The Lonely Hours of Edith Södergran
n his Introduction to The Poet Who Created Herself: Selected Letters of Edith Södergran, editor and translator Silvester Mazzarella asks why Finland and its Swedish-speaking minority should have been the cradle of Scandinavian Modernist poetry, beginning with Södergran’s first book, Dikter (Poems) in 1916. He answers his own question by noting how much World War I changed the politics of Europe. When the war began, Finland was part of the Russian Empire (after hundreds of years of Swedish rule), and nearby St. Petersburg was “one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in Europe” (15). When it ended, the Bolshevik Revolution was under way; Finland had declared its independence and endured a civil war. Mazzarella observes: “To be young at this time in central and eastern Europe was to have a world in need of reconstruction at your feet” (15). Södergran was in the right place at the right time.
by Patricia Valdata
Edith Södergran (1892-1923) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to Finnish parents of Swedish background. She was only a few months old when her father moved the family from Russia back to Finland to escape a cholera epidemic. Their home was in Raivola, a rural village on the Karelian Isthmus that is now part of Russia.
Södergran was 10 years old when her parents sent her to a German boarding school in St. Petersburg. For six years, she studied modern languages and literature, and went to theaters, museums, and concerts. In 1904, her father was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and he died three years later. In 1908, 16-year-old Edith was diagnosed with the same disease. She spent large portions of the next two-and-a-half years in a grim sanatorium in Nummela, which had a library but not much else to nurture the spirit of a teenaged girl who had watched her father decline and die in the same place. In 1912, she and her mother traveled to Switzerland so that Södergran could be treated at the more pleasant sanatorium in Davos. Here, too, she frequented the library and learned in English so she could read Dickens, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman (McDuff 9-21). She also spoke Finnish (her first language), French, Italian, German, Russian, and Swedish.
In 1913 she and her mother traveled briefly to Milan and Florence (McDuff 21) before returning home. Two years later, World War I made casual travel difficult for many Europeans, but Edith and her mother were especially isolated. In 1917, they were able to travel to St. Petersburg, but the journey took a toll on Edith’s health. After she recovered, she went to Helsinki to meet other literary and artistic figures, but that was the last time she left Raivola (McDuff 27-28).
Life in Raivola was extraordinarily difficult. The family had lost their investments during the Russian Revolution, and the two Södergran women lived in near starvation. The fighting was so close during the Finnish Civil War that they heard gunfire. Special travel permits were required to enter the region. Hagar Olsson, Edith’s poetic “sister,” managed two brief visits, but they were far from pleasant for Olsson. “It was dreadful to sit down at table. The food was such that it was hard to keep one’s tears back when one thought that this was what a sick and utterly enfeebled human being had to live on. But at the same time a sense of tact forbade one to say anything that would have given offence or been badly received” (qtd. in McDuff 44). They were so poor that in one letter Edith asks her friend to bring them a piece of soap (Mazzarella 62). Another letter, written 16 April 1920, illustrates how desperate they had become:
It’s a terrible thing to have to live on the favors of others, one can’t even manage to feel grateful, just humiliated. I understand the tragic atmosphere in Shakespeare, that’s life. So much harder than one thinks to find security.
Went yesterday to the administrator’s to try to palm off on them a bottle of perfume and some lace combinations. They were interested to begin with, then forgot the matter. Today I’ll go to others. They look askance at you and you feel like a beggar. (qtd. in Mazzarella 81)
Olsson was able to persuade a publisher to pay Södergran her overdue royalties, and she wangled a small grant for Edith from an authors’ society, but she had to do so carefully to avoid offending the proud Södergrans. In fact, Olsson became a lifeline to Södergran, who depended on Olsson to be her link to literary society. The relationship was exceedingly one-sided, with Södergran imploring Olsson to write, to come visit, to go see other writers on Södergran’s behalf. Södergran seemed unable to understand that Olsson was a busy journalist and literary critic with a life of her own. Even though Olsson recognized Södergran’s talent, and defended her at a time when most others criticized her work, the two women probably had little in common aside from their literary interests.
Södergran’s only other visitor was poet Elmer Diktonius, with whom she also corresponded. Like Olsson, he admired her work, and offered her the opportunity to write for his avant-garde publication Ultra (McDuff 49-50).
Despite the hardships of wartime and post-wartime life, Södergran took great joy from the natural beauty around her, which is reflected in her poetry. Photographs show her walking in the woods or standing in the garden, holding her beloved cat, Nonno, whom she nicknamed Rotelli, Trotelli, Råttikus, and Totti. Her letters to Olsson are full of references to roses, harebells, and cherry blossoms. Sadly, the cat was shot by their neighbors in 1919, a spiteful act that hurt Södergran deeply. The following year she nearly died of Spanish influenza. Her health grew increasingly frail, and she died in 1923, two years before her last book was published.
The teenaged Södergran was an avid student who idolized her French teacher, Henri Cottier, and dedicated many early poems to him. After she fell ill, she was treated at Davos by Doctor Ludwig von Muralt. She developed feelings for him that were apparently unreciprocated, but according to McDuff she kept Muralt’s photograph at her bedside for the rest of her life (21), so her feelings must have been deeper than a youthful “crush,” as Mazzarella describes it (9). Mazzarella briefly mentions an affair with a Russian doctor, who was married (9-10), but provides no details (Södergran destroyed almost all of the correspondence she ever received). Certainly, some of her love poems are about these men.
Another man, whom she never met, but whose ideas dominated Södergran’s early work, is Friedrich Nietzsche. She read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and often implored Hagar Olsson to obtain copies of Nietzsche’s other books and send them to her, since she could not get them in Finland. It’s not hard to understand Nietzsche’s appeal to a sick young woman. If will is power, old systems and dogma are not to be trusted, and an individual can be fully self-actualized from within, then an isolated, frail poet can produce groundbreaking work. Her first two books, Dikter and Septemberlyran (The September Lyre), show clear Nietzschean influences. Even more so does the literary manifesto, “Individual Art,” published in the Dagens Press as a letter to the editor shortly after The September Lyre came out in 1918. In part, Södergran complains that she had not seen proofs, and so the book was published with poems left out and others added that she did not want in it. But her complaints are bracketed by statements like “[t]his book is not intended for the general public, still less for exalted literary circles, but only for those few individuals who stand closest to the frontier of the future” and “[f]rom these poems streams a higher fire, a more powerful passion, than from what I have written in the past. I cannot help anyone who is unable to recognize that the wild blood of the future is pulsing in these poems (qtd. in Mazzarella 24). She continues:
I myself offer up every atom of my strength to my lofty purpose; I live the life of a saint, I steep myself in the highest creations of the human spirit, I avoid all influences of a lower kind. I regard the old society as the mother cell, which must be sustained until the individuals it produces can raise the new world. I urge these individuals to work only for immortality (though this is not the right word), to develop themselves to the highest possible point—to put themselves at the service of the future.
My book will not have failed in its purpose if one single person is able to grasp what it is about this art that is tremendous and unprecedented…. (qtd. in Mazzarella 25)
These statements rocked the staid Scandinavian literary establishment. It was bad enough that her first book included overt sexual references and eschewed form for free verse. This letter made readers think of Södergran as “unbelievably comic or unhinged by delusions of grandeur, if not simply a victim of serious mental illness” (Olsson, qtd. in Mazzarella 25). While it is possible that Södergran sometimes experienced mental or emotional effects while in the throes of a tuberculosis attack, there is nothing irrational in this letter. She has taken Nietzsche to heart and let his philosophy inform her work. Her writing is ecstatic in the same way that Whitman’s writing often is, and her poetry reflects Whitman’s influence as well. Living in a remote area, cut off from literary peers who lived in Helsinki and Stockholm, immersing herself in the natural world, with a revolution at her doorstep, Södergran was an iconoclast in a conservative society that couldn’t fathom her intelligence, passion, or talent. In this respect she is also similar to Emily Dickinson.
One person who did understand her was Hagar Olsson, at the time a young editorial assistant at Dagens Press. Olsson had published a short novel and what today we would call a chapbook of prose poems. She was assigned to review The September Lyre, but before she did that, the paper received and printed Södergran’s letter. Olsson immediately recognized Södergran as a one of the “Kinder der Zukunft,” or “Children of the Future” (“Introduction,” Mazzarella 22). Her review lauded the book as a “glorious find” and praised Södergran’s “uncommonly rich and creative intuition” and “no less uncommon intellect” (qtd. in Mazzarella 27). Yet Olsson was also critical of Södergran, in part because she thought Södergran should not have sent that letter to Dagans Press but should have let her work speak for itself. Olsson later characterized her review as “the most bombastic and intolerably censorious I had ever written” (“Introduction,” Mazzaralla 26). Södergran’s letter in response to this review began their lifelong correspondence.
In 1920, possibly because Nietzsche’s intellect offered no spiritual comfort to Södergran, who was still mourning her cat’s death, she became drawn to the work of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s nature mysticism and belief in the occult was a direct contrast to Nietzsche. Steiner believed that “physical death is transformed into spiritual birth”:
For the moment man passes through death and becomes one with the Universe, the second aspect presents itself—the aspect in which the widths of space appear to be everywhere filled with cosmic thoughts. For Imaginative vision and for the man himself who has passed through death, the whole Cosmos now teems with cosmic thoughts, living and weaving in the expanse of space. (Steiner, Karmic Relationships, V: Lecture V)
Södergran struggled to reconcile these opposites in her fourth book. But she also embraced Steiner’s vison for the future that divided society into three bodies: political, economic, and spiritual, all independently administered. It was, as Olsson explains, “an attempt to create something which would be neither capitalism nor socialism but would include the best of both systems, and above all would ensure living-space in society to the talented individual regardless of economic and political factors” (qtd. in Mazzarella 88). It is no wonder that Steiner’s Anthroposophy would appeal to Södergran.
But perhaps the major influence on her work was an acute awareness of her own mortality. Södergran understood that tuberculosis was inevitably going to kill her. She had seen her father die at a young age from the same disease, which he very likely gave to her. Death is as prominent in her work as the celebration of nature. When her own death was imminent, she embraced the Christianity she had rejected as a teenager when her father was dying.
Södergran began writing poems when she was a schoolgirl. By 1909, she had written 225 poems, almost 200 of them in German. In one of them she writes “Ich weiss nicht, wem meine Lieder bringen, / Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben” (“I do not know to whom to bring my songs, / I do not know in whose language to write”). Shortly after, she began to write in Swedish, which would be her poetic language from that point on, but it was Finland-Swedish, with some unconventional syntax, archaic language, and coined words that make her poetry hard to translate.
David McDuff, who edited the Complete Poems, writes in an essay that Södergran’s Finland-Swedish language was “often markedly Germanized” (“Some Problems” 88). There are words for which there is no English equivalent, such as the phrase “Jag är,” which means “I am” but also “I is,” or as McDuff puts it, “an alienated,objectified definition. The ambiguity here is in my view quite untranslatable” (“Some Problems” 90). It is that very ambiguity that so well suits the poem in Swedish.
As in any translation, nuance can be lost. For example, in “Dagen svalnar” (The Day Cools”), the speaker addresses a lover. McDuff’s translation rather primly renders “Du kastade din kärleks röda ros / I mitt vita sköte” as “You threw the red rose of your love / into my white lap,” while Mörling and Ellerström translate these lines more explicitly as “You threw your love’s red rose / in my white womb.” Charters’ translation is similar, and he follows those lines with “In my hot hands I hold fast / your love’s red rose that withers so soon.” It is little wonder her work elicited such a strong response from conservative (and mostly male) critics.
Södergran was only 23 years old when she began sending her poems out, and was encouraged enough to send a manuscript to publisher Holger Schildt (Mazzarella 10). He published Dikter (Poems) in 1916. It contains poems that establish Södergran’s Modernist, even avant-garde voice, but this first volume, written by a then-unknown female poet, did not receive much critical notice.
“The Day Cools” is from this first book. It is written in four stanzas separated by Roman numerals. The first and third are eight lines, the second and fourth are seven. The first stanza has a conventionally romantic tone in which the speaker’s “thin shoulder” is full of “longing.” The second stanza begins with the sexually explicit lines quoted above, but in the last three lines, the speaker refers to her lover as her “ruler with cold eyes” (in McDuff, her “conqueror”) who gives her a crown so heavy “it’s bending my head against my heart.” In the third stanza the speaker feels her lover’s “firm grip” and wonders “where is my ringing virgin laughter, / my freedom as a woman and my head held high?” She hears “the hard clang of reality” against her “fragile, fragile dreams.” The final stanza lists the conventionally romantic things the lover searched for, and what he found instead:
You searched for a flower
and found a fruit.
You searched for a spring
and found an ocean.
You searched for a woman
and found a soul—
you’re disappointed. (On Foot I Wandered 9)
Ursula Lindqvist notes that the last line expresses the speaker’s disappointment more than the subject’s:
The speaker’s position in this final stanza is important; she is observing her beloved as he conducts his search—the female subject tracking the male explorer. It is she who is narrating his search for the ideal figure. Thus ironically, the poem’s final line, “You are disappointed,” does not express the explorer’s disappointment, but the speaker’s. She is the one making this statement, and her tone conveys sorrow at his failure to appreciate her vastness and complexity. This is her elegy and the loss is her loss. (826)
It is not just an earthly lover who disappoints through his own disappointment. In “God,” Södergran begins with conventional metaphors: God is a “resting bed,” “a pillow on which we lean our heads,” “a store of strength.” But in the middle of the poem, she calls lowercase god “a decomposed body,” “a handful of ash,” “a prison for all free souls,” “a harp for the hand of the most violent anger” (Complete Poems 58). Her unconventional world view is also shown in “Vierge Moderne.” Lindqvist calls this poem an “avant-gardist act of destruction in [Södergran’s] poetics: that of the traditional figure of a woman….the speaker destroys the traditional, “virginal,” objectified figure of woman and erects a radical, “modern,” genderless yet highly sexual figure in its place” (826). The poem begins “I am no woman. I am a neuter.” It then continues for 13 lines, all beginning with “I am,” to list all the things a woman truly is, among them “a rash decision,” “the soul’s fever chill,” “a flame,” “a body of water,” then “fire and water in an earnest union on free terms” (On Foot I Wandered 19). It is easy to see signs of Södergran’s illness in the images of fever and fire, but it is equally easy to see those images as signs of her mystical connection with nature and the cosmos.
In her second collection, The September Lyre, Södergran begins with an introductory note in which she refers to her poems as “careless pencil sketches” (Complete Poems 94). She concludes with an artistic statement in the Nietzschean, ecstatic vein that, like her letter in Dagens Press, her critics loathed: “My self-confidence depends on the fact that I have discovered my dimensions. It does not become me to make myself less than I am” (Complete Poems 94). Critics expecting the decorous false modesty of a poetess saw this as arrogance or hubris rather than self-confidence. A columnist who wrote for the leading Swedish-language daily paper, Hufvudstadsbladet, wrote on the day after “Individual Art” appeared that he “confesses his sincere loathing for ‘Nietzsche-crazed womenfolk’ ” (qtd. in Lindqvist 829). Other critics agreed, and one person advertised that he was selling his copy of The September Lyre at a discount (Lindqvist 829).
Several male poets came to Södergran’s defense in January 1919, writing a letter in Hufvudstadsbladet saying that they joined “the troop of lunatics who see evidence of a deeply committed artist in Edith Södergran’s poetry and who have found there traces of great and distinctive beauty” (qtd. in Mazzarella 37). According to Hagar Olsson, that letter was “the only encouragement she ever got from the establishment” (Mazzarella 37). And it was small encouragement, since the poets saw only “traces” of Södergran’s considerable talents, and according to Lindqvist, chided the poet for her naiveté, “a patriarchal term that evoked her youth and gender in order to compensate for her audaciousness” (829).
The September Lyre contains ecstatic poems and nature poems, but it also includes darker poems that reflect the proximity of war in her life, such as “Månens hemlighet” (“The Moon’s Secret”):
The moon knows . . . that blood will be shed here tonight.
On tracks of copper over the lake a ceremony goes forth:
corpses shall lie amidst the alders on a wonderfully beautiful shore.
The moon shall cast its most beautiful light on the strange shore.
The wind shall pass like a wakening bugle call between the pines:
How beautiful is the earth in this lonely hour. (Complete Poems 102)
The poems in Södergran’s next book, Rosenalteret (The Rose Altar, 1919) don’t address the physical poverty that she and her mother experienced. Instead, they speak in the title poem of “a joyous message: / the Kingdom of God is beginning. / Not Christ’s / wasting empire, / but higher, brighter / human forms / come to the altar” (Complete Poems 120). These poems have a dreamlike quality in which gods and goddesses, dancers, warriors, Vishnu, roses and stars come together to usher in a new age of spiritual enlightenment. Södergran’s speaker faces pain and suffering defiantly, and even when civil war and tuberculosis have turned the earth “into an ash heap,” she writes:
Oh how blissful are my dreams!
I am strong,
for I have risen up from death’s marble bed.
Death—I looked you in the face, I held the scale towards you.
Death—your embrace is not cold, I myself am the fire. (Complete Poems 125).
In another poem, “On Foot I Had to Cross the Solar System,” she writes, “Somewhere in space hangs my heart, / shaking the void, from it stream sparks / into other intemperate hearts” (Complete Poems 123). Fire in one form or another appears in many of these poems, in lanterns, burning houses, torches, fevers, memories that “flame up like the fires of retreating soldiers” (“Fragments of a Mood, Complete Poems 139), the heat of the sun and the cold light of the stars, as in “Scherzo”: “Up there stars, unambiguously clear, on earth my heart, the unambiguously clear. / Magnificent night of stars, we are one” (Complete Poems 140).
The last book of poetry published in her lifetime, Framtiddens skugga (The Shadow of the Future, 1920) contains poems that illustrate Södergran’s struggle to reconcile conflicting philosophies. There are still ecstatic expressions, as in “The Mystery”: “All people are playthings. / Yesterday I was a plaything myself. / Today I am the one who reveals the mystery” (Complete Poems 140) and “O You My Heart’s Expanse”: “I am a god in whom storms rage, / with sucking eyes I draw all into my soul” (Complete Poems 170).Yet there are also poems that address the reality of her health. The title poem begins “I sense the shadow of death” (Complete Poems 160). A poem titled “Bliss” describes how “they shall strew red roses on my bier” (Complete Poems 161). Another, “Hamlet,” concludes:
Truth, truth, do you dwell in mortuaries among worms and dust?
Truth, do you dwell there where is everything that I hate?
Truth, do sorrowful lanterns light your way? (Complete Poems 172).
And then, in “Resolve,” another contradiction: the poet is an eagle, “not tame.” “Will you write poetry?” the speaker asks. And then answers: “You shall write no more poetry. / Every poem shall be the tearing-up of a poem, / not a poem but clawmarks” (Complete Poems 175).
How sad, then, to see such resignation in the closing poems of The Land That Is Not, published posthumously. The title poem states, “My life was a hot delusion” and the speaker gives up all agency to embrace Christianity with the acceptance of a child:
But a human child is nothing other than certainty.
And it stretches its arms higher than all heavens.
And there comes an answer: I am the one you love and always shall love.
(Complete Poems 187)
Or is it Christ she embraces? For the next, and final poem in the collection, is titled “Arrival in Hades”:
Death, why were you silent?
We have come a long way
and are hungry to hear,
we have never had a nurse
who could sing like you. (Complete Poems 187).
Södergran, Edith. On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems. Tr. Malena Mörling and Jonas Ellerström. Grosee Pointe Frams, MI: Marick Press, 2012.
Södergran, Edith. Complete Poems. Tr. David McDuff. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1984.
Södergran, Edith. We Women. Tr. Samuel Charters. Oyez, 1977.
Södergran, Edith. Violet Twilights. Tr. Daisy Aldan and Leif Sjöberg. Scandinavian Writers Chabook 1. Ed. Stanley H. Barkan. Merrick, NY: Cross-Cultural Communications, 1993.
Lindqvist, Ursula. “The Paradoxical Poetics of Edith Södergran.” Modernism/Modernity 13:1 (2006) 813-33.
McDuff, David. “The Language of The Land That Is Not—Some Problems of Translating Edith Södergran.” Edith Södergran: Nine Essays on Her Life and Work. Jones, W. Glyn and M.A. Branch, eds. London: U of London, 1992.
The Poet Who Created Herself: Selected Letters of Edith Södergran. Tr. and Ed. Silvester Mazzarella. London: Norvik Press 2001.
Steiner, Rudolf. “Karmic Relationships, V: Lecture V.” Paris, 23 May, 1924. Rudolf Steiner Archive. Web. 23 May 2015.
Poems by Edith Södergran
I am no woman. I am a neuter.
I am a child, a pag and a bold resolve,
I am laughing stripe of a scarlet sun…
I am a net for all greedy fish,
I am a skoal to the glory of all women,
I am a step towards hazard and ruin,
I am a leap into freedom and self…
I am the whisper of blood in the ear of the man,
I am the soul's ague, the longing and refusal of the flesh,
I am an entrance sign to new paradises,
I am a flame, searching and brazen,
I am water, deep but daring up to the knee,
I am fire and water in free and loyal union…
Complete Poems, p. 59 (originally printed in Poems)
I want to be unconstrained—
therefore I care not a fig for noble styles.
I roll up my sleeves.
The poem's dough is rising…
Oh what a pity
that I cannot bake cathedrals…
Highness of forms—
goal of persistent longing
Child of the present—
does your spirit not have a proper shell?
Before I die
I shall bake a cathedral.
Complete Poems, p. 117 (originally printed in The September Lyre)
On Foot I Had to Cross the Solar System
I had to cross the solar system
before I found the first thread of my red dress.
I sense myself already.
Somewhere in space hangs my heart,
shaking the void, from it stream sparks
into other intemperate hearts.
Complete Poems, p. 123 (originally printed in The Rose Altar)
I am a very mature person,
but no one knows me.
My friends have a false picture of me.
I am not tame.
I have weighed tameness in my eagle's claws and know it well.
O eagle, what sweetness in the flight of your wings.
Will you be silent like everything else?
Will you write poetry perhaps? You shall write no more poetry.
Every poem shall be the tearing up of a poem,
not a poem but clawmarks.
Complete Poems, pp. 174-175 (originally printed in The Shadow of the Future)
The Land That Is Not
I long for the land that is not,
for I am weary of desiring all things that are.
The moon tells me in silver runes
about the land that is not.
The land where all our wishes are wondrously fulfilled,
the land where all our chains fall away,
the land where we cool our gashed foreheads
in the moon's dew.
My life was a hot delusion.
But I have found one thing and one thing I have truly gained—
the path to the land that is not.
In the land that is not
my beloved walks with sparkling crown.
Who is my beloved? The night is dark
and the stars tremble in answer.
Who is my beloved? What is his name?
The heavens arch higher and higher,
and a human child drowns in endless mists
and knows no answer.
But a human child is nothing other than certainty.
And it stretches out its arms higher than all heavens.
And there comes an answer: I am the one you love and always will love.
Complete Poems, p. 187 (originally printed [posthumously] in The Land That Is Not)