The publication of Brand, in March 1866, brought Ibsen fame (in Scandinavia) and relieved him from the immediate pressure of poverty. Two months later the Storthing voted him a yearly “poet-pension” of £90; and with this sum, as he wrote to the Minister who had been mainly instrumental in furthering his claim, he felt “his future assured,” so that he could henceforth “devote himself without hindrance to his calling.” This first glimpse of worldly prosperity, no doubt, brought with it the lighter mood which distinguishes Peer Gynt from its predecessor. To call it the gayest of Ibsen’s works is not, perhaps, to say very much. Its satire, indeed, is bitter enough; but it is not the work of an unhappy man. The character of Peer Gynt, and many of his adventures, are conceived with unmistakable gusto. Some passages even bear witness to an exuberance of animal spirits which reminds one of Ben Jonson’s saying with regard to Shakespeare—“aliquando sufflaminandus erat.”
The summer of 1866 Ibsen spent at Frascati, in the Palazzo Gratiosi, where he lived “most comfortably and cheaply.” He found Frascati and Tusculum “indescribably delightful.” From the windows of his study he could see Soracte, “rising isolated and beautiful from the level of the immense plain … the battlefield where the chief engagement in the world’s history took place.” So he writes in a letter to Paul Botten-Hansen, and immediately afterwards proceeds: “I shall soon be setting to work in good earnest. I am still wrestling with my subject, but I know that I shall get the upper hand of the brute before long, and then everything will go smoothly.” But was the play here referred to Peer Gynt? Perhaps not. From a letter to his publisher, Hegel, written three months later, we learn that at that time he was still turning over several themes in his mind, and that one of them dealt with the period of Christian IV. of Denmark. It is in a letter to Hegel, dated from Rome, January 5, 1867, that we find the first unmistakable reference to Peer Gynt: “Now I must tell you that my new work is well under way, and will, if nothing untoward happens, be finished early in the summer. It is to be a long dramatic poem, having as its chief figure one of the Norwegian peasantry’s half-mythical, fantastic heroes of recent times. It will bear no resemblance to Brand, contain no direct polemics and so forth. I have long had the subject in my thoughts; now the entire plan is worked out and written down, and the first act begun. The thing grows as I work at it, and I am certain that you will be satisfied with it.”
Two months later (March 8) the poem has “advanced to the middle of the second act.” On August 8, he sends to Hegel, from Villa Pisani, Casamicciola, Ischia, the complete manuscript of the first three acts, and writes: “I am curious to hear how you like the poem. I am very hopeful myself. It may interest you to know that Peer Gynt is a real person, who lived in Gudbrandsdal, probably at the end of last, or beginning of this, century; but of his exploits not much more is known than is to be found in Asbjörnsen’s Norwegian Fairy Tales, in the section Pictures from the Mountains. Thus I have not had very much to build upon; but so much the more liberty has been left me. It would interest me to know what Clemens Petersen thinks of the work.” What Clemens Petersen did think we shall presently learn.
On October 18 Ibsen despatched from Sorrento the remainder of his manuscript, and the book was published on November 14. It has often been pointed out (by myself among others) as a very remarkable fact that two such gigantic creations as Brand and Peer Gynt should have been given to the world in two successive years; but on examination the marvel somewhat dwindles. Peer Gynt did not follow so hot-foot upon Brand as the bare dates of publication would lead us to suppose. Brand was written in the summer of 1865, Peer Gynt (as we have seen) in 1867; so that the poet’s mind had lain fallow for a whole year (1866) between the two great efforts. It was a long delay in the publication of Brand that made its successor seem to tread so close upon its heels.
One or two other references to the origin of Peer Gynt may be found in Ibsen’s letters. The most important occurs in an autobiographical communication to Peter Hansen, dated Dresden, October 28, 1870: “After Brand came Peer Gynt, as though of itself. It was written in Southern Italy, in Ischia and at Sorrento. So far away from one’s readers one becomes reckless. This poem contains much that has its origin in the circumstances of my own youth. My own mother—with the necessary exaggerations—served as the model for Ase. (Likewise for Inga in The Pretenders).” Twelve years later (1882) Ibsen wrote to George Brandes: “My father was a merchant with a large business and wide connections, and he enjoyed dispensing reckless hospitality. In 1836 he failed, and nothing was left to us except a farm near the town…. In writing Peer Gynt, I had the circumstances and memories of my own childhood before me when I described the life in the house of ‘the rich Jon Gynt.’”
Returning to the above-quoted letter to Peter Hansen, we find this further allusion to Peer Gynt and its immediate predecessor and successor in the list of Ibsen’s works: “Environment has great influence upon the forms in which imagination creates. May I not, like Christoff in Jakob von Tyboe,1 point to Brand and Peer Gynt, and say: ‘See, the wine-cup has done this?’ And is there not something in The League of Youth [written in Dresden] that suggests ‘Knackwurst und Bier’? Not that I would thereby imply any inferiority in the latter play.” The transition to prose was no doubt an inevitable step in the evolution of Ibsen’s genius; but one wishes he had kept to the “wine-cup” a little longer.
A masterpiece is not a flawless work, but one which has sufficient vitality to live down its faults, until at last we no longer heed, and almost forget, them. Peer Gynt had real faults, not a few; and its great merit, as some of us think—its magnificent, reckless profusion of fantasy—could not but be bewildering to its first critics, who had to pronounce upon it before they had (as Ballested2 would put it) acclimatised themselves to its atmosphere. It’s reception, then, was much more dubious than that of Brand had been. We find even George Brandes writing of it: “What great and noble powers are wasted on this thankless material! Except in the fourth act, which has no connection with what goes before and after, and is witless in its satire, crude in its irony, and in its latter part scarcely comprehensible, there is almost throughout a wealth of poetry and a depth of thought such as we do not find, perhaps, in any of Ibsen’s earlier works…. It would be unjust to deny that the book contains great beauties, or that it tells us all, and Norwegians in particular, some important truths; but beauties and truths are of far less value than beauty and truth in the singular, and Ibsen’s poem is neither beautiful nor true. Contempt for humanity and self-hatred make a bad foundation on which to build a poetic work. What an unlovely and distorting view of life this is! What acrid pleasure can a poet find in thus sullying human nature?”3 The friendship between Brandes and Ibsen was at this time just beginning, and—much to Ibsen’s credit—it appears to have suffered no check by reason of this outspoken pronouncement.
On the other hand, he deeply resented a criticism by Clemens Petersen, who seems to have been at this time regarded as the æsthetic lawgiver of Copenhagen. Why he should have done so is not very clear; for Petersen professed to prefer Peer Gynt to Brand, and his criticism on Brand Ibsen had apparently accepted without demur. Most of Petersen’s article is couched in a very heavy philosophic idiom; but the following extract, though it refers chiefly to Brand, may convey some idea of his general objection to both poems:—“When a poet, as Ibsen does in Brand, depicts an error, a one-sidedness, which is from first to last presented in an imposing light, it is not sufficient that he should eventually, through a piece of sensational symbolism, let that one-sidedness go to ruin, and it is not sufficient that in the last word of the drama he should utter the name of that with which the one-sidedness should have blended in order to become truth. If he throughout his work shows us this error—in virtue of its strength, if for no other reason—justifying itself as against everything that comes in contact with it, then it is not only in the character depicted that something is lacking, but in the work of art itself. That something is the Ideal, without which the work of art cannot take rank as poetry—the Ideal which here, as so often in art, lies only in the lighting of the picture, but which is nevertheless the saving, the uplifting element. It is to poetry what devotion is to religion…. In Peer Gynt, as in Brand, the ideal is lacking. But this must be said rather less strongly of Peer Gynt. There is more fantasy, more real freedom of spirit, less strain and less violence in this poem than in Brand.” The critic then speaks of Peer Gynt as being “full of riddles which are insoluble, because there is nothing in them at all.” Peer’s identification of the Sphinx with the Boyg (Act IV. Sc. 12) he characterises as “Tankesvindel”—thought-swindling, or, as we might say, juggling with thought. The general upshot of his considerations is that Peer Gynt belongs, with Goldschmidt’s Corsaren, to the domain of polemical journalism. It “is not poetry, because in the transmutation of reality into art it falls half-way short of the demands both of art and of reality.”
Petersen’s review is noteworthy, not for its own sake, but for the effect it produced on Ibsen. His letters to Björnson on the subject are the most vivid and spontaneous he ever wrote. Björnson happened to be in Copenhagen when Petersen’s article appeared in Fœdrelandet, and Ibsen seems somehow to have blamed him for not preventing its appearance. “All I reproach you with,” he says, “is inaction.” But Petersen he accuses of lack of “loyalty,” of “an intentional crime against truth and justice.” “There is a lie involved in Clemens Petersen’s article, not in what he says, but in what he refrains from saying. And he intentionally refrains from saying a great deal…. Tell me, now, is Peer Gynt himself not a personality, complete and individual? I know that he is. And the mother; is she not?” But the most memorable passage in this memorable letter is the following piece of splendid arrogance: “My book is poetry; and if it is not, then it will be. The conception of poetry in our country, in Norway, shall be made to conform to the book.” It certainly seems that any definition of poetry which should be so framed as to exclude Peer Gynt must have something of what Petersen himself called “Tankesvindel” about it.
Ibsen’s burst of indignation relieved his mind, and three weeks later we find him writing, half apologetically, of the “cargo of nonsense” he had “shipped off” to Björnson, immediately on reading Petersen’s review. He even sends a friendly “greeting” to the offending critic. But this is his last (published) letter to Björnson for something like fifteen years. How far the reception of Peer Gynt may have contributed to the breach between them, I do not know. Björnson’s own criticism of the poem, as we shall presently see, was very favourable.
Peer Gynt was not, on its appearance, quite so popular as Brand. A second edition was called for in a fortnight; but the third edition did not appear until 1874, by which time the seventh edition of Brand was already on the market. Before the end of the century ten editions of Peer Gynt had appeared in Copenhagen as against fourteen of Brand. The first German translation appeared in 1881, and the present English translation in 1892. A French translation, by Count Prozor, appeared in the Nouvelle Revue in 1896, but does not seem to have been published in book form.
After a great deal of discussion as to the stage-arrangement, Peer Gynt, largely abbreviated, was produced, with Edvard Grieg’s now famous incidental music, at the Christiania Theatre in February 1876, Henrik Klausen playing the title-part. It was acted thirty-seven times; but a fire which destroyed some of the scenery put a stop to the performances. In 1892, at the same theatre, the first three acts were revived, with Björn Björnson as Peer, and repeated fifty times. In the repertory of the National Theatre, too (opened in 1899), Peer Gynt has taken a prominent place. It was first given in 1902, and has up to the present (1906) been performed eighty-four times. In the version which has established itself on the Norwegian stage, all five acts are given, but the fourth and fifth acts are greatly abbreviated. In the season of 1886 the play was produced at the Dagmar Theatre, Copenhagen. August Lindberg’s Swedish Company acted it in Gothenburg in 1892, in Stockholm in 1895, and afterwards toured with it in Norway and Sweden. Count Prozor’s translation was acted by “L’Œuvre” at the Nouveau Théâtre, Paris, in November, 1896, of which remarkable production a lively account by Mr. Bernard Shaw may be found in the Saturday Review of that period. At the Deutsches Volkstheater in Vienna, in May 1902, two performances of Peer Gynt were given by the “Akademisch-Litterarische Verein.” I can find no record of any other German production of the play. The first production in the English language took place at the Grand Opera House, Chicago, on October 29, 1906, when Mr. Richard Mansfield appeared as Peer Gynt. Mr. Mansfield would seem to have acted the greater part of the play, but to have omitted the Sæter-Girl scene and the madhouse scene.
We have seen that the name, Peer Gynt, was suggested to Ibsen by a folk-tale in Asbjörnsen and Moe’s invaluable collection. It is one of a group of tales entitled Reindeer-Hunting in the Rondë Hills;4 and in the same group occurs the adventure of Gudbrand Glesnë on the Gendin-Edge, which Peer Gynt works up so unblushingly in Act I. Sc. 1. The text of both these tales will be found in the Appendix, and the reader will recognise how very slight are the hints which set the poet’s imagination to work. The encounter with the Sæter-Girls (Act II. Sc. 3) and the struggle with the Boyg (Act II. Sc. 7) are foreshadowed in Asbjörnsen, and the concluding remark of Anders Ulsvolden evidently suggested to Ibsen the idea of incarnating Fantasy in Peer Gynt, as in Brand he had given us incarnate Will. But the Peer Gynt of the drama has really nothing in common with the Peer Gynt of the story, and the rest of the characters are not even remotely suggested. Many scattered traits and allusions, however, are borrowed from other legends in the same storehouse of grotesque and marvellous imaginings. Thus the story of the devil in a nutshell (Act I. Sc. 3) figures in Asbjörnsen under the title of The Boy and the Devil.5 The appearance of the Green-Clad One with her Ugly Brat, who offers Peer Gynt a goblet of beer (Act III. Sc. 3), is obviously suggested by an incident in Berthe Tuppenhaug’s Stories. Old Berthe, too, supplies the idea of correcting Peer Gynt’s eyesight according to the standard of the hill-trolls (Act II. Sc. 6), as well as the germ of the fantastic thread-ball episode in the last Act (Sc. 6). The castle, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” (Act III. Sc. 4), gives its title to one of Asbjörnsen’s stories, which may be read in English in Mr. Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book; and “Soria Moria Castle” is the title of another legend. Herr Passarge (in his Henrik Ibsen, Leipzig, 1883) goes so far as to trace the idea of Peer Gynt’s shrinking from the casting-ladle, even though hell be the alternative (Act V. Sc. 7, &c.), to Asbjörnsen’s story of The Smith whom they Dared not let into Hell; but the circumstances are so different, and Ibsen’s idea is such an inseparable part of the ethical scheme of the drama, that we can scarcely take it to have been suggested by this (or any other) individual story.6 At the same time there is no doubt that The Folk-Lore of Peer Gynt might form the subject of a much more extended study than our space or our knowledge admits of.7 The whole atmosphere of the first three acts and of the fifth is that of the Norwegian Folk and Fairy Tales. It must be remembered, too, that in the early ’sixties Ibsen was commissioned by the Norwegian Government to visit Romsdal and Söndmöre for the purpose of collecting folk-songs and legends. To these journeys, no doubt, we are mainly indebted for the local colour of Brand and Peer Gynt.
What are we to say now of the drift, the interpretation of Peer Gynt? The first and most essential thing may be said in Ibsen’s own words. On February 24, 1868, he wrote from Rome to Frederik Hegel: “I learn that the book has created much excitement in Norway. This does not trouble me in the least; but both there and in Denmark they have discovered much more satire in it than was intended by me. Why can they not read the book as a poem? For as such I wrote it. The satirical passages are tolerably isolated. But if the Norwegians of the present time recognise themselves, as it would appear they do, in the character of Peer Gynt, that is the good people’s own affair.” In the last sentence the innocence of intention is, no doubt, a little overdone; but there is still less doubt that Ibsen was absolutely sincere in declaring that he wrote it primarily as a poem, a work of pure imagination, and that as a work of pure imagination it ought primarily to be read. There is undeniably an undercurrent of ethical and satirical meaning in the play; but no one can properly enjoy or value it who is not swept along irresistibly by the surface stream of purely poetic invention and delineation. Peer himself is a character-creation on the heroic scale, as vital a personality as Falstaff or Don Quixote. It is here that the poem (as Clemens Petersen vaguely discerned) has a marked advantage over its predecessor. In spite of the tremendous energy with which he is depicted, Brand remains an abstraction or an attitude, rather than a human being. But Peer Gynt is human in every fibre—too human to be alien to any one of us. We know him, we understand him, we love him—for who does not love a genial, imaginative, philosophic rascal? As for his adventures and vicissitudes, if they do not give us pleasure in and for themselves, quite apart from any symbolic sub-intention—just as the adventures of Sindbad, or Gil Blas, or Tom Jones, or Huckleberry Finn give us pleasure—then assuredly the poem does not affect us as Ibsen intended that it should. Readers who approach it for the first time may therefore be counselled to pay no heed to its ethical or political meanings, and to take it as it comes, simply as a dramatic romance or phantasmagoria of purely human humour and pathos. Reading it in this way, they will naturally find a good deal that seems obscure and arbitrary; but much of this will be cleared up on a second reading, by the aid of such sidelights as this Introduction can afford. No assiduity of study, however, can find in Peer Gynt a clear, consistent, cut-and-dried allegory, with a place for everything and everything in its place. It is not an allegory, but (as aforesaid) a phantasmagory. This is what the early critics did not realise. They quarrelled with it for the very luxuriance of its invention, the buoyant irrepressible whimsicality of its humour, the shimmering iridescence of its style. They stood before an “undulant and diverse” carnival-pageant, and grumbled because it would not fit into any recognised form, sanctioned by their preconceived æsthetic principles.
I am far from maintaining that the reckless, elusive capriciousness of the poem is an unmixed merit. It would probably have done no harm if, after the first rapture of composition had died away, Ibsen had gone over it and pruned it a little here and there. I can by no means endorse the critics’ sweeping condemnation of the fourth act, which contains some of the most delightful passages in the whole poem; but the first scene of this act is unquestionably shallow in conception and diffuse in style—a piece of satiric journalism rather than of literature. The concluding scenes of the last act, too, would certainly have been none the worse of a little compression. The auction scene (Act V. Sc. 4), though it has a sort of fantastic impressiveness, seems to me hopelessly baffling in its relation both to the outward story and to the inner significance of the poem. Here, and perhaps at some half-dozen other points, one may admit that Ibsen appears to have let his fancy run away with him; but the inert, excessive, or utterly enigmatic passages in Peer Gynt are surely few and brief in comparison with the passages in Faust to which the same epithets may be applied. On the other hand, the scenes of poignant and thrilling and haunting poetry are too many to be severally indicated. The first act, with its inimitable life and movement, Åse’s death-scene, and the Pastor’s speech in the last act, are usually cited as the culminating points of the poem; and there can be no doubt that Åse’s death-scene, at any rate, is one of the supreme achievements of modern drama.8 But there are several other scenes that I would place scarcely, if at all, lower than these. In point of weird intensity, there is nothing in the poem more marvellous than the Sæter-Girl scene (Act II. Sc. 3); in point of lyric movement, Peer Gynt’s repudiation of Ingrid (Act II. Sc. 1) is incomparable; and in point of sheer beauty and pathos, Solveig’s arrival at the hut (Act III. Sc. 3), with the whole of the scene that follows, stands supreme.9 For my own part, I reckon the shipwreck scenes at the beginning of the fifth act among the most impressive, as they are certainly not the least characteristic, in the poem. And, in enumerating its traits of undeniable greatness, one must by no means forget the character of Åse, on which Ibsen himself dwelt with justified complacency. There is not a more life-like creation in the whole range of drama.
Having now warned the reader against allowing the search for symbolic or satiric meanings to impair his enjoyment of the pure poetry of Peer Gynt, I may proceed to point out some of the implications which do indubitably underlie the surface aspects of the poem. These meanings fall under three heads. First, we have universal-human satire and symbolism, bearing upon human nature in general, irrespective of race or nationality. Next we have satire upon Norwegian human nature in particular, upon the religious and political life of Norway as a nation. Lastly, we find a certain number of local and ephemeral references—what, in the slang of our stage, are called “topical allusions.”
In order to provide the reader with a clue to the complex meanings of Peer Gynt, on its higher lines or planes of significance, I cannot do better than quote some paragraphs from the admirable summary of the drama given by Mr. P. H. Wicksteed in his Four Lectures on Henrik Ibsen.10 Mr. Wicksteed is in such perfect sympathy with Ibsen in the stage of his development marked by Brand and Peer Gynt, that he has understood these poems, in my judgment, at least as well as any other commentator, whether German or Scandinavian. He writes as follows:
“In Brand the hero is an embodied protest against the poverty of spirit and half-heartedness that Ibsen rebelled against in his countrymen. In Peer Gynt the hero is himself the embodiment of that spirit. In Brand the fundamental antithesis, upon which, as its central theme, the drama is constructed, is the contrast between the spirit of compromise on the one hand, and the motto ‘everything or nothing’ on the other. And Peer Gynt is the very incarnation of a compromising dread of decisive committal to any one course. In Brand the problem of self-realisation and the relation of the individual to his surroundings is obscurely struggling for recognition, and in Peer Gynt it becomes the formal theme upon which all the fantastic variations of the drama are built up. In both plays alike the problems of heredity and the influence of early surroundings are more than touched upon; and both alike culminate in the doctrine that the only redeeming power on earth or in heaven is the power of love.
“Peer Gynt, as already stated, stands for the Norwegian people, much as they are sketched in Brand, though with more brightness of colouring. Hence his perpetual ‘hedging’ and determination never so to commit himself that he cannot draw back. Hence his fragmentary life of smatterings. Hence his perpetual brooding over the former grandeur of his family, his idle dreams of the future, and his neglect of every present duty. Hence his deep-rooted selfishness and cynical indifference to all higher motives; and hence, above all, his sordid and superstitious religion; for to him religion is the apotheosis of the art of ‘hedging.’
“But Ibsen’s allegories are never stiffly or pedantically worked out. His characters, though typical, are personal. We could read Brand, and could feel the tragedy and learn the lessons of the drama without any knowledge whatever of the circumstances or feelings under which it was written, or the references to the Norwegian character and conduct with which it teems.
“So, too, with Peer Gynt. We may forget the national significance of the sketch, except where special allusions recall it to our minds, and may think only of the universal problems with which the poem deals, and which will retain their awful interest when Ibsen’s polemic against his countrymen has sunk into oblivion. The study of Peer Gynt as an occasional poem should be strictly subsidiary and introductory to its study as the tragedy of a lost soul.
“What is it to be one’s self? God meant something when he made each one of us. For a man to embody that meaning of God in his words and deeds, and so become in his degree a ‘word of God made flesh,’ is to be himself. But thus to be himself he must slay himself. That is to say, he must slay the craving to make himself the centre round which others revolve, and must strive to find his true orbit and swing, self-poised, round the great central light. But what if a poor devil can never puzzle out what on earth God did mean when he made him? Why, then, he must feel it. But how often your ‘feeling’ misses fire! Ay! there you have it. The devil has no stauncher ally than want of perception! [Act V. Sc. 9.]
“But, after all, you may generally find out what God meant you for, if you will face facts. It is easy to find a refuge from facts in lies, in self-deception, and in self-sufficiency. It is easy to take credit to yourself for what circumstances have done for you, and lay upon circumstances what you owe to yourself. It is easy to think you are realising yourself by refusing to become a ‘pack-horse for the weal and woe of others’ [Act IV. Sc. 1], keeping alternatives open and never closing a door behind you or burning your ships, and so always remaining the master of the situation and self-possessed. If you choose to do these easy things you may always ‘get round’ your difficulties [Act II. Sc. 7], but you will never get through them. You will remain master of the situation indeed, but the situation will become poorer and narrower every day. If you never commit yourself, you never express yourself, and yourself becomes less and less significant and decisive. Calculating selfishness is the annihilation of self.”
So far Mr. Wicksteed. The general significance of the poem, in the terms of that theism which may or may not have been Ibsen’s personal creed during the years of its incubation, could scarcely be better expounded.
When we come to subsidiary meanings, we must proceed more carefully, for we have the poet’s own word for it that many have been read into the poem whereof he never dreamt. For example, in his first letter to Björnson after reading Clemens Petersen’s criticism, he protested against that critic’s assumption that the Strange Passenger (Act V. Scs. 1 and 2) was symbolic of “dread.” “If my head had been on the block,” he said, “and such an explanation would have saved my life, it would never have occurred to me. I never thought of such a thing. I stuck in the scene as a mere caprice.” For this element of caprice we must always allow. The whole fourth act, the poet told the present writer, was an afterthought, and did not belong to the original scheme of the play.
Here we come upon the question whether Ibsen consciously designed Peer Gynt as a counterblast to Björnson’s idyllic peasant-novel, Synnöve Solbakken. This theory, put forward by a judicious French critic, M. Auguste Ehrhard,11 among others, has always seemed to me very far-fetched; but as Dr. Brandes, in the introduction to Peer Gynt in the German collected edition, appears to give it his sanction, I quote what he says on the point: “German critics have laid special emphasis on the fact that Ibsen here placed himself in conscious opposition to Björnson’s glorification, in his early novels, of the younger generation of Norwegian peasants. Quarrelsomeness and love of fighting were represented in Thorbjörn, the hero of Synnöve Solbakken, as traits of the traditional old-Norse viking spirit; in Arne the poetic proclivities of the people were placed in an engaging light. The vaunted fisticuff-heroism was, in Ibsen’s view, nothing but rawness, and the poetic proclivities of Norwegian youth appeared to him, in the last analysis, simply a very prevalent love of lying and gasconading. The Norwegians appear in the caricaturing mirror of this brilliant poem as a people who, in smug contentment, are ‘to themselves enough,’ and therefore laud everything that is their own, however insignificant it may be, shrink from all decisive action, and have for their national vice a tendency to fantastication and braggadocio.” That Peer Gynt is a counterblast to national romanticism and chauvinism in general there can of course be no doubt; but I see no reason to suppose that Ibsen had Björnson’s novels specially in view, or intended anything like a “caricature” of them. It is pretty clear, too, that Björnson himself had no such idea in his mind when he reviewed the poem in the Norsk Folkeblad for November 23, 1867. His long article is almost entirely laudatory, and certainly shows no smallest sign of hostile party-spirit. “Peer Gynt,” says Björnson, “is a satire upon Norwegian egoism, narrowness, and self-sufficiency, so executed as to have made me not only again and again laugh till I was sore, but again and again give thanks to the author in my heart—as I here do publicly.” Beyond remarking upon the over-exuberance of detail, and criticising the versification, Björnson says little or nothing in dispraise of the poem. On the other hand he says curiously little of its individual beauties. He never mentions Åse, says nothing of her death-scene, or of the Pastor’s speech, and picks out as the best thing in the play the thread-ball scene (Act V. Sc. 6).
The most obviously satirical passage of the first three acts is the scene in the Dovrë-King’s palace xxvi(Act II. Sc. 6), with its jibe at Norwegian national vanity:
The cow gives cakes and the bullock mead,
Ask not if its taste be sour or sweet;
The main matter is, and you mustn’t forget it,
It’s all of it home-brewed.
Much more difficult is the interpretation of the Boyg,12 that vague, shapeless, ubiquitous, inevitable, invulnerable Thing which Peer encounters in the following scene (Act II. Sc. 7). Ibsen found it in the folk-tale, and was attracted, no doubt, by the sheer uncanniness and eerieness of the idea. Neither can one doubt, however, that in his own mind he attributed to the monster some symbolic signification. Dr. Brandes would have us see in it the Spirit of Compromise—the same evil spirit which is assailed in Brand. The Swedish critic, Vasenius, interprets it as Peer Gynt’s own consciousness of his inability to take a decisive step—to go through an obstacle in place of skirting round it. Herr Passarge reads in it a symbol of the mass of mankind, perpetuum immobile, opposing its sheer force of inertia to every forward movement. This would make it nearly equivalent to “the compact majority” of An Enemy of the People; or, looking at it from a slightly different angle, we might see in the scene an illustration in action of that despairing cry of Schiller’s Talbot: “Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.” The truth probably is that the poet vaguely intended this vague monster to be as elusive in its symbolism as in its physical constitution. But when, in Act IV. Sc. 12, he formally identifies the Boyg with the Sphinx, we may surely conclude that one of the interpretations present to his mind was metaphysical. In this aspect, the Boyg would typify the riddle of existence, with which we grapple in vain, and which we have to “get round” as best we can.
The fourth act contains a good many special allusions, in addition to the general, and somewhat crude, satire in the opening scene on the characteristics of different nationalities, with particular reference to their conduct in the Dano-German crisis. Peer’s dreams of African colonisation (Act IV. Sc. 5) are said to refer to certain projects which Ole Bull had about this time been ventilating. But it is especially in the madhouse scene (Act IV. Sc. 13) that satiric sallies abound. “The Fellah with the royal mummy on his back,” says Henrik Jæger,13 “is—like Trumpeterstråle—a cut at the Swedes, the mummy being Charles the Twelfth. Like the Fellah, it is implied, the Swedes are extremely proud of their ‘Hero-king,’ and yet during the Dano-German war they showed not the smallest sign of having anything in common with him, unless it were that they, like him, ‘kept still and completely dead.’ In the delusion of the minister Hussein, who imagines himself a pen, there is a general reference to the futile address- and note-mongering which went on in Norwegian-Swedish officialdom during the Dano-German War, and a more special one to an eminent Swedish statesman [Grev Manderström], who, during the war, had been extremely proud of his official notes, and had imagined that by means of them he might exercise a decisive influence on the course of events.”
Most prominent and unmistakable of all the satiric passages, however, is the attack on the language-reformers in the personage of Huhu. In the list of characters, Huhu is set down as a “Målstræver from Zanzibar.” Now the Målstrævers are a party which desires to substitute a language compounded from the various local dialects, for the Norwegian of the townsfolk and of literature. This they call Danish, and declare to be practically a foreign tongue to the peasants, who form the backbone of the Norwegian nation. Ibsen’s satire, it must be said, has had little or no effect on the movement, which has gone on slowly but steadily, and has of late years met with official and legislative recognition. There is a large and increasing literature in the “Mål”; it is taught in schools and it is spoken in the Storthing. Where the movement may end it is hard to say. It must seem to a foreigner, as it seemed to Ibsen, retrograde and obscurantist; but there is doubtless some genuine impulse behind it which the foreigner cannot appreciate.
The principles which have guided us in the following transcript demand a few words of explanation. Peer Gynt is written from first to last in rhymed verse. Six or eight different measures are employed in the various scenes, and the rhymes are exceedingly rich and complex. The frequency of final light syllables in xxixNorwegian implies an exceptional abundance of double rhymes, and Ibsen has taken full advantage of this peculiarity. In the short first scene of the second act, for example, twenty-five out of the forty lines end in double rhymes, and there are three double-rhymed triplets. The tintinnabulation of these double rhymes, then, gives to most of the scenes a metrical character which it might puzzle Mr. Swinburne himself to reproduce in English. Moreover, the ordinary objections to rhymed translations seemed to apply with exceptional force in the case of Peer Gynt. The characteristic quality of its style is its vernacular ease and simplicity. It would have been heart-breaking work (apart from its extreme difficulty) to substitute for this racy terseness the conventional graces of English poetic diction, padding here and perverting there. To a prose translation, on the other hand, the objections seemed even greater. It is possible to give in prose some faint adumbration of epic dignity; but we had here no epic to deal with. We found (though the statement may at first seem paradoxical) that the same vernacular simplicity of style which forbade a translation in rhyme, was no less hostile to a translation in prose. The characteristic quality of the poet’s achievement lay precisely in his having, by the aid of rhythm and rhyme, transfigured the most easy and natural dialogue, without the least sacrifice of its naturalness. Entirely to eliminate these graces of form would have been to reduce the poem to prose indeed. It seemed little better than casting a silver statue into the crucible and asking the world to divine from the ingot something of the sculptor’s power. A prose translation, in short, could not but strip Fantasy of its pinions, rob Satire of its barbs. The poet himself, moreover, expressly declared that he would rather let Peer Gynt remain untranslated than see it rendered in prose. After a good deal of reflection and experiment, we finally suggested to him a middle course between prose and rhyme: a translation as nearly as possible in the metres of the original, but with the rhymes suppressed. To this compromise he assented, and the following pages are the result.
We had no precedent—within our knowledge, at any rate—to guide us, and were forced to lay down our own laws. Even at the risk of falling between two stools, we proposed to ourselves a dual purpose. We sought to produce a translation which should convey to the general reader some faint conception of the movement and colour, the wit and pathos, of the original, and at the same time a transcript which should serve the student as a “crib” to the Norwegian text. This, then, the reader must be good enough to bear in mind: that the following version is designed to facilitate, not to supersede, the study of the original. But, apart from our desire to provide a “crib” to Peer Gynt, we felt that, in taking the liberty of suppressing the rhymes, we abjured our right to any other liberty whatsoever. A rhymed paraphrase of a great poem may have a beauty of its own; an unrhymed version must be no paraphrase, but a faithful transcript, else “the ripple of laughing rhyme” has been sacrificed in vain. Our fundamental principle then, has been to represent the original line for line; and to this principle we have adhered with the utmost fidelity. There are probably not fifty cases in the whole poem in which a word has been transferred from one line to another, and then only some pronoun or auxiliary verb. It is needless to say that in adhering to this principle we have often had to resist temptation. Many cases presented themselves in which greater clearness, grace, and vigour might easily have been attained by transferring a word or phrase from this line to that, or even altering the sequence of a whole group of lines. In no case have we yielded to such temptation, feeling that, our rule once relaxed, we should insensibly but inevitably lapse into mere paraphrase. Temptation beset us with especial force in the less vital passages of the poem. In these places it would have been easy to give our rendering some approach to grace and point by disregarding inversions and other defects of expression, justified in the original by the wit and spirit of the rhymes, but of course deprived in our transcript of any such excuse. Here, as elsewhere, we were proof against temptation; it is for our readers to decide whether our constancy was heroic or pedantic.
It would be folly to pretend either that we have reproduced every word of the original, or that we have avoided all necessity for “padding.” The chief drawback of our line-for-line principle is that it has debarred us from eking out the deficiency of one line with the superfluity of the next. We trust, however, that few essential ideas, or even words, of the original will be found quite unaccounted for; while with regard to padding, we have tried, where we found it absolutely forced upon us, to use only such mechanical parts of speech as introduced no new idea into the context. We have found by experiment that the fact of writing in measure has frequently enabled us to keep much closer to the original than would have been possible in prose. This is not in reality so strange as it may at first sight appear. A prose translation of verse can avoid paraphrase only at the cost of grotesque inelegance; whereas in rendering metre into metre, we are working under the same laws which govern the original, and are therefore enabled in many cases to adopt identical forms of expression, which would be quite inadmissible in prose.
Thirty out of the thirty-eight scenes into which the five acts are divided are written almost entirely in an irregular measure of four accents, evidently designed to give the greatest possible variety and suppleness to the dialogue. The four accents constitute almost the only assignable law of this measure, the feet being of any length, from two to four syllables, and of all possible denominations—iambics, trochees, dactyls, anapæsts, amphibrachs. The effect is at first rather baffling to the unaccustomed ear; but when one gets into the swing of the rub-a-dub rhythm, if we may venture to call it so, the feeling of ruggedness vanishes, and the verse is found to be capable of poignantly pathetic, as well as of buoyantly humorous, expression.
We have not attempted to reproduce each line of this measure accurately, foot for foot, holding it enough to observe the law of the four accents. Where the four-accent rule is obviously departed from, it will generally be found to be in obedience to the original; for Ibsen now and then (but very rarely) introduces a line or couplet of three or of five accents.
Of the eight scenes in which this measure is not employed, three—Act I. Sc. 1, Act II. Sc. 1, and Act IV. Sc. 7—are in a perfectly regular trochaic measure of four accents, the lines containing seven or eight syllables, according as the rhymes are single or double. In dealing with this measure, we have not thought it necessary to follow the precise arrangement of the original in the alternation of seven and eight syllable lines. In other words, we have sometimes represented a seven-syllable line by one of eight syllables, an eight-syllable line by one of seven. In the short first scene of the second act, however, every line represents accurately the length of the corresponding line in the original.
The fourth scene of Act II. is written in lines of three accents; the last scene of the third act—Åse’s death-scene—in lines of three accents with alternate double and single rhymes. In rendering this scene, we have been careful to preserve the alternation of strong with light endings, which gives it its metrical character.
Two scenes—Act IV. Sc. I, and Act V. Sc. 2—consist of four-accent iambic lines, differing from the octosyllabic verse of Marmion or The Giaour chiefly in the greater prevalence of double and even treble rhymes. Finally, the sixth scene of Act V. consists mainly of eight-line lyrical stanzas, with two accents in each line, Peer Gynt’s interspersed remarks being in trochaic verses, like those of Act I. Sc. 1. In such intercalated passages, so to speak, as the rhapsodies of Huhu and the Fellah in Act IV. Sc. 13, and the Pastor’s speech at the grave in Act V. Sc. 3, we have accurately reproduced the measures of the original. The Pastor’s speech is the only passage in the whole poem which is couched in iambic decasyllables.
In dealing with idioms and proverbial expressions, our practice has not been very consistent. We have sometimes, where they seemed peculiarly racy and expressive, translated them literally; in other cases we have had recourse to the nearest English equivalent, even where the metaphor employed is quite different. In the latter instances we have usually given the literal rendering of the phrase in a footnote.
For the present edition the text has been carefully revised, and some rough edges have, it is hoped, been smoothed away; but no very essential alteration has been made. While we are keenly conscious of all that the poem loses in our rendering, we cannot but feel that it has justified its existence, inasmuch as it has brought home to thousands of readers on both sides of the Atlantic a not wholly inadequate sense of the greatness of the original.
- One of Holberg’s most famous comedies.
- See The Lady from the Sea.
- Brandes: Ibsen and Björnson, p. 35. London, Heinemann, 1899. Except in regard to the fourth act, Dr. Brandes has, in the introduction to Peer Gynt in the German collected edition, recanted his early condemnation of the poem.
- Norske Huldre-Eventyr og Folkesagn, Christiania, 1848, p. 47. See also Copenhagen edition, 1896, p. 163.
- Norske Folke-og Huldre-Eventyr, Copenhagen, 1896, p. 48.
- In this story, however, he probably found the suggestion of the “cross-roads” which figure so largely in the fifth act. In Asbjörnsen, they are explicitly stated to be the point where the ways to Heaven and Hell diverge.
- Further gleanings of legendary lore concerning Peer Gynt may be found in the Norwegian periodical Syn og Segn, 1903, pp. 119-130. The writer, Per Aasmundstad, is of opinion that Peer Gynt’s real name was Peer Haagaa (the owner of Haagaa farm) and that Gynt was either a name given him by the huldra-folk, or else a local nickname for humorists of his kind. According to this authority, he probably lived as far back as the seventeenth century. Per Aasmundstad’s article is written in the local dialect, with such ruthless phonetic accuracy that I read it with difficulty; but he does not seem to have discovered anything that has a definite bearing on Ibsen’s work. From the wording of Ibsen’s letters to Hegel, however (p. viii), it would seem that he had some knowledge of the Gynt legend over and above what was to be found in Asbjörnsen. (For access to Syn og Segn, and for other obliging assistance, I am indebted to Herr Halvdan Koht, the author of the excellent biographical introduction to Ibsen’s Letters.
- It is pretty clear that the poet designed Åse’s death as a deliberate contrast to the death of Brand’s mother.
- In all these remarks I have in mind, of course, the scenes in their original form. The reader will easily understand the loss which they inevitably suffer in being deprived of the crowning grace of richly-elaborated rhyme.
- London: Sonnenschein, 1892.
- Henrik Ibsen et le Théâtre Contemporain. Paris, 1892.
- Deeming it unnecessary to trouble our readers with niceties of pronunciation, we have represented the “Böig” of the original by the more easily pronounceable “Boyg.” The root-idea seems to be that of bending, of sinuousness; compare Norwegian böie, German biegen, to bend. In Aasmundstad’s version of the Peer Gynt legends (see Note, p. xvii) when the Boyg names itself, Peer answers “Antel du æ rak hell bògjë, saa fæ du sleppe mé fram”—“Whether you are straight or crooked, you must let me pass.” The German translator, both in the folk-tale and in the drama, renders “Böigen” by “der Krumme.” So far as we are aware, the name occurs in no other folk-tale save that of Peer Gynt. It is not generic, but denotes an individual troll-monster.
- Henrik Ibsen 1828-1888. Et Literært Livsbillede, Copenhagen, 1888. English Translation, London, Heinemann, 1890.