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Henrik Ibsen was born at Skien, on the southeastern coast of Norway, on March 20, 1828. His father, Knut Henriksen Ibsen, a merchant, married his mother, Marichen Cornelia Martine Altenburg, the daughter of another merchant of Skien, in 1825; the future poet was their eldest child. The house on the market-place where he was born was destroyed in August, 1886, when the town of Skien was burned down, and was not rebuilt; it was called the Stockmann House. In Ibsens parents Danish, Scotch, and German elements were mingled, but he had not a drop of real Norwegian blood in his veins. His father, at the time of his birth, appeared to be prosperous in his business, and in 1832 the family moved to a larger house, called Hundevadtbakken, higher up the town; but when the boy was eight years of age the bankruptcy of Knut Ibsen was declared. Of all the possessions of the family, the only one which escaped from the creditors was a little farm, called Venstöb, outside Skien. Henrik felt this exile from pleasure and social consideration to a precocious degree, and he began to isolate himself even from his brothers and sisters. He shut himself in with some old books; he attempted the black arts of magic and he amused himself with a dolls theatre, for which he invented figures and scenes. The only outdoor amusement he cared for was the building of forts and castles. He was presently sent to a small middle-class school in Skien, where he was long afterwards recollected as a quiet boy with strange eyes, fond of drawing, but otherwise not clever or interesting. History and theology were the earliest subjects which awakened his attention. At the age of 15 he was confirmed and taken away from school. His strong wish was to become a painter, but the poverty of his parents forbade the least idea of the needful training. He was apprenticed in 1844 to an apothecary of the name of Reimann, in the seaport town of Grimstad; here he remained six years, and here his ambition gradually turned from art to literature. In 1847 he began to write poems, and in the winter of 1848-49, sitting up at night and concealing the fact from those around him, he composed his earliest drama, the three-act tragedy of Catilina, in blank verse. During the year 1849 Ibsen wrote much, and some of his lyrical pieces were printed in the newspapers of Christiania. Life in Grimstad, where he had few friends and no intellectual opportunities, now became intolerable to him. He had grown gloomy and disagreeable; to the ladies of Grimstad he seemed «spectral.» His relations with his parents, who were of the strictest puritanical order, became strained; in later years he complained that he had always been «half a stranger» to them. In March, 1850, he made his final examinations in chemistry an excuse for putting a few dollars in his pocket and escaping.
At the University of Christiania, which he now attended, Ibsen had Frithjof Foss and A. O. Vinje as fellow-students; a little later they were joined by Björnson; all these lads attended a certain then-famous crammer named Heltborg. Ibsen failed to matriculate, being plucked in Greek and arithmetic; but his ambition had already turned to another direction. Catilina was refused at the theatre, but found a publisher, and appeared in Christiania in April, 1850, under the pseudonym of «Brynjolf Bjarme.» Immediately after this Ibsen wrote a second play, The Vikings Barrow, closely founded on the romantic style of Oehlenschläger; this was accepted and played, and was even being printed, when, for some obscure reason, the poet withdrew it from the press. It was not published until 1902. The same publisher undertook to bring out an «epic poem» by Ibsen, The Golden Harp, but of this no more was ever heard. The poet was now living, with great frugality, in lodgings in Christiania, and he became mixed up, for the only time in his life, with a revolutionary set of students, of whom a certain Theodor Abildgaard was the head. When the plot of these young men was discovered (July 7, 1851), and the leaders severely punished, Ibsen was fortunate enough to escape arrest, his letters and papers being burned just before a raid of the police took place. He now took part in editing a weekly newspaper called Andhrimner, devoted to literature and politics, in which many of the youngest writers of the day published their poems; the brief course of this periodical was a sort of Norwegian parallel to that of our own Germ. In the autumn of 1851 Ole Bull visited Christiania, met Ibsen, and was greatly impressed by his powers. He recommended his appointment as manager to the new theatre at Bergen, and in November the poet received this post. At the expense of the directors, he spent five months of the summer and autumn of 1852 in studying the practical conditions of the theatre in Copenhagen and Dresden. He returned to Bergen, bringing with him the manuscript of his third play, the slight romantic comedy of St. Johns Eve, which he put on the boards of his theatre in the first week of 1852. The incessant practical work of instruction and management carried on for six years at the Bergen Theatre was of the greatest service to the young dramatist, of whom, immersed in his business as a manager, little is heard until 1856, when he produced and printed his drama of The Feast at Solhoug. The romantic drama, Olaf Liljekrans, was played at Bergen in January, 1857, and early next summer he resigned his management, and came up to reside in Christiania.
Ibsens name was at this time, in his thirtieth year, beginning to be known in Norway, but not in connexion with work of any sterling originality. He now entered into a period of crisis, when the real characteristics of his talent were becoming revealed to him and he was attempting to present them to an uninterested public. He was appointed stage-manager to the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania, on a very small salary which depended upon the fluctuating receipts. Here, however, crippled with debts and in great discomfort, he remained until 1862, and here he produced two very fine historical dramas, Madam Inger at Oesteraad (which he had written at Bergen in 1854), in 1857, and The Warriors at Helgeland, in 1858. These plays were in an unfamiliar style, and they failed to please, either on the boards or in book-form; this want of appreciation, combined with the miserable financial state of the stage in Norway, soured the temper of the poet. In 1958, Ibsen married Susanna Daae Thoresen, to whom he had addressed some of the most beautiful of his lyrics; she was the step-daughter of the eminent novelist, Magdalene Thoresen (1819-1903), whose friendship Ibsen had now enjoyed for several years. In the summer of 1862 his own theatre became bankrupt, and he found himself again thrown on the world without resources. It was at this time that he published his Loves Comedy, a satire in dramatic rhyme, in which the ill-humour of the author and his brilliant talent were equally in evidence. Ibsen now thought to live by collecting folk-lore and folk-songs in the mountains, and actually received from the Storthing, in May, 1862, a small stipend for this purpose; in the following year he was appointed «adviser» at the Old Christiania Theatre, but a proposal that he should be paid a Government pension was rejected. The finest of his saga-tragedies, The Pretenders, was published at the close of 1863 (dated 1864), but once more the poet was doomed to disappointment; this work, also, was received with indifference by the critics. Ibsen was at his wits end with poverty and disillusion. But the turn of the tide was coming. Early in 1864 the Council of State granted him a travelling-stipend, and almost simultaneously his Pretenders was put on the stage, and achieved a substantial popular success. But, deeply disgusted with Norway and with the Norwegians, on the 2nd of April, 1864, Ibsen had already left Christiania for a long period of exile.
Through Copenhagen and Berlin, cities made painful to him by the Dano-German quarrel then preparing to break out into war, Ibsen passed to Trieste and Venice. In June he was in Rome, where he determined to settle, swearing that he would never see his fatherland again. He worked steadily in the stillness of a villa at Ariccia, and at Christmas, 1865, he had finished his great poem of Brand. He had been introduced by Björnson a few months earlier to the most enterprising and successful publisher in the three Scandinavian countries, Frederik Hegel, of Copenhagen, who at once perceived the importance of his new client. For the remainder of his life, all Ibsens books and plays were issued by Hegel, and the connexion was one eminently serviceable, both to poet and publisher. Under unusually favourable conditions, then, Brand was published in Copenhagen in March, 1866, and produced a profound sensation. Four large editions were sold within a year, and now for the first time Ibsen found himself famous. In the development of his fame he owed much at this time to the enthusiasm of a new friend, Georg Brandes, destined to become the most brilliant and faithful of Ibsens commentators. Success came not a moment too soon, for the poet, as an appeal to the King (dated April 15, 1866) testifies, was almost starving. From such a fate he was now saved by a pension, and by the royalties which began to reach him from the sales of Brand. He spent the summer of 1867 partly at Ischia and partly in Sorrento, hard at work on Peer Gynt, which was published in November of that year. Ibsen now began to take his place as one of the foremost writers of his country, although the satire of Norwegian manners both in Brand and in Peer Gynt awakened extreme resentment at home. At this time, indeed, and for some years to come, Ibsens popularity was greater in Denmark, and even in Sweden and Germany, than it was in Norway.
In the autumn of 1868, after four years residence in Rome, the poet took up his abode in Dresden, and immediately began the composition of his political drama, The League of Young Men, which he completed in a few months, and published in September, 1869. It was simultaneously acted in the three Scandinavian countries, but was hissed off the stage by a tumultuous audience in Christiania. Ibsen was the guest of the Khedive at Port Said at the moment when this news reached him, and the incident renewed all his detestation of his countrymen; he presently visited Stockholm and Copenhagen, but refused to set foot in Norway. During his stay in Rome Ibsen had made several studies in preparation for a poetical work on the adventures of the Emperor Julian. He had not, however, written any part of it; but on his return to Dresden in the early months of 1870 he turned from all consideration of Scandinavian subjects to this antique theme. For three years he was exclusively occupied with it, and in the spring of 1873 stood completed the great double drama called Emperor and Galilean. Of this work Ibsen has said, «It was the first» (he might have added «the only») «poem which I have written under the influence of German ideas.» It may further be admitted that this, though the longest and the most ambitious, is the least characteristic and the least interesting of all its authors mature productions. During these years, in fact, Ibsens genius was at rest; this period marks the separation between the work of his earlier and that of his later period. It was marked also by the collection in 1871, into a single volume, of his shorter lyrical poems, including the ballad-romance of «Terje Vigen.»
Ibsen was now beginning to be weary of his voluntary exile, and, in the autumn of 1874, after ten years absence, he reappeared in Norway. It did not please him, and in a month or two he returned to Germany, and presently settled in Munich. Here he lived for some years in complete seclusion, scarcely seen by any one, except in the summer, when he would make an appearance in one of the holiday resorts of Berchtesgaden or the Tyrol. At this time he was closely reviewing his own literary capacity, and preparing for the momentous step which he was about to take. At length, in October, 1877, Ibsens drama of The Pillars of Society was published, and with this the modern series of his works commenced. It was like the writing of a new man; it had none of the exterior characters of his earlier pieces, which had mainly been lyrical, and often very rich in rhyme and measure. From the productions of his new period all external ornament was to be excluded; these were to be clinical studies of human nature, presented in the barest prose, and severely unadorned. The Pillars of Society was not for some time acted in Norway, but in Germany it immediately achieved a great success; it is said that in 1878 it was being played in 32 German theatres at once. The winter of 1878 Ibsen spent in Rome, and the greater part of 1879 at Amalfi, where he wrote A Dolls House (properly A Dolls Home), which was issued in Copenhagen in December. This was the first of Ibsens dramas which awakened violent controversy throughout Europe; it was immediately performed in all the principal towns of Scandinavia and Germany to crowded and excited audiences. Ibsens name became the centre of fierce polemic, and it is from this moment that his universal notoriety may be said to begin.
From 1880 to 1885 Ibsen resided once more in Rome, spending his summers at Gossensass, in the Tyrol. He kept himself aloof, and took no part in the controversies which his works were now producing. During a visit to Sorrento in 1881 he wrote Ghosts, which met with more violent censure than any other of his dramas, and was at first refused at the various Scandinavian theatres; it was not until 1883 that it began to be generally played. The bitterness of the attacks on this play induced Ibsen to compose, in dramatic form, his satire upon social obscurantism, entitled An Enemy of the People, which he finished at Gossensass in the early summer of 1882 and published in the following November. This was immediately acted in the principal theatres of the North, and had an effect in moderating the violence of the strictures on its author. These broke forth again on the publication, two years later, of The Wild Duck, but never attained again the virulence which they had displayed in 1882. The Wild Duck, written in Rome in the summer of 1884, was finished at Gossensass and published before the end of that year.
Ibsen now settled down with extreme regularity to the production of a biennial play. He made it his rule to rest one year, to spend another in meditating over and composing a drama, and to publish this drama, with the exactitude of a machine, precisely 24 months after the publication of the last. His readers, who had now become extremely numerous in every part of Europe, could predict the very week in which they would receive a new work from his pen, and they were never deceived. In the meantime he disappeared from all controversy, he contributed nothing to reviews or journals, he was inaccessible to all the entreaties of interviewers and editors. Like a comet, he pursued his silent revolution, and was not seen till the appointed day. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1885, Ibsen paid a brief and private visit to his native country, and again determined that he could not live there; he now settled for the second time in Munich, where he kept house for many years at No. 32, Maximilianstrasse. The intense quiet of his life was broken only by the publication of his plays, and by the banquets and complimentary ceremonies which were now more and more frequently offered to him, and for which by an odd turn in his character he had a great appetite in spite of his dislike to company. In the winter of 1886 his punctual play was Rosmersholm, in 1888 The Lady from the Sea, in 1890 Hedda Gabler, in 1892 Master-Builder Solness, in 1894 Little Eyolf, in 1896 John Gabriel Borkman. Owing to the poets ill-health there was a delay in the publication of When We Dead Awaken, which did not appear until Christmas, 1899. This was the latest of Ibsens dramas, and it was the first in which an indubitable slackening of his remarkable technical powers could be detected. Ibsen, who was a very close and shrewd observer of himself, is believed to have recognized that the time had come for him to be silent.
Meanwhile, after an exile of nearly 17 years, he had thoughts of settling in his native country; in the summer of 1885 he had travelled through Norway; but his arrival at Christiania had led to some unpleasantness between the sections of the student-world and of the Press. Once more, in a great heat of anger, Ibsen had shaken off the dust which had scarcely gathered on his shoes, and had returned to Munich. But the invitations to come home became more and more pressing, and in the summer of 1891 he ventured to visit Christiania again. He received an enthusiastic welcome, and was so much pleased that in the autumn he took a flat in the Viktoria Terrasse and sent to Munich for his household goods. «If the Norwegians are tiresome,» he is reported to have said, «the railway can soon take me off again.» But the quarrel with his country was now entirely at an end. Ibsen found himself surrounded with enthusiasm and affection, and for the remainder of his life he was the object of unceasing respect and even adulation from all classes in the Norwegian capital. His figure was the most familiar to be seen in the streets of Christiania, and it was pointed out to the curiosity of strangers, on his regular perambulations, with pride and national satisfaction. In 1898 he took a house, one of the handsomest in the city, on the Drammensvei, opposite the Royal Gardens, where the close of his life has been spent. In 1902 he collected his «Works,» in two volumes, adding two juvenile dramas, The Vikings Barrow and Olaf Liljekrans, which had not hitherto been published; and in November, 1904, appeared a selection from his private Correspondence, in two volumes, edited under the care of his son, Sigurd Ibsen, by Halvdan Koht and Julius Elias.
For the last three years he has been forbidden by his physicians to be occupied with any mental work, and for more than two years past he has been totally unconscious of the passage of events. Since the autumn of 1904 his death has been constantly expected, and his life has been protracted solely by his extraordinary physical constitution.
Ibsen became something of a courtier in his last days, and took a somewhat excessive pleasure in receiving decorations from his own and other Monarchs. On public occasions, when he wore these insignia, he was, doubtless, the most decorated author in the world. His very striking general appearance, together with this peculiarity, has been preserved in innumerable portraits, not so fortunately in the colossal bronze statue by Sinding in front of the Norwegian National Theatre, as in the paintings of Julius Kronberg, the Swedish portrait-painter, in those of Werenskiold, Niels Gude, and Hans Heyerdahl, and in the busts of Bissen, Vigeland, and Runeberg.