Vilhelm Ekelund Critical Essays

Introduction

Vilhelm Ekelund 1880-1949

Swedish poet, aphorist, and essayist.

Ekelund is considered Sweden's leading aphorist and among its most influential modern poets. His career is generally divided into two phases. Prior to 1909 Ekelund focused exclusively on poetry, producing highly personal verse in the romantic mode. Later he abandoned poetry altogether in favor of prose, taking cues from classical models and the thought of such individuals as Friedrich Nietzsche, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The at times cryptic style of his aphorisms and essays betoken Ekelund's visionary quest in search of beauty and truth in an abstract or Platonic sense. Nevertheless, his writings—in both the symbolic imagery of his poetry and compact, philosophical musings of his prose—are acknowledged among the most enduring in twentieth-century Swedish literature.

Biographical Information

Ekelund was born in Stehag in the Skåne district of southern Sweden, son of a village blacksmith. He attended the University of Lund—his father had moved to the larger town when Ekelund was in his early teens—but never obtained a degree. In 1908 he left Sweden to avoid some minor legal entanglements after engaging in a public altercation and simultaneously cast aside poetry, opting instead to write essays and aphorisms. He lived in Berlin until 1912, then relocated to Denmark, which he preferred to Germany, though he became seriously ill for many of the years he spent there. He eventually returned to live in Sweden in 1921, hoping to provide a spiritual voice to the younger generation in his native country, but instead found himself alienated from all but a small, devoted following of readers. Ekelund died in Salsjobaden, Sweden in 1949.

Major Works

Ekelund's earliest poetic efforts are represented by his collections Vårbris and Melodier i skymning, which contain a variety of rhymed lyrics on personal subjects and introspective meditations inspired by the natural landscapes of his native Skånia. Ekelund's later poems, contained in In candidum, Dithyramber i aftonglans, and other volumes, represent developments in form, such as Ekelund's resonant use of free verse, as well as his passionate adoption of the ideals and precepts of classical antiquity. After forsaking poetry in favor of prose, Ekelund sustained his exploration of classical themes in a modern idiom, while breaking away fully from the romantic origins of his early verse. Inspired by his admiration for the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, Antikt ideal includes an impassioned praise of the German philosopher's concept of the indomitable will. A later, less strident collection of essays Veri similia represents the more moderate side of Ekelund's thought and betrays the influence of Emerson and Goethe among its models. The ideal of moderation is the ruling force in the essays of Metron and Attiskt i fågelperspektiv, both of which contain Ekelund's thoughts on the world's preeminent thinkers and artists since the classical era. In Påhafsstranden Ekelund equates the Nordic and classical ideals of bravery, fortitude, and sobriety. Among his later works, Plus salis offers Ekelund's thoughts on the synthesis of idea and reality in life.

Critical Reception

Ekelund's poetry, essays, and aphorisms never reached more than a modest popularity during his lifetime, and drew consistently negative criticism from many of his contemporaries. Influenced in his style and thought by the German classicists, notably Friedrich Hölderlin and August Graf von Platen, Ekelund placed his passionate longing for the philosophical ideal of beauty before all other concerns, leading to what critics have observed are highly personal and at times abstruse writings. Still, Ekelund's passionate appeal in favor of the classical ideals of balance, moderation, beauty, and ultimate truth, coupled with his prophetic and experimental use of language, proved influential on the succeeding generation of poets in Scandinavia. Likewise, his bold style and mastery of the aphorism have made him one of the most highly regarded prose writers and versifiers in his native Sweden.