Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt and Brand Verse Translations, by Geoffrey Hill (Penguin Classics, 2016)
This was Hill’s last book. His copies, I’m told, arrived on the day of his death. It lays important old material alongside important new material. It’s therefore tempting to see in this work a testamentary signature, a cap on the whole corpus of his poetry. This review will not strenuously resist such temptation.
Here presented are Hill’s versions – versions not translations, as Penguin’s cover incorrectly asserts – of Ibsen’s verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt. Hill, who had no Norwegian, worked from literal translations, and copious notes, respectively provided to him by Inga-Stina Ewbank and Janet Garton. His Brand was first performed in 1978; his Peer Gynt is new. And it’s this chronology, the appearance of Hill’s Ibsen (1978 and 2016) rather than Ibsen’s Ibsen (1866 and 1867), that underpins this edition. Ibsen, as Janet Garton notes in her excellent introduction, conceived his eponymous protagonists as forming a spiritual dyptich: Brand, the unwavering prophet, the scourge, with an agonised surplus of integrity, paired with the picaro Peer, gab-mouthed chancer and commitmentphobe. But to Hill these characters, and the divergent formal treatment of their stories, are aesthetic emblems: his versions represent two distinct periods of his own poetic development; and ‘early’ and ‘late’ are the terms of distinction.
What do we mean by ‘early’ and ‘late’ Hill? Anyone who reads Tenebrae (1978) followed by Speech! Speech! (2000) will get the general idea. But we ...
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