The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión, The Tale of Fatumeh, and Guide to the Underworld, referred to as the Diwan Trilogy, are centered on Byzantine and Middle Eastern themes, reflecting Gunnar Ekelöf’s lifelong interest in Asian cultures and languages. “Diwan” or, more commonly in English, “divan,” is the Arabic-Persian term for a poetic sequence or collection of single authorship, such as the fourteenth century Divan of Hafiz, which, like the “Diwan Trilogy,” links the language of earthly and spiritual love.

The three sections of the trilogy are connected more by their ethos or personal philosophy than by any common narrative. In each of the three component parts, Ekelöf uses different narrative materials to create a personal mythology. In The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión and The Tale of Fatumeh, the element of “story” or narrative is more pronounced than in Guide to the Underworld. Both of the earlier works deal with close relationships: in the former, between the prince and a mystic madonna-goddess figure, as well as an unnamed woman who serves as his guide and companion upon his release from prison; in the latter, between the prostitute Fatumeh and her lover. Although Guide to the Underworld explores the relationship between the Devil and a young novice, it incorporates a far greater range of spokespersons and mythologies than either of the earlier sequences.

The Prince of Emgión, who revealed himself to Ekelöf in a seance as his spiritual double, serves as the poetic persona or “I” narrator throughout most of the sequence. The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión may be separated into several major movements: the preface, comprising the opening epigraph and the first lyric; the invocation and songs of praise to the madonna-goddess in the next fifteen poems; the following group of twenty-one lyrics, which intersperse the story of the prince’s torture, blinding, and imprisonment with addresses to the divine lady and to Digenís, a soulmate and fellow prisoner of bygone days; and the concluding fifteen lyrics, which detail the prince’s journey homeward with a female guide and include further praises sung to the madonna-goddess.

The opening epigraph from the Tarjúman el-Ashwáq, a work of the mystic Sufi tradition in classical Persian and Arabic poetry, presents the major aim of the spokesperson in The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión: “The word ‘Her’ is my aim,” it states; and in “Her” name, any bartering will be with “give” and “take.” To the mutilated, blinded Emgión in his dungeon, “Her” figure is indeed a focus that takes him out of his suffering and gives him the strength to rise above physical reality. The prefatory poem further states the poetic persona’s aim or quest. A dream vision poses “the question of [his] life”: “Did I prefer the part to the whole/ Or the whole to the part[?]” Uncompromisingly, the prince replies that he wants both and, moreover, that between fragment and totality there should be “no contradiction.”

In the madonna-goddess, the prisoner finds his symbol of totality, transcendence, and survival. The opening set of lyrics addresses the prisoner’s ideal in the language of erotic and spiritual love. Although the lady presides, at least metaphorically, over the night sky, the need or “oar” that propels him toward her comes “from deep within myself.” She is an “invisible but present” force who, in spite of her nurturing actions, as when in a dream vision she wraps the speaker in a white garment and allows him to kiss her breasts, is yet aloof and unattainable. No material gifts come from her: Her true gift is that of “Distance,” given only to those “who are strong in love.” Her main effect is that of transporting the prisoner from misery to the experience of love and beauty. As the final poem of the first movement states, “beauty is a weapon/ Which fells princes to the ground.” The power of tyrants is nothing in the face of the ideal of love and beauty incorporated in the Lady.

An ayíasma, or song in praise of the holy purifying qualities of water, begins the...

(The entire section is 1734 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Most of the poems in the trilogy are written in free verse with sporadic rhymes, assonances, and repetitions. A peculiarity of Ekelöf’s work is the absence of most stops between verses. Although exclamation marks and colons may occur, periods and commas are virtually absent. As a result, the verses tend to hang in suspension rather than to flow into larger syntactic structures. Within and among the verses is a constant play with verbal echoes and paradox, as in “Let us sleep/ Each alone/ Close to each other.”

Ekelöf is fond of the surprise twist, and many of his poems are poised between contradictions. The final verses of the prefatory poem to The Tale of Fatumeh, for example, speak of how the lover’s “disappearance remains.” Similarly, a later poem in the same work begins by comparing love to a scalpel blade that cuts into the flesh. Paradoxically, the poem closes by stating, “For love there is no remedy/ Except the surgeon’s scalpel.” Ailment and cure are thus synonymous.

The Byzantine and Arabic-Persian content of the trilogy is reflected in its poetic forms. Throughout the first part of the trilogy, the song in praise of water subdivides the movements of the sequence. The Tale of Fatumeh acquires a thematic and formal division through the use of the nazm, a string of pearl beads, and the tesbih, a set of prayer beads. The final poem further elaborates this structure by incorporating a...

(The entire section is 453 words.)