Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701
From 1927 to 1967, Gunnar Ekelöf (AY-kuh-luhf) was a major figure in Northern European literature. During this period, he wrote a series of important critical essays, translations, and sixteen volumes of verse. From his first book of verse, Sent på jorden, his work reflected his lifelong interests in linguistics and languages, including Chinese, Latin, Greek, German, English, and particularly French. Among his translations into Swedish were works by Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, W. H. Auden, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and especially T. S. Eliot, who is often regarded as Ekelöf’s most important literary influence. Ekelöf’s later work, notably his critically acclaimed final verse (the three volumes of the Diwan Trilogy), also reflected his studies of Middle Eastern languages and literature, notably his use of Persian, Indian, and Taoist sources. Critics have praised his cohesiveness and his ability to synthesize his varying influences, particularly his fusion of Eastern and Western philosophies that led to his emphasis on the importance of the subconscious.
Ekelöf’s verse was typically autobiographical, centered in his home city of Stockholm. His poems are often characterized by dark humor, themes on the effects of World War II, and his personal system of mysticism based on wide readings on religion. Although he influenced three generations of Swedish poets and earned many awards, including membership in the Swedish Academy in 1958 and the Grand Prize for the Danish Academy and an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala (both in 1960), he considered himself an outsider, keenly interested in new forms of line and musical structures in poetry, notably that of a Romantic, symphonic character. Ekelöf is considered innovative in his use of musical forms, particularly singing, as a central motif in A Mölna Elegy, which uses music both as sensory imagery and a means to evoke the past.
Ekelöf’s reputation revolves around A Mölna Elegy, which is considered his most significant work. The book has been praised for its innovative, complex structure and for its theme of the relativity of time and experiences in the flow of time. In this work, Ekelöf attempted to capture such experiences in one moment that serves as a cross-section of time. The poem’s structure includes monologues, imagined dialogues, marginal headings, parenthetical asides, stage directions, illustrations, and a graphic layout. Meter and phrasing alternately flow and fragment in stream-of-consciousness images, creating a dense and complex interior monologue commenting on the past, the present, and an imagined future. Numerous Roman and Greek allusions reflect the places Ekelöf visited in his lifelong travels and his interest in classical mythology. The poem’s mysterious tone and disjointed structure clearly echo the style of American, English, and French Surrealist and modernist works of the early twentieth century, particularly T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
A result of twenty years’ work by Ekelöf and ten by the translators, the first English version of A Mölna Elegy, published in 1984, helped expand Ekelöf’s reputation internationally. He has come to be considered Sweden’s most important modern poet, highly regarded for his verse, essays, and studies of European and Middle Eastern languages, literature, culture, and art. As American poet Robert Bly observed, English has no poet like him, and Ekelöf has remained popular in his homeland despite the demands he places on readers. Ekelöf maintains a distinctly Swedish voice, largely as a result of his choice of landscapes, characters, and allusions to Swedish history. His mysticism, use of fantasy worlds of his own, emphasis on the unspoken, and hallucinatory images make translation difficult; Bly, however, has been credited with capturing Ekelöf’s spirit and originality and rendering them into English.
In 1991 Ekelöf’s reputation was expanded further with Reidar Ekner’s eight-volume compilation of Ekelöf’s verse, prose, letters, and autobiographical dictations, Skrifter. This series was based on ten thousand pages of handwritten manuscripts containing variant and revised versions of Ekelöf’s verse. Also of interest are studies comparing Ekelöf with a contemporary Swedish poet, Hjalmar Jullberg, and the 1971 biography of Ekelöf, En Självbiografi, written by his wife, Ingrid.