Temperament and environment combined at the period we have now reached to turn Ibsen into a satirist. It was during his time of Sturm und Drang, from 1857 to 1864, that the harshest elements in his nature were awakened, and that he became one who loved to lash the follies of his age. With the advent of prosperity and recognition this phase melted away, leaving Ibsen without illusions and without much pity, but no longer the scourge of his fellow-citizens. Although The Pretenders, a work of dignified and polished aloofness, was not completed until 1863, it really belongs to the earlier and more experimental section of Ibsen’s works, and is so completely the outcome and the apex of his national studies that it has seemed best to consider it with The Vikings at Helgeland, in spite of its immense advance upon that drama. But we must now go back a year, and take up an entirely new section which overlaps the old, namely, that of Ibsen’s satires in dramatic rhyme.
With regard to the adoption of that form of poetic art, a great difference existed between Norwegian and English taste, and this must be borne in mind. Almost exactly at the date when Ibsen was inditing the sharp couplets of his Love’s Comedy, Tennyson, in Sea Dreams, was giving voice to the English abandonment of satire — which had been rampant in the generation of Byron — in the famous words:—
I loathe it: he had never kindly heart,
Nor ever cared to better his own kind,
Who first wrote satire, with no pity in it.
What England repudiated, Norway comprehended, and in certain hands enjoyed. Polemical literature, if seldom of a high class, was abundant and was much appreciated. The masterpiece of modern Norwegian poetry was, still, the satiric cycle of Welhaven. In ordinary controversy, the tone was more scathing, the bludgeon was whirled more violently, than English taste at that period could endure. Those whom Ibsen designed to crush had not minced their own words. The press was violence itself, and was not tempered with justice; when the poet looked round he saw “afflicted virtue insolently stabbed with all manner of reproaches,” as Dryden said.
Yet it was not an age of gross and open vices; manners were not flagitious, they were merely of a nauseous insipidity. Ibsen, flown with anger as with wine, could find no outrageous offences to lash, and all he could invite the age to do was to laugh at certain conventions and to reconsider some prejudicated opinions. He had to be pungent, not openly ferocious; he had to be sarcastic and to treat the current code of morals as a jest. He found the society around him excessively distasteful to him, but there were no crying evils of a political or ethical kind to be stigmatized. What was open to him was what an old writer of our own defined as “a sharp, well-mannered way of laughing a folly out of countenance.”
Unfortunately, the people laughed at will never consent to think the way well mannered, and Ibsen was bitterly blamed for “want of taste,” that vaguest and most insidious of accusations. We are told that he began his enterprise in prose [Note: “Svanhild: a Comedy in three acts and in prose: 1860,” is understood to exist still in manuscript], but found that too stiff and bald a medium for a satire on the social crudity of Norway. In writing satire, it is all-important that the form should be adequate, and at this time Ibsen had not reached the impeccable perfection of his later colloquial prose. He started Love’s Comedy, therefore, anew, and he wrote it as a pamphlet in rhyme. It is not certain that he had any very definite idea of the line which his attack should take. He was very poor, very sore, very uncomfortable, and he was easily convinced that the times were out of joint. Then he observed that if there was anything that the Norwegian upper classes prided themselves upon it was their conduct of betrothal and marriage. Plato had said that the familiarity of young persons before marriage prevented enmity and disappointment in later years, that it was useful to know the peculiarities of temperament beforehand, and so, being accustomed to them, to discount them. But Ibsen was not of this opinion, or rather, perhaps, he did not choose to be. The extremely slow and public method of betrothal in the North gave him his first opportunity.
It is with a song, in the original one of the most delicious of his lyrics, that he opens the campaign. To a miscellaneous party of Philistines circled around the tea table, “all sober and all ——” the rebellious hero sings:—
In the sunny orchard-closes,
While the warblers sing and swing,
Care not whether blustering Autumn
Break the promises of Spring;
Rose and white the apple-blossom
Hides you from the sultry sky;
Let it flutter, blown and scattered,
On the meadow by and by.
In the sexual struggle, that is to say, the lovers should not pause to consider the worldly advantages of their match, but should fly in secret to each other’s arms. By the law of battle, the female should be snatched to the conqueror’s saddle-bow, and ridden away with into the night, not subjected to the jokes and the good advice and the impertinent congratulations of the clan. Young Lochinvar does not wait to ask the counsel of the bride’s cousins, nor to run the gantlet of her aunts; he fords the Esk river with her, where ford there is none. Ibsen is in favor of the mariage de convenance, which suppresses, without favor, the absurdity of love-matches. Above all, anything is better than the publicity, the meddling and long-drawn exposure of betrothal, which kills the fine delicacy of love, as birds are apt to break their own eggs if intruding hands have touched them.
This is the central point in Love’s Comedy, but there is much beside this in its reckless satire on the “sanctities” of domestic life. The burden of monogamy is frivolously dealt with, and the impertinent poet touches with levity upon the question of the duration of marriage:
With my living, with my singing,
I will tear the hedges down!
Sweep the grass and heap the blossom!
Let it shrivel, pale and blown!
Throw the wicket wide! Sheep, cattle,
Let them browse among the best!
I broke off the flowers; what matter
Who may graze among the rest!
Love’s Comedy is perhaps the most diverting of Ibsen’s works; it is certainly the most impertinent. If there was one class in Norwegian society which was held to be above criticism it was the clerical. A prominent character in Ibsen’s comedy is the Rev. Mr. Strawman, a gross, unctuous and uxorious priest, blameless and dull, upon whose inert body the arrows of satire converge. This was never forgotten and long was unforgiven. As late as 1866 the Storthing refused a grant to Ibsen definitely on the ground of the scandal caused by his sarcastic portrait of Pastor Strawman. But the gentler sex, to which every poet looks for an audience, was not less deeply outraged by the want of indulgence which he had shown for all forms of amorous sentiment, although Ibsen had really, through his satire on the methods of betrothal, risen to something like a philosophical examination of the essence of love itself.
To Brandes, who reproached him for not recording the history of ideal engagements, and who remarked, “You know, there are sound potatoes and rotten potatoes in this world,” Ibsen cynically replied, “I am afraid none of the sound ones have come under my notice”; and when Guldstad proves to the beautiful Svanhild the paramount importance of creature comforts, the last word of distrust in the sustaining power of love had been said. The popular impression of Ibsen as an “immoral” writer seems to be primarily founded on the paradox and fireworks of Love’s Comedy.
Much might be forgiven to a man so wretched as Ibsen was in 1862, and more to a poet so lively, brilliant and audacious in spite of his misfortunes. These now gathered over his head and threatened to submerge him altogether. He was perhaps momentarily saved by the publication of Terje Vigen, which enjoyed a solid popularity. This is the principal and, indeed, almost the only instance in Ibsen’s works of what the Northern critics call “epic,” but what we less ambitiously know as the tale in verse. Terje Figen will never be translated successfully into English, for it is written, with brilliant lightness and skill, in an adaptation of the Norwegian ballad-measure which it is impossible to reproduce with felicity in our language.
Among Ibsen’s writings Terje Vigen is unique as a piece of pure sentimentality carried right rough without one divagation into irony or pungency. It is the story of a much-injured and revengeful Norse pilot, who, having the chance to drown his old enemies, Milord and Milady, saves them at the mute appeal of their blue-eyed English baby. Terje Vigen is a masterpiece of what we may define as the “dash-away-a-manly- tear” class of narrative. It is extremely well written and picturesque, but the wonder is that, of all people in the world, Ibsen should have written it.
His short lyric poems of this period betray much more clearly the real temper of the man. They are filled full and brimming over with longing and impatience, with painful passion and with hope deferred. It is in the strident lyrics Ibsen wrote between 1857 and 1863 that we can best read the record of his mind, and share its exasperations, and wonder at its elasticity. The series of sonnets In a Picture Gallery is a strangely violent confession of distrust in his own genius; the Epistle to H. O. Blom a candid admission of his more than distrust in the talent and honesty of others. It was the peculiarity and danger of Ibsen’s position that he represented no one but himself. For instance, the liberty of many of the expressions in Love’s Comedy led those who were beginning a movement in favor of the emancipation of women to believe that Ibsen was in sympathy with them, but he was not. All through his life, although his luminous penetration into character led him to be scrupulously fair in his analysis of female character, he was never a genuine supporter of the extension of public responsibility to the sex. A little later (in 1869), when John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women produced a sensation in Scandinavia, and met with many enthusiastic supporters, Ibsen coldly reserved his opinion. He was always an observer, always a clinical analyst at the bedside of society, never a prophet, never a propagandist.
His troubles gathered upon him. Neither theatre consented to act Love’s Comedy, and it would not even have been printed but for the zeal of the young novelist Jonas Lie, who, to his great honor, bought for about £35 the right to publish it as a supplement to a newspaper that he was editing. Then the storm broke out; the press was unanimously adverse, and in private circles abuse amounted almost to a social taboo. In 1862 the second theatre became bankrupt, and Ibsen was thrown on the world, the most unpopular man of his day, and crippled with debts. It is true that he was engaged at the Christiania Theatre at a nominal salary of about a pound a week, but he could not live on that. In August, 1860, he had made a pathetic appeal to the Government for a digter-gage, a payment to a poet, such as is freely given to talent in the Northern countries. Sums were voted to Björnson and Vinje, but to Ibsen not a penny. By some influence, however, for he was not without friends, he was granted in March, 1862, a travelling grant of less than £20 to enable him to wander for two months in western Hardanger and the districts around the Sognefjord for the purpose of collecting folk-songs and legends. The results of this journey were prepared for publication, but never appeared. This interesting excursion, however, has left its mark stamped broadly upon Brand and Peer Gynt.
All through 1863 his condition was critical. He determined that his only hope was to exile himself definitely from Norway, which had become too hot to hold him. Various private friends generously helped him over this dreadful time of adversity, earning a gratitude which, if it was not expansive, was lifelong. Very grudging recognition of his gifts was at length made by the Government in the shape of another trifling travelling grant (March, 1863), again a handsome sum being awarded to Björnson, his popular rival. In May Ibsen applied, in despair, to the King himself, who conferred upon him a small pension of £90 a year, which for the immediate future stood between this great poet and starvation. The news of it was received in Christiania by the press in terms of despicable insult.
But in June of this année terrible Ibsen had a flash of happiness. He was invited down to Bergen to the fifth great “Festival of Song,” a national occurrence, and he and his poems met with a warm reception. Moreover, he found his brilliant antagonist, Björnson, at Bergen on a like errand, and renewed an old friendship with this warm-hearted and powerful man of genius, destined to play through life the part of Håkon to Ibsen’s Skule. They spent much of the subsequent winter together. As Halvdan Koht has excellently said: “Their intercourse brought them closer to each other than they had ever been before. They felt that they were inspired by the same ideas and the same hopes, and they suffered the same bitter disappointments. With anguish they watched the Danish brother-nation’s desperate struggle against the superior power of Germany, and save a province with a population of Scandinavian race and speech taken from Denmark and incorporated in a foreign kingdom, whilst the Norwegian and Swedish kinsmen, in spite of solemn promises, refrained from yielding any assistance.” An attack on Holstein (December 22, 1863) had introduced the Second Danish War, to which a disastrous and humiliating termination was brought in the following August.
In April, 1864, Ibsen took the momentous step of quitting his native country. He entered Copenhagen at the dark hour when Schleswig as well as Holstein had been abandoned, and when the citadel of Düpper alone stood between Denmark and ruin. His agonized sympathy may be read in the indignant lyrics of that spring. A fortnight later he set out, by Lübeck and Trieste, for Rome, where he had now determined to reside. He reached that city in due time, and sank with ineffable satisfaction into the arms of its antique repose. “Here at last,” he wrote to Björnson, “there is blessed peace,” and he settled himself down to the close contemplation of poetry.
The change from the severities of an interminable Northern winter to the glow and splendor of Italy acted on the poet’s spirit like an enchantment. Ibsen came, another Pilgrim of Eternity, to Rome’s “azure sky, flowers, ruins, statues, music,” and at first the contrast between the crudity he had left and the glory he had found was almost intolerable. He could not work; all he did was to lie in the flushed air and become as a little child. There has scarcely been another example of a writer of the first class who, deeply solicitous about beauty, but debarred from all enjoyment of it until his thirty-seventh year, has been suddenly dipped, as if into a magic fountain, into the heart of unclouded loveliness without transition or preparation. Shelley and Keats were dead long before they reached the age at which Ibsen broke free from his prison-house of ice, while Byron, in the same year of his life, was closing his romantic career.
Ibsen’s earliest impressions of what these poets had become accustomed to at a ductile age were contradictory and even incoherent. The passion of pagan antiquity for a long while bewildered him. He wandered among the vestiges of antique art, unable to perceive their relation to modern life, or their original significance. He missed the impress of the individual on classic sculpture, as he had missed it — the parallel is strange, but his own — on the Eddaic poems of ancient Iceland. He liked a lyric or a statue to speak to him of the man who made it. He felt more at home with Bernini among sculptors and with Bramante among architects than with artists of a more archaic type. Shelley, we may remember, labored under a similar heresy; to each of these poets the attractiveness of individual character overpowered the languid flavor of the age in which the artist had flourished. Ibsen’s admiration of a certain overpraised monument of Italian architecture would not be worth recording but for the odd vigor with which he adds that the man who made that might have made the moon in his leisure moments.
During the first few months of Ibsen’s life in Rome all was chaos in his mind. He was plunged in stupefaction at the beauties of nature, the amenities of mankind, the interpenetration of such a life with such an art as he had never dreamed of and could yet but dimly comprehend. In September, 1864, he tells Björnson that he is at work on a poem of considerable length. This must have been the first draft of Brand, which was begun, we know, as a narrative, or as the Northerns call it, an “epic” poem; although a sketch for the Julianus Apostata was already forming in the back of his head, as a subject which would, sooner or later, demand poetic treatment. He had left his wife and little son in Copenhagen, but at the beginning of October they joined him in Rome. The family lived on an income which seems almost incredibly small, a maximum of 40 scudi a month. But it was a different thing to be hungry in Christiania and in Rome, and Ibsen makes no complaints. A sort of blessed languor had fallen upon him after all his afflictions. He would loll through half his days among the tombs on the Via Latina, or would loiter for hours and hours along the Appian Way. It took him weeks to summon energy to visit S. Pietro in Vincoli, although he knew that Michelangelo’s “Moses” was there, and though he was weary with longing to see it. All the tense chords of Ibsen’s nature were loosened. His soul was recovering, through a long and blissful convalescence, from the aching maladies of its youth.
He took some part in the society of those Scandinavian writers, painters and sculptors who gathered in Rome through the years of their distress. But only one of them attracted him strongly, the young Swedish lyrical poet, Count Carl Snoilsky, then the hope and already even the glory of his country. There was some quaint diversity between the rude and gloomy Norwegian dramatist, already middle-aged, and the full-blooded, sparkling Swedish diplomatist of twenty-three, rich, flattered, and already as famous for his fashionable bonnes fortunes as Byron. But two things Snoilsky and Ibsen had in common, a passionate enthusiasm for their art, and a rebellious attitude towards their immediate precursors in it. Each, in his own way, was the leader of a new school. The friendship of Ibsen and Snoilsky was a permanent condition for the rest of their lives, for it was founded on a common basis.
A few years later the writer of these pages received an amusing impression of Ibsen at this period from the Danish poet, Christian Molbech, who was also in Rome in 1865 and onwards. Ibsen wandering silently about the streets, his hands plunged far into the pockets of his invariable jacket of faded velveteen, Ibsen killing conversation by his sudden moody appearances at the Scandinavian Club, Ibsen shattering the ideals of the painters and the enthusiasms of the antiquaries by a running fire of sarcastic paradox, this is mainly what the somewhat unsympathetic Molbech was not unwilling to reproduce. He painted a more agreeable Ibsen when he spoke of his summer flights to the Alban Hills, planned on terms of the most prudent reference to resources which seemed ever to be expected and never to arrive. Nevertheless, under the vines in front of some inn at Genzano or Albano, Ibsen would duly be discovered, placid and dreamy, always self-sufficient and self- contained, but not unwilling to exchange, over a flask of thin wine, commonplaces with a Danish friend. It was at Ariccia, in one of these periods of villegiatura, during the summer and autumn of 1865, that Brand, which had long been under considerature, suddenly took final shape, and was written throughout, without pause or hesitation. In July the poet put everything else aside to begin it, and before the end of September he had completed it.
Brand placed Ibsen at a bound among the greatest European poets of his age. The advance over the sculptural perfection of The Pretenders and the graceful wit of Love’s Comedy was so great as to be startling. Nothing but the veil of a foreign language, which the best translations are powerless to tear away from noble verse, prevented this mastery from being perceived at once. In Scandinavia, where that veil did not exist, for those who had eyes to see, and who were not blinded by prejudice, it was plain that a very great writer had arisen in Norway at last. Björnson had seemed to slip ahead of Ibsen; his Sigurd Slembe (1862) was a riper work than the elder friend had produced; but Mary Stuart in Scotland (1864) had marked a step backward, and now Ibsen had once more shot far ahead of his rival. When we have admitted some want of clearness in the symbolism which runs through Brand, and some shifting of the point of view in the two last acts, an incoherency and a turbidity which are natural in the treatment of so colossal a theme, there is very little but praise to be given to a poem which is as manifold in its emotion and as melodious in its versification as it is surprising in its unchallenged originality. In the literatures of Scandinavia it has not merely been unsurpassed, but in its own peculiar province it has not been approached. It bears some remote likeness to Faust, but with that exception there is perhaps nothing in the literature of the world which can be likened to Brand, except, of course, Peer Gynt.
For a long while it was supposed that the difficulties in the way of performing Brand on the public stage were too great to be overcome. But the task was attempted at length, first in Stockholm in 1895; and within the last few years this majestic spectacle has been drawn in full before the eyes of enraptured audiences in Copenhagen, Berlin, Moscow and elsewhere. In spite of the timid reluctance of managers, wherever this play is adequately presented, it captures an emotional public at a run. It is an appeal against moral apathy which arouses the languid. It is a clear and full embodiment of the gospel of energy which awakens and upbraids the weak. In the original, its rush of rhymes produces on the nerves an almost delirious excitement. If it is taken as an oration, it is responded to as a great civic appeal; if as a sermon, it is sternly religious, and fills the heart with tears. In the solemn mountain air, with vague bells ringing high up among the glaciers, no one asks exactly what Brand expounds, nor whether it is perfectly coherent. Witnessed on the living stage, it takes the citadel of the soul by storm. When it is read, the critical judgment becomes cooler.
Carefully examined, Brand is found to present a disconcerting mixture of realism and mysticism. Two men seem at work in the writing of it, and their effects are sometimes contradictory. It has constantly been asked, and it was asked at one, “Is Brand the expression of Ibsen’s own nature?” Yes, and no. He threw much of himself into his hero, and yet he was careful to remain outside. Ibsen, as we have already pointed out, was ready in later life to discuss his own writings, and what he said about them is often dangerously mystifying. He told Georg Brandes that the religious vocation of Brand was not essential. “I could have applied the whole syllogism just as well to a sculptor, or a politician, as to a priest.” (He was to deal with each of these alternations later on, but with what a difference!) “I could quite as well,” he persisted, “have worked out the impulse which drove me to write, by taking Galileo, for instance, as my hero — assuming, of course, that Galileo should stand firm and never concede the fixity of the earth — or you yourself in your struggle with the Danish reactionaries.” This is not to the point, since in fact neither Georg Brandes nor Galileo, as hero of a mystical drama, could have produced such a capacity for evolution as is presented by the stern priest whose absolute certitude, although founded, one admits, on no rational theory of theology, is yet of the very essence of religion.
Brand becomes intelligible when we regard him as a character of the twelfth century transferred to the nineteenth. He has something of Peter the Hermit in him. He ought to have been a crusading Christian king, fighting against the Moslem for the liberties of some sparkling city of God. He exists in his personage, under the precipice, above the fjord, like a rude mediaeval anchorite, who eats his locusts and wild honey in the desert. We cannot comprehend the action of Brand by any reference to accepted creeds and codes, because he is so remote from the religious conventions as hardly to seem objectively pious at all. He is violent and incoherent; he knows not clearly what it is he wants, but it must be an upheaval of all that exists, and it must bring Man into closer contact with God. Brand is a king of souls, but his royal dignity is marred, and is brought sometimes within an inch of the ridiculous, by the prosaic nature of his modern surroundings. He is harsh and cruel; he is liable to fits of anger before which the whole world trembles; and it is by an avalanche, brought down upon him by his own wrath, that he is finally buried in the ruins of the Ice-Church.
The judicious reader may like to compare the character of Brand with that extraordinary study of violence, the Abbé Jules of Octave Mirbeau. In each we have the history of revolt, in a succession of crises, against an invincible vocation. In each an element of weakness is the pride of a peasant priest. But in Ibsen there is fully developed what the cynicism of Octave Mirbeau avoids, a genuine conception of such a rebel’s ceaseless effort after personal holiness. Lammers or Lammenais, what can it matter whether some existing priest of insurrection did or did not set Ibsen for a moment on the track of his colossal imagination? We may leave these discussions to the commentators; Brand is one of the great poems of the world, and endless generations of critics will investigate its purpose and analyze its forms.
There is, however, another than the priestly side. The poem contains a great deal of superficial and rather ephemeral satire of contemporary Scandinavian life, echoes of a frightened Storthing in Christiania, of a crafty court in Stockholm, and of Denmark stretching her bleeding hands to her sisters in an agony of despair. There is the still slighter local strain of irony, which lightens the middle of the third act. Here Ibsen comes not to heal but to slay; he exposes the corpse of an exhausted age, and will bury it quickly, with sexton’s songs and peals of elfin laughter, in some chasm of rock above a waterfall. “It is Will alone that matters,” and for the weak of purpose there is nothing but ridicule and six feet of such waste earth as nature carelessly can spare from her rude store of graves. Against the mountain landscape, Brand holds up his motto “All or Nothing,” persistently, almost tiresomely, like a modern advertising agent affronting the scenery with his panacea. More truculently still, he insists upon the worship of a deity, not white- bearded, but as young as Hercules, a scandal to prudent Lutheran theologians, a prototype of violent strength.
Yet Brand’s own mission remains undefined to him — if it ever takes exact shape — until Agnes reveals it to him:—
Choose thy endless loss or gain!
Do thy work and bear thy pain. . . .
Now (he answers) I see my way aright.
In ourselves is that young Earth,
Ripe for the divine new-birth.
And it is in Agnes — as the marvellous fourth act opens where her love for the little dear dead child is revealed, and where her patience endures all the cruelties of her husband’s fanaticism — it is in Agnes that Ibsen’s genius for the first time utters the clear, unembittered note of full humanity. He has ceased now to be parochial; he is a nursling of the World and Time. If the harsh Priest be, in a measure, Ibsen as Norway made him, Agnes and Einar, and perhaps Gerd also, are the delicate offspring of Italy.
Considerable postponements delayed the publication of Brand, which saw the light at length, in Copenhagen, in March, 1866. It was at once welcomed by the Danish press, which had hitherto known little of Ibsen, and the poet’s audience was thus very considerably widened. The satire of the poem awakened an eager polemic; the popular priest Wexels preached against its tendency. A novel was published, called The Daughters of Brand, in which the results of its teaching were analyzed. Ibsen enjoyed, what he had never experienced before, the light and shade of a disputed but durable popular success. Four large editions of Brand were exhausted within the year of its publication, and it took its place, of course, in more leisurely progress, among the few books which continued, and still continue, steadily to sell. It has always been, in the countries of Scandinavia, the best known and the most popular of all Ibsen’s writings.
This success, however, was largely one of sentiment, not of pecuniary fortune. The total income from four editions of a poem like Brand, in the conditions of Northern literary life forty years ago, would not much exceed £100. Hardly had Ibsen become the object of universal discussion than he found himself assailed, as never before, by the paralysis of poverty. He could not breathe, he could not move; he could not afford to buy postage stamps to stick upon his business letters. He was threatened with the absolute extinction of his resources. At the very time when Copenhagen was ringing with his praise Ibsen was borrowing money for his modest food and rent from the Danish Consul in Rome.
In the winter of 1865 he fell into a highly nervous condition, in the midst of which he was assailed by a malarious fever which brought him within sight of the grave. To the agony of his devoted wife, he lay for some time between life and death, and the extreme poverty from which they suffered made it difficult, and even impossible, for her to provide for him the alleviations which his state demanded. He gradually recovered, however, thanks to his wife’s care and to his own magnificent constitution, but the springs of courage seemed to have snapped within his breast.
In March, 1866, worn out with illness, poverty and suspense, he wrote a letter to Björnson, “my one and only friend,” which is one of the most heart-rending documents in the history of literature. Few great spirits have been nearer the extinction of despair than Ibsen was, now in his thirty-ninth year. His admirers, at their wits’ end to know what to advise, urged him to write directly to Carl, King of Sweden and Norway, describing his condition, and asking for support. Simultaneously came the manifest success of Brand, and, for the first time, the Norwegian press recognized the poet’s merit. There was a general movement in his favor; King Carl graciously received his petition of April 15, and on May 10 the Storthing, almost unanimously, voted Ibsen a “poet’s pension,” restricted in amount but sufficient for his modest needs.
The first use he made of his freedom was to move out of Rome, where he found it impossible to write, and to settle at Frascati among the hills. He hired a nest of cheap rooms in the Palazzo Gratiosi, two thousand feet above the sea. Thither he came, with his wife and his little son, and there he fitted himself up a study; setting his writing table at a window that overlooked an immensity of country, and Mont Soracté closing the horizon with its fiery pyramid. In his correspondence of this time there are suddenly noticeable a gayety and an insouciance which are elements wholly new in his letters. The dreadful burden was lifted; the dreadful fear of sinking in a sea of troubles and being lost for ever, the fear which animates his painful letter to King Carl, was blown away like a cloud and the heaven of his temper was serene. At Frascati he knew not what to be at; he tried that subject, and this, waiting for the heavenly spark to fall. It seems to have been at Tusculum, and in the autumn of 1866, that the subject he was looking for descended upon him. He hurried back to Rome, and putting all other schemes aside, he devoted himself heart and soul to the composition of Peer Gynt, which he described as to be “a long dramatic poem, having as its chief figure one of the half-mythical and fantastical personages from the peasant life of modern Norway.”
He wrote this work slowly, more slowly than was his wont, and it was a whole year on the stocks. It was in the summer that Ibsen habitually composed with the greatest ease, and Peer Gynt did not trove smoothly until the poet settled in the Villa Pisani, at Casamicciola, on the island of Ischia. His own account was: “After Brand came Peer Gynt, as though of itself. It was written in Southern Italy, in Ischia and at Sorrento. So far away from one’s readers one becomes reckless. This poem contains much that has its origin in the circumstances of my own youth. My own mother — with the necessary exaggeration — served as the model for Ase.” Peer Gynt was finished before Ibsen left Sorrento at the end of the autumn, and the MS. was immediately posted to Copenhagen. None of the delays which had interfered with the appearance of Brand now afflicted the temper of the poet, and Peer Gynt was published in November, 1867.
In spite of the plain speaking of Ibsen himself, who declared that Peer Gynt was diametrically opposed in spirit to Brand, and that it made no direct attack upon social questions, the critics of the later poem have too often persisted in darkening it with their educational pedantries. Ibsen did well to be angry with his commentators. “They have discovered,” he said, “much more satire in Peer Gynt than was intended by me. Why can they not read the book as a poem? For as such I wrote it.” It has been, however, the misfortune of Ibsen that he has particularly attracted the attention of those who prefer to see anything in a poem except its poetry, and who treat all tulips and roses as if they were cabbages for the pot of didactic morality. Yet it is surprising that after all that the author said, and with the lovely poem shaking the bauble of its fool’s cap at them, there can still be commentators who see nothing in Peer Gynt but the “awful interest of the universal problems with which it deals.” This obsession of the critic to discover “problems” in the works of Ibsen has been one of the main causes of that impatience and even downright injustice with which his writings have been received by a large section of those readers who should naturally have enjoyed them. He is a poet, of fantastic wit and often reckless imagination, and he has been travestied in a long black coat and white choker, as though he were an embodiment of the Nonconformist conscience.
Casting aside, therefore, the spurious “lessons” and supposititious “problems” of this merry and mundane drama, we may recognize among its irregularities and audacities two main qualities of merit. Above everything else which we see in Peer Gynt we see its fun and its picturesqueness. Written at different times and in different moods, there is an incoherency in its construction which its most whole-hearted admirers cannot explain away. The first act is an inimitable burst of lyrical high spirits, tottering on the verge of absurdity, carried along its hilarious career with no less peril and with no less brilliant success than Peer fables for himself and the reindeer in their ride along the vertiginous blade of the Gjende. In the second act, satire and fantasy become absolutely unbridled; the poet’s genius sings and dances under him, like a strong ship in a storm, but the vessel is rudderless and the pilot an emphatic libertine. The wild impertinence of fancy, in this act, from the moment when Peer and the Girl in the Green Gown ride off upon the porker, down to the fight with the Böig, gigantic gelatinous symbol of self deception, exceeds in recklessness anything else written since the second part of Faust. The third act, culminating with the drive to Soria Moria Castle and the death of Ase, is of the very quintessence of poetry, and puts Ibsen in the first rank of creators. In the fourth act, the introduction of which is abrupt and grotesque, we pass to a totally different and, I think, a lower order of imagination. The fifth act, an amalgam of what is worst and best in the poem, often seems divided from it in tone, style and direction, and is more like a symbolic or mythical gloss upon the first three acts than a contribution to the growth of the general story.
Throughout this tangled and variegated scene the spirits of the author remain almost preposterously high. If it were all hilarity and sardonic laughter, we should weary of the strain. But physical beauty of the most enchanting order is liberally provided to temper the excess of irony. It is, I think, no exaggeration to say that nowhere to the dramatic literature of the world, not by Shakespeare himself, is there introduced into a play so much loveliness of scenery, and such varied and exquisite appeal to the eyes, as there is in Peer Gynt. The fifth act contains much which the reader can hardly enjoy, but it opens with a scene so full of the glory of the mountains and the sea that I know nothing else in drama to compare with it. This again is followed by one of the finest shipwrecks in all poetry. Scene after scene, the first act portrays the cold and solemn beauty of Norwegian scenery as no painter’s brush has contrived to do it. For the woodland background of the Saeter Girls there is no parallel in plastic art but the most classic of Norwegian paintings, Dahl’s “Birch in a Snow Storm.” Pages might be filled with praise of the picturesqueness of tableau after tableau in each act of Peer Gynt.
The hero is the apotheosis of selfish vanity, and he is presented to us, somewhat indecisively, as the type of one who sets at defiance his own life’s design. But is Peer Gynt designed to be a useful, a good, or even a successful man? Certainly Ibsen had not discovered it when he wrote the first act, in which scarcely anything is observable except a study, full of merriment and sarcasm, of the sly, lazy and parasitical class of peasant rogue. This type was not of Ibsen’s invention; he found it in those rustic tales, inimitably resumed by Asbjörnson and Moe, in which he shows us that his memory was steeped. Here, too, he found the Böig, a monster of Norse superstition, vast and cold, slippery and invisible, capable of infinite contraction and expansion. The conception that this horror would stand in symbol for a certain development of selfish national instability seems to have seized him later, and Peer Gynt, which began as a farce, continued as a fable. The nearest approach to a justification of the moral or “problem” purpose, which Ibsen’s graver prophets attribute to him, is found in the sixth scene of the fifth act, where, quite in the manner of Goethe, thoughts and watchwords and songs and tears take corporeal form and assail the aged Peer Gynt with their reproaches.
Peer Gynt was received in the North with some critical bewilderment, and it has never been so great a favorite with the general public as Brand. But Ibsen, with triumphant arrogance, when he was told that it did not conform to the rules of poetic art, asserted that the rules must be altered, not Peer Gynt. “My book,” he wrote, ”is poetry; and if it is not, then it shall be. The Norwegian conception of what poetry is shall be made to fit my book.” There was a struggle at first against this assumption, but the drama has become a classic, and it is now generally allowed, that so long as poetry is a term wide enough to include The Clouds and the Second Part of Faust, it must be made wide enough to take in a poem as unique as they are in its majestic intellectual caprices.
[Note. — By far the most exhaustive analysis of Peer Gynt which has hitherto been given to the world is that published, as I send these pages to the press, by the executors of Otto Weininger, in his posthumous Ueber die letzte Dinge (1907). This extraordinary young man, who shot himself on October 4, 1903, in the house at Vienna where Beethoven died, was only twenty-three years of age when he violently deprived philosophical literature in Europe of by far its most promising and remarkable recruit. If I confess myself unable to see in Peer Gynt all that Weininger saw in it, the fault is doubtless mine. But in Ibsen, unquestionably, time will create profundities, as it has in Shakespeare. The greatest works grow in importance, as trees do after the death of the mortal men who planted them.]
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51