Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Download Dordogne Study Guide

Subscribe Now

“Dordogne” is a poem about an ancient intimacy with nature, which, according to the poet, humankind has now lost. This intimacy allowed prehistoric people to participate in the natural rhythms of death and life without feelings of alienation, and it allowed them to create an art that can still astound people tens of thousands of years later. The Stone Age, to which these cave paintings belong, dates from about 750,000 years ago until about 15,000 years ago. The poem is a quest poem in which the modern poet is seeking to find not only the closeness to nature but also the creative capacity that is the well-kept secret of the ancient people. The hidden source of water becomes an image for both natural and artistic life.

The belief that ancient people had access to more wisdom and a more unified life closer to nature is common enough in modern poetry. The Romantic poets of the nineteenth century were fascinated by history and what they saw as a more genuine human experience. Great modernist works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) interweave stories of contemporary people with ancient myths and tales. Ekelöf, who translated Eliot into Swedish, explored various aspects of this theme. In the poem “The Gandhara Medallion” (the Swedish original is in the collection Färjesång, 1941), he explores the thematics of life in death and death in life. That poem ends, “Dead you are while living/ living you are/ dead.” The manner in which we die becomes for Ekelöf a crucial way to explore the difference between modern humankind and prehistoric people. Ekelöf often returned to the necessity of reaching peace and harmony through the inclusion and experience of hell and the Devil, of reaching transcendence through degradation. The Holy Spirit and human salvation, he maintained, can only be found among the poor and the sick. Yet he finds little salvation in modern death and warfare—the result, he says, of the technocratic approach to life, “The last testament of the undeveloped heart.” In grotesque poems such as “Yorrick’s Skull,” Ekelöf depicts human bodies that are fragmented and torn apart. He describes the violent deaths of modern warfare: people without legs and arms, arms and legs without bodies. The wholeness, the intactness of the bodies resting under Dordogne indicates, in contrast, that these people conceived of a harmony in death and life that escapes modern man.

A related theme is the archetypal human desire to find salvation through a descent underground. Ekelöf pursued this theme in other poems, as well, such as “Voices from Underground” (originally in Om hösten, 1951) and “Thought-Poems” (originally in Opus incertum, 1959). “Dordogne” belongs to this group of quest poems and affirms its tradition. The poem itself bears witness to the success of the quest: Without disturbing the ancient people or ruining their secret, the poet-seeker has created a poem. Its paradoxical meaning partakes in and restores ancient human wisdom.