Edith Södergran 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.


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.


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 knowledge of the literature of that language, beyond the work of two nineteenth century authors, C. J. L. Almqvist, whose novel Drottningens juvel-smycke (1833; the queen’s jewelry) she found fascinating, and Johan Ludvig Runeberg, with his aphoristic lyrical poems. Her interest, rather, lay elsewhere—in such German expressionists as Else Lasker-Schüler and Alfred Mombert, in Victor Hugo (whose Les Misérables, 1862, captured her attention), in Rudyard Kipling (particularly his Jungle Book, 1894), in Maurice Maeterlinck, in Walt Whitman, and in the Russians Konstantin Dmitrievich Balmont and Igor Severyanin.

A turning point in her life was her love affair, during her early twenties, with a married man, an affair of the kind customarily known as “unhappy.” Presumably it was not consistently so. For a poet so able to live with paradox, the relationship may have been, after all, deeply inspirational. Certainly, the affair virtually coincided with an intense period of production, during which she wrote the first of her mature works. Södergran’s sense of her own poetic powers had been waxing throughout these two years, 1915 and 1916, and had given her the impetus to visit Helsinki to show her manuscripts to Arvid Mörne, the poet, and Gunnar Castrén, the critic. Yet the literary world of Helsinki was unreceptive to her work; her first book, Poems, prompted one reviewer to wonder whether her publisher had wanted to give Swedish Finland a good laugh, and in general, reactions ranged from amused bewilderment to open ridicule. Södergran appears to have been taken completely aback by such uncomprehending hostility; her naïveté, one of the strengths of her poetry, was in this respect a major weakness of her person, and it caused her many painful passages.

Yet resilience was hers in equal measure, and before long, she regained equilibrium, coming to think of herself (indeed, quite properly) as a literary pioneer. Her sense of mission grew with her reading of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose influence may be traced throughout her subsequent work. Will in the sense of libido becomes a fundamental drive which her poetry not only acknowledges but also would advance. In a poem composed in 1919, Södergran writes:

I am nothing but a boundless will,
a boundless will, but for what, for what?
Everything is darkness around me.
I cannot lift a straw.
My will wants but one thing, but this thing I don’t know. 
When my will breaks from me, then shall I die:
All hail my life, my death and my fate!

She praises the moment when these three abstract, powerful forces unite into the one action, the moment of discovery (“Ah, this is what I want, was wanting!”), when the alienation of categories is banished by the wholeness, the good health, of choice, when the will to choose and the will to be chosen fuse, banishing both subjective and objective, to disclose the truth: that life, death, and one’s fate are all of a piece, compose one single motion. The “I” one was until that moment “dies” and is replaced by the “I” who has chosen, having discovered that “thing” which until then one had not known.

Resilient though she was, however, Södergran was increasingly ill, and it might have been literally the case that, on certain days, she could not “lift a straw.” More than her personal world was in turmoil. World War I, in which Russia was then engaged, led to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Raivola, astride a trunk line of the railroad from St. Petersburg, witnessed both troop transports and refugee trains passing through, and, with the revolution, Södergran and her mother found themselves destitute, for St. Petersburg had been their source of funds. In this same year, 1917, Finland declared its independence from Russia, and the ensuing civil war resulted in near starvation for the poet and her family. Yet at the same time, to behold so many other substantially afflicted persons helped Södergran place her own hardships in perspective. She learned quickly from her experiences. Huge, irrational forces had been unleashed, yet Södergran had the grace to recognize her world. In her introduction to her next book, The September Lyre, she observes:

My poems are to be taken as careless sketches. As to the contents, I let my instincts build while my intellect watches. My self-confidence comes from the fact that I have discovered my dimensions. It does not behoove me to make myself smaller than I am.

To some extent, this was surely a whistling in the dark. Two further books of poetry were met with tremendous hostility. There was one favorable review, however, by Hagar Olsson, and to this Södergran responded with incredulous joy. The two became fast friends, albeit mainly through correspondence. (Invited to visit Olsson in Helsinki, Södergran declined: “Insomnia, tuberculosis, no money. We live by selling our...

(The entire section is 3711 words.)