Geoffrey Hill’s Ibsen

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Peer Gynt and Brand 

Henrik Ibsen; verse translation by Geoffrey Hill


400 pages




reviewed by Karl O’Hanlon 


Geoffrey Hill’s ‘verse translation’ of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was the last non-critical work to be published in his lifetime. The Penguin Classics volume publishes it alongside Hill’s version of Brand, commissioned by the National Theatre and performed in April 1978. The volume also contains an interview with Kenneth Haynes on issues around recreating Ibsen.

In the interview, Hill reveals that he was blocked on writing Peer Gynt for two years, before a chance re-encounter with W.B. Yeats’s fourteeners in The Green Helmet provided him with a sense of possibilities for long lines (p. 344). According to Jane Garton’s introduction to the volume, the most frequently used form in the original is knittel, a medieval verse-form with four-beat lines and varied unstressed syllables, close to Norwegian everyday speech. Hill cleaves close to the knittel form in the village scenes:


Down goes the buck! I’m on his back, 

grab his left ear, see here, rear-skull, 

straight to the spot, my hunting-steel 

to make the kill. The brute is up!

(p. 170) 


He reveals in the interview that the internal rhyme throughout his version attempts ‘a kind of “snap” effect, the verbal equivalent of the stage direction “snaps his fingers”’ (p. 344).  With Brand, the difficulty was resisting the inveterate English pull of iambic pentameter in rendering its tetrameter, resolved by using even shorter lines in an attempt to recapture what Ibsen referred to in a remark to C.H. Herford (who translated the play in 1894): ‘I wanted a metre in which I could career on horseback’ (cited p. 344). 

In the preface to the 1996 Penguin edition to Brand, Hill was careful to disavow the title of translator; the work was ‘a version for the stage of a poetic drama, or a dramatic poem, which was perhaps not intended for the stage’ (Hill, Brand [London: Penguin, 1996, third edn], p. vii). Nevertheless, Hill had made detailed study of the verse translations by Herford and F.E. Garrett, which he thought sounded like Carlyle, and confirmed his fears that it could come across like six thousand lines of Hiawatha (see Inga-Stina Ewbank, ‘Translating Ibsen for the English Stage’, Tijdschrift voor Skandinavistiek, Vol. 19, No. 1 [1998], pp. 62-63). He worked closely with Inga-Stina Ewbank, who sent him piecemeal the most literal translation of the Norwegian, with ample annotations conveying connotations, effects of rhythm, and rhyme. With Peer Gynt his process was similar, working from a literal translation with annotations by Jane Garton. What seems remarkable in the undertaking of both versions, 1978 and 2016, is that the ‘problems’ of recreating the work are technical rather than merely dramaturgical or questions of adaption; if ‘versions’ they are, the process of translation is integral to them. Ewbank wrote in a 1998 article ‘Translating Ibsen for the English Stage’ that Hill’s Brand fit, more than ‘faithful’ translations by Michael Meyer and James Kirkup, Ibsen’s ideas on translation: the need to re-create and transpose (‘omdigte’) the style and images of the original, and to adapt the expression to ‘the structure and demands’ (‘struktur og behov’) of the language into which one is translating (Ewbank, pp. 65-66).

In Brand, Hill Englishes Ibsen’s iambic and trochaic tetrameter by shortening; the result is overwhelmingly trimeter that alternately rollicks or trots along in a staccato rictus (Hill praised the performance of Patience Collier as Brand’s Mother, ‘the slightest movement of tightening lip or knuckle perfectly read from the metre and syntax’ [1996 preface to Brand, p. x]). In Peer Gynt, the range of forms and metres invites an exuberance of transposition, including the dense internal rhymes of knittel such as stakes out the rhythm of the opening scene, to the ballad-like cinquain that Peer sings accompanied by an Arab lute (Hill states in the interview that he attended to Garton’s notes where a change of metre was indicated). The long line, however, is ubiquitously present, and Hill enjoys taking his dérive from Yeats’s cantering poulter’s measure, with calculatingly naïve end-rhymes and coy repetitions, the stuff of folklore and fable. Like Grieg’s score for the 1876 premiere of the drama, Hill manages to have his cake and eat it – Grieg wrote to Frants Breyer about the Mountain King’s Hall movement: ‘I literally can’t bear to listen to [it], it simply resounds with cowpats, Norwegianness, and tothyselfsufficientness! I hope that the irony will be able to make itself felt’ (cited by Garton, introduction to Peer Gynt and Brand, pp. xxvii-xxviii). Hill revels in the eldritch, harum-scarum language of the trolls, with its redolence of real threat. A comparison of Hill’s version with Ibsen’s original is instructive:


A COURT TROLL: To the butcher’s bench with him! The son of a mortal thing – 

a Christian too – has led astray the fairest daughter of our king!

A TROLL CHILD: Please, may I gash his finger?

SECOND CHILD:                                                       I want to hack his hair!

TROLL MAIDEN: I’d love to bite him in the thigh, right here, or just there. . .

(p. 207)


HOFTROLDENE : Slagt ham! Kristenmands Søn har daaret

Dovregubbens veneste Mø!

EN TROLDUNGE : Maa jeg skjære ham i Fingren?

EN ANDEN TROLDUNGE: Maa jeg rive ham i Haaret?

EN TROLDJOMFRU: Hu, hej; lad mig bide ham i Laaret!

(Henrik Ibsens skrifter)


It’s tempting to see these as the wizened ancestors of Hill’s ‘troll-wives’ in his 1971 volume Mercian Hymns, those ‘groaners in sweetness, tooth-bewitchers’ (Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013], p. 108) – that via Ibsen’s ur-Scandinavian drama, Hill was following in those wintry versets the ley-lines of eventual Viking incursion (and Old Norse) into Offa’s Anglo-Saxon realm. The violence of Hill’s diction in the mountain scene in Peer Gynt (gash, hack) is played off against the vague periphrastic use of rhyme (thing, king, here, there): real subterranean thrills are sugared with the aerated indistinctness of a fireside tale – the irony is worked into the version. Yeats’s example in The Green Helmet seems to have provided Hill with a way of drawing out the tooth of satire that Ibsen buried into the elaborate and legendary flesh of his Romantic picaresque. Yeats’s irregular heptameter in the 1910 play, likely a fusion of Chapman’s Homer and elements of William Morris, is the beginning of his famous enterprising ‘nakedness’, what Ezra Pound described as the end to ‘glamourlets and mists and fogs’ and the entry into his work of ‘hard light’ (Ezra Pound, ‘The Later Yeats’, Poetry, No. 4 [May 1914], pp. 64-69):


CUCHULAIN: Old herring – you whip off heads! Why, then

Whip off your own, for it seems you can clap it on again.

Or else go down in the sea, go down in the sea, I say,

Find that old juggler Manannan and whip his head away;

Or the Red Man of the Boyne, for they are of your own sort,

Or if the waves had vexed you and you would find a sport

Of a more Irish fashion, go fight without a rest

A caterwauling phantom among the winds of the west.

(The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Vol. II: The Plays, ed. by David R. Clark and Rosalind E. Clark [Scribner: New York, 2001], p. 247)


For the length of the lines involved, all is salt and punch. ‘Juggler’ is keenly chosen; ‘caterwauling’ has the shock of warm winter seawater: Cuchulain’s ironic suggestion to the hapless Laegaire to wrestle with the ‘invulnerable tide’ is self-aware, but the word itself is Yeats’s and is every bit as irreverent as Beckett’s Neary dashing his head against the buttocks of Oliver Sheppard’s GPO statue of the mythological hero. Where the poetry seems slack, in the almost bleary somnolence of the rhymes and repetitions, it reaches back in all dignity to what is redeemable from the ethereal verse of Yeats’s youth. As per its subtitle, ‘An Heroic Farce’, Yeats’s caustic energies fizz on the surface of a procrastinating, periphrastic, yarn-spinning style. Compare Hill’s Peer Gynt:


PEER [chopping at a big pine tree with gnarled branches]:

Yes, you’re a tough ’un, old fellow, but there’s no help for it,

down you must fall, despite that strong coat of chain-mail you wear. It 

will be riven by me, you’ll see, no matter how strong it’s become.

Yes, yes, and despite your shaking at me that crooked arm.

Indeed I can quite understand why you’re so angry, old friend.

And yet, as you know, you’ll be brought to your knees at the end.

[Breaks off abruptly.]

What lies am I weaving, what lies! It’s no corseleted veteran,

it’s a tree long past its best, a pine with cracked bark that I mourn.

Because of hard labour, felling these giants for timber, 

I find I invent fables for fables I can’t remember.

(p. 221)


The fourteeners accommodate Peer’s daydream garrulity, the rhythm sustains his illusions; instead of seeking effects in rhyme, Hill intentionally dampens the potential of the couplet. (Compare Hill’s sense of what the couplet can achieve, in the opposite direction, in his essay ‘Jonathan Swift: The Poetry of “Reaction”’, Collected Critical Writings, ed. by Kenneth Haynes [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008], pp. 71-88.) Where elsewhere, for instance the trolls baying for Peer’s blood, the energy is harnessed by displacing the long line over two speakers, here the technical achievements are subtle: ‘giants’ as a relatively unproblematic transferred sense to convey the enormity of the pines cannot but expose the radically metaphorical potential of language in this world of Boygs, trolls, and sinister Button Moulders. ‘Giants’ as a figurative word to mean trees absolves Peer of his ‘lies’ – language itself is the grand fable from which fables are invented. 

If the interview seems to suggest that Hill’s ‘point of departure’ for his verse translation in reading Yeats’s The Green Helmet was merely serendipitous, it is nevertheless worth reflecting that Yeats deplored the ‘spilt poetry’ of Ibsen’s major theatrical works but admired his verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt. In an 1894 review of F.E. Garrett’s Brand translation, Yeats used a metaphor from alchemy to probe the contrary characters of Brand and Peer Gynt: the former was as fixed and immutable as the philosopher’s stone, while the latter was as evanescent as the elixir (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Vol. IX: Uncollected Articles, ed. by John P. Frayne and Madeleine Marchaterre [Scribner: New York, 2004], pp. 252-54). Hill is not uninterested in the allure of both poetic-alchemic stances, at the distance of over three decades. His 1996 preface to Brand commends the poetic drama to the degree that it is ‘compounded of distaste, guilt, contempt, and frustration’, and with typical chariness the ‘compelling half-truth in Pound’s adage that “a great deal of literature is born of hate”’ (pp. viii-ix). In a poem from the late volume Odi Barbare that pays tribute to the the ‘Shagged ur-pragmatism of standup comics | Working rejection’, Hill salutes ‘Scorpion Ibsen, my reputed master, | Plied with sick fruit there to transplant its venom; | Each to his hobby’ (Broken Hierarchies, p. 877). The preface to Brand positions it as a work of ‘venting’, quoting a letter from Ibsen to Peter Hansen, 29 October 1870: 


While I was writing Brand I had standing on my desk an empty beer glass with a scorpion in it. From time to time the creature became sickly; then I used to throw a piece of soft fruit to it, which it would then furiously attack and empty its poison into; then it grew well again. Is there not something similar to that about us poets?

(p. ix)


Yet such saeva indignatio is ultimately of less importance to Hill than the technical aspects of rendering the play in English, a matter ultimately of recognising that Brand is ‘“uncompromising” yet compromised’, thus rejecting the Romantic-daemonic reading, as well as the converse option of treating it as a lofty tragic morality play. What remains, in Hill’s view, is ‘tragic farce’, the same term he seems to accept when Kenneth Haynes puts it to him that Yeats’s ‘heroic farce’ could situate Peer Gynt, replying: ‘a sense of sublime doggerel, I trust, informs the many scenes of farce’ (p. 344). There is more than a whiff of Hill’s personal investment in Peer Gynt’s anti-Sidnean association of poetry with ‘damned lies’ (in a scene which takes place in the vertiginous Rondane mountains, an indictment of the Romantic sublime). If Hill could imagine, as he does in late revisions to Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres, ‘Peer Gynt [skittering] sled- | drunk through my door, scattering the six cats | from their dishes of liver and cold cuts’ in order to be the poet’s ‘confidante’ (Broken Hierarchies, p. 165), there is nevertheless a limit to seeing this verse translation as a ‘personal’ reading of Ibsen’s original. The move away from Brand’s inflexibility in Hill’s poetry, stylistically speaking, an attraction in the later work to shape-shifting, loquaciousness and continual discovery of ‘Pastures new’ – what he calls in the poem ‘Nachwort’ ‘—Urge to unmake | all wrought finalities, become a babbler | in the crowd’s face’ (Broken Hierarchies, p. 601) – is ultimately subsidiary to those questions of poetic technique that animate and vex both ‘verse translations’. Peer Gynt is quite unlike Hill’s other verse: that is to say, I see nothing characteristically Hillian about it as such, and that is very much to his credit. What sort of life should this translation have, beyond text? Hill mentions in the interview that some critic suggested the play anticipated the medium of film. In Educating Rita, wasn’t the entirety of Julie Walters’s character’s response to an essay question about difficulties of staging the play, ‘Do it on the radio’?



Karl O’Hanlon recently completed his PhD in English at the University of York, on style and faith in Geoffrey Hill. His first poetry pamphlet, And Now They Range, is published by Guillemot Press. 



Image credit: Penguin

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