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...
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