The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

“Everyone Is a World” is a short poem in free verse, its twenty-four lines divided into three stanzas. The title is formed from the first line of the poem; the original poem has no title. In the original collection, it is grouped together with some other poems under the musical subheading “Etydes” (études). The first line captures the main theme of the poem: The mind of each human being is plural, formed by many voices, most of them hidden or silenced.

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The poem is written in a collective plural voice, underlining the general tone of the poem, which describes what the poet believes is true of all human beings. Meditating on Sigmund Freud’s three-part description of the human unconscious as id, ego, and superego, the poet illuminates his sense of the inner world of the mind. His vision emphasizes both humankind’s ultimate power and an individual’s powerlessness over him or herself. First, the poet meditates on the suppressed “masses” of the mind, the trapped impulses of desire in constant rebellion against “the rulers” of the ego. Second, he describes the dilemma of the ego as that of a king or a prince who can rule the masses but who in turn is ruled by a higher power. The first stanza closes on a more intimate tone as it brings the reader back to his or her own feelings and to how those feelings change with the power struggle within.

The second stanza further illustrates the struggle between the oppressed and the rulers of the mind. Using the extended image of a ship on the sea, the poet envisions the waves created by the boat. The people on the beach do not know that a ship has passed, but they hear and see the waves that the movement of the ship has stirred up. These waves eventually die down and leave things as they were before; yet, the poet maintains, everything is different. When the poet paints the image of “a mighty steamship,” he emphasizes the curious relationship between power and powerlessness within the world of the mind. The ship itself is a powerful engine, but the individual mind has no control over its direction or speed. It brings forth what waves it must, and the human mind must change according to the strength of these waves.

In the last and shortest stanza, there is a shift back to the meditative, general tone of the opening of the poem. The last three lines describe the reaction of mighty wonder, magical worry, enchanting terror that human beings may feel when inner waves signal great movements in the unconscious. The lines capture our sense of wonder and fear when confronted with the possibility of freedom and liberation.

Even though the poem describes powerlessness, it ends on an optimistic tone: Some of a person’s possible and fettered selves may break free and move ahead.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

The striking force of Gunnar Ekelöf’s poetry often stems from the simplicity of the techniques and metaphors he uses to illustrate very complex issues. “Everyone Is a World” provides two clear examples of this in the overall design of the poem and in the central image of the steamship.

“Everyone Is a World” is divided into three stanzas, and the relationship between the three is an important key to the meaning of the poem. The first stanza looks much like a sonnet of fourteen lines; in Swedish, most of the lines scan like iambic pentameter. The lines do not rhyme; yet this tight-knit, sonnet-like stanza aptly illustrates the lack of freedom in the world that it describes, the inner lives of human beings as Ekelöf captures them. In contrast, the second and third stanzas grow increasingly shorter (stanza 2 is seven lines; stanza 3 is three lines) and more impressionistic. These stanzas break away from the need to evoke established poetic forms in free verse, and thus they emphasize the possible liberation of thoughts and feelings that they describe.

The poem moves from a general statement to an image and back to a general statement. In the third stanza, however, the poet’s voice has achieved a tone of intimacy and shared experience that the abstract depiction of stanza 1 lacks, and that may not convincingly come across in the English translation. The Swedish Ekelöf scholar Anders Olsson maintains that “this combination of abstraction and intimacy is one of the most characteristic traits of Ekelöf’s poetry” (in Ekelöf’s No, 1983).

The central image of a “mighty steamship” on the horizon also illustrates Ekelöf’s captivating ability to express complex thoughts with very simple means. The steamship image ties Ekelöf to many other poets of the great modernist tradition, poets who, like Ekelöf or, for example, the Swedish poet Artur Lundkvist, were fascinated by the power and liberating possibilities of machines and who saw in the machine an emblem of a new kind of poetry that would liberate the human soul much as machines liberated human bodies. As machines grow increasingly powerful and dangerous, humans might become increasingly wary of them; Ekelöf captures the ambivalent quality of the machine and presents it as both attractive and abhorrent at the same time. The steamship is beautiful at a distance, and it appears beautiful because it is distant. Its power and direction are beyond individual human control. The image draws a parallel between the changes provoked by the machine and those that take place in the human unconscious: Powerful and uncontrollable, predictable yet chaotic, these changes severely limit the autonomy of the human mind.

In one simple image, and without a trace of nostalgia, Ekelöf expresses his ambivalent attitude toward the abdication of the once supreme and, in his or her own mind, central human being, and presents the frustrating position of modern humankind: having lost control not only over its own inventions but over the inner territories as well.

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