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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Mr. Edmund Gosse on Henrik Ibsen

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

This article is a report of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society published in The Norwood News on 11 february 1893.

Report of a lecture about Henrik Ibsen held on 8 february 1893 presided by Arthur Conan Doyle where he spoke.


The Norwood News (11 february 1893, p. 7)

On Wednesday evening the members of the Upper Norwood Literary Society assembled to hear Mr. Edmund Gosse, M.A., the eminent critic and literateur, deliver a lecture on "Ibsen."

After a brief introduction front the president, Dr. Conan Doyle, the lecturer began by noting that only 12 years ago, the name of Henrik Ibsen, which is now a household word amongst us, was practically unknown in England. It is a proof of the universality of his fame that even in our own country, which is always the last to be moved by anything new from the Continent, his works are everywhere being quoted, attacked, discussed, and analysed. Mr. Gosse did not find evidence of this recognition in the testimony of authors, or even of enquiring minds such as those of his Wednesday evening's audience; what had struck him was that in a farce that had lately been written to ridicule the literary fashions of the day, Mr. Toole's appearance in the guise of Ibsen was hailed with a shout of recognition from all parts of the theatre, including the gallery. The experience was certainly good ground for self-congratulation to Mr. Gosse, for it was he who 20 years ago laboured to bring the name of Ibsen before the public. The difficulties he encountered were extraordinary. All the editors declined his review of an early copy of "The Doll's House," on the ground that the writer was of so little interest to the British public. Since then, however, mainly owing to the work of Mr. William Archer, his fame has spread like wildfire. The object of the lecture, therefore, was not to convey further information about the dramatist, but rather to forget for a moment the heated polemics of the critics, and calmly consider our position. The critics tell us that he is the only guide-post to a society that has lost its way in the wilderness, the prophet, the Saviour, the herald of a new gospel; or on the other hand that his plays are absolutely loathsome and fetid, dismal and repulsive productions, nothing but garbage and offal, and their author an ugly, nasty, gloomy, discordant kind of owl. All this is very agitating to a poor child of nature who wishes to reflect in peace. Let us put aside all pre-conceived prejudices, all traces of what Mr. Punch calls "Ibsenity," and follow the example of Lord Palmerston, who, when parties were disputing as to what was to be done with certain places, suggested the advisability of first finding them in the atlas. In dealing with literary men, people have an objectionable trick of regarding them as isolated phenomena. As a matter of fact, nothing ever rises out of nothing. Every man of eminence has had behind him some original writer not quite so powerful as himself. Shakespeare did not start out of a barbarous England insensible to arts and literature; he merely gives the highest expression to that universal longing and culture which had been growing in intensity ever since Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. In this light, Ibsen is not so unaccountable as he has been opposed. He was born in a country in which, until lately, literary ambition has been extremely restricted. When he was young, he had no idea of being famous in London and Paris; there were Norwegian poets of great talent who were quite content if, towards the close of their lives, they had been heard in Copenhagen. Norway is to Denmark as the United States to England — the child has outgrown the parent, but the parent has the advantage of riper experience. To this day, the standard of opinion in Norway is Copenhagen. In order to understand Ibsen, we must picture the apothecary's apprentice of 1818 looking from the ennui of his surroundings to is magnificent Copenhagen. In his early tragedy, "Catilina," we seem to see the production of an ambitious youth, who had only read Shakespeare in Danish, and the famed tragedies of Oehlenschläger. The enemies of Ibsen charge his English admirers with dwelling exclusively on his moral and social attributes, and neglecting his literary development; and the charge is partly true. I want you to consider him chiefly as an author who has written because of the pressure of times and circumstances. He was born nearly 66 years ago in the small Norwegian town of Skien. His race is very much mixed, for he in of German and Danish descent, while his grandmother was a Scotchwoman. His childhood was not remarkable; he seems to have been an idle student. The sordid side of life was early upon him. When he was eight years old his father was ruined, and took his family to a neglected and decayed estate in the country. At 16 he was apprenticed to an apothecary at Grimstad. There is no doubt that this is the type of small seaport town that appears in so many of his dramas. From the age of 22 to 36 he lived alternately in Christiania and Bergen. He obtained the appointment of director of the National Theatre at Bergen. In 10 years he brought out more than 100 plays of other authors besides several of his own. The current accusation that he is a mere amateur writer of novels in dialogue, with no knowledge of stage requirement, is thus quite erroneous. He was, at this time, no prophet in his own country. When he was 35 a poet's pension, which is very readily obtainable in Norway, was sought for him and contumeliously refused. The largest sum he received for a copyright at this time was £26. Had he died at this time, when he was older than Keats or Shelley lived to be, he would have scarcely been remembered in his own country. Suddenly his genius came of age, and for the next six years he scarcely wrote anything that was not brilliant. "Love's Comedy," "Brand," "Peer Gynt," &c., were each in its way unsurpassed for gifts that he had never displayed before, and has obstinately refused to display since. These works are scarcely known in England. They can only be fully appreciated by those who can understand the original language; hence rash critics speak of him as an amateur in style as well as experience. Meanwhile he had fallen completely out of touch with the Norwegians, and had no choice but to seek ignoble retirement or leave Norway; and he gladly chose the latter. From Berlin and Rome he flung the full force of his satire. The effect of satire depends on the size of the satirist; if he is large enough he will be styled a prophet. In the sight of Europe Ibsen now looms very large indeed; and his fulminations make a corresponding impression; but 25 years ago they were looked upon as a mere ebullition of ill-temper. In Mr. Gosse's opinion there was some prophecy in them, but certainly also some ill-temper. From 1870 to 1877 the volcano of his mind was at rest. The Norwegian Parliament atoned for past neglect by granting him a pension. Ibsen's powers still continued to develop. He felt his previous successes were narrow, temporary — in a word, Norwegian. In 1871 Mr. Gosse first became acquainted with him; he was then less inaccessible. In 1875 he was at work on a new drama, which afterwards appeared as "The Pillars of Society." Mr. Gosse ventured to hope that it would be in the style of the poems of his middle period. But he demurred, saying that he wanted to produce the illusion of truth itself. Some interesting extracts from his correspondence were read in translation by the lecturer, advocating the fullest realism in art. It was at this point, in the opinion of all Ibsenites, that the master discovered his true vocation. It is by this last series of his works that his fame will live. There is little doubt that he chose the form of prose, in order to address all countries in language that would not suffer by translation. For a study of these works we may go to Mr Bernard Shaw's "Quintessence of Ibsenism" — a sample of the best and worst that thoroughgoing Ibsenism can do. Certainly the typical women of these plays, lighting from the emancipation of their individualities, has never been on the stage before. Whether they are to be found in real life — well, Grant Allen says he takes them down to dinner twice a week. As an illustration, the lecturer gave a brief résumé of the story of the "Doll's House," contrasting particularly the way in which the tables are turned on the virtuous husband with the way in which a conventional dramatist would probably bring about the conclusion. Taking his estimate of one of these plays neither from the Daily Telegraph nor the Daily Chronicle, Mr. Gosse would sum it up as a heavy, powerful, profoundly felt, absolutely unreal, effective, tragic, sordid piece, with as many faults of construction as it has genuine beauties. To judge his work fairly, we must read him as we would read any other very original, irregular, and powerful writer, not at all as a pioneer in politics or morals. Mr. Gosse concluded with the argument and an extract from the forthcoming Master Builder. The play turns on the selfish timidity of the master builder and the aspiration of the strange spiritual girl from the mountains, whose mission it is to come to his life to refresh and raise it. By a strange symbolism, the dramatist represents in the work of The Master Builder the past, the present, and possibly the future of his own literary career.

The PRESIDENT, in proposing a vote of thanks, instituted a comparison between Ibsen and Tolstoi, and gave his opinion that frankness in dealing with unconventional themes was a less evil than the bolstering up of conventional untruths.

Professor KEENE, in seconding the motion, said he had been reminded of Dr. Johnson's aphorism, that fame, like a shuttlecock, needed hitting at both ends to keep it up.