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Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

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In 1904, after an interval of short stories, letters of travel, and
poems, came the story entitled _Svoermere_. The word means "Moths." It
also stands for something else; something for which we English, as
a sensible people, have no word. Something pleasantly futile,
deliciously unprofitable--foolish lovers, hovering like moths about a

But there is more than this that is untranslatable in the title. _As_
a title it suggests an attitude of gentleness, tenderness, sympathy,
toward whomsoever it describes. It is a new note in Hamsun; the
opening of a new _motif_.

The main thread of the story bears a certain similarity to that of
_Mysterier_, _Vicioria_, and _Pan_, being a love affair of mazy
windings, a tangled skein of loves-me-loves-me-not. But it is pure
comedy throughout. Rolandsen, the telegraph operator in love with
Elsie Mack, is no poet; he has not even any pretensions to education
or social standing. He is a cheerful, riotous "blade," who sports
with the girls of the village, gets drunk at times, and serenades the
parson's wife at night with his guitar. _Svoermere_ is the slightest
of little stories in itself, but full of delightful vagaries and the
most winning humour.

The story of _Benoni_, with its continuation _Rosa_, is in like vein;
a tenderly humorous portrayal of love below stairs, the principal
characters being chosen from the class who appear as supers in _Pan_;
subjects or retainers of the all-powerful Trader Mack. It is as if
the sub-plots in one of Shakespeare's plays had been taken out for
separate presentment, and the clown promoted to be hero in a play of
his own. The cast is increased, the _milieu_ lightly drawn in _Pan_
is now shown more comprehensively and in detail, making us gradually
acquainted with a whole little community, a village world, knowing
little of any world beyond, and forming a microcosm in itself.

Hamsun has returned, as it were, to the scene of his passionate
youth, but in altered guise. He plays no part himself now, but is an
onlooker, a stander-by, chronicling, as from a cloistered aloofness,
yet with kindly wisdom always, the little things that matter in the
lives of those around him. Wisdom and kindliness, sympathy and humour
and understanding, these are the dominant notes of the new phase.
_Svoermere_ ends happily--for it is a story of other people's lives.
So also with Benoni and Rosa at the last. And so surely has the author
established his foothold on the new ground that he can even bring in
Edvarda, the "Iselin" figure from _Pan_, once more, thus linking up
his brave and lusty comedies of middle age with the romantic tragedies
of his youth, making a comprehensive pageant-play of large-hearted

Meantime, the effect upon himself is seen--and avowed. Between
_Svoermere_ and _Benoni_ comes the frankly first-personal narrative
of a vagabond who describes himself, upon interrogation, as "Knut
Pedersen"--which is two-thirds of Knut Pedersen Hamsund--and hailing
from Nordland--which embraces Lofoten.

It does not need any showing of paper, however, to establish the
identity of Knut Pedersen, vagabond, with the author of _Pan_. The
opening words of the book ("Under Hoeststjaernen") are enough. "Indian
summer, mild and warm ... it is many years now since I knew such
peace. Twenty or thirty years maybe--or maybe it was in another life.
But I have felt it some time, surely, since I go about now humming a
little tune; go about rejoicing, loving every straw and every stone,
and feeling as if they cared for me in return...."

This is the Hamsun of _Pan_. But Hamsun now is a greater soul than in
the days when Glahn, the solitary dweller in the woods, picked up a
broken twig from the ground and held it lovingly, because it looked
poor and forsaken; or thanked the hillock of stone outside his hut
because it stood there faithfully, as a friend that waited his return.
He is stronger now, but no less delicate; he loves not Nature less,
but the world more. He has learned to love his fellow-men.
Knut Pedersen, vagabond, wanders about the country with his
tramp-companions, Grindhusen, the painter who can ditch and delve at a
pinch, or Falkenberg, farm-labourer in harvest-time, and piano-tuner
where pianos are. Here is brave comradeship, the sharing of
adventures, the ready wit of jovial vagrants. The book is a harmless
picaresque, a _geste_ of innocent rogue-errantry; its place is with
_Lavengro_ and _The Cloister and the Hearth_, in that ancient, endless
order of tales which link up age with age and land with land in the
unaltering, unfrontiered fellowship of the road that kept the spirit
of poetry alive through the Dark Ages.

The vagabond from Nordland has his own adventures, his _bonnes
fortunes_. There is a touch of Sterne about the book; not
the exaggerated super-Sterne of Tristram Shandy, with
eighteenth-century-futurist blanks and marbled pages, but the fluent,
casual, follow-your-fancy Sterne of the _Sentimental Journey_. Yet
the vagabond himself is unobtrusive, ready to step back and be a
chronicler the moment other figures enter into constellation. He moves
among youth, himself no longer young, and among gentlefolk, as one
making no claim to equal rank.

Both these features are accentuated further in the story of the
Wanderer with the Mute. It is a continuation of _Under Hoeststjaernen_,
and forms the culmination, the acquiescent close, of the
self-expressional series that began with _Sult_. The discords of
tortured loveliness are now resolved into an ultimate harmony of
comely resignation and rich content. "A Wanderer may come to fifty
years; he plays more softly then. Plays with muted strings." This is
the keynote of the book. The Wanderer is no longer young; it is for
youth to make the stories old men tell. Tragedy is reserved for those
of high estate; a wanderer in corduroy, "such as labourers wear here
in the south," can tell the story of his chatelaine and her lovers
with the self-repression of a humbler Henry Esmond, winning nothing
for himself even at the last, yet feeling he is still in Nature's

Hamsun's next work is _Den Siste Gloede_ (literally "The Last Joy").
The title as it stands is expressive. The substantive is "joy"--but
it is so qualified by the preceding "last," a word of overwhelming
influence in any combination, that the total effect is one of sadness.
And the book itself is a masterly presentment of gloom. Masterly--or
most natural: it is often hard to say how much of Hamsun's effect is
due to superlative technique and how much to the inspired disregard of
all technique. _Den Siste Gloede_ is a diary of wearisome days, spent
for the most part among unattractive, insignificant people at a
holiday resort; the only "action" in it is an altogether pitiful love
affair, in which the narrator is involved to the slightest possible
degree. The writer is throughout despondent; he feels himself out of
the race; his day is past. Solitude and quiet, Nature, and his own
foolish feelings--these are the "last joys" left him now.

The book might have seemed a fitting, if pathetic, ending to the
literary career of the author of _Pan_. Certainly it holds out no
promise of further energy or interest in life or work. The closing
words amount to a personal farewell.

Then, without warning, Hamsun enters upon a new phase of power. _Boern
av Tilden_ (Children of the Age) is an objective study, its main theme
being the "marriage" conflict touched upon in the Wanderer
stories, and here developed in a different setting and with fuller
individuality. Hamsun has here moved up a step in the social scale,
from villagers of the Benoni type to the land-owning class. There is
the same conflict of temperaments that we have seen before, but less
violent now; the poet's late-won calm of mind, and the level
of culture from which his characters now are drawn--perhaps by
instinctive selection--make for restraint. Still a romantic at heart,
he becomes more classic in form.

_Boern av Tilden_ is also the story of Segelfoss, in its passing from
the tranquil dignity of a semi-feudal estate to the complex and
ruthless modernity of an industrial centre. _Segelfoss By_ (1915)
treats of the fortunes of the succeeding generation, and the further
development of Segelfoss into a township ("By").

Then, with _Growth of the Soil_, Hamsun achieves his greatest triumph.
Setting aside all that mattered most to himself, he turns, with the
experience of a lifetime rich in conflict, to the things that matter
to us all. Deliberately shorn of all that makes for mere effect, Isak
stands out as an elemental figure, the symbol of Man at his best,
face to face with Nature and life. There is no greater human
character--reverently said--in the Bible itself.

* * * * *

These, then, are the steps of Hamsun's progress as an author, from the
passionate chaos of _Sult_ to the Miltonic, monumental calm of _Growth
of the Soil_. The stages in themselves are full of beauty; the
wistfulness of _Pan_ and _Victoria_, the kindly humour of _Svoermere_
and _Benoni_, the autumn-tinted resignation of the Wanderer with the
Mute--they follow as the seasons do, each with a charm of its own,
yet all deriving from one source. His muse at first is Iselin, the
embodiment of adolescent longing, the dream of those "whom delight
flies because they give her chase." The hopelessness of his own
pursuit fills him with pity for mortals under the same spell, and he
steps aside to be a brave, encouraging chorus, or a kindly chronicler
of others' lives. And his reward is the love of a greater divinity,
the goddess of field and homestead. No will-o'-the-wisp, but a
presence of wisdom and calm.


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