855 and 1856. He denied, in short, that he had undergone any influence from the Danish poet whom he had been persistently accused of imitating, and he traced the movement of his mind to purely Norwegian sources. During the remainder of his lifetime, of course, this statement greatly confounded criticism, and there is still a danger of Ibsen’s disclaimer being accepted for gospel. However, literary history must be built on the evidence before it, and the actual text of The Feast at Solhoug, and of Olaf Liljekrans must be taken in spite of anything their author chose to say nearly thirty years afterwards. Great poets, without the least wish to mystify, often, in the cant phrase, “cover their tracks.” Tennyson, in advanced years, denied that he had ever been influenced by Shelley or Keats. So Ibsen disclaimed any effect upon his style of the lyrical dramas of Hertz. But we must appeal from the arrogance of old age to the actual works of youth.
Henrik Hertz (1798-1870) was the most exquisite, the most delicate, of the Danish writers of his age. He was deeply impressed with the importance of form in drama, and at the height of his powers he began to compose rhymed plays which were like old ballads put into dialogue. His comedy of Cupid’s Strokes of Genius (1830) began a series of tragi- comedies which gradually deepened in passion and melody, till they culminated in two of the acknowledged masterpieces of the Danish stage, Svend Dyring’s House (1837) and King René’s Daughter (1845). The genius of Hertz was diametrically opposed to that of Ibsen; in all Europe there were not two authors less alike. Hertz would have pleased Kenelm Digby, and if that romantic being had read Danish, the poet of chivalry must have had a niche in The Broad Stone of Honour. Hertz’s style is delicate to the verge of sweetness; his choice of words is fantastically exquisite, yet so apposite as to give an impression of the inevitable. He cares very little for psychological exactitude or truth of observation; but he is the very type of what we mean by a verbal artist.
Ibsen made acquaintance with the works, and possibly with the person, of Hertz, when he was in Copenhagen in 1852. There can be no doubt whatever that, while he was anxiously questioning his own future, and conscious of crude faults in Lady Inger, he set himself, as a task, to write in the manner of Hertz. It is difficult to doubt that it was a deliberate exercise, and we see the results in The Feast at Solhoug and in Olaf Liljekrans. These two plays are in ballad-rhyme and prose, like Hertz’s romantic dramas; there is the same determination to achieve the chivalric ideal; but the work is that of a disciple, not of a master. Where Hertz, with his singing-robes fluttering about him, dances without an ungraceful gesture through the elaborate and yet simple masque that he has set before him to perform, Ibsen has high and sudden flights of metrical writing, but breaks down surprisingly at awkward intervals, and displays a hopeless inconsistency between his own nature and the medium in which he is forcing himself to write. As a proof that the similarity between The Feast at Solhoug and Svend Dyring’s House is accidental, it has been pointed out that Ibsen produced his own play on the Bergen stage in January, 1856, and revived Hertz’s a month later. It might, surely, be more sensibly urged that this fact shows how much he was captivated by the charm of the Danish dramatist.
The sensible thing, in spite of Ibsen’s late disclaimer, is to suppose that, in the consciousness of his crudity and inexperience as a writer, he voluntarily sat at the feet of the one great poet whom he felt had most to teach him. On the boards at Bergen, The Feast at Solhoug was a success, while Olaf Liljekrans was a failure; but neither incident could have meant very much to Ibsen, who, if there ever was a poet who lived in the future, was waiting and watching for the development of his own genius. Slowly, without precocity, without even that joy in strength of maturity which comes to most great writers before the age of thirty, he toiled on in a sort of vacuum. His youth was one of unusual darkness, because he had not merely poverty, isolation, citizenship of a remote and imperfectly civilized country to contend against, but because his critical sense was acute enough to teach him that he himself was still unripe, still unworthy of the fame that he thirsted for. He had not even the consolation which a proud confidence in themselves gives to the unappreciated young, for in his heart of hearts he knew that he had as yet done nothing which deserved the highest praise. But his imagination was expanding with a steady sureness, and the long years of his apprenticeship were drawing to a close.
Ibsen was now, like other young Norwegian poets, and particularly Björnson, coming into the range of that wind of nationalistic inspiration which had begun to blow down from the mountains and to fill every valley with music. The Norwegians were discovering that they possessed a wonderful hidden treasure in their own ancient poetry and legend. It was a gentle, clerically minded poet — himself the son of a peasant — Jörgen Moe (1813-82), long afterwards Bishop of Christianssand, who, as far back as 1834, began to collect from peasants the folk-tales of Norway. The childlike innocence and playful humor of these stories were charming to the mind of Moe, who was fortunately joined by a stronger though less delicate spirit in the person of Peter Christian Asbjörnsen. Their earliest collection of folk-lore in collaboration appeared in 1841, but it was the full edition of 1856 which produced a national sensation, and doubtless awakened Ibsen in Bergen. Meanwhile, in 1853, M. B. Landstad had published the earliest of his collections of the folkeviser, or national songs, while L. M. Lindeman in the same years (1853-59) was publishing, in installments, the peasant melodies of Norway. Moreover, Ibsen, who read no Icelandic, was studying the ancient sagas in the faithful and vigorous paraphrase of Petersen, and all combined to determine him to make an experiment in a purely national and archaistic direction.
Ibsen, whose practice is always better than his theory, has given rather a confused account of the circumstances that led to the composition of his next play, The Vikings at Helgeland. But it is clear that in looking through Petersen for a subject which would display, in broad and primitive forms, the clash of character in an ancient Norwegian family, he fell upon “Volsungasaga,” and somewhat rashly responded to its vigorous appeal. He thought that in this particular episode, “the titanic conditions and occurrences of the ‘Nibelungenlied’” and other pro-mediaeval legends had “been reduced to human dimensions.” He believed that to dramatize such a story would lift what he called “our national epic material” to a higher plane. There is one phrase in his essay which is very interesting, in the light it throws upon the object which the author had before him in writing The Vikings at Helgeland. He says clearly — and this was intended as a revolt against the tradition of Oehlenschläger —“it was not my aim to present our mythic world, but simply our life in primitive times.” Brandes says of this departure that it is “indeed a new conquest, but, like so many conquests, associated with very extensive plundering.”
In turning to an examination of The Vikings, the first point which demands notice is that Ibsen has gained a surprising mastery over the arts of theatrical writing since we met with him last. There is nothing of the lyrical triviality of the verse in The Feast at Solhoug about the trenchant prose of The Vikings, and the crepuscular dimness of Lady Inger is exchanged for a perfect lucidity and directness. Whatever we may think about the theatrical propriety of the conductor of the vikings, there is no question at all as to what it is they do and mean. Ibsen has gained, and for good, that master quality of translucent presentation without which all other stage gifts are shorn of their value. When we have, however, praised the limpidity of The Vikings at Helgeland, we have, in honesty, to make several reservations in our criticism of the author’s choice of a subject. It is valuable to compare Ibsen’s treatment of Icelandic family-saga with that of William Morris; let us say, in The Lovers of Gudrun. That enchanting little epic deals with an episode from one of the great Iceland narratives, and follows it much more closely than Ibsen’s does. But we are conscious of a less painful effort and of a more human result. Morris does successfully what Ibsen unsuccessfully aimed at doing: he translates the heroic and half- fabulous action into terms that are human and credible.
It was, moreover, an error of judgment on the part of the Norwegian playwright to make his tragedy a mosaic of effective bits borrowed hither and thither from the Sagas. Scandinavian bibliography has toiled to show his indebtedness to this tale and to that, and he has been accused of concealing his plagiarisms. But to say this is to miss the mark. A poet is at liberty to steal what he will, if only he builds his thefts up into a living structure of his own. For this purpose, however, it is practically found that, owing perhaps to the elastic consistency of individual human nature, it is safest to stick to one story, embroidering and developing it along its own essential lines.
There is great vigor, however, in many of the scenes in The Vikings. The appearance of Hiördis on the stage, in the opening act, marks, perhaps, the first occasion on which Ibsen had put forth his full strength as a playwright. This entrance of Hiördis ought to be extremely effective; in fact, we understand, it rarely is. The cause of this disappointment can easily be discovered. It is the misfortune of The Vikings that it is hardly to be acted by mortal men. Hiördis herself is superhuman; she has eaten the heart of a wolf, she claims direct descent from a race of fighting giants. There is a grandeur about the conception of her form and character, but it is a grandeur which might well daunt a human actress. One can faintly imagine the part being played by Mrs. Siddons, with such an extremity of fierceness and terror that ladies and gentlemen would be carried out of the theatre in hysterics, as in the days of Byron. Where Hiördis insults her guests, and contrives the horrid murder of the boy Thorolf before their eyes, we have a stage- dilemma presented to us-either the actress must treat the scene inadequately, or else intolerably. Ne pueros coram populo Medea trucidet, and we shrink from Hiördis with a physical disgust. Her great hands and shrieking mouth are like Bellona’s, and they smell of blood.
What is true of Hiördis is true in less degree of all the characters in The Vikings. They are “great beautiful half-witted men,” as Mr. Chesterton would say:
Our sea was dark with dreadful ships
Full of strange spoil and fire,
And hairy men, as strange as sin,
With horrid heads, came wading in
Through the long low sea-mire.
This is the other side of the picture; this is how Örnulf and his seven terrible sons must have appeared to Kaare the peasant, and this is how, to tell the truth, they would in real life appear to us. The persons in The Vikings at Helgeland are so primitive that they scarcely appeal to our sense of reality. In spite of all the romantic color that the poet has lavished upon them, and the majestic sentiments which he has put into their mouths, we feel that the inhabitants of Helgeland must have regarded them as those of Surbiton regarded the beings who were shot down from Mars in Mr. Wells’ blood-curdling story.
The Vikings at Helgeland is a work of extraordinary violence and agitation. The personages bark at one another like seals and roar like sea-lions; they “cry for blood, like beasts at night.” Örnulf, the aged father of a grim and speechless clan, is sorely wounded at the beginning of the play, but it makes no difference to him; no one binds up his arm, but he talks, fights, travels as before. We may see here foreshadowed various features of Ibsen’s more mannered work. Here is his favorite conventional tame man, since, among the shouting heroes, Gunnar whimpers like a Tesman. Here is Ibsen’s favorite trick of unrequited self- sacrifice; it is Sigurd, in Gunnar’s armor, who kills the mystical white bear, but it is Gunnar who reaps the advantage. It is only fair to say that there is more than this to applaud in The Vikings at Helgeland; it moves on a consistent and high level of austere romantic beauty. Mr. William Archer, who admires the play more than any Scandinavian critic has done, justly draws attention to the nobility of Örnulf’s entrance in the third act. Yet, on the whole, I confess myself unable to be surprised at the severity with which Heiberg judged The Vikings at its first appearance, a severity which must have wounded Ibsen to the quick.
The year 1857 was one of unsettlement in Ibsen’s condition. The period for which he had undertaken to manage the theatre at Bergen had now come to a close, and he was not anxious to prolong it. He had had enough of Bergen, to which only one chain now bound him. Those who read the incidents of a poet’s life into the pages of his works may gratify their tendency by seeing in the discussions between Dagny and Hiördis some echo of the thoughts which were occupying Ibsen’s mind in relation to the married state. Since his death, the story has been told of his love- affair with a very young girl, Rikke Holst, who had attracted his notice by throwing a bunch of wild flowers in his face, and whom he followed and desired to marry. Her father had rejected the proposal with indignation. Ibsen had suffered considerably, but this was, after all, an early and a very fugitive sentiment, which made no deep impression on his heart, although it seems to have always lingered in his memory.
There had followed a sentiment much deeper and much more emphatic. A charming, though fragmentary, set of verses, addressed in January, 1856, to Miss Susannah Thoresen, show that already for a long while he had come to regard this girl of twenty as “the young dreaming enigma,” the possible solution of which interested him more than that of any other living problem. It was more than the conversation of a versifying lover which made Ibsen speak of Miss Thoresen’s “blossoming child-soul” as the bourne of his ambitions. In his dark way, he was already violently in love with her.
The household of her father, Hans Conrad Thoresen, was the most cultivated in Bergen. He himself, the rector of Holy Cross, was a bookish, meditative man of no particular initiative, but he had married, as his third wife, Anna Maria Kragh, a Dane by birth, and for a long time, with the possible exception of Camilla Collett, Wergeland’s sister, the most active woman of letters in Norway. Mrs. Thoresen was the step-mother of Susannah, the only child of her husband’s second marriage. Between Magdalene Thoresen and Ibsen a strong friendship had sprung up, which lasted to the end of their lives, and some of Ibsen’s best letters are those written to his wife’s step-mother. She worked hard for him at the Bergen theatre, translating plays from the French, and it was during Ibsen’s management of the theatre that several of her own pieces were produced. Her prose stories, in connection with which her name lives in Norwegian literature, were not yet written; so long as Ibsen was at her side, her ideas seem to have been concentrated on the stage. Constant communication with this charming woman only nine years his senior, and much his superior in conventional culture, must have been a school of refinement to the crude and powerful young poet. And now the wise Magdalene appeared to him in a new light, dedicating to him the best treasure of the family circle, the gay and yet mysterious Susannah.
While he was writing The Vikings at Helgeland, and courting Susannah Thoresen, Ibsen received what seemed a timely invitation to settle in Christiania as director of the Norwegian Theatre; he returned, thereupon, to the capital in the summer of 1857, after an absence of six years. Now began another period of six years more, these the most painful in Ibsen’s life, when, as Halvorsen has said, he had to fight not merely for the existence of himself and his family, but for the very existence of Norwegian poetry and the Norwegian stage. This struggle was an excessively distressing one. He had left Bergen crippled with debts, and his marriage (June 26, 1856) weighed him down with further responsibilities. The Norwegian Theatre at Christiania was, a secondary house, ill-supported by its patrons, often tottering at the brink of bankruptcy, and so primitive was the situation of literature in the country that to attempt to live by poetry and drama was to court starvation. His slender salary was seldom paid, and never in full. The only published volume of Ibsen’s which had (up to 1863) sold at all was The Warriors, by which he had made in all 227 specie dollars (or about £25).
The Christiania he had come to, however, was not that which he had left. In many directions it had developed rapidly. From an intellectual point of view, the labors of the nationalists had made themselves felt; the folk-lore of Landstad, Moe and Asbjörnsen had impressed young imaginations. In some of its forms the development was unpleasing and discouraging to Ibsen; the success of the blank-verse tragedies of Andreas Munch (Salomon de Caus, 1855; Lord William Russell, 1857) was, for instance, an irritating step in the wrong direction. The new- born school of prose fiction, with Björnson as its head (Synnöve Solbakken, 1857; Arne, 1858), with Camilla Collett’s Prefect’s Daughters, 1855, as its herald; with Östgaard’s sketches of peasant life and humors in the mountains (1852)— all this was a direct menace to the popularity of the national stage, offering an easy and alluring alternative for home-loving citizens. Was it certain that the classic Danish, which alone Ibsen cared to write, would continue to be the language of the cultivated classes in Norway? Here was Ivar Aasen (in 1853) showing that the irritating landsmaal could be used for prose and verse.
Wherever he turned Ibsen saw increased vitality, but in shapes that were either useless or antagonistic to himself, and all that was harsh and saturnine in his nature awakened. We see Ibsen, at this moment of his life, like Shakespeare in his darkest hour, “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” unappreciated and ready to doubt the reality of his own genius; and murmuring to himself:—
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope.
With what I most enjoy contented least.
How little his greatness was perceived in the Christiania literary coteries may be gathered from the little fact that the species of official anthology of Modern Norwegian Poets, published in 1859, though it netted the shallows of national song very closely, contained not a line by the author of the lovely lyrics in The Feast at Solhoug. It was at this low and miserable moment that Ibsen’s talent suddenly took wings; he conceived, in the summer of 1858, what finally became, five years later, his first acknowledged masterpiece, and perhaps the most finished of all his writings, the sculptural tragedy of The Pretenders.
The Pretenders (Kongsemnerne, properly stuff from which Kings can be made) is the earliest of the plays of Ibsen in which the psychological interest is predominant, and in which there is no attempt to disguise the fact. Nothing that has since been written about this drama, the very perfection of which is baffling to criticism, has improved upon the impression which Georg Brandes received from it when he first read it forty years ago. The passage is classic, and deserves to be cited, if only as perhaps the very earliest instance in which the genius of Ibsen was rewarded by the analysis of a great critic. Brandes wrote (in 1867):—
What is it that The Pretenders treats of? Looked at simply, it is an old story. We all know the tale of Aladdin and Nureddin, the simple legend in the Arabian Nights, and our great poet’s [Oehlenschläger’s] incomparable poem. In The Pretenders two figures again stand opposed to one another as the superior and the inferior being, an Aladdin and a Nureddin nature. It is towards this contrast that Ibsen has hitherto unconsciously directed his endeavors, just as Nature feels her way in her blind preliminary attempts to form her types. Håkon and Skule are pretenders to the same throne, scions of royalty out of whom a king may be made. But the first is the incarnation of fortune, victory, right and confidence; the second — the principal figure in the play, masterly in its truth and originality — is the brooder, a prey to inward struggle and endless distrust, brave and ambitious, with perhaps every qualification and claim to be king, but lacking the inexpressible, impalpable somewhat that would give a value to all the rest — the wonderful Lamp. “I am a king’s arm,” he says, “mayhap a king’s brain as well; but Håkon is the whole king.” “You have wisdom and courage, and all noble gifts of the mind,” says Håkon to him; “you are born to stand nearest a king, but not to be a king yourself.”
To a poet the achievements of his greatest contemporaries in their common art have all the importance of high deeds in statesmanship and war. It is, therefore, by no means extravagant to see in the noble emulation of the two dukes in The Pretenders some reflection of Ibsen’s attitude to the youthful and brilliant Björnson. The luminous self-reliance, the ardor and confidence and good fortune of Björnson- Håkon could not but offer a violent contrast with the gloom and hesitation, the sick revulsions of hope and final lack of conviction, of Ibsen-Skule. It was Björnson’s “belt of strength,” as it was Håkon’s, that he had utter belief in himself, and with this his rival could not yet girdle himself. “The luckiest man is the greatest man,” says Bishop Nicholas in the play, and Björnson seemed in these melancholy years as lucky as Ibsen was unlucky. But the Bishop’s views were not wide enough, and the end was not yet.
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