Study Guide

A Mölna Elegy

by Gunnar Ekelöf

A Mölna Elegy Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1946, Gunnar Ekelöf wrote that his A Mölna Elegy has as its theme the relativity of time and experiences in the flow of time. The poet attempts to capture one such moment, a cross-section of time, as it were, in which experiences and re-experiences combine, both remaining separate occasions and becoming a unified instant. In the A Mölna Elegy, Ekelöf also questions the idea of identity. The poem’s first-person narrator represents a variety of personalities who focus on the lack of constancy in life and on the overwhelming transitory nature of existence. These themes, fragmented in the poem’s complex structure, imbue the elegy with a tone of uncertainty and mystery. In that tone and in the disjointed structure, the work clearly echoes the style of American, English, and French surrealists and modernist poets of the early twentieth century. Particularly strong influences were T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem Ekelöf translated into Swedish.

For English readers, the complexity of A Mölna Elegy is partly due to Ekelöf’s use of Swedish settings and history as well as to the poem’s dense content and form. The poem functions on a number of levels, for it is a web of allusions, symbols, and points-of-view of many voices inside one character’s mind. It is not, however, obvious or necessarily important to know, for example, that the elegy is set at the beginning of World War II, as this information provides no insight into the poem’s meaning.

It is important to know A Mölna Elegy takes place in a yellow autumn on a jetty on the Mölna river near Stockholm, Sweden. The setting includes descriptions of old buildings on Lidingo Island, symbolizing the nature of the past, which is alive only in memory. Through the many Roman and Greek classical allusions, the scope of the setting broadens to include the Mediterranean region, reflecting the places Ekelöf visited in his lifelong travels and his interest in classical mythology. The poem begins and ends speaking to a wanderer, the spokesman first saying “Hail” to him and finally “farewell.” These lines echo phrases from Roman gravestones. Other allusions refer to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), the Bible, Swedish history, and images borrowed from Ekelöf’s favorite writers.

A reader need not be aware of each of these allusions to gain an understanding of the poem; however, some attention to the elegy’s difficult structure is required to understand the interconnected themes and subjects throughout the poem’s sections and subsections. The poem’s structure includes monologues, imagined dialogues, marginal headings, parenthetical asides and stage directions, illustrations, and a graphic layout. Meter and phrasing alternately flow and fragment in stream-of-consciousness images, creating a dense and complex interior monologue that comments on the past, present, and imagined future.

The poem opens with the poet sitting on a “bench of the...

(The entire section is 1262 words.)

A Mölna Elegy Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ekelöf, Gunnar. Skrifter. Edited and compiled by Reidar Ekner. Vol. 8. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1993. The complete Swedish edition of Ekelöf’s works contains A Mölna Elegy with the original illustrations.

Shideler, Ross. “Gunnar Ekelöf.” In Multicultural Writers Since 1945: An A-to-Z Guide, edited by Alba Amoia and Bettina L. Knapp. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. A brief critical essay, containing a biography of Ekelöf, a discussion of the themes of his work, and a survey of criticism. Includes bibliographies of primary and secondary sources.

Sjoberg, Leif. “The Attempted Reconstruction of a Moment.” In A Mölna Elegy: Metamorphoses, translated by Muriel Rukeyser and Leif Sjoberg. Greensboro, N.C.: Unicorn Press, 1984. The introduction to the first English translation of A Mölna Elegy provides a detailed interpretation of the poem and of specific allusions, sources, and possible meanings in the imagery. Includes comments by Ekelöf and a bibliography.

_______. A Reader’s Guide to Gunnar Ekelöf’s “A Mölna Elegy.” New York: Twayne, 1973. A book-length overview of the poem, its sources, and the biographical and historical contexts that helped shape it. Sjoberg analyzes the poem section by section and discusses the critical reception to the 1960 edition.

Thygesen, Erik. Gunnar Ekelöf’s Open-Form Poem “A Mölna Elegy”: Problems in Genesis, Structure, and Influence. Uppsala, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1985. Based on the author’s dissertation, the study compares A Mölna Elegy with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and explores Eliot’s influence on the Swedish poet. Describes Ekelöf’s poem as a “quotation-mosaic” and refutes critics who find the poem a chaotic, structureless reflection of Ekelöf’s contradictory notions of art.

Warme, Lars G., ed. A History of Swedish Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. Two chapters, “Turning the Tide for Modernism” and “The Modernist Breakthrough,” contain most of this book’s information about Ekelöf, and other references to his work are listed in the index.