IBSENS NEW POEMS.(Digte. Af Henrick Ibsen. Copenhagen. 1871.)
THE distinguished Norwegian writer whose name stands at the head of this article has won his laurels almost exclusively in dramatic literature. His plays are highly esteemed among his countrymen, and have gained him a place in their estimation second to none of his contemporaries. At last he has gathered together the lyrical poems of his later years in the little volume now under review, and they are found to possess all the grace and vigour that his earlier work would lead one to expect. It is rarely that an excellent dramatist is without the singing gift, the merely lyrical faculty; for one Massinger there are ten Jonsons and Deckers; and the genius of the Danish language tends so naturally to the ballad and folk-song, that it would be a matter for wonder if so eminent a poet should write in it without exhibiting this tendency. Still there are signs here to show that Ibsen feels himself to be master of another style, and not wholly at home in this.
These poems consist of short songs of irregular measure, after the fashion of Heine`s Lieder, of political and festival poems, of verses of society, and of easy epistles to friends. They are the work of the leisure hours of a man of letters. The thoughts are rather fantastic than profound, and there is much that is only of passing local interest; but there are high excellencies of structure and workmanship, and over almost all there is thrown a mist of dreamy pathos and pensive feeling that is very charming, and highly characteristic of the nation. The Norwegians are a courtly, dignified, somewhat melancholy people; their mirth is harsh and their humour bitter, but it is in their quiet meditative moods that they have most attraction, when they seem to retire into a sphere of thought, and lose all sense of worldly things in a sort of half-sad Nirwana. This pensiveness is well reflected in such verses of Ibsen`s as En fuglevise («A Bird`s Song») and the exquisite Med en vandlilje («With a Water-lily»). He is peculiarly happy, at least to an Englishman`s fancy, when he takes some scene or custom of his own picturesque land as the subject of his musings; but he is not always to be persuaded to look kindly at the actualities of his fatherland. With true Norse instinct, he gazes longingly at the South, and would fain write of palm-groves and desert fountains. Now and then the wildness of Norwegian scenery rouses him to a grotesque indignation: –
«Stene har vort Norge nok af;he cries, with Hudibrastic force, in an ungracious little poem of this collection.
Vilddyr har vi og en flok af!»
«Stones our Norway has enough of,
Wild-beasts too we have a troop of,»
It may be well to glance at the literary influences which have been brought to bear on this man`s life. A poet is not a solitary thinker; he is moulded always by the bias of this age. To read a poet`s character fully, we must know who his teachers and who his friends have been. Henrick Ibsen was born in 1828 at Skien, an ancient town near the lowest of the great chain of lakes that runs up to the Hardanger Fjeld. Here, among the glorious pinewoods and large spaces of gloomy water, the boy took in his first experiences of life.
It was a stirring time in Norsk history. The Danish yoke had been thrown off for fourteen years, and the energies of the nation, so long palsied, were quickening into vigorous life. A school of literature was in the very act of creation. Just twenty years before had been born in the two great western ports two children whose writings were to raise Norway to a fair station in the world of European letters. The one, Wergeland, was a poet full of ardour and fire, eccentric, outrageous, republican, an innovator by the very conditions of his existence, as full of clear light and sharp pierci ng air as is the atmosphere in his country; the other, Welhaven, was gracile and polished, delicate in taste, correct in execution, a satirist, a critic, a Pope and a Wordsworth in one. Wergeland was the first to usher in the new epoch in the most startling fashion possible. In 1830 he published his Skabelsen («The Creation»), a colossal drama to which our own Bailey`s Festus is child`s-play. This portentous poem was but the first of the multitudinous writings of volcanic author, whose genius, perhaps, culminated in his Svalen («The Swallow»), a summer-morning story for mothers who have lost children, a poem full of brilliant audacities and ringing with aerial melody, a work worthy of him who sang upon the Euganean Hills. In 1841 Svalen was published, our Ibsen being then a schoolboy. Meanwhile the large brain of Welhaven had not been idle. The extravagances of Wergeland were the subject-matter of his earliest writings; with exquisite keenness and sagacity he exposed the faults of the brother-poet, not so keen, alas! to appreciate his beauties. Soon he became known as himself a poet. In 1834 appeared his Norges Dæmring («Norway`s Twilight»), a brilliant satire in sonnets, sparkling with wit and polemical zeal. The dilettante patriotism of the young men, the exuberance of the poets, the vanity of the great cities were trenchantly attacked in this delightful poem. He had drawn a hornets` nest about his ears. Wild was the discussion, frantic the indignation roused; but the satire struck home to the heart of the nation, and a new epoch began. This great struggle occupied the boyhood of H. Ibsen. When he reached manhood Wergeland was dead, and Welhaven was beginning to rest upon his oars. The crown of poetry was round the head of Andreas Munch, the lady-lover and pourer-forth of gentle rose-coloured pensées. But two young men were growing up whose minds the seeds of new and advanced thought were springing into blossom, – Henrik Ibsen, the founder of the Norwegian drama, and Björnstjerne Björnson, the first Norsk novelist.
Ibsen, originally an apothecary, found himself full of enthusiasm for literature, and threw off the bondage of his profession for a student`s life at Bergen. The deplorable state of the stage interested him from the first, and as early as 1851 he became director of the theatre at Bergen. In 1856 his first important drama was published, Gildet paa Solhoug («The Feast at Solhoug»), and at once obtained him an audience. In consequence he threw up his position in favour of Björnson and came to Christiania. From that time forth his success was assured, and when in 1864 he produced his mediæval drama of Kongs-Emnerne («The Pretenders»), he rose at once in popular estimation to the highest rank among living writers. Since 1864 he has been a traveller in the South of Europe and Egypt, as some of these lyrics testify, and is lastly, with B. Björnson, the recipient of a grant of money from the Storthing, answering, in some measure, to that attendant on our own Laureateship.
The poet is remarkable above his predecessors for his desire to preserve and restore in an artistic form the Norsk language or dialect. He is not content to write in the Danish of Copenhagen, but he studiously introduces the words common among the people and the idioms of the earlier Norse tongue. In his hands the Norsk differs very markedly from Danish. It will be interesting to watch whether this innovation will prove to a mere affectation of the moment, or whether a chasm between the two literatures will absolutely be formed. We fancy the labours of Ibsen and his fellow poets are in vain; we notice that Copenhagen is every year attracting the Norwegian poets as a place of publication more and more, and we fear this movement will suffer the fate of that formerly made to separate the literature of Scotland from our own.