Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“He Who Does Not Hope” is a poetic search for a goal and meaning in life. In this way, the poet is like a knight who, as did the chevaliers of the Round Table, rides forth on his quest. Like them, he has setbacks and fights mightily with poison-breathing dragons before he arrives at his goal. Unlike them, however, his dragons are not supernatural creatures but are inherent in life itself.

The poem shifts between paradox and antithesis. Beginning in stanza 1 with the absence of both search and struggle, it moves rapidly to the opposite state: the search which transforms man into a knight in combat. Another rapid shift in metaphor introduces two natural images, fire and snow. Within the sphere of nature as of man, one finds brevity and the omnipresence of disintegration and death. At the end of stanza 2, the search seems to have ended in failure, for the only “meaning” to be derived from life is that of “meaninglessness”; paradoxically, however, the words also suggest that “meaning” is implicit in its absence.

Heat and cold, fire and water have to this point been the antithetical elements which suggest transience in the natural world as well as in human existence. In the third stanza, however, the elements of air and earth (“whirlwinds” and “world winds”), along with the interaction of fire and snow, epitomize the destruction wasted upon humanity.

The “goal” and “meaning” of the quest are found, the final stanza implies, not in the external world, but in a mystic inner region. Although the heart and soul are “orphans” within the world of physical existence, their cohesion yet provides the meaning and eternity which the outside world denies. With the image of the cosmic mother whose infusion of the outer world can only be accomplished by means of the vision within—a recurrent motif in Ekelöf’s poetry—the poem ends in paradox. Even more significant (and here the poet reaffirms the exalted nature of his calling), the eternal meaning expresses itself in the song of the sister/mother/soul.