Henrik Ibsen, by Edmund Gosse

Chapter V


Ibsen’s four years in Italy were years of rest, of solitude, of calm. The attitude of Ibsen to Italy was totally distinct from that of other illustrious exiles of his day and generation. The line of pilgrims from Stendhal and Lamartine down to Ruskin and the Brownings had brought with them a personal interest in Italian affairs; Italian servitude had roused some of them to anger or irony; they had spent nights of insomnia dreaming of Italian liberty. Casa Guidi Windows may be taken as the extreme type of the way in which Italy did not impress Ibsen. He sought there, and found, under the transparent azure of the Alban sky, in the harmonious murmurs of the sea, in the violet shadows of the mountains, above all in the gray streets of Rome, that rest of the brain, that ripening of the spiritual faculties, which he needed most after his rough and prolonged adolescence in Norway. In his attitude of passive appreciation he was, perhaps, more like Landor than like any other of the illustrious exiles — Landor, who died in Florence a few days after Ibsen settled in Rome. There was a side of character, too, on which the young Norwegian resembled that fighting man of genius.

When, therefore, on September 8, 1867, Garibaldi, at Genoa, announced his intention of marching upon Rome, an echo woke in many a poet’s heart “by rose hung river and light-foot rill,” but left Ibsen simply disconcerted. If Rome was to be freed from Papal slavery, it would no longer be the somnolent and unupbraiding haunt of quietness which the Norwegian desired for the healing of his spleen and his moral hypochondria. In October the heralds of liberty crossed the Papal frontier; on the 30th, by a slightly prosaic touch, it was the French who entered Rome. Of Ibsen, in these last months of his disturbed sojourn — for he soon determined that if there was going to be civil war in Italy that country was no home for him — we hear but little. This autumn, however, we find him increasingly observant of the career of Georg Brandes, the brilliant and revolutionary Danish critic, in whom he was later on to find his first great interpreter. And we notice the beginnings of a difference with Björnson, lamentable and hardly explicable, starting, it would vaguely seem, out of a sense that Björnson did not appreciate the poetry of Peer Gynt at its due value. Clemens Petersen, who, since the decease of Heiberg, had been looked upon as the doyen of Danish critics — had pronounced against the poetry of Peer Gynt, and Ibsen, in one of his worst moods, in a bearish letter, had thrown the blame of this judgment upon Björnson.

All through these last months in Rome we find Ibsen in the worst of humors. If it be admissible to compare him with an animal, he seems the badger among the writers of his time, nocturnal, inoffensive, solitary, but at the rumor of disturbance apt to rush out of its burrow and bite with terrific ferocity. The bite of Ibsen was no joke, and in moments of exasperation he bit, without selection, friend and foe alike. Among other snaps of the pen, he told Björnson that if he was not taken seriously as a poet, he should try his “fate as a photographer.” Björnson, genially and wittily, took this up at once, and begged him to put his photography into the form of a comedy. But the devil, as Ibsen himself said, was throwing his shadow between the friends, and all the benefits and all the affection of the old dark days were rapidly forgotten. They quarrelled, too, rather absurdly, about decorations from kings and ministers; Björnson having determined to reject all such gewgaws, Ibsen announced his intention of accepting (and wearing) every cross and star that was offered to him. At this date, no doubt, the temptation was wholly problematical in both cases, yet each poet acted on his determination to the end. But Björnson’s hint about the comedy seems to have been, for some years, the last flicker of friendship between the two. On this Ibsen presently acted in a manner very offensive to Björnson.

In March, 1868, Ibsen was beginning to be very much indeed incensed with things in general. “What Norway wants is a national disaster,” he amiably snarled. It was high time that the badger should seek shelter in a new burrow, and in May we find him finally quitting Rome. There was a farewell banquet, at which Julius Lange, who was present, remarks that Ibsen showed a spice of the devil, but “was very witty and amiable.” He went to Florence for June, then quitted Italy altogether, settling for three months at Berchtesgaden, the romantic little “sunbath” in the Salzburg Alps, then still very quiet and unfashionable. There he started his five-act comedy, The League of Youth. All September he spent in Munich, and in October, 1868, took root once more, this time at Dresden, which became his home for a considerable number of years. Almost at once he sank down again into his brooding mood of isolation and quietism, roaming about the streets of Dresden, as he hail haunted those of Rome, by night or at unfrequented hours, very solitary, seeing few visitors, writing few letters, slowly finishing his “photographic” comedy, which he did not get off his hands until March, 1869. Although he was still very poor, he refused all solicitations from editors to write for journals or magazines; he preferred to appear before the public at long intervals, with finished works of importance.

It is impossible for a critic who is not a Norwegian, or not closely instructed in the politics and manners of the North, to take much interest in The League of Youth, which is the most provincial of all Ibsen’s mature works. There is a cant phrase minted in the course of it, de lokale forhold, which we may awkwardly translate as “the local conditions” or “situation.” The play is all concerned with de lokale forhold, and there is an overwhelming air of Little Pedlington about the intrigue. This does not prevent The League of Youth from being, as Mr. Archer has said, “the first prose comedy of any importance in Norwegian literature,” [Note: It is to be supposed that Mr. Archer deliberately prefers The League of Youth to Björnson’s The Newly Married Couple (1865), a slighter, but, as it seems to me, a more amusing comedy.] but it excludes it from the larger European view. Oddly enough, Ibsen believed, or pretended to believe, that The League of Youth was a “placable” piece of foolery, which could give no annoyance to the worst of offenders by its innocent and indulgent banter. Perhaps, like many strenuous writers, he underestimated the violence of his own language; perhaps, living so long at a distance from Norway and catching but faintly the reverberations of its political turmoil, he did not realize how sensitive the native patriot must be to any chaff of “de lokale forhold.” When he found that the Norwegians were seriously angry, Ibsen bluntly told them that he had closely studied the ways and the manners of their “pernicious and lie-steeped clique.” He was always something of a snake in the grass to his poetic victims.

Mr. Archer, whose criticism of this play is extraordinarily brilliant, does his best to extenuate the stiffness of it. But to my own ear, as I read it again after a quarter of a century, there rise the tones of the stilted, the unsmiling, the essentially provincial and boringly solemn society of Christiania as it appeared to a certain young pilgrim in the early seventies, condensing, as it then seemed to do, all the sensitiveness, the arrogance, the crudity which made communication with the excellent and hospitable Norwegians of that past epoch so difficult for an outsider — so difficult, in particular, for one coming freshly from the grace and sweetness, the delicate, cultivated warmth of Copenhagen. The political conditions which led to the writing of The League of Youth are old history now. There was the “liberal” element in Norwegian politics, which was in 1868 becoming rapidly stronger and more hampering to the Government, and there was the increasing influence of Sören Jaabaek (1814-94), a peasant farmer of ultra-socialistic views, who had, almost alone, opposed in the Storthing the grant of any pensions to poets, and whose name was an abomination to Ibsen.

Now Björnson, in the development of his career as a political publicist, had been flirting more and more outrageously with these extreme ideas and this truculent peasant party. He had even burned incense before Jaabaek, who was the accursed Thing. Ibsen, from the perspective of Dresden, genuinely believed that Björnson, with his ardor and his energy and his eloquence, war, becoming a national danger. We have seen that Björnson had piqued Ibsen’s vanity about Peer Gynt, and nothing exasperates a friendship more fatally than public principle grafted on a private slight. Moreover, the whole nature of Björnson was gregarious, that of Ibsen solitary; Björnson must always be leading the majority, Ibsen had scuples of conscience if ten persons agreed with him. They were doomed to disagreement. Meanwhile, Ibsen burned his ships by creating the figure of Stensgaard, in The League of Youth, a frothy and mischievous demagogue whose rhetoric irresistibly reminded every one of Björnson’s rolling oratory. What Björnson, not without dignity, objected to was not so much the personal attack, as that the whole play attempted “to paint our young party of liberty as a troop of pushing, phrase-mongering adventurers, whose patriotism lay solely in their words.” Ibsen acknowledged that that was exactly his opinion of them, and what could follow for such a disjointed friendship but anger and silence?

The year 1869, which we now enter, is remarkable in the career of Ibsen as being that in which he travelled most, and appeared on the surface of society in the greatest number of capacities. He was enabled to do this by a considerable increase in his pension. First of all, he was induced to pay a visit of some months to Stockholm, being seized with a sudden strong desire to study conditions in Sweden, a country which he had hitherto professed to dislike. He had a delightful stay of two months, received from King Carl the order of the Wasa, was feted at banquets, renewed his acquaintance with Snoilsky, and was treated everywhere with the highest distinction. Ibsen and Björnson were how beginning to be recognized as the two great writers of Norway, and their droll balance as the Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat of letters was already becoming defined. It was doubtless Björnson’s emphatic attacks on Sweden that at this moment made Ibsen so loving to the Swedes and so beloved. He was in such clover at Stockholm that he might have lingered on there indefinitely, if the Khedive had not invited him, in September, to be his guest at the opening of the Suez Canal. This sudden incursion of an Oriental potentate into the narrative seems startling until we recollect that illustrious persons were invited from all countries to this ceremony. The interesting thing is to see that Ibsen was now so fatuous as to be naturally so selected; the only other Norwegian guest being Professor J. D. C. Lieblein, the Egyptologist.

The poet started for Egypt, by Dresden and Paris, on September 28. The League of Youth was published on the 29th, and first performed on October 18; Ibsen, therefore, just missed the scandal and uproar caused by the play in Norway. In company with eighty-five other people, all illustrious guests of the Khedive, and under the care of Mariette Bey, Ibsen made a twenty-four days’ expedition up the Nile into Nubia, and then back to Cairo and Port Said. There, on November 17, in the company of an empress and several princes of the blood, he saw the Canal formally opened and graced a grand processional fleet that sailed out from Port Said towards Ismaila. But on the quay at Port Said Ibsen’s Norwegian mail was handed to him, and letters and newspapers alike were full of the violent scenes in the course of which The League of Youth had been hissed down at Christiania. Then and there he sent his defiance back to Norway in At Port Saïd, one of the most pointed and effective of all his polemical lyrics. A version in literal prose must suffice, though it does cruel injustice to the venomous melody of the original:

The dawn of the Eastern Land

Over the haven glittered;

Flags from all corners of the globe

Quivered from the masts.

Voices in music

Bore onward the cantata;

A thousand cannon

Christened the Canal.

The steamers passed on

By the obelisk.

In the language of my home

Came to me the chatter of news.

The mirror-poem which I had polished

For masculine minxes

Had been smeared at home

By splutterings from penny whistles.

The poison-fly stung;

It made my memories loathsome.

Stars, be thanked! —

My home is what is ancient!

We hailed the frigate

From the roof of the river-boat;

I waved my hat

And saluted the flag.

To the feast, to the feast,

In spite of the fangs of venomous reptiles!

A selected guest

Across the Lakes of Bitterness!

At the close of day

Dreaming, I shall slumber

Where Pharaoh was drowned —

And when Moses passed over.

In this mood of defiance, with rage unabated, Ibsen returned home by Alexandria and Paris, and was in Dresden again in December.

The year of 1870 drove him out of Dresden, as the French occupation had driven him out of Rome. It was essential for him to be at rest in the midst of a quiet and alien population. He was drawn towards Denmark, partly for the sake of talk with Brandes, who had now become a factor in his life, partly to arrange about the performance of one of his early works, and in particular of The Pretenders. No definite plan, however, had been formed, when, in the middle of June, war was declared between Germany and France; but a fortnight later Ibsen quitted Saxony, and settled for three months in Copenhagen, where his reception was charmingly sympathetic. By the beginning of October, after the fall of Strasburg and the hemming in of Metz, however, it was plain on which side the fortunes of the war would lie, and Ibsen returned “as from a rejuvenating bath” of Danish society to a Dresden full of French prisoners, a Dresden, too, suffering terribly from the paralysis of trade, and showing a plentiful lack of enthusiasm for Prussia.

Ibsen turned his back on all such vexatious themes, and set himself to the collecting and polishing of a series of lyrical poems, the Digte of 1871, the earliest, and, indeed, the only such collection that he published. We may recollect that, at the very same moment, with far less cause to isolate himself from the horrors of war, Théophile Gautier was giving the last touches to Emaux et Camées. In December, 1870, Ibsen addressed to Fru Limnell, a lady in Stockholm, his “Balloon-Letter,” a Hudibrastic rhymed epistle in nearly 400 lines, containing, with a good deal that is trivial, some striking symbolical reminiscences of his trip through Egypt, and some powerful ironic references to the caravan of German invaders, with its Hathor and its Horus, which was then rushing to the assault of Paris under the doleful colors of the Prussian flag. Ibsen’s sarcasms are all at the ugliness and prosaic utilitarianism of the Germans; “Moltke,” he says, “has killed the poetry of battles.”

Ibsen was now greatly developing and expanding his views, and forming a world-policy of his own. The success of German discipline deeply impressed him, and he thought that the day had probably dawned which would be fatal to all revolt and “liberal rebellion” for the future. More than ever he dreaded the revolutionary doctrines of men like Jaabaek and Björnson, which would lead, he thought, to bloodshed and national disaster. The very same events were impressing Goldwin Smith at the very same moment with his famous prophecy that the abolition of all dynastic and aristocratic institutions was at hand, with “the tranquil inauguration” of elective industrial governments throughout the world. So history moves doggedly on, propheten rechts, propheten links, a perfectly impassive welt-kind in the middle of them. In Copenhagen Ibsen had, after all, missed Brandes, delayed in Rome by a long and dangerous illness; and all he could do was to exchange letters with this still unseen but increasingly sympathetic and beloved young friend. To Brandes Ibsen wrote more freely than to any one else about the great events which were shaking the face of Europe and occupying so much of both their thoughts:—

The old, illusory France has collapsed [he wrote to Brandes on December 20, 1870, two days after the engagement at Nuits]; and as soon as the new, real Prussia does the same, we shall be with one bound in a new age. How ideas will then come tumbling about our ears! And it is high time they did. Up till now we have been living on nothing but the crumbs from the revolutionary table of last century, a food out of which all nutriment has long been chewed. The old terms require to have a new meaning infused into them. Liberty, equality and fraternity are no longer the things they were in the days of the late-lamented Guillotine. This is what the politicians will not understand, and therefore, I hate them. They want their own special revolutions — revolutions in externals, in politics and so forth. But all this is mere trifling. What is all-important is the revolution of the Spirit of Man.

This revolution, as exemplified by the Commune in Paris, did not satisfy the anticipations which Ibsen had formed, and Brandes took advantage of this to tell him that he .had not yet studied politics minutely enough from the scientific standpoint. Ibsen replied that what he did not possess as knowledge came to him, to a certain degree, as intuition or instinct. “Let this be as it may, the poet’s essential task is to see, not to reflect. For me in particular there would be danger in too much reflection.” Ibsen seems, at this time, to be in an oscillating frame of mind, now bent on forming some positive theory of life out of which his imaginative works shall crystallize, harmoniously explanatory; at another time, anxious to be unhampered by theories and principles, and to represent individuals and exceptions exactly as experience presents them to him. In neither attitude, however, is there discernible any trace of the moral physician, and this is the central distinction between Tolstoi and Ibsen, whose methods, at first sight, sometimes appear so similar. Tolstoi analyzes a morbid condition, but always with the purpose, if he can, of curing it; Ibsen gives it even closer clinical attention, but he leaves to others the care of removing a disease which his business is solely to diagnose.

The Poems, after infinite revision, were published at length, in a very large edition, on May 3, 1871. One reason why Ibsen was glad to get this book off his hands was that it enabled him to concentrate his thoughts on the great drama he had been projecting, at intervals, for seven years past, the trilogy (as he then planned it) on the story of Julian the Apostate. At last Brandes came to Dresden (July, 1871) and found the tenebrous poet plunged in the study of Neander and Strauss, Gibbon unfortunately being a sealed book to him. All through the autumn and winter he was kept in a chronic state of irritability by the intrigues and the menaces of a Norwegian pirate, who threatened to reprint, for his own profit, Ibsen’s early and insufficiently protected writings. This exacerbated the poet’s dislike to his own country, where the very law courts, he thought, were hostile to him. On this subject he used language of tiresome over-emphasis. “From Sweden, from Denmark, from Germany, I hear nothing but what gives me pleasure; it is from Norway that everything bad comes upon me.” It was indicated to would-be Norwegian visitors that they were not welcome at Dresden. Norwegian friends, he said, were “a costly luxury” which he was obliged to deny himself.

The First Part of Julian was finished on Christmas Day, but it took over a year more before the entire work, as we now possess it, was completed. “A Herculean labor,” the author called it, when he finally laid down a weary pen in February, 1873. The year 1872 had been very quietly spent in unremitting literary labor, tempered by genial visits from some illustrious Danes of the older generation, as particularly Hans Christian Andersen and Meyer Aron Goldschmidt, and by more formal intercourse with a few Germans such as Konrad Maurer and Paul Heyse; all this time, let us remember, no Norwegians —“by request.” The summer was spent in long rambles over the mountains of Austria, ending up with a month of deep repose in Berchtesgaden. The next year was like unto this, except that its roaming, restless summer closed with several months in Vienna; and on October 17, 1873, nonum in annum, after the Horatian counsel, the prodigious masterpiece, Emperor and Galilean, was published in Copenhagen at last.

Of all the writings of Ibsen, his huge double drama on the rise and fall of Julian is the most extensive and the most ambitious. It is not difficult to understand what it was about the most subtle and the most speculative of the figures which animate the decline of antiquity that fascinated the imagination of Ibsen. Successive historians have celebrated the flexibility of intelligence and firmness of purpose which were combined in the brain of Julian with a passion for abstract beauty and an enthusiasm for a restored system of pagan Hellenic worship. There was an individuality about Julian, an absence of the common purple convention, of the imperial rhetoric, which strongly commended him to Ibsen, and in his perverse ascetic revolt against Christianity he offered a fascinating originality to one who thought the modern world all out of joint. As a revolutionary, Julian presented ideas of character which could not but passionately attract the Norwegian poet. His attitude to his emperor and to his God, sceptical, in each case, in each case inspired by no vulgar motive but by a species of lofty and melancholy fatalism, promised a theme of the most entrancing complexity. But there are curious traces in Ibsen’s correspondence of the difficulty, very strange in his case, which he experienced in forming a concrete idea of Julian in his own mind. He had been vaguely drawn to the theme, and when it was too late to recede, he found himself baffled by the paradoxes which he encountered, and by the contradictions of a figure seen darkly through a mist of historical detraction.

He met these difficulties as well as he could, and as a prudent dramatic poet should, by close and observant study of the document. He endeavored to reconcile the evident superiority of Julian with the absurd eccentricities of his private manners and with the futility of his public acts. He noted all the Apostate’s foibles by the side of his virtues and his magnanimities. He traced without hesitation the course of that strange insurrection which hurled a coarse fanatic from the throne, only to place in his room a literary pedant with inked fingers and populous beard. He accepted everything, from the parasites to the purple slippers. The dangers of so humble an attendance upon history were escaped with success in the first instalment of his “world drama.” In the strong and mounting scenes of Caesar’s Apostacy, the rapidity with which the incidents succeed one another, their inherent significance, the innocent splendor of Julian’s mind in its first emancipation from the chains of false faith, combine to produce an effect of high dramatic beauty. Georg Brandes, whose instinct in such matters was almost infallible, when he read the First Part shortly after its composition, entreated Ibsen to give this, as it stood, to the public, and to let The Emperor Julian’s End follow independently. Had Ibsen consented to do this, Caesar’s Fall would certainly take a higher place among his works than it does at present, when its effect is somewhat amputated and its meaning threatened with incoherence by the author’s apparent volteface in the Second Part.

It was a lifelong disappointment to Ibsen that Emperor and Galilean, on which he expended far more consideration and labor than on any other of his works, was never a favorite either with the public or among the critics. With the best will in the world, however, it is not easy to find full enjoyment in this gigantic work, which by some caprice of style defiant of analysis, lacks the vitality which is usually characteristic of Ibsen’s least production. The speeches put into the mouths of antique characters are appropriate, but they are seldom vivid; as Bentley said of the epistles of Julian’s own teacher Libanius, “You feel by the emptiness and deadness of them, that you converse with some dreaming pedant, his elbow on his desk.” The scheme of Ibsen’s drama was too vast for the very minute and meticulous method he chose to adopt. What he gives us is an immense canvas, on which he has painted here and there in miniature. It is a pity that he chose for dramatic representation so enormous a field. It would have suited his genius far better to have abandoned any attempt to write a conclusive history, and have selected some critical moment in the life of Julian. He should rather have concentrated his energies, independent of the chroniclers, on the resuscitation of that episode, and in the course of it have trembled less humbly under the uplifted finger of Ammianus.

Of Emperor and Galilean Ibsen afterwards said: “It was the first” (but he might have added “the only”) “poem which I have written under the influence of German ideas.” He was aware of the danger of living too long away from his own order of thought and language. But it was always difficult for him, once planted in a place, to pull up his roots. A weariness took possession of him after the publication of his double drama, and he did practically nothing for four years. This marks a central joint in the structure of his career, what the architects call a “channel” in it, adding to the general retrospect of Ibsen’s work an aspect of solidity and resource. During these years he revised some of his early writings, made a closer study of the arts of sculpture and painting, and essayed, without satisfaction, a very brief sojourn in Norway. In the spring of 1875 he definitely moved with his family from Dresden to Munich.

The brief visit to Christiania in 1874 proved very unfortunate. Ibsen was suspicious, the Norwegians of that generation were constitutionally stiff and reserved; long years among Southern races had accustomed him to a plenitude in gesture and emphasis. He suffered, all the brief time he was in Norway, from an intolerable malaise. Ten years afterwards, in writing to Björnson, the discomfort of that experience was still unallayed. “I have not yet saved nearly enough,” he said, “to support myself and my family in the case of my discontinuing my literary work. And I should be obliged to discontinue it if I lived in Christiania. . . . This simply means that I should not write at all. When, ten years ago, after an absence of ten years, I sailed up the fjord, I felt a weight settling down on my breast, a feeling of actual physical oppression. And this feeling lasted all the time I was at home; I was not myself under the stare of all those cold, uncomprehending Norwegian eyes at the windows and in the streets.”

Ibsen had now been more than ten years am exile from Norway, and his sentiments with regard to his own people were still what they were when, in July, 1872, he had sent home his Ode for the Millenary Festival. That very striking poem, one of the most solid of Ibsen’s lyrical performances, had opened in the key of unmitigated defiance to popular opinion at home. It was intended to show Norwegians that they must alter their attitude towards him, as he would never change his behavior towards them. “My countrymen,” he said:—

My countrymen, who filled for me deep bowls

    Of wholesome bitter medicine, such as gave

    The poet, on the margin of his grave,

Fresh force to fight where broken twilight rolls —

    My countrymen, who sped me o’er the wave,

An exile, with my griefs for pilgrim-soles,

My fears for burdens, doubts for staff, to roam —

From the wide world I send you greeting home.

I send you thanks for gifts that help and harden,

    Thanks for each hour of purifying pain;

Each plant that springs in my poetic garden

    Is rooted where your harshness poured its rain;

Each shoot in which it blooms and burgeons forth

It owes to that gray weather from the North;

The sun relaxes, but the fog secures!

My country, thanks! My life’s best gifts were yours.

In spite of these sardonic acknowledgments. Ibsen’s fame in Norway, though still disputed, was now secure. In Denmark and Sweden it was almost unchallenged, and he was a name, at least, in Germany. In England, since 1872, he had not been without a prophet. But in Italy, Russia, France — three countries upon the intelligence of which he was presently to make a wide and durable impression — he was still quite unknown.

Meanwhile, in glancing over the general literature of Europe, we see his figure, at the threshold of his fiftieth year, taking greater and greater prominence. He had become, in the sudden exinction of the illustrious old men of Denmark, the first living writer of the North. He was to Norway what Valera was to Spain, Carducci to Italy, Swinburne or Rossetti to England, and Leconte de Lisle to France. These were mainly lyrical poets, but it must not be forgotten that Ibsen, down at least till 1871, was prominently illustrious as a writer in metrical form. If, in the second portion of his career, he resolutely deprived himself of all indulgence in the ornament of verse, it was a voluntary act of austerity. It was Charles V at Yuste, wilfully exchanging the crown of jewels for the coarse brown cowl of St. Jerome. And now, after a year or two of prayer and fasting, Ibsen began a new intellectual career.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56