Gunnar Ekelöf 1907–1968
(Full name Gunnar Bengt Ekelöf; also transliterated as Ekeloef) Swedish poet, essayist, and translator.
Ekelöf has often been described as the most important poet of modern Swedish literature. His work, which reflects the influences of the mystical poetry of ancient Persia and the Orient, Taoist and Indian mysticism, and French Symbolism and Surrealism, is complex and enigmatic. Written in the modernist aesthetic tradition, Ekelöf's poetry challenges the reader to abandon conventional perceptions of both poetry and reality. True to the work of the Surrealists, his works also call upon readers to explore the relevance of the subconscious to their thinking. Thus, Ekelöf's work is often filled with fantastic, dreamlike images and symbols which mock rational thought. Against this backdrop, reality and self emerge as Ekelöf's major concerns, while freedom from the dualistic morality of good and evil become his personal and poetic aim.
Ekelöf was born into a wealthy family in Stockholm, Sweden. He described his mother, with whom he never shared a close relationship, as a member of the "petty nobility." His father, a stockbroker, contracted syphilis while Ekelöf was a child; the disease caused him to lose his sanity, and eventually resulted in his death. The loss of his father led Ekelöf to regard himself as an outsider, and the image of the outcast or loner appears frequently in his poetry. Ekelöf's academic career was widely varied. He studied Asian languages in London, England, as well as in Uppsala, Sweden, and in Paris during the 1920s he studied writing, music, and drawing. Both music and the visual arts surface as important influences in his poetry. Ekelöf was elected to the Swedish Academy in 1958. He died of throat cancer in 1968.
Ekelöf's first book of poems, Sent på jorden (1932; Late Arrival on Earth) proved itself an influential work in its time. Written during a period of the author's deep despair and drawing upon the techniques of French Surrealism, the volume presents a bleak, nihilistic vision of a world hurtling toward destruction. This work, Ekelöf's "suicide book," was written at a time when the bourgeois humanistic culture of Sweden was under fierce criticism by such groups as the Marxists, and is considered revolutionary because it attacked not only the bourgeoisie but also "the conventional structures of language and literature." Full
of nightmarish imagery of death and decay, Late Arrival on Earth marks the beginning of Ekelöf's lifelong attack on traditional conceptions of reality as well as of poetry. Dedikation (1934; Dedication), Ekelöf's second book of poetry, reflects the influence of French Symbolism: here, Ekelöf portrays himself as an interpreter or "seer" whose vision extends beyond the perimeters of superficial reality. More positive than Late Arrival on Earth, Dedication shows the author groping toward the truth which he believes lies beyond reality and seeking a "oneness" denied by the moralists' artificially constructed poles of good and evil. Transcendence of such boundaries, Ekelöf believed, allows one to become fully "oneself." In Sorgen och stjärnan (1935; Grief and Stars), Ekelöf denies the existence of reality altogether: concepts, institutions, rules, and boundaries are seen as artificial, the mere inventions of persons struggling to impose order on the chaotic and unending struggle between good and evil. Ekelöf regarded Färjesång (1941; Ferry Song) as the culmination of his thought. More intellectual than his previous works, Ferry Song displays the influence of Symbolism and Romanticism. Attempting to reconcile the ideal and the real, the poet questions the validity of our traditional conceptions of both the self and reality. One of Ekelöf's most frequently discussed works is En Mölna-elegi (1960; A Mölna Elegy). Reminiscent of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, the Elegy consists in part of the poet's intricate musings, revolving around a single day he spent on the Mölna jetty outside of Stockholm, and contains an abundance of literary and historical allusions, including obscene lines from ancient Roman poetry. In general, Ekelöf's later poetry pursues themes similar to those of his earlier works, but in a different style and manner. In many of these works, there is an absurd element and an apparent attempt to eliminate all but the most necessary words and images. On numerous occasions, Ekelöf himself denied that these works were even poetry. The most widely-known examples from this phase in Ekelöfs career are Diwan över Fursten av Emgión (1965; Divan about the Prince of Emgión), Sagan om Fatumeh (1966; The Story of Fatumeh), and Vägvisare till underjorden (1967; Guide to the Underworld.)
Many critics have acclaimed Ekelöf as a profound thinker and have praised his ability to incorporate diverse influences into a coherent pattern of thought. Some commentators have expressed admiration for Ekelöf as a distinctly Swedish poet whose works are permeated by the sentiments and landscapes of his native country. Ekelöf's poetry has been characterized as innovative in form and technique, particularly in its adaptation of musical forms to verse. His poetry, scholars have concluded, is distinguished by its originality and its relevancy to the reader concerned with problems of the modern age.