The Scandinavian peoples hold to-day a positionby@havelock

The Scandinavian peoples hold to-day a position

by Havelock EllisApril 10th, 2023
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The Scandinavian peoples hold to-day a position not unlike that held at the beginning of the century by Germany. They speak, in various modified forms, a language which the rest of the world have regarded as little more than barbarous, and are looked upon generally as an innocent and primitive folk. Yet they contain centres of intense literary activity; they have produced novels of a peculiarly fresh and penetrating realism; and they possess, moreover, a stage on which great literary works may be performed, and the burning questions of the modern world be scenically resolved. It is natural that Norway, with its historical past and literary traditions, should be the chief centre of this activity, and that a Norwegian should stand forth to-day as the chief figure of European significance that has appeared in the Teutonic world of art since Goethe.
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The New Spirit by Havelock Ellis is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. IBSEN


The Scandinavian peoples hold to-day a position not unlike that held at the beginning of the century by Germany. They speak, in various modified forms, a language which the rest of the world have regarded as little more than barbarous, and are looked upon generally as an innocent and primitive folk. Yet they contain centres of intense literary activity; they have produced novels of a peculiarly fresh and penetrating realism; and they possess, moreover, a stage on which great literary works may be performed, and the burning questions of the modern world be scenically resolved. It is natural that Norway, with its historical past and literary traditions, should be the chief centre of this activity, and that a Norwegian should stand forth to-day as the chief figure of European significance that has appeared in the Teutonic world of art since Goethe.

To understand Norwegian art—whether in its popular music, with its extremes of melancholy or hilarity, or in its highly-developed literature—we must understand the peculiar character of the land which has produced this people. It is a land having, in its most characteristic regions,[134] a year of but one day and night—the summer a perpetual warm sunlit day filled with the aroma of trees and plants, and the rest of the year a night of darkness and horror; a land which is the extreme northern limit of European civilization, on the outskirts of which the great primitive gods still dwell; and where elves and fairies and mermaids are still regarded, according to the expression of Jonas Lie, as tame domestic animals. Such an environment must work mightily on the spirit and temper of the race. As one of the persons in Björnson’s “Over Ævne” observes—“There is something in Nature here which challenges whatever is extraordinary in us. Nature herself here goes beyond all ordinary measure. We have night nearly all the winter; we have day nearly all the summer, with the sun by day and by night above the horizon. You have seen it at night half-veiled by the mists from the sea; it often looks three, even four, times larger than usual. And then the play of colours on sky, sea, and rock, from the most glowing red to the softest and most delicate yellow and white! And then the colours of the Northern Lights on the winter sky, with their more suppressed kind of wild pictures, yet full of unrest and forever changing! Then the other wonders of Nature! These millions of sea-birds, and the wandering processions of fish, stretching for miles! These perpendi[135]cular cliffs that rise directly out of the sea! They are not like other mountains, and the Atlantic roars round their feet. And the ideas of the people are correspondingly unmeasured. Listen to their legends and stories.”

So striking are the contrasts in the Norwegian character that they have been supposed to be due to the mingling of races; the fair-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian of the old Sagas, silent and deep-natured, being modified, now (especially in the north) by the darker, brown-eyed Lapp, with his weakness of character, vivid imagination, and tendency to natural mysticism, and, again (especially in the east), by the daring, practical, energetic Finn.

However this may be, among the Norwegian poets and novelists various qualities often meet together in striking opposition; wild and fantastic imagination stands beside an exact realism and a loving grasp of nature; a tendency to mysticism and symbol beside a healthy naturalism. We find these characteristics variously combined in Ibsen; in Björnson, with his virile strength and generous emotions, amid which a mystic influence now and then appears; in Jonas Lie, with his subtle and delicate spirit, so intimately national; in Kielland, a realistic novelist of most dainty and delicate art, beneath which may be heard the sombre undertone of his sympathy with the weak and the oppressed. Of these[136] writers, and others only less remarkable, one alone is at all well known in England, and even he is known exclusively by his early work, especially by that most delightful of peasant stories, “Arne.” In Germany the Scandinavian novelists and dramatists have received much attention, and are widely known through excellent and easily accessible translations. Yet our English race and speech are even more closely allied to the northern; our land is studded with easily recognizable Scandinavian place-names and Scandinavian colonies, whose dialects are full of genuine Scandinavian words unknown to literary English. It is not likely that this indifference to the social, political, and literary history of our northern kinsmen can last much longer.

About 1720 a Danish skipper, one Peter Ibsen, came over from Moen[8] to Bergen and settled there. He married the daughter of a German who had likewise emigrated from his own country: these were the poet’s great-great-grandparents. Peter Ibsen had a son, Henrik Petersen Ibsen, who was also a ship’s captain. He married a lady whose name is given as Wenche[137] Dischington, the daughter of a Scotchman naturalized in Norway. This Henrik Ibsen settled in Skien, and had a son of the same name who married a German wife. All these Ibsens were sailors. Henrik Ibsen’s son, Knud Ibsen, the dramatist’s father, like his father married a wife of German extraction, Maria Cornelia Altenburg, the daughter of a merchant who had begun life as a sailor.

This ancestry is very significant. It will be seen that Ibsen is on both sides predominantly German, and that in his German and Danish blood there is an interesting Scotch strain. The tendency to philosophic abstraction and the strenuous earnestness, mingling with the more characteristically northern imaginative influences, are explained by this German and Scotch ancestry; it explains also the peculiarly isolated and yet cosmopolitan attitude which marks Ibsen—why it is that his works have been so enthusiastically received and so easily naturalized in Germany, and why, now that they are beginning to be known, they promise to make so deep an impression in our own land.

Ibsen’s mother possessed a shy, silent, and solitary nature, which she imparted to her son. One of her daughters thus describes her: “She was a quiet, lovable woman, the soul of the house, devoted to her husband and children. She was always sacrificing herself. There was[138] no bitterness or reproach in her.” The father was of cheerful disposition, a man of sociable tastes, popular in his circle, but also feared, for he had a keen wit, and, like his son, he could use it unmercifully.

Knud Ibsen’s eldest son, Henrik,[9] was born at Skien, a busy little town of some 3,000 inhabitants occupied in the timber trade, on the 20th March, 1828. “I was born,” the dramatist writes in some reminiscences published by Mr. Jaeger for the first time, “in a house in the market-place, Stockmann’s house it was then called. The house lay right opposite the church with its high steps and large tower. To the right, in front of the church, stood the town pillory, and to the left the town-hall, the lock-up, and the ‘madhouse.’ The fourth side of the market-place was occupied by the Latin school and the town school. The church lay free in the middle. This prospect was the first view of the earth that presented itself to my eyes. All buildings; no green, no rural open landscape.” It was in the church tower that the[139] baby Henrik received his first conscious and deep impression. The nursemaid took him up and held him out (to the horror of his mother below), and he never forgot that new and strange vision of the world from above. Ibsen goes on to describe the attractions which were held for him in the gloomy town-hall and the pillory, unused for many years, a red-brown post of about a man’s height, with a great round knob which had originally been painted black, but which then looked like a human face. In front of the post hung an iron chain, and in that an iron ring which seemed like two small arms ready to clasp the child’s neck on the least provocation. And then there was the town-hall. That, too, had high steps like the church, and underneath it was the gaol with its barred windows: “inside the bars I have seen many pale and dark faces.” And then there was the “madhouse,” which in its time had really been used to confine lunatics. That also was barred, but inside the bars the little window was filled by a massive iron plate with small round holes like a sieve. This place was said to have been the abode of a famous criminal who had been branded.

These early impressions of the dramatist—the church tower, the pillory, the barred windows, the pale criminals—are of no little interest. They help to explain for us the sombre and tragic cast, purely human and reflective, of[140] Ibsen’s character. They explain, too, the absence in his work of the sea and the forest, of those things which give such a sweet, wild aroma, now and again, to the work of Björnson and Lie. The little town, with its active commercial life and its equally active religious life—for Skien was a centre of pietistic influence—was such a place as is brought before us in “De Unges Forbund” and in “Samfundets Stötter,” and it was a fit birthplace for the author of “Brand.”

Knud Ibsen belonged to the aristocracy of Skien, and his house was a centre of its social life. When Henrik was eight years old there was an end of this, for his father became a bankrupt. After the catastrophe the family retired to a small and humble home outside Skien, where they lived with a frugality which was in marked contrast with their former life. There can be no doubt that this sudden change of circumstances, and the insight which it brought into the social cleavage of a provincial town, counted for much in Ibsen’s development. It is certain that at this period his marked individuality began to be perceived. He did not play like the other children; while they romped in the yard, he retired into a little inclosure in an alley that led to the kitchen, and barricaded himself against the heedless incursions of the younger members of the family. Here he kept guard, not only in summer, but in the depth of[141] winter. It is clear that even at this early age Ibsen had reached the point of proud isolation and defiance of his fellow-citizens which Stockmann ultimately attained. One of his sisters describes how they used to throw stones and snowballs at his retreat to make him come out to join their play, but when he could no longer withstand the attack and yielded to the assailants, he could display no skill in any kind of sport, and soon retired again to his den. Reading appears to have been one of his chief occupations there, and Jaeger assures us that the words which many years afterwards Ibsen put into the mouth of the little girl Hedwig, who is so pathetic and tender a figure in one of his latest dramas, “Vildanden,” contain a reminiscence of childhood. “And do you read the books?” asked Gregers. “Oh, yes, when I can. But most of them are English, and I can’t read those. But then I can look at the pictures. There is one big black book, called Harryson’s ‘History of London;’ it must be a hundred years old, and that has such a number of pictures in it. First there is a picture of Death with an hourglass and a girl. I think that is hideous. But then there are all sorts of other pictures, with churches and castles and streets and great ships that sail on the sea.” He also amused himself with pencil and colour-box. Meanwhile he went to school, going through the usual[142] course and learning a little Latin; he appears to have taken a special interest in the Biblical instruction. At fourteen he was confirmed, and the time came for him to make his way in the world.

At this period he wished to become a painter; he devoted himself with zeal to drawing, and an interest in painting has remained with him, the formation of an excellent little collection of Renaissance pictures becoming in later life one of his chief hobbies. In the existing state of the family means, this career was out of the question, and he was sent to an apothecary at Grimstad, a little town containing at that time not more than 800 inhabitants. The apothecary’s shop, Jaeger remarks, is the place where all the loungers meet in the evening to discuss the events of the day, and doubtless the apothecary’s shop was an element in the education of the future dramatist. In his interesting preface to the second edition of “Catilina” he has himself described the five years of development that he went through in this little town. He did not wish to become a chemist; he would become a student and study medicine. At the same time his poetical activity and the eventful year of 1848 came to arouse in the silent, solitary boy a healthy interest in the outside world.

It was while reading Sallust and Cicero for his matriculation examination that he conceived,[143] and wrote at midnight, his first play, “Catilina.” With the help of two enthusiastic young friends the tragedy was published and some thirty copies sold—a result which did not permit of the proposed tour in the East on which the three friends had decided to expend the profits of the sale. Ibsen was now in his twenty-second year, and he came up to Christiania to carry on his studies at the school of Heltberg, who seems to have had a singularly stimulating influence on young men, and at the university. Here Ibsen was the comrade of Björnson, Jonas Lie, and others who have since become famous. At a later date Björnson condensed his youthful impression of his friend in two vigorous lines:

“Tense and lean, the colour of gypsum,

Behind a vast coal-black beard, Henrik Ibsen.”

The period now arrived at which Ibsen’s career was definitely settled. He had been making several unsuccessful literary attempts at Christiania, having finally abandoned the intention to study medicine, when, in 1851, the famous violinist, Ole Bull, who has done so much to give artistic shape and energy to the modern Norwegian spirit, gave him an appointment at the National Theatre which he had recently established at Bergen. Ibsen’s prentice hand was now trained by the writing of several dramas not included among his published works;[144] and, like Shakespeare and Molière in somewhat similar circumstances, he here acquired his mastery of the technical demands of dramatic form. In 1855 his apprenticeship may be said to have ended, and he produced “Fru Inger til Östraat” (Dame Inger of Östraat), an historical prose drama of great energy and concentration. In 1858 he married Susanna Thoresen, the daughter of a Bergen clergyman, whose second wife, Magdalene Thoresen, is a well-known authoress. At the same period he was appointed artistic director of the Norwegian theatre at Christiania, a post previously occupied by Björnson, who had just inaugurated the Norwegian peasant novel by the publication of “Synnöve Solbakken.” In 1864, having acquired the means, Ibsen found it desirable to quit the somewhat provincial and uncongenial atmosphere of his native country, and has since lived in Rome, in Ischia, in Dresden, and at other places, but mainly at Munich, producing on an average a drama every two years. In 1885 he revisited Norway. Time had brought its revenges, and he was enthusiastically received everywhere. At Drontheim he made a remarkable speech to a club of working-men. “Mere democracy,” he said, “cannot solve the social question. An element of aristocracy must be introduced into our life. Of course I do not mean the aristocracy of birth or of the purse, or even the aristocracy of intellect. I mean[145] the aristocracy of character, of will, of mind. That only can free us. From two groups will this aristocracy I hope for come to our people—from our women and our workmen. The revolution in the social condition, now preparing in Europe, is chiefly concerned with the future of the workers and the women. In this I place all my hopes and expectations; for this I will work all my life and with all my strength.” In private conversation, it is said, Ibsen describes himself as a Socialist, although he has not identified himself with any definite school of Socialism.

In personal appearance he is rather short, but impressive and very vigorous. He has a peculiarly broad and high forehead, with small, keen, blue-grey eyes “which seem to penetrate to the heart of things.” His firm and compressed mouth is characteristic of “the man of the iron will,” as he has been called by a fellow-countryman. Altogether it is a remarkable and significant face, clear-seeing and alert, with a decisive energy of will about it that none can fail to recognize. It is far indeed from the typical “pure, extravagant, yearning, questioning artist’s face.” In middle age it recalled, rather, the faces of some of our most distinguished surgeons; as is perhaps meet in the case of a writer who has used so skilful and daring a scalpel to cut to the core of social diseases. In society, although he likes talking to the common people, Ibsen is[146] usually reserved and silent; or his conversation deals with the most ordinary topics; “he talks like a wholesale tradesman,” it has been said.

Ibsen’s dramas (excluding two or three which have not been published) may be conveniently divided into three groups, but the division is a rough one, for the groups merge one into another; Ibsen’s artistic development has been gradual and continuous.—1. Historical and Legendary Dramas, chiefly in Prose: The youthful “Catilina” (written in 1850, but revised at a later period), which stands by itself, and contains the germ of much of his later work; “Fru Inger til Östraat” (Dame Inger of Östraat), 1855, an effective melodramatic play of great technical skill; “Gildet paa Solhaug” (The Feast at Solhaug), an historical play of the fourteenth century, written in 1855, and reprinted in 1883, with a preface explaining its genesis; “Hærmændene paa Helgeland” (The Warriors at Helgeland), 1858, a noble version of the Volsunga-Saga, here brought down to more historical times, so as to present a vivid and human picture of the Viking period; “Kongs-emnerne” (The Pretenders), 1864, dealing with Norwegian history in the twelfth century; “Keiser og Galilæer” (Emperor and Galilean), finished in 1873, but begun many years earlier. 2. Dramatic Poems: “Kjærlighedens Komedie” (Love’s Comedy), 1862; “Brand,” 1866; “Peer Gynt,” 1867. 3. Social Dramas: “De Unges Forbund”[147] (The Young Men’s League), 1869; “Samfundets Stötter” (The Pillars of Society), 1877; “Et Dukkehjem” (A Doll’s House), 1879; “Gengangere” (Ghosts), 1881; “En Folkefiende” (An Enemy of Society), 1882; “Vildanden” (The Wild Duck), 1884; “Rosmersholm,” 1886; “Fruen fra Havet” (The Lady from the Sea), 1888.

“Hærmændene paa Helgeland” is Ibsen’s first great drama; it has, indeed, been called the most perfect of his plays. The antique form and substance which he imposed upon himself compelled him to a severe self-restraint; the style also of the drama, which is in prose, is austerely simple and strong. Yet there is at the same time a curious and undisguised modern note about this work, and we feel throughout the presence of that spirit which gives life to Ibsen’s plays of to-day. The strong, passionate figure of Hjördis fills most of the field, however finely the lesser figures are moulded. She is the Brunhild of the ancient story, yet she is the same woman who is the heroine and the hero of all Ibsen’s social dramas; a strong and passionate woman, instinct with suppressed energy to which the natural outlets have been closed, and which is transformed into volcanic outbreaks of disaster. “A woman, a woman,” she says to Dagny, who is shocked at a remark about using the armour and weapons of a man, and mixing among men, “there is no one who knows what a woman can do.” Her[148] father having been slain, she is brought as a young girl into the conqueror’s household. She finds a temporary satisfaction in the exercise of her physical strength. When the mild and honourable warrior Sigurd comes with his feeble friend Gunnar, both fall in love with her, and she, without speaking it, returns Sigurd’s love. She promises to give herself to him who can perform the greatest feat of strength, and Sigurd, by a ruse, wins her for his friend Gunnar, himself taking to wife the gentle Dagny. Henceforth there is something strange and incalculable in all the deeds of Hjördis, and a concentrated bitterness in her words. When afterwards she learns that Sigurd had once loved her, the proud and reserved woman offers in vain to put on helmet and breastplate and to follow him through the earth. “I have been homeless in the world from the day that you took another to wife. Ill was that deed of yours. All good gifts may a man give to his trothful friend,—all, but not the woman he holds dear. When he does that deed, he breaks the thread that the Norns have spun, and wastes two lives.” Hjördis is the woman of the social dramas, but it has not yet occurred to her that she has a life of her own.

“Emperor and Galilean,”[10] although historical[149] and written in prose, is very unlike “Hærmændene paa Helgeland”; it belongs, indeed, in date as well as in character, almost as much to the second group. It is made up of two five-act dramas, presenting a series of brilliant and powerful scenes in the life of the Emperor Julian, lacking, however, dramatic unity and culminating interest. It is probable that the disconnected character of the work, and its undue length, is owing to the long period which intervened between its commencement in Norway and its completion at Rome. It is, in its parts, undoubtedly a fascinating work; we trace Julian’s life from his youth as a student of philosophy to his death as Emperor conquered by the Galilean. The interest of his life lies in his various relations to the growing Christianity and decaying Paganism by which he is surrounded. Julian realizes the possibility of a third religion—“the reconciliation between nature and spirit, the return to nature through spirit: that is the task for humanity.” But he imagines that he is himself the divine representative of this new religion. His friend Maximus prophesies at the end “The third kingdom shall come! The spirit of man[150] shall take its inheritance once more.” Julian failed because he was weak and vain, and because the age was against him; he dies with the cry on his lips, “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!”

“Love’s Comedy,” the earliest of the poems of the second group, is the first work in which Ibsen’s characteristic modern tone appears, not again to vanish. It is a satire on the various conventional phases of love, exquisite in form but comparatively slight in texture. In “Brand” Ibsen produced a poem which for imagination and sombre energy stands alone. It is perhaps the most widely known of all his works; in Germany it has already found four translators, and there is reason to hope that before long a translation will appear in England. “Brand” is the tragedy of will and self-sacrifice in the service of the ideal—a narrow ideal, but less narrow, Ibsen seems sometimes to hint, than the ideals of most of us. The motto on which Brand acts in all the crises of his life is, “All or nothing;” and with him it means in every case the crushing of some human emotion or relationship for the fulfilment of a religious duty. Soon after the commencement of the poem Brand became the pastor of a gloomy little northern valley, between mountains and glaciers, into which the sun seldom penetrates. He is accompanied by his wife Agnes, a pathetic image of love and devotion. A child[151] is born to them, but soon dies in this sun-forsaken valley. There are few passages in literature of more penetrating pathos than the scene in the fourth act in which, one Christmas eve, the first anniversary of the child’s death, Brand persuades Agnes to give her Alf’s clothes—the last loved relics—to a beggar-woman who comes to the door with her child during a snowstorm. Soon Agnes also dies. In the end, stoned by his flock, Brand makes his way, bleeding, up into the mountains. Here, amid the wild rocks and his own hallucinations, he is met by a mad girl who mistakes him for the thorn-crowned Christ. This scene, in which, overwhelmed at last by an avalanche, Brand dies amid his broken ideals, attains an imaginative height not elsewhere reached in modern literature, and for the like of which we have to look back to the great scene on the heath in “Lear.” Here and elsewhere, however, Ibsen brings in supernatural voices, which scarcely heighten the natural grandeur of the scene, and which seem out of place altogether in a poem so entirely modern. “Brand” brings before us a wealth of figures and of discussions, carried on in brief, clear, musical, though irregular, metrical form, and it would be impossible to analyze so complex a work within moderate compass.

“Peer Gynt,” is regarded in his own country as Ibsen’s most important achievement, for it is a[152] great modern national epic, the Scandinavian “Faust.” A successful attempt has even been made to represent it on the stage, the incidental music being composed by Grieg. The name of its hero and many incidents in his career have their home in old Norwegian folk-lore, and Ibsen has himself declared that Peer Gynt is intended as the representative of the Norwegian people. Peer is the child of imagination who lives in a world in which fantasy and reality can scarcely be distinguished. He is an egoist with colossal ambitions; at the same time he is by no means wanting in worldly wisdom; he goes to America, and makes a large fortune (later on suddenly lost) by the importation of slaves and the exportation of idols to China, a trade which he reconciles to his conscience by opening up another branch of business for supplying missionaries (at a considerable profit) with Bibles and rum. The whole is a series of scenes and adventures, often fantastic or symbolic in character, always touched by that profound irony which is Ibsen’s most marked feature. One scene is so original and penetrative that it stands alone in literature. It is that scene of peculiarly Norwegian essence in which Peer Gynt enters the hut in which his mother lies dying, with the fire on the hearth and the old tom-cat on a stool at the bottom of the bed. He talks to her in the tone of the days of childhood, reminding her[153] how they used to play at driving to the fairy-tale castle of Soria Moria. He sits at the foot of the bed, throws a string round the stool on which the cat lies, takes a stick in his hand, imagines a journey to Heaven—the altercation with St. Peter at the gate, the deep bass voice of God declaring that Mother Aase shall enter free—and lulls her to death with the stories with which she had once lulled him to sleep. At a much later date in his career Peer finds himself in a madhouse at Cairo, where he is assured that his own guiding principle of the self-sufficiency of the individual, without regard for the actions or opinions of others, is carried out to its extreme limits. He is here acclaimed as emperor and crowned with a garland of straw. Thus are his dreams of power fulfilled. In the end he returns, a white-haired old man, to be eagerly welcomed by the faithful Solveig, whom, as a girl, he had forsaken, and who is now an old woman, still waiting for him with the kingdom of love that he had missed. The poem ends with the picture of Solveig singing over her lover a cradle-song of death. The failure of an over-mastering imagination and weak will to attain the love that alone satisfies, that is the last lesson of this marvellous work, so full of manifold meaning.

It is certainly by the third and latest group—the Social Dramas—that Ibsen has attracted most attention both in his own country and abroad.[154] They are all written in mature life, and he has here devoted his early acquired mastery of the technical requirements of the drama, as well as the later acquired experiences of men, to a keen criticism of the social life of to-day. He himself, it is said, regards these plays as his chief title to remembrance. It is scarcely possible to say so much as this when we think of “Hærmændene paa Helgeland,” of “Brand,” and of “Peer Gynt.” But it certainly does not befit us of to-day to complain that Ibsen has devoted his most mature art to work which has a significance which to-day at all events cannot be over-estimated. That significance may be very easily set forth; the spirit that works through Ibsen’s latest dramas is the same that may be detected in his earliest, “Catilina;” it is an eager insistance that the social environment shall not cramp the reasonable freedom of the individual, together with a passionately intense hatred of all those conventional lies which are commonly regarded as “the pillars of society.” But this impulse that underlies nearly all Ibsen’s dramas of the last group is always under the control of a great dramatic artist. The dialogue is brief and incisive; every word tells, and none is superfluous; there is no brilliant play of dialogue for its own sake. “The illusion I wish to produce,” he has himself said, “is that of truth itself, I want to produce upon the reader the impression[155] that what he is reading is actually taking place before him.” In the hands of a meaner artist such an attempt would be fatal; to Ibsen it has brought greater strength. If there is fault to find in the construction of Ibsen’s prose dramas, it lies in their richness of material; the subsidiary episodes are frequently dramas in themselves, although duly subordinate to the main purpose of the play. The care lavished on the development and episodes of these dramas is equalled by the reality and variety of the persons presented. These are never mere embodied “humours” or sarcastic caricatures; the terrible keenness of Ibsen’s irony comes of the simple truth and moderation with which he describes these social humbugs who are yet so eminently reasonable and like ourselves. Every figure brought before us, even the most insignificant, is an organic and complex personality, to be recognized without trick or catchword.

“The Young Men’s League,” the earliest of the series, deals with the rise and progress of one Stensgaard. He is a man whose character is essentially vulgar and commonplace, but who is undoubtedly clever, and whose ambition it is to gain political success. At the same time he is short-sighted, conceited, absolutely wanting in tact. He is even unstable, save in the great central aim of his life, which he seeks to bring about by the formation of a compact majority[156] of voters, of which the nucleus is the Young Men’s League. Stensgaard is always at his best as an orator; he is a Numa Roumestan, genial, almost childishly open-hearted, with a flow of facile emotion and a great mastery of phrases. We leave him under a cloud of contempt but nowise defeated; and we are given to understand that he is on his way to the highest offices of state. In this vivid and skilful portrait of the representative leader of semi-democratized societies, Ibsen has given his chief utterance on current political methods. It is scarcely favourable. He realizes that government by party mobs, each headed by a Stensgaard—a phase in the progress towards complete democratization illustrated in England to-day—is by no means altogether satisfactory. “A party,” remarks Dr. Stockmann, in “An Enemy of Society,” “is like a sausage-machine: it grinds all the heads together in one mash.” Something more fundamental even than party government is needed, and in some words written in 1870 Ibsen has briefly expressed what he conceives to be the pith of the matter:—

“The coming time—how all our notions will fall into the dust then! And truly it is high time. All that we have lived on up till now has been the remnants of the revolutionary dishes of the last century, and we have been long enough chewing these over and over again.[157] Our ideas demand a new substance and a new interpretation. Liberty, equality, and fraternity are no longer the same things that they were in the days of the blessed guillotine; but it is just this that the politicians will not understand, and that is why I hate them. These people only desire partial revolutions, revolutions in externals, in politics. But these are mere trifles. There is only one thing that avails—to revolutionize people’s minds.”

He is not an aristocrat of the school of Carlyle, eager to put everything beneath the foot of a Cromwell or a Bismarck. The great task for democracy is, as Rosmer says in “Rosmersholm,” “to make every man in the land a nobleman.” “The State must go!” Ibsen wrote to G. Brandes in 1870. “That will be a revolution which will find me on its side. Undermine the idea of the State, set up in its place spontaneous action, and the idea that spiritual relationship is the only thing that makes for unity, and you will start the elements of a liberty which will be something worth possessing.” It is only by the creation of great men and women, by the enlargement to the utmost of the reasonable freedom of the individual, that the realization of Democracy is possible. And herein, as in other fundamental matters, Ibsen is at one with the American, with whom he would appear at first sight to have little in common.[158] “Where the men and women think lightly of the laws; ... where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons; ... where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority; where the citizen is always the head and ideal; where children are taught to be laws to themselves; ... there the great city stands!” exclaims Walt Whitman.

In “The Pillars of Society”—which was separated from “The Young Men’s League” by the appearance of “Emperor and Galilean”—Ibsen pours delicious irony on those conventional lies which are regarded as the foundations of social and domestic life. Here also he presents us with one of the most eminent of the group of “governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters” that throughout these plays strive to act as the pillars of the social system. Straamand in “Love’s Comedy,” Manders in “Ghosts,” the schoolmaster, Rörlund, here, with many minor figures scattered through other plays, notwithstanding slight differences, are closely allied. The clergyman is for Ibsen the supreme representative and exponent of conventional morality. Yet the dramatist never falls into the mistake of some of his Scandinavian contemporaries who make their clerical figures mere caricatures. Here, as always, it is because it is so reasonable and truthful that Ibsen’s irony[159] is so keen. Rörlund is honest and conscientious, but the thinnest veils of propriety are impenetrable to him; he can see nothing but the obvious and external aspects of morality; he is incapable of grasping a new idea, or of sympathizing with any natural instinct or generous emotion; it is his part to give utterance, impressive with the sanction of religion, to the traditional maxims of the society he morally supports. Pastor Manders, in “Ghosts,” is less fluent than Rörlund, and of stronger character. His training and experience have fitted him to deal in all dignity with the proprieties and conventions of social morality; but when he is in the presence of the realities of life, or when a generous human thought or emotion flashes out before him, he shrinks back, shocked and cowed. He is then, as Mrs. Alving says, nothing but a great child. That Ibsen is, in his clerical personages, as some have said, covertly attacking Protestantism, it is not necessary to assert. It is the traditional morality, of which the priesthood everywhere are the chief and authorized exponents, with which he is chiefly concerned. His attitude towards Christianity generally we may perhaps gather from the intensity of feeling with which Julian, in “Emperor and Galilean,” expresses his passionate repugnance to its doctrine of the evil of human nature and its policy of suppression.[160] “You can never understand it, you,” he continues, “who have never been in the power of this God-Man. It is more than a doctrine which he has spread over the world; it is a charm which has fettered the senses. Whoever falls once into his hands—I think he never becomes free again. We are like vines planted in a foreign soil; plant us back again and we should perish; yet we languish in this new earth.”

“A Doll’s House” contains Ibsen’s most elaborate portrait of a woman, and it is his chief contribution to the elucidation of the questions relating to the social functions and position of women in the modern world. It is the tragedy of marriage, and on this ground it has excited much discussion, and is perhaps the most widely known of Ibsen’s social dramas. As a work of art it is probably the most perfect of them. He has here thrown off the last fragments of that conventionality in treatment which frequently mars the two previous plays, and has reached the full development of his own style. The play is an organic whole, all its parts are intimately bound together, and every step in the development is vital and inevitable. Nora herself, the occupant of the doll’s house, is a being whose adult instincts have been temporarily arrested by the influences which have made her an overgrown child. She is the daughter of a[161] frivolous official of doubtful honesty; she has been fed on those maxims of conventional morality of which Rörlund is so able an exponent; and her chief recreation has been in the servants’ room. She is now a mother, and the wife of a man who shields her carefully from all contact with the world. He refrains from sharing with her his work or his troubles; he fosters all her childish instincts; she is a source of enjoyment to him, a precious toy. He is a man of æsthetic tastes, and his love for her has something of the delight that one takes in a work of art. Nora’s conduct is the natural outcome of her training and experience. She tells lies with facility; she flirts almost recklessly to attain her own ends; when money is concerned her conceptions of right are so elementary that she forges her father’s name. But she acts from the impulses of a loving heart; her motives are always good; she is not conscious of guilt. Her education in life has not led her beyond the stage of the affectionate child with no sense of responsibility. But the higher instincts are latent within her; and they awake when the light of day at length penetrates her doll’s house, and she learns the judgment of the world, of which her husband now stands forth as the stern interpreter. In the clash and shock of that moment she realizes that her marriage has been no marriage, that she has been living all these[162] years with a “strange man,” and that she is no fit mother for her children. She leaves her home, not to return until, as she says, to live with her husband will be a real marriage. Will she ever return?—The Norwegian poets, it has been said, like to end their dramas, as such end in life, with a note of interrogation.

Nora is one of a group of women, more or less highly developed, who are distributed throughout Ibsen’s later plays. They stand, in their stagnant conventional environment, as, either instinctively or intelligently, actually or potentially, the representatives of freedom and truth; they contain the promise of a new social order. The men in these plays, who are able to estimate their social surroundings at a just value, have mostly been wounded or paralyzed in the battle of life; they stand by, half-cynical, and are content to be merely spectators. But the women—Selma, Lona, Nora, Mrs. Alving, Rebecca—are full of unconquerable energy. There is a new life in their breasts that surges, often tumultuously, into very practical expression.

As “The Doll’s House” is the tragedy of marriage, so “Ghosts” is the tragedy of heredity. This wonderful play is the logical outcome and continuation of “The Doll’s House.” Mrs. Alving is a Nora who had resolved to cling to her husband in spite of all, and here is the result. She is a woman of energy and intellect, who has[163] managed the estate, and devoted herself successfully to the task of creating an artificial odour of sanctity around the memory of her late husband. At the same time she has been gradually throwing aside the precepts of the morality in which she has been educated, and has learned to think for herself. When her son Oswald returns home, in reality dying of disease that has been latent from his birth, he seems to her the ghost of his father. His own life has been free from excess, but he now drinks too much; and he begins to make love to the girl who is really his half-sister, exactly as his father had done to her mother in the same place. The scene finally closes over the first clear signs of his madness. The irony of the play is chiefly brought about by the involuntary agency of Pastor Manders, the consummate flower of conventional morality, and in the few hours which the action covers the tragedy of heredity is slowly and relentlessly unfolded, with the vanity of all efforts to conceal or suppress the great natural forces of life.

In “Ghosts,” it seems to me, Ibsen reached the highest point of his art. He deals here with commonplace characters and everyday scenes; most of the action is conveyed in mere drawing-room dialogue; but we feel how the clearness and completeness of this play, its tragic intensity, its immense concentration, have at the back the whole of Ibsen’s various achievement. When we reach[164] the end we experience that prolonged shudder of horror, in which, as Aristotle said, the purification of tragedy lies, and we involuntarily recall whatever is most awful in literature, the “Oresteia” of Æschylus, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Shelley’s “Cenci.” It is only on more intimate acquaintance that we are able to look beyond the horror of it, and that we realize here, better than elsewhere, how Ibsen has absorbed the scientific influences of his time, the attitude of unlimited simplicity and trust in the face of reality. “I almost think,” Mrs. Alving says, “that we are all of us ghosts, Pastor Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that ‘walks’ in us,—it is all sorts of dead ideas and lifeless old beliefs and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea.” There is the absolute acceptance of facts, however disagreeable. But, beside it, is the hope that lies in the skilful probing of the wound that the ignorant have foolishly smothered up; the hope also that lies in a glad trust of nature and of natural instincts. Nowhere else in Ibsen’s work can we feel so strong and invigorating a breath of new life.


“An Enemy of Society” is closely connected in its origin with “Ghosts.” When “Ghosts” was published it aroused fierce antagonism. Such a subject was not suited, it was said, to artistic treatment. The discussion was foolish enough; the wise saying of Goethe still remains true, that “no real circumstance is unpoetic so long as the poet knows how to use it.” All the worthy people, however, in whose name Pastor Manders is entitled to speak, declared, further, that the play was immoral—as it certainly is from their point of view—and it was some time before its first representation on the stage, with the distinguished northern actor, Lindberg, in the part of Oswald. Ibsen had expected a storm, but the storm was even greater than he had anticipated; and in the history of Dr. Stockmann he has given an artistic version of his own experiences at this time. It is pleasant that the only figure in these plays that we can intimately associate with Ibsen himself is that of the manly and genial Stockmann. When he discovers that the water at the Baths, of which he is the medical director, and which are the chief cause of the town’s prosperity, are infected and producing disastrous results to the invalids, he resolves that the matter shall at once be made known and remedied. It is in the shock of the universal disapprobation that this resolution arouses that our genial and homely doctor is[166] lifted into heroism, and becomes the mouthpiece of truths with far-reaching significance. The great scene in the fourth act, in which he calls a public meeting as the only remaining way to make his discovery public, and, amid general clamour, sets forth his opinions, is one of the most powerful and genuinely dramatic that Ibsen has ever written.

“The Wild Duck” is, as a drama, the least remarkable of Ibsen’s plays of this group. There is no central personage who absorbs our attention, and no great situation. For the first time also we detect a certain tendency to mannerism, and the dramatist’s love of symbolism, here centred in the wild duck, becomes obtrusive and disturbing. Yet this play has a distinct and peculiar interest for the student of Ibsen’s works. The satirist who has so keenly pursued others has never spared himself; in the lines that he has set at the end of the charming little volume in which he has collected his poems, he declares that, “to write poetry is to hold a doomsday over oneself.” Or, as he has elsewhere expressed it: “All that I have written corresponds to something that I have lived through, if not actually experienced. Every new poem has served as a spiritual process of emancipation and purification.” In both “Brand” and “Peer Gynt” we may detect this process. In “The Wild Duck” Ibsen has set himself on the side of his enemies,[167] and written, as a kind of anti-mask to “The Doll’s House” and “The Pillars of Society,” a play in which, from the standpoint to which the dramatist has accustomed us, everything is topsy-turvy. Gregers Werle is a young man, possessing something of the reckless will-power of Brand, who is devoted to the claims of the ideal, and who is doubtless an enthusiastic student of Ibsen’s social dramas. On returning home after a long absence he learns that his father has provided for a cast-off mistress by marrying her to an unsuspecting man who is an old friend of Gregers’. He resolves at once that it is his duty at all costs to destroy the element of falsehood in this household, and to lay the foundations of a true marriage. His interference ends in disaster; the weak average human being fails to respond properly to “the claims of the ideal;” while Werle’s father, the chief pillar of conventional society in the play, spontaneously forms a true marriage, founded on mutual confessions and mutual trust. If the play may be regarded, not quite unfairly, as a burlesque of possible deductions from the earlier plays, it witnesses also, like “Ghosts,” to Ibsen’s profound conviction that all vital development must be spontaneous and from within, conditioned by the nature of the individual.

In “The Wild Duck” Ibsen approaches in his own manner, without, however, much insis[168]tence, the mural aspects of the equality of the sexes. Is a woman, who has had no relationships with a man before marriage, entitled to expect the same in her husband? Is a man, who has had relationships with other women before marriage, entitled to complain if his wife has also had such relationships? These are the sort of questions which the Scandinavian and Danish dramatists—Björnson, Eduard Brandes, Charlotte Edgren, Benzon—seem never tired of discussing. Eduard Brandes makes his admirable little drama “Et Besög,” published about the same time as “Vildanden,” hang on this problem, and although he brings no new idea into the play, he settles the question in the same spirit as his great fellow-dramatist. “En Hanske,” also published about the same time, gives us Björnson’s contribution to the question. In this play a young woman is in love with a young man who, as she learns accidentally at the moment of formally engaging herself to him, has had previous relationships with other women. At the same time she discovers that her own father, an amiable old élégant, has been frequently unfaithful to his wife, and that her mother still carries about a suppressed bitterness. The girl realizes that life is not like what she has been brought up to believe; she rejects her lover, and after some unexpected and quite unnecessary brutalities from him, flings her[169] glove in his face. All Björnson’s genial vivacity and emotional expansiveness come out in the earlier scenes of this play, and there is some pleasant comedy, especially when the easy-going father tries to lecture his daughter, to the accompaniment of her acute comments and the wife’s sarcastic exclamations, on a wife’s privileges. “Here,” he says, “is woman’s noblest calling.” “As what?” asks the daughter. “As what?—Have you not listened? As—as the ennobling influence in marriage, as that which makes man purer, as, as——” “Soap?” “Soap? what on earth makes you think of soap?” “You make out that marriage is a great laundry for men. We girls are to stand ready, each at her wash-tub, with her piece of soap. Is that how you mean it?” On this ground, however, it is difficult to avoid comparisons with Ibsen, and we miss here both the artistic and moral grip of the greater dramatist. Ibsen’s solution of the matter in “The Wild Duck” seems to be that there can be no true marriage without mutual knowledge and mutual confession.

In “Rosmersholm,” social questions have passed into the background: they are present, indeed, throughout; and to some extent they cause the tragedy of the drama, as the numberless threads that bind a man to his past, and that cut and oppress him when he strives to take a step forward. But on this grey background the[170] passionate figure of Rebecca West forms a vivid and highly-wrought portrait. Ibsen has rarely shown such intimate interest in the development of passion. The whole life and soul of this ardent, silent woman, whom we see in the first scene quietly working at her crochet, while the housekeeper prepares the supper, are gradually revealed to us in brief flashes of light between the subsidiary episodes, until at last she ascends and disappears down the inevitable path to the mill stream. The touches which complete this picture are too many and too subtle to allow of analysis; in the last scene Ibsen’s concentrated prose reaches as high a pitch of emotional intensity as he has ever cared to attain.

“The Lady from the Sea” seems to carry us into an atmosphere rather different from that of the early social dramas. An element of melodrama mingles here with the social interest, and makes this play one of the least characteristic, but certainly one of the most dramatically effective of the group. Ellida, a morbid, romantic young woman, whose mother died insane, has met before her marriage the second mate of an American ship, a “stranger;” he attracts her with all the charm of the wild life of the sea and the fascination of the unknown. Having perpetrated a more or less justifiable homicide, the second mate is compelled to flee, not before he has gone through a form of betrothal with Ellida.[171] Subsequently she marries a well-meaning, commonplace widower, but she wanders helplessly and uselessly through life, like a mermaid among the children of men, still held, in spite of herself, by the old fascination of the sea. At length the mysterious “stranger” turns up again, resolved, if she wishes, to carry her off in spite of everything. She feels that she must be free—free to go or free to stay. The husband, naturally, refuses to hear of this, proposes to send the man about his business. At length he consents to allow her to choose as she will. Then at once she feels able to decide against the “stranger,” who leaps over the wall and disappears. The charm is broken for ever, and she has the chance to make something of her life. The moral is evident: without freedom of choice there can be no real emancipation or development.

The men of our own great dramatic period wrote plays which are the expression of mere gladness of heart and childlike pleasure in the splendid and various spectacle of the world. Hamlet and Falstaff, the tragic De Flores and the comic Simon Eyre, they are all merely parts of the play. It is all play. The breath of Ariosto’s long song of delight and Boccaccio’s virile joy in life was still on these men, and for the organization of society, or even for the development and fate of the individual save as a spectacle, they took little thought. In the modern[172] world this is no longer possible; rather, it is only possible for an occasional individual who is compelled to turn his back on the world. Ibsen, like Aristophanes, like Molière, and like Dumas to-day, has given all his mature art and his knowledge of life and men to the service of ideas. “Overthrowing society means an inverted pyramid getting straight”—one of the audacious sayings of James Hinton—might be placed as a motto on the title-page of all Ibsen’s later plays. His work throughout is the expression of a great soul crushed by the weight of an antagonistic social environment into utterance that has caused him to be regarded as the most revolutionary of modern writers.

An artist and thinker, whose gigantic strength has been nourished chiefly in solitude, whose works have been, as he himself says in one of his poems, “deeds of night,” written from afar, can never be genuinely popular. Everything that he writes is received in his own country with attention and controversy; but he is mistaken for a cynic and pessimist; he is not loved in Norway as Björnson is loved, although Björnson, in the fruitful dramatic activity of his second period, has but followed in Ibsen’s steps;—just as Goethe was never so well understood and appreciated as Schiller. Björnson, with his genial exuberance, his popular sympathies and hopes, never too far in advance of his fellows,[173] invigorates and refreshes like one of the forces of nature. He represents the summer side of his country, in its bright warmth and fragrance. Ibsen, standing alone in the darkness in front, absorbed in the problems of human life, indifferent to the aspects of external nature, has closer affinities to the stern winter-night of Norway. But there is a mighty energy in this man’s work. The ideas and instincts, developed in silence, which inspire his art, are of the kind that penetrate men’s minds slowly. Yet they penetrate surely, and are proclaimed at length in the market-place.

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