Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A first reading of this poem about the other world inhabited by the isolated poet might tempt the reader to see it as a restatement of the Nature-Art dichotomy, a traditional theme that is perhaps best known to readers of modern poetry in “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) by William Butler Yeats. But Ekelöf is not seeking to replace mutability with the permanence of art. Indeed, he appears to reject the idea that one can sail away by airship to a world that might be filled with “monuments of unageing intellect.” He is isolated, not because he is old or because he is a poet, but because isolation is the human condition. What he is saying in this poem is that though he is daily in close, but superficial, contact with other people, he is really totally isolated, deeply confined within his own self. Quite satisfied with his shallow relations with other people, the addressee fails to realize that he has no real self. What Ekelöf says to his reader in “Tag och skriv” (“Open it, Write”) applies equally to the friend in “If You Ask Me”:

In reality you are no one.Your suit; a place, a name—all else is merely your wish,your ‘I’ a wish, your lostness one, your savedness another:you have taken it all out in advance!

In “If You Ask Me,” breathing (or...

(The entire section is 598 words.)