A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun


A wanderer plays with muted strings when he comes to fifty years. Then he plays with muted strings.

Or I might put it in this way.

If he comes too late for the harvest of berries in autumn, why, he is come too late, that is all; and if one fine day he finds he can no longer be gay and laugh all over his face in delight of life, ’tis because he is old, no doubt; blame him not for that! And there can be no doubt that it requires a certain vacuity of mind to go about feeling permanently contented with oneself and all else. But we have all our softer moments. A prisoner is being driven to the scaffold in a cart. A nail in the seat irks him; he shifts aside a little, and feels more at ease.

A Captain should not pray that God may forgive him — as he forgives his God. It is simply theatrical. A wanderer who cannot reckon every day on food and drink, clothes and boots, and house and home, feels just the right degree of privation when all these luxuries are lacking. If you cannot manage one way, why, there will be another. But if the other way should also fail, then one does not forgive one’s God, but takes up the responsibility oneself. Shoulder against what comes — that is, bow to it. A trifle hard for flesh and blood, and it greys a man’s hair sadly. But a wanderer thanks God for life; it was good to live!

I might put it that way.

For why these high demands on life? What have we earned? All the boxes of sweetmeats a sweet-tooth could wish for? Well and good. But have we not had the world to look upon each day, and the soughing of the woods to hear? There is nothing so grand in all the world as that voice of the woods.

There was a scent of jasmine in a shrubbery, and one I know thrilled with joy, not for the jasmine’s scent but for all there was — for the light in a window, a memory, the whole of life. He was called away from the jasmines after, but he had been paid beforehand for that little mishap.

And so it is; the mere grace that we are given life at all is generous payment in advance for all the miseries of life — for every one of them.

No, do not think we have the right to more sweetmeats than we get. A wanderer’s advice: no superstition. What is life’s? All. But what is yours? Is fame? Oh, tell us why! A man should not so insist on what is “his.” It is comical; a wanderer laughs at any one who can be so comical. I remember one who could not give up that “his.” He started to lay a fire in his stove at noon, and by evening he got it to burn at last. He couldn’t leave the comfortable warmth to go to bed, but sat there till other people got up, lest it should be wasted. A Norwegian writer of stage plays, it was.

I have wandered about a good deal in my time, and am grown foolish now, and out of bloom. But I do not hold the perverse belief of old men generally, that I am wiser than I was. And I hope I may never grow wise; ’tis a sign of decrepitude. If I thank God for life, it is not by virtue of any riper wisdom that has come to me with age, but because I have always taken a pleasure in life. Age gives no riper wisdom; age gives nothing but age.

I was too late for the berries this year, but I am going up that way all the same. I am allowing myself this little treat, by way of reward for having worked well this summer. And I reach my goal on the 12th of December.

It is true, no doubt, that I might have stayed down among the villages. I could have managed somehow, no doubt, as did all the others who had found it time to settle down. And Lars Falkenberg, my colleague and mate, he had urged me to take up a holding with keep for a wife and two cows and a pig. A friend’s advice; vox populi. And then, why, one of the cows might be an ox to ride, a means of transport for my shivering age! But it came to naught — it came to naught! My wisdom has not come with age; here am I going up to Trovatn and the waste lands to live in a wooden hut!

What pleasure can there be in that? Ai, Lars Falkenberg, and ai, every one else, have no fear; I have a man to come up with things I need.

So I drift about and about by myself, looking after myself, living alone. I miss that seal of Bishop Pavel’s. One of his descendants gave it to me, and I had it in my waistcoat pocket this summer, but, looking for it now, I find I have lost it. Well, well; but, anyhow, I have been paid in advance for that mishap, in having owned it once.

But I do not feel the want of books to read.

The 12th of December — I can keep a date in mind and carelessly forget things more important. It is only just now I remember about the books — that Captain Falkenberg and his wife had many books in their house — novels and plays — a whole bookcase full. I saw it one day when I was painting windows and doors at Øvrebø. Entire sets of authors they had, and authors’ complete works — thirty books. Why the complete works? I do not know. Books — one, two, three, ten, thirty. They had come out each Christmas — novels, thirty volumes — the same novel. They read them, no doubt, the Captain and his wife; knew every time what they should find in the poets of the home; there was always such a lot about all coming right in the end. So they read them, no doubt. How should I know? Heavens, what a host of books! Two men could not shift the bookcase when I wanted to paint behind; it took three men and a cook to move it. One of the men was Grindhusen; he flushed under the weight of those poets of the home, and said: “I can’t see what folk want with such a mighty crowd of books!”

Grindhusen! As if he knew anything about it! The Captain and his wife had all those books, no doubt, that none should be lacking; there they were all complete. It would make a gap to take away a single one; they were paired each with the rest, uniform poetry, the same story throughout.

An elk-hunter has been up here with me in the hut. Nothing much; and his dog was an ill-tempered brute. I was glad when he went on again. He took down my copper saucepan from the wall, and used it for his cooking, and left it black with soot.

It is not my copper saucepan, but was here in the hut, left by some one who was here before. I only rubbed it with ashes and hung it up on the wall as a weather-guide for myself. I am rubbing it up again now, for it is a good thing to have; it turns dim unfailingly when there is rain or snow coming on.

If Ragnhild had been here, now, she would have polished up that saucepan herself. But then, again, I tell myself, I would rather see to my own weather-guides; Ragnhild can find something else to do. And if this place up in the woods were our clearing, then she would have the children, and the cows, and the pig. But my copper things I prefer to do myself, Ragnhild.

I remember a lady, the mistress of a house: she did no work at all, and saw to nothing, least of all to herself. And ill she fared in the end. But six or seven years back I had never believed any one could be so delicate and lovely to another as she. I drove her once, upon a journey, and she was shy with me, although she was a lady, and above me. She blushed and looked down. And the strange thing was that she made me feel a kind of shyness myself, although I was only her servant. Only by looking at me with her two eyes when she spoke to me, she showed me treasures and beauty beyond what I knew before; I remember it still. Ay, here I sit, remembering it yet, and I shake my head and say to myself how strange it was — how strange! And then she died. And what more? Nothing more. I am still here, but she is gone. But I should not grieve at her death. I had been paid beforehand, surely, for that loss, in that she looked at me with her two eyes — a thing beyond my deserts. Ay, so it must be.

Woman — what do the sages know of woman?

I know a sage, and he wrote of woman. Wrote of woman in thirty volumes of uniform theatre-poetry: I counted the volumes once in a big bookcase. And at last he wrote of the woman who left her own children to go in search of — the wonderful! But what, then, were the children? Oh, it was comical: a wanderer laughs at anything so comical.

What does the sage know of woman?

To begin with, he was not a sage at all till he grew old, and all he knew of woman then was from memory. But then, again, he can have no memory of her, seeing he never knew her. The man who has an aptitude for wisdom busies himself jealously with his little aptitude and nothing else; cultivates and cherishes it; holds it forth and lives for it.

We do not turn to woman for wisdom. The four wisest heads in the world, who have delivered their findings on the subject of woman, simply sat and invented her out of their own heads — octogenarians young or old they were, that rode on oxen. They knew nothing of woman in holiness, woman in sweetness, woman as an indispensable, but they wrote and wrote about her. Think of it! Without finding her.

Heaven save me from growing wise! And I will mumble the same to my last turn: Heaven save me from growing wise!

Just cold enough now for a little outing I have had in mind: the snow-peaks lie rosy in the sun, and my copper saucepan points to fair. It is eight in the morning.

Knapsack and a good stock of food, an extra lashing in my pocket in case anything should break, and a note on the table for the man with supplies in case he should come up while I am away.

Oh, but I have been showing off nicely all to myself: pretending I was going far, and needed to equip myself with care, had occasion for all my presence of mind and endurance. A man can show off like that when he is going far; but I am not. I have no errand anywhere, and nothing calls me; I am only a wanderer setting forth from a hut, and coming back to it again; it does not matter where I am.

It is quiet and empty in the woods; all things deep in snow, holding their breath as I come. At noon, looking back from a hill, I can see Trovatn far behind; white and flat it lies, a stretch of chalk, a desert of snow. After a meal I go on again, higher and higher, nearing the fjeld now, but slowly and thoughtfully, with hands in my pockets. There is no hurry; I have only to find a shelter for the night.

Later on in the afternoon I sit down again to eat, as if I needed a meal and had earned it. But it is only for something to do; my hands are idle, and my brain inclined to fancies. It gets dark early: well to find a sheltered cleft in the hillside here; there are fallen firs enough lying about for a fire.

Such are the things I tell of now, playing with muted strings.

I was out early next morning, as soon as it began to get light. A quiet, warm snowfall came on, and there was a soughing in the air. Bad weather coming, I thought to myself; but who could have foreseen it? Neither I nor my weather-guide looked for it twenty-four hours ago.

I left my shelter and went on again over moor and heath; full day again now, and snowing. It was not the best of shelters I had found for the night: passably soft and dry, with branches of fir to lie on, and I had not felt the cold, but the smoke from my fire drifted in over me and troubled my breathing.

But now, this afternoon, I found a better place — a spacious and elegant cave with walls and roof complete. Room here for me and my fire, and the smoke went up. I nodded at this, and decided to settle down here, though it was early yet, and still quite light; I could distinctly make out the hills and valleys and rocks on a naked fjeld straight ahead some few hours’ march away. But I nodded, as if I had reached my goal, and set to work gathering firewood and bedding for the night.

I felt so thoroughly at home here. It was not for nothing I nodded and took off my knapsack. “Was this the place you were making for?” I say, talking to myself in jest. “Yes,” I answer.

The soughing in the air grew stronger; it was not snow that was falling now, but rain. Strange — a great wet rainfall down over the cave, over all the trees outside, and yet it was the cold Christmas month — December. A heat-wave had taken it into its head to visit us.

It rained and rained that night, and there was a soughing all through the trees outside. It was like spring; it filled my sleep at last with so rich an ease, that I slept on sound and deep till it was broad day.

Ten o’clock.

The rain had ceased, but it is still warm. I sit looking out of the cave, and listening to the bend and whisper of the trees. Then a stone breaks loose on the fjeld opposite; it butts against a rock and brings that down as well; a few faint thuds are heard. Then a rumble: I see what is happening, and the sound echoes within me; the rock loosened other rocks, an avalanche goes thundering down the mountain-side, snow and earth and boulders, leaving a smoky cloud in its wake. The stream of rubble seems in a living rage; it thrusts its way on, tearing down other masses with it — crowding, pouring, pouring, fills up a chasm in the valley — and stops. The last few boulders settle slowly into place, and then no more. The thunder over, there is silence, and within myself is only a breathing as of a slowly descending bass.

And so I sit once more, listening to the soughing of the woods. Is it the heaving of the AEgean sea, or is it the ocean current Glimma? I grow weak from just listening. Recollections of my past life rise within me, joys by the thousand, music and eyes, flowers. There is nothing more glorious than the soughing of the woods. It is like swinging, rocking — a madness: Uganda, Antananarivo, Honolulu, Atacama, Venezuela.

But it is all the years, no doubt, that make me so weak, and my nerves that join in the sounds I hear. I get up and stand by the fire to get over it; now I think of it, I feel I could talk to the fire a little, make a speech to the dying fire. I am in a fire-proof house here, and the acoustic conditions are good. H’m!

Then the cave is darkened; it is the elk-hunter again with his dog.

It begins to freeze as I trudge along homeward to my hut. The frost soon hardens the ground, moor and heath, making it easy walking. I trudge along slowly and carelessly, hands in my pockets. There is no hurry now; it matters little where I am.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55