‘A Brother in Need’ by Henrik Ibsen is a complicated poem that discusses the Second Schleswig War that began the same year the poem was published, 1863.
The war was in response to the Schleswig Holstein question, a complex series of diplomatic issues that arose from the relationship between two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, with the Danish crown and German confederation. Denmark fought against Prussian and Austrian forces to maintain control of the two duchies and integrate them into the kingdom. Disputes regarding succession complicated the issue.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the people that they need to rally together, as if for the last time. They’re going to have to fight, with or without Norway in order to maintain their country as they have known it. Throughout the bulk of ‘A Brother in Need,’ Ibsen’s speaker addresses the Norwegian government which he believed owed Denmark their aid. They made promises that they didn’t keep, a betrayal the speaker compares to that between Judas and Jesus.
The tone is melancholy and resigned throughout much of the text, but by the end, the speaker becomes reinvigorated and again tries to inspire the people to come together for the betterment of their country.
‘A Brother in Need’ by Henrik Johan Ibsen is an eight stanza poem divided into uneven sets of lines. The third-eighth stanzas all have nine lines, while stanzas one and two have four and five lines, respectively. In regards to the rhyme scheme, and the structure of the stanzas themselves, Ibsen wrote in Danish. Therefore, any translated version, such as the utilized in this analysis will only partially resemble (if at all) Ibsen’s original intent. To fully understand the rhyme scheme or metrical pattern it would be necessary to read the poem in its original Danish.
The original poem was published in 1863 and this translation of ‘A Brother in Need’ was completed by Fydell Edmund Garrett and published in 1912. Garrett is noted for his successful translation of Ibsen’s poem Brand from the original Danish, managing to maintain the original meter.
All that being said, there are a few poetic techniques a reader should take note of, keeping in mind that they may or may not appear here as they did in Ibsen’s original text. These include alliteration, enjambment, and metaphor.
The latter is the most obvious of these techniques. It occurs when the poet compares one thing to another without using like or as. He declares that “this” is “that” without explanation. In the case of ‘A Brother in Need’ Ibsen compares Norway’s betrayal of Denmark to a tree that is beautiful in the summer, but barren in the winter. This represents the false nature of their promises and their inability to come through when they were needed. There are other instances as well, such as when Ibsen compares the fate of the Danes to that of an already published book, with colophon, or publisher’s mark, in place.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in the next, but some of the most poignant include the transitions between lines three and four of the fourth stanza in which the speaker is discussing Noway’s sons and the “cries / Toward the sound”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. This is one of the techniques that may or may not have been present in Ibsen’s original text. Examples include “flag” and “flown” in line two of the first stanza and “we watched” in line five of the fourth stanza.
Analysis of A Brother in Need
Now, rallying once if ne’er again,
With flag at half-mast flown,
A people in dire need and strain
Mans Tyra’s bastion.
In the first lines of ‘A Brother in Need’ the speaker begins by suggesting that “a people” rally together. This is a powerful action taken as if for the last time. Ibsen’s speaker states that they are “rallying once if ne’er again”. There is a desperation to these movements as well, although at this point it is unclear to the reader who the people are or why they need to rally. Ibsen describes them as “in dire need and strain”. These people are fighting back against something, holding something off, or striving to make gains in order to improve their way of living.
In fact, despite the eight stanzas of text, it never becomes 100% clear what kind of conflict, strife, or difficulty the “people” are dealing with. In the last line of the first stanza, the speaker concludes by stating that they need to man a “bastion”. A bastion is the projecting part of a wall that allows for defensive fire in multiple directions.
The bastion is named Tyra. This is a name, and word that refers to the Scandinavian god of battle, Tyr. Once again, the reader is presented with battle/war-like imagery and a need to fight.
Betrayed in danger’s hour, betrayed
Before the stress of strife!
Was this the meaning that it had–
That clasp of hands at Axelstad
Which gave the North new life?
The second stanza is one line longer, at five lines. In these lines, Ibsen utilizes repetition in order to emphasize the fact that the people have been “betrayed”. The betrayal is even worse as it came in “dangers hour”. The speaker feels as though he and his fellow countrymen have been betrayed by someone else in a place of power. This person or entity may or may not be the Norwegian government.
Without detailed knowledge of what at the time of this poem’s creation was the contemporary political situation, the details are quite obscure and hard to understand. As referenced in the introduction this piece is likely detailing the very complex Second Schleswig War and the countries included in the conflict.
The words that seemed as if they rushed
From deepest heart-springs out
Were phrases, then! — the freshet gushed,
And now is fall’n the drought.
The tree, that promised rich in bloom
Mid festal sun and shower,
Stands wind-stript in the louring gloom,
A cross to mark young Norway’s tomb,
The first dark testing-hour.
In the third stanza of ‘A Brother in Need,’ the speaker goes on to chastise the governmental body, probably the government of Norway, for the “words that seemed as if they” came from one’s deepest heart and were filled with truth. In later sections of the poem he accuses not just the government, but the people of Norway for the betrayal. They should’ve as his brothers, come to the aid of Denmark. He realizes now that they were just “phrases” rather than truths. They came out when it was easy to make promises, but now, in the “drought,” when Norway should come through for Denmark, it appears that they were untrue. Norway was unwilling to come to the defense of its protectorates and the speaker and those around him feel betrayed by this refusal.
In the next lines, Ibsen utilizes a metaphor to compare times of plenty to times of barren growth. The tree “promised rich in bloom” when there were sun and showers. But now it “Stands wind-stript” and bereft of its promises. The metaphorical winter is one of cold, disinterest, and abandonment. Now, a “cross” marks “Norway’s tomb”. In the first “dark testing hour” they were betrayed.
Any statements made by the Norwegian government are now seen by the speaker to be “Judas kisses, lies”. In this metaphor, Ibsen connects the betrayal his speaker feels to that experienced by Jesus when Judas betrayed him.
They were but Judas kisses, lies
In fatal wreaths enwound,
The cheers of Norway’s sons, and cries
Towards the beach of Sound.
What passed that time we watched them meet,
‘Twixt Norse and Danish lord?
Oh! nothing! only to repeat
King Gustav’s play at Stockholm’s seat
With the Twelfth Charles’ sword.
In the next lines of ‘A Brother in Need’ the speaker delves deeper into the historical implications of the Second Schleswig War. He makes reference to King Gustav and the “Twelfth Charles”. The latter is Charles XII of Sweden who came to the defense of Duke Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp. Frederick was killed in the Great Northern War, the conflict in which a Russian coalition successfully contested the supremacy of the Swedish empire throughout Europe. This adds context to the eighth line’s reference to “Stockholm’s seat”, meaning, the seat of power.
‘A people doomed, whose knell is rung,
Betrayed by every friend!’ —
Is the book closed and the song sung?
Is this our Denmark’s end?
Who set the craven colophon,
While Germans seized the hold,
And o’er the last Dane lying prone
Old Denmark’s tattered flag was thrown
With doubly crimsoned fold?
In the fifth stanza, the speaker suggests that this might be “Denmark’s end“. He asks if the “book” is “closed” and the “song sung”. These words speak of “a people doomed, whose knell is rung / betrayed by every friend!”
The speaker poses another question, continuing the comparison of their station to an already published book, in the next lines, asking who “set the craven colophon,” or the publisher’s emblem. Meaning, who solidified these facts or who allowed this to happen “While Germans seized the hold”. Ibsen’s speaker paints an image of the last Dane of Denmark lying dead on the ground and the tattered flag drenched in blood.
But thou, my brother Norsemen, set
Beyond the war-storm’s power
Because thou knewest to forget
Fair words in danger’s hour:
Flee from thy homes of ancient fame–
Go chase a new sunrise–
Pursue oblivion, and for shame
Disguise thee in a stranger’s name
To hide from thine own eyes!
In the sixth stanza of ‘A Brother in Need’, the speaker tries to shame his “brother Norseman”. He believes that all the people of Norway, but specifically the government, are to blame for the rising conflict. They are “beyond the war-storms power”. All because they knew how to forget their promises when times turned bad.
He encourages them, sarcastically, to leave their homes, find a new destination, and do what they can to destroy their own names and hide from themselves. He believes that they should feel shame, disgust, and disappointment with themselves and their government for betraying the Danish people in their time of need.
Each wind that sighs from Danish waves
Through Norway’s woods of pine,
Of thy pale lips an answer craves:
Where wast thou, brother mine?
I fought for both a deadly fight;
In vain to spy thy prow
O’er belt and fiord I strained my sight:
My fatherland with graves grew white:
My brother, where wast thou?
The natural imagery returns in the seventh stanza with the speaker describing every wind that “sighs from Danish waves / Through Norway is woods of pine“. Ibsen’s speaker craves an answer from the Norse to the question “where wast thou, brother mine?“ The speaker tells the reader that he, and his fellow Danes, fought bravely when they need to, but “you” the Norse did not return that bravery.
It was a dream! Arise, awake
To do a nation’s deed!
Each to his post, swift counsel take;
A brother is in need!
A nobler song may yet be sung–
Danes, Danes, keep Tyra’s hold–
And o’er a Northern era, young
And rich in hope, be proudly flung
The red flag’s tattered fold.
The eighth stanza of ‘A Brother in Need’ is somewhat more uplifting as a speaker declares that everyone should “Arise, awake / To do a nation’s deed”. He refers again to the bastion that all men need to take to you in the defense of their country. “Nobler song may yet be sung”. There is still some hope that the Danes can keep a hold of their lands and fight with or without help from Norway. The use and reuse of exclamations in this line reiterate how invested the speaker is in the conflict. He truly does feel as though he has a part to play, and one that is necessary for the continuation of Denmark as he knows it.
Despite the mournful and depressing nature of the previous seven stanzas, the eight gives the reader a jolt. But, ti does not provide a conclusion to the conflict. It is still very likely, with only the poem to go off of, that the conflict will not turn out as the speaker hopes.