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Ibsen’s "Peer Gynt"
by [?]

–who is only stung to action by pique, or by what is called the “instinct of self-preservation,” an instinct which, as Ibsen shows, is the very last that will preserve self.

The Story.

This fellow, Peer Gynt, wins the love of Solveig, a woman essentially whole-hearted, who has no dread of self-committal, who surrenders self. Solveig, in short, stands in perfect antithesis to Peer. When Peer is an outlaw she deserts her father’s house and follows him to his hut in the forest. The scene in which she presents herself before Peer and claims to share his lot is worthy to stand beside the ballad of the Nut-browne Mayde: indeed, as a confessed romantic I must own to thinking Solveig one of the most beautiful figures in poetry. Peer deserts her, and she lives in the hut alone and grows an old woman while her lover roams the world, seeking everywhere and through the wildest adventures the satisfaction of his Self, acting everywhere on the Troll’s motto, “To thyself be enough,” and finding everywhere his major premiss turned against him, to his own discomfiture, by an ironical fate. We have one glimpse of Solveig, meanwhile, in a little scene of eight lines. She is now a middle-aged woman, up in her forest hut in the far north. She sits spinning in the sunshine outside her door and sings:–

“Maybe both the winter and spring will pass by,
And the next summer too, and the whole of the year;
But thou wilt come one day….
* * * * *
God strengthen thee, whereso thou goest in the world!
God gladden thee, if at His footstool thou stand!
Here will I await thee till thou comest again;
And if thou wait up yonder, then there we’ll meet, my friend!”

At last Peer, an old man, comes home. On the heath around his old hut he finds (in a passage which the translators call “fantastic,” intending, I hope, approval by this word) the thoughts he has missed thinking, the watchword he has failed to utter, the tears he has missed shedding, the deed he has missed doing. The thoughts are thread-balls, the watchword withered leaves, the tears dewdrops, etc. Also he finds on that heath a Button-Moulder with an immense ladle. The Button-Moulder explains to Peer that he must go into this ladle, for his time has come. He has neither been a good man nor a sturdy sinner, but a half-and-half fellow without any real self in him. Such men are dross, badly cast buttons with no loops to them, and must go, by the Master’s orders, into the melting-pot again. Is there no escape? None, unless Peer can find the loop of the button, his real Self, the Peer Gynt that God made. After vain and frantic searching across the heath, Peer reaches the door of his own old hut. Solveig stands on the threshold.

As Peer flings himself to earth before her, calling out upon her to denounce him, she sits down by his side and says–

Thou hast made all my life as a beautiful song.
Blessed be thou that at last thou hast come!
Blessed, thrice-blessed our Whitsun-morn meeting

“But,” says Peer, “I am lost, unless thou canst answer riddles.” “Tell me them,” tranquilly answers Solveig. And Peer asks, while the Button-Moulder listens behind the hut–

“Canst thou tell me where Peer Gynt has been since we parted?”


Peer.– With his destiny’s seal on his brow;
Been, as in God’s thought he first sprang forth?
Canst thou tell me? If not, I must get me home,–
Go down to the mist-shrouded regions.

Solveig (smiling).–Oh, that riddle is easy.