Henrik Ibsen's letter to Björnstjerne Björnson

ROME, 16th September 1864
The following letter from Henrik Ibsen to Björnstjerne Björnson is reprinted from Letters of Henrik Ibsen. Trans. John Nilsen Laurvik & Mary Morison. New York: Fox, Duffield and Co., 1905.

Dear Björnson,--

Dietrichson has shown me your letter. It seemed very extraordinary to me that you should not, at the time you wrote it (toward the end of August), have known of my reply to the offer made by the management of the Theatre; but that you should for a single moment have felt uncertain what answer was the only one possible, was something more than extraordinary. Advice of the kind which you infer me to have received, I did receive; and had I suspected the possibility of your being in doubt as to my position throughout the whole course of the recent transactions, I should have acquainted you at the time with the nature of my answer to the theatrical management; for I can well imagine that such uncertainty on your part can hardly have furthered the progress of the negotiations. But, as I have said, its possibility never occurred to me.

On the 16th of July Richard Peterson wrote, informing me that the negotiations with you had failed, and offering me, on behalf of the Theatre, the position of "artistic director"--or rather, to be quite correct, he represented to me that since you would not accept the appointment, I must. Some cuttings from the Morgenblad, enclosed in the letter, showed me the outward aspect of the affair at the moment. As I was staying at the Genzano then, the letter was long in reaching me; but the moment I received it I made my reply without hesitation. I declined the offer--declined it absolutely--without reservation, and without suggesting any possibility that altered circumstances might induce me to change my mind. Never, either then or since, has it occurred to me for a moment that any answer could have been given but an absolute refusal.[1]

So you see, dear Björnson, that you have done me an injustice by harbouring such a suspicion as that indicated in your letter to Dietrichson. I will acknowledge, however, that I can understand the suspicion; and I do not lay the blame for its having arisen, so much upon you as upon myself. I know it to be a defect in me that I am incapable of entering into close and intimate relations with people who demand that one should yield one's self up entirely and unreservedly. I have something of the same feeling as the Skald in The Pretenders; I can never bear to strip myself completely. I am conscious, in personal intercourse, of only being able to give incorrect expression to what lies deepest in me and constitutes my real self; therefore I prefer to lock it up; and this is why we have sometimes stood, as it were, observing one another from a distance. But you yourself must have perceived this, or at least something of the kind; it cannot be otherwise, or you could not have preserved such a warm feeling of friendship for me in your heart.

I cannot account for your having been kept so long in ignorance of my answer; or rather, I prefer not to try to account to myself for it; and now, enough has been said on this subject.

Accept my thanks for all the beauty I have drunk in on my journey. It has done me good, I can assure you. My mind has received many new impressions, especially here in Rome. But I have not yet come to an understanding with ancient art; I cannot make out its connection with our own time. To me it lacks illusion, and above all, personal and individual expression, both in the work of art and on the part of the artist; nor can I yet help often seeing only conventions where others maintain that there are enduring laws. It seems to me as if the plastic works of antiquity, like our heroic ballads, were the product of the age in which they came into being, rather than of this or that master; consequently it also seems to me that a great many of our modern sculptors make a vital mistake in continuing to compose heroic ballads in clay and marble in these days. Michael Angelo, and Bernini in his school, I understand better; those fellows had the courage to commit a folly occasionally.

The architecture has impressed me more; but neither the antique architecture nor its descendants appeal to me so much as the Gothic style. To me the cathedral of Milan is more overpowering than anything else I can imagine in the domain of architecture. To the man capable of conceiving such a work, it might occur, in his leisure hours, to make a moon and throw it out into space.

You are sure to disapprove of many of the ideas which I have here slightly indicated; but I believe that they are in harmony with my general standpoint, and that along with it my understanding of art will develop.

Here in Rome there is blessed peace for writing. I am working at a long poem, and I have also in preparation a tragedy, Julianus Apostata, a labour which fills me with irrepressible joy. I believe it will be a success. I hope to have both works finished in spring, or at any rate in the course of the summer.

My wife and little boy are to join me here in the autumn. I hope that you will approve of this arrangement. Leaving more directly personal motives out of the question, I shall only remark that it will be cheaper for us to live together than for me, as hitherto, to keep up a separate household in Copenhagen. Besides, Dietrichson is leaving Rome in the beginning of next year, and I am to take his appointment, which will give me a free house and its appurtenances, and also a small salary.[2] Four hundred specie-dollars (£90) will cover my expenses in Rome for a year. My brother-in-law in Christiania will provide my wife's travelling expenses out of what remains of my travelling grant. We expect them to be moderate, as she is coming with a lady from Copenhagen who has been here before, and is experienced in travelling economically.

By the beginning of October I shall be in need of money, as I see by your letter you are prepared to hear. Will you kindly manage to have some sent me by that time.

I congratulate you on the addition to your family, which I had no idea was expected. Give every kind message from me to your wife. And please remember me very kindly to Advokat Dunker. I should be glad if you would show him this letter, since most of what I have said to you I should also wish to say to him. I may almost assume that the same possibilities which suggested themselves to you with regard to my behavior in the Theatre affair have also occurred to him. He has written me a few friendly words every time he has sent me money; and I shall never cease to remember with gratitude the delicate and kindly feeling which has never permitted him, in spite of the fact that I owe him so much, to hint by so much as a word that he regards me as his property while I am abroad, or to give me definite instructions of any kind. My debt of gratitude to you both is a double one; you have not only helped me much, but you have helped me with delicacy and tact.

You are mistaken in drawing the inference from my letter from Copenhagen that I do not desire to correspond. I am a poor correspondent, and have often a horror of sitting down to write; but I thirst for even the most meagre note from home.

What are you working at at present? I hope soon to hear a little from you about this, the affair of the Theatre, and other matters.

The political situation at home has grieved me very much, and embittered many a pleasure for me. So it was all nothing but lies and dreams! The influence of recent events upon me, for one, will be great. We may now consign our ancient history to oblivion; for the Norwegians of the present age have clearly no more relation to their past than the Greek pirates of to-day have to the race that sailed to Troy and were helped by the Gods. I see by your letter that you do not despair. Ah, well, I hope that you are right, and may not be disappointed.[3]



[1] In the early 1860s the Christiania Theatre was in a very unsatisfactory condition. In the beginning of 1864, Björnson, who had lately returned from abroad, offered to take the post of director; but the management found it difficult to come to terms with him, because he stipulated a freer hand than they were inclined to allow him. He was, however, when the application to Ibsen proved fruitless, elected "artistic director"; and he held the post from New Year 1865 till the summer of 1867--a brilliant, if by no means tranquil, period in the history of the theatre.

[2] The post alluded to, that of librarian to the Scandinavian Society in Rome, was never taken by Ibsen, because, from the end of 1865 onwards, he began to receive considerable sums for his works.

[3] What had bitterly disappointed Ibsen was the failure of Norway (and Sweden) to come to the assistance of Denmark in the struggle with Prussia and Austria in 1864, which led to the acquisition of Schleswig and Holstein by Prussia.


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