‘Mountain Life by Henrik Johan Ibsen is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of nine lines. These lines follow a structured rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ababcdccd. Ibsen has also chosen to imbue this piece with a metrical pattern. The first, third, fifth, and eighth lines are written in iambic tetrameter, this means that each line contains four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. The remaining lines are in iambic trimeter. They contain three sets of two beats. A reader should take note of the way that the lines in trimeter or tetrameter are also connected by the rhyme.
One of the most important themes of this piece is the importance of living a good life and facing death satisfied with that life. By the time Ibsen got to the last stanza of the poem he had turned his speaker’s descriptions towards a metaphor relating death to a coming snowstorm. Winter, for the people of the described mountain paradise, is like death. It takes over everything, blocks out their sun and forces them to the hard winter tasks. The speaker makes sure to state that the residents of the mountain are not depressed by this turn of events. They know their days of light and warmth more than make up for the winter ones.
Summary of Mountain Life
‘Mountain Life’ by Henrik Ibsen describes a mountain paradise that is separate from contact with the outside world and place host to isolated, peace-loving farmers.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the area surrounding the mountain. From these of the clff one can look out and see nothing but a sea of clouds. They are so elevated that the sea has been replaced by the white, flowing masses. They move like waves and press up against the side of the mountain. These clouds also keep the mountain and those who live on it, out of the sight of outsiders. No one else knows about this place.
In the next stanza the speaker compares the archipelago of islands the mountain is a part of to Heaven. It points westward as if confronting God and asking if he could do any better than this. The speaker cannot imagine that heaven is any better than this land “crowned with golden light.” The narrative moves inward in the third stanza. Here he takes a look at the homesteads on the island and how the residents do not interact. Partially this is due to the fact that there are natural barriers between neighbours. On the other, the people do not feel a need to speak to one another. They are content with their homes and the beauty they see everyday.
The speaker moves closer still, taking a look at a dairymaid who is contemplating the day. She seems to represent the source of light that is inherently a part of the mountain. She looks around her with a “deep…gaze and then hears the chiming of the “cow-bells “ and the blowing of “alp-horns” and knows she must move on.
In the final stanza the speaker begins a metaphor that relates the winter season on the mountain to inevitable death. Both are coming for these people and no matter what they do they will never have enough time in this paradise. Rather than chaining the mood of the poem from optimistic to foreboding the speaker describes the strength of the mountain residents. They face death head on and know that one good sunset is worth the darkest days of winter.
Analysis of Mountain Life
In summer dusk the valley lies
With far-flung shadow veil;
A cloud-sea laps the precipice
Before the evening gale:
The welter of the cloud-waves grey
Cuts off from keenest sight
The glacier, looking out by day
O’er all the district, far away,
And crowned with golden light.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by giving an initial description of what mountain life is like. The descriptions in the poem build upon one another until a vibrant and intensely real image of mountain living is formed. First, he describes a valley seen under the setting summer sun. It is dusk and there is a large shadow being cast over the valley. Everything seems to be under a veil.
Farther out from the valley there is the sea. This is not a traditional sea as the speaker is reference the clouds. There are many of them and they are so vast that they obscure one’s line of sight out from the shore. The clouds are described as hitting the “precipice” just as water would. This is a reference to the edge of the land, on top of which an unknown subject lives.
From these initial descriptions it is already clear that the land the speaker is recalling, or perhaps imagining, is beautiful. Lucky for those living on the mountain the “cloud-sea” serves an important purpose. It keeps them from seeing anything other than their own land but also obscures their home from prying eyes. Even those with the “keenest sight” cannot see the “glacier.” The speaker sees this place as being very important. He gives it an otherworldly quality by stating that it is “crowned with golden light.” It seems to be a heaven away from the real world.
But o’er the smouldering cloud-wrack’s flow,
Where gold and amber kiss,
Stands up the archipelago,
A home of shining peace.
The mountain eagle seems to sail
A ship far seen at even;
And over all a serried pale
Of peaks, like giants ranked in mail,
Fronts westward threatening heaven.
The speaker moves away from the “cloud-sea” in the second stanza and focuses on the land. If one was able to see past the obscuring clouds they would notice a land that is blessed with “gold and amber kiss.” It’s included in an archipelago or chain of islands. There is nothing but “shining peace there.” So far, the speaker is describing a paradise.
The only life that has yet to be noted is that of the “mountain eagle.” Its home is around the coast line and it flies out over the waters. Here it appears like a “ship far seen at even,” or in the evening. This is the third time the speaker has noted that it is evening on the mountainside. This is clearly important to him and the atmosphere of the environment.
In the last three lines of this section he describes the “peaks” in the distance. This is a reference to the mountains that are connected to the archipelago. They are arranged in a “serried pale” or a line that points straight toward “heaven.” There are two references here to heaven, first: the word itself. The speaker is challenging one’s notion of heaven, stating that this place is as much of a paradise as anything God could create. Second, he mentions the fact that the mountains are pointing “westward.” This is the traditional direction of the afterlife due to the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
But look, a steading nestles, close
Beneath the ice-fields bound,
Where purple cliffs and glittering snows
The quiet home surround.
Here place and people seem to be
A world apart, alone; —
Cut off from men by spate and scree
It has a heaven more broad, more free,
A sunshine all its own.
On the land itself there are small groupings of people which do not interact with one another. This is not due to any ill will but the simple fact that they are divided from one another and instead surrounded by the “ice-fields” and “purple cliffs and glittering snows.” The natural world is what is important in this land. There is no need for community when nature is itself so vibrant and present.
The speaker draws the reader’s attention to the “steading nestles” or the small farms and homesteads. They are isolated, but not unhapily. He specifically states that “Here” everyone is “A world apart.” They are “alone” a fact which is increase by the natural barrier around them. There is “spate and scree,” or large, overflowing rivers and piles of rocks on a mountainside. These elements increase the population’s isolation.
After going through these elements of the land one might be tempted to see it as a negative. That is not the case here. The world these few people live in is a “heaven more broad, more free” than any one could imagine. It is so pure and good here that the land has its own “sunshine.” A light emanates from the mountain. This is a reference to the concluding line of the first stanza.
Look: mute the saeter-maiden stays,
Half shadow, half aflame;
The deep, still vision of her gaze
Was never word to name.
She names it not herself, nor knows
What goal may be its will;
While cow-bells chime and alp-horn blows
It bears her where the sunset glows,
Or, maybe, further still.
The fourth stanza attempts to give form to the light that resides on and within the land. The speaker states that it is in the shape of a “saeter-maiden.” This dairy maid is a representative of the light that is an integral part of the land. Just like the mountain itself she is “Half shadow” and “half aflame.” The speaker is so taken by the image of her that he is unable to conceive of a word to describe her “gaze.”
The “saeter-maiden” does not speak. She simply contemplates what the world is going to be and what will become of the land. All around her there are the sounds of “cow-bells” chiming and “al-horns” blowing. These are signals that mean something to her and encourage her “further still.” Life is run by the light of the mountain and the daily needs of the individual homesteads.
Too brief, thy life on highland wolds
Where close the glaciers jut;
Too soon the snowstorm’s cloak enfolds
Stone byre and pine-log hut.
Then wilt thou ply with hearth ablaze
The winter’s well-worn tasks; —
But spin thy wool with cheerful face:
One sunset in the mountain pays
For all their winter asks.
In the final stanza the speaker steps back from this close analysis he has done of the land and what it means. Instead he focuses on the temporary nature of life. He states that “thy life on highland wolds,” or a high piece of land (sometimes a moor) is “Too brief.” One does not get to spend enough time “close” to where “the glaciers jut,” or protrude.
As is fitting for a poem about the wonders of the natural world, the speaker relates death to the “cloak” of a “snowstorm.” It comes for the listener and “enfolds” their well-built and well-loved home. In the next lines the speaker draws back from his darkening metaphor. The world he has described is not a depressing one and he does not mean to cast the land into darkness. Although the death or winter is coming that does not mean one becomes lost and separated from their tasks. He directs the next words to the listener and states that this person ill spend the coming winter months spinning “wool with cheerful face.” Life goes on, even in the face of a season’s change or death.
The final lines sum up the general optimistic mood of the poem well. The speaker states that one “sunset” seen from the mountain is enough to make up for all the dark nights and hard tasks of winter. If one continues the metaphor forward, he is stating that if one is able to experience true beauty and happiness in life then death does not mean as much.