Henrik Ibsen’s Poetics

I began my research of Henrik Ibsen’s poetry with a simple question in mind: why is Ibsen’s poetry so unknown?  He is, after all, one of the greatest names in the world of literature, considered by many to be the father of modern drama.  Was his poetry of so low merit that it eluded the critical acclaim Ibsen achieved with his drama?  Or was it something else that forced Ibsen’s poetry out of scholarly debate?  My findings point toward two main reasons: lack of translations and what is lost is translation.

In my research, I have focused on three main translations: Richard A. Streatfeild in 1902, Fydell E. Garrett in 1912, and John Northam in 1986.  Every translation reads differently.  As John Northam phrased it in the introduction to his translation of Ibsen’s poems, “Any serious comparison between different forms of the same poem manifestly demands comparison of the Norwegian texts, not of English translation.  This cannot, obviously, be a book for the use of scholars; it is intended as the equivalent of a translation into English of one of Ibsen’s plays for a general public.”  So, I studied Ibsen’s poems in the original Norwegian.  The differences between Ibsen’s poetry and translations are unmistakable – from rhyme to metre, rhythm and form.

For example, Ibsen’s ‘En Svane’ (A Swan), though simplistic in nature, remains untranslated with true accuracy to Ibsen’s original:

Your journey ended
with birth of the song.
Your death-song blended; –
you were, then, a swan!
(John Northam)

‘Twas one brief quiring
And thy day gone then.
Thou sang’st expiring –
Thou wast a swan, then!
(F. E. Garrett)

Thou wert a swan!  Thy death was music!
The hour that broke
Thy fleshly yoke
Bade all thy soul in rapturous song unclose.
(R. A. Streatfeild)

The end of the original poem reads more like this:

I toners føden                   In the tone’s birth
du slutted din bane.       you ended your course.
Du sang i døden; –          You sang in death; –
du var dog en svane!     you were yet a swan!

Of course, in direct translation, the poetry is lost.  If the translator has any hope to preserve Ibsen’s original rhyme, metre, rhythm, or form, then content is in turn inevitably lost.  This makes accurate translation next to, if not absolutely impossible.  A translator can, at best, hope to capture a similar image.  The sound and timbre of Ibsen’s poetry, however, is rooted in the language in which he wrote.  Unlike Ibsen’s drama, where the flow of language and individual words bear less weight, Ibsen’s poetry cannot properly exist outside the original Norwegian.

In addition to Ibsen’s poetry being rooted in the Norwegian language, much of the scholarly criticism regarding his poetry also remains untranslated.  This lack of translation in both source and analytical material makes the study of his poetry all the more inaccessible for non-Norwegian public and scholars.  There is also the issue that Ibsen himself abandoned the poetic form in the later half of his writing career, commenting of his poetry that it contained much that he would put little weight on.  It would be wrong, however, to dismiss his poetry altogether.  Despite his self-deprecatory comments, Ibsen was adamantly persistent in the publication of his poetry – a fact that reveals critical importance in his poetry.  How, then, should Ibsen’s poetry be taught?

Ibsen asserted that his poetry gave his works a sense of unity, indicative of his writing career as a whole.  Indeed, many of his poems share close thematic relationships to his later dramas: ‘Blueprint’ and The Master Builder, ‘The Miner’ and John Gabriel Borkman, ‘With a Waterlily’ and Little Eyolf.  Other works express Ibsen’s passionate sense of identity, both personal and national.  These thematic explorations make Ibsen’s poetry important for both understanding his later dramatic works and his role in shaping Norwegian national identity.

As I have already pointed out, Ibsen’s poetry inevitably loses accuracy in translation.  It is important, then, to not only view the original Norwegian text, but also to have access to multiple translations.  There is currently no attempt at a critically discerning translation of any of Ibsen’s poetry.  John Northam’s 1986 publication of Ibsen’s Poems provides the most rhythmically and metrically accurate reproductions of Ibsen’s poetry in English.  Northam’s translation has flaws; he takes liberties with content and word arrangement, but creates strikingly similar imagery, comparable flow and sound to Ibsen’s Norwegian original.  In order to study Ibsen’s poetry with any scholarly relevance, however, more than just the rhyme and metre need to be reproduced.  Direct translation is essential for an English-speaking reader to better understand the actual content and imagery of Ibsen’s poems.  With better understanding of the poetry in translation, a reader can be opened to his poetry’s significance.

Though Henrik Ibsen’s poetry did not redefine poetry in the way his dramatic works shaped modern drama, his poetry explores other literary aspects worth scholarly review.  While the poetry is still best enjoyed in the original Norwegian, its significance can still be understood in translation.  Ibsen’s poetry offers better understanding of his later dramatic inspirations and of developing Norwegian national identity.  His ability to express passion and tragedy in poetic form is an ability that does not deserve to be lost in translation.

If you would like to read my complete research, the bibliography for my works, or my (incomplete) translations of Ibsen’s poetry, please send me an e-mail. I can be reached at garrett.traylor@gmail.com.


9 Responses to Henrik Ibsen’s Poetics

  1. Dear Garrett,
    I entirely agree with your article. Speaking Norwegain myself, and having taught myself by listening to radio, t.v. and reading their newspapers, it was evident that Norwegains do possess a different way of articulating. It was somewhat confusing at the time of learning, that their meaning may not always be ours, a good deal of sifting was needed at times to read beneath the lines. Norwegians do have a different sense of humour to us. I remember laughing at Norwegain jokes, whereby, if translated into English, whichever way, would have left me cold.
    How will we ever know if we have got it right with Ibsen. Maybe also, that is why he abandoned his poetry for his plays, as translation was eaiser and less subject to misinterpretation?
    Kind Regards,

    • Garrett Traylor says:

      Wow, sorry it’s taken so long to actually respond. Absolutely a reason Ibsen abandoned poetry! With so much of his fame coming strictly in translation from abroad, it became extremely difficult for him to propagate his poetry, which lost so much of its meaning in translation. I was immediately fascinated by the depictions of his poetry that have come to being in translation. Although I admit I am not a perfect reader of Norwegian (at least in understanding, although reading for rhythm, rhyme, and meter are a different story), the differences are still astounding! So many reproductions of his work have focused on this sort of stilted sound, whereas in the original Norwegian his works are flowing and beautiful. Of course, Ibsen did receive criticism for being stuffy, even in Norwegian (as many of his poems are either sonnets with strict rhyme scheme or series of couplets, also with strict rhyme scheme). Still, as a rhyming poet, he shines through the ages. Or at least, should. There’s just something about the lilting Norwegian verse… Now, as you say, “How will we ever know if we have got it right with Ibsen,” well, as one of my arguments has maintained, it doesn’t wholly matter. Ibsen himself constantly reworked his themes, modernizing them as he went along (something I brought up in the fact that many of his poems seem to frame later dramatic works, as sorts of precursors). Today we’ve seen many theater productions contemporize his works, something I think Ibsen would absolutely approve of. The fact that his poetry has become shelved as uninterpretable or dry just goes to deny what Ibsen himself worked so hard to produce: an evolution of themes and ideas. More or less, I would say misinterpretation is not the problem. It’s a lack of interpretation at all. Very cool to hear that you speak Norwegian — if you can I would highly recommend tracking down Ibsen’s poetry! I myself enjoyed a great many hours locked in a room at the rare books library reading (and copying down) his works. I greatly appreciate your feedback, and again, I’m sorry for the delay in my response.

  2. Debra Bertulis says:

    Thanks for your response, Garrett.
    My father is Norwegain, and I lived there for a time at the age of nineteen. I came in cold however, where the language was concerned, only knowing “please” and “thank you”, (father being in the Merchant Navy and away most of the time!) This meant that the language was a completely fresh discovery for me, and although many Norwegians speak English, it felt important to learn. So it really was from scratch. It proved frustrating at times, and it isn’t always an easy language to grasp. Just when you think you’ve got it, you realise you have the grammer muddled, and they have ten syllables to our four! They also enjoy a back to front construction of sentences, and one meaning has at times five different words, all used in different contexts. Back to Ibsen, we got The Dolls House, Ghosts, and the others to indulge ourselves with! In a way, thank heaven for that. Dialogue is easier to translate. However,he challenges us in other ways, just as his poetry would. With Ibsen, there is always lots to think about. I can’t put him down. Bless him!

  3. Christopher Suleske says:

    Hello. I happened upon your website while looking for Ibsen’s poem “Thanks” in its original Norwegian. My wife is part Norwegian and I’m looking for a romantic short phrase that I might have engraved on a pendant. I’ve liked Ibsen’s “Thanks” – particularly the sentiment of his wife being a (the?) source of his energies, his muse. I find 2 translations that differ slightly in their depth and breadth, I think. First, Garrett:

    “My fires when they dwindle
    Are lit from her brand;
    Men see them rekindle
    Nor guess by whose hand.”

    and then, by Northam:

    “Her aim was inspiring
    my vision’s glow,
    but who helped the firing
    there’s none she’d have know.”

    Which do you find more to Ibsen’s intent?

    Where might I find the original Norwegian? I’d love to capture this sentiment in a very few words.

    Thank you/

  4. Corbin G. says:

    i have a question… im trying to do an essay over the poem “The Miner” and I just wanted to ask if the poem came from a book or if it was published seperate? and if from a book, what is the book title and what page? Any help would be great:)

    • Garrett Traylor says:

      Thanks for the question. The poem first appeared in Henrik Ibsen’s Digte, the only collection of his poetry released. It’s a rather rare book, though Ibsen.net provides a .pdf copy of the original (Bergmanden appears on page 16): http://ibsen.net/xml/11124391/DiFU.pdf Happy to help!

  5. daisy says:

    hi people,
    this is very interesting about you debra teaching your self how to speak norwegian wow i couldn’t do that well done!

  6. Emma.viutre. says:

    my relitive is from norway and i have been there to visit (it is beautiful there.)
    debra i have a queston….
    your father how did he learn english?
    because i am very interested in how people learn, it must have been difficult!
    iam learning french at the moment it is hard but, it very fun!

  7. amy louise-tucker says:

    Norway……it is beautiful there isn’t it mountains, snow and beautifully extreem weather!
    i love it there.

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