Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865
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...
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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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 133
Sent på jorden [Late Arrival on Earth] 1932
Dedikation [Dedication] 1934
Sorgen och stjärnan [Grief and Stars] 1935
Köp den blindes sång [Buy the Blind Man's Poem] 1938
Färjesång [Ferry Song] 1941
Non serviam [I Will Not Serve] 1945
Dikter (collected poems) 1949
Om hösten [In Autumn] 1951
Strountes [Nonsense or Try flings] 1955
Opus incertum 1959
En Mölna-elegi [A Mölna Elegy] 1960
En natt i Oto ac [A Night in Oto ac] 1961
Diwan över Fursten av Emgión [Divan about the Prince of Emgión] 1965
Sagan om Fatumeh [The Story of Fatumeh] 1966
Vägvisare till underjorden [Guide to the Underworld] 1967
* Partitur [Score] 1969
*En röst 1973
Other Major Works
Promenader [Walks] (essays) 1941
Utflykter [Excursions] (essays) 1947
Blandade kort [Shuffled Cards] (essays) 1957
En självbiografi (autobiography) 1971
*Published posthumously and edited by the poet's wife, Ingrid Ekelöf.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8939
SOURCE: "Allusions in the First Part of En Mölna-Elegi," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 4, November, 1965, pp. 293-323.
[In the following excerpt, while tracing the literary, mythological, and historical allusions in A Mölna Elegy, Sjöberg discusses Ekelöf's fascination with the theme of time and his connections to James Joyce and T. S. Eliot.]
If there has been a major shift in poetic theory during the past two centuries, it has been from an emphasis of the external world (around us) to the internal world (within us). Thus, for a long time the consciousness of man has been the primary target for a vast number of writers and poets. The great variety with which these consciousnesses are described may be illustrated by a brief consideration of three outstanding examples. In his Ulysses (1922), James Joyce devoted more than a quarter million words to revealing the complexity involved in the passage of a single, ordinary day, and later, in Finnegans Wake (1939) used as many words to dramatize a single night of a single character. Eliot, on the other hand, concentrated his discussion of The Waste Land to just over four hundred lines. At about the time when Joyce began preparing Finnegans Wake for the press, Gunnar Ekelöf (b. 1907) began to write En Mölna-Elegi, which was finally published in 1960. In an introductory note in Bonniers Litterära Magasin (BLM) 1946, Ekelöf described it as a poem concerning itself "with the relativity of time and time experience, perhaps also with a kind of Lebensstimmung. It is not a description of a time lapse but is (theoretically) supposed to occur in one moment (italics added). In other words: a transverse section of time, instead of a lengthwise section." This moment of Lebensstimmung, this second, comprises images from a number of centuries, and from various cultures and religions of the past and the present; it deals with the West as well as the East and with the primitive as well as with the sophisticated. It was a "work in progress" for more than twenty years and can now be read in a book which consists of a little more than sixty pages….
Since Ekelöfs A Mölna-Elegy is a meeting place of quotations, allusions, references, and, above all, identifications, it is desirable that the reader have a commentary available for a better understanding of the poem. The following essay is an attempt to trace and point out some of these allusions, etc. without propounding interpretations (except in a limited way). In some instances I have managed to get statements authenticated by the poet; in other instances I have quoted what have seemed appropriate passages from his essays.
Ekelöf's relationship to Joyce seems straightforward and generally friendly. For instance, in one of his books of translations in which he preaches a Selective Affinity theory Ekelöf includes four poems from Joyce's Chamber Music. The collection of poems that many critics consider his best, Non Serviam (1945), may even have derived its title from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In A Mölna-Elegy Ekelöf has woven in the sentence "when the h, who the hu, how the hue, where the huer?" from Finnegans Wake which in a letter he once called "a gigantic cocoon." The telescoping of words that is so characteristic of Joyce is used sparingly in some of Ekelöfs later books.
Ekelöf's relation to Eliot is more involved and not entirely amiable. Ekelöf himself has rather effectively and energetically defended his integrity against some critics' assumption that he was dependent on Eliot:
Eliot I will undoubtedly have to suffer for all my life. I have (later) studied him by interpreting (= translating) him; I appreciate him as an artist, if not as a cultural critic; I have learned from his free blank verse (but as much from Shakespeare's); yet my poems still do not contain and do not express what his poems express and contain. In regard to the allusion and quotation method particularly in Non Serviam and A Mölna-Elegy, which I suppose will be especially regarded as inspired by Eliot, it should be noted that it is an ageold method, practised not only by a Petronius, a Dante, even a Rabelais or in our days a Joyce, but in all times by an innumerable host of "hermetic," symbolic, or mystic poets, naturally in such a way that each has sung his song hintingly according to his own turn of mind.
Ekelöf then goes on to say that he does not believe in artistic development by means of "influences," at least not in regard to writers who have something genuinely original to offer; instead he believes in development through a process of identification, i.e., "so that one recognizes himself both in what is new and old and furthermore in time, in the changes which the light of time throws onto the picture, which itself is living and changeable."
Nonetheless, on several occasions Ekelöf seems to have been influenced by Eliot. Arne Losman, in his essay "Kring En Mölna-Elegi" (1958), has listed a few of these, and makes reference to one of the most important themes of the elegy: a deep mutual connection with the past. This has been expressed in the lines: "Thus I feel / From the depth of my midriff my dead ones." Here Losman thinks he recognizes Eliot's influence, but he fails to be more specific. He goes on:
It is likely that Ekelöfs understanding of tradition, at least to some extent, has been inspired by Eliot. The Elegy is a quite orthodox application of the Englishman's concepts of tradition, which according to his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) involves historic mind, acquired through hard work, coupled with a feeling that all literature of Europe has a simultaneous existence: the poet becomes part of a living past. According to Eliot the best parts of the poetry are those in which the dead poets make their immortality most strongly felt.
"A few times I have started to read Eliot's essays but never got very far. There didn't seem to be anything there for me to gather. 'The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism ' is the only (critical) book I have had a real try at," Ekelöf has stated. Losman notes Ekelöf's introductory remarks to the Elegy (BLM, 1946), in which "ironically enough Ekelöf made use of the same Baudelaire allusion hycklande läsare as Eliot employed in The Waste Land. The fact that in the same notes Ekelöf conceded that his quotation method is "only partly a so-called Eliot method, a method which, incidentally, is not only Eliot's but is old as the hills," does not prove anything. The similarities Losman finds between the Elegy's doggerel "It was in the time when"…" and "Here we go round the prickly pear" in "The Hollow Men" are not very convincing. Is it not more reasonable to assume that Ekelöf has actually heard this doggerel rather than read it? Losman continues: "But Four Quartets are perhaps the poems by Eliot which show the greatest resemblances to the Elegy in terms of both form and content. The Elegy is 'a poem about the relativity of time and time experience'." Losman is tempted to compare this central theme with the opening lines of Burnt Norton: "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in the past." and also with the main theme "In my beginning is my end," from East Coker, which Ekelöf translated.
These observations of alleged influence from Eliot could easily be matched with others that are equally facile and unsubstantiated. One such would be from Burnt Norton in which Eliot's "three aspects of time have been reduced to the central truth":
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Ekelöf has written on this:
One can learn blank verse best from Shakespeare, but there it naturally makes an impression of being old-fashioned. Chiefly, what I have learned from Eliot is perhaps that in our time, too, blank verse works very well when one wants to set poetic prose, or everyday prose, into a kind of verse, thereby giving it a certain higher value. The sentences employing enjambment, with a period in the middle of the line, etc., also give the skillful writer an opportunity to take care of or suppress certain shades of meanings, as the need may be. But this is an artistic device, of which type there are many in existence. It is a part of the handicraft but not a form in itself. Form and contents are something quite different from the art of pounding in a nail, even if the latter may also be very useful. It is odd that such things can satisfy some critics when it is a matter of labeling a poet. But it is convenient, to be sure.
The sum of my "légitime défense" remains as before that my poems do not contain and do not express the same as his [Eliot's] poems express or contain, and this goes for both the kind of time experience as well as for the kind of artistic attitude and ultimate goal; it has validity also humanly, religiously or, if you choose, mystically, and in regard to acceptance of history and moral color. If the criteria of contents are insufficient in this case, it means that technical details are considered more significant, which would indeed be absurd.
This is not the occasion to discuss at any length the possible influence Eliot might have exerted on Ekelöf. However, let me report just one bit of evidence to the contrary which has amazed me. In Eliot's opinion, art is an effort "to metamorphose private failures and disappointments." Then should not the subtitle of the Elegy, "Metamorphoses," be related to this statement of Eliot's, so that perhaps the whole idea of identity changes in the Elegy would have originated from Eliot? The answer to this question is in the negative: From checking the galleys and page proofs of the Elegy at Bonnier's, the publisher, I found that the subtitle was added only on the second set of page proofs, marked July 7, 1960, i.e., shortly before publication.
It seems possible that The Waste Land, or the existence of such a poem, presented Ekelöf with a kind of warrant to develop the potential poem that was already in his mind. But is it so entirely improbable that Ekelöf with his extraordinary background and aptitude for creative work, would have turned out to be a "learned" poet even without Eliot? At any rate it seems feasible when one considers that Ekelöf had access at school to the same oriental sources as Eliot, and, moreover, that Ekelöf studied them in the original languages (which Eliot did not). Ekelöf also studied the classic authors, even translated Petronius (whom Eliot uses as a motto for The Waste Land) long before he had heard of Eliot. The titles of the essays "Vad åskan sade" (Promenader, 1941) and "Gerontion" (Utflykter, 1947) were probably used polemically. It is hard to determine exactly what part music has played in shaping these "learned" poems with their frequent allusions, repetitions, etc., but it might be pertinent to stress that Ekelöf had a good education in music, certainly better than Eliot's.
"The whole meaning of time itself changed radically as a result of social and technological factors; and this change, in turn, had far-reaching repercussions upon man's thinking about himself and his orientation in the modern world," writes Hans Meyerhoff. As time-saving devices became the symbol for industrial proficiency and progress, and "looking backwards" upon oneself and history was considered a waste of time, because it was a "negation of productivity and value," Ekelöf preoccupied himself with "one moment," which is obviously more than just a framework. However small an entity of "fragmentized" or "meaningless" time, it is nonetheless inseparable from the concept of the self, the identity, which Ekelöf has scrutinized so thoroughly and questioned so effectively in many poems, among them "Tag och skriv." "I have always learned from the past and mistrusted those who teach the future," Ekelöf has written. In an essay deploring our lack of traditions, Ekelöf has made a plea for a broader kind of education than our schools provide. It should be less divided into compartments, more unified, "because culture is one and indivisible." How can a student profit from being taught mere ideas? "Instead give him time, its social tone, its costume among high and low, street-mud and odors, its carriages and horses, music, even the street ballads, painting, even tavern signs, the sex morality, the shape of glasses, the decor on the plates, food recipes, the cries of the chimney sweep lads, the on dits and bon mots of the day, and give it to him visually."
In another essay, "Modus vivendi," Ekelöf writes:
I wish to live associatively, want to find out about myself and the world thus: empirically, through memory and its connections, want to experience the world not only in the moment but in many possible moments of what my now is composed. The now has no univocal guide lines to offer me; I return to it when it has become memory, in order laboriously, with the help of other memories, to make a kind of decision, which is hardly more than a confirmed divination. But such confirmed divinations can by and by become a vague conviction which will grow clear. That is my now. Which was then.
The introductory scene of the Elegy is set on the Mölna jetty. "I am sitting on a bench of the past / I am writing on a page of the past." The time is at sunset an evening when the transition from September into October is about to take place. Next to the I, the poet, seems to stand a squint-eyed, gaudily dressed Harlequin, or buffoon, who is playing an absurd ditty which is known in numerous variations throughout Europe: "and it was at the time when the legless ran / and the fingerless were playing the guitar till it rang…." With this literal reading the scene sounds more theatrical than it actually is. Not only is it stated that the ditty is "mute," but also that it is sung for someone who is "deaf," which must indicate that the buffoon is a personification for autumn, with its multicolored motley leaves. As further proof of this can perhaps be taken the fact that the buffoon never reappears in the Elegy only the musical indication "Sept. Oct."
The poet is experiencing a very special kind of mood, which appears shut off from external reality, only passively acting as a receiving medium of what turns up in his mind, an extraordinary repository of unassorted fragmentary memories, impressions, ideas, and experiences, just like the autumnal leaves, whirling past for a moment, before they quietly fall down and disappear from sight. The time referred to in the absurd ditty is a time of extreme conditions, whether in the past or the present or the future and suggestive of death, ghosts, and, in fact, chaos: more precisely, to the years preceding World War II. But it also has the function of setting the mood for the imagined or experienced metamorphoses occurring in the Elegy. The problem of identity, which is such a basic theme in Ekelöfs writing, has in effect been brought up already in these opening lines about the "I" and the personified fall….
A few weeks during "the last summer" the odd-looking buildings at Mölna had been swarming with pitiful crippled children, "incomplete larvae and lemures," (lines 10-14). A common theme in Ekelöf is here reintroduced: incompleteness, captiveness within a higher being, as later on in the sections Méga Aléxandre and Stateíra mo (lines 369 ff. and 407 ff.). The word lémures refers to ancient Roman spirits that moaned at night. This ghostlike, macabre sight conveys a hint of people dressed in institutional garb or soldiers advancing in war-time equipment and at the same time it conveys a hint of peaceful but clumsily manouvered ballet of marionettes. In his BLM notes Ekelöf states: "to illustrate the technique of the poem, it can be mentioned that the cripples are a vision with which the main protagonist seeks to disguise the general picture of the Germans invading the past. The crippled ones really invaded Mölna a few years earlier."
Now the buildings are deserted again. Perhaps it is the fall of 1937 at Mölna. The external emptiness in the place reflects the internal emptiness or loneliness felt by the main protagonist, the experiencing mind. The relativity of everything is demonstrated in lines 18-20: he feels the same apathy (or perhaps a different one?) as when these wretched beings were about; now they symbolize the advances of Nazi Germany. "What do I care? My life has stopped," he feels. His life is discussed in terms usually reserved for a malfunctioning clock or watch, which fits in with the general theme of time, so often repeated and varied in the Elegy. But it may prove more rewarding to read "stannat" (line 20) as "stannat här" or as "blivit instängt," thus emphasizing the physical aspect rather than the psychological. If so, "stopped" would signify the unfeasibility of travelling and also of attempts to change life, which the more alert intellectuals must have felt strongly before the imminent war, as expressed later in the Elegy:
All that never came to be
All that led to nullity
Waves that glittered
Waves of which I used to think:
You are a way to the world
As far as desire you bear us
But it never began
Some indications of time in the beginning of the Elegy are: the bench of the past, a page of the past, September, October, November, the time of the "absurd" ballad, last summer, a few weeks' illusion, now and at the end of the poem a slightly modified and improved line from The Land That Is Not, by the great Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran, in which again an aspect of time is referred to:
A capricious moment stole from me my future….
In that crucial moment the hopes, aspirations, and expectations for the future were destroyed. The recurrence of the line adds to its central thematic significance here.
The beautiful "Wave Song" which corresponds to "Fire Song" in the latter part of the Elegy, repeats the onomato-poetic lines about the wind and the waves which return like echoes from a distant shore. In this "scene" the sun is setting. But note how explicit the image is: "The sun nailed on Danviken's spire." Danviken was a madhouse, a Bedlam. Ekelöf's essay, "An Outsider's Way," reads in part:
One of those remarkably strong, early memories was the sunset. That fits a future poet, but I do not know how I happened to become a cloud-watcher. The sunset lay heavy over my childhood and I even saw it in my dreams. The intensely brick-red church outside the windows it was the Johannes Church in Stockholm threw a hectic, sickly and, as it were, magnified reflection of the sunset deep into the rooms. In this red twilight my father wandered about like a shadow, insane for many years, mumbling, and with an absent, dilapidated face, followed by his nurses. When they had managed to place him in an easy chair he could sit for hours and "hear voices," as it was called, i.e., he mumbled monotonously, brooding, incomprehensively, and without end. The apartment had long corridors, and in the twilight there was a strange, ghostly atmosphere in its out-of-the-way spots while the funeral bells rang outside. In my memory red sunsets and bells are always inseparable.
Later, with the initial boldness of the years of indiscretion, I used to climb up on the roof to see the sunset. The roof was one of the highest on Johanneshöjden. I went up through a garret door and scrambled onto it, partly with and partly without the help of the fire ladders, until I could sit straddling the rooftop, where I would smoke forbidden cigarettes and stare at the sun like an anchorite. It was a dizzying height that of the house itself plus that of the ridge, for it stood teetering near the edge of a cliff, the bottom of which was in a backyard on Tegnér Street. The whole city was below me, and now and then the windows way off on Kungsholmen would sparkle perhaps they were being washed just then by equally fearless cleaning ladies during the fall housecleanings.
I didn't do it to show off actually no one knew of it. But I was saturated with a fantastic yearning for beauty that I was completely incapable of expressing. Now I don't understand how I dared. Sometimes I have nightmares about being dizzy.
These climbs to see the setting sun were related to my musical excesses, etc.
The winds carrying sounds of the ringing church bells across the city of Stockholm have played an immense part in Swedish fiction and poetry, from Almqvist through Strindberg and Söderberg to Siwertz. In his introduction to Livet i ett svunnet Stockholm Ekelöf points to the first chapter of Strindberg's The Red Room, in which the tolling of bells is particularly pronounced. The great part played by the wide and varied waters in Stockholm should not be forgotten. They seem to amplify further the wanderings of all kinds of sounds, to and fro, even at great distances. In several of Ekelöfs essays the bells of his beloved and hated native city resound. A few lines from the essay, "Verklighetsflykt," illustrate this:
The bells still tolled over the city. He recognized them very easily from church tower to church tower. In the shadow of one of them he was born, and under several of the others he had lived shorter or longer periods. If he had been able to trace his movements and wanderings on the map of Stockholm, it would be an almost inextricable tangle. A tangle of happiness and unhappiness, successes and failures.
Regarding the word "alfågelklingande" (line 41), it can be mentioned that "alfågeln" even in Latin has a beautiful name Harelda glacialis and that it is supposed to have a completely captivating call and is therefore given attention by poets. Karlfeldt thus speaks about "alfagelstoner" in Flora och Bellona, and Strindberg in Hemsöborna mentions "alfågeln" that used to "alla."
While the sun is setting, "The Return Trip" along the canal is undertaken, back to the city from the excursion to Mölna, by way of a ferry service that has long since gone out of business. The trip goes from Nybroplan, Stock-holm, via various jetties on Lidingön, through the narrow Djurgårds canal, past Djurgårdsbrunn, a route which is said by certain older residents to have been a popular little tour of the Stockholm archipelago. "The Return Trip" also represents a return trip in time. We can imagine the lush green of Djurgården, its taverns and trees from Bellman's time. It is the scenery which Johan Fredrik Martin (1735-1816) drew so often. When Strindberg was living at Karlavägen, in what was then the last building, he says that from his balcony he was able to see the archipelago, which is on the route described. Thus one can again claim an association with Strindberg and his Stockholm world.
In the Elegy eighteenth-century notes are struck by a number of words and phrases. The marginal word Corno, horn (lines 57-58), occurs frequently in Bellman's Fredman's Epistles and Fredman's Songs (1790-91). Furthermore, a used contraceptive floating about, mentioned in a somewhat Bellmanesque rococo way, suggests the gaiety of that period. But above all the eighteenth century looms heavily throughout the paraphrasing of the famous Epistle No. 79, "Or Farewell to the Matrons," especially to Mother Maja Myra of Sun-alley at the Big Market. Anno 1785: Charon in his boat is blowing his horn, while in the Elegy the ferry is blowing its whistle (line 59). After the blowing of the whistle, the ferry passes under the bridge of Djurgårdsbrunn and disappears, as if it had been swallowed up by the powers of Hades.
With the next stanza the first metamorphoses take place. The location could be either this world or Hades, since the identity appears to have dissolved. However, we are probably wise if we remember that in the Elegy there hardly exists a "real" identity ("the same or another / I or not I" (lines 67-68)), and that in the poet's opinion, reality is in a constant flux and always has an underlying sub-reality (or an imposed superreality), a reality of expectation, etc. "Time which bolts / years a minute / with a tail of yellow leaves" (lines 70 ff.) vaguely correspond to the cosmic occurrences later in the Elegy. The stanza ends with two classical allusions, both from Bellman, on Stockholm (Proud city) and the moira Clotho, one of the three fates in classic mythology. She presided over birth, and drew from her distaff the thread of life, so when Bellman says that "Fredman sees too soon, alas, / His debt to Nature now must pass, / Clotho just from his garb / Off clipped a button / At Charon's call," it seems that he had Atropos in mind rather than Clotho.
The protagonist is then transformed into an old actor who sits brooding, his chin leaning on the curved handle of his cane and his ring-adorned little finger raised in reminiscence of bygone victories and pleasures. Like Strindberg's Officer in A Dream Play he is waiting for his Victoria. The theme of captivity in the opening scene is reiterated (lines 82-83). This as well as the re-intoned beginning of Edith Södergran's line, "A capricious moment…," are among the elements in the musical character of this composition. An even more easily recognized musical pattern is found in the preceding "Wave Song," with its strong onomato-poetical effects, reversals, repetitions, and correspondences. Before the curtain falls, the absurd ditty is heard again, and malformed fairies perform a macabre ballet, the disabled beings from Mölna thus transformed to the world of shadows or the world of the theater. The fact that the fairies as well as human beings are disabled shows an interesting correspondence between the netherworld and what we normally call the "human" world.
In the very moment he is dropping off to sleep, perhaps into that parasleep which is so often described by poets, among them Pierre Reverdy and Tomas Tranströmer, a fantastic, new world reveals itself: an absurd bit of Shakespeare seems to be contained in that instant. Or perhaps a reference to Denmark's Hans Andersen would be more appropriate: the trees in the park begin to talk about his aging since they saw him last. A blind window at the gable of Mölna remembers him as Prospero, the venerable old man and magician from The Tempest. Line 106: a falling drop of water and an apple (an erotic symbol?) remind us of the transient, fleeting aspect of time. We might associate these with something general such as the liability of elevated things to fall, to change position, shape, and substantial form; or we may think of something particular, such as Newton's apple and the theory of gravity. The Mill gnome (line 113) belongs to common folklore and ties in with the "Mill Song" later in the Elegy. The Fairy in the snowberry bushes appears to be Ekelöf's own creation. Ordinarily, a fairy is considered a graceful, diminutive female being, and the fairy of the poem is (we can imagine) as lovely as the traditional image; yet she is also as false as the gaudy finery she wears and as insignificant as a passing moment and not so innocent as her looks imply. Her aim is to prevail over the Mill gnome (line 119) by degrading him, for she suspects he was once "that ugly one," which suggests Caliban, Prospero's brutish servant. Talking to the Mill gnome for a while the Fairy suddenly becomes lyrical at the thought of her past love. But the mood again changes abruptly, when in a self-pitying voice, she contemplates her too small white berries. After the Mill gnome's impudent remark (line 149) about them releases her despair, she hides her face and disappears, saying: "My God, what has become of me!" This familiar refrain appears in many books, among them Miller's Tropic of Cancer. The thrush, which has been discussed by the Mill gnome and the Fairy, also disappears on the last pages of the Elegy, to be transformed, once more, into a proud (?) heraldic bird. Lines 157 ff. employ a language which seems mockingly humorous in its Desnos or Joycean style. The Biedermeier Lounge and the Front gable clock comment critically on the language that the culprit, the mill gnome, has used, while the Mirror at the window remains unmoved and unconvinced by his attempts to exonerate himself. The Blind window follows up on its earlier thought, as if faced with an insoluble question: "But how can Prospero be alive? And here?" And the poet reminds us that the same Moment is still going on (line 173): the same drop continues falling into the barrel, and the same apple's fall is re-echoed as before (lines 112 and 177). In the following line, 178, the same wind sighs: "Away! Away!" These words of longing for someone or something else are rather typical romantic citations within or preceding a poem, e.g. in Victor Hugo. Among other places, we find them in William Blake's "Mammon." They are, however, more meaningful in Shelley's "The Invitation":
Away, Away / from men and towns,
But the words might well have emanated from yet another source outside of Ekelöf's own mind.
A broken grave plate is the bridge between the past and the next scene. It is adorned with hederae, ivy, which is often consecrated to Bacchus, Apollo, and the Muses, but, according to Kaufmann's Handbuch der altchristlichen Epigraphik (1917), it is most likely Christian. It contains the Greek name Hesperos, underneath which lies an anchor, the symbol of hope. This is the simplest kind of funerary art, probably more "prospective" than "retrospective" in Erwin Panofsky's terminology, i.e., works of art more in the interest of the deceased than of the survivors. Usually Hesperos stands for the Evening Star, but in Pape-Benseler it is also listed as a name of "ein Milesier, Bewohner des Hesperis." Hesperos, in the first sense, has been often discussed by many poets, among them Ben Jonson in "To Cynthia" and Sappho:
Hesperos bringing together
All that the morning star scattered
When the protagonist of the Elegy reawakens, he hears, to his amazement, a sound like the screech of a parrot in an old maid's apartment: "How-are-you? Lora, beautiful Lora…" This vaguely suggests Strindberg's Spook Sonata in the scene in which Hummel imitates a parrot and addresses the Mummy: "Kakadora! Dora!" Ekelöf has, however, made the following statement about it:
This refers to a completely personal experience. Once long ago I happened to go to the monkey-house at Skansen (the Stockholm Zoo), where at that time even some parrots were housed as a bequest to the zoo. One of them, I think it was an Ara parrot, happened to be in a talkative mood and constantly repeated "Lora, beautiful Lora!" or "How are you?" in a sort of shrill tone which was suggestive of the mistress of her household, I imagine. This vividly presented to my mind a vision of the widows' lodgings or maidens' bowers of which I had seen many in my childhood, filled with souvenirs, costly things mixed with tasteless objects, almost a kind of storehouse for memories of every variety; and of the exaggerated way the ladies greeted visiting friends (Hur är det meeed dig?), or took leave. This the parrot told me.
This inquiry is repeated in the poem (lines 186-187) in a more degrading context. The first is the hearty inquiry "How is your health in general?" between old friends, while the second could be the heartless reproach of a casual or a marital (sex) partner. The difference in tone on these two occasions is insignificant, but the significance of the context is crucial. Because the women appearing next seem rather benevolent, fairy-like people, it seems natural to associate Aunts Grey, Green, and Louche with Eisa Beskow's "Tant Brun, Tant Grön, Tant Gredelin," who are so familiar to Swedish children. Ekelöf has indicated, however, that he had two distant relatives and a lady-friend in mind: "One of them was squint-eyed; the others as I have described them." There is reason to speculate that these three ladies represent three different kinds of religions and at the same time three different nationalities: Swedish, German-Jewish, and Finnish-French. Aunt Grey's observation: "How he has grown since last time!" clearly corresponds to the chorus of the trees in the park: "How he has aged since last time!" Like the squint-eyed buffoon at the beginning of the Elegy and the Mill gnome, Aunt Louche, as her name indicates, also is squint-eyed, and this adds to our sensation of strangeness in regard to these people. Her echoing of the others ("How are you?") appears to be a meaningless stereotype, and the main protagonist is independent enough to point it out bluntly. Things are completely relative. To him it does not matter any longer whether he says fine or bad. Mysteriously, time has long ceased to matter to him, and this corresponds to the earlier line: "My life has stopped." With an echo of the haunting Södergran line, "A capricious moment…" (line 205) old memories reverberate. It is not immediately clear whom the main protagonist is addressing when he asks: "And do you remember, do you remember / East Indian china with seashells encrusted…." The word "ostindiskt" appears elsewhere in Ekelöf, as in "Den gamle superkargören," and Ekelöf has seen these objects, including the Tula box, at the home of his mother's distant relative, Beda Cygnaeus of Göteborg. He remarks: "Her ancestors seem to have had something to do with the Swedish East India Company, because such exotic porcelain was to be found at her home. It was covered (1) with havstulpaner (Balanus), sea acornshells, and (2) with tall sinuous lime serpents (Kalkormar) which have been inhabited by I-don't-know-what animal."
The following line: "… how long has it waited in the sealed-up hold?" suggests to some readers that the china had been part of a salvaged cargo from the closed section of a hull. This impression is reinforced by line 228: "… how long has it lain in the green depth?" However, the poet has made the following note:
These are how matters stand: The proprietor (I think it was) of Fredrikslund, near Uppsala (but I am not entirely sure), had a mistress whom he was unable to marry at the time because of class reasons. She passed away, to his great sorrow. That he loved her greatly is proved by the fact that he had the pavilion where they met closed after her death. Even subsequent generations seem to have honored its "sacredness." The pavilion was opened only sometime in the 1920's, and apart from the ravages of time, it was found in the same condition as it had been when it was closed up, more than one hundred and fifty years earlier.
About the line (213) "under Madame de Mont-Gentil's portrait, a rare avis/at the thé conseilles…" we learn a little more from the 1946 version of this passage, published in Bonniers Litterära Magasin (p. 366). In that early version, an apposition, "Anna Marias vän," hints even more clearly than the word "Thékonseljerna" that Mme. de Mont-Gentil was a friend of Anna Maria Lennngren, the well-known writer of idylls and satires of the period of the enlightenment. According to letters from Dr. Bo Wennberg, curator of the National Museum in Stockholm, the portrait refers to Anna Catharina Lewin (1760-1814), who was married to Dr. Anders Hedenberg. The portrait of "fru de Mont-Gentil" is not listed in Sixten Strömbom's Index över svenska porträtt (Index of Swedish Portraits), since the name is a poet's translation of the name Hedenberg (Ekelöf's mother's maiden name). Ekelöf has left this note concerning her: "Mme. Hedenberg, daughter of the 'court Jew' Adolf Ludwig Lewin and wife of Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta's resident medical attendant, was an intimate friend of Mrs. Lenngren, Kellgren (the poet), Paykull (the zoologist 1757-1826) and others, and proclaimed the queen of hearts to von Rosenstein, the author of "Försök til en afhandling om uplysningen" (On Enlightenment), which still lies in an ornately dedicated copy on my aunt's book-shelf. She was half Jewish and was considered a beauty." A copy of the actual portrait, done by Carl Gustaf Pilo (?) (1711-1793), can be seen at Ekelöf's cottage. The description of Mme. de Mont-Gentil as a "främmanfågel," a rare avis, has no doubt a relation to the poem "Främmanfåglar" dedicated to Ekelöf by the distinguished Finland Swedish poet Elmer Diktonius.
The memory of 1809, the year of the last revolution in Sweden, is evoked by reworking and shortening a paragraph of Lefnads-minnen (Memoirs) of Bernhard von Beskow (1796-1868), the one-time secretary to the Swedish Academy. As we can see from the quotation below, the woman referred to in Ekelöf's version is identical to Mme. de Mont-Gentil. Castenhof (line 221), in von Beskow's writing, Kastenhof, according to Johan Elers, was a house in Stockholm completed in 1649, which later became a comme il faut tavern.
As in a dream, the mood of the poem tends to be simultaneously in the present of the actual moment, and yet provides a certain link with the past. From the emptying of a glass, the association goes back to the beautiful old china covered with dead fossils and items from the East and suddenly leaps to the slaves of the West, and their singing or moaning on the steerage deck.
One characteristic of the dream is also a kind of "rushing" back and forth between the present, the past, and the future, all as independent layers of consciousness. Using this dream-play technique, the poet again makes a retreat, even further back, to 1786. Once again his memory of a relative is revived. He has enlarged on his notes in BLM, 1946:
Gustaf Lewin, brother of Anna Catharina Hedenberg, in order to get merits, took service in a French commercial shipping company, since there was no war at the time. The company happened to consist of slave merchants to the French Caribbean Islands. Since he was not a follower of Rousseau, his conscience did not bother him, although later on, of course, he repented. He did not rise high in the naval hierarchy, but later during the Russian war of Gustavus III he rescued the starving Swedish army in Finland by convoying about one hundred ships with food past Hangö in sight of the Russian chebecks, which could not be rowed like the Swedish ships of Chapman's construction. Later on he took part in the second battle at Svensksund, which destroyed the Russian fleet. His sword of honor is in the Marine Museum in Stockholm. His autobiography (Ewa Lewin: En gustaviansk sjöofficers levnadsberättelse) is indeed worth reading.
The passage employed for the Elegy is a slightly remodeled version from that autobiography, and it is remarkable that this rather crude account could be turned into great poetry (line 234 ff.). The scene is just north of the Equator. From the ship could be seen the light from the myriads of creatures in the sea (238). The concept of a higher being, within which myriads of smaller creatures are captive, appears frequently in Ekelöf, e.g., as observed before in the sections Méga Aléxandre and Stateíra mo, and it has a very old pre-history, from such Greek writers as Herodotus and Sophocles, and probably also the Swedish mystic Swedenborg.
In line 241 a great star has been spotted "which increased every second in magnitude." This cosmic occurrence at sea a star or a meteor disintegrating close enough to the ship to be vividly seen and experienced causes a dreadful storm and a magnificent spectacle: "rockets / that covered the whole horizon with a shining / so dazzling that you could have seen a hair / if one had been hanging from the masthead!" Afterwards the air clears, stars become visible again, and the moaning of closed-in slaves (line 264, cf. 208 and 228) is again heard in differently syncopated choruses.
Recollecting these dead relatives and their good and bad deeds in times gone by is no necrophilic endeavor (to use a phrase of Unamuno and Erich Fromm), but springs from a synthetic tendency in Ekelöf's philosophy. Like Jan Smuts he feels that all things interact, that every entity (including people), every concept, has a series of complex, interpenetrating relations with its neighbors. None of them can be fully comprehended until they are set in their proper environment, that is, in relation to their past. Everything is dependent on everything else, the lives of the dead are in a way re-lived by the poet, and their lives are his raison d'être and also, to some extent, his exculpation. This very idea has been expressed in somewhat similar terms by the poet in "En dröm (verklig)" (A dream, real) in Om hösten (1951) and also in "En värld är varje människa" (A world is every human being) from Färjesång (1941).
There is nothing pretentious or peculiar about Ekelöf's quoting some of his ancestors. Like other poets, such as Yeats, Eliot, or Robert Lowell, Ekelöf has a strong sense of the family system. As the critic Åke Janzon has put it:
The fact that Ekelöf's references in these cases are so personal is irrelevant for the experience of the poem…. As pictures of the past these short sections have freshness and significance, and especially the latter gives an enormously concentrated form of vision which in a certain sense could be said to anticipate Aniara, Harry Martinson's space poem… It is about time; it is with the life of the past in the present and with the lives of the dead in the poet's consciousness that the Elegy deals.
The confession of the main protagonist in line 265: "So I feel / in the depth of my midriff these dead: / The air I breathe is clogged with all the dead…" shows his extraordinary awareness of the complexity of human consciousness.
From death the line of thought goes to a near-death experience in childhood: a disease which brings on feverish ramblings that made the boy feel completely deserted by everybody. Had they all gone out to the country, or is he just imagining? The open-sided wagon rattling over the cobblestones without ever stopping is a haunting symbol of Time manifesting itself to the feverish child. The feeling of abandonment is clear in the line: "To the suburbs / they all had gone, or to the country," but this makes a neat transition to pleasant memories of the country; of excursions from the manor farm of his father, and of the encouragement to learn by heart his Latin hic haec hoc. He recalls memories of games, especially the games of forfeit, where the girl Arrasmiha presided next to Camilla, after having done their farm chores. Arrasmiha appears in Almqvist's "songe" about the strawberry-picking girl, and also in the novel Drottningens juvelsmycke. Camilla is, of course, from Atis och Camilla (1761) by Gustaf Philip Creutz. In this way Ekelöf has inserted a couple of chords from his beloved eighteenth century.
These co-existing memories seem to pass in review for a while and then develop into a dialogue, but again, as in a dream, they spread somewhat like voices in the wind, and we do not always know who is speaking. "Monsieur Petter" we recognize as Bellman's Ulla Winblad. It is her nom de guerre. In his book, Ulla Winblad, Gunnar W. Lundberg mentions that her name occurs on a list from the 1780's, "unfortunately under the heading mademoiselles of an inferior kind, but here she is nearly first: Mademoiselle Winblad eller Monsieur Petter." In lines 296-297 we read about "cousin at the locked gates." "Cousin" presumably refers again to Ulla Winblad, and the high locked gates, according to a note from Ekelöf, to Stockholm's Kungsträdgården, which was earlier fenced in with high gates. A soldier kept sentry on Arsenalsgatan, which opened only for "people of the higher classes" who wanted to "go for a pleasure stroll." "The corporal in charge here is Bellman's Mollberg."
The little foxes (line 301) may be read about in The Song of Solomon (2:15) which again appears in the following two lines (2:6). I have to leave the question open as to the identity of the third person who is alluded to in the quotation. Is it only the lover of The Song of Solomon? The transition is from the idyllic exotic groves of the Biblical scene, to the juniper trees and to the stones of Lövnäs, in the province of Södermanland, Sweden, where Ekelöf grew up and where his interest in natural history, stones, and birds was born.
In the same sequence (lines 310 ff.) the junipers have been transformed to vineyards of time, with its unpredictable harvest periods. We are reminded anew of time, and the relativity of time from a grown man's experience. He vaguely remembers not only the seconds and the moments which have dropped out of memory because of some repressive mechanism, but also the ones that cannot be escaped, some almost intolerable moments, "de fastnaglade," which recur compulsively. It seems likely that there is a correspondence with these "held, riveted" moments, and the riveted figure on the saltire on page 46 in the Elegy. Ekelöf may be alluding here to those like Spartacus, Peter, and others, who were nailed head down to some wooden structure, and also possibly to horror stories from the northern part of Sweden about how men used to be nailed to the floor in their clothes, so that they were unable to move and thus perished without visible harm done to their bodies.
The poet claims that he carries time within him, like the pregnant woman in a folk tale who did not want to be delivered and carried her offspring for twenty years, complete, yet unborn. He carries time within himself like a stone child, something produced and ready, though not to be parted with. In the BLM version of 1946 there were two additional lines, a beginning of a "Street Ballad":
Ångest och preventiv
Ångest och kolokvint….
which associates the stone child with anguish and contraceptives and perhaps, implied, sexual fears. Ekelöf in BLM explains that "Street Ballad," the first note of which he has here struck… is a counterpart to "Wave Song."
On the following sixteen pages original graffiti and Swedish text face each other, like two different parts which join or divide in a bewildering way, sometimes in cacophonous and sometimes in euphonious sounds of the past. In the Swedish text, there is a call for "Great Alexander!" It is obvious from the marginal note about "my Stateria" (on the next page with Swedish text) that the poet is referring to Emperor Alexander and the wife of Darios, King of Persia. In a way the poet is the Emperor. He is the king of the past, a sovereign of myriads of memories of people who were active millennia ago. Time accompanies the poem: "September snows down in red leaves / October flows away in dead leaves." The tick-tock is replaced by "Sept. Oct. / Sept. Oct." This also looks as if it were indicating the relative speed or rate of movement at which a musical composition moves. The Emperor realizes that while he himself is holding sway over hordes of captive ones who have remained in an incomplete, imperfect state, in his turn he himself is incomplete and captive within some other, higher organisation. He may suspect that he is nothing but a toy; that man is a fate, which he is subject to, as the ancient Greeks considered themselves. Nowhere has Ekelöf expressed this clearer than in "A July Night" in Non Serviam.
Accompanied with the tempo indications, "Sept. Oct." the Emperor "unlocks what is locked," (line 382). This could allude to the oriental saga about the Prince who went from chamber to chamber ("unlatching the latches and unbolting the doors") in search of the last one, where the virgin is waiting for him. However, the following lines, "Thus and for nothing do I step out of mirrors / into mirrors," could perhaps be understood as a continued, feverish self-analysis, yet it is all in vain; he is unable to change the course of his life. The dialogue between Stateira and himself is fragmentary but may at least indicate one similarity of their fates (a captive within a higher being) but also the incompatibility between life and death ("You seek in the eternal the rational? I seek in the temporal the irrational."). "Méga Aléxandre" also touches on "the greatest of all folklore figures over a wider area than any other comparable personages." The Romance of Alexander, so full of marvels, miracles, and romantic episodes, as well as other more or less imaginary or historical accounts of Alexander, from Callisthenes, Plutarch, Racine, and E. M. Forster (Pharos and Pharillon) has fascinated the western world, and throughout the Moslem world the legends of Iskander are legion. There could also be a corresponding folklore association in "Gorgo and the cuttlefish" section later on in the Elegy.
The punctuation of time, "September snowing down in red leaves, / October thawing away in dead leaves," spills over to become a full scale ballad about the months and numerals and at the same time a daring sexual phantasy. A picture of a winepress or an olive mill from Pompeii (cf. note 40), which suggests a piston, connects with the "dialogue" of some characters from Bellman's writings. Cajsa Stina appears in Fredman's Epistle No. 1, and Mother Bobbi takes part in a comedy by Bellman, performed on July 17, 1790, where she innocently sells "nice cherries, red and clear." Here, however, their dialogue with Ensign Morian is nothing but a witch-like conjuration at a violation and abortion scene. Bellman is again reintoned in line 468, "At the far garden-gate, in the woods," which is taken from Fredman's Song, No. 24. The mountain's childbirth (lines 454-455) can be read about in a fable by La Fontaine.
This brings this study to the point where it connects with one published in Germanic Review (March, 1965). Occasionally Ekelöf's allusions are so much oriented in his own culture and his own biography that they compound the difficulty for an interpreter but usually his allusions are of a kind that relate his Elegy to mankind's behavior, patterns, and quirks rather than to idiosyncrasies of a private nature. That interest in folklore in general is one proof of his aspiration for broad, "historic" perspectives of mankind. Kierkegaard agreed with philosophers that life had to be understood backwards, but he drew the conclusion that it is impossible to understand existence intellectually, "for the very reason that at no moment of time can I find the perfect repose to take the backwards position." Ekelöf, who is used to starting his investigations from scratch,—er hat seine Sache auf Nichts gestellt—, has made a successful attempt at describing one moment and infusing new life into it precisely with the backward position.
"Scholars will have a royal time working out the riddles in this major work of an almost major literature's major poet," wrote George C. Schoolfield when reviewing the Elegy. If by the efforts of various scholars and the poet's own notes, some questions about the Elegy's allusion have been answered already, I am afraid it is my experience that they nonetheless just seem to prompt new questions and new speculations. If other questions, such as the musical concept of the Elegy barely have been touched on, it is for good reasons. The Elegy itself can be looked upon as a musical score which sometimes appears hard to read and sometimes is "illegible" and sometimes is straight, delightful reading. Conclusive interpretations of this score can hardly be achieved, since new readers will continue to read it their own way, without regard for the poet's conscious purpose and the origin of his ideas.
"The musical conception of poetry is not a series of mile posts," says Ekelöf, "but continuous wandering. It is not a monument but a happening. It is not an established memorandum of a moment, not 'I,' but a conglomerate of the me, he, we, you, all the impulses, heredities, memories, associations (meaningful or meaningless ones and without appropriateness), all the polyphonic interplay of the important and less important, the distinct and inseparable detail for which the 'I' is something of an auditive focus…. There are many components which live in what I call me…." And Shelley wrote: "A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3545
SOURCE: "Gunnar Ekelöf: The Poet As Trickster," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 42, No. 4, November, 1970, pp. 410-18.
[In the following excerpt, Ekner examines the ways in which Ekelöf's shorter poems often seem embedded in an intricate, "larger context," details of which the reader might only discern in the future, when recalling the poem.]
Gunnar Ekelöf was not a brilliant conversationalist, but when he felt at ease he could be very entertaining. He would talk about his life and his reading, about people he had met, and he would do it laconically and drastically, in short snatches. Eventually, after a long pause, it often happened that he would finish with a sharp and penetrating comment and glance quickly at his listeners to see if they understood. It was not always easy to do so, since he enjoyed being cryptic and making allusions: he took for granted that his listeners were acquainted with many languages and different cultures, and that they had had experiences which anyone would be reluctant to talk about quite openly. He did not like to explain his cryptic remarks, for it would have meant destroying his point, and if he saw that the person with whom he was conversing did not understand, then he preferred to make small talk or to fall silent.
In his poetry he was natural in his own way: he expressed himself exactly, without bothering to explain what in his own eyes was expressed with all desirable clarity. His readers had to submit to him. Nor did he hesitate to provide his poems with ambiguities and trap-doors, to see how many readers would admire the beauty of his language and art before someone stopped to perceive the puzzle-picture beneath the surface.
One example: in "Absentia animi," the long poem that terminates Non serviam (1945), Ekelöf, by means of concrete landscape scenes from autumnal Sweden, and with the help of an abstract, intellectual dialectic, tries to enter the unio mystica of mysticism. But it was twenty years before someone explained in print the meaning of a crucial word that is repeated throughout the poem, the word "abraxas," which is the name for the highest being of the gnostic creed, a figure found on inscriptions and Hellenistic amulets, showing a human body with the head of a bird and with snakes instead of legs. Five years later another scholar was able to show that the butterfly that is mentioned in the beginning of the poem had fluttered earlier in a poem by Strindberg.
… en trasig fjäril är på väg
till intet, som är en avblommad ros
den minsta och fulaste, Och harkrankarna, de dumma djävlarna…
In "Indiansommar" Strindberg wrote:
Då kom en fjäril,
en brun och otäck fjäril,
som förr varit kålmask
men nu kravlat sig upp
ur en nylagd lövhög
narrad av solskenet,
And Strindberg says that the butterfly settled on his flowery blanket, where it "valde bland rosorna / och anilinsyrenerna / den minsta och fulaste." It was still sitting there an hour later:
Han hade uppfyllt sin bestämmelse
och var död
den dumme djäveln!
The realistically depicted autumn scene at the beginning of "Absentia animi" insects fluttering towards death and annihilation did not stop Ekelöf from installing a skilful allusion to Strindberg's October poem "Indiansommar." A few lines further on in "Absentia animi" we come across a logical intellectual sequence thrown like a spear towards nothingness, which immediately casts it back like the broken reflection of a mirror: "Sats motsats slutsats abraxas abrasax Sats." Abraxas? The supreme being of the gnostics, yes. But also akin to the stupid large white butterfly in Strindberg's poem and the torn one in Ekelöfs: abraxas, a genus of the group geometrid moths.
Many of Ekelöf's shorter poems may be read as if they were contributions to some of his own conversations, or short emotive monologues, taken from a larger context. The first words strike a note, some chords follow, and the poem culminates in a sated feeling, the meaning of which the reader does not always find it necessary to analyze. However, knowledge of the large context, or of the secret puzzle-picture if there is one, gives the feeling a consistency that stops it from melting away into associations which threaten to become too private or too vague.
Special attention should be paid to "Arsinoë"; as the first poem of Strountes (1955) it occupies the key position of that collection. Peter Ortman, by the way, recently devoted a long and interesting, though somewhat meandering commentary to it.
Jag lindar, jag lindar dessa remsor
över min älsklings ögon, över dess själ
Med brunt, nästan utplånat bläck
skall jag skriva på mina linneremsor
och jag skall linda dem som en vaggsång
runt om min älsklings själ
O aldrig utgjutna salvor
O smala remsor
lindade i varv på varv av konstrik flätning!
Liknar du inte reden en fjärilspuppa
sådan den hänger i rosenbusken!
Du med de stora ögonen jag gav dig!
Du med det obefläckade anletet!
The speaker of the poem compares the action of wrapping linen ribbons round the soul of the beloved to a lullaby, and the poem is in itself a lullaby, lulling somebody who is dead to rest. The song quality of the poem is not stressed but is apparent nonetheless: in the repetitions in the first two lines, in the two exclamatory sentences (lines 8 and 9), and also in the two parallel invocations concluding the poem. The speaker, then, moves from talking about to talking to somebody: moves from a relatively neutral feeling to an intense and direct outburst of emotion. The information given in the poem is scant but yet sufficient to explain what happens: that a dead child is committed to its last resting-place by one of its parents, probably its mother, and that the scene must be ancient Egypt. The mother wraps the embalmed body of the child with layer upon layer of linen ribbons and promises to write secret signs on them, apparently to protect the soul of the child, now on its way to the realm of the dead. That it is a child we understand from the comparison of the body to the chrysalis of a butterfly, that is, something very small, and from the fact that she mentions the big eyes of the dead and calls its face obefläckat, that is, untarnished, immaculate, without sin. Again, she says that she gave the dead one these big eyes, so it is natural to surmise that she is speaking to her child.
During the Hellenistic period of Egypt "Arsinoe" was commonly used as a woman's name. Peter Ortman has found about thirty different "Arsinoës," Egyptian queens or cities and places named after them. All the trails except one seem to be dead ends; the exception leads to the most famous Arsinoë of all, queen of Egypt and wife and joint regent of her brother Ptolemy II. Her story contains some of the most brutal court intrigues of the Hellenistic world. A daughter to Ptolemy I Soter and his queen Berenice, Arsinoë at sixteen was given as a bride to the elderly king Lysimachus of Thrace, whom she bore three children, all of them sons. In order to guarantee access to the throne for her own children, she accused the successor to the throne, Agathocles, who was Lysimachus' son from an earlier marriage, of having plans to murder his father the king. Agathocles was put in jail, where he was murdered by Arsinoë's elder half-brother, Ptolemy Ceraunus, Agathocles' wife, a sister of Arsinoë, then fled to king Seleucus of Syria, who saw his chance and invaded Thrace. In the ensuing battle Lysimachos was killed, and Seleucus proclaimed himself king of Thrace. Shortly afterwards he was killed by the reckless Ptolemy Ceraunus, who put himself on the throne. During these violent events Arsinoe had fled to Ephesus which Lysimachus had renamed Arsinoë in honour of his wife and then to her own royal residence, Chassandreia in Macedonia. With her legitimate claims on the throne, she was a political threat to her half-brother Ptolemy Ceraunus. In order to disarm her in the simplest possible way, he proposed to her. Arsinoë had no choice; possibly the ambitious woman was attracted by the prospect of becoming the queen of three united kingdoms, Thrace, Macedonia, and Syria. However, her acceptance of the proposal proved fatal: shortly afterwards her half-brother, and now also her husband, killed her two youngest sons, only 13 and 16 years old. In vain Arsinoë tried to protect them with her own body. Via the island of Samothrace, where she had erected a temple, Arsinoë now fled to Egypt. In Egypt reigned her full brother Ptolemy II, who was married to a daughter of Lysimachus. (Her name, by the way, was Arsinoë too.) Arsinoë soon managed to lure her brother into casting off her former step-daughter, whose place she took. In spite of her age she was now about forty years old she was apparently still an attractive woman, as well as possessing an able and imposing character. She was raised to joint regent and took active part in the foreign affairs of her country. After her death her brother elevated her to the rank of goddess. Under the name of Arsinoë Aphrodite Philadelphos, the brotherloving love goddess, she was worshipped throughout Egypt.
Three times queen Arsinoë failed to have her deepest wish granted her: unlike her mother Berenice she was not able to secure a throne for any of her four children. Her eldest son died in Egypt, while she was still alive, the son she bore her brother Ptolemy died in infancy. And this brings us back to Ekelöf's poem.
The speaker is an Arsinoë the "brotherloving" Arsinoë, let us assume. Accordingly we may surmise that she now bids farewell to the hope she cherished throughout her turbulent life. The words the poet lets her speak make us feel how deeply she mourns the dead child, and we see how she tries to beseech Osiris, the god of the dead. The Egyptians believed in resurrection, hence they embalmed their dead and gave them food and wooden servants to help them on the long journey into their next life, and Arsinoë is careful not to use the word "body." She wraps the soul of her beloved child in winding cloths. Her belief that the child will enter a new life is revealed when she compares it to the chrysalis in the rosebush. (Here the butterfly and the rose are not a symbol of extinction, as in "Absentia animi," but of resurrection.) She sings a lullaby for the dead child, death is a sleep from which the child, as a result of the mother's care, will wake to a new life. From the insignificant chrysalis a new, sparkling creature will emerge.
The poem is a variation of the theme of "Galla Placidia," a poem that is also found in Strountes. In the latter poem Ekelöf describes the mosaics that surround the dead queen Galla Placidia in her chapel, and speaks to her about the beautiful scenes she will meet after her resurection. Arsinoë also reminds the reader of Niobe cruelly punished and weeping, in Ekelöf's collection Sagan om Fatumeh: "Niobe begråter sina barn…."
In Ekelöf's short poem Arsinoë is a mother figure; her adventurous life, her intrigues and incestuous marriages are not mentioned. There is even reason to doubt that Ekelöf, when the poem was originally written, was thinking of Arsinoë. Possibly he later found that her fate was compatible with the poem, that it could be put in her mouth without doing violence to historical truth.
The fact that the poem originally was called "Vaxmåleri" (Dagens Nyheter, March 23, 1952) indicates that this might be the case. Even the original title has Egyptian associations, if not with Arsinoë. The oldest known canvas paintings are Hellenistic portraits excavated from Egyptian tombs, where they had been placed over the heads of the dead. The ancient painters mixed the pigment with wax, which they then burned into the canvas (or wood) at hand. This method is called wax-painting, or encaustic painting. It is reasonable to believe that Ekelöf had seen many examples of such encaustic paintings in museums he visited, and there are many reproductions of such paintings in art books. A characteristic trait of these burial portraits is the big dark eyes, eyes that also seem to look at us in Ekelöf's poem. A seeming inconsistency in the poem makes such a provenience likely. As Ortman has pointed out, Arsinoe cannot possibly write with an ink that has already become almost extinguished. It must be the poet who from his own time looks backwards through the centuries at her faded signs. In En outsiders väg Ekelöf mentions the mummies wrapped in linen ribbons which he has seen in the museums of Uppsala, Paris and Rome; in these museums numerous papyrus fragments with a sepia and faded writing are also exhibited.
The line "O aldrig utgjutna salvor" still lacks an explanation, however. Why are the ointments never used? Have they something to do with the process of embalming? Or is the dead child a little girl, and does her mother regret that she has not been allowed to become a woman, that she has not been given the chance to use the perfumes and ointments belonging to the cosmetics of a distinguished Egyptian lady? Both alternatives are possible, and the latter brings us away from Arsinoë, who never bore a daughter. Her name in the title therefore ought not to be regarded as a key, but as a hint and a direction. It points to a certain time and culture, and nothing more.
In his paper Peter Ortman has succumbed to an understandable temptation to speculate on Ekelöf's interest in alchemy and embalming, and his yielding has resulted in many entertaining digressions. But the text of the poem gives only frail support to far-reaching speculations, and I will here content myself with the question: why did Ekelöf choose to open Strountes with "Arsinoë"? I find it difficult to answer the question in any way save one: that Ekelöf, while editing his poems, saw a similarity between those secret signs Arsinoë writes on her linen ribbons, and those signs, letters, words and meanings, he had written in his own poems. A similarity, nothing more. His poems are not these secret signs, ribbons, big eyes, this immaculate face. But they can be compared to chrysalises, which in the consciousness of future readers will change into living butterflies.
Since the poem "Arsinoë" has led us to the Orient, let us consider another Strountes-poem, published in Opus incertum:
Ur det förflutna steg flodens ande som en dimma
svävade av och an och samlade sig framför de undrande träden
frågade med sin mumlande röst: Var är jag? Vem väckte mig?
Ingen skräckslagen fiskare svarade, ingen
bjöd den åter stänga sig inne i flaskan
men när den såg Salomos insegel växa på strand
skyggade den i virveln av ett kallt luftdrag
Sedan spridde den sig över ängarna, sökande
tusen förlorade år.
The poem is immediately pathetic but obscurely contradictory. Almost every line puts unanswered questions. The impressive melody arouses sympathy for the spirit of the river which hovers uneasily back and forth until, startled by "a cold draught," it spreads through the fields, in a landscape that itself seems cold and desolate, and where no one but the wondering trees pays attention to the river's re-awakened soul. The spirit, I believe, is to be regarded as the soul of the river. Passing by other points of comparison, one makes a ready association with Stagnelius' poem, "Näcken," about the nixy, who, with tears running down his face, plunges into his silver brook when the boy on the bank tells him that he shall never behold "Edens blomsterkrönta slätter." Nor has the river-spirit in Ekelöf's poem any chance to see its wishes come true. But the nixy's longing is directed forwards, to the impossible religious deliverance, while the longing of the river-spirit is directed backwards, to the past that has swallowed up its lost years. But what does the river sigh in Ekelöf's poem?
There is an element of Arabic wonderland in the poem, of The Arabian Nights with its djinns confined in bottles friendly spirits with the power to fulfill any wish, or evil spirits with the power to destroy, if they are let loose. (In Swedish the Arabian Nights is called Tusen och en natt, a number that is reflected in the last line of the poem.) The spirit of the river rises out of the past, but the world that confronts it is completely different from the one that bore it and that it remembers. Here there are no terrorstricken fishermen, no one who is afraid of it or bids it welcome, no one with the power to command it. The wonderland is dead and gone, the spirit is the sole survivor, a powerless ghost of the past. But when it sees "Salomos insegel" on the river bank, it shudders "in the swirl of a cold draught" and spreads over the fields, seeking its lost years. Why is it frightened just then?
Solomon (Salomo) is a hero not only in the Old Testament and Hebrew legend, but also in the Arabic realm, where he appears as a wise man and sorcerer with a power over demons. By means of a seal, signet, or magic ring Solomon seals bottles where he keeps the demons, and the river spirit shies in fear of becoming confined again, a baseless feeling in the poem's world, since Solomon's seal has lost its magic power long ago. However, Salomo's seal is growing on the bank, which it does because it only indirectly has anything to do with the past. The expression "Solomon's seal" has consciously been given a double meaning in the poem, and the primary meaning is not likely to enter the reader's mind at first, that is, Salomo's signet ring, but a meaning that is derived from it. The seal growing on the bank is a plant, a sealwort, or any plant belonging to the genus polygonatum. Plants of this genus are distinguished by a characteristic rootstock, and it is this peculiarity that Ekelöf, in a clever way, has made literary use of. The rootstock of the sealwort seems to consist of joints; on the upper side it has a series of rounded scars, which have given rise to many superstitions. The scars look like the impressions of a seal hence the common name. The scars are the marks of last year's flower-stalks, which formed the tip of the root-stock. The stock then continued to grow through a side bud that was formed at the base of the flowering shoot; the root-stock may live many years, and by counting the scars one can determine the "age" of the plant. The reader must imagine that this is exactly what the river spirit does, with its penetrating eyes. It counts the scars, and so it understands that it has been confined in the bottle for no less than a thousand years. In the cold swirl of this insight it disperses like a haze over the fields of the desolate landscape, in an unquenchable desire to recover the lost years of its life.
A closely related motif is to be found in two other poems by Ekelöf: "Emigranten," first published in 1941, and "Den förtrollade ön," in Vägvisare till underjorden. With an interval of many years, the emigrant has twice been conveyed to the cellar of a temple, perhaps a Mayan temple, situated near a beach, the first time after a shipwreck, the second time after having lost consciousness while staying in a large city. The emigrant now appeals to the "honorable judge" for another investigation concerning his case. When he assembles all the facts, a whole year of his life is missing, and he realizes that a crime must have been committed. A similar discrepancy between experienced and chronological time is revealed in "Den förtrollade ön," another branch of the tree called the Arabian Nights. A prince, on an excursion to an island, drinks from a magic well, and when he returns to the beach he finds the whitened bones of his companions. On his return to his town he is told his own story, as a legend from the distant past. The poem is a virtuoso-piece of comparison, where different time levels cancel out one another.
Fascinated by the concept of time and the experience of time, Ekelöf tried to catch the time experience in a single moment that annihilates the flux of time: he does it in En Mölna-Elegi, while in the word sonata of his youth, "En natt vid horssonten," he tried to force time to stop like an unborn fetus with its head pointing downward at the exit of the world.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5641
SOURCE: "The Later Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf: Diwan and Fatumeh," in Mosaic, Vol. IV, No. 2, Winter, 1970, pp. 101-15.
[In the following excerpt, Sjöberg explores Ekelöfs blending of Eastern mysticism with the Christian figure of the Virgin Mary in two of his later poems.]
In his prose works, the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968) often returned to memories and dreams, some-what as Proust did. What triggered Ekelöf's memory might be a fragrance, a tone, or a certain light. He described childhood experiences, his observations from travels in the Mediterranean area or in Lapland, his fascination with people, books, and pictures. Certain of these themes appear quite frequently in his poems. In the essay "En outsiders väg" ("An Outsider's Way," 1947) he gives part of his lyrical autobiography. When he calls himself an autodidact, he does not mean it in the proletarian sense. "My childhood environment was well-to-do but so far beyond the normal and so alien to life, that there was plenty of room for a peculiar kind of want." And it is on this lack, in the midst of abundance, he says that he has lived.
"Music has given me the most and the best," he stated. It was Oriental mysticism, however, that engrossed him during his years of awakening. "I learned to hate Europe and Christianity and during morning prayers at school I began to mumble my "Om mani padme hum" ("The innermost secret is in the lotus flower") as a protest. His favorite book for a long time was Tarjumàn al Ashwáq by Ibn al-Arabi. Ekelöf also in the same way tells of his dreaming about emigrating to India, his preparation for studying at the School of Oriental Languages in London, his having to abandon his dreams, and his ending up at the University of Uppsala studying Persian and Sanskrit. A long illness, combined with restlessness and new dreams, made him leave the university.
From mysticism he turned to music which always remained vital to him. Although he went to Paris to study music, he became involved in literary and art circles, and became a poet. What he was looking for was "the hidden meaning a kind of Alchimie du Verbe" In an early essay he notes: "Poetry is this very tension-filled relationship between the words, between the lines, between the meanings. I have actually learned to write as a child learns to read: B A becomes, strangely enough, BA. You must of course also have something to say, but it is well if you begin by learning how to say it and begin at the beginning. Many authors have neglected the ABC-book that is published in only one copy and that they carry within themselves." In the essay "Verklighetsflykt" ("Flight from Reality,") he said he could envision peace only when people have learned to live "with the great, simple things: the sea, the forest, music, i.e., the music which is based on silence. And by travelling and being homeless. And how does that wisdom manifest itself? In one's ability to wish for things for oneself without becoming hysterical and wanting one's wishes at any price."
In 1932 he published Sent på jorden (Late on Earth), the first significant attempt at lyrical modernism in Sweden. An original achievement, it was nonetheless overlooked and misunderstood by all Swedish critics except one. The book had been written in the midst of a personal crisis. In "An Outsider's Way" Ekelöf called Sent på jorden "a suicide book." He also stated that he literally used to walk about with a revolver in his pocket. "In my general despair I did everything possible to remain in my dream-world or to be quickly removed from it," he wrote. "Crush the alphabitch between your teeth," "Cut open your stomach and don't think of tomorrow," "Give me poison to die or dreams to live" were some of the lines in these poems. In the last one there is an implied appeal: Either the world will perish, or it shall listen to my poetry! His feeling of doom was coupled with a strong healthy streak, so he decided for a while to rely on dreams.
In the 1940's he gained recognition as the pioneer in Swedish modernism. This was achieved through Färjesång(Ferry Song, 1941), which Ekelöf himself considered his personal breakthrough. It is a volume permeated with paradoxes and Oriental philosophy. In a key poem "Open It, Write" (alluding to St. Augustine) he sets out to solve the problem of dualism by finding a "third position" beyond good and evil, the totally unconnected point of view, which is symbolized in the virgin. The poet discusses the nature of the "self, and gives an analysis of the mechanism of life as seen from man's tragic predicament. His "third-position philosophy" (with no metaphysical overtones) has never entered the political sphere, but on many occasions Ekelöf has successfully engaged in polemics against society, church, and authoritarians.
Non Serviam (1945), with obvious references to Satan, and Stephen Dedalus in Joyce, gave Ekelöf his breakthrough with critics and the public. The long 'musical' poem "Absentia Animi" is outstanding:
In the poem "The Gymnosophist" Ekelöf again returned to mystic concepts: "some one else" or "something else." He contended that "beyond reason and experience begins something else," as he had stated in an early aphorism. In other words: Whatever the vision (or experience), there is always something else, beyond that vision, which can only vaguely be divined.
Strountes (1955, Tryflings), as Muriel Rukeyser translates the title, [or Nonsense, ] contained whims, often with puns, but as Carl Fehrman puts it, "The implication of the word and the concept strunt for Ekelöf becomes almost metaphysical: from reality he wants to 'squeeze out its meaninglessness' and at the same time to seek an ironical redemption." Even in much of Opus incertum (1959) and En natt i Oto ac (A Night in Oto ac 1961) Ekelöf has an antipoetic approach. A work of "metamorphoses" begun in the late thirties and considered "work in progress" until publication in 1960, En Mölna-elegi (A Mölna Elegy,) was an elaborate composition, with witty or personal elements and a number of "learned" allusions and references. Its main theme concerns time and the relativity of the experience of time, and it was an experiment in recapturing the "mood" of one given moment. The "action" takes place at Mölna, just outside of Stockholm, Ekelöf's birthplace and the city he loved and hated.
Ekelöf displayed a continuity of development in which his solid, personal reliance on the living part of the Swedish, European, and Oriental cultural traditions was a striking feature. Reality, self, identity, birth, death, love, and nature were some of the most common themes in his poetry. As to what was materia poetica he undoubtedly concurred with Wallace Stevens' dictum, "Consider (a) that the whole world is material for poetry; (b) that there is not a specific poetic material."
If Ekelöf's sources of inspiration varied greatly, from art to nature, he was somewhat ambivalent about inspiration itself. His first poem, from 1927, came over him as a kind of ecstasy. "It was like a shower of shooting stars and I remember that I staggered a bit on my way home." Some forty years later Ekelöf completed the last volume of his "Byzantine" trilogy, which to a large extent consisted of mystical or ecstatic poems. Yet, in 1951, he said he thought that inspiration as a standard concept ought to be abolished, since it has as many variations as there are poets. There was a kind of inspiration of the type that Mallarmé had that Ekelöf recognized: the slow, laborious composing of word upon word, work that could take years. As for himself, he said he had all sorts of inspiration. Sometimes it came quickly, sometimes it took years. Occasionally he dreamed poems so completely, that as he said in one essay, he was able to take down hastily the dream that had awakened him.
During his last few years, when he was suffering from cancer of the throat, he was often in great pain; but even greater was his urge to compose new poems, sometimes as if in a trance. During four weeks in the spring of 1965, beginning in Constantinople, he wrote "a mystical ode of some fifty or sixty poems," later called Diwan över fursten av Emgión (Diwan upon the Prince of Emgion) "It is my greatest poem of love and Passion. I cannot touch it nor see it because I grow ill when I see this blind and tortured man … As far as I can understand someone has written [i.e. the poems] using me as a medium … Really, I have never before had such an experience, or not one as complete," Ekelöf wrote to a friend.
This Prince of Emgión about whom Ekelöf wrote his Diwan had put in an appearance in Ekelöf's collection, of poems Non Serviam (1945) and Opus incertum (1959). Ekelöf has related how he first came across the word "Emgión." It was in the 1930's, when with friends in an Östermalm apartment in the Östermalm district of Stockholm he asked at a gay spiritualist session where his spiritual "I" was to be found. The answer was, "In Persia," in the guise of "The Prince of Emghionn" (as the oracle, an upside-down drinking glass, indicated). In his Diwan Ekelöf included a melancholy, yet defiant, portrait of himself, starting with the lines:
In the calm mirror I saw mirrored
Myself, my soul:
The beginnings of a turkey-cock neck
Two sad eyes
A harsh voice
A belly slit open
And sewn up again
A face scarred by torturers
A maimed foot
A palate for fish and wine
One who longs to die
Who has lain with some
In casual beds but for few
Has felt love and for him
One who longs to die
With someone's hand in his
Thus I see myself in the water
With my soiled linen left behind me when I am gone
A Kurdic Prince called a dog
By both Roumaians and Seldjuks
In the water my bald forehead:
All the mangled tongues
Which have convinced me
That I am mute
And those stains on my shirt
Which water will never wash out
Indelible like blood, like poison
The stains of the heretic
Shall strike them like the plague
With still blacker stains.
When the Prince of Emgión returned in Diwan the fictitious and historic ground had been effectively prepared by Ekelöf, who for several years had steeped himself in Byzantine art and history. His intuition led him to combine the fictitious Prince of Emgión with elements from the Byzantine eleventh century epic romance about Digenis Acritas, a hero who was the son of a Byzantine mother and an Arab father (hence he had the name Digenis, of two races, and Acritas, margrave as one who defends the borders). Because of his unusual, and not very happy, home conditions as a child (the father was a wealthy broker who caught syphilis and became insane, the mother a self-centered, unloving lady of the lower nobility whose interest was travelling) Gunnar Ekelöf could easily identify with Digenis.
The Prince had been involved in war activities (we are told) and it turned out that he had supported the loser. He was taken captive and was kept as a prisoner of war and jailed in the Vlacherne prison. His treatment in jail, his experiences, and his visions of the Madonna are described in (Diwan,) a poem called "Ayíasma" (Hagiasma, holy, purifying well). The image of the Madonna is black from the smoke of the thousands of votive candles lighted in her honor. Since the believers threatened the very existence of this Madonna with their devotional kisses, a silver basma, a shield had been installed to cover everything except her face and hands. There are obviously several strands of interest in Ekelöf's poem, which to me in a most palpable way suggests the passage of time, and the passion of those prayings; while the prolonged passion "liberates" them, it "destroys" the exterior of the object of prayer:
The black image worn to shreds by kisses
The Darkness, O the darkness
Worn to shreds by kisses
The Darkness in our eyes
Worn to shreds by kisses
All we wished for
Worn to shreds by kisses
Darkness in our eyes is of special significance since, as we learn, the Prince is not only tortured but also blinded. To sustain himself in this time of terror, he resorts to contemplation of the Madonna, to whom he (as well as the poet) directs passionate hymns. But there also appears another female, one who may be his wife, daughter, or sister and who is unselfish and generous like a real mother. He has fantasies of a surgeon-barber fastening a silver thread with his own image between the madonna's breasts (in the poem beginning "You who came upon me / In the day of my affliction"). The Virgin, whom the blinded and mutilated Prince celebrates in song, while he is being led towards Van, is a common theme in Ekelöf's poetry. She usually stands for the independent, unconnected party, the balance point, between two forces (like in "Open it, Write"). She can be called virgin, because she is in no way yoked with the sterotype opposites that we always are dealing with, i.e. light-darkness, death-life, east-west, good-evil. "The devil is god / and God is the devil," both of them equally demanding, "Until I became aware of / Love, a chink / Between the two locked in combat," it says in one poem here. His love for this virgin is also love for the Panayía, (Panhagía, the high-holy one, the holy virgin,) who also has features of the Cosmic Mother:
Mysterious you shall stand
Aloft in the sky
Your eyes like stars
Shall beam upon the flocks
Of us who are shepherds
But you shall remain unattainable
You shall remain the one.
While Gunnar Ekelöf was still only a child, his father died from syphilis. With a mother who gave him no love, what would be more natural for the boy than to resort to dreaming? One of his dreams as an adolescent must have been about the pure and undefiled virgin. The theme of the virgin, that recurs many times in Ekelöf's poetry, can barely be touched upon here, for a number of reasons. Often the poet managed to see her as the balance, the resting point between conflicting forces, the most central of all. Perhaps this central position reveals that he actually had a real mother foremost in his mind. Why else would he take pains to make her into a distant, unattainable Cosmic Mother, if not in an attempt to displace the rejection he had met in his most formative years?
"Together the poems of the Diwan constitute one great creedless religious poem, in intensity and purity without counterpart in Swedish literature after the Romantic period" says Reidar Ekner, one of Sweden's leading contemporary critics and scholars. Ekelöf in a lengthy Postscript revealed he had reason to believe that the Prince of Emgión, his fictional I, had been of Armenian-Kurdish (i.e., North Persian) stock, half-Christian and Gnostic. He gave explanations of the following words:
Ayíasma (Hagiasma), purifying well. "The water cult is still alive in Greece and the Near East. A glass of cold water is the holy welcoming drink among the people."
Átokos (nullipara), the one who has not borne any child or any son; here in contrast to Theotókos, the one who has borne a god, or a holy virgin. It seems as if the Prince called not on the latter but on a considerably older type of goddess, the great Near Eastern virgin mother who has all human beings as her children and no one in particular. She was worshiped under different forms. To us she is above all known, through St. Paul, as the "Diana of the Ephesians."
The Blacherne Madonna, the most celebrated of all the miracle-working icons.
Enípnion (Enýpnion), roughly a dreamlike slumber, things that one sees in his dream.
Logothétis (Logothétes), the Emperor's minister, counsellor. He is supposed to have made the annotation about the Prince of Emgión. The punishment of blinding was in Greece as old as the myth of Oedipus.
Sagan om Fatumeh (The Tale of Fatumeh, 1966) which followed next can be considered a counterpart by contrast to the Diwan. While the Diwan dealt with a Prince who prayed to a cosmic virgin, The Tale of Fatumeh deals with a tellurian woman who became a whore. Fatumeh's fate, as the poet saw it, was to be transformed from an overgenerous loving girl into a young courtesan; later she becomes the beloved of a prince, whose child she bears; and finally, left alone, perhaps deserted by him, she is brought to the Harem at the Erechtheion. Eventually thrown out of the harem, she leads a miserable life as she ages, selling her favors to keep alive. Summarized in this direct way the theme may seem less than promising for poetic treatment and not very appealing. But Ekelöf was a master who knew how to handle words and their relationships, his touch was light, his contours were vague yet firm enough to stir his readers. The themes of love and death are intertwined.
In The Tale of Fatumeh the visible and the invisible, light and shadow, the pale and the spectacularly colored, are more pronounced than in most other books by Ekelöf. One poem is entitled "Karagöz," referring to a well-known Turkish shadow-play, a popular amusement in many places before the introduction of motion pictures. Shadows, different angles of light, changes of situation in connection with symbolic light effects, are frequently employed in these poems. There is, for instance, "a peep-show of darkness" in one poem; in another "a shadow / Which lives without Sun and Moon"; in a third poem is the line "does my shadow melt into your shadow." In one of the last poems Fatumeh is identified with physical and psychological suffering, and united with the one who suffers:
Sleep is far away
Pain lies here
I am lying here with you, Fatumeh
Whose paralyzed body is pressed against mine
in an embrace without end.
This mysterious everpresent shadow is not death. It is rather the process of dying. In a note on Fatumeh Ekelöf wrote: "The shadow is the consumption (the wear and tear) that we are all exposed to in the course of life; it devours us little by little. Do not think that the first time you encounter it will be the last!" The "market-place which is called the Square of the Wall" may be read as the place of your death, and "the pillar of Shadow, / Which can be seen from all sides, / A round Shadow" is clearly death itself.
Here it is said: Death reigns supreme! Even a seemingly unimportant poem at the beginning of The Tale of Fatumeh is infused with significance:
Reidar Ekner has suggested that Ekelöf here was making a reference to prenatal life. He also has pointed out correctly that for Ekelöf woman represented "birth and death, life and mystical extinction."
It is typical that Ekelöf endowed the pillar (or statue) of the Square with a round shadow, which was supposed to convey a female. The progression after the prenatal state is then an increased awareness in the course of life:
Five times I saw the Shadow
And greeted her as we passed
But the sixth time
In a narrow alley of the lower city
Suddenly she stood before me
Barring my way
And began to revile me
In the coarsest language
Then she asked me:
"Why have you rejected me?
Why have you not lain with your Shadow?
Am I so repulsive?"
To which I answered:
"How can a man lie with his Shadow?
It is customary
To let it walk two paces behind one
Until the evening"
She smiled scornfully
And pulled her black shawl tighter about her face:
"And after sunset?"
"Then the wanderer has two shadows,
One from the lantern he has just left behind him
And one from the lantern he is just approaching:
They keep changing places"
She smiled scornfully and laid her hand on the neighbouring wall:
"Then I am not your Shadow?"
I said: "I do not know whose shadow you are"
And meant to walk on
But, lifting her hand, she showed its black impression
In the moonlight on the white wall
And said again:
"Then I am not your Shadow?"
To which I answered:
"I see who you are.
It is for you to take me
Not for me to take you"
She smiled scornfully. "Beloved", she said
"At your place? Or at mine?"
"At yours", I answered.
It has to end with obliteration. Dying is seen as an act of love. Man is intimately wedded to suffering. Darkness, the shadow, which is related to the concept of nothingness, is also an obscurum per obscurius, "a path leading back to the profound mystery of the Origin," according to J. E. Cirlot. It devours him bit by bit. Ekelöf's sober observation is simple: just as light has its shadow, life is endowed with suffering. The "Outside" must have its "Inside," the body its soul. It is logical that the shadow in "End of the Tale of Fatumeh" should be entirely black, which indicates disappearance:
"Beloved, shall we meet at your place or at mine?"
So echoed her mocking question in the Night
"At yours!" So echoed his mocking answer
Once more they wandered through the Night
Far out of the City, far beyond the suburbs
Over the oasis gardens, up out of the Night
The red dawn rose. Further on the road
Lost itself in the sand, in the Sun
That climbed higher out of the Night
The Moon turned pale. The Sun cast darker shadows
As it set they came to her place. In the Night
All roads had vanished. They lay down beside each other
Beneath him nothing was to be seen of her Shadow
But when they shifted positions as lovers will
Nothing was to be seen under his Shadow
Thus the Night became a Day and the Day again a Night.
Ekelöf had a special philosophy of oddness, calling life an odd number, and death an even number:
I saw a coffin, draped in green, being borne from Eyub
By ten, by a hundred, by a thousand relatives and friends
How is it possible, you may ask, for such a multitude
To act as bearers for one coffin of average human length?
Oh, that's easy, that lightens the burden:
The pair at the tail of the procession keep hurrying forward
To relieve the pair at its head
Who shift their hold and become the second pair
Then the third, then the fourth, as a new pair come to the front
After ranking as chief mourners, they take second place and so on
Until, by and by, they rank as cousins twice removed
And so on until they come to the rear and the process begins again
In this way the last shall always be first.
Death's number is even, life's is odd.
That is why the one they bear is the thousand-and-First.
His numerological fantasies are expressed in his division of his book into a nazm, a string of beads, and tesbih, a rosary, each consisting of twenty-nine numbered poems.
A 1962 reprint of Ekelöf's first published book of poetry, Late on Earth, on its back cover had the thin contours of the poet's diminished hand, in a raised position. There was no shadow in that hand. It is fitting and logical that the small version of his hand on the back cover of the original Tale of Fatumeh should be filled with a dark blue shadow. The poet's life was fast approaching even darker shadows. The raised hand, incidentally, does not have to be seen either as a warning or as a protecting sign. It could be the symbol of song: in the earlier instance meaning "Listen to my song!" in the later instance suggesting, "My song is coming to an end, listen to it!"
Frequently among his works a number of poems have been inspired by fairly easily recognized art works. A case in point is "The Harem at Erechtheion":
Those knowing eyes look at me
Steadfastly without blinking
They give me their glances
Before they vanish
At every moment
They look at me with their look
You put your hand under her veil
Under her mantle
And touch the dagger
The hilt of the dagger under her left breast
A little to one side
In the crease just under the breast
You see and, seeing, you know
That everything is turning to ashes
That your look is changing
And soon will cease to be
Yet there remains
The golden light of evening through the open door
And the evening's ashes
Reidar Ekner has conclusively shown, I believe, that the poem is related to an early art work of Ekelöf's own making, an early short story, "Fallet Skönheten," ("The Case of Beauty," 1934). Through his vivid imagination a young writer on a cruise is connected "with all the dreams of the world, in the dim and distant past, and in the future." He mysteriously appears to be put to death by "the greatest and mildest criminal of all, Beauty, which, without taking the lives of its victims, nonetheless relieves them of a forced existence with their own unsatisfied longing as dagger." In the poem Beauty has been replaced by a feeling of relief, "almost melancholy after a burdensome life," says Ekner, who also points out that the poem can be read as a love poem. "Those knowing eyes" looking "steadfastly without blinking" (in "The Harem at Erechtheion"), however, surely must belong to another art work, a marble statue, on the outside of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, which Ekelöf visited. It should perhaps also be noted that the poem has a relationship with the poem "Xoanon": "I remove the arms / The brown hand with its rose, and the brown breasts / The right breast first, then the left, but gently / To ease the pain," (de bruna brösten / det högra först, det vänstra sist / med smärtorna). Ekelöfs intense study of the constantly changing light on the sculpture at sunset, explains, of course, only part of the poem. Concerning the line "That everything is turning to ashes": in the manuscript Ekelöf had toyed with different ideas "how everything is changing into its opposite," "and ends in its opposite, / and at the same time is. Now, here."
There are also references to other art works, such as films and music, but above all to icons.
It is true, as you said, that I am dark
But the veil has a hem of silver
I said: "I am your mirror, your mirror."
And now I say:
These Turkmenian eyes
Are narrow as knives
Quivering in the wood at which they have been flung
Close to the temples, under the arm-pits
So that a man stands nailed to the wall
These eyes looking downwards
Cheek bent towards cheek
Pouring tenderness over a child
Like a hive of wild honey
I am your child, nailed to the wall
And resting in your lap
I am your child and I shine
Close around me, rays
Stand quivering like knives
I shine because your eyes are dark
And because you are so dark.
In a letter of January, 1967, Ekelöf explained that his most immediate model was a Russian icon, "Glykophilousa," from the Russian Museum in Leningrad. "These Turkmenian eyes" referred to a film he had seen in Berlin in 1933, "perhaps one of the last decent films before the Machtübernahme. It dealt with some little Herr Schmidt or other, who unexpectedly had received a legacy and, quite dazed, got involved in a round of night club visits. During one of these visits, with a band of Circassians executing a dance with knife-throwing, he happened to enter on the wrong side of the stage ramp, which excited these daredevils to the extent that they exposed him to knife-throwing in the highest degree, until he was unable to move…. I was glad once more to find the same glance of cruelty and tenderness in enigmatic union…. Re those people in Berlin, I don't know of what kind they were, Caucasian or beyond, but the knife-eyes lodged in me. So did the Russian madonna of folk mixture."
The poem "Joasaph and Fatumeh" clearly has some emblematic features. Above all "Xoanon" describes an icon in great detail. The Panayía, the Madonna, wears a crown on her head (Ekelöf had a liking for crowns), and the icon, a favorite of the poet's, was acquired by the Ekelöfs when visiting Athens in 1961. In a hastily jotted down note Ekelöf had written:
With the madonna one cautiously lifts and uncovers
The last coating of color, and the very base color
A piece of olive tree wood, holy, let it be
That is the simple tree
Which patiently has carried your wishes
Has endured …
One poem opens with
Your face covered
With blood and dirt
You lay in the street
And the richly dressed
Who passed you by
These rich in garments
Of silver, of gold
Their eyes looking straight ahead
In the right direction
Composed the gold ground for your face
As you lay in the Street
Covered with blood and dirt.
The gold ground is, of course, the same as often can be found on an icon. And the face is a counterpart to that of an icon. The function of the others is limited to providing background, emphasizing the woman's central, human significance. Here she is one wronged in life who never per se will be debased. She continued to depend on her visions, just as the main protagonist in Diwan sustained his life on his visions.
Why all these gory, unpleasant elements? Do they belong less to our time than to classical times? In Ekelöf's vision of Near Eastern life, which he knew from his travels, from what he termed "many years of unsystematic Byzantine studies," of eclectic affinities, he felt obliged to include a considerable amount of the debased, ugly, and frightful, which certainly had little to do with the emblems. Take as an example the rape of the dwarf woman in one poem, or the "used up whaura," Fatumeh, describing her grotesque bodily advantages! The reason for his employing these elements is clearly to strike a balance with all the previous devotion. When Fatumeh admits to having been "selfish but faithful / On occasion you found me obstinate / And could not bear it / Now I am a skeleton / But a beautiful one / with joints well set in their sockets" etc., it is not necessary for us to visualize a beautiful skeleton, but rather to see a Fatumeh who has a certain beauty even in her used up state.
A lighter erotic touch can be found in several poems, one of which signals sexual distress:
You whose body is in such dire want
How can you endure?
By a want within and a want from without
Love and Friendship walked by
Arm in arm and said:
Her life is a thin membrane
Stretched taut like a drum-skin
Between this and That
The mere touch of a finger
The mere flick of a nail
Sets her vibrating
As if she were alive
Thus with over-tones I accompany
The rhythm of your voice, its choked wailing
And the strum of your fingers
On that single string.
Ekelöf was a great fan of Boris Christoff's interpretations of Moussorgsky's song cycles and played some of his records over and over again. On the day when I happened to have an appointment with Ekelöf at his home, he was tired and tense. Almost the only subject he could talk about with any enthusiasm at all was music, and whatever way the conversation turned it always came back to Moussorgsky. When the topic was exhausted, it started all over again with this marvellous bass, Boris Christoff, (Ekelöf had seen and heard Chaliapin in the 1930's in Paris.) The session ended with Ekelöf's playing of records of Moussorgsky's children's songs. Deeply moved, gesticulating and humming, he finally sat back on his bed when the music became less emotional. Peace came over his face, and he fell asleep, while the music of Moussorgsky continued. One of his favorites was a lullaby with a recurring "Báju! Báju!" (lullay lullay), which the Ekelöfs heard as "Avgó! Avgó!" associating with the Greek word for egg. This song "Avgó!" Ekelöf telescoped with a reproduction of a fresco from a Serbian church, in which an angel before an old shepherd points up towards the sky, while placing his arm around the shepherd's shoulders. The old man looks up with reverence and awe. In the picture there is neither egg nor moon. But the poet had made Russian "Báju" into "Avgó," then made his egg into a moon; moved by the shepherd's simple piety and profound experience, before the sublimity of the scene Ekelöf sang "Avgó! Avgó!" Later he made the old shepherd into an old woman, thereby further underscoring the female dominance, if not to say the almost frenzied devotion to female beings, in The Tale of Fatumeh.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3478
SOURCE: "East Meets West—Gunnar Ekelöf in English," in Moderna språk, Vol. LXVI, No. 2, 1972, pp. 124-30.
[In the following excerpt, Otter offers a mixed review of Selected Poems as translated by W.H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg, arguing that while some of the translation decisions made in the volume are imprecise and misleading and indicate "a certain lack of feeling for Ekelöfs mysticism and his style, " it is useful to have an English translation of Ekelöf's later poems which has the potential to "reach a very wide public. "]
One of Gunnar Ekelöf's earliest attempts at revolt against society and Christianity took the form of muttering to himself during school prayers "Om mani padme hum". This youthful protest, blended with mysticism, is evidence already of his interest in the East, which he later fed to the full at the Royal Library in Stockholm. Here, through Heidenstam's Endymion, he was led to a book which for a time was to become his favourite, and which was to remain a recurrent source of inspiration to the end of his life: the Tarjúmàn al-Ashwáq ("Translator of the Desires") of Ibn al-'Arabi, called Muhyi al-Din, a 12 13th century Sufi mystical poet. This book, a collection of mystical odes of platonic love expressed in erotic terms, first taught him, he said, what symbolism and surrealism really were.
Three attempts to leave Sweden "for good" in pursuit of his dream sent him first, with the idea of emigrating to India, to the London School of Oriental Studies. The "childish" methods of language instruction employed there drove him back to study Persian at Uppsala. His restlessness next took him to Genoa, where he seems to have missed the boat that was to take him to a coffee-planter's life in Kenya (one thinks of Rimbaud, another youthful mystic, leaving behind his poetry and his visions to live the reality in action), and finally to Paris to study music, but where he was caught and held by poetry, and whence poverty sent him back to Sweden.
Ekelöf's interest in the Orient centred at length around the Near East and Greece. He was particularly fascinated by the Byzantine Empire, with its compound of races and beliefs from East and West, of refinement and barbarity. Yet he hated it. The translators of the selection under review [Gunnar Ekelöf, Selected Poems. Translated by W. H. Auden & Leif Sjöberg. With an Introduction by Göran Printz-Påhlson. Penguin Modern European Poets. Penguin Books Ltd. 1971. 141 pp. This collection is referred to in this essay by the editors' initials, AS.] quote a letter in which he claims that "… Byzantine life, traditionally and according to deeprooted custom, is like the political life in our cities and states. I am intensely interested in it because I hate it. I hate what is Greek. I hate what is Byzantine…. Diwan is a symbol of the political decadence we see around us. Fatumeh is a symbol of the degradation, the coldness between persons, which is equally obvious." (p. 10).
This passion for the Byzantine seems to have boiled up again in his last years, during a journey to Turkey in 1965. The importance of this experience and the richness of inspiration that dominated his last three years produced three volumes of poetry: Diwan över fursten av Emgión, 1965 (written in the space of 4-5 weeks, according to the translators), Sagan om Fatumeh, 1966, and Vägvisare till underjorden, 1967, while a good deal of the posthumous collection of the surviving material from those years published by Ekelöf's wife in Partitur, 1969, is devoted to the same themes.
The present translation of the first two of these volumes is preceded by a Foreword by Auden & Sjöberg containing brief biographical details about Ekelöf, taken mainly from his essay "En outsider's väg" (Utflykter, 1947), and a note about the Diwan and Fatumeh. A short bibliography is followed by a very perceptive Introduction by Göran Printz-Påhlson, who discusses Ekelöf's poetic development and method and the peculiar quality of his vision.
A more primitive level of existence is Ekelöf's real subject man between a life that holds little and a death that holds nothing, the thin thread of being that survives mutilation of the body and returns to the universal on its death, that which is common to beggar and prince.
The main figure in the Diwan is the Prince of Emgión, a Kurdish-Armenian border prince of mixed Christian, Gnostic, Greek, Arabian and Persian ideas. Captured in battle, he suffered the same fate as his Emperor, Romanós Diogénes, being tortured, blinded and imprisoned. In the Diwan he is later freed and makes his way back on foot to his own country, led by a mysterious female figure, who appears in a number of the poems as his daughter, sister, wife, mother, and perhaps also the Virgin Goddess whose image pervades the whole of the trilogy. Curiously enough, in their foreword the translators appear to have confused the Prince of Emgión with Digenis Akrítas, the hero of a medieval Greek epic, to whom they attribute the same fate. It seems clear from Ekelöf's poems and notes, however, that the "I" of the Diwan is this probably imaginary prince, who feels that Digenis has betrayed him; in "Legender" (the second part of the book) he says that Digenis is dead.
The Fatumeh of the second book is, in the nazm (the first section), a young girl sold by her mother to become a courtesan, then the mistress of a prince by whom she has a child; she is then to be found in the harem at Erechteion. In the tesbih (the second section), she has apparently left the harem and is a prostitute; later we see her as a "bleareyed hag", an old worn-out street-walker.
Both the Prince and Fatumeh, through all their tortures and suffering, hold on to the thin thread of existence, borne up by their vision of the Virgin, whose presence haunts many of the poems. Although she is described from time to time in ikons, she is not the Christian Virgin Mary but that other 'more ancient' "barnlösa moder åt oss alla", the "mångbröstade" Panayía (Panhagía), "Medelhavets gudinna", who appears in earlier poems of Ekelöf's (cf. "Minnesbilder", En natt i Oto ac), the Diana of the Ephesians of St. Paul.
In a way, Ekelöf is much nearer to our metaphysical poets in his sense of the continual presence of death; the vision is too consistent to be merely surrealist. Behind his apparent stoicism ("Jag är litet tapprare idag än igår", he would say during his last illness) lies an Indian belief in the fundamental unity of all forms of life, and a feeling that Life and Death are one at the most primitive level. Often in these last books, through the eyes of princess and housewife, prostitute and beggar-woman, even through the eyes of the Virgin Mary, there looks out the grave compassion of the Great Earth Mother, she who has milk for us all. Often through crowded streets stalks the Shadow, of death perhaps, of husband, lover, mistress, child, of someone vaguely apprehended who is a mirror image of oneself. Ekelöf's explanation of the name "Fatumeh" is significant. The original meanng, he says, is "woman who is weaning her child," but he prefers to see in it also an allusion to the Latin word "fatum" (Sagan om Fatumeh notes, p. 109).
In Fatumeh, tesbih 24 (AS 134), Ekelöf says that death is an even number, life an odd one. One aspect of his mysticism is his preoccupation with symbol and number, shown in the arrangement of the poems in the three last books. Thus Sagan om Fatumeh consists of two groups of poems called nazm a necklace, or collection of poems, representing the young Fatumeh, and tesbih a rosary, representing the aged Fatumeh together with 3 single poems. In the East, according to Ekelöf, these rosaries (a pre-Christian device) usually consist of groups of 33 beads separated by a larger bead. In more elaborate rosaries these larger beads are often carved in the form of a python's head. Instead of groups of 33 poems, the poet has chosen groups of 29 (a prime number), "som när det hela är färdigt ger en bättre siffersumma". The arrangement in Diwan is similar, but with only one single poem separating the two groups. This single poem, or "paustecken", is also an "ormhuvud", and its use "antyder också att jag tänkt mig en fortsättning, att Diwanen blivit en art 'work in progress'" (See Sagan om Fatumeh, notes, pp. 109-110).
The total number of poems in the Diwan is 59 (a prime number), in Fatumeh 61 (again a prime number). Vägvisare till underjorden ("tänkt som mittvalvet av ruinen Diwan", i.e. as the second book of the trilogy) contains 43 poems (another prime number) arranged in a slightly different fashion (3 groups of 13 separated by 2 groups consisting of 1 "ormhuvud" and 1 other poem). The total number of poems in the three books is 163, once more a prime number; and no doubt Ekelöf, had he lived, would have continued with this scheme in succeeding books on the Byzantine/Greek theme. Is it a mere coincidence that the posthumous Partitur, although not overlooked by the poet himself, also contains 2 groups, each of 23 items (still another prime number)?
Auden & Sjöberg regret having had to abandon Ekelöf's plan in their version of Fatumeh, but do not explain that the plan applied to the Diwan also. They further obscure the plan by not numbering the poems and by omitting the title of the Diwan's second necklace or rosary: "Legends and Dirges" (Legender och Mirolóyier, ett urval). In any case, it is rather a pity that even if they had no space for the 8 poems omitted from the Diwan they could not include the 4 they left out of Fatumeh. These "collections of poems" are, in fact, strings of matching pearls, with shifting lights and colours, themes and allusions repeated along the rows.
The translation is reasonably direct, with few departures from the text, and only occasional changes of construction. Numerous small felicities and the general flow of the lines ensure that the version does not read too often like a translation. One difficulty in comparing the translation with Ekelöf's published texts is that the translators have incorporated into their version emendations derived from the manuscripts, so that it is often impossible without research to know whether a change or omission is inadvertent, or based on a misconception, or the result of a correction in Ekelöf's manuscript. Although this is only a popular edition, a note of which poems had been emended would have been useful.
I mention here a few other points in the translation which are worth notice.
The title Diwan över fursten av Emgión means a "collection of poems about the Prince of Emgión". It has been translated literally, however, "… over the Prince of Emgión", as if Diwan meant "funeral oration" or "dirge". The dirges (mirolóyier) form only part of the second half of the book, in fact.
The dedicatory lines of this book, taken from Tarjùmàn al-Ashwáq, read:
The translators' version is: "This poem of mine is without rhyme: I intend by it / only Her. / The word 'Her' is my aim, and for Her sake I am / not fond of bartering except with 'Give' and 'Take'." Are "sake" and "take" not rhymes? They echo strongly in the reader's mind and make nonsense of the first line. This could easily have been avoided by a less literal rendering of "för Hennes skull" as "because of Her".
In D21 (AS p. 35), a bird's feather floats through the grating of the Prince's prison cell: "Vinden förde den hit / eller någon annan förde den / Den fick ligga på golvet, länge / innan jag tog den i handen / en vanlig duvofjäder …" The translation here gives: "… or else somebody carried it" and "Before I cradled it in my hands". Ekelöfs text gives a gentle hint that the wind, too, is a being, not a mere object. His "jag tog den i handen" (I took it in my hand) does not express in words the sentiment introduced by "cradled" and "handy"; the sentimental picture is evidently not part of Ekelöf's plan or poem.
In D24, Hayíasma (Hagíasms a purification well) (AS p. 38) "två dunkla ögon" are not "sad" eyes but enigmatic ones.
In D25 (AS p. 40), "ett hemligt ansikte / såg meningsfullt på mig" is translated as "an enigmatic face / looked intently at you". Apart from the translation of "mig" by "you", which does not seem justifiable here, "intently" does not render "meningsfullt"; the line should rather be: "looked at me meaningly", "gave me a meaning look".
D27, another ayíasma (AS p. 42), is devoted to an ikon: "Den svarta bilden / under silver sönderkysst /" … Runt kring bilden / det vita silvret sönderkysst / Runt kring bilden / själva metallen sönderkysst / Under metallen / den svarta bilden sönderkysst" etc. Some ikons were credited with wonderful cures and other miracles, and were carried round from place to place to be presented to the faithful. To protect the picture of the Virgin from the lips of the multitudes, a thin silver plate (the basma) covering the Virgin and Child completely except for faces and hands was sometimes attached to the ikon, as were other details, such as jewels. (An ikon of this sort is described in Fatumeh, nazm 25, "Xoanon", AS p. 107.) The ikon was also occasionally set in a frame of silver. The translators do not seem to have fully realised this, for they render "Den svarta bilden / under silver sönderkysst" and its repetitions by "The black image (here, perhaps, "blackened" would be better) / Framed in silver worn to shreds by kisses". Here Ekelöf is referring to the basma, and "under silver" should be "beneath silver". "Runt kring bilden / det vita silvret …", then, refers to the frame, and the version given, "All round the image", is acceptable.
The other poem about an ikon which I have mentioned, "Xoanon" (Fatumeh, nazm 25), is discussed by Printz-Påhlson in his Introduction (AS pp. 13-14), where he argues that the slow stripping of the ikon, first of its basma and its removable attributes, then of the paint and ground right down to the wood it is painted on, represents Ekelöf's view of the poetic process, his method of arriving at what is common to man, the universal. There are one or two differences in the version given of this difficult poem, some of which may be due to Ekelöf's manuscript corrections. Ekelöf's punctuation is generally very scanty and often rather obscure, but it ought to be respected. Some guidance is given by his use of capital letters only for names and at the beginning of a sentence, not at the beginning of each line as in English verse. "Xoanon" begins. "Jag äger, i dig, en undergörande Ikon / om detta att äga är att ingenting äga / så som hon äger mig. Så äger jag henne." The translated version is: "In you I possess a miracle-working Icon / If to possess is to possess nothing: / As she possesses me, so I possess her". This version seems to me to misrepresent Ekelöf's thought.
In this ikon, "ett vuxet lindebarn" "står på en omvänt perspektivisk pall". This is translated by "On a footstool in receding perspective", an odd expression. Reference to almost any early ikon containing a stool or a throne, however, will show that the perspective is reversed, as Ekelöf says it is, that is the stool is depicted as growing wider towards the back, instead of narrower.
When removing the painted dress and body from the figure of the Virgin, Ekelöf writes: "Jag löser vecken över hennes högra bröst / och varligt vecken över hennes vänstra / med smärtorna…. / … Jag lösgör armarna / … de bruna brösten / det högra först, det vänstra varligt sist / med smärtorna, …". The translation given is: "I relax the creases … / … over the left / Gently, to ease the pain… / … I remove … / The right breast first, then the left, but gently / To ease the pain, …". This "gently, to ease the pain" does not satisfy. The word "smärtorna" is an allusion to St. Luke 2, xxxv, where the aged Simeon says to the mother of the child Jesus: "(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." Ekelöf's meaning is rather that the left breast is the one with the heart, the one with the pains, the pain of the sword and the suffering of the eternal mother before the fate of her child, who is to suffer for many in Israel. These pains are an inseparable part of the Virgin's heart, they cannot be eased but reverence is due to the bosom that bears them.
"The Logothete's Annotation" (AS p. 45), the Diwan's "paustecken", gives an example of a play on words that the translators have ignored. When the Prince of Emgión is imprisoned for four or five years, "Hans hustru eller måhända dotter bad för honom / med kropp och själ". "With heart and soul", which the translators have employed for "kropp och själ", is a common expression in English, but in the circumstances it is more than probable that the princess's body would have been employed as an additional means of supplication. The translation could well have been "with body and soul", though the suggestion is slightly cruder in English.
In Diwan "Legender" 12 (AS p. 58), a hasty mistranslation has confused Ekelöf's image. After shameful torture to make him betray his friends, the Prince says: "Men mitt kön, bödel / är inte mellan mina ben / Mitt förstånd, bödel / som förrådde inbillade namn / är inte i mitt förstånd, bödel / Det är i mitt hjärta, bödel / Stick i det, bödel". "Förstånd" has been rendered as "senses" (pl.) and "Det är i mitt hjärta" as "It is in my heart", which here therefore means "my sex is in my heart". But "förstånd" means sense, understanding, and it is the understanding that is in his heart.
Fatumeh, nazm 29 (AS pp. 112-113) is a poem which obviously describes a picture of a young prince embracing an urn about which is wrapped a veil. From a reference in nazm 23 (AS p. 105), the young man is the son Fatumeh had by her princely lover when she was young (according to nazm 22, pp. 103-4, Prince Joasaph). But the young prince is also to be nameless. Now Ekelöf, among other explanations of the name Emgión (Diwan, notes, pp. 106-7), also suggests that it is merely a description of the Prince's state as a hostage, and that therefore "har min furste inget namn utan han är en Namnlös". Thus the reference to the young prince as one "vars namn bör vara onämnt" is a small example of the many cryptic allusions that link together all the poems of this last period and give them such a strong sense of unity.
However, the picture in the poem is built up partly by a series of questions which strongly recall Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn; for instance:
Varför välsignar honom trädens grenar
och varför är de evigt vårliga? Och fåglarna
gömda i buskarna, säg varför de klagar
som om de frågade: Vem är därinne?
Whether the translators have realised that this poem is directly inspired by a particular painting is not certain. They have rendered "… allt i denna bild är redan utplånat" by "… everything in this image has faded already". Throughout the book, "bild" is translated as "image", a word which may be appropriate when applied to an ikon depicting the Virgin, but is out of place here. The painting which has evidently inspired the poem is an 18th century Persian miniature that is reproduced on the front cover of Sagan om Eatumeh. If the translators had observed this, they could have added a note.
To sum up, although it betrays a certain lack of feeling for Ekelöf's mysticism and his style, this translation of a large part of his last work ought to reach a very wide public. It would be interesting to speculate on its effect on English-speaking poets, with their very different attitudes and preoccupations. Auden's name should at least ensure that the book will not be ignored.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3931
SOURCE: "Listening to the Voices," in Voices Under the Ground: Themes and Images in the Early Poetry of Gunnar Ekelöf, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 1-34.
[In the following excerpt, Shideler asserts that the poem "Voices Under the Ground" serves as a commentary on the absurdity of death and as a reflection of the dialogues which occur within one's own consciousness.]
Gunnar Ekelöf's poem "Voices Under the Ground," published in In Autumn (1951) has been only casually touched upon by Swedish critics, yet it is one of Ekelöf's major poems. In it many of the crucial themes and images of the first twenty years of his poetry reach full fruition, for, with complete technical mastery, he draws upon the unconscious to symbolize and to identify his concern with dreams and with man's alienated and mortal consciousness. At first this poem seems like an incomprehensible dialogue between voices under the ground, with some unidentified observer above the ground. Upon further analysis, however, the poem has the unified structure of a dream and the dialogue represents a dialogue within the narrator's own consciousness.
This seemingly unstructured poem has a rather clear framekwork that can be outlined in musical terms, but the full depth of the poem is illuminated only when we see how Ekelöf uses symbols such as the bird and the stone within the structure of a dream. Ultimately, the poem deals in archetypal imagery with the narrator's lack of a space that he can comfortably inhabit and with his ambivalence toward death."…
The title "Voices Under the Ground" gives some idea of what is to be expected. The most probable "voices" one might hear, or imagine hearing, under the ground are those of the dead. The image in the title also creates a concept of planes or levels. To suggest an "under" is to imply an "over" or above. Assuming the voices are coming from the dead, and given the title, the reader's first assumption is probably just that, the possibility is set up for a listener, for someone hearing the voices, presumably someone on the earth's surface.
Within the first stanza of the poem, there are two different styles, one that seems rather objective, and another that is subjective. The difference between the styles is emphasized by the identing dash, often performing the function of quotation marks. The first style is that of the opening lines.
Common and simple sentence structure is used in the first three lines as typified by the use of the definite article in the first line and followed by the "It is…" of the next two lines. The lines, I suggest, are spoken from the most uninvolved level, by a narrator or the poet if one wishes to personify that level.
The next line, idented, is difficult to separate from the preceding lines, although it does seem less objective and the sentence structure is not as plain. The words imply someone who sees and evaluates, but someone other than the first person speakers of the following two lines. One theory could be that the first three lines represent thoughts of the narrator, while the next sentence may be spoken aloud by the same person.
With the two "I long from…" lines the first-person statement and vocabulary is almost colloquial. These two lines, it is presumed, represent the voices referred to in the title.
Basically, the two styles or tones within the poem are differentiated by third and first person speakers. Occasional passages are difficult to place, but these become clearer as our reading of the poem progresses. The first plane is that of the objective narrator or the stage-setter. It is this objective narration that may be considered upon or above the earth's surface, whereas the voices are beneath. This analogy will break down later, but it allows the reader to follow the poem somewhat more easily on a first reading.
Studying the poem from the viewpoint of levels or planes, decreases the importance of determining the identity and the number of the speakers. I find it easiest to read it as simply two voices in a dialogue, but since there is no clear way of verifying this, it may be read as a series of voices listening to one another and chiming in with comments. After the stage is set by the narrator, the two voices continue in a dialectical question and answer method. For purposes of convenience, I shall label the first speaker, voice A, and the second, voice B.
If a generalization could be made from this point, the poem would be called essentially "associative" with a major portion forming a dialogue of the type presentday readers know as "absurd." It is distinctly a twentieth-century poem in that it lacks a traditional beginning and ending and presents a slice, rather than a complete picture, of a universe that lacks light, center, or surface.
A close reading of the poem is helpful to establish a basic foundation of agreement and to lead into a more precise idea than the generalizations above. After the two lines of longing at the conclusion of the first stanza, there is a long stanza that returns to the third person narrative and repeats in its final lines a resumé of the opening lines. It can be assumed, therefore, that we are back to the observing level of the narrator.
The contents of the lines reinforce this assumption, since they continue to fill the visual stage of the poem. The opening lines were abstract and not localized apart from the morning light and the floors of drugstores. In these lines the poem becomes populated. A young man, a pale girl, and additional details are added, such as the flowers in the window.
These concrete phenomena are left open to the reader's imagination and he is invited to use it: "she exists only in connection with her hand which exists only in connection with…" This invitation to the reader's imagination is extended by means of the bird. The association lies in the movement of the girl's hands and the bird's flight, and in posing the question of the relation or connection between one thing and another. The old woman and the man at the desk seem to be further details on what I refer to as the stage as well as examples of the problem of relationship.
No reason is given to connect these various singular entities, but the child at the blackboard reintroduces the question of relationship. Once again the association and the question are posed in terms of a hand apparently in motion, then of things related to the scene. The entire passage is summarized with "Where is the hand?" and with the references to the flowers, time, morning light and, finally, the black-white checkered floors.
The summary of this scene reminds the reader that a group of characters have been seen, almost as if they were on stage, but no plot, no reason to connect them have been given. Instead, the reader has been asked to consider what it is that unites them on this particular black and white stage.
Before we are given a chance to consider that scene, however, we are drawn into a converstion. The objectivity and narrative quality of the first section is dropped. "What a lovely name!" is a colloquial and evaluative phrase and the first person "My" of "My bird" verifies that we are overhearing a conversation. The two voices, who are familiar with each other, are discussing the extinct primeval bird the archaeopteryx. The discussion at first has no apparent connection with the opening passage, but the references to flying and to light remind us of it.
A conversation about an extinct bird that is alive need not be illogical, if it is agreed that the voices actually are under the earth. Then an ageless sense of petrification, of time's progression in thousand-year beats is quite comprehensible. The voices identify with the stone of the earth and seem to feel an interchangeability between themselves and everything else that is within the stone. The dominant theme of the passage is the osmotic quality given to stone, envisioned possibly as a thick doughy substance or liquid, with the voice, lizards, birds, and presumably an infinity of dead life existing in it.
There is, however, a subtheme reminiscent of the opening passage. The concept of "connection" of "relation" continues by the absence-presence of the bird, and the same verb, flight, is used to pose the question. This theme of relation is further developed by creating a tension between the voice that is forced to remain "bound to the stone" and the bird "with its flight." Once it is created, this picture of voice, bird, stone, and their union, is broken.
One of the voices wanted to know something from the bird. We do not know what. The bird has the capacity to influence the speakers. "The bird took my wings and gave them to another light. The light went out." Although we do not know what the relation is between the bird and the speakers, we can see that the dialectical method of the poem is worked out more clearly here. The lines are reduced in length, and we can see a questioner and an answerer. Speaker A, the one who longs for the bird and who asked it for something, fears the emptiness and darkness of the pitlike abyss. Speaker B apparently delights in telling A of the confusing chaos that we begin to suspect is the universe. The description extends out to "the house of the stars," then back to the original area, "Birds and shellfish sleep there like you…"
The image of the stone is given even greater range. It becomes like a pulsing heart.
With thousand-year beats beat the'r hearts of stone
in veins of stone.
For yearbillions of stone time swirls them with itself
in raging storms of stone through seas of stone
to heavens of stone…
The intensity of this experience becomes comparable to the pounding of one's heart during a nightmare. The imagery extends itself to the limits of the universe and then abruptly returns, apparently illogically to the speakers. A asks, almost as if he were awaking, "Where am I? Where are you?" B tells him to "Wake up!" The complexity of A's awakening is that there seems to be no difference between reality and nightmare. He repeats his earlier question, "Is there no forgetfulness in the house of the abyss?" This question leads into a scene suggestive of a hospital and again is extended to a terrifying point of chaos. "Everything lies on its back, everything turns again and again on its back." Darkness is again a crucial aspect, and here, in the form of night, it becomes a frightening element climbing floor after floor of some unspecified building, possibly the hospital suggested earlier.
Speaker A abruptly takes us back to the black and white floors of the opening scene. The heart is now mentioned in the simile of the radiator, and the black and white floors are connected with the underlying "loneliness" theme of the absurd dialogue. With one more image filled with movement and implying chaos, "darkness rushes around the gables of the house," the opening scene is reestablished, with basically one character on stage: death.
Almost as a refrain the entire poem is summarized in the last four lines which give both the objective narrator and the two voices.
Having completed a general summary of the poem, one remains somewhat vague and confused about the poem as a whole. Certain scenes are easily visualized, but to put the opening and closing sections into some kind of meaningful relationship with the central dialogue is difficult."…
In "Voices," after the image of the morning light and the black and white checkered floors, there is the bitter but perhaps also pensive "tired as never years and days to death …" This line is immediately followed by a speaker, "I long from the black square to the white," who refers to the floors that resemble a chessboard. "I long from the red thread to the blue" is spoken by a second speaker. I suggest that it is the author's imaginary second self.
Let me refer to my initial introduction of these lines. I noted that the objectivity, traditional grammatical structure, and lack of colloquial language suggested a narrator, someone we might call an uninvolved perceiver. Now read this as the objective author whose thoughts appear in the next lines, "Silently, the morning light shrugs away the drug of sleep. Then he begins to play an intellectual game with himself"…
A review of the poem along the above lines is useful at this point. It is easier to follow the poem if it is thought of as divided into levels or planes as I first suggested. A personification of those levels, however, would put the poet describing and thinking on one level, the outer or objective, and the two imaginary opponents on the second or inner level. Dividing the poem this way may seem a dubious method, but it can provide a fruitful way of looking at the themes and methods employed in the poem. The poet-narrator opens the poem. He describes, then thinks to himself, but as he sees the floor, he imagines his chess game, imagines he can hear the two speakers.
The poet pensively returns to an objective scene, but he keeps demanding of its elements some coherence or cogency that, apart from the passage of time, they do not have. The grammatical and syntactical differences, as I have noted, support this interpretation. The third person emphasis of "That young man" down to "with the black-white checkered floors" contrasts with the more human first person passages that precede and follow it. The observations of the third person are either critical, "there is something wrong with his face," unresolved, "which exists only in connection with…," or questioning, such as the hand and the chalk.
If the two voices are in fact part of a fictitious inner dialogue, we should expect some carryover between the objective world of the poet and the conversation. This connection may be seen in the bird that flies "With its flight" in the observed passage, yet is extinct, made of stone, in the dialogue passage. There are other obvious similarities such as the verb "come back" and the essential questioning in both passages of the relation between things: what does the hand "exist in connection with," and what is the relation between the archaeopteryx and the speakers?
After this initial transition into the world below the black and white floors, the dialectic of the conversation becomes clearer. The transition itself must be seen as establishing the concept of time as a predominant theme. It was obvious in the objective world of the narrator, "Hours pass," and it is in the dialogue with its themes of extinction and petrification.
This "time" theme has ramifications that can be extended from my opening discussion of the poem. I suggested that the title automatically inferred an above and a below and quite possibly the living and the dead. This assumption is not necessarily discredited by interpreting the poem as occurring within the poet's consciousness. As he begins playing chess within his thoughts, he allows the central concerns of his mind to develop the patterns of the game.
The narrator begins with "time" and "connection" but allows his image, the black-white checkered floors, to influence him. He imagines a dialogue among the dead and continues his concern with the relation between meaning and time. If a bird above the earth is the symbol of freedom, as implied in the objective stage of the poem, then it is possible a bird would be the same symbol to the dead. An extinct bird makes the contrast explicit.
Through the image of the bird we are led into the debate of the two speakers. Their central problem is their inability to move, a fact more painful to them because "the bird is free." It can fly. Speaker A says, "I myself am bound to the stone, the primal stone." Oddly enough, from the earlier chirping of the bird and the fact that it cannot sleep, it is difficult for us to determine whether the bird can actually fly or simply represents flight. The clearest point is that the speaker identifies with stone, but would rather identify with the bird. The reason for this preference becomes clear in the next section beginning with "Is there no forgetfulness in the house of the abyss?"
The value of my suggestion that the voices are opposing voices within the poet himself becomes clearer in reference to this passage. Dialogues about the absurdity of the world and the universe are hardly original to this century, but this century has certainly overworked them. If the poem is simply an imagined conversation of the dead about the absurdity of the universe, it lacks originality and is somewhat confusing. If, however, it can be read not only at the above level, but at the level of the individual and his conscious and unconscious conflicts, the meaning of the poem is greatly expanded. The possibility of a "collective unconscious" becomes a major addition through such an interpretation.
The reason this extension occurs is that the narrator, that is, the individual human, becomes a sphere containing voices, dead and alive, just as the earth is such a sphere, and possibly the universe. Discussion of this sphere is the basis of the dialogue between the two speakers. Most of this dialogue can be studied as occurring either within the narrator or, in a more abstract fashion, simply in the universe. The quality of the dialogue is reminiscent of what we find in absurd theater, yet it preceded Waiting for Godot (1952). Initially, A and B establish a surfaceless abyss in which lamps hold useless watch over stone. "This is hell! No, it is emptiness. And the house of the stars is empty…" represents a transition outward and away from the downward thrust of the previous part of the poem.
Previously, the bird was an ideal and the context of the poem was the earth or beneath. As the dialogue progresses, however, stone is retained but extended outward in a spiral of endless time. The emptiness of the universe is compared to stone, "For yearbillions of stone time swirls them with itself in raging storms of stone through seas of stone to heavens of stone." With these explicit lines the universe itself is envisioned as a petrified substance, an earth of rock rippling outward like circles in a pool. The effect of this image upon A is to put him to sleep, in a sense to hypnotize him into the spiral of stone. He is dazed and asks, "Where am I? Where are you?"
Speaker B wakes up A but their conversation immediately returns to the same subject, "the house of the abyss." Now, however, the imagery is centered upon scenes familiar to the average man. No longer is it beneath the earth nor in the sky, but almost at the level of the opening passage, a city building, where the two speakers discuss their world. The implied characters may have something to do with the opening characters. "And all these invalids who drift homeless around the rooms." The use of repetition and the apparent chaos of the scene combine qualities from the previous passages.
Light or its absence is once again crucial. "Is it night or day?" This night image is added to the city building and is seen flooding upward, again a motion reminiscent of the spiral. The passage openly poses the battle of light against dark.
It throbs in the radiators like a strained heart.
the lamps blink dead when they offer opposition
and try to hold back the darkness.
A white loneliness against a black loneliness.
The black and white lonelinesses refer to the floors and to the concept of a game or battle. The final lines of this section possibly represent the returning integration of the narrator's consciousness and the two players or voices he has imagined. The opening stage is once again present, but now only the man at the desk is there and we are told who he is: death.
The closing refrain concludes the cycle by beginning it again: the neutral passage of time, a sense of awakening, and from that awakening the admission or discovery of desire.
My digression of tying the voices to the narrator and his vision of the black and white checks may be used now as an effective tool. The splitting of consciousness or, phrased in a different way, the process of listening to the voices within one's self, is not only a technical point but allows consideration of the themes of human consciousness and human existence in relation to time.
The narrator is listening to the voices of the past within himself. This means that just as time is a stonelike structure rippling eternally outward and enclosing layers of existence within it, so man too contains time within himself. The voices of the past argue inside of him. The substance of their argument concerns the meaning and quality of life. What is the relationship, if any, among things? Why is life chaotic and apparently homeless and futile? Is there any chance of escape by the flight of the bird, or by exchanging one location or one ideal for another?
The depth of these questions is strengthened by the technical quality of the device of the multiple self. As used in this poem, it is not unlike a Greek play with the narrator functioning as the probing and repeating Greek chorus. This repetition, association, and contrast may be studied to gain further insight into the poem. Ekelöf has stated some theories about poetry which are useful in looking at the structure of "Voices."
Poetry to me is mysticism and music. Mysticism to me is not to nail together abstruse themes; it is the deep experience of life itself, the apprehension of the eternally elusive, shifting, returning in everything which is related to picture, tone, thought, feeling, and life.
"Voices" seems to correspond to this theory of a shifting and elusive poetry. The two voices are preoccupied in some metaphorical or allegorical way with the continually changing yet related images of life. Ekelöf's mention of music provides a basis for further analysis.
Thus poetry is for me an art form which has much to do with music because it occurs both for the poet and the reader, with words as notes, with the relations of word contents, with the nuances one word gives the next and the following throws back on the previous, like tone color, or harmony…. It is a form which among other things works with repetitions, motive repetitions, and development, allusion to what has been or will come, parallelisms, likenesses, all of those devices in the power of which man seeks to "enjoy" existence…
There is an underlying theme in ["Voices"] of the need or the wish to provide one's own light. "The harsh stare" of external lamps may show us reality, but they provide no internal illumination. One cannot renounce life, but if one wishes to create, the dream must be preserved, even at the expense of external life. "A white loneliness against a black loneliness" applies to the dilemma of a poet of dreams. Ekelöf is such a poet and he fought the dilemma throughout much of his life."…
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3016
SOURCE: "Swedish Poetry of the Twentieth Century," in Essays on Swedish Literature from 1880 to the Present Day, edited by Irene Scobbie, University of Aberdeen, 1978, pp. 125-72.
[In the following excerpt, Scobbie traces the development of Ekelöf's poetic career, focusing on its complexity and allusiveness, and noting the poet's interest in mysticism, Asian culture, and music]
[Ekelöf's] first published collection of poetry, entitled sent på jorden (1932), was advertised as Sweden's first Surrealistic poetry. Reluctant as ever to be categorised, Ekelöf declined to accept the label "Surrealist"; nevertheless, in spite of his claim that 'jag arbetade aldrig surrealistiskt', the description seems accurate to most readers. Images are linked in striking but unexpected combinations and create a dream-like atmosphere reminiscent of paintings by Salvador Dali; it is as if the poet's subconscious were addressing the reader direct, missing out the normal, conventional logic of speech:
Ekelöf indicated that sent på jorden was influenced greatly by Stravinsky he would play records of The Rite of Spring repeatedly while writing and called the collection 'en självmordsbok'. The final poem, "apoteos", opens with the much-quoted line 'ge mig gift att dö eller drömmar att leva' and ends with a wish to dissolve into the absolute, the last line 'till intet' being followed by the symbol for infinity. The suicide reference seems to hark back to the Nirvana wish of Oriental mysticism, although there are also illustrations in the book of the Surrealistic trend of wishing to destroy violently all established conventions. One of the best examples is "sonatform denaturerad prosa" in which Ekelöf vents his desire to smash the conventions of language:
As the title suggests, the poem is constructed in accordance with the rules of sonata form in music although individual "notes" are disjointed and linked polyphonically, even discordantly, rather than harmoniously; the rhythms also create a persistent, drumming effect which tends to benumb the senses and combines with the words to eradicate the distinction between "jag" and "han hon det".
Dedikation (1934) is prefaced by a quotation from the French Surrealist Rimbaud: 'Jag säger: man måste vara siare, man måste göra sig till siare'. The desire to annihilate late reality in the previous book is now replaced by a positive hope for the future: 'En lång, regnig afton kände jag inom mig hur den nya människan längtade att födas' ("Betraktelse"). The links with Swedish Romanticism are affirmed in a series of elegies dedicated to and in the spirit of Stagnelius, and a favourite theme of Ekelöf's is frequently sounded, the continuing connection between past and present. Dedikation was followed two years later by Sorgen och stjärnan, in which the Romantic trends are even more pronounced (cf. "Sommarnatten"). Many of the poems are descriptions of nature in calm and controlled verse, the mood generally being wistful, even melancholic. The poet is isolated, lonely and contemplative.
Ekelöf continued with his "outsider" stance in the title poem of his next book, Köp den blindes sång (1938). The poet symbolically adopts the yellow and black armband worn on the Continent by blind persons, thus renouncing the political insignia of the activists preparing for the imminent World War II: "De seende, som svindlas / och svindlar och luras och litar, / må pryda sin arm med vita, / svarta och bruna bindlar… / Köp den blindes sång!" The trend towards simpler language and simpler poetic style is continued and there are several nature poems that could easily have appeared in the previous book. However, the theme of blindness and darkness running through Köp den blindes sång refers to the gloomy state of world events. 'Här är det mörkt och tomt / i framtidens land' he writes in "Elegier I"; but the opening of the final poem, "Coda", indicates Ekelöf's faith in the future: 'Allt har sin tid, så även detta mörker'. He may not be sure about the nature of reality, but he can assert that 'den allena / som tjänar livets sak, skall överleva'.
Färjesång (1941) is a powerful book, full of animated argument culminating in what appears to be the attainment of a philosophical standpoint which satisfies the poet: 'allt som var outsägligt och fjärran är outsägligt och nära' ("Eufori"). A succession of paradoxes runs through the poems, a key motif being variations on the dialectic theme of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Ekelöf's answer to the question 'what is reality, what is truth?' is the individualistic outsider's solution:
Liv är kontrasternas möte,
liv är ingendera parten.
Liv är varken dag eller natt
men gryning och skymning.
Liv är varken ett ont eller ett gott,
det är mälden mellan stenarna.
Liv är inte drakens och riddarens kamp,
det är jungfrun.
("Tag och skriv"-4)
It is also the solution of a poet steeped in Oriental mysticism: 'En människa är aldrig homogen: / Hon är sitt första och sitt andra, / på en gång! Inte i tur och ordning'.
Ekelöf considered Färjesång to be a break-through as far as his own attitudes and achievements were concerned, but his break-through with the reading public and critics came with his next work, Non serviam (1945). The title echoes Satan's refusal to serve and hence his expulsion from heaven, also the attitude of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus (first referred to specifically in Chapter 3 of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man); it is an affirmation of Ekelöf's individualistic, anarchistic stance. His impatience with the paternalistic, over-organised side of modern Swedish society is expressed in the title poem ('Jag är en främling i detta land / (…) / Här, i de långa, välfödda stundernas / trånga ombonade Sverige / där allting är stängt för drag"… är det mig kallt'), and he demonstrates his cynicism at the expense of "Folkhemmet" in the satirical poem "Till de folkhemske". The horrors of war are evocatively expressed in "Jarrama" and were also the starting point for the deeply disturbing poem "Samothrake", a haunting vision concerning death and the meaning of human life. The finest poem in the book is probably "Absentia animi" in which Ekelöf continues the metaphysical and mystical meditations characteristic of his previous work. In his search for Abraxas (or Abrasax), an ancient name for the highest being, the poet delves into his own self to find something beyond time and space which is the essence of all existence which, in line with mystical tradition, he calls simply 'någonting annat':
O långt långt bort
i det som är bortom
finns någonting nära!
O djupt nere i mig
i det som är nära
finns någonting bortom
i det som är hitomfiärran
någonting varken eller
i det som är antingen eller
The plays on words and rhythmical repetitions create a trance-like atmosphere, suggesting parallels with Indian music, until the words fall into an apparently meaningless jumble; and the poem ends by returning to its beginning, closing with the words 'om hösten'. Ekelöf took that line as the title of his next book, Om hösten (1951), which contains poems written over a number of years, including sketches of earlier poems and preliminary workings of themes to be treated again later. The collection begins and ends with poems about dreams called "En verklighet (drömd)" and "En dröm (verklig)" to stress the motif of contrasts and paradoxes that runs through the book. In "Röster under jorden" the poet investigates the nature of life and death, of individual existence and the passage of time, using as a key image the fossilised remains of prehistoric birds.
Strountes (1955) refers to an Almqvist quotation stressing the almost insuperable difficulty of writing whimsical trifles ('strunt'). The poems abound in wit, plays on words and cross-references to other literature: as the poet declares in "När man kommit så långt": 'När man kommit så långt som jag i meningslösher / är vart ord åter intressant'. Frequently the playfulness is not as nonsensical as it seems, as is hinted in "Ex Ponto": 'Det är inte konstverket man gör / Det är sig själv / Och man måste alltid börja från grunden / åter och åter börja från grunden'. Opus incertum (1957) and En natt i Oto ac (1961) are similar in kind to Strountes in the afterword to En natt i Oto ac Ekelöf commented: 'Jag skulle ha kunnat kalla denna bok Opus incertum II (eller rent av Strountes n:r 2) eftersom den tillhör samma antiestetiska, bitvis antipoetiska linje'. In "Poetik" he claims that formal perfection is:
… sökandet efter ett meningslöst
i det meningsfulla
och allt vad jag så konstfullt söker dikta
är kontrastvis någonting konstlöst
och hela fyllnaden tom.
Vad jag jar skrivit
är skrivet mellan raderna.
Oto ac is a town in Yugoslavia, but in the afterword referred to above Ekelöf indicated that it can be interpreted as Hell; in the paradoxical fashion typical of him, he seeks Heaven in Hell. What he has written is 'written between the lines': similarly the elusive helheten he is searching for may be found among disparate, chaotic things. He is too much of an anarchist ever to believe he will find it, but it is essential to conduct the search even so. 'De som lever för en stor sak är lyckliga', he writes in "Poesi i sak", 'De som soker denna enda stora sak i ett otal saker / i mångfalden / han blir utnött och trött som jag'.
In 1960 Ekelöf had published a remarkable long poem on which he had been working for more than twenty years: En Mölna-Elegi. Several excerpts of the Elegy had been published previously, notably the first third of the finished poem in BLM in 1946: a note explained that it was 'en dikt om tidens och tidsupplevelsens relativitet, kanske också en art av "levnadsstämning'". A figure is standing on Mölna jetty (a place on Lidingö near Stockholm) in late September or early October watching the sun set over the water. An apple and a drop of water fall to the ground and the lake respectively, and the poem refers to the noise they make: the sounds are heard both near the beginning and near the end of the poem, and it is stressed that they are the same sounds we hear; in other words, the whole work takes place in a very short space of time. By employing a complicated technique of allusion and quotation, however, Ekelöf is able to compress into that very short space of time the cultural experience of centuries.
Nevertheless, the starting point of the poem is personal. The figure on the jetty is Ekelöf himself, and the chain of memories which flash through his consciousness includes several of the poet's relatives and ancestors. A key quotation is a line from Edith Södergran, one of Ekelöf's favourite poets: 'Ett flyktigt ögonblick stal min framtid' (Södergran actually wrote 'ett nyckfullt ögonblick'), and many other quotations illustrate Ekelöf's preference James Joyce, for instance, Rimbaud, Swedenborg, Ibn el-Arabi, and a number of references to Bellman (Ekelöf was particularly fond of the eighteenth century). Most startling, however, is the middle section of the poem where the left-hand page is taken up by vulgar Latin and Greek quotations, most of them authentic graffiti from the walls of ancient Italy and many of them unashamedly obscence. The right-hand page is in Swedish and, broadly speaking, the verse echoes the spirit of the Latin with a "dirty ditty" and descriptions of rape and abortion. Some authentic drawings, chosen by Ekelöf himself, illustrate the text, which is sometimes in dramatic form and has marginal comments, usually a key-word setting the tone of the section.
By stressing the parallels and connections, Ekelöf is trying to show the essential similarity of people and events at different periods of time as well as pursuing his mystical search for the unifying factor of life, the familiar theme from earlier works. The stress on sex in En Mölna-Elegi seems to be an acknowledgement of Freud's psychoanalytical theories and the poet's assessment of his own nature. Another motif is that of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, especially the last two; many memories are triggered off by a section marked "Böljesång" which some critics see as a high-point of lyricism in Ekelöf's poetry:
Vindsus och vågstänk
Vågsus och vindstänk
Vågor och dessa skiftande
vindar närmare, fjärmare …
In the last section of the poem, after the sexual violence, the water-poetry is echoed in terms of fire before reverting back to water to signify the return of the poem to its starting point.
Generally speaking, critics were impressed by En Mölna-Elegi although there was a feeling of disappointment with the final section which, it was considered, did not measure up to the promise of the earlier parts. Moreover, it was felt that the Latin and Greek graffiti did not merge with the Swedish poem as easily and naturally as they might: they tend to be adornments rather than constituent parts of the poem as a whole. Understandably, there was complete agreement about the difficulty of interpreting the work: no doubt it will be many years before light is thrown on all its obscurities and the full extent of its treasures revealed.
In 1962 Ekelöf published a revised edition οf sent på jorden in a volume which also contained En natt på horisonten (the latter collection having the explanatory parenthesis "1930-1932"). In both cases, the poet was returning to his beginnings, wrestling once more with the problems that had concerned him in the early 1930s and solving them with the wisdom acquired in thirty years of writing poetry. There were some alterations and additions, but many of the poems were left in their original and hence definitive state.
Having completed that circle, Ekelöf was ready to proceed to his last and what is generally considered to be his greatest work, a trilogy consisting of Diwan över Fursten av Emgion (1965), Sagan om Fatumeh (1966) and Vägvisare till underjorden (1967). Like all Ekelöf's works the Diwan trilogy is carefully composed as a whole. In his notes to Vägvisare till underjorden, the poet explains that although this part was published last, it was conceived as what he calls mittvalvet of the trilogy his choice of words stresses the architectural construction, and a drawing at the end of Vägvisaren shows how that book itself was planned architecturally. The middle work is symmetrically balanced, and the first and third parts of the trilogy can be seen as counterbalancing each other: the basic components of the "outer" books are two series of 29 poems, and in connection with Sagan om Fatumeh Ekelöf explained that they correspond to a "nazm", a string of beads, and a "tesbih", a rosary. Ekelöf's preoccupation with Oriental mysticism is clear in the form as well as the content of his Diwan trilogy.
The material for each of the three books is based on authentic myths and historical happenings pertaining to the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages: Diwan över Fursten av Emgión refers to an eleventh-century epic romance describing the capture and sufferings of Digenis Acritas, Sagan om Fatumeh tells the tale of an Arab girl in the fourteenth century who deteriorates from a position as a courtesan and the beloved of a prince to wretched existence as a whore, while Vägvisare till underjorden contains a less unified selection of thoughts and dreams and features a meeting between a Novice nun and Satan in a Byzantine palace situated in Yugoslavia. It will be obvious that to understand the trilogy properly, the average reader needs a battery of notes and explanations; Ekelöf provides some at the end of each volume, but in addition to the historical, mythological and linguistic complications there is also the fact that the poet refers to or quotes from a large number of other literary works indeed, he frequently quotes from his own earlier poems.
Nevertheless, one can read the Diwan trilogy in ignorance of many of the subtleties and be fascinated by the love poems, the sufferings and erotic adventures of Fatumeh (whose name incorporates the Latin word for Fate), the torture and religious search of the Prince. Familiar Ekelöf themes and symbols recur, notably the jungfru (cf. the quotation from "Tag och skriv" above), whose symbolic significance hovers between an erotic ideal, the Virgin Mary, a cosmic mother-figure and the mystical 'någonting annat' which formed the core of Ekelöf's creed. The other great theme is that of time which, as was shown by En Mölna-Elegi, the poet did not see as a mere linear process. The symmetrical form of the trilogy and the network of references to different epochs illustrate the concept; some of its implications are perhaps best expressed in the concluding poem of Vägvisare till underjorden, the last part of the trilogy to be written:
Ensam i tysta natten trivs jag bäst
Ensam med vägguret, denna maskin för icke-tid
Vad vet väl en metronom om musik, om takt
om den är konstruerad att mäta. Dess ansikte
är blankt och uttryckslöst som en främmande gudabilds
Det gör mig medveten om relativiteternas oförenlighet
Liv kan inte mätas med död, musik inte med taktslag
Gunnar Ekelöf received many prizes and honorary awards in the last ten years of his life, and was elected a member of the Swedish Academy in 1958. He died in 1968 after a long and painful illness, suffering from cancer of the throat: Partitur. Efterlämnade dikter (1969) contains some moving poems from this last period. Perhaps the most appropriate epitaph is a quotation from Strountes:
Mot helheten, ständigt mot helheten
går min väg
O mina kringkastade lemmar!
Hur längtar ni inte till era fästen
till helheten, till en annan helhet!
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5537
SOURCE: "Gunnar Ekelöf's A Mölna Elegy: The Attempted Reconstruction of a Moment," in Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook, Vol. 1, 1979, pp. 199-214.
[In the following excerpt, Sjöberg analyzes literary allusions modern as well as Classical in The Mölna Elegy and discusses the poem's predominant theme of time.]
Muriel Rukeyser's translation marks the first English publication of Gunnar Ekelöf's En Mölna-elegi (Stockholm, 1960). Classified as 'work in progress' for more than twenty years prior to its publication, the Elegy demanded nearly a decade for the location and identification of its learned allusions and borrowings and nearly two decades for its publication in entirety in the English language.
Ekelöf's poem 'concerns itself with the relativity of time and time-experience, perhaps also with a kind of Lebensstimmung. It is not a description of a time lapse but (theoretically) is supposed to occur in one moment. In other words: it is a cross-section of time instead of a section lengthwise', wrote Ekelöf in a note in BLM in 1946. Later he warned against attempts to overemphasize the 'one moment'. He added:
Time and time, What is it? It is supposed to occur not in a lapse of time but outside [of] time, in a mood of passivity and receptivity towards one's self, when everything and anything is possible and nearby. The ideal psychoanalytical moment [my italics]. What matter if the hand of your watch has moved one minute or ten from the point when you started summarizing (or memorizing) your situation, your dreams, etc.? It is a moment all the same.
I sit on a bench of the past;
I write on a page of the past.
The place is the jetty at Mölna, consisting of a few strange-looking old buildings on the island of Lidingö, close to Stockholm, which, a couple of years earlier, had functioned as a summer camp for crippled children. (Ekelöf used to walk to Mölna in the early 1930s). 'Mölna is a symbol of something cut off, something posthumous', he commented, adding, 'but the past is alive in you'. The year is that of the beginning of World War II, presumably 1939-40, and the season is the autumn. It should be noticed that the 'Γ is not set in a social context: on the contrary, it is relegated to itself, isolated independent and unattached. It functions as a passive, experiencing medium.
There are many 'personalities' which live in that which I call me. The 'Γ functions as a practical spokesperson, however, and each 'personality' must speak in turn. But what the spokesperson, the T, ought to say is not: I want it to be this way. He or she ought to summarize and make distinctly audible what is said in me so 'distinct' that even the obscure uncertainty experienced may remain mysterious, uncertain as it is, as long as it remains that way.
It is obvious from this that Ekelöf's central concern is the problem of identity, even in this initial scene. A problem Ekelöf touches on is thus the lack of constancy, on the one hand, and the abundance of change in reality, on the other, His view of identity is evident in one manuscript of A Mölna Elegy. 'Each person's contents of people and worlds. He who has experienced experiences and re-expe riences; this is one, not one, but many in one. He calls himself I; that is merely a psychical-geographical attribute.'
While most people prefer not to discuss their sudden and abrupt shifts in identity, for fear that they may be considered unsteady or lacking in character as Strindberg points out Ekelöf more than once expressed the opinion that he himself (or humans in general) had the ability to change identity, that he virtually could be the person he was not. The transformations begin early in the Elegy:
Windrush and wavespray
waverush and windspray
spray of the roller's blow
cool upon cheeks and brow
isolation and I:
the selfsame or another
I or not I?
The future now the past
time running wild
years last for minutes
with a tail of yellow leaves
or time held
stockstill in the elms'
wetblack branches held
Clotho cuts off the button…
A Mölna Elegy has a subtitle, Metamorphoses, which links it to a certain kind of literature. It is the task of the reader to attempt to sense where and how the changes occur. Promptly, in the stanza following the one just quoted, the protagonist appears as the 'Old actor' who speaks of his 'appointment with the past'. He is waiting for his Victoria, thus suggesting Strindberg's Officer in A Dream Play, written in Stockholm in 1901.
That was another season, when the legless sprang and the fingerless played their guitars till they rang…
are lines from the 'absurd' ditty, perhaps suggesting the times of war as well as absurdity in general. The section ends with the structurally important line, Ά flying moment … ', which is re-intoned just before the Ί809' episode and echoed in the 'Marche funèbre' section, and which was given in extenso in the opening scene:
A flying moment robbed me of my future…
The proper interpretation of this central line (Ett flyktigt / nyckfullt ögonblick: a flying/flighty moment) is open to question. Suffice it to say that it is taken in slightly modified form from one of Ekelöf's favourites, the Finnish-Swedish poet, Edith Södergran (1892-1923). Her poem, 'Min framtid' ('My Future') reads as follows:
A capricious moment
stole from me my future,
the casually constructed.
I shall build it up much more handsomely
as I had intended it from the beginning.
I shall build it upon the firm ground
that is called my will.
I shall build it with a high tower
It is worth pursuing the theme of time, if only for 'a moment'. A Mölna Elegy begins with the greeting Ave viator! ('Hail to thee, wanderer!') and, appropriately, it ends with Vale viator! ('Farewell, wanderer!'). Such inscriptions are traditional greetings to be found on gravestones along the Appian Way, the famous Roman highway from Rome to Greece and the East, built in 312 B.C. There is something symbolic in this: the 'wanderings' in A Mölna Elegy may originate in Ekelöf's beloved and hated Stockholm, and its surroundings, such as Mölna, and they end there, too, via a reference to the mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, taken from Drömboken (Journal of Dreams, written in 1743-5 but not published until the mid dle of the nineteenth century):
There are numerous allusions to the past, especially to Ekelöf's favourite period and place, eighteenth-century Sweden, and references to the poet's own ancestors (the sections marked '1809', the year of revolution in Sweden, and '1786'); but the main 'action' in the Elegy is set in the Mediterranean area and some of it even in the East. The reader, in the person of a wanderer examining the Ave! and the Vale! is greeted by the dead, almost literally in the moment between putting one foot down and putting the other down. If the completion of the wanderer's step takes but a moment, it is in this compressed or extended moment that the Elegy is in imagination contained. This idea of a frame some kind of 'moment' was not merely a casual whim of the poet's, as is shown in 'The Return Journey' (at the beginning of the Elegy):
The sun setting
glows through fading
greens … clucking of jetties
and towards the end just before the 'March funèbre' section:
The sun in perpetual sunset
Fire-clouds shifting flaunting
Beyond reach burning images
O holy clouds!
from which it is evident that, while Ekelöf's 'moment' passes, the sun proceeds to set.
When the 'Old actor' drops off that is, in the very moment he drops off to sleep for a while we hear a version of Shakespeare in reverse: the trees of Mölna speak about his ageing since last they saw him. A blind window at the gable of Mölna remembers him as Prospero, the magician, the genius loci, from The Tempest. A drop of water and an apple, falling, remind us of the 'momentary' aspect of 'time'. While the mill-gnome is from an old tale, the elf in the snowberry bush, representing one kind of woman, appears to be Ekelöf's invention. She wishes to prevail over him by degrading him, since she refers to him as 'the punk', literally 'the ugly one', thereby meaning Caliban. In mockingly humourous language, referring us to Joyce and Desnos, the Biedermeier sofa and the front gable clock comment on some kind of transgression, while the blind window contemplatively wonders: 'But how can Prospero be alive? And here?' The drop falling into the barrel indicates that the 'moment' is still going on. That is why it is emphasized (in line 174) that the 'same' apple thuds dully, bumps, lies dumb. The 'same' wind in the trees sighs, in a longing, romantic fashion: 'Away! Away!'
Then starts a round of recollections of the past in which the poet's ancestors appear: in the '1809' section, Anna Catharina Hedenberg (Madame Mont-Gentil), peripherally involved in a revolutionary episode in Sweden in the year 1809; and in the '1786' section, her brother (Gustaf Lewin), a naval officer who in that year experienced a cosmic occurrence near the equator, while on a slave trade mission.
The recollection of these dead relatives, and their bad and good deeds in times gone by, can be seen as an effort at synthesis on the part of the poet: all things people, objects, concepts interact, and all of them have series of complex relations with their neighbours or surroundings. None of them can be fully understood until they have been placed in their proper context, i.e., in relation to their past. If everyone and everything is dependent on everything else, the past lives of the dead are part of the present life of the poet and are relived by him. This idea was expressed in Ekelöf's 'A Dream (Real)' (1951) and in his poem 'A World Is Everyone' (1941). Like other poets, such as Yeats, Eliot, Robert Lowell, or James Wright, Ekelöf had a strong sense of family tradition, of what has been handed down and entrusted to the next generation. But the poet also rebels against tradition when it grows stale. The very fact that his persona is a complete outsider in A Mölna Elegy can be seen as an act of rebellion.
From an experience of being near death when as a child he is in bed with fever, in acute pain and distressed for want of breath, an episode which exemplifies two aspects of psychological 'time': 'in one moment / of intolerable speed and in the next unendurably slow' (lines 276-7), there is a neat transition to pleasant memories of country excursions and 'rewards' for diligent learning at school.
And then I remember the hours clocked, the long hours clocked,
the ticked minutes, minute minutes tocked,
slowly lockstepping, slowly
I remember the seconds, the dropped moments
or the held, riveted ones. I remember
I carry it in me
I bear it in me like a rock, a child of stone,
complete and unborn
Moments that have dropped out of memory because of some repressive mechanism, but also those almost intolerable moments, 'the riveted ones', obsessive thoughts that recur incessantly all is remembered, but by whom? By the one who carries time, literally, like a stone-child, 'like a rock, a child of stone, / complete and unborn'. The concept 'stone-child' is a clinical reality, although rare. Lithopedion is a dead fetus that has become petrified. In a note to Muriel Rukeyser on 'stone-child', Ekelöf stated: 'Taken out of an Elzevier De renum et vesicae in my father's bookcase.'
If it is not too far-fetched to look for a mythological carrier of the 'stone-child', perhaps Chronos himself, or more correctly, Cronus, would fit. Cronus is 'primarily a harvestgod' and just before the quoted passage, 'harvest-times' appears. Cronus, being afraid of an oracle's prediction that his sceptre would be struck out of his hand by his own offspring, swallowed his children, until Rhea outwitted him and gave him a 'black stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, and he swallowed the stone', after which Poseidon was born. Marianne Moore refers to this at the end of 'Four Quartz Crystal Clocks':
Whatever the correct interpretation is, it is striking that the Mediterranean material, especially the use of myth, increases from now on, i.e., in the latter part of the Elegy, which is introduced by a graffito from Pompeii, actually from the coition chamber of the Villa dei Misteri. The text is very difficult to decipher, but a scholar claims she has identified five or six words, 'sufficient for her to divine the character of the text', Ekelöf noted, and thus the graffito has more than a decorative, or even 'timely' purpose.
Almost all these Latin inscriptions are documented in Diehl's anthology of inscriptions, Pompeianische Wandinschriften (1910). Readers with no more than school Latin are likely to find it strenuous work to decipher the vulgar wall inscriptions that Ekelöf perhaps as an antidote to the many 'respectable' quotations and references found worthy of inclusion in his Elegy (all on the left-hand pages). What is the general content of these mscriptions from Pompeii? Some are friendly or hostile greetings, others deal with business matters, but by far the greatest number are concerned with love or lovemaking of one kind or another. The incantation beginning with 'Atracatetracatigallara', allegedly spoken by the witch, the Saga, actually consists of three authentic defixiones, nailings, which Jan Stolpe located in Audollent's Defixionum tabellae (1904). We can easily recognize the phrase in the second nailing:
si quicqua sanctitates habetes
(You gods of the underworld!
I commend you,
if you have something holy.)
This defixio is from Latium. The third defixio is from Nomentum, north of Rome: 'On this leaden tablet I rivet Malchio, Nico's son's eyes, hands, fingers, arms, nails, hair, head, feet, thighs, stomach, buttocks, navel, chest, nipples, neck, mouth, cheeks, teeth, lips, chin, eyes, forehead, eyebrows, shoulderblades, shoulders, muscles, bones, marrow, stomach, phallus, shins, his proceeds [?] and profit.' The defixio continues: 'Rufa, Pulica's daughter, her hands, teeth, eyes, arms, stomach, breasts, chest, bones, marrow, stomach, shins, legs, feet, forehead, nails, fingers, stomach, navel, womb, vulva, abdomen, Rufa, Pulica's daughter, I rivet on this tablet. ' Finally the magical incantation from the beginning is repeated.
The Carmen faeculare, 'Excrement song', alludes to Horace's Carmen saeculare. Ekelöf has arranged the graffiti into an alternating song, 'a dramatically composed dialogue between [heterosexual] boys, girls, and homosexual adults, as well as the old industrious couple Philemon and Baucis'. Ekelöf has occasionally made small changes. A case in point is Baucis ('recocta vino / trementibus labellis'), which is to be found in Petronius's Fragmenta 21 v. What Baucis (old wino, lips shaking) says is, roughly, 'An experienced woman is better than a girl who has not yet got any pubic hair.' Among all those 'Voces repercussae' (Reverberating voices), Ekelöf has again included a refrain: 'Mádeia perimádeia' ('Well done, by Zeus, Oh yea by Zeus!'). In the final greetings by the boys, which is a counterpart of their initial greeting to Victoria, Ekelöf has changed the authentic name, Noëte, to Sabina. The section ends, as it began, with the part of Saga, a defixio, only now the Latin text is written in the Greek alphabet.
Why did Ekelöf employ these Pompeian graffiti in his Elegy? Whatever the answer may be, the voices of the past were important to him in various ways. He may often have wanted to listen to the voices 'down below' more than to the loud voices of his own time, in which he did not feel at home. The informal tone, the spontaneous quality in these scribblings, appealed to him. What then, was his motive in including a large number of graveinscriptions in the remaining Latin part of the Elegy?
These grave-inscriptions originate in different social groups and different provinces of the Roman Empire. It is obvious from Ekelöf's manuscripts that his inclusion of this vast number of quotations was not a whim: he copied or studied about two thousand grave-inscriptions and then selected some to fit together as he wanted them to appear in his Elegy. The 'parts' have been added by Ekelöf: 'Conservi, Conservae / Pueri, Puellae et Infantes' (Slaves, bondwomen, boys, girls and children), who all cry:
Tene me ne fugia
Tene me ne fugia
Hold me or I shall escape
Hold me or I shall escape
Ekelöf was fascinated by the strong pessimism expressed in lines like:
Nunc mors perpetua(m)
gave eternal freedom
In Latin, this statement is as eloquent as if it had been composed by a Lucretius, Ekelöf said. All those formulaic 'Dis Manibus. Hic iaceo', to the good gods, 'the gods under the world' as Muriel Rukeyser translated with their mention of the year, month, day, even hour of the departed one's life all this seems to have touched the poet, in its naivety. He empathized with the simple ancient people who considered death a prelude to a happier life, a dies natalis, a kind of birthday to a new existence. Ekelöf's concern with death is as intense as is his concern with life. If his assimilated quotations, in general, are anything to go by, he relied much more heavily on sayings of the dead than those of the living. One can perhaps infer that he had more use for their 'voices' than for living voices. The 'outsider' Ekelöf, the individualist, more often than not sought his support among the 'greater majority' (to quote Petronius) than among the living.
The section ends with a reminder:
which Ekelöf read as:
You who live on earth
do good deeds
and live a long life
i.e., down to us dead.
It is a rare occasion indeed when he employs such a blatantly moral statement as that! On the next left page, he placed his own drawing of a strange-looking creature nailed upside-down to the saltire. It is hard to determine whether he is alluding to Spartacus or Peter.
The Latin part is concluded by another defixio which is from Carthage. It consists of the riveting of race horses in quadrigas, teams of four horses each. The original, as Stolpe observed, has a picture of a circus with the meta, the conical column with signal flags serving as a turning post at each end of the Roman Circus; four horses circle the meta clockwise. As we can see, the names have been selected in such a way that they suggest the four elements. To some extent they correspond to the four elements in the Brinvilliers section on the facing page of the Elegy. By employing the quadriga Ekelöf introduced a new aspect of, time into his poem, and by building the theme of the quadriga into four, he added great complexity by simple graphic design.
Clearly, Ekelöf did not support the Romantic view of Pompeii, as embodied in Shelley's Arria Marcellina, Madame de Staël's Corinne, or Bulwer Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii; nor does he reflect Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva in the presentation of snapshots from Pompeii. The destruction (metamorphosis) of the city and its people can be seen as a parallel to the permanent petrifaction that Archaeopteryx met in its flight.
Parallel to the Latin runs the English. The call of … (Méga Aléxandre) and … (State ra mo), makes it clear that the transformations have led to Alexander the Great, with a suggestive mirror-motif. The 'sexy ditty' and the 'violation and abortion scene' (with minor characters from the eighteenth-century Swedish poet, Carl Michael Bellman's world) are linked together by a picture of an olive press from Pompeii. The marginal note, Ά fourth a fifth!' repeats frequent musical concepts or terms in the Elegy. It indicates, roughly, where the most hermetic part of the Elegy begins.
upon a crack
or you'll break
your mother's back
are taboo-like admonitions, perhaps obsessions of a child. They are followed by a playful promise of
the ensuing fulfilment of which is provided by seven summarized memorable dreams that the Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) took down for his Dream Journal. 'The naturalist suddenly realizes the irrational in his own intellectual life', commented Ekelöf. 'Dreams like ringing from the deeps' (line 461) suggests common European folk tales in the ringing of bells, or bells that have sunk into the sea. Bells ringing from the deeps corresponds to the earlier ringing of bells from heights, i.e., from belfries. 'Oarfish inlanddriven' (line 638) is a deep-sea fish, presumably symbolizing deeply hidden forces in the personality. 'Sea-creatures that gape over the ships' (line 468) are to be seen in maps and drawings, such as in Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus (1555). The scene then moves from Nordic waters to the Mediterranean, to Southern shores, where 'Lestry gonians' introduce the well-known myth in the Odyssey. It reminds us of the monster Cyclops whose father was Poseidon, who makes an appearance in the Elegy and the Lestrygonians, the gigantic cannibals (Book x) whose king feasted on one of the three men Odysseus had sent inland. While the two men fled, the Lestrygonians destroyed all ships except the one on which Odysseus sailed. Ekelöf's reference is primarily neither to Book χ of the Odyssey nor to chapter 8 of Joyce's Ulysses; he alludes to 'the famous antique fresco fragments in the Vatican'. There are eight scenes in this unique fresco of the episode. Alinari's superb photograph no. 38029, Distruzione della flotta di Ulisse, is the best reproduction, but occasional reproductions of separate parts of the fresco can be found in, for example, B. Nogara's Art Treasures of the Vatican. The reader should be able to perceive echoes of Homer's wallowing waves and sense something of the dangers and excitement of seafaring life.
pigs that cry and try to speak:
'Have we not conquered?'
suggests the sailing to the island of Aeaea, where Circe tapped half of Odysseus's crew with her magic wand, transforming them into talking swine. There follows the visit to Hades, the cremation of Elpenor, and a necessary sacrifice to Poseidon before 'The Man of Grief (Odysseus) can return home.
If, indeed, in the previous lines, the question was whether to 'eat or be eaten', as Bloom speculates, in the next, it is not giants eating men, but lithophages, 'stone-eaters', eating away at a god Poseidon making if not 'holes and swellings' at least 'holes' in his limbs. As a result of a shipwreck at sea, the statute of Poseidon was seen by the eyes of fish rather than humans until finally it was recovered from the Bay of Baia (the 'old china' just before the Ί809 ' episode was recovered from a shipwreck in the harbor of Gothenburg, incidentally). It can now be seen at Pozzuoli (Puteoli). This drowned god has thus been created and salvaged by humans and brought not to a temple but to a museum where he can be looked at. In a sense this is creation in reverse. Even if the god somewhat resembles almighty Zeus, Amedeo Maiuri is fully convinced that it is a Poseidon-Neptune statue:
Lithophages in the deeps:
Holes and swellings on the limbs of the god
'The coral red tree of aerated blood' suggests that the pattern of the circulation of blood in anatomy might remind us of a silhouetted image of a tree with branches and roots, or perhaps of corals, the trees of the sea. The pyre on the beach could be an allusion to 'Shelley's funeral pyre', of which Trelawny wrote several accounts.
'Quick! Have you other lives?' (line 486) is a line that, in Ekelöf's own translation of Rimbaud's 'Mauvais sang', had been taken from Une saison en enfer ('Vite! est-il d'autres vies'?). 'Can we reach across the sea to another reality via dream?' suggested A. Losman. Others might want to interpret the line as a question of whether or not there is an after-life.
The voice crying from the tree's bark is that of the Dryad, the tree-nymph, who lost her life when the tree in which she lived was being cut down. Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus the poet, was the most renowned of the dryads; with his lyre he visited the underworld and nearly recovered her, a queen of the dead. The kid sucking the breast of a panisca, an inferior woodland deity representing Pan, can be seen in the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii.
'The unicorn seeking refuge' (line 491) alludes above all to the first of the famous 'La dame à licorne' tapestries in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, and also to the equally famous Unicorn Tapestries in the Cloisters, New York City. The unicorn, according to legend, was the shyest of all animals and could be captured only by an innocent maid. If and when it encountered such a virgin, it would go to her of its own accord and piously settle itself on her lap, as it does in this poem.
The line 'O purity, purity!' (line 493) has a double mean ing in Swedish where 'O' can stand both for the exclamation 'O!' and a negating prefix 'im-', making it refer to 'impurity' as well as to the principle meaning, 'purity'. The line is another echo from Une saison en enfer, in which the last line of the poem 'L'Impossible' reads 'O pureté! pureté! The virgin motif has been explored extensively in Ekelöf's poetry.
The 'Fire Song' is partly a description and interpretation of the 'Garden of Delights' triptych (Prado, Madrid) by Hieronymus Bosch:
Flames and these dancing
which are to be seen on the upper part of the right panel.
Devils that fly on ladders
high above the onlookers
These lines also refers to Bosch. When the hellish visions recede, the concern of the 'I'-persona is with the ceremonies after his death. A connection is established with the funeral pyre (earlier) and the infernal fire by the afterthought:
No, just be burnt to ashes.
The quotation that follows reiterates the cremation theme:
is from Mme de Sévigné's letter of 17 July 1676, and refers to an episode typical of the widespread belief in witchcraft and epidemic of poisonings prevalent in Europe and New England in the latter half of the seventeenth century. In the next scene, with the Greek Gorgon, water is again the chief element. When Perseus had composed himself, and had, with the help of gods (Hermes and Athena), fulfilled his pledge, the presentation of the Gorgon Medusa's head, he had mastered her petrifying stare and thus overcome death and at the same time become an overlord of death. Many strands are woven together in this central poem of the Gorgon: as an octopus and a sea monster; the Gorgon as Alexander's cursed sister; the Gorgon as a form of the Great Goddess 'in her aspect as goddess of death' and the octopus as a human, because it carries on a philosophical monologue!
The 'Eleo sa' in the Gorgon section is the Mother of God, depicted on a variety of Greek and Russian icons, in which the position of the child God differs considerably, but generally shown as the merciful one, i.e., the Eleo sa, with her head lovingly titled towards that of the child God. The entire scene is again a double exposure; 'reeds hardly grow by the Mediterranean shores, but rather at Mölna', thus establishes a return to the opening of the Elegy in 'The return journey': 'The reeds bowing'…
In spite of the fact that A Mölna Elegy was partially written during the World War II, there are only a few references to the war, one of them being,
all of us floating here
O these carcasses that float
that head into the reeds
but rock uncertainly outside.
Another is found in 'Marche funèbre':
A flighty moment
and now the devil is in the belfry
he who robbed us of our future
Here 'the devil' stands for Hitler, according to the manuscripts. It is a slightly revised line from Rimbaud's 'Nuit de l'enfer' in Une saison en enfer. If the citation of Chopin's Funeral March suggests the banality of sorrow, the reference to Hitler can possibly hint at the banality of violence and its impermanence. The red fever-ball a childhood experience corresponds to the slightly revised line from Desnos's 'Définition de la Poésie pour' (sic!), attributed to Max Ernst: 'la boule rouge qui bouge et roule', which is to be found in Rrose Sélavy (1922-3) in Corps et Biens (no. 125). Ό saisons, ô châteaux!' is from Rimbaud's Une saison en enfer and deals with happiness. Ekelöf had translated the poem in his volume of French poetry, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (1934).
'Leavetaking', which is less than the coda to be expected, re-introduces the 'same apple', thus reminding us of the continuing moment, while 'the front gable clock' speaks a line from Finnegans Wake. The preceding line of that book, 'Gunnar's gustspells', apostrophizes the poet's own name and includes several references to theater (Schouwburg; Uplouderamain; Curtain drops), which may give us the associations to the 'Old Actor' (from the beginning of the Elegy).
One can read about 'ragas and raginis' in A. H. Fox-Strangways' The Music of Hindustan, a book which had accompanied Ekelöf since his youth. These melodies are personified as fairies, mostly female, in Mogul miniatures, samples of which are to be found in the British Museum, where Ekelöf first saw them. 'A genius' introduces himself now as le Roquefort, now as le Brie, which are both, as Göran Printz-Påhlson has noted, to be found in Rimbaud's poem 'Rêve', from about 1874. The jocular genius in the Elegy (and in 'Rêve') constantly seems to change identity and therefore fits the theme of metamorphoses. The genius may have a counterpart in one of the many spirits who earlier filed past in the Elegy. 'The disabled emanations (dancing)' parallel the lame elves' dance before the 'Park Scene'.
Ibn el-Arabi was one of Ekelöf's favorite authors, who speaks a single word in the Elegy: 'Labbayka!' which means 'At thy service!' This word is part of the Mohammedan pilgrimage rituals, the essential sign of the consecrated state. The Thrush a symbol for the poet himself now silent with an upthrust beak, has found a place on the family heraldic armorial. The silent heraldic thrush could have served as a dignified emblem to end the Elegy, but in his remarkable mosaic of quotations, allusions, and reminiscences, Ekelöf apparently wanted to apostrophize Edith Södergran and Emanuel Swedenborg. We are fortunate enough to have Ekelöf's comments on these two quotations. He intimated that the mother (in the Södergran poem) soothes the child while they are waiting at the station. War is raging and along the roadbed are dead soldiers. The situation is not as yet dangerous, but it is precarious.
The Swedenborg quotation is the last one in the Elegy. Here a mystic concerned with dreams had the final say. The word 'water' is mentioned twice and suggests other analogies and parallels in the Elegy, indeed, it begins with a water image and it ends with water. In the rhymed final lines, time is again the central theme. On the very last page of the Elegy the reader is saluted: Vale viator!, just as he was greeted with Ave viator! at the beginning of the long 'moment'. In a note Ekelöf wrote: 'a moment becomes timeless when the itinerant wanderer passes the gravestone and sees its Vale! and Ave! or the reverse … Such a fugue should be read both ways, [but] I have not reached as far as that in perseverance.' Below the salutation vale viator! is a picture of Archaeopteryx, the primitive bird whose fossil remains were discovered in the nineteenth century, in Bavaria.
It seems clear, then, that there are several kinds of unity in this complex poem. At one level, there is a unity akin to that of Strindberg's A Dream Play: there is an auditive focus, a 'dreamer', who is the centre of all the metamorphoses. The theme of 'Time' as transformation links all the sections, and, in a brilliant and original way, the notion of the moment as a simultaneity of transformations provides a solution to the problem explored by T. S. Eliot of striking a line for our own times through the past while maintaining and displaying the belief that 'the whole of the literature of Europe … composes a simultaneous order'.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2603
SOURCE: "A Cull of Trance-Roamers," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall/Winter, 1984, pp. 192-212.
[In the following excerpt, Birkerts reviews Songs of Something Else: Selected Poems, and analyzes three poetic styles—surreal, mystical but conflicted, and lyrically spiritual—represented in Ekelöfs work.]
"Poetry is something which is only done by the whole man."
Gunnar Ekelöf came to poetry by a circuitous route. He first studied music in Paris, and when he abandoned that, it was to move to London to pursue Oriental Studies. It was not until illness forced him to drop his plan of travelling to Asia that he finally turned to poetry. He did not relinquish either interest and the poetry of his later years has often been characterized as a kind of Eastern music but many years had to pass before such a synthesis could be effected. First there came a surrealist phase, and then, for decades, lyrical and metaphysical impulses merged to shape a unique and constantly changing idiom. This "middle phase" forms the bulk of Ekelöf's production and is crucial to any tracing of his full trajectory. Leonard Nathan and James Larson have made a judicious selection and a careful translation of poems from these decades (1938-1959). In Songs of Something Else we now have for the first time a full sense of Ekelöf's poetic dynamic. After reading this volume sequentially we are better prepared to follow his ultimate mystical undertaking, the Byzantine triptych comprising the Diwan over the Prince of Emigon, The Tale of Fatumeh, and Guide to the Underworld. No previous selection has managed to impose perspective upon the spiritual growing pains of this most volatile poet.
Ekelöf's first collection, Late Arrival on Earth which he referred to as his "suicide book," was published in Sweden in 1932. That mordant epithet may allude to some felt impulse; it may on the other hand signal a belief that one has to die to all competing aspirations in order to be reborn as a poet. Ekelöf never treated his calling as anything but sacred.
Late Arrival on Earth reflected the strong influence of the French Surrealists, even though Ekelöf repudiated the undisciplined working methods of Breton and his followers. But a more profound influence was Rimbaud, whom he translated, and in whom he found the appealing vision of poet as scientist:
The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences … he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed and the supreme Scholar!
(Rimbaud letter to Paul Demeny, 1871, tr. Wallace Fowlie)
And, truly, Ekelöf's early poetry was a strenuous Rimbaldian assault upon poetic respectability, its tendencies both gnomic:
Hair and fingernails grow slowly into the silence
The door's lips are closed to reversed values
(from "At Night," tr. Robert Bly)
crush the alphabet between your teeth yawn vowels
the fire is burning in hell vomit and spit now or
never I and dizziness you or dizziness now or never.
(from "Sonata for Methylated Prose," tr. Robert Bly)
Late Arrival on Earth may have been shocking in its day, and it did bring the stream of surrealism northward, but one could not really say that Ekelöf had found his voice. These lines have little in common with the unique, haunted sonorities of the later lyrics. I would speculate that the transition from early to middle phase was prompted by Ekelöf's discovery of his own unique vocal instrument. Most likely there were transitional poems for few poets step unerringly into mature style but these are not represented in Songs of Something Else. Here, right from the start, we hear the clear, unconcealed speech of a man.
In their Introduction, Nathan and Leonard discuss the phenomenon of Ekelöf's voice:
As our familiarity with and affinity for the poet grew, Ekelöf's poetic voice came to seem to us the most important formal element in these poems. This voice is impossible to describe in general terms inward, remote, reflective, formal, severe, yet somehow colloquial but we became convinced that if we could convey something of the quality of this voice in English, our problems would be solved.
It is a measure of their success that, for all the diversity and tonal variation of these lyrics, a clear print of identity is struck on the page. To speak of a "voice" in this way is not just to speak of sound or characteristic diction, either. Voice, in this higher sense, is realized inner speech; it is the all-but-intangible quality that marks off greatness from high competence in a writer. For there is no voice without the daring of self-exposure. In Ekelöf this self-expo-sure is critically linked to a vision of self-transformation: he was, by his own avowal, a mystic in pursuit of enlightenment. Poetry was for him the agency of soul-making.
The spiritual aspiration was present from the start the early study of Oriental religions was already purposeful. And the subsequent transformations comprise a continual movement toward the "something else" that he apostrophizes in his poems. The mystic, by definition, cannot believe in the sufficiency of the material world. He believes in the soul and the possibility of its communion with a universal force. For some mystics that force manifests itself as a pervasive moral order, a logos deriving directly from a deity. For others and Ekelöf was of this stamp it is sheer being, a potency pervading all, a tao (though he never names it as such) bearing no moral imperative, requiring only submission. Ekelöf's poetry, from the middle period on, is a path toward submission. The convolutions of that path indicate just how much of a struggle with contrary tendencies was involved.
In "Elegy," the very first poem in this collection from the section dated 1938 Ekelöf writes:
And fall will return again
however much of spring there was!
What does it matter to life
that someone calls himself "I"
and pleads for his wishes!
What does it matter to earth
which slowly turns itself around
from season to season
that someone struggles against its turning!
We humans lack patience,
we have no time to wait,
but darkness is all around us
and darkness has ample time:
Suns and stars are wheels
that move the eternal clock
—slowly, infinitely slowly
everything is altered
to eternally the same.
Both Eastern and Western mysticism call for the overthrow of the "I" it is illusion, obstacle, sin, maya. Here, though Ekelöf is declaring the frailness and inconsequentiality of the "I," he opposes nothing to it but infinite magnitude and endless time. No sense of higher animate being is given. Implacable, mechanistic law is implicit, but the "I" has no connection to it. It "pleads" and "struggles," while the earth, active but indifferent, "slowly turns itself around." What tension there is in the poem derives from the simple contrast between the finite and the infinite orders. We find simplicity, plainness of utterance, and, in spite of the exclamation points, calm the calm of the stoic's sidereal perspective. But a familiarity with Ekelöf's later torments suggests that it is an unearned, mentally-grounded calm. The Ekelöf who speaks here, or in the lovely short poem "Coda," also from this period, has not yet passed through the purging fire. The grip of intellect has not yet been shattered.
There is a striking difference between these two poems. Life, in "Elegy," is rendered as utterly neutral ("What does it matter to life / that someone calls himself T"). In "Coda" Ekelöf establishes some ground of interdependence ("finally / life needs those who want a meaning"). A slight red thread makes all the difference; the scale is completely different. The closing lines discover a wisdom entirely free of moral suggestion.
The well-known Zen parable relates that before initiation mountains are mountains, that during initiation mountains are no longer mountains, that initiation is past when mountains are once again mountains. Ekelöf's development embodies something of this movement. From the relative serenity of these early poems, he moves into a phase of disruptive intensity: the straight way has been lost. And the change in style is immediately obvious. We find a dialectical velocity, the goal of which, it seems, is to uproot the dialectical process, to destroy all categories of thought, to get rid of the ratio.
You say "I" and "it concerns me"
but it concerns a what:
in reality you are no one.
Reality is so without I, naked and shapeless!
(from "Write It Down")
Lines like these, though they recall those of "Elegy," already carry an acceleration of breath, a greater urgency. And this soon intensifies:
What is it I want? What is it I mean?
I know what it is and I don't know what it is!
It has no name, no place, no kind
I can't call it, I can't explain it
It is what gets a name when I call
It is what gets a meaning when I explain
It is this but before I have yet called
It is this but before I have yet explained
It is this which still has no name
What has got a name is not something else
(from "The Gymnosophist")
Ο deep down in me
from the surface of the eye of black pearl
is reflected in happy half-awareness
a picture of a cloud!
It is not this that is
It is something else
It exists in what is
but is not this that is
It is something else
Ο far far away
in what is distant
there is something close!
(from "Absentia animi")
In these poems Ekelöf is hunting the paradox; he negates his negations, tries to point by way of a stream of cancellations at that "something else" that cannot be named, but that exists, essential, in spite of every mental operation. From a philosophical perspective it appears that he is trying to break through from the phenomenal to the noumenal reality which, according to Kant, is impossible. The problem is, of course, the "I," that net of deceptions. Ekelöf tries to repudiate the "I" in "Write It Down," but he cannot. At best he can frame its indeterminate status. As we see in "The Gymnosophist," he requires an "I" as a provisional pivot. Without it, he cannot hurl himself at the surrounding flux. These epistemological assaults are not, perhaps, the most successful poems in the Ekelöf canon their single-mindedness limits them but they demonstrate an energy and commitment that are not to be denied. Ekelöf, so obviously not interested in being innovative or "different," is forcing his poetry to accommodate and act upon a crisis of the soul.
This period of struggle roughly the decade between 1941 and 1951 also brings forth a sequence of sarcastic, mocking poems that logically accompany the involuted interrogations, and they signal that Ekelöf is by no means unaware of the larger social panorama. He certainly knows what an absurd figure the tormented poet cuts in the public eye. The poem "Interview" makes clever play with this and is a good example of his cutting style. Ekelöf makes a strong case for the immediate expulsion of the poet from the Republic:
If the tensions of the poet's struggle are manifest in the poems of this period, the process of inner reconciliation remains opaque. We feel a change as we read through the last poems of the 1941-1951 section. Sarcasm, negation, and argumentation, the armature of the earlier poems, are gradually replaced by lyricism. The tone becomes less and less strident. Acceptance ousts opposition. We can only guess at the sources of this reconciliation: did Ekelöf succeed in destroying his dialectical bent, was he granted some transfiguring insight? Whatever the explanation, Ekelöf is no longer at war with the premises of his being. The "something else" is not some impossible antagonist or unattainable fata morgana, but a fount of inner replenishment. As Ekelöf writes in the closing lines of "I Heard Wild Geese," closely recalling Hopkins:
The poem "Raga Malkos," which also dates from this time, gives us one kind of clue about Ekelöf's turnaround. Not only does it show his imagination repossessing the East, but it also suggests that Ekelöf is looking in that direction for spiritual resources. His invocation of the Hindu god Krishna combines languorous rhythms with a vision of immersion in experience that is far removed from the dialectical to and fro of the earlier poems:
Beautiful-eyed one, you walk
with the sway of your loins
to bathe yourself in us
the dark reeds and obscure waters
which hide the struggle
the struggle through beauty to joy
childhood through fortune
wisdom and eternal life
Night and good cheer!
(from "Raga Malkos")
The final section 1955-1959 marks a completion of the cycle. The lyrical note returns but now it is very different from that in the earlier poems. There the lyricism depended upon a vision of transience. What Ekelöf stated directly in "Elegy" also emerged in more crepuscular fashion in "To Remember":
But in the poems from the late 1950s it is clear that Ekelöf has changed the whole basis of his perception. The "I" has been vanquished, and what was formerly suffered as transience is now celebrated as the truth of eternal movement. Eastern spirituality is everywhere evident. Poem after poem is now imbued with the idea of the Void the Nothing that is the plenum through which all creation passes:
This music is like ankle-rings
if nothing is the ankle and nothing the rhythm
in which the foot stirs itself and slowly stamps
round round a rounded carpet.
(from "Like Ankle-rings")
That's why you sing for me bird, that's why the raw chill feels fresh
Seductive tones, seductive tones, o hunger that can be satisfied only
when you have caught in your beak the insect of nothing
that every moment vanishes in the empty air.
(from "Why do you sing my bird")
The "insect of nothing" is quite compatible with the lyric mode. If we read "Why do you sing my bird" right after "Elegy," we can see that a complete transformation of vision has been effected, with no sacrifice of delicacy or poetic power.
Ekelöf is, I have stressed, a poet for whom creation and self-discovery are a single process. He is not being rhetorical when he writes: "Poetry is something which is only done by the whole man." This identification cannot but raise the stakes: each finished poem is there for itself and as a moment, or step, in a sustained search. We do not know the eventual issue of that search any more than the poet does. The oeuvre reminds us, more than any single poem, that identity is not a gift passively received, but a determined creative action in the midst of a vast unknown. Ekelöf's evolution from Western skepticism to Eastern mysticism is a fascinating pas de deux of mind and spirit, all the more fascinating in the way that it bypasses Christianity entirely. His path is eccentric but no more so than that of Yeats or Merrill. Complex souls have complex expedients. For our part, we must hope that Songs of Something Else will prompt the publication of all three parts of Ekelöf's triptych. Then we will be able to start assessing the full meaning of these expedients….
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4348
SOURCE: "Now and Absence in the Early Ekelöf," in Scandinavian Studies Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 319-30.
[In the following excerpt, Fioretos focuses on "osynlig närvaro" ("invisible presence"), a poem which appears in Late Arrival on Earth, as a pioneering example of Swedish modernism.]
Gunnar Ekelöf's poem "osynlig närvaro" ("invisible presence"), first published as the fourth entry in sent på jorden (1932; late on earth), bears upon questions of poetic articulation. As such, it must be understood to express concerns that generate the texts of Ekelöf's debut collection in general. Demonstrating a paradoxical relationship between visibility and invisibility, the poem conveys a disturbingly impenetrable presence. The lack of a substantial core in this presence, intimated by the title and recurring in other late on earth poems, permits a rotating motion of polarities, such as those of sight and sound, interior and exterior, presence and absence. The vacillating between these polarities will be the concern of this paper.
The poem reads:
gryningen kom med brusten blick,
fönstret stirrade länge
i ögonblicket som föll bort
då väckarklockan ringde …
en gäspning släpade sig över golvet
och drunknade i lavoaren,
vinden öppnade badrumsfönstret,
gardinen dansade på tvären …
därute drack vattendropparna ljus i dimman
som speglade gatuförsäljarnas osynliga rop
och de stora svarta trädena liknade
ljudlösa rop med armarna i luften …
Frederic Fleisher, thus far the only English translator of the poem, renders it in the following way:
dawn came with a shattered gaze,
the window stared at length
at the moment that fell away
when the alarm clock rang …
a yawn dragged itself across the floor
and drowned in the washstand,
the wind opened the bathroom window,
the curtain danced sideways …
outside the water-drops drank light in the mist
that mirrored the invisible cries of the street peddlers
and the large black trees resembled
soundless cries with their arms in the air …
The semantics of Ekelöf's text refuse any easy crystallization into understanding. As has been well documented in Ekelöf scholarship, this refusal was one of the capital reasons for the abundant criticism his debut received at the dawn of Swedish modernism. The way of writing poetry revealed by late on earth was seen to upset the usually unquestioned rules governing the transmission of belief, emotion, and perception from text to reader, hitherto taken for granted by an audience raised on Mascoll Silfverstolpe or the young Gullberg. Georg Svensson's pejorative comments on the incomprehensibility of Ekelöf's "uttrycks-form" ("form of expression"), is instructive in this respect, since it was precisely Ekelöf's reluctance to administrate his poetic practice in accordance with established usage of poetic discourse that caused the irritation. Svensson calls it a "förödelse" ("disaster") in his review in Bonniers litterära magasin, adding that,
… naturligtvis kan det ligga något patetiskt och fantasieggande över ett skönt fragment, som slitits ur sitt sammanhang, men att basera en hel uttrycksform på desorganisation och intellektuell och emotionell viljelöshet är esteticism av osundaste sort.
(… in a beautiful fragment torn from its context, there may of course be something pathetic and stimulating to the imagination, but to found a whole form of expression on disorganization and intellectual and emotional lack of will is an aestheticism of the most unhealthy kind.)
Falling back on cumbersome value criteria such as hygiene or health, Svensson's opinion about late on earth is indeed supremely deaf to the importance of Ekelöf's early work. It may nevertheless be worth tracing some of these aspects of Ekelöf's disastrous "form of expression" as they occur in "invisible presence," in order to read the way in which the poem performs its disorganization of traditional poetry in favor of a different manner of articulation. This articulation may indicate the originality of Ekelöf's writing in the early thirties, as well as the poetical novelties that forced its readers to trail behind.
The poem displays a number of stylistic features we know from Ekelöf's inventory of poetic techniques at the time. Some already documented observations on the style in late on earth may also characterize "invisible presence" and point to its exemplarity. The poem reveals an attenuating abstraction and an attempt "art applicera ett s. k. non-figurativt bildseende [Ulf Thomas Moberg]" ("to apply a so-called nonfigurative imagination"); one also notices "de syntaktiska och grammatiska destruktionerna [Bengt Landgren]" ("the syntactical and grammatical destructions") characteristic of Ekelöf's poetry at the time, and a "reducering av den poetiska vokabulären [Anders Olsson]" ("reduction of poetic vocabulary"); lastly, the "utstrykande av all subjektivitet och erfarenhet [Olsson]" ("erasure of all subjectivity and experience"), and "tanken på döden i livet, likgiltigheten [och] tröttheten [Landgren]" ("the thought of death in life, the apathy [and] the fatigue") can be singled out as typical features. Indeed, the "radikalt normbrytande och brutalt provokativa draget" ("radically norm-breaking and brutally provocative feature"), to use Bengt Landgren's description of late on earth, bears that Mallarméan imprint we have learned to expect from the author of En natt vid horisonten. The language of the poem appears as a self-sufficient entity, positing an anonymous world where the enigmatically bleak reality is meticulously deprived of expressions of subjective intent. The impersonal tonality not only gives voice to a fragmented and mechanical set of events but also performs a withdrawal from the realm of sensory perception that inversely, ex negativo, introduces a positive element in that very void it leaves behind by privileging the intrinsic attributes of language. The text that asserts the erasure of the I or self is not affected by this deprivation, however, since it must be thought of as the nucleus that engenders the assertion. It may seem, therefore, as if the rhetoric of "invisible presence" promotes a paradoxical presence in the very absence of thematically anchored subjectivity.
The poem performs a verbal furnishing of Mallarmé's Nothing or Absence, though sparsely. The hollow markers of this furnishing a "yawn" and an open "bathroom window," mirrored "invisible cries" and "black trees" "with their arms in the air" are inscribed in the text through a rhetorical figuration that includes the repetition of aposiopeses at the end of each stanza and, more importantly, anthropomorphisms and a catachresis. Thus the invisibility thematized by the text is made present through rhetorical devices that fill out the vacuum surrounding a consciousness devoid of activity and participation. By disorganizing the usual perception of the physical world, the poem by the same token establishes an autonomous poetic reality from which conventional comprehension is excluded. This is a movement that can be seen to recur throughout the poems of Ekelöf's debut, though it may require a certain misapprehension to view it with that feeling one has, according to Svensson, "när man ser ett vackert föremål, som tappats i golvet och slagits i tusen spillror ("when one sees a beautiful object dropped on the floor and shattered into a thousand pieces"). In fact, if the dismembered parts of Ekelöf's poetic world are governed by a unifying principle but that may be doubted this precept may well reside in the homology of the rhetorical structure of each individual text, rather than in the grammatical or descriptive consolidation of their arrangement. Readings not aware of this possibility are bound to repeat Svensson's essentially aestheticizing evaluation, based as it is on unquestioned notions of the poetic text as an organic whole, harmonious and excelling in euphonic beauty.
In "invisible presence," a principle of equality distributes an equal portion of thematic dignity to each perceptual fragment, image, and stanza. This equalization occurs through a series of short sequences that more often than not consist in nominal phrases. Throughout the poem, the temporal mode is phrased in the preterit: "came," "stared," "rang," "dragged," "drowned," "drank," and so forth a catalogue of verbs that, in its repetitive unfolding of a temporality that is precisely not present, underscores a disorganization of conventional reality through which the imaginary world of the poem, in its turn, gains in corresponding actuality. The independent thematic sequences of the text, nearly synonymous with the three stanzas of the poem, depict a room at dawn. A gradual centering takes place, from the approaching morning to a considerably more narrow perspective to a punctum, in fact, being the very moment when the sudden ringing of the alarm clock punctuates the poem, and sets its narrative chronology in motion. This ringing moment initiates a curious activity: a yawn drags "itself across the floor" and drowns "in the washstand." Near the washstand, the wind opens a bathroom window, and passing by way of the poetically rewarding transit of an aposiopesis we are once again introduced to the early morning, the bleak light penetrating the mist, the street peddlers, and the black trees that resemble "soundless cries with their arms in the air."
The break with normal rules of perception in "invisible presence" corresponds to a privileging of deliberately fragmented iconic qualities. Ekelöf's contact with contemporary nonfigurative painting predominantly various forms of post-Cubism, such as Art concret and Purism has rightly been stressed by several scholars, including Ulf Thomas Moberg and Anders Olsson. In the case of "invisible presence," it is evident that its Mallarméan diction is permeated by a manner of elocution whose technique is imported from that kind of painting. The poem reveals an attempt to capture objects or emotions through a dense diversity of perspectives, thus reflecting and transforming an inherent multi-dimensionality in a way that does linguistic justice to its motif. On the typographical level, for example, one finds a consistent use of small letters, recurring throughout late on earth, that accentuates an uninterrupted linking together of seemingly arbitrary events. On the lexical level, words are usually excerpted from the vocabulary of a "denaturerad prosa" ("denaturated prose"), to use a term provided by the title of another poem in the collection. At the level of syntax, the sequentiality is underscored by a paratactic omission of conjunctions condensing the poetic texture. As for sonority, the use of alliterations and assonances further emphasizes the very absence created by the poem. In addition, finally, various expressions that recur in the text endow the inarticulate with an onomatopoetically twisted articulation: the ä -sound of "g ä spningen sl äpade sig" in the second stanza, for example, or the o-sound of "osynliga rop" in the third.
The poem is one of the few Ekelöf commented on himself ("osynlig närvaro"). Yet Ekelöf's considerations in the autobiographical margin of his text seem to trouble the reading of it in a particularly instructive manner. Under the vignette "Diktaren om dikten" ("The Poet on the Poem"), the title of a series of essayistic reflections first published in the periodical Samtid och framtid (4 ), Ekelöf commented on two poems from his first volume. One of them is "invisible presence." The scenario of the text, he then tells us,
är square de Châtillon, i fjortonde arrondissementet där jag en tid bebodde en liten våning. Stämningen är dagen efter. I "ögonblicket som föll bort" torde den för Paris, läsaren osynlige lågenhetsinnehavaren ha begrundat vad det var han inte kom ihåg…. [F]ramför allt minns jag en tiggare, en osynlig närvaro eftersom jag på grund av stängda persienner aldrig sett, bara hört honom…. Men dikten är också någonting annat. Kubismen hade denna tid (20-talet) ingått i en fridsammare och på sätt och vis "lycklig" period. Det var framför allt Picasso och Braque som inaugurerade fönsterbilden med det karakteristiska järngallret. Detta är ett försök i ord till en sådan bild: fönsterdöbattanger öppna, gardin, spjäljalusiner, träd därute och i förgrunden en i olika attityder komponerad "närvaro."
(is the Square de Châtillon, Paris, in the fourteenth arrondissement, where for a time I occupied a small flat. The mood is the morning after. In "the moment that fell away," the inhabitant of the flat, invisible to the reader, should have established what it was he did not remember…. [F]irst of all I remember the beggar, an invisible presence, since I, owing to closed blinds, never saw him, only heard him…. But the poem is also something else. At this time [the 1920s], Cubism had entered a more peaceful, in some ways "happier" period. It was primarily Picasso and Braque who inaugurated the window image, with the characteristic iron grille. This is an attempt in words at such a picture: shutters open, curtain, Venetian blind, trees beyond, and in the foreground a "presence" composed in various attitudes.)
Ekelöf stayed in Paris from the end of September 1929 to June 1930. He originally planned to study music. In a fictional letter to a friend, written some five years later and printed in the fragmentary attempt at an autobiography, En självbiografi (1971), the Parisian stay is discussed (88-91). While cautioning that "[m]innet bedrar" ("[m]emory betrays"), Ekelöf writes:
Först minns jag den ofantliga, ohyggliga ensamheten…. I det ena rummet var fönsterluckorna alltid stängda…. [E]nsamheten … spann sina spindeltrådar över fönstren och slog sin klo i min själ. På bordet låg en anteckningsbok öppen. Där skrev jag en tanke då och då…. Det avlövade trädet utanför mitt fönster kunde inte växa mer övergivet och mer undergivet än jag själv."… Ibland kom en gatusångare in i den lilla gränden och ställde sig där för att sjunga. Klagande gammalmansröster, slitna och färglösa som det mulna ljuset en höstdag. oändligt långsamma, släpande melodier och tiggande tonfall. Gatuförsäljarnas rop trängde också in dit, men man kunde aldrig hora vad det var de sålde, det lät bara som spridda lockrop utan någon mening. … For övrigt nådde mig bullret av vårlden utanför endast som obestämda ljud man hör i sömnen.
(First I remember the immense and frightful loneliness. … In one of the rooms, the window shutters were always closed…. [T]he loneliness [spun] its spider web over the windows and [dug] its claw into my soul. On the table, a notebook lay open. Now and then I wrote down a thought in it…. The defoliated tree outside my window could not grow more abandoned and more resigned than I myself…. Sometimes a street singer came into the small alley and stood there to sing. Complaining old-mens' voices, worn and colorless as the clouded light on a fall day, infinitely slow, dragging melodies and begging tones. The cries of the street peddlers also intruded, but one could never hear what it was they were selling; it sounded only like dispersed cries without any meaning…. Besides that, the noise of the world outside reached me only as the undefined sounds one hears in sleep.)
The setting is familiar: an interior, invaded by ennui and voided of affirmative action, is juxtaposed with an exterior, a noisily intrusive apparition, but one deprived of the signification that usually goes along with sound. The "dispersed cries without meaning," mentioned in this autobiographical account and belonging to the realm of exteriority, only reach the passive subject "as the undefined sounds one hears in sleep." This perforation of the bar that separates inner actuality from outer reality, silence from sonority, consciousness from corporeality, is paralleled in Ekelöf's late account by the intrusion of undetermined sound into sleeping. Impossible to block out and yet bereft of any meaning, the vacillating of such an intrusion is the principle governing the rotating motion of polarities in "invisible presence." The image of the window, borrowed from Cubist paintings, establishes the vacillation and may be read as its emblem.
Ekelöf's fictive letter suggests one way of interpreting the title of the poem. It proffers the street singer outside the window, but invisible to the inhabitant of the flat and singing "infinitely slow, dragging melodies and begging tones." The interpretation in Samtid och framtid, on the other hand, leaves the matter more open. There, Ekelöf speaks about remembering the beggar an "invisible presence," as he puts it but also mentions the "inhabitant of the flat, invisible to the reader," who '"in the moment that fell away'… should have established what it was he did not remember." This may be worth noticing, since the former character the beggar, or the street singer singing "begging tones" belongs to the realm of exteriority, whereas the latter the inhabitant of the flat is part of the interior world. Ekelöf himself, reminiscent of the situation and yet warning that "[m]emory betrays," thus prolongs the question of the invisible presence, rather than puts it to rest.
The strange and impenetrable presence of which the poem speaks indeed cannot be seen. It may even seem undecidable, given the mutually exclusive suggestions proffered by Ekelöf's two accounts. The presence is devoid of that materiality which would make its identity ascertainable. One commentator, Rabbe Enckell, noticing the general lack of subjectivity in late on earth, writes that,
… jaget förlorar sin naturgivna kapacitet till självidentitet och man väntar detonationen efter en självsprängning i det själsliga landskapets fortunnade atmosfär.
(… the I loses its naturally inherent capacity for self-identity, and one awaits the detonation after a self-explosion in the attenuating atmosphere of the spiritual landscape.)
The observation is cogent, though not free from apocalyptic inclination. The spiritual setting of Ekelöf's poem surely harbors a reified world where objects do not disclose any order that is graspable or, for that matter, possible to utter in harmony with preestablished categories of meaning. "Korrespondensen mellan jaget och sinnevärlden är störd" ("The correspondence between the self and the material world is disturbed"), Enckell rightly infers. There may be perception in Ekelöf's poem, visual as well as auditive, but what is perceived seems deprived of further signification. The text weaves the pattern of a perceptual disturbance. The record of this perception, though no longer interpretable according to traditional doctrines of poetic validity, is eminently textual, thus still readable. In the poem, it may therefore be worth paying attention to the way in which the text performs that absence of perceptual normality-which it in fact is about.
"[O]synlig närvaro" opens in medias res. A dawn comes with a shattered gaze. This anthropomorphism allows for a reversal of attributes, yet it likewise assumes in the words of Paul de Man "an identification on the level of substance" (241). The spiritless morning hour of "invisible presence" is animated, in other words, and given sight. The giving of vision, however, does not stop at this. It continues in "the window [that] stared," and is thereafter temporalized: the window stared "at length," the text has it, "at the moment that fell away." The original has ögonblick, "moment" or "blink," which is an idiomatically economic coagulation of time and momentary sight, temporality and vision. After this curious opening, follows a yawn that drags itself across the floor and drowns in the wash-stand. The synecdoche here standing in for a tired subject who is denied more qualified presence is then left in the bathroom, while the narrative of the poem takes us out through the window, to the trees and the soundless cries. These latter anthropomorphisms "water-drops" that drink light and "large black trees" with arms may be read as attempts at figuratively manifesting a presence that cannot be seen.
The setting pictured in the poem is spelled out mainly through this confusion of essentially different realms of existence: on the one hand, the realm of objects, deprived of soul and intention; on the other, the realm of consciousness, burdened by languid desolation. Anthropomorphism is the principal conceit of this confusion, by which human properties are projected into the natural world. By taking the natural world as human, it simultaneously takes the human as something already given (cf. de Man). This entwinement of different orders of being thus implies creating a naturalness of man which, in its turn, suggests that man and nature vanish as categories, as their difference from each other is eliminated. Ekelöf's text demonstrates such an elimination of the distinction between the order of man and the order of nature, between consciousness and reality, and the image of the window may be read as the emblem of its possibility, since it is that phenomenon establishing the interior and exterior worlds of the poem which permits Ekelöf to turn normal perception inside out. But if anthropomorphism still allows us to identify something on the level of substance, there is another, more violent figure in Ekelöf's poem that radicalizes the perceptual ambiguities put forth by the text.
In Ekelöf's 1951 interpretation of "invisible presence," he largely characterized the method by which elimination is brought into poetic play, when he stated that the poem was "an attempt in words at such a picture [i.e., a Cubist "window image"]: shutters open, curtain, Venetian blind, trees beyond and in the foreground a 'presence' composed in various attitudes." The mention of Venetian blinds makes it easier to picture the morning light that arrives with a "shattered gaze." The curtain that dances "sideways" underscores this arrival, as do the drops of water that prismatically reflect the light they drink in the mist, with the invisible cries from the street peddlers contained therein. The physical world here comes to speak through a transaction of human properties, which then grants natural elements the poetic license of assuming perception and articulation. The window renders possible the ex-change between interior and exterior. This essentially rhetorical movement indicates, in the text, the proximity of anthropomorphism to another and more disruptive figure of speech, catachresis that arbitrary imposition of trope which gives name to a yet unnamed entity by the "misuse" of figurai speech. Catachresis is the misapplication of a word that gives face to the faceless "the eye of a hurricane," say, or "the leg of a chair" as is the case with the very moment at which the "dawn came" and "the window stared." This "moment" is an ögonblick, which is a misuse of figurai speech, since it gives face and sight to an entity that most certainly has neither. Through the peculiar twists of the Swedish idiom, temporality is here given eyes to see even if only for a short while. Prior to any perception, this is the catachrestic moment that inaugurates Ekelöf's poem, marking the instant that initiates the text's process of signification. What makes this more than a random occurrence of trope, however, is that the vision of the catachresis is conferred at the very instant that the text shifts from the figuration of visibility to audibility, "at the moment that fell away / when the alarm clock rang." The rhetorical movement by which the moment of the arriving dawn is made visible occurs at the same instant as the language of the poem speaks of the power of sound. Thus the literal report of this transition also marked syntactically, by the temporal conjunction "when" in the fourth line is not so much a denomination of property as the indication of a rhetorical movement. The catachresis of ögonblick coincides, simultaneously, with the ringing of the alarm clock. Hence it grounds an invisibility, since sound cannot be seen, as the poem rightly points out later, mentioning the "invisible cries" from outside. This is an invisibility that is nonetheless made present all the more so, inasmuch as sound can be seen to be a feature of language that is necessarily immanent to it.
Rather than being the passive reflection of a very empty reality, Ekelöf's poem reveals a conception of language as act, as a making-present. Reading a reading devoted to the figurative fragmentation displayed by Ekelöf's early poetry is the only practice in which such a movement may become present. The "presence" of "invisible presence" is therefore not so much an a priori presence as it is "made" present through catachresis. This difference generates the conflict between perception and trope articulated by Ekelöf's poem. It is the initial imposition of catachresis that renders possible the poetic process of comparison and identification, organized in various figurative patterns with anthropomorphism as dominating trope. The moment in which "invisible presence" inaugurates its presence, however, is said to be a moment "that fell away." What the text thus actually makes present can preside only in absentia. As in the case of Mallarméan poetics, figurai language fills out a voided center, allowing it to circulate linguistically by being phenomenalized as time and ringing, temporality and sound, the two inherent features of speech. The text engenders a presence bound to be invisible. It is a presence that can occur only in that Now which always, necessarily, coincides with the act of reading. Yet the poem tells us that this Now is a moment that simultaneously falls away, thereby depriving us of the scene of action that Svensson apostrophized, derogatorily speaking about an "intellectual and emotional lack of will" in late on earth. This lack which now turns out to be rigorously linguistic, but hardly aesthetic is what Ekelöf's text renders present. The invisibility must occur by a process of signification, a process that reading only unravels. Nothing substantial remains after its having taken place, however, so there may be a sort of "disaster." Yet in that case, it is a "disaster" proper to all language.
That this seems to be what Ekelöf's poem speaks about only underscores the acuity of his debut collection and the understandable momentum it formulated at the dawn of Swedish modernism. From the reader's or critic's view point (pace Svensson), it may be comforting, though decidedly more unsettling, that Ekelöf's poem thereby also points to that other disaster Novalis touched upon when stating that it would be "Unglück, wenn die Poësie auf die Theorie wartete."
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
Benedikt, Michael. "Critic of the Month: IV." Poetry 113, No. 3 (December 1968): 188-215.
Brief discussion of Robert Bly's English translation of Ekelöf's poetry, entitled I Do Best Alone at Night.
Harvey, Steven. "The Changed Name of God." The Iowa Review 25, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 1995): 40-6.
Compares Ekelöf with poet John Logan.
Lesser, Rika. "Gunnar Ekelöf and Hjalmar Gullberg: 'But in Another Language … ". The American Poetry Review 10, No. 5 (September/October 1981): 42-7.
A positive assessment of Muriel Rukeyser and Leif Sjöberg's 1979 English translation of A Mölna Elegy.
Mattsson, Margareta. Review of Songs of Something Else, by Gunnar Ekelöf, translated by Leonard Nathan and James Larson. World Literature Today 57, No. 1 (Winter 1983): 122.
A generally favorable review of Songs of Something Else.
Merwin, W. S. "Into English." The New York Times Book Review (March 17, 1968): 6.
A largely negative review of Selected Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf, as translated by Muriel Rukeyser and Leif Sjöberg.
Printz-Påhlson, Goran. Introduction to Selected Poems, by Gunnar Ekelöf, translated by W. H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg, pp. 13-18. Pantheon Books, 1971.
Surveys the development of Ekelöf's poetry, and describes Ekelöf himself as "a guardian of the border regions of the mind."
Shideler, Ross. "A Functional Theory of Literature Applied to Poems by Paul Valéry and Gunnar Ekelöf." Psychocultural Review 2, No. 3 (Summer 1978): 181-201.
Includes a close reading of Ekelöf's "En prins var namn bör vara onärnnt" ("A Prince Whose Name Must Not Be Known") that examines how the poem acts upon the reader's "emotive and cognitive" perceptions.
Sjöberg, Leif. "Gunnar Ekelöf's 'Tag och skriv': A Reader's Commentary." Scandinavian Studies 35, No. 4 (November 1963): 307-24.
Provides a close reading of a poem from Ferry Song, and stresses the differences between Ekelöf and poet T. S. Eliot.
——. "Allusions in the Last Part of Gunnar Ekelöf's En Mölna-Elegi." The Germanic Review XL, No. 2 (March 1965): 132-49.
Offers "a preparatory study" of a part of Ekelöf's complex poem that had not been completed at the time this essay was published.
——. "Gunnar Ekelöf: Poet and Outsider." The American Scandinavian Review LIII, No. 2 (June 1965): 140-6.
An interview with Ekelöf at his home, a visit to which, Sjöberg observes, is treated almost as a pilgrimage by poets and readers alike.
——. "Note: Two Poems by Ekelöf." Scandinavica 5, No. 1 (May 1966): 126-30.
Compares two short poems by Ekelöf with the two paintings that inspired them.
——. "A Note on Poems by Ekelöf." Scandinavian Studies 39, No. 2 (May 1967): 147-52.
Discusses the inspiration from the visual arts upon which Ekelöf relied for many of his poems.
"Two Quotations in Ekelöf's 'Absentia Animi.'" The Germanic Review, XLIV (January 1969): 45-60.
Focuses on the imagery of a butterfly and on some lines inspired by Rimbaud, whom Ekelöf admired, in "Absentia Animi."
Stendahl, Brita. Review of Guide to the Underworld, by Gunnar Ekelöf, translated by Rika Lesser. World Literature Today 55, No. 3 (Summer 1981): 488-89.
Positive review of Guide to the Underworld.
Thygesen, Erik. Review of Skrifter, Vols. 1-7, by Gunnar Ekelöf, edited by Reidar Ekner. World Literature Today 68, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 149-50.
Largely positive review of Ekner's stated attempt to offer the reader "the whole Ekelöf in this Swedish-language collection of Ekelöf's poetry and prose.
Young, Vernon. "Nature and Vision: Or Dubious Antithesis." The Hudson Review XXV, No. 4 (Winter 1972-73): 659-74.
Young describes Ekelöf's later poems as Eastern in philosophy and "quite unlike any Western poems [he] can remember."
Additional coverage of Ekelöfs life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28 (rev. ed.), 123; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 27; and Discovering Authors: Poets Module.