In addition to fifteen original volumes of poetry published before his death in 1968, Gunnar Ekelöf wrote four books of essays: Promenader (1941; walks), Utflykter (1947; excursions), Blandade kort (1957; a mixed deck), and Lägga patience (1969; playing solitaire). He also published four books of translations, mostly poetry, from French, German, English, Latin, and Persian: Fransk surrealism (1933; French Surrealism), Hundra år modern fransk dikt (1934; one hundred years of modern French poetry), Valfrändskaper (1960; chosen kinships), and Glödande gåtor (1966; a translation of Nelly Sachs’s Glühende Rätsel). Since his death, there have appeared two books containing letters, the poet’s annotations to some of his own works, and various other materials drawn from Ekelöf’s notebooks and manuscripts: En självbiografi (1971; an autobiography), selected, edited, and with an introduction by the poet’s wife and literary executor, Ingrid Ekelöf, and En röst (1973; a voice).
Gunnar Ekelöf is widely recognized as the most original and influential Swedish poet of his generation. His reputation was well established in Scandinavia during his lifetime. Sweden honored him with many national literary prizes; the Danish Academy awarded him its Grand Prize for Poetry in 1964; and in 1966, the Scandinavian Council gave Ekelöf its prize for Dīwān över fursten av Emgión (1965; Diwan over the prince of Emgión). Although Ekelöf never completed his formal education, he was honored by academia. The University of Uppsala gave him an honorary degree in 1958, and in the same year, he was elected a member of the Swedish Academy. His contributions to Swedish literature were recognized: He expressed the voice of modernism and brought a new lyric tone to Swedish poetry. The concerns of Ekelöf’s major poems are metaphysical and complex; to make them understood, Ekelöf continually tried to simplify poetic language. He pared away nonessentials—what he called “literary language”—until the tone of his poems became almost conversational. It is not, however, a casual voice that one encounters in the poems; it addresses the reader directly, intensely, passionately. Scandinavians recognize this voice as belonging to a major poet, and many scholars believe that if Ekelöf had written in a language such as English, he would be regarded as a key international figure in the development of contemporary poetry.
In 1934, the same year in which Ekelöf published Dedikation, he published a book of translations, Hundra år modern fransk dikt. The year before, in 1933, his translations of French Surrealist poems had been published in Fransk surrealism. Living in Paris in the late 1920’s, Ekelöf was bound to feel the impulses of the various “isms” of the period, and many poems in his early volumes could be termed Surrealist. Ekelöf was attracted to the French Surrealists, particularly Robert Desnos, but ultimately found their methods contrived, artificial, and mechanical. On the title page of Dedikation, Ekelöf quotes a poet to whom he was more fundamentally drawn, Arthur Rimbaud: “I say: one must be a seer, one must make oneself a seer.” In Sent på jorden, Ekelöf asked for “dreams to live,” and Rimbaud offered a vision to synthesize life and dreams. Nevertheless, the “apotheosis” that Ekelöf sought in Dedikation failed; the glorified dream world of this volume later struck Ekelöf as false, and he rejected it. As Rabbe Enckell has pointed out, the romanticized images and prophetic voice in the volume seem an overcompensation for the desperate tone in Sent på jorden.
In Sorgen och stjärnan (sorrow and the star), the crucial problem remains the same: “One thing I’ve learned: reality kills! And something else: That no reality exists except this—that none exists!” In Köp den blindes säng (buy the blind one’s song), the tone becomes calmer, though the perception is the same. The poet can, however, accept his condition, because it becomes a prerequisite for meaning. Ekelöf himself called Köp den blindes säng a transitional book; what he referred to as “the breakthrough” came with Färjesång (ferry song).
The persona in Färjesång overcomes his desperation, assumes the role of the phoenix, and rises out of his ashes of anguish ready to “write it down.” The tone is confident, at times assertive, and even lecturing: “In reality you are no one.” The poet—who has experienced true vision—unmasks his readers and exposes the feeble self-deceptions they have invented to give significance and purpose to their lives. “Legal rights, human dignity, free will/ all of these are pictures painted with fear in reality’s empty hall.” Ekelöf asserts a new understanding of reality “beyond justice and injustice, beyond thesis and antithesis,” a reality beyond individual personalities and perspectives. Exposing...
Critics agree that Ekelöf’s poetry of the 1940’s assured him a place as one of Sweden’s greatest lyric poets. The concerns of the poetry are abstract, metaphysical, speculative. Most of the key poems of this period are longer lyrics, varying in tone from the explosiveness of Färjesång to the romantic, elegiac tone of Om hösten. The poems of the 1950’s move in a different direction. Ekelöf simplified his style in an attempt to write depersonalized poetry, and the poems of this decade are generally short, simple lyrics about familiar objects and situations, pruned of all literary baggage to achieve what Ekelöf called “poetry of the factual,” or antipoetry. The collections published in the 1950’s also reveal a joking, absurd side of Ekelöf’s vision. In contrast to the speculative, metaphysical poems of earlier volumes, many of these poems focus on the body: sexuality, eroticism, obscenity. If Ekelöf’s anti-poetry functions to balance the body-soul relationship by emphasizing feeling and existence here and now, as Pär Hellström’s study of these volumes suggests, Ekelöf as seeker still permeates these collections. He continues as a solitary figure, affirming that “I do best alone at night,” for then he can listen “to the talk of the eternal wanderers.” Eternal wanderers, however, live an existence different from that of ordinary mortals, and many of these poems express a longing for death in the poet’s desire to identify with and become a part of timeless existence. The poet’s “self-reflecting waters” do not speak “of life but of Lethe’s wave”; rebirth is to be found “in the swaddling cloth of death.” This fascination with death, however, culminates in a turn toward life-giving uses of the past and tradition. Unable to exist in the isolation of his own ego, unable to accept the social alienation of his contemporary Sweden, Ekelöf turns to “ancient cities” to find his own “future.” Thus, the publication of his next volume, A Mölna Elegy, marked a transition to the concerns that inform the trilogy which concluded his career.
A Mölna Elegy
In his introductory notes to A Mölna Elegy, Ekelöf stated that the poem is concerned with “the relativity of the experience of time”; he hoped, he said, to capture a “traverse section of time, instead of a section lengthwise.” In his attempt to analyze “the mood of a certain moment,” Ekelöf revealed the complexity of consciousness. The life moment in A Mölna Elegy is a moment of mystical insight, with “time running wild” in the consciousness of the persona. The “I” comprises many personalities and undergoes many transformations as the present, past, and future are experienced as independent layers of consciousness. The life of the past—in the memory of the persona’s relatives, for example—exists in the present, in the persona’s consciousness, as well as in the lives of the dead. Any given moment, then, comprises images from a number of centuries and from various cultures and beliefs—from the past as well as the present. Demarcations of time and space are dissolved, borders between life and death eliminated. All existence is a unity: The reality “beyond” is all of it at once.
“I am of the opinion,” Ekelöf once wrote, “that man carries humanity within himself, not only his father’s and mother’s inheritance but also his cousin’s, his second cousins’, and further, the animals’, plants’, and stones’ inheritance.” As Leif Sjöberg has so convincingly documented, the many “inheritances” which constitute the moment expressed in A Mölna Elegy are held together by the “I” of the...