“To be a poet is, most of all, to see,” Henrik Ibsen said, and early in his literary career, he had already recognized the hammer as at once the symbol of creation and of destruction, with mythical overtones of the Old Norse thunder god, Thor, who unflinchingly sacrificed his own hand to bind the wolf Fenris and save his world from the unleashed forces of the underworld. Ibsen’s early poem “The Miner” shows his gaze fixed firmly into the depths: “Downward I must break my way . . . break me the way, my heavy hammer, to the hidden mystery’s heart.” Throughout his literary canon, although he is best known for his prose dramas, the rich poetic vein is never far from the working face of Ibsen’s creativity.
The constructions and destructions necessary to the realization of Ibsen’s vision fall into two distinct categories on either side of the watershed year of 1875. Fjelde differentiates them in apt architectural metaphor, viewing the earlier romantic group of Ibsen’s plays as a diverse old quarter, ranging from Roman villa to Viking guildhalls and even a contemporary honeymoon hotel, while glimpsing immediately beyond a small arid space “what appears to be a model town of virtually identical row houses . . . dark and swarming with secret life.”
Whatever the outward style of their construction, at the core, all of Ibsen’s earlier plays share a basically romantic orientation. Romanticism had already reached its fiery height in most of Europe by the time Ibsen published his first verse drama in 1850, but like the Northern summer sun, the German-derived glow of romanticism lingered longer in Norway, where the emerging Norwegian state, lately reestablished, was seeking its national identity in its Viking heritage. While reviewing a folkloristic play in 1851, Ibsen presented his own characteristically individual theory on nationalism in literature: “A national author is one who finds the best way of embodying in his work that keynote which rings out to us from mountain and valley . . . but above all from within our own selves.” Following that precept at the risk of alienating superpatriots, Ibsen wrote three Viking plays, Lady Inger of Østraat, The Feast at Solhaugh, and The Vikings at Helgeland. In 1862, he made an extensive field trip to gather folklore, which he incorporated with Rousseauistic ideals of the simple natural life in The Pretenders, another medieval Viking drama; in the volcanic Brand, set in the harsh west fjord country; and in the lighthearted Peer Gynt.
An important part of Norway’s nationalistic fervor stemmed from its state Lutheranism, in which Ibsen had received a traditionally rigorous grounding as a child, although none of his plays portrays clergymen sympathetically. In Brand, Ibsen also seemed to embody Søren Kierkegaard’s famous “either-or” in Brand’s call for “all or nothing,” challenging the institutionalized religion of his day. Haugen has commented that paradoxically “the rascal Peer is saved, but the heroic Brand is sacrificed,” seeing therein a reflection of Ibsen’s early religious training, similar to his puritanical attitude toward sex and his emphasis on the necessity of confession and atonement for redemption.
The dominant philosophical trend of Ibsen’s time and place was the idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who died in 1831. Ibsen’s enormous double play, Emperor and Galilean , departs from the strictly romantic theories present in his earlier work to take the direction of a Hegelian dialectic conflict between “thesis” and “antithesis,” which is resolved by a “synthesis” that itself becomes the “thesis” of a new conflict. Ibsen pits the pagan happiness that he had celebrated in his Viking plays against the spiritual beauty represented by Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on the Cross. The failure of Julian the Apostate to...
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- Critical Essays