Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1262
In 1946, Gunnar Ekelöf wrote that his A Mölna Elegy has as its theme the relativity of time and experiences in the flow of time. The poet attempts to capture one such moment, a cross-section of time, as it were, in which experiences and re-experiences combine, both remaining separate occasions and becoming a unified instant. In the A Mölna Elegy, Ekelöf also questions the idea of identity. The poem’s first-person narrator represents a variety of personalities who focus on the lack of constancy in life and on the overwhelming transitory nature of existence. These themes, fragmented in the poem’s complex structure, imbue the elegy with a tone of uncertainty and mystery. In that tone and in the disjointed structure, the work clearly echoes the style of American, English, and French surrealists and modernist poets of the early twentieth century. Particularly strong influences were T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem Ekelöf translated into Swedish.
For English readers, the complexity of A Mölna Elegy is partly due to Ekelöf’s use of Swedish settings and history as well as to the poem’s dense content and form. The poem functions on a number of levels, for it is a web of allusions, symbols, and points-of-view of many voices inside one character’s mind. It is not, however, obvious or necessarily important to know, for example, that the elegy is set at the beginning of World War II, as this information provides no insight into the poem’s meaning.
It is important to know A Mölna Elegy takes place in a yellow autumn on a jetty on the Mölna river near Stockholm, Sweden. The setting includes descriptions of old buildings on Lidingo Island, symbolizing the nature of the past, which is alive only in memory. Through the many Roman and Greek classical allusions, the scope of the setting broadens to include the Mediterranean region, reflecting the places Ekelöf visited in his lifelong travels and his interest in classical mythology. The poem begins and ends speaking to a wanderer, the spokesman first saying “Hail” to him and finally “farewell.” These lines echo phrases from Roman gravestones. Other allusions refer to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), the Bible, Swedish history, and images borrowed from Ekelöf’s favorite writers.
A reader need not be aware of each of these allusions to gain an understanding of the poem; however, some attention to the elegy’s difficult structure is required to understand the interconnected themes and subjects throughout the poem’s sections and subsections. The poem’s structure includes monologues, imagined dialogues, marginal headings, parenthetical asides and stage directions, illustrations, and a graphic layout. Meter and phrasing alternately flow and fragment in stream-of-consciousness images, creating a dense and complex interior monologue that comments on the past, present, and imagined future.
The poem opens with the poet sitting on a “bench of the past,” writing of the past, merging what he sees with his memory and imagination. He sees a crazy-eyed fool playing wordless, soundless music and rending the illusion of the past in a swirling, mysterious world of nature. The poet’s own life, however, stands still, the frame of reference around which all his images revolve. The repeated image of the “flying moment” is introduced when it robs the poet of his future.
The “Wave Song” section describes waves of tides and winds in an “eternal then which is now”; the eternal now is the past arrested in time. The sun sets beyond the river’s canal as the poet describes boating scenes and memories of the past summer. Transformation begins in the cool air as past, present, and future merge, as time runs wild and years equal minutes, in the isolation of the moment.
In “Old Actor,” an old man has an appointment with the past, but sleep overtakes him as the narrator remembers the actor as Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest. The poet muses on the past and identity, asking “Who were you yourself?” He remembers singing in the past; in the present, clocks tick, and the poet looks through “a blind window” wondering, in the first of many window images, how Prospero can be alive. The actor awakens, and the poet seems to dream of conversations with dead ancestors who recall his childhood.
Sea imagery dominates the “1809” and “1786” sections, linking the past with the poet’s Swedish history; treasured objects from various lands, music, sea travel, and stars and storms lead him to reflect on death and the dead. These memories interact and point to ancient, eternal truths evoking the idea of the interdependence of everything. The poet “remembers Time,” “carries it” and “hears it” in his present where it brings together the elements of the past. Time is “complete and unknown” in the poet, ending the first half of A Mölna Elegy.
A Swedish “King over all that has gone before” reflects on the autumn of his lineage, himself a vestige of past traditions. He speaks of change and of the importance of action to make change, and he says that one cannot find truth in the rational and must be assimilated into the flow of time to avoid being absurd. Other voices merge hours with seasons. Images of children wanting to “hold tight” to the secure present give way to dream images of grief over the passing of history. The poet sees ancient battles and funeral pyres on the beach of the Mölna River, bringing the distant past into the present setting.
The poet’s vision, now reanchored in his riverside setting, expands outward and upward, exploring the elements of nature to dramatize the vastness of time and space. Fire and land imagery, in which fire is a purifying force, is juxtaposed against the earlier water images. The “flames and waves” and land merge in a holy union. The poet sees the fire of the sun in perpetual sunset as a desolate city wind brings the poet back to the present. In a feverish state—bringing the natural elements into his own mind—the past, present, and future fuse in a dizzying, flying moment. The poem ends in a brief, calm remembrance of a near-death experience in childhood, followed by a short reflection that life, in the past or future, is still rarely fully experienced.
A result of twenty years work by Ekelöf and ten by the translators, the first English version of A Mölna Elegy helped expand Ekelöf’s reputation. He is considered Sweden’s most important twentieth century poet, highly regarded for his verse, essays, and studies of European and Middle Eastern languages and literature. As American poet Robert Bly observed, there is no English-language poet like him. Throughout his work, Ekelöf emphasized the importance of the subconscious, and critics praise his cohesiveness and his ability to synthesize varying influences, particularly Eastern and Western philosophies, and to draw on Persian, Indian, and Taoist sources. The Hindu notion that alone is the only place an individual can trust is a very important theme in A Mölna Elegy.
Nevertheless, Ekelöf maintains a distinctly Swedish voice, largely because of his choice of landscapes and of characters. He is considered innovative in his technique, especially in his use of musical forms in his verse. Music, particularly singing, is a central motif in A Mölna Elegy, for Ekelöf uses music both as sensory imagery and as a means to evoke the past.
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