Edmund Gosse

Peer Gynt anmeldt av Edmund Gosse i The Spectator 20. juli 1872. Her gjengitt fra versjon trykt i Littell´s Living Age, No. 1471, 17. august 1872, Boston, s. 444-446.
From the Spectator.

A NORWEGIAN DRAMA.*

It is not too much to say that within the green covers of this book the Norwegian language received a fuller and more splendid expression than in any previous work. It comes from the hand of Henrik Ibsen, a poet who is fast gaining for himself that European fame which nothing but the remoteness of his mother-tongue has hitherto denied him; his Brand, published in 1866, produced a great sensation in Scandinavia, and paved the way for his later drama, which surpasses it in vigour and fire, if it does not rival its spiritual sweetness.

Peer Gynt takes its name from its hero, and the germ of him is to be found in an old legend preserved by Asbjörnsen. Peer Gynt was an idle fellow, whose chief characteristics were knack for story-telling and a dominant passion for lies. Out of this legendary waif Ibsen has evolved a character of wonderful subtlety and liveliness, and hung round it draperies of allegorical satire. Peer Gynt is an epigram on the Norway of to-day; it satirizes, as in a nutshell, everything vapid, or maudlin, or febrile in the temper of the nation; in sparkling verse it lashes the extravagances of the various parties that divide the social world. It is the opposite of its predecessor, Brand, for while that poem strove to wake the nation into earnestness by holding up before it an ideal of stainless nobility, Peer Gynt idealizes in the character of its hero the selfishness and mean cunning of the worst of ambitious men. In form, the poem is indebted to Faust; but the style and execution are original and masterly: it is written in a variety of lyrical measures, in short rhyming lines. With such a prelude, we proceed to examine it.

The first act opens with a briskness worthy of the opening scene in the Alchemist. Peer Gynt, a strong, lazy young peasant, is in high dispute with his mother Aase, a credulous, irritable, affectionate little woman, whose character is finely drawn throughout the piece. Peer Gynt´s nature is one that needs that spur of ambition, or the pleasure of sinning, to rouse it from inaction. In this first scene, it is not till his mother, in the course of angry rhetoric, tells him that Ingrid, an old flame of his, is going to be married, that he shakes off his sloth. He determines to stop the wedding at all events, and with that object goes off to the bride´s home, leaving his enraged mother on the top of the quern, where he lifted her in a fit of droll mischief. He breaks in, an unwelcome guest among the feasting and dancing, and manages at last to snatch up Ingrid, and dashes up the mountain side with her. But not before Solvejg, a gipsy-girl, has seen and fallen in love with him. So far the first act. To say that Ibsen describes the scenery in his plays would be to do his judgement and taste a great wrong; but it is one of his greatest powers, and a manifest mark of genius, that by small and imperceptible touches he enables the reader to see the surroundings of his dialogues, and gather a distinct and lovely impression. In this act it is strikingly so; the narrow green valley, the buttresses of pine, the cloudy mountain-ridges, are never distinctly alluded to, and yet one is fully conscious of their presence; in this act, too, the simple humour of the dialogue is not interrupted by any allegorical writing.

It is not so with the second act. Peer, outlawed for his treatment of Ingrid, whom he had immediately deserted, lives in the hollows of the mountains, and adversity makes for him strange companions. For he slips into an atmosphere of the supernatural, and holds intercourse with trolls and phantom-girls. The finest scene in the act is one of trenchant satire. He rides into the cave of the Old Man of the Mountain, King of the Trolls, a person averse to anything foreign or modern; he is hospitably received, on condition that he conforms himself wholly to the ways of the mountain people. There is a benighted party in Norway whose one cry is monopoly, – Isolation is their gospel; that an article is made at home is the same thing as saying it is good. They are the Trolls! These people bring Peer some mead. Ugh! it is sour. Never mind, it was brewed in the mountain! Everything must be old-fashioned, home-made, national; and Peer Gynt at first is attracted by their volubility and arguments, but soon he is shrewd enough to perceive how unnatural and constrained it all is, and in pure selfishness he does what others have done from patriotism,- he leaves the Trolls for a wider free sphere. Before getting rid of them, however, he has a deadly battle in the dark with Böjgen, the spirit of sounding gloom, in whose name we may trace the origin of our old nursery foe, Bogey.

In the next act, Peer is living all alone in the forest, tormented with spiritual and physical affliction. In this down-hearted condition, hunted by day and plagued by night, we almost forget his selfish cunning in pity, even as the woes of Caliban soften our hearts. In the midst of all this, Solvejg, the brave gipsy-girl, comes up into the forest to be with him, having left all for his sake. But the happiness of her love is not for him; the spirits plague him sevenfold, and he flies from her and them. Poor old Aase has become a pauper, and lives, as Norwegian paupers mostly do, as the charge of a farmer. Peer comes to see her at dead of night, and the meeting forms one of the most powerful passages in this strange book. Old Aase lies in bed alone; at her feet her old black cat lies coiled; the wasted fire burning low on the hearth. While she yearns for her son, the door opens and he is with her, awed and subdued by suffering. They play one of the old baby-games together, that Aase taught Peer so many years ago; but strange sounds ring in her ears, strange lights flash in her eyes; the fire burns down, the cat has slunk away; there is silence, and Peer is alone with his mother´s dead body. With one kiss of the dear dead lips he is away to sea. All this evolves itself in short lines, alternately rhyming, a wild, ghostly metre; it is the death-scene of all sentiment and goodness in Peer; henceforth he cares only to live his own life and in his own way.

The fourth act takes us on twenty years, and reveals Peer as a middle-aged gentleman of fortune, who, having given up his business in America, that of sending heathen-gods to China and negro-slaves to Cuba, is enjoying himself with a few friends on the coast of Morocco. The friends, however, sail off with his yacht, and are blown up with all his property. Once more he is alone and penniless. He starts east, announces himself as the Prophet in an oasis of Sahara, is hailed as such by a choir of ecstatic girls in a magnificent lyrical passage; passes through a variety of grotesque adventures, clothed in dialogue of the most brilliant sarcasm on political and social matters; and finally is discovered in Egypt, conversing with the statue of Memnon, and meeting with the most extraordinary personages. The advent of each gives occasion to a separate lampoon. We will describe one to give an idea of the poet´s manner. At Cairo he is introduced to a melancholy shadow that has travelled from Malabar. Of old, four hundred years ago, only orang-out-angs lived in the woods; and all their language was shrieking and whining. But the Dutch came, and settled; and now the Malabarese, degenerate folk, use human language, and forget the apes. But the Shadow and his friends have made a league for the restoration of whining and shrieking; they have proved the people´s right to scream ; they have screamed themselves, to point out its use in folk-song-making; but alas! the people will not have them. The meaning of all this is plain. It is a harsh, but surely half-merited attack on the voluble party who are striving to divide the language of Norway from that of Danmark by the construction of a new-old-tongue on the foundation of Aasen´s Norwegian Peasant Grammar. These men – Mr. Kristoffer Jansen is the most talented of them – write poems and edit newspapers in a dialect crude and ugly enough to deserve Ibsen´s cruel taunt about the orang-outangs. Peer Gynt suggests that the Shadows should go west, a hint perhaps to the folk-poets to try a new field in the prairies of Minnesota.

In the fifth act two scenes of peculiar excellence stand out. One is the first, in which Peer, after twenty years more of hard work in California, returns to Norway with a new fortune. The mountain-peaks, swathed with lurid storm-cloud, lie ahead of them, and as the scene proceeds, a tempest drives the ship against the rocks, and no one but Peer is saved. The feeling of the storm is rendered magnificently. The other is a funeral sermon preached by a village priest over an old man who has been the opposite of Peer, living honestly in a narrow sphere, without ambition. The rest of this act is too allegorical, too metaphysical, for pure beauty. It closes with the final salvation of Peer, through the love and faith of Solvejg, who, as a momentary glimpse of her in the fourth act led us to expect, has waited for him with patient longing. To her he is driven by the mocking ghosts of his better thoughts and aspirations.

Peer Gynt is the incarnation of that cowardly egotism that lives only for itself, and sneers at all exalted sentiment,- a vice that may be considered the special growth of our own time. Against this selfishness the poem is a powerful protest, and in spite of the author´s too-obvious pessimism, there can be no doubt that it will have a purifying influence on the youth of his only too-sensitive nation. Whether Norway needs the rebuke more than England may be open to doubt. Against one thing we would protest, the flippant judgment some Scandinavian critics have passed on Ibsen as a merely «negative» satirist. A man who pours out his vials of scorn upon vice, and recommends virtue with such winning sweetness as does the author of Peer Gynt and Brand, is anything rather than negative.

We have said enough to show that this is a great and powerful work. It would be rash to pronounce anything impossible to the author of the third act of Peer Gynt, but it would seem that his very power and fluency are dangerous to him; the book is not without marks of haste, and there is a general sense of incongruity and disjointedness. The African act exemplifies the mixture of brilliant and crude elements; one is alternately delighted and scandalized. It is to be hoped that Ibsen will not be so led away in future by the perilous sweetness of the Lyæan god as to neglect to give his work its due elaboration and polish, for it is obvious the less a polemical writer is open to criticism himself, the more will his strictures have weight with his readers.



*Peer Gynt: Et dramatisk Digt. Af Henrik Ibsen. Copenhagen.1867
Published Apr. 5, 2018 12:37 PM - Last modified May 3, 2018 11:29 AM