Gunnar Ekelöf Ekelöf, Gunnar (Bengt) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gunnar (Bengt) Ekelöf 1907–1968

(Also transliterated as Ekeloef) Swedish poet, essayist, and translator.

Ekelöf is often described as the most important poet of modern Swedish literature. His work, which clearly reflects the influences of the mystical poetry of Persia and the Orient, Taoist and Indian mysticism, and French Symbolism and Surrealism, is both difficult and demanding. In the modernist aesthetic tradition, it challenges the reader to abandon conventional perceptions of both poetry and reality. As is true of the work of the Surrealists, Ekelöf's poetry also urges readers to explore the relevance of the subconscious to their thinking. In keeping with this aim, his work is often filled with fantastic, dreamlike images and symbols which mock rational thought. Against this background of thought, reality and self emerge as Ekelöf's major concerns, freedom from the dualistic moral conception of good and evil, his personal and poetic aim.

Ekelöf's first book of poetry, Sent på jorden (1932; Late Arrival on Earth), was an influential book of its time. Written in a period of the author's deep despair, it presents a bleak, nihilistic vision of a world hurtling toward destruction and employs techniques of French Surrealism. This work, Ekelöf's "suicide book," was written at a time when the bourgeois humanistic culture of Sweden was under fierce attack by Marxist and other groups and is considered revolutionary in that it attacked not only that culture but "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 both reality and poetry.

Dedikation (1934; Dedication), Ekelöf's second book of poetry, reflects the influence of French Symbolism in that the author portrays himself as an interpreter, or "seer," one whose vision and insight extends beyond the perimeters of surface reality. More positive than Late Arrival on Earth, this work shows the author groping towards the truth which he believes lies beyond reality. Ekelöf seeks a "oneness" that the dualistic moral conception of good and evil denies. He expresses if not hope, then at least a belief that one must not give up the struggle to transcend the limitations of reality as moralists have conceived it. Transcendence of such boundaries, Ekelöf believed, allows one to fully become "oneself." In Sorgen och stjärnan (1935; Grief and Stars), Ekelöf's third volume of poetry, the poet 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 considered Färjesång (1941; Ferry Song) the culmination of his thought. More intellectual than his previous works, Ferry Song in its style shows the influence of Symbolism and Romanticism. Attempting to reconcile the ideal and the real, Ekelöf here examines the natures of both self and reality and questions the validity of our traditional conceptions of them. He concludes that in a world where the forms of reality derive solely from the compulsions of persons caught in the mire of the imprisoning battle between good and evil, "only as a wit-ness to this struggle does a person exist." Ekelöf then categorizes "witnesses": the innocent, whom good and evil play upon; the moralists, who propagate the dualistic system, taking sides and creating forms and structures to aid their cause; and the uncommitted, who recognize but refuse to participate in the war between good and evil. By withdrawing from the struggle that structures all cultures and societies, however, the uncommitted must pay the price of complete isolation.

Ekelöf's later poetry pursues themes similar to those of his earlier works, but in a rather different style and manner. In many of these works, there is an absurd element and an apparent attempt to shear his work of all but the most necessary words and images. On numerous occasions, Ekelöf himself denied that such works were even poetry. Critics nevertheless address them as such. The most renowned examples of this phase of Ekelöf's writing are Dïwān över Fursten av Emgión (1965; Divan of the Prince of Emgión), Sagan om Fatumeh (1966; The Story of Fatumeh), and Vägvisare till underjorden (1967; Guide to the Underworld).

Critics describe Ekelöf as a profound thinker and praise his ability to incorporate diverse influences into a coherent pattern of thought. Some also marvel that he remained, in spite of these influences, a distinctly Swedish poet in that the landscapes and aura of his native country haunt most of his work.

Ekelöf's poetry is described as innovative in form and technique, especially in its adaptation of musical forms to verse. His poetry, some feel, will have a lasting place in the history of modern literature because of its originality and its relevancy to the reader concerned with problems of the modern age.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary].)

Eric Lindegren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gunnar Ekelöf's poetry shows more sudden turns than that of any other poet in the Thirties' group [in Sweden]. In his five books of poems he appears in turn as saboteur, seer, romantic swan, blind beggar and ruminating ferryboat man on the river of death. But his personality is so strong in all these guises that we ought to speak of his different phases in the same sense that we speak of the phases of the moon. His books may also be compared with acts of a play: they develop out of one another in an almost dialectical way, bringing one another into relief, and supporting one another as do the poems of no other modern Swedish writer.

Ekelöf is a late romantic and a modern intellectual with a scepticism so deep that from the Western point of view he can be defined as an anarchistic mystic—one who doubts reality in the Eastern way. In fact, he is influenced by Persian, Indian and Taoist mysticism. At the same time, he is in the highest degree a product of European culture, both classical and modern…. The [Swedish] poets he reminds one of most are Stagnelius (in his romantic feeling for life), Almquist (in his mingling of innocence and arsenic) and Fröding (in his anti-moralistic thought). He further reminds one of these men in his remarkable gift for form, which shows itself above all in the fact that he is more self-reliant in form than any other living Swedish poet. This in turn is contingent upon his concern with music. Ekelöf does not so much write poems as compose books of poems. His greatest innovation in form is that he applied musical principles and forms in his poems, thereby creating a poetry that is no longer either speech or song, but both. Since music is above all the speech of the feelings, this conception of form has undoubtedly supported and strengthened the romantic tendency in Ekelöf's writing. In this essay I shall make no attempt to establish the exact correspondences between Ekelöf's poetry and the various musical forms underlying it, but only touch upon the way Ekelöf's typical themes are developed, contrasted, modulated—how they shift and change and yet always lead back to the same fundamental experience. (pp. 238-40)

The so-called culture debate was in full swing [when Ekelöf's first book of poems, Late Hour on Earth (also translated as Late Arrival on Earth) was published in 1932]: the bourgeois humanistic culture [of Sweden] was being attacked from three sides—by Marxism, by psychoanalysis, and by what was called primitivism. The voices of the propagandists broke against one another, and in this swarm of high, pugnacious words Ekelöf's Late Hour on Earth had the effect of an act of sabotage—long planned in silence and effective. Unlike the propagandists, Ekelöf used the secret approach of the saboteur. His aim was destruction of the "dead forms" in the culture, rather than salvation or proselytizing. At the same time, this book of poems represented the first personal application of the ideas of surrealism on Swedish soil.

Effective destruction rests upon thought and must be preceded by a thorough knowledge of both the objects to be blown up and the explosives to be used. Ekelöf's parodies of "classical masterpieces," executed with both scorn and hidden love, showed deep familiarity with the marbled layers of classicism. The dead marble became a threefold symbol for dead beauty, for what was dead in the culture, and for what was dead in people. The technique itself was partly inspired by surrealism, but it was far from the idea of "uninhibited inspirations" which outlawed any artistic refinement. Yet Late Hour on Earth was objective as none of Ekelöf's later books were. Harsh unsentimentality, self-analysis disguised as arrogance which handled the "I" with an impassive scientific tone: "I have sunk from the function of man to the function of the floor rug," indirect satire, psychoanalysis, surrealist methods, atonalism, and cacophony, all fused into a new whole—this was something new. With suicidal ruthlessness, the ego and culture were stripped of all their attractive disguises, of all possibilities of self-defense, and indeed almost of their very reality; what was left behind was a lost child on the shore of a sea where the bullet-ridden stage sets were burning. Personal dignity was sacrificed; exhaustion, disappointment, disgust appeared with naked and indiscreet clarity…. (p. 240)

But in the middle of this fragmented, and convincing contemporary chaos, Ekelöf's genuine romantic vein comes to the surface in his hatred of reality and, above all, in his identification with the child…. (p. 241)

For the romantic the helplessness of the child was a symbol of man's helplessness in the world of objects. Ekelöf is a potential Neoplatonist: the longing for purity, passionate and resigned, sounds again and again in his poetry….

Two extremes of romanticism are on the one hand the assertion of self, which used to be called demonic but actually is human, and, on the other hand, the effacement of self, which is Christian or platonic—or Indian. The romantic swings easily from the feeling of being chosen to that of being a condemned man, god or leper. In his next book, Dedication …, which came out in 1934, Ekelöf appeared to some extent as the elect one, the representative of true existence—the dragonfly which flees from the poison of the gray ants, bringing with him a word like the seer. The epigraph of the book. "I say that one must be a seer, one must make oneself a seer", was taken from Rimbaud….

The seer here is neither the man who can gaze into the future nor the avenging prophet of the Old Testament, even though he shares certain features with the latter. Ekelöf's conception of the seer stems more nearly from Baudelaire and French symbolism. (p. 242)

[Dedication] was to be Ekelöf's positive proclamation, a half-magical attempt "to sing all death from his life," to save himself. While the surrealists committed only their "unconscious" in their poetry, Ekelöf, in keeping with his fundamentally religious nature, went back to Rimbaud and the symbolists. Not heeding Breton's warning to be cautious, he committed himself wholly to the attempt to arrive at a future "in which eternal oneness shall be ours." Even in Rimbaud the seer theory had taken on ominous accents, a consciousness of the task's unheard-of difficulty and weight; it took only a slight dislocation of his feelings for the seer to become the martyr of his own demands. One can follow this development in Ekelöf's Dedication, in which the seer ends as the martyr in Caesar's orchard, who ecstatically assents to his own death.

On closer examination, however, the seer theme is complemented in this book by something one might call a Parsifal-motif. What is imagined is not, as in Rimbaud, the demonic genius striving for oneness, the clear-sighted innocent nor the child ripened to an angel who will save the world, but rather:

I am no human, I am an angel
who has returned to earth in order to take hold
of the throat of mankind with my hand!
Evil has already burned away in me
And the lie is not a remedy:
I am too single-minded to cram life with lies!

But the road to single-mindedness is long. It begins with a frightening vision of life on earth as a dead man's dream, or something equally dead and eternal ("Contra Prudentium"); it goes on to visions of defeat, to Carl Frederik...

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Robert Bly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The inward thought of the Orient and the surrealist poetry of France have been [Ekelöf's] deep concerns, and have provided foundations for his own poetry. Yet his poetry is perfectly Swedish. His imagination in "Trionfo della Morte" for example reminds one strongly of his younger contemporary, Ingmar Bergman. There is a similar walk on the borders of religion and witchcraft, and inside the work of art visual images that seem to float.

In America, we assume that only a cracker-barrel sort of poetry can be popular. Swedish poets, particularly Ekelöf, do not follow this old rut of thought. Ekelöf is the most difficult Swedish poet, and yet his audience is large…. In his poetry there are linked successions of thoughts which are difficult to follow. These thoughts are embodied in high-spirited and colorful language. He is an uncomfortable poet, who tries to make the reader conscious of lies. His work attacks the moralistic personality. He divides all personalities into the innocent, the moralistic, and the uncommitted. The innocent temperament is primitive and intuitive; the uncommitted is the most highly advanced. The moralistic personality, overpowering today in numbers, sees in life only the fight between the dragon and the knight. It does not see the virgin at all. But the virgin who does not participate in the battle is life itself. What is behind and beyond the battle between good and evil is more important than either. As he says, "There exists something that fits nowhere." (pp. 546-47)

Robert Bly, "Translations from Gunnar Ekelöf," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1963 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XV, No. 4, Winter, 1962–63, pp. 546-47.

Leif SjöBerg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


[Sjöberg is the principal translator into English of Ekelöf's work and has provided a significant amount of critical commentary on his poetry.]

When Ekelöf's Färjesång was published in 1941, it was in some respects a return to the sphere and manner of Sent på jorden with its use of thoughts and elements from various sources. This allusion technique has been extended and developed further in Färjesång where there are thoughts from Buddhism, Taoism, mystic writers, folklore, and modern rationalism. Partly because of this technique Ekelöf's name was linked with Eliot's. Some critics have attempted to establish Ekelöf's indebtedness...

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John Demos

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ekelöf is a poet of surpassing stature, one of the masters of modern poetry, yet little known in America. [Selected Poems, translated by Muriel Rukeyser and Leif Sjöberg, 1967,] contains a wonderful selection of the Swedish poet's work. In it, three themes—time, death, and self—recur. In poem after poem, these themes are explored, expanded, and modified, but seldom is an idea, an image or an attitude repeated, so varied are Ekelöf's feelings and so skillful is his recording of them. His poems seem grounded in a sub-atomic physics whose laws unfold in a resonance of wild and strange language.

John Demos, in a review of "Selected Poems," in Library Journal...

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Muriel Rukeyser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To find a new poet who speaks as we speak, who says the things we need to hear, but in another language, is to be filled again, to find the next place. And if he is a world-poet living in our time. And if he brings us a strange music, music of our own thoughts and nights, a sense of light-struck magnificence and of the horrors, of stubborn affirmation; and the filth of cruelty, death, and sexual madness. And if his poems fall into their riches, lyrics, long coherent processions, a kind of theatre, amazing new and sudden lyrics, reaching us in another way, like a new touch on us? This is Gunnar Ekelöf. (p. 5)

Fierce, magnificent music is given to us by Ekelöf, past the building of joy and the...

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Leif SjöBerg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


It is true that Ekelöf occasionally may appear "absurd" in his later poetry, but to call him "absurd" is inaccurate. He is beyond categorizations of that type. Whether he would approve of the most recent offshoots of the "absurd school" is questionable. Whatever "absurdism" he has is by no means absolute…. Disbelief and skepticism are in fact more typical of Ekelöf than mysticism and absurdism. Skepticism requires an observant, analyzing mind, which is precisely what he has at his disposal. With all his outward success, and with all his analytical ability, however, he finds little but meaninglessness around him. (p. 18)

By being interested in fundamentals...

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Robert Bly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many critics consider Gunnar Ekelöf to be the greatest living Swedish poet. He reached out early in his career to two sources outside the Scandinavian tradition: to the mystical poetry of Persia in particular, and the Orient in general, and to French poetry, especially the surrealist poetry of the late 'twenties. His poetry has deep roots also in Fröding, Almqvist, and the Swedish fairy tales.

In Swedish literature there is a much firmer division between the 'country' and the 'city' writing than there is in America or England. There has been a succession of great writers in Sweden each of whom has taken his place naturally in one of these two groups. Gunnar Ekelöf very clearly belongs to the...

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Leif SjöBerg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


If there has been a major shift in poetic theory during the past two centuries, it has been from an emphasis on the external world (around us) to the internal, night 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 many ways in which these consciousnesses are suggested may be illustrated by a brief consideration of three outstanding examples, in the works of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Gunnar Ekelöf…. 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),...

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ekelöf], the unique poet of his generation, led a self-tormented existence, to which his elegant, impersonal poems rarely furnish a clue. His family background, reminiscent both of Ibsen's Ghosts and Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata, left him to the mercy—one should perhaps say to the mercilessness—of the private pledge and the dream, to an obdurate alienation from his own culture. "I learned to hate Europe and Christianity," he confessed. By dint of application, he learned to hate a large surface of the inhabited globe, present and past. (This is the authentic, but concealed, virgin spring of the Swedish Middle Way.) Ekelöf's immersion in Oriental languages, from which derived the fabulous poems in...

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Brita Stendahl

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One could speculate on Ekelöf's position among contemporary poets if his mother tongue had been English or any other "world-language," but one should then keep in mind the force of another, strangely similar Scandinavian, the Dane, Sören Kierkegaard. In due time Ekelöf will prevail and conquer. He stubbornly returned to the same themes with original imagination utilizing international and intracultural imagery. Much of what he has to say is placed on the sharp edge of paradox. Some music might be lost in translation but some might even be gained, for it is my experience that he is eminently translatable because the meat of his thoughts so often is merely suggested between the lines and in the clash of metaphors....

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Ross Shideler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dreams are a central motif in the poetry of Gunnar Ekelöf, and throughout his writing he uses images from them to present insights unattainable through reason or conscious thought.

Ekelöf reflects qualities of both French symbolists and Scandinavian nature-lyricists. Rimbaud's famous declaration that the poet must make himself a voyant, a seer, affected not only the surrealists, but also led poets such as Ekelöf to explore the darkness within themselves. Ekelöf's fascination with Rimbaud was so profound that he translated a large selection of Rimbaud's prose and poetry and wrote a well-researched introduction for his translations. In this introduction Ekelöf suggests that we see Rimbaud...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In both subject and style Ekelöf belongs among those poets we call "modern," that vague but handy term which allows so considerable a variety within a comfortably large category of likeness. Applied to poetic practice, "modern" suggests a deliberate rejection of or radical departure from convention, literary and social. The declared modern author characteristically addressed subjects that disturbed, when they did not offend or scandalize, most nineteenth-century readers, and not because such subjects sometimes violated sexual taboos, but because they would have seemed, by accepted standards, subliterary or, better, unpoetic. Modernist styles would have also seemed calculated to bewilder this same audience, denying...

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