Edith Södergran

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Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Edith Södergran died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one, and fully half the titles listed above were published posthumously. She left behind her a remarkable collection of letters to Hagar Olsson, a critic and novelist whose favorable review of Södergran’s The September Lyre led to a close friendship between the two young women. Södergran’s correspondence with Olsson was published under the title Ediths brev: Brev från Edith Södergran till Hagar Olsson (Edith’s letters: letters from Edith Södergran to Hagar Olsson) in 1955.

Achievements

Edith Södergran’s poetry met with a baffled and even hostile reception in her own day, with a few notable exceptions, and even caused a journalistic debate as to her sanity. Writing in a period when Nordic verse still supported traditional values of regular meter and rhyme, Södergran espoused free verse and arrived—apparently on her own initiative—at something like the “doctrine of the image” laid out by Ezra Pound in 1912, derived by him in part from his study of the first poems of H. D. Therefore, shortly before her death, Södergran was hailed in the Finno-Swedish journal Ultra as the pioneer of Finnish modernism.

By the 1930’s, Södergran’s home in Raivola had become an unofficial shrine for younger poets, and Södergran’s work was revered by a number of successors, among these Gunnar Ekelöf, the Swedish poet, and Uuno Kailas, the Finnish writer. Her courageous rejection of verse conventions inspired later poets to do the same. Her canon makes clear the expressionistic elements in the modernist temper, and in granting to irrational forces pride of place, Södergran (wittingly or not) aligned herself with such contemporaries as D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and André Breton. In the words of George Schoolfield, “Her simple directness, enlivened by her genius for the unexpected in language, is seen to best advantage when [she] is overwhelmed by forces outside herself.” This primordial and homespun receptivity has proved to be a highly prospective stance, and accounts for Södergran’s continuing popularity, enhanced by the feminist movement’s reexamination of women’s writing, spreading far beyond the boundaries of Norden, and gaining momentum more than sixty years after her death.

Biography

Edith Södergran was born on April 4, 1892, in the cosmopolitan city of St. Petersburg (called Leningrad during the years of the Soviet Union), the principal Baltic seaport and then capital of Russia. Her father, Mattias Södergran, came from a family of farmers who, while they lived in northwestern Finland, were of Swedish stock. Her mother, Helena Holmroos, Mattias’s second wife, was the daughter of a prosperous industrialist, also of Finno-Swedish descent. When she was three months old, Södergran’s family moved to Raivola (later Rodzino), a village in the Finnish province of Karelia, close to the Russian border. Thenceforth, the family divided their time between St. Petersburg, where they wintered, and Raivola. Södergran received a sound education at a German church school, studying the literature of France, Russia, and Germany. Her apprentice verse was written in German, which she learned not only in school but also at the sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland; she was a patient there from 1912 to 1913 and again from 1913 to 1914. Heinrich Heine provided the model for much of Södergran’s early writing.

Södergran’s father died of tuberculosis in 1907, after which his family ceased to reside in St. Petersburg. In 1908, Södergran was discovered to be tubercular, and between 1909 and 1911, she was on several occasions confined to a sanatorium at Nummela, in Finland. Nummela was the only place she lived where Swedish was the primary language; otherwise, Södergran spoke Swedish mainly with her mother.

It is believed that the philologist Hugo Bergroth was instrumental in persuading Södergran to write in Swedish. Nevertheless, she had very little...

(The entire section is 3,711 words.)