Ibsen’s Masterpiece

THE BOOKMAN – Apr 1913

Ibsen’s Masterpiece

    It is possible that those who know ” Peer Gynt ” in the original will find a hundred faults in Mr. Roberts’s translation. Those of us who are not acquainted with the original will be amazed rather by his virtues. Mr. Yeats once said, in a fine sentence, that ” in vital translation … a work of art does not go upon its travels ; it is re-born in a strange land.” In the present volume ” Peer Gynt ” is re-born into the English-speaking world. In other words, the soul of the play is saved alive, and ” Peer Gynt ” sweeps along in its new dress with the joyous ease of a masterpiece. It is Mr. Roberts’s mastery of the play as a whole that makes it hardly worth while to pause to denounce the occasional outrage of a bad rhyme, or the occasional collapse of a rhythm into prose. In sitting down to translate ” Peer Gynt ” into English rhyme, while preserving the metres of the original, Mr. Roberts obviously undertook a work calling for great skill as well as understanding. Rhymed translations are, as a rule, the accursed thing. It is only in the hands of an exceptional man that a rhymed translation is more than a lifeless paraphrase. Mr. Roberts’s is never that. He seems to me to have caught far more of what might be described as the fantastic and tragic humour of the play than did Mr. William Archer and his brother in the only other translation that has been published in English. Mr. Roberts has, of course, used the Archer translation freely, as he acknowledges. But he has made his borrowings his own. There is not a trace of the poverty of the second-hand about his work.
    If we may judge by the reception given to ” The Pretenders ” by the dramatic critics when it was produced the other day at the Haymarket Theatre—since I wrote this, alas! the play has failed—England is at last getting ready to welcome Ibsen into its domestic circles. So determined a realist, so daring a moralist, so contemptuous a smasher of public idols, could hardly have expected to be tolerated by respectable people until he was dead—dead and pedestallcd, and himself a fit object for the idol-smashers of a later generation. Now that Nietzsche and Strindberg have assailed the public ear, however, quiet people may well ask themselves whether after all Ibsen was not a good deal of a Christian. He glorified self-realisation, indeed, but—and this is true of Peer Gynt ” especially—he interpreted self-realisation, not as a shrill Imperialism of the soul, but as a losing of the self and a re-discovery of it in love. When Mr. Roberts, in his recent book on Ibsen, tried to assimilate the moral idea running through Ibsen’s work to the Christian theory of the Atonement, I was inclined to disagree violently with him. But as I read ” Peer Gynt ” again, I feel much more open-minded on the point. On the other hand, is Mr. Roberts on such warrantable ground when he argues that in the end Peer is saved from the Button-moulder, not by Solveig’s love for him, but by his love for Solveig ? It is one of those points in regard to which one might easily fall into quibbling. But surely the answer Solveig gives to Peer, when he asks her where his real self has been all his life :—

” In my faith in my hope, in my love wast thou “—

is against Mr. Roberts’s contention. It is one of the many virtues of his introduction, however, that it provokes the reader into a running fire of argument. On the other hand, it must not be thought that his sole concern with ” Peer Gynt ” is with its moral ideas. ” Peer Gynt ” may, in one aspect, be a many-coloured and delightful statement of the idea that self-sufficiency is merely a form of self-slaughter. Most essentially of all, however, it is the riotously brilliant comedy of a man. Peer Gynt can hardly be denied a place beside Don Quixote, and Falstafi, and the other great comic characters in literature. He is the self-seeker, with day-dreams taking the place of ideals, as he has njver been portrayed in literature before or since. He is undoubtedly the self-seeker portrayed by the critical intellect no less than by the imaginative intellect. But what a wealth of fancy, of laughter, of humanity has gone to his making! Even Ibsen never gave us such another portrait again.


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