Oct. 7, 1892. A Masterpiece.
“Peer Gynt takes its place, as we hold, on the summits of literature precisely because it means so much more than the poet consciously intended. Is not this one of the characteristics of the masterpiece, that everyone can read in it his own secret? In the material world (though Nature is very innocent of symbolic intention) each of us finds for himself the symbols that have relevance and value for him; and so it is with the poems that are instinct with true vitality.”
I was glad to come across the above passage in Messrs. William and Charles Archer’s introduction to their new translation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (London: Walter Scott), because I can now, with a clear conscience, thank the writers for their book, even though I fail to find some of the things they find in it. The play’s the thing after all. Peer Gynt is a great poem: let us shake hands over that. It will remain a great poem when we have ceased pulling it about to find what is inside or search out texts for homilies in defence of our own particular views of life. The world’s literature stands unaffected, though Archdeacon Farrar use it for chapter-headings and Sir John Lubbock wield it as a mallet to drive home self-evident truths.
Not a Pamphlet.
Peer Gynt is an extremely modern story founded on old Norwegian folk-lore–the folk-lore which Asbjörnsen and Moe collected, and Dasent translated for our delight in childhood. Old and new are curiously mixed; but the result is piquant and not in the least absurd, because the story rests on problems which are neither old nor new, but eternal, and on emotions which are neither older nor newer than the breast of man. To be sure, the true devotee of Ibsen will not be content with this. You will be told by Herr Jaeger, Ibsen’s biographer, that Peer Gynt is an attack on Norwegian romanticism. The poem, by the way, is romantic to the core–so romantic, indeed, that the culminating situation, and the page for which everything has been a preparation, have to be deplored by Messrs. Archer as “a mere commonplace of romanticism, which Ibsen had not outgrown when he wrote Peer Gynt.” But your true votary is for ever taking his god off the pedestal of the true artist to set him on the tub of the hot-gospeller; even so genuine a specimen of impressionist work as Hedda Gabler being claimed by him for a sermon. And if ever you have been moved by Ghosts, or Brand, or Peer Gynt to exclaim “This is poetry!” you have only to turn to Herr Jaeger–whose criticism, like his namesake’s underclothing, should be labelled “All Pure Natural Wool”–to find that you were mistaken and that it is really pamphleteering.
Yet Enforcing a Moral.
To be sure, in one sense Peer Gynt is a sermon upon a text. That is to say, it is written primarily to expound one view of man’s duty, not to give a mere representation of life. The problem, not the picture, is the main thing. But then the problem, not the picture, is the main thing in Alcestis, Hamlet, Faust. In Peer Gynt the poet’s own solution of the problem is presented with more insistence than in Alcestis, Hamlet, or Faust: but the problem is wider, too.
The problem is, What is self? and how shall a man be himself? And the poet’s answer is, “Self is only found by being lost, gained by being given away”: an answer at least as old as the gospels. The eponymous hero of the story is a man essentially half-hearted, “the incarnation of a compromising dread of self-committal to any one course,” a fellow who says,
“Ay, think of it–wish it done–will it to boot,
But do it—-. No, that’s past my understanding!”