In Jaeger's Life of Ibsen there is a letter written by a playmate of Ibsen's, touching his life as a boy. An incident in it prefigures the man as accurately as if it had been written for the purpose:
He got leave to appear, on certain Sunday afternoons, as a magician in one of the rooms of the house, and all the neighbors around were invited to witness the performance. I see him distinctly in his short jacket, standing behind a large chest that was decorated and draped for the occasion, and there he presided over performances that appeared like witchcraft to the amazed spectator. Of course I knew that his younger brother, well paid for his assistance, was inside the chest. The brother had stipulated for pay by threatening a scandal if it were withheld, and as that would have been, to a boy with Henrik's disposition, the most dreadful thing that could have happened, he always promised everything that the other demanded.
One can safely guess that Ibsen, the man, has never revealed the secret of his work. He may, or may not, have left us an autobiography. It will contain no key to set alien fingers prying at the lock. But he has set us all looking for keys.
Georg Brandes, his confidential admirer and expounder, says of him, "Ibsen has no symbolism," and Ibsen smiles tighter. M. Émile Faguet rises to his defence, "Ibsen makes use of symbolism"; Mr. William Morton Payne goes a step further, saying "Symbolism is nearly always to be found in his writings"; Mr. Edmund Gosse says one thing, and Mr. William Archer another; and throughout these elucidations of his art, Ibsen smiles his scowl and scowls his smile, unchanged. "He is a symbolist." "He is not a symbolist." It is one to him. The spectacle we have had of him [in his later years] sitting aloft to the North, listening with bristling smile while his critics have said of him, now this thing and now that, has come to be one of the good things of life.
That he himself knows the hidden spring that operates his plays, the touch that makes them seize upon the heart, causing loathing and pity and terror -- through the simplest means, -- can not be doubted. The plays are as intricate, as finished, as simple, as cunningly fashioned as a nest of Chinese boxes. Symbol within symbol they lie -- each complete in itself and each finished and perfect, giving no hint of the unguessed symbols within reaching to the heart of the matter itself. It is a conscious art, but none the less beautiful and wonderful. The art of Shakespeare may be infinite -- infinitely small, infinitely finished, infinitely suggestive. The infinity of smallness has, too, its mysteries, its fascinations. The seed that lies in the hand holds infinity in its brown husk, as truly as all-enclosing space.
Of his work Ibsen himself is the supreme symbol hidden in silence and in snow, sending forth his ventures year after year, with no hint of the cunning freightage they carry, concealed in bales of flax and wool, in tons of coal and grain and salt.
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