Vilhelm Ekelund Essay - Critical Essays

Ekelund, Vilhelm


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.

Principal Works

Vårbris (poetry) 1900

Syner (poetry) 1901

Melodier i skymning (poetry) 1902

Elegier (poetry) 1903

In candidum (poetry) 1905

Dithyramber i aftonglans (poetry) 1906

Grekisk bukett (translated poetry) 1906

Havets stjärna (poetry) 1906

Antikt ideal (essays and aphorisms) 1909

Böcker och vandringar (essays and aphorisms) 1910

Båge och lyra (essays and aphorisms) 1912

Tyska utsikter (essays and aphorisms) 1913

Agenda (essays and aphorisms) 1913-14

Nordiskt och klassiskt (essays and aphorisms) 1914

Veri similia (essays and aphorisms) 1915-16

Metron (essays and aphorisms) 1918

Attiskt i fågelperspektiv (essays and aphorisms) 1919

På hafsstranden (essays and aphorisms) 1922

Sak ock sken (essays and aphorisms) 1922

Lefnadsstämning (essays and aphorisms) 1925

Västöstligt (essays and aphorisms) 1925

Passioner emellan (essays and aphorisms) 1927

Lyra och Hades (essays and aphorisms) 1930

Spår och tecken (essays and aphorisms) 1930

Båge och lyra 1932 (essays and aphorisms) 1932

Valda sidor och essays 1908-1930 (essays and aphorisms) 1933

Det andra ljuset [The Second Light] (essays and aphorisms) 1935

Elpidi (essays and aphorisms) 1939

Concordia animi (essays and aphorisms) 1942

Atticism-humanism (essays and aphorisms) 1943

Plus salis (essays and aphorisms) 1945

Dikter (poetry) 1951

Prosa (essays and aphorisms) 1952

Nya vakten (essays and aphorisms) 1953

Ars magna (essays and aphorisms) 1954

Saltet och helichrysus (essays and aphorisms) 1956

In silvis cum libro (essays and aphorisms) 1957

Skoltal (essays and aphorisms) 1961

Själens tillflykt (essays and aphorisms) 1962

Campus et dies (essays and aphorisms) 1963

Brev (essays and aphorisms) 1968-70

Hjärtats vaggvisor (essays and aphorisms) 1970

Hemkomst och flykt (essays and aphorisms) 1972

Den ensammes stämningar (essays and aphorisms) 1985


Lars Gustafsson (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "Vilhelm Ekelund," in Forays into Swedish Poetry, translated by Robert T. Rovinsky, University of Texas Press, 1978, pp. 65-71.

[In the following essay, Gustafsson analyzes Ekelund's poem "The First Spring Rain," noting the particular Swedishness of Ekelund's work.]

"Det första vårregnet"

Som ett nät av svarta spindelvävar
hänga trädens våta grenar.
I den tysta februarinatten
sjunger sakta, klingar, svävar
fram ur däldens snår och stenar
suset av en källas vatten.

I den tysta februarinatten
gråter himlen stilla.
-Syner, 1901

"The First Spring Rain"

Black, like webs from spinning spiders playing
branches, moisture-heavy, bend
In the silent February night
singing slowly, ringing, swaying
out of rock-strewn, brushy glen
sounds of wellspring, watery delight.

In the silent February night
cry the heavens softly.
-Visions, 1901

For the average Swede, Ekelund's poetry can occasionally take on an exotic quality, which comes about quite simply because his Scanian landscape truly is a foreign landscape. Our everyday experiences mean more to our relationship with a poem than we would normally imagine.

I remember how, while teaching Tomas Tranströmer to students at the University of Texas, I came to the wellknown line that reads: "like a sun-warm stone in my hand" ("som en solvarm sten i handen").

"That can't be," one of the students said immediately. "If somebody were to hold a 'sun-warm stone' in his hand, he'd get blisters. And he'd toss that stone away as fast as he possibly could."

Undoubtedly, this is how stones and men behave in the parched regions around Texas' Colorado River. Of course, that did not prevent the student from understanding what Tranströmer meant. I think the poem even became more interesting to him when he understood that this brief picture contained a wholly alien climatic experience.

For a reader from central or northern Sweden, February is a period of deep snow and dryness; arctic-clear days, when bullfinches and silktails come out from the deep woods in search of food; ice-cold nights, when contraction brought on by the chill causes a moaning and groaning in wooden houses, and shoes crunch on unplowed roads.

For Ekelund, "the silent February night" is the time when the landscape begins to shed silent tears. I think that a northern Swedish reader would more readily associate this experience with the beginning of April.

Differences which do not mean anything and, yet, most profoundly do mean something. They compel us to make an extra effort, and in this small exertion there is always a gain, a small electrical charge. I know of no more sterile an...

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Leif Sjöberg and Niels Lyhne Jensen (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Early Scandinavian Symbolism by Leif Sjöberg (Stony Brook) and N. L. Jensen (Aarhus)," in The Symbolist Movement in the Literature of European Languages, edited by Anna Balakian, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1982, pp. 580-84.

[In the following essay, Sjöberg and Jensen discuss how Ekelund was influenced by early Swedish avant-garde poets.]

While avant garde Symbolist and Decadent coteries were forming in Paris after 1880, August Strindberg (1849-1912) and Ola Hansson (1860-1925) made great headway in developing an avant garde in Sweden, where by 1900 there were several counterparts to Parisian groups. Students at Uppsala University joined to form Les...

(The entire section is 1805 words.)

Further Reading


Gustafson, Alrik. "Two Early Fröding Imitations: Vilhelm Ekelund's 'Skördefest' (1900) and 'I pilhäcken' (1901)." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 35, No. 4 (October 1936): 566-80.

Notes considerable stylistic affinities between two of Ekelund's early poems and the works of Gustaf Fröding.

Shideler, Ross. "'The Glassclear Eye of Dreams' in Twentieth-Century Swedish Poetry." World Literature Today 51, No. 4 (Autumn 1977): 530-34.

Traces Ekelund's contribution to the tradition of poetry as dream-vision in Swedish literature.

(The entire section is 72 words.)