The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “He Who Does Not Hope,” the simplicity of Gunnar Ekelöf’s diction belies a highly dense thought process. It is a brief poem—thirty-two lines of free verse, divided into four eight-line stanzas—which begins calmly and rationally with two statements, the first of which echoes the title. The first four lines state that the absence of hope also means freedom from the despair that comes from disappointed hope; correspondingly, believing in nothing frees one from the torment of doubt. In the second half of the stanza, however, this passive but untroubled view is contrasted with its opposite. As soon as one breaks out of unthinking passivity and tries to find a goal or a meaning in life, one is flung into conflict. One begins an unending struggle with the “dragons” of doubt and despair which breathe their poison into one’s consciousness.

Stanza 2 also shifts between opposites. It evokes the picture of a winter day, when snow is falling outdoors and a fire is burning in the hearth indoors. These seemingly contradictory elements, snow and fire, both suggest the brevity of life. The fifth line draws together the contradictory elements of snow and fire, heat and cold. The “play” of life—the double suggestion occurs of the theatrum mundi (“world theater”) and of aimless movement—is like the play of both the snow and the fire. A renewed paradox ends the second stanza, with the statement that the “meaning” of life derives...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In spite of the free verse and the simplicity of the diction, “He Who Does Not Hope” presents a complex use of paradox, tightly bound by metaphorical development and verbal devices. The structure of the stanzas in both the Swedish original and the excellent translation by Leonard Nathan and James Larson reflects this underlying tightness. In each stanza, a major modification in the thought development occurs halfway. In stanza 1, this shift is introduced by “but” and sets apart two contradictory life views. In the second stanza, the last four lines synthesize paradoxical elements only to posit yet another paradox. The role of the mid-stanza shift in stanzas 3 and 4 is that of lyrical reinforcement: The second half of stanza 3 offers an emotional response to the destructiveness and brevity of life, while the concluding lines of stanza 4 address lovingly the sister-mother.

The syntax reflects the above pattern, for in each stanza, a full stop concludes the fourth verse. In addition, the first two stanzas, with their objective tone, form a subunit, as do the more subjective third and fourth stanzas. The first four lines of stanzas 1 and 2 are subdivided into two statements of two lines each, terminated by periods. The final four lines, however, are uninterrupted by stops and propel the thought forward with the smoothness of their flow. Similarly, the third and fourth stanzas are interlinked by a pattern of statement in the first four lines and...

(The entire section is 484 words.)