The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

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.

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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 from its meaninglessness.

The third stanza begins on a profoundly negative note. Life has no inherent plan or order. While the disasters of Greek tragedy can at least be ascribed to the preordained workings of fate, twentieth century life lacks even this order. People are the victims of haphazard “combinations” of circumstances and the undifferentiated actions of natural disasters (“whirlwinds”) and the forces of history (worldwinds). Struggle alone is insignificant; the only important aspect is a change from one form of struggle to another.

With the fifth line of the third stanza, the poem takes on an anguished urgency. The images of fire and snow recur; now, however, they suggest the cycle of destructive forces in human life: “Let the fire thaw the drift./ Let the drift put out the fire”—since disintegration and death are inevitable, let them proceed. The two concluding lines of the stanza raise the poem to a crescendo of agonized questioning. The poetic speaker uses second-person address: “Life, where is your meaning now?/ Life, where is your point now?”

The fourth stanza obliquely answers the intense questioning of the previous one. The focus moves inward, and the tone becomes lyrical. The heart and soul are orphans, born without parentage, nurturing, or guidance. In their bond, however, they find the relationship that their orphan birth has denied them, for they are “brother” and “sister.” The soul is superior to the heart or emotions, for it fills the yet more important role of “mother.”

In the final four lines of the last stanza, the poem rises to its most lyrical and most personal note. The objective tone is now fully shed with the use of the first person—“me” and “my.” The poetic voice invokes the sister-mother to rock him back and forth and sing for him. This “song without end,” it is implied, counterbalances the meaninglessness and brevity of life with meaning and eternity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

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 rhetorical address in the concluding four. The third stanza, in which the content rises to a peak of questioning, is the most fragmented, both in sentence structure and by breaks or caesuras. The first four lines consist of sentence fragments, marked by the repetition of “not” and “but,” separated by stops at the end of each line.

In structure as well as in content, the fourth stanza is the point of final synthesis. Thematically, an abrupt shift occurs from images of the outer to images of the inner world, from images of brevity and destruction to images of endurance. The effect of this revelation is epiphanic. To underline the exultation of the conclusion, a marked caesura separates the fourth and fifth verses, as the poem breaks forth into a lyrical address to the soul/sister/mother and, for the first time, first-person pronouns and adjectives are used.

Not only the structure but also the verbal devices reflect the tightness of this freeverse meditation. In lines 5 and 6, the repetition of “he who seeks” causes the diction to linger emphatically before the theme of conflict is broached. The third stanza is a feat of translating skill. Transposed, as noted above, is the repeated “notbut”; in a verbal echo of the sweeping forces of disaster, the second line lingers on “whirlwinds and the drift of world winds.” Here, as with the transposition of “firedrift” and “driftfire” in the fifth and sixth lines of stanza 3, the all-embracing cycle of struggle is suggested.

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Themes