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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Dordogne” is an unrhymed poem in free verse divided into three short stanzas. The title refers to the town situated in a mountain range in southern central France where some of the oldest remaining Paleolithic paintings were found in the nineteenth century. This was the first discovery of prehistoric European paintings, and it had a tremendous influence on art and art history. The poem’s title gives the reader an unusual sense of geographic location while indicating the poem’s historical content. The syllogistic, three-stanza structure of the poem suggests a technique that one often finds in Gunnar Ekelöf’s poetry. First, he contrasts the past and the present, prehistorical and contemporary man, in stanzas 1 and 2. Then, in the last stanza, he draws a paradoxical truth and meaning from the juxtaposition.

Written in the third person, the poem includes no personal or subjective perspective. The tone is distanced, descriptive, and reaches an intensity only in the third stanza, in which the meaning of the poem becomes explicit. The poem begins with a brief glimpse of the present-day town that notes only one feature: an unquenchable source of water whose origin remains a mystery. This notion of something mysterious and hidden functions as a bridge to stanza 2 and the prehistorical reality of Dordogne.

In the second stanza, the poet narrator takes the reader underground and back to prehistoric times. The narrator contrasts the water, which he connects to an ice age, to the thunder and visions of the undiscovered, dead prehistoric people who still keep their secret. Ekelöf had a profound distrust of the fate of modern man and was probably sympathetic to prehistoric man. Only dead people are mentioned in this poem; undiscovered and undisturbed, they remain central to both the modern world and to the poem. Alluding to the visions of herds, Ekelöf makes the first connection between the prehistoric people and animals in stanza 2, an association he further develops in stanza 3.

The third stanza opens with an explicit thematic statement: “Their death is an Eden.” The narrator explains this paradoxical belief through an allusion not to the spirits of the dead people in the cave, but to the spirits of dead and dying animals. The connection between nature and prehistoric people is a key to the poem’s meaning: In a state of nature, death is paradise because death provides life. The dead become food for living organisms and ensure the continuation of life. Therefore, the narrator depicts life’s circle—“to be mounted and to mount/ to hunt and be hunted, eaten and eat”—as both a positive and a negative one. Life is paradox, and only through paradox can a sense of truth be reached. In nature, both “the Lion and the Lamb” must be respected.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Dordogne” is constructed around an opposition and an identification between life and death. The poet illustrates this paradox through a skillful use of contrasting fragments and of personification: The inanimate cave landscape seems mysteriously alive in contrast to the peaceful and dead prehistoric people who rest in the underground.

In the English translation, the use of personification begins already in the first stanza, with the reference to the mysterious source of water as “a vein of water/ that never gives out.” This translation reflects the Swedish second stanza, in which Ekelöf uses the clinical phrase “blood veins of water” to describe the water source. Ekelöf’s word in the first stanza is a neutral description of a source of water. This difference in the two versions is slight, however, and only serves to emphasize earlier what becomes of paramount importance later on in the poem.

The second stanza furthers the notion of the landscape being alive when it describes the caves as “the mountain’s lungs of chalk and cold.” This landscape is alive, a breathing, pulsating organism in which thunder “breathlessly hunts.” Nature has purpose, direction, and life. The use of personification serves to create the mysterious aura that surrounds these caves and their water system. It also serves to prepare the ground for those who rest within this system, who remain a part of and apart from this living nature: the dead. The poem hinges on the contrast between their stillness and nature’s violent life.

“Dordogne” is composed in a series of fragments. These fragments have an accumulative effect, which gives the poem its strange luster and vividness. As is so often the case with modernist poetry, the fragments do not necessarily add up to a comprehensive whole; rather, they function in a suggestive manner, and their meaning can only be grasped through their relation to one another. In the introduction to Songs of Something Else, Leonard Nathan and James Larson write that Ekelöf “once compared a good lyric poem to a bit of radioactive matter. The capacity to give off energy, he said, was less a matter of perceived content than of relations among particles making up the content, the nuances and dissonances set up between meanings which radiated lines of force.”

The reader often feels the radiating quality of a lyric poem such as “Dordogne” without being able to account for it. Ekelöf’s analogy of radiation in many ways illustrates how his poetry works. For example, the second and third stanzas provide a formidable contrast between the stillness of the dead, who remain undiscovered and undisturbed and who still hug their well-kept secret, and the violent agony of the great stag. To a large degree, the power of these images stems from the contrast, a contrast that also prepares the reader for the concluding paradox about the relationship between the lion and the lamb. The Edenic harmony that nature provides must be sought through the proverbial antagonism between the lion and the lamb.