Edith Södergran

translated by David McDuff




Edith Södergran was born in 1892, and lived in Finland for most of her life. Finland has been traditionally subject to the influence of Sweden to the west, and of Russia to the east The Swedes dominated Finland until 1808, and colonised its west coast. Thus a Swedish-speaking minority established itself in the country as peasants and fishermen, but also as administrative functionaries. Matts Södergran, Edith's father, came from this Swedish background, as did her mother, Helena Holmroos. Another circumstance saw to it that the family was influenced by the Russian presence to the east Matts Södergran, an engineer who had travelled all over northern Europe, finally settled in St Petersburg. It was here that Edith was born.

A few months after the birth, Matts took his family away from St Petersburg during a cholera epidemic to a little village called Raivola, situated on the Karelian isthmus some sixty kilometres from St Petersburg, just behind the Finnish border. Raivola was a poor settlement which served in the summer as a villa resort for the intelligentsia of St Petersburg. It stood away from the sea, on the edge of one of the many Finnish lakes. The surrounding district had a distinctly Russian quality. Most of the villas were dachas in the Russian style, with brightly painted balconies, verandas and windows. The church at Raivola was also Russian, with onion-shaped domes surrounded by birch trees and a Russian cemetery. Loup de Pages, in his critical study of Edith Södergran, writes of the place: `Raivola had an unreal and fairytale atmosphere in its surrounding of forests and lakes. A population of sharp contrasts, as regards both material conditions and language. It was only after the revolution of 1917 that Raivola, from then on cut off from its Russian hinterland, lost near a burning frontier with its impoverished, even ruined population, acquired little by little that air of neglect, that atmosphere of romantic decadence which have struck the few visitors to the place, and which were to mark the poetry of Edith Södergran with such a strange hue.'*

The Södergran dacha at Raivola was built of wood, with a dozen or so rooms for the small family and a few servants. A Russian craftsman, an old man called `the hermit', lived in a little outhouse. The garden was a small park -gården - planted with firs and maples. One side of the park gave onto the Russian cemetery mentioned earlier. It was in this house that Edith Södergran was to pass the greater part of her life.

Accounts of Edith Södergran's early childhood vary, but the consensus seems to be that she was not particularly happy. Her father was a man of simple tastes, while her mother was attracted to books and literature. Marital quarrels were frequent, and Helena Holmroos was driven increasingly to escape from these in reading and in the company of her daughter. A very close relationship formed between mother and child, one which did not end until Edith's death. Describing the photo­graph (see page 13) of the young girl at the age of five, Professor Gunnar Tideström has drawn attention to `the sensual mouth and especially the eyes, which have a peculiar intensity, an expression at once observant and absent-minded.'*

When Edith Södergran was ten years old she was sent to school in St Petersburg. Her school education lasted six years. In the holidays she would return to Raivola, where her father continued to work. The choice of school was significant: Edith Södergran was sent to a German school, Die deutsche Hauptschüle zu Sankt-Petri. This was a "prestige" school: it had 1600 pupils and had its premises on Nevsky Prospekt It was strongly cosmopolitan in character. Modern languages and literatures were very high on the list of priorities, and the pupils came from every part of Europe, although Germans and Russians tended to predominate. Lessons in all subjects were given, and ballet was taught by one of the dancing masters from the Russian Imperial Ballet Visits to balls, concerts and theatres were frequent, and museum trips included excursions to the Hermitage. Lessons and convers­ations were in German.

By the age of fifteen Edith Södergran had received a broad education which was international in outlook. Her health at this time already gave some cause for anxiety-she was infected with typhoid for a brief spell, and also suffered a form of trachoma. One of her former schoolmates, Sally Räikkőnen, has left this account of their first meeting:


In fact, Edith was already twelve when I came to know her in the second form of the Petrischüle, when she was introduced to her schoolmates at the beginning of the school year; she was a pale little girl, with a face enlivened by large, bright eyes. I also noticed that her blond hair was very long and thick. She was at first very intimidated, which the schoolmistress did not fail to notice; she tried to give her pupil courage by telling her that in her class there were other Finnish girls ready to greet her. When the hour was over, I went up to Edith and asked her, among other things, if she spoke Finnish, and I learned that at home she spoke Swedish. We talked together in German.

Some time later, Edith's mother paid a visit to my parents; she had come in order to take me to see Edith. In this way we crossed a bridge over the Neva and reached the district known as `Vyborgski', quite a long way from the centre; we entered a wide street flanked mostly by wooden houses. In one of these lived the Södergran family with their only child, Edith. Edith's parents looked older than my own, an impression heightened by the pince-nez of Mrs Södergran and the long beard of Engineer Södergran. These childish observations nonetheless made me well disposed towards the pair. What struck me especially was that Mrs Södergran smoked. I saw that very often Edith's parents had visitors. The whole company would sit round a large table. A lit samovar occupied the place of honour on the table and spirals of tobacco smoke floated in the room. The discussions around this table were endless, or so it seemed to me. But Edith and I had permission to walk in the courtyard It was a very big level courtyard with large trees growing here and there, which Edith climbed. Wooden buildings looked onto this courtyard, possibly warehouses, against which ladders were placed It was thus easy to climb up onto the rooftops. Up there we used to sit and talk in perfect peace and quiet about her life at school, or we would see a cat in the courtyard and run after it in order to stroke it. Cats occupied a special place in Edith's childhood, and in her early youth. She had made an entire album of cat photographs: on the roof we would often admire these cat faces.



As Loup de Fages points out, this letter illustrates very well how Edith Södergran liked to sit on rooftops in order to spy out the land, and also how intense was her passion for cats. This latter fascination lasted all her life.

Between January 1907 and the summer of 1909, when she was between 14 and 16 years of age, Edith Södergran wrote some 225 poems. Of these, about twenty are in Swedish; five are in French, and one is in Russian All the rest, the great majority that is, are in German. It is doubtful whether she had read anything at all in Swedish by this time. Her mother had always lived in a Russian milieu, and her father could hardly write, so it is not very likely that either parent could have helped the child to develop her knowledge of her mother tongue. Edith Södergran was educated in German, it was in German that she spoke to her schoolmates, and her favourite authors were Heine and Goethe. As Professor Tideström notes, the main portion of Edith Södergran's school poems bear the strong influence of Heine: `Sometimes there occurs an allusion to or an echo from the poet whom she later loved most, Goethe, but his influence on the poems' style can in no way be measured with that of Heine. It is the verse forms of the latter she usually employs, mostly the single three- or four­footed four-liners with the odd lines unrhymed, the even ones rhymed And here are the typical moods of Heine: Liebeswonne and Liebesweh, "der Hohn, die Sehnsucht and die tiefsten Schmerzen". Like Heine she uses on the one hand a slightly abstract poetic vocabulary-"süsse" and "zärtliche" "Liebchen" with red mouths and lily-white hands; "marmor-kaltes Herz", "Blümelein", "Stern... am Himmelszelt", etc.-on the other hand nonchalant conversational terms and everyday words, easily rhymed-"obligierť', "ridicul", "kapriziöse wie eine Ziege", "Schnurrbart". But the alternation between these two word groups is naturally far less refined in the hands of the schoolgirl than it is in the hands of her master.'*

Poems in which the romantic world of knights and ladies, of frenzied horse rides mingles with a curiously personal nostalgia are found beside poems which express a deep love of nature and an intense longing for a companion with whom to share this love. Numerous poems are addressed to Henri Cottier, a teacher of French at the Petrischule who seems to have held a strong attraction for the young schoolgirl. Olof Enckell has stressed that this teacher, who had the reputation of an 'anarchist' at the school, had a profound influence on Edith Södergran's intellectual development.†

The theme of death is ever present. Matts Södergran contracted tuberculosis in 1904. His daughter visited him in the sanatorium at Nummela in Finland, and was horrified by what she saw. In 1907 Matts died. The manner of his death
filled Edith Södergran with a horror of sickness and disease. One poem in particular, written on 22 September 1908, seems to characterise very well her sense of loneliness, of confusion about her place in space and time, and her longing for a companion, a `heart' that will understand her and love her:


Ich weiss nicht, wem meine Lieder bringen,

Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben,

Ich weiss nicht, zu wessen Herzen dringen,

Vor wessen Augen stehen bleiben


Ich habe für mich selbst gesungen

Und bin schon müde geworden,

Was ist mir jetzt das verschneite Tal

Im kalten, weissen Norden,

Dort schluchzen die Fichten meine Qual.


Ich aber verfluche die Einsamkeit

Und suche in der weiten Welt

Nach einem Herzen

Und schau in der Menschen Augen.


Und suche eine menschliche Seele

Die mich verstehen könnte

Jedoch ihre Augen sind mir so fremd,

Sie schauen auf andere Dinge.


[I do not know to whom to bring my songs,

 I do not know in whose language to write,

 I do not know whose heart to move

 Before whose eyes to stand.

I have sung for myself

And am already grown tired,

What is to me now the snowed-in valley

In the cold, white north, There the pine trees sob my pain.

But I curse loneliness

And look in the wide world

For a heart

And look into people's eyes.

And seek a human soul

That could understand me

Yet their eyes are so foreign to me,

They look upon other things.]


As Tideström notes, this poem bears a certain similarity to one of Edith Södergran's best-known poems, written many years later, about the little princess who looks in vain for a heart and who finds the eyes of people so alien. Tideström writes: `It is interesting also from another point of view. The first part has traditional form, in the second part the rhythm becomes broken and rhyme is abandoned The change in the verse form is obviously connected with the fact that an emotion is breaking loose, an emotion which is so violent that it will not allow itself to be bound by a conventional rhythm, an emotion which gives grounds for the name of Lebensangst.' The line 'Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben' is significant. From now on Edith Södergran was to stop writing in German. Apart from one poem in French, the poems which follow are exclusively in Swedish, the language which was after all her mother tongue. Tideström draws attention to the fact that her written knowledge of Swedish was inferior to her written knowledge of German. He notes that these early Swedish poems are artistically weaker than their German predecessors, and that they contain a number of linguistic errors, including spelling mistakes. `Edith Södergran had at this time really read very little Swedish poetry, and both she and her mother had indeed grown up outside the boundaries of our language area. They spoke an archaically marginal and not entirely correct Swedish. Gunnar Ekelöf has recalled that Mrs Södergran even in everyday conversation used the plural form of verbs. And Edith Södergran, even in her mature poetry, was sometimes uncertain about word forms, gender, conjugational shifts, etc.'*

At the end of 1908 Edith Södergran contracted tuberculosis, probably as a result of infection from her father. A cure appeared to be possible and she was sent to the same sanatorium at Nummela where her father had died. The next five years were spent mostly in sanatoria, first at Nummela, then at Davos in Switzerland until 1914. The sanatorium at Nummela was the largest in Finland and even in Scandinavia. Loup de Fages describes it as `a massive building, white and cold, in Germanic style, isolated in the woods at the edge of a lake which even to this day has retained a beauty that is wholly wild' t Tideström gives an account, based on a diary impression, of how Edith Södergran looked at this time: `She was small built, slightly emaciated and comparatively small in stature. She looked tired and limp, she was pale and had "dark circles under her eyes". The limpness was only external, however. Her inner unrest and tension is witnessed to by a later jotting, which notes that she was always upset and nervous before medical examinations, which were rendered the more difficult by her irregular and shallow breathing.'*

The time in Nummela contained a crisis in Edith Södergran's life. `Her external appearance was neglected. She was even "ugly, dirty, oily", says an observer, who at the same time stresses that there was an extraordinarily great difference between the young girl as she appeared during the time at Nummela and the worldly and elegant lady who later returned from Switzerland' She concealed her terror of her illness under a habit of answering drolly and sharply to questions. In all, she presented a somewhat eccentric appearance, and there is reason to believe that her illness was then less physical than psychological: `When the time came round for the doctors' visit, she had usually disappeared... She would be discovered on the roof of the kitchens...' Once she made a proposal of marriage to one of the male doctors at the establishment. Needless to say, this was refused. `Some people took pity on the mother, who had no authority over her daughter, and sought to explain the peculiarities of the young girl by saying that she was spoilt and that she came from a Russian background Others, including the female director of the establishment, saw in all this merely a mild derangement of the mind. To the patients who came into contact with her it was clear that they had to do with a person who was lively, original to the highest degree, but lacking in equilibrium, intelligent, mild, and yet coldly critical, now sarcastic or cuttingly ironic, now on the contrary gentle and benevolent, outwardly reserved yet burning inwardly.' †

She did not stay at Nummela all the time. Over a period of two and a half years she left and re-entered the sanatorium no less than five times. As soon as she felt the slightest bit better she would leave for Raivola. She dreamt of going to a women's college where she could pursue her studies of literature and philosophy. At Nummela she made extensive use of the library.

    In 1911 Edith Södergran refused to stay at Nummela any longer. She wanted to go to Switzerland, and in January 1912 she and her mother set off for Davos. The Davos of this time has been extensively described by Thomas Mann in his novel The Magic Mountain.* The hothouse atmosphere of sanatorium life, the stark contrast between material luxury and inner spiritual misery, the frantic search for pleasure in the face of death, the petty scandals and storms in teacups, the black flags, symbolising death, which hung from the windows of the sanatoria-all these need no further elaboration here. The Södergrans stayed at Hotel Meierhof, which is still standing, while Edith received medical attention at the sanatorium of Davos-Dorf. At the sanatorium she was placed under the care of a man who was to become very important to her, Doctor Ludwig von Muralt. This former assistant of Eugen Bleuler had a keen interest in problems of psychiatry, although he had been compelled to relinquish his post with Bleuler owing to the activation of an old lung tuberculosis, and to seek the healthier climate of Davos, where he occupied the position of head doctor. At Davos he had become particularly interested in the psychological effects of tuberculosis. When Edith Södergran met him she was able to describe him in one of her English compositions for her teacher of English, an Australian lady called Miss Jenkins: `...something quiet and superior, charming and mild under a morose appearance... His hands have an expression of firmness and cleverness. His feet are perhaps a little long, but the sound of his steps is like exquisite music. His eyes are grey, but with a greenish sparkle, when he is smiling or amused. He speaks German with a Swiss accent, powerful and ingenuous.' This was not the first time she had let her feelings centre on an older man, as the episode with Henri Cottier reminds us. And again there was no chance of it being a happy love affair. She felt inferior to Muralt, submitted to him, and thought of him as `the impossible'. Her feelings can be observed in this fragment from another English "composition":

Today I had a great misfortune, which has broken my forces and my energy, so that every word and every step is an enormous effort to me. Never mind I write this composition. I will tell you my sad story of this morning... As I knocked at the door of the waiting-room, there came out the head of dr Muralt. Instead of inviting me a(nd) saying to me nearly this: `Please, enter! Excuse me, that my arms are naked. Here is my darling between the pneumothoraxes and here is Professor Wilms from Heidelberg,' he looked at me furiously and said `Please, wait a moment.'*

At Davos, Edith Södergran began to discover English literature. In the library there she read Dickens and Swinburne, also the Border ballads and Shakespeare. She read Whitman, and the influence of his Leaves of Grass can be seen clearly in such poems as `God' and `Beauty'. She also began to learn Italian, and she read Dante, whose Inferno she sometimes pictured to herself as the sanatorium: `empty conversation, chatter about death, illness, sleep, lying-cures and sitting.' Certainly the poem `Hell' from Dikter (1916) concerns this Dantean vision of the sanatorium. But nature was ever­present as a backdrop to human life. Every day she could see from the windows of the sanatorium the green mountain meadows, the white peaks of the Alps and the dense forest.

In 1913 she made an excursion with her mother to Milan and Florence (the Mediterranean is the `strange sea' in the poem of that name). On 31 May 1913 she was back in Finland. She was never to see Muralt again, but she did not forget him, and kept his photograph on her bedside table at Raivola until she died. † In 1914 war broke out, cutting her off from central and southern Europe, and coinciding with a sharp deterioration in her medical condition The woman who returned from Davos was the one


who smiling and painted with rouge

threw dice for her luck

and saw that she lost.


The ring of the poem was the ring of her destiny, which she knew to be ineluctable. She had to go back once more to Nummela, which she loathed .

I wrote to the doctor an unreasonable and immoderate letter, but I hope that it will explain a few things to him. I have a dreadful and superstitious horror of Nummela. When I came to see my father, when he was ill, there, I experienced a fear without bounds, a dreadful horror of death, a fear of this illness, this slow conscious death. Here at Nummela I have never been able to escape from these horrible sensations; I have always felt myself oppressed there.*

Yet she was not wholly cut off from the outside world. In 1916 she managed to have her first book of poems accepted for publication, by Holger Schildt in Borgå. It is perhaps difficult to imagine now the unheard-of audacity, the shocking quality which was the principal impression made by these poems in the provincial literary atmosphere of Swedish Finland: poems which dispensed with rhyme, which drew their literary inspiration from Rimbaud and Whitman, and from expressionists like Mombert, Dauthendey and Else Lasker-Schűler-poets practically unknown in Finland at that time-met with blank incomprehension from the bulk of the press. `Vierge moderne', `Hell', and `God' gave particular offence, and the wife of a country priest organised a petition among her friends which she sent to Schildt, asking him to issue a written certificate declaring that the poems were a forgery, not the work of their author. The reaction in Helsinki was better. Erik Grotenfelt wrote a sympathetic review in Dagens Press. But somehow the book was too advanced for its time and place, and a long time was to elapse before Edith Södergran's poems found a truly understanding audience.

The poems of Dikter (1916) display, besides the obvious originality and directness that were the real cause of the scandal they occasioned, a marked diversity of literary influ­ences. Besides those already mentioned, there are clear signs of the influence of the Russian Bal'mont, and also of Edith Södergran's childhood reading of fairy-tales-Snow-White, the cat that spins the thread of luck, the maiden and the dragon This fairy-tale element is of the utmost importance for an understanding of the Södergranian world. It underlies all the other themes of the poems work and was the medium through which she sought to give meaning to her life and to the world in

 general. In 1917,when she was confined to bed as the result of a severe attack of pulmonary bleeding, and wrote very little, she conceived the idea for an allegorical fairy-tale, the manuscript of which has been lost This fairy-tale unfolded against a backdrop of islands: the island of the virgin, the island of midnight, the island of the hermit, and a lake which was never more beautiful than by the last ray of the November sun, a lake where the princess Hyacinths lived, surrounded by celestial beings.

It was at this time, too, that she learnt of the death of Ludwig von Muralt at Davos-Dorf. She let her imagination resuscitate the memories of Davos and Muralt, and experienced the bitterness of loss. She was `vierge moderne'-neither a woman nor a man, a "neuter", nearer in spirit to a fact of nature, a material object.

In March 1917 the Russian Revolution broke out. Tension between the Russian and Finnish communities grew, and at Raivola there was the sense of being near to events of overwhelming magnitude and importance without actually being able to see anything very much of what was going on. Only a few clues were apparent: Raivola, being one of the first stations over the Finnish border, was a natural disembarkation point for political delegations; the Södergrans could hear the music of the military bands playing on the station platform. Excited beyond the bounds of patience, Edith persuaded her mother to accompany her on a visit to St Petersburg, now called Petrograd. By all the evidence, the journey must have been extremely long and exhausting, and on her return to Raivola Edith succumbed to another attack of bleeding. But something seemed to have stiffened her will to be active: she sensed the importance of the events that were taking place around her and wanted somehow to be a part of them. She believed that the Russian Revolution was a sign that the world . was progressing to a new stage of its development We know that at this time she was reading a great deal of Nietzsche, and she tended to interpret events in the light of his philosophy. There was nothing unusual in this, for one of her background and reading. The Russian symbolist poets Blok, Bely and Bal'mont shared this approach to reality, as did the Russian poets whom Edith Södergran admired even more: Severyanin, Mayakovsky and the futurists.

Although she realised that she could never hope to be popular with the broad public, Edith Södergran thought that she might be able to win over the elite of the literary world. In September 1911 she went to Helsinki and met as many Finland Swedish literary personalities as she could Runar Schildt, Ruth Hedvall, Olaf Homén and Hjalmar Procopé, Erik Grotenfelt and Jarl Hemmer, Hans Ruin, Eino Leino, Ture Janson, Alexis of Enehjelm, the sculptor Gunnar Finne, and others. Some of these people have written down their impressions of the strange young woman who had suddenly appeared in their midst. Jarl Hemmer, who together with Erik Grotenfelt entertained Edith Södergran to an evening of literary discussion at a restaurant, later described by her as `one of the most beautiful memories of my life', has left an account of this meeting:

I have never seen a being that was so identical with its poems. In her emaciated face and her enchanting gaze, a gaze that recalled moonlight on dark water, there was something mysterious and as if marked by fate. Her manner of speech was not like ours: between fits of coughing, paradoxes and ineptitudes Shot forth as in some wild game of hide-and-seek; just when one felt she was approaching something like common sense, she would laugh and then proceed to turn the whole conversation on its head.*


Ture Janson writes:


She was just as one imagined her to be, absolutely out of her element in the world, pale and unhealthy in appearance, but avid for conversation †


The young critic Hans Ruin was summoned from his bed to meet the poet:


It was about nine thirty when the doorbell rang once, briefly and discreetly. Kaisi and I were still in bed, since it was Sunday morning. I padded to the front door and asked through the locked door who it was who had rung the bell The reply did not come at once, but I heard a voice say `Edith Södergran'. Edith Södergran! I was well and truly dumb­founded. I asked `Miss Södergran' to wait for a moment and I dressed as quickly as possible, though it seemed to take an age. When I opened the door I saw in front of me a lady in a brown muff, a fur around her neck and wearing a hat with light blue feathers. We greeted one another and I asked her to come in She sank into one of the armchairs, put the muff under her chin and looked at me for a long time without saying a word At last she formulated a request: she would like my autograph. She took a leather-bound notebook from a small portfolio. I leafed through the notebook. There were several names there: Hjalmar Procopé, Runar Schildt, Erik Grotenfelt, etc. It was my critical notice of her poems that had provoked her visit. I asked her what she thought of my review. She replied: `You must be a profound psychologist. No one has understood me as you have.' I became more curious and asked her if there was any one thing in particular that had especially caught her attention `Yes, when you say of me: the desire to think the impossible, to experience the fantastic is second nature to her.' She wanted me to write this sentence in her notebook. I thought she spoke in a curious fashion, uncouthly, with a pronounced accent. And during all this time she kept her muff to her face, almost under her eyes, and never stopped looking at me. She stayed for half an hour or so, but left suddenly, after I had said when speaking of human relationships that one should be careful when one gives time the opportunity of correcting the first favourable impression one has of someone. Without saying a word she got up, went to the door-I followed her without saying anything either-gave me her hand and-disappeared.*


Jarl Hemmer sums up Edith Södergran's visit to Helsinki like this:


She found us starchy, reserved, impersonal; only the bohemian Eino Leino corresponded fully to what she expected a poet to be. For she had a personality that was too extraordinary, too highly charged with her solitary exaltation for her contact with us to be even a little fruitful Several times she inter­rupted the conversation with the strange question: `Tell me, do you think I will be happy?'  Perhaps we did not understand quite what meaning the word `happiness' had for this soul who thirsted only after the extraordinary, but we did not omit to stress that we believed in her future. She did not read a complete trust in our colourless faces-and as she had come to Helsinki alone, so it was that alone she arrived back at the villa with its luxuriant garden, never to return again. ††



Edith Södergran was now to stay in Raivola until her death. She spent the years 1917 and 1918 in an anxious and exultant contemplation of the revolution, and in the reading of Nietzsche. At nights it was possible to hear the sounds of the fighting and see the flash of the gunfire. Raivola lay very close to the garrison of Kronstadt, and was particularly vulnerable to the relentless process of division between Red and White that went on all through the civil war. Just inside a Red zone, Raivola was subject to attacks by White saboteurs, who cut the lines of supply from Petrograd and Helsinki. A famine set in. During these years the Södergrans, together with most of the rest of Raivola's inhabitants, came very close to starvation.

The poems of Septemberlyran [The September Lyre] represent the poet's reaction to the upheaval Two poems, `Prayer' and `The World is Bathing in Blood' illustrate the ambiguous attitude she had to what was happening. The anxiety apparent in the first poem is in sharp contrast to the Nietzschean joy of the second. One April evening, Raivola was taken by the White forces. The childhood world of the garden and the pine trees seemed about to be torn to pieces by the violence of war. Edith Södergran felt her mental équilibrium slipping. A poem like `The Whirlpool of Madness' shows this quite clearly:


Guard yourself - here you no longer matter -

Life and death are one before the frenetic joy of power...


There is a sense of panic at the unchained quality of events and the equally unchained state of the poems psyche. There seems to be no restriction, no limit to the possibilities of destruction. The poet's character is a `red rag' to a `bull':


The bull has no horns;

he stands at the manger

and stubbornly chews his tough hay.

Unpunished the reddest rag flutters in the wind.

(`The Bull')

The poems emanate a certainty that both the poet and the revolutionary forces are bent on destruction, on self annihilation, `so that God my live'. Mankind is on the road to a higher stage of development-the emergence of the superman, the man-god, entails the destruction of human beings, who must come to a realisation of their own weakness and nearness to death. Edith Södergran herself was acutely aware of her own impermanence. This is why she could neither align herself with her aristocratic past nor turn her back on it for the sake of a revolutionary future. Bengt Nerman has suggested that `she chose a third way... She did not agree with anything. But she took precisely this as her starting-point: that she just barely managed to preserve her own nature, her own subjectivity. She laid herself open to her own contradictions, stepped from abstraction down to earth and let her experience take the form that was possible. This meant that in the moment of creation she drew a parallel between all things and was thus able to give birth to something entirely new in language... She sought her security not in a group or a class or a system, but in the total experience of meaning that only openness can give.' Nerman adds: `I believe that Edith Södergran succeeded because she did not protest against death. She accepted it as a part of her life.'*

We may see the obvious influence of Mayakovsky and Severyanin in these poems, then, as a spur to increased vitality rather than a sign of inner kinship with these poets. Edith Södergran certainly wanted to `épater le bourgeois'; but she saw this more as a spiritually quickening and curative mission rather than as a social or "anti social" crusade. She was not on any particular side-she was on everyone's side, on the side of the world and on the side of God.

This acceptance of the whole vision, as opposed to the partial, opened her to her own childhood in a way that is not very common As Loup de Fages points out, t her spontaneity would not allow her to use `grands mots' when describing great events. In her poem on the death of Nietzsche, for example, Nietzsche is her `father', the poet is a child kissing the cold stone of the grave:

Strange father!

Your children will not betray you,

they are coming over the earth with the footsteps of gods,

rubbing their eyes: where am I, then?


De Fages notes: `This natural approach, which has remained entirely youthful, these extremely precise images of child­hood spontaneously reaching the heart of adult problems, this union of two poles that are normally opposed, are one of the most original-and one of the most marvellous-aspects of her poetic art.'*

The self-confident tone of the introduction which Edith Södergran found it necessary to affix to the published col­lection Septemberlyran perhaps betrays the anxiety she felt about their future reception by a literary press she already knew to be more or less lacking in understanding of her work:

That my writing is poetry no one can deny, that it is verse I will not insist. I have attempted to bring certain refractory poems under one rhythm and have thereby discovered that I possess the power of the word and the image only under conditions of complete freedom, i.e. at the expense of the rhythm. My poems are to be taken as careless pencil sketches. As regards the content, I let my instinct build up what my intellect sees in expectation. 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.


Her `dimensions', needless to say, were the dimensions of the entire universe, which she had experienced as a personal crisis and which had led her to reject all partial positions. Such an experience seemed merely luidcrous to the critic of Dagens Press. On 4 January 1919, signing himself `Pale Youth', he dismissed the poems of Septemberlyran as `31 laughing pills' and wrote a parody of the poem `The Bull' called `The Cow'. Referring to the passage in the Introduction about `dimensions', he directed his readers' attention to the portrait of the poet which appeared in the publishers' Christmas catalogue and wrote that `íf the body fulfils what the face promises, the dimensions could be reduced by a couple of dozen ounces without harm to her poetry.' As Tideström points out, the reviewer could certainly had had no idea that he was writing about someone literally on the brink of starvation.

Other reviews were equally offensive. The poet was accused of megalomania and called a `Nietzsche-crazed woman'. What had really drawn the ire and contempt of these critics was a notice Edith Södergran had published in Dagens Press before they had a chance to publish their reviews. Called Individual Art, it had stated that the new book was `not intended for the public, not even for the higher intellectual circles, but only for those few individuals who stand nearest the frontier of the future.' The poet could `not help those who will not feel that it is the wild blood of the future that pulsates in these poems.'


The inner fire is the most important thing that mankind possesses. The earth belongs to those who bear the highest music within them. I address myself to the exceptional individuals and exhort them to heighten their inner music, and build the future. I myself am sacrificing every atom of my strength for my great cause, I am living the life of a saint, I am immersing myself in the greatest that the human spirit has produced, I avoid all inferior influences. I look upon the old society as the mother-cell which must be sustained until individuals construct the new world. I exhort individuals to work only for immortality (a false expression), to make the highest possible out of themselves-to put themselves at the service of the future.


The notice ended with a plea:


I hope I shall not remain alone with the greatness I have to bring.


It is easy to see how such a statement could have aroused the conservative critics. Totally caught up in her experience of oneness with nature, revolution and the cosmos, cut off from the everyday world of literary journalism by sickness and political events, Edith Södergran never even considered that her words might be construed as the ravings of a megalomaniac, a pompous and hysterical female aristocrat. Her insistence on `the future' was seen as a craven alignment with Bolshevism, and her talk of `height' and `dimensions' as folie de grandeur. In order to overcome this tendency in an appreciation of Edith Sodergran's poetry-and it is a tendency that is not always entirely avoided even by her most devoted admirers (witness Tideström's constant reference to her `disturbed' state of psychic health in his critical biography)­it is necessary to understand how complete was the experience that she had undergone and would continue to undergo until her death. She had absorbed the whole of the external crisis, both that of the outside world and that of her own ailing body, into a subjective pathos which every so often gave rise to the writing of poems. It is important to see that she regarded the willed and conscious development of this extreme subjectivity as a kind of duty, a holy sacrifice. This is what she means when she says that she is living the life of a saint. The victim of this sacrifice was her uwn body, and she tried to communicate the sacrificial act by means of another kind of sacrifice, more symbolic: the poem. Georges Bataille has defined poetry as a sacrifice in which words are the victims.* His contention is that poetry leads from the known to the unknown, and the images conveyed by the words it uses are doomed to disappear and die. Edith Södergran's poems are imagistic in the extreme-but the images (of childhood, of Raivola and the lake, the garden, and so on) are nearly aways used not for their own sake, but in order to render more vivid an ecstasy, a state of mind and soul. In a poem like `Fragment', language is used to create a sensation of chaos, of time and space collided to induce a feeling of dizziness. Through her poems, Edith Södergran was trying to bring her readers into contact with the cosmic forces she had encountered. There is evidence that the act of writing the poems was for her a very arduous business. The excitement which accompanied their composition usually led to an attack of pulmonary bleeding. Thus the sacrifice was also a very real one.

Not all the reviews of Septemberlyran were as damning as the ones referred to above. Ragnar Ekelund sprang to the poet's defence, but his review was not published until 10 January. A literary feud began to develop around the book, until psychiatrists were even claiming in printed articles that the poet was either mad or immoral, or both, and a few literary "names" upheld her integrity and dissociated themselves from the published slanders. One review by a member of the latter group is of especial interest. Hagar Olsson, then a young Helsinki writer just beginning her literary career, wrote a sympathetic article about Septemberlyran in Dagens Press on 11 January. She wrote admiringly of the poems themselves, while deploring the damage their author had brought to her own cause by publishing accompanying `explanations'. Quoting Nietzsche (`Der Autor hat den Mund zu halten, wenn sein Werk den Mund auftuť*), Hagar Olsson reproached Edith Södergran for having set herself out on the market-place for the jeers of the crowd, and accused her of acting `like some cheap chanteuse out to make propaganda for herself.'

This latter remark stung very deeply. A few days later Hagar Olsson received a long letter from Edith Södergran (whom she did not know personally) which began: `You ascribe to me unjustly cheap motives for my public action' She went on to explain why she had acted as she had done:

I had asked for a selection. The publisher took a good part of the best poems out of the collection (thereby robbing the book of its weight).

She told the story of how the publisher had mutilated her work and how her publicity in Dagens Press had only been intended to forestall an attack which she knew already to be inevitable. Even so, one cannot help but feel that even had the book appeared exactly according to her wishes, the critical reception would hardly have been any the more favourable. The letter included some new poems which their author invited the critic to consider, and ended with a remarkable appeal:


Nietzsche says: Ich ging zu allen, aber kam zu niemand.† Is it now to be that I am to come to someone? Could we reach a hand to one another? I am now launching my offensive against you, I want you to see me as I really am and I want you to show me who you are. Could there be a godlike relationship between us, so that all barriers between us would fall? I speak to you in a tentative, degrading language. Nietzsche is the only human being in whose presence I would be afraid to open my mouth. Are you the sea of fire I wí11 plunge into? If you laugh, you are my own If you do not laugh, you ought still to be worthy of the highest form of friendship, which Nietzsche advised his followers against on grounds of prudence.


Hagar Olsson's reply overwhelmed Edith Södergran. She believed that at last she had a found a companion with whom she could share the secrets of her experience. Hagar Olsson was her `sister', to whom she could confide the most intimate secrets of her life. Edith Södergran's side of the correspondence between the two women was eventually published in book form, with a linking commentary by Hagar Olsson.* It makes painful reading. Involved in the hectic early stages of a career as a publicist and socialist literary critic, Hagar Olsson had little time to spare for her 'sister'. While the published letters give a valu;ıhle insight into the development of Edith Södergran's nature mysticism and her gradual movement towards the Sufism of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner, they also reveal how f,ır the 'godlike relationship' fell short of the poet's hopes. Raivola was far from the Finnish capital, and in reply to Hagar Olsson's invitation to visit her there, Edith Södergran wrote:


My charming young girl! Cannot come. Insomnia, tuberculosis, purse is empty (we live on the sale of our household effects and our furniture). What we have in Russian and Ukrainian securities could only be redeemed in the event of the f1ılI of Bolshevism. If the insomnia gets better I will try to come in a few months, but no certainty of this. Now I have found what l need: your objective view, and you have brains enough for us both.

May one ask; do you work for the cause in gencrıl, or will you meet certain individuals? Give a list of them, 1 want to capture certain souls. Hemmer to sing for the cause and Grotenfelt to sing or scrawl. Ragnar Ekelund does not conic into my plans. I share Severyanin's view that if a talent is a little boring it is not full enough of genius. Igor Severyanin is at present Russia's greatest poet. Saw him at a poetry reading, never spoke to him. But he is the one in whom I have a similar trust to the trust 1 have in you.

He is a very great power and should be ready for our ideas. But we must

first educate him, he has, to be sure, certain café-concert mannerisms and does not know how to discipline himself. He will be the bridge to Russia, with him we will certainly be able to get the best of Russia on its feet again. What do you think of Sweden? Will it go there? One fine day we will certainly seize hold of Europe. Do you talk directly to certain Iıecıple and have you the intention of doing this? You must read the best poems of Severyanin, they would quicken and enliven you, even though he is submerged in the boudoir and you will not find our heights in him.

I was reborn in September, whence The September Lyre. I knew suddenly with unmistakable certainty that a stronger hand had grasped my brush.

How old are you? Health? Nerves? I want you to be well and in full strength. Give a short biography! Mrs or Miss? Degree of education? Myself: residence: Raivola, Petrischülerin, tuber­culosis from age 16, Nummela, Davos, pneumothorax, waiting for someone to invent a cure for TB.

We must be ruthless with one another and sharp as diamonds...

I have a sister and have not heard her wonderful voice. I want to see your inner being, what is holiest in you.

The style and tone of this letter, its peremptory demands for concrete action at an absolute level, demands it would be impossible to fulfil in "real life"-all this is typical of the letters sent to Hagar Olsson with great frequency by Edith Södergran, even though she often obtained no reply. Hagar Olsson found the memory of this unequal friendship so painful after Edith Södergran's death that it took her twenty-five years to bring herself to look the letters out and publish them. For those twenty-five years she tried to forget about Edith Sodergran and her own failure to meet the demands of a soul that had in many respects already crossed over into another world.

The 'Sister' poems of Edith Södergran's third book, Rosenaltaret [The Rose Altar], grouped under the heading 'Fantastique', illustrate the poet's violent attachment to Hagar Olsson, and her fear that her 'sister' would betray her:


My sister...

Has she betrayed me?

Does she bear a dagger at her breast - the light-footed one? Answer me - laughing eyes.


('I Believe in My Sister')

The fear of betrayal was insistent. Edith Södergran had circulated a letter among the literary world of Helsinki in which she demanded that her friends should stand up and be counted: Hagar Olsson, Ragnar Ekelund, and others 'should take back their hasty condemnation of my press insertion' (the one about Septemberlyran). She based her demand on the authority of Nietzsche and claimed: 'I am an individual of an entirely new species. When I speak of the unheard-of [det oerhörda] in my art I am not talking of the content, but of the species.' This new insertion was hopelessly misunderstood. Most of the literary world in Helsinki considered it in the worst possible taste, and Hagar Olsson herself was by her own confession irritated at being solicited so directly for a reply.

She wrote a cross letter. Edith Södergran's answer was violent:


You have publicly exposed me to disgrace. I asked you if you thought that this insertion could be of great benefit to the cause. Naturally on the assumption that you would reply and by no means in order to criticise you. No one has ever acted like this towards me.

The worst of it for me is that I have lost the sister who had begun to play a wonderful role in my poetry. My health does not permit me to come to you. If you can tear yourself away for days I am now ready to receive you at any moment you please. If you refuse to do refuse to do this, I wish to brew.: with you forever, for I am aperson of irrevocable decision.

... Remember that this letter is a letter of destiny. I will believe no letter-I demand a proof of your fair-mindedness in that you come here. With one whom I distrust I do not want to have any dealings and do not want to wait for her for several months. That is my character-I can be no other.

I demand that you pay the price of our friendship through this journey-otherwise I shall understand that I am to be alone. Bow before my will, Hagar, you are approaching something that more beautiful than any love, and we could experience that which is most wonderful.


And so Hagar Olsson published a long article in Dagens Press on 8 February 1919. She defended Edith Södergran against the attacks of the critics, and associated her with the "new wave" of poets and writers that was beginning to appear in the other Scandinavian countries. Of this defence Hagar Olsson wrote later: `I wrote what my heart inspired me with at the time. I tried above all else to make people understand that an inspired poet like Edith Södergran spoke in the name of the spirit, of the god that lives in all our breasts, and not in the name of her private ego. And that all talk of self-assertion in connection with her was just as tasteless and stupid as it would be in connection with the great mystics who felt the presence of the Almighty in their own souls.'

At the same time, Hagar Olsson wrote to her friend saying she would accept the invitation to come to Raivola. Edith Södergran's reaction was one of joy:


Schwesterlein ,


Welcome to Raivola. Will be at the station, from where it is 2 kilometres to our home. My mother is very pleased you are coming. The cat Nonno and the dog Martti will also greet you cordially, as will our punikki [the household help] Aino.The night before your malheur-letter I dreamt that a beautiful black horse had broken loose at me. The night before the press insertion I dreamt that a herd of cows was following me with ringing bells and I also dreamt that I was walking along the street wearing a red cap and that a pedant of my acquaintance was nodding to me from the churchtower which you will see...

The visit lasted only a few days. Hagar Olsson has left a slightly vague account of it in her edition of Edith Södergran's letters to her. One has the sense that the meeting was an uneasy one, and that the temperamental differences between the two women were too great for there to be much real chance of any fruitful development of the relationship. Edith Södergran saw her `sister' mainly as a vital link with the outside world, someone who was connected with the actualities of literature and politics and who could help further the 'cause'­the spiritual, moral and intellectual revolution of her dreams. But Hagar Olsson's preoccupation were more worldly, it seems, and in spite of her great admiration for Edith Södergran, her efforts to comply with the poet's wishes seem to have been largely in vain Nevertheless, the two women continued to correspond, though it must again be stressed that the letters came mainly from Edith Södergran. Isolated in Raivola, stricken with an illness which she hated and saw as a deadly sin, a vice which had to be overcome, she had more than enough time in which to weave imaginary fantasies around her `sister'.

That the friendship between the two was an unequal one can be seen from the many letters from Edith Södergran which begin skriv (write), berätta (tell), titta (look), and with ever­increasing frequency-kom (come). Hagar Olsson was engaged in journalistic work in Helsinki, and frequently travelled abroad as part of her activity-to Stockholm, for example, where she interviewed Ellen Key. Edith Södergran lived these travels vicariously and often made urgent requests for books­Nietzsche, for example, was unobtainable in Finland, but available in Sweden. Hagar Olsson tried to fulfil these requests as best she could, and tried to keep Edith Södergran informed of her activities. On one occasion she even went to visit Selma Lagerlöf, not so much out of personal inclination as because her friend wanted to know what the great novelist was like. But long spells would elapse between Hagar Olsson's letters, and throughout the correspondence Edith Södergran's complaints about this grow more and more frequent. In the meantime Raivola was declared a restricted area by the Finnish military authorities, which meant that travel to and from it became extremely difficult. Nonetheless, Hagar Olsson did manage to make a second brief visit there in the summer of 1919, not without some early misgivings.


But how happy I was when I actually got out onto the country road, it was exactly as sun-warmed and happy and full of smiling 'delight as I remember all my summer roads to have been in Karelia. How well my soul felt in this nature, among these old Russian dachas, so inviting to the birds with their ornamentation and curlicues, which lay embedded in the luxuriant verdure and seemed to be mysteriously lost in their blossoming dilapidation. This was Edith's country, it should be seen in summer. She herself stood waiting outside her house, and I had the feeling that everything here was standing, waiting for something-the wonderful tall trees, the half overgrown garden where a few yellow raspberries and bright red clusters of currants gleamed among the weeds, the warm den of the suntrap between the bushes of the courtyard, and the great abandoned dacha, the ghostly castle where no one could live any more and which was guaıded by the enormous larch tree.* What was the old place waiting for, what was it dreaming about? It was so imbued with Edith's poetry that one involuntarily listened to its echoes when one walked in the garden under the catkins of the birch trees, and her own dreams about the future and the feast of two kindıcd souls seemed to wander around behind the locked doors of the eınpty, decaying house.

I stayed a little longer this time, and this was perhaps why I now had such a depressing insight into the truly Indian famine that reigned in the Södergran household. The situation had grown even worse. Even when she was able to procure a little flour, goixl Mrs Södergran was better versed in world literature than she was in the art of baking bread, baked, what is more, in an awkward old oven fired with home-gathered sticks and twigs, often green. 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 could have given offence or been badly received. The best thing that was obtainable was the milk, which they got on credit from the nearest neighbours, the Galkíns, but on no account would Edith drink this. These neighbours had an evil eye trained on her dear child, the beloved cat Totti or Råttikus, and one can understand therefore why the milk that came from them was `evil' to her. Edith's mother appealed to me, and I did try to talk Edith round, but this was almost as heartrending as to see her leave her milk untouched, so real and deeply rooted in her emotions was her aversion to the Galkins' milk. For the first time I saw how completely it depends on psychological factors whether our food can nourish us or not.*

Between August and November of 1919, Edith Södergran wrote no letters to Hagar Olsson. The reasons for the silence are unknown, but it seems likely that during this time Edith Södergran experienced some kind of inner crisis, similar in

intensity to the one she had experienced in the sanatorium at Nummela. The result of this new crisis was to be the collection of poems entitled Framtidens Skugga [The Shadow of the Future, 1920]. The last letter Edith Södergran wrote to her `sister' before the silence reveals some of the elements of this crisis:

... Have all the time felt within me such an infernal electricity that it was almost too much to bear. As if I had lain in the arms of Eros himself the whole time. I feel like the most blessed creature of all that has arisen from the depths of existence. More than ever before it is now necessary to catch the mood Have written poems, but this is not yet a period of inspiration What I need is for someone to plunge a dagger into my breast. And there is no one I respect who can receive my suffering. Wound me, Hagar! If I could create now, everything I have written hitherto would be rubbish. This alone would be me... ... Near Christmas I shall publish a book called Mysteries of the

Flesh... Schildt wí11 gape, along with the rest of public opinion. It is Eros conducting worship in his own Temple. It is the same Eros who is the `Wille zur Macht'...

The `Mysteries of the Flesh' were the poems that later became known as The Shadow of the Future. The original title is more apt, and tells us more about the experiences that went into the poems. Until now, Edith Södergran's world outlook had been conditioned to a large extent by her extensive reading of Nietzsche. She had tried to persuade herself that she did not believe in God, that she was a materialist and anti­mystic. She saw her dreams vitalised in the image of the superman. During 1919, however, she had received visits from a retired schoolteacher, a certain Dagmar von Schanz, who lived near Raivola. Although Edith Södergran had no personal liking for this woman, it was through her that she became acquainted with the works of the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner.* Steiner's nature mysticism seemed to her to form a direct link with that of Goethe. It also appeared to stand in resolute contradiction to the philosophy of Nietzsche. A severe conflict between the Nietzschean standpoint on the one hand and the Goethean-Steinerian on the other began to develop in the poet's psyche. It soon acquired the dimensions of a desperate struggle between apparently irreconcilable elements of her personality. With Nietzsche was associated the great accumulation of sensual and sexual energy that lay dammed up within her, denied release except through the medium of poetry. This is the `Eros' of which she writes in her poems and letters. Steiner, and to a lesser extent Goethe, reflected her experience of childhood and nature, and ultim­ately of Christ and God. The poems of The Shadow of the Future show the conflict at its most acute, generating new forms of experience which carry Edith Södergran out of herself and into a transcendental mode of being.

The sense of intolerable restraint, of accumulated energy crying to be let loose, and threatening the human person, is the force that drives these poems:


In order not to die I have to be the will to power.

In order to avoid the atoms' struggle in their break-up. I am a chemical mass...




There is an impression of enormous size, of enlarged dimensions:


Eros does not see men's petty squabbles, he sees with his burning gaze

how suns and moons complete their orbits.


(`Eros is Creating the World Anew')


I lift up the riches of the earth on my shoulders. (`The Net')


In the light of blue heaven must the coffin stand blessed The coffin stands in eternity's room.


(`Resurrection Mystery')


Through my lips streams the heat of a god, all my atoms are separate and on fire...




This experience of immensity could be terrifying:


It is dangerous to desire when one is the powerful one, therefore my desires stand still. (`Ecstasy')


Such statements inevitably brought accusations of megalo­mania and even of madness from readers who thought that Edith Södergran was talking about her own personal import­ance and power. They overlooked a poem like `Premonition', for example, where it is clearly stated: `I am only one among others and others are stronger than I'.

The experience of increased size has nothing to do with any sense of personal grandeur, but is rather the result of an emotional charge, an electricity which filled her at this time of crisis, rendering her normal perceptions invalid. There is even a possibility that some of the poems may have been written under the influence of a pain-relieving drug, although this has not been proven At any rate, the experience was a hallucinatory one, though it was felt as intensely real, and was a way through to an ecstatic vision of the kind described by Jakob Böhme or Teresa de Avila. Certain late poems of Gunnar Ekelöf-in part­icular, those of Partitur (1969)-bear a striking resemblance to the poems of The Shadow of the Future. It is significant that these, too, were written during a painful terminal illness.

In The Shadow of the Future there is a sense of giving-up, the struggle for material existence is abandoned and the poet's soul is freed The victory is not achieved at once. Often there are seemingly overwhelming doubts to be overcome. The soul often seems unreal:


I do not believe in seeming and soul, the game of games is so foreign to me. (`Materialism')


Physical suffering intensifies her sensation of her own body's grossness and helplessness. Yet even this grossness and animal­ity becomes transformed into a redeeming force, the power of Eros:


My body is a mystery.

So long as this fragile thing lives you shall feel its might. I will save the world.

Therefore Eros' blood hurries to my lips, and Eros' gold into my tired locks.


Throughout the poems there is a sense that at last her body is exhausted, that in some sense her `I' is free of her physical self. Now that `I' is at one with cosmic forces and dimensions, the human body, which has been the means towards this liberation, can fall back into passivity. Life is no longer "my" life, but the life of nature, of God. The transition to this standpoint must have been intensely painful for her, as she loved the perceptions of her senses and enjoyed in every way her presence on theearth. But as her illness progressed, she must have become aware that this indirect experience of nature was not for her. As her body grew weaker she began to experience herself for moments as a part of nature. Naturally her thoughts began to turn towards death:

Truth, truth, do you lie in mortuaries among worms and dust? Truth, do you dwell there where is everything I hate?




She senses that she will not physically survive the onslaught of the forces which have been at war within her:

My crown is too heavy for my strength. Look, I can lift it up with ease,

but my remains will fall apart.

My remains, my remains, you are wonderfully bound together. My remains, I believe you are beginning to long for a coffin. Now it is not the electric hour,

my remains, you do not belong to me.

(`Four Little Poems', II)


In the end, her body must count for nothing, her soul for everything:


But a little worm saw in a dark dream

that the moon's sickle cut his being into two parts: the one was nothing,

the other was all things and God Himself.


("There is no one who has time")


The story of Edith Södergran's involvement with Rudolf Steiner need not concern us in detail. It is enough to say that she was very well aware of the shortcomings of his philosophy, inherent no less in his personality than in his books. But he did bring her a measure of peace in the last, lonely years of her life, and there can be no doubt that he was a catalyst, the `dagger in the breast' that made the writing of The Shadow of the Future possible. There can also be little doubt that if ill-health had not intervened, Edith Södergran would have certainly travelled to Switzerland in order to become a pupil of Steiner. She announced this several times in her correspondence with Hagar Olsson. Such a discipleship would have been perfectly in accord with Edith Södergran's dreams of establishing a new world order of saints and mystics, poets and artists. Hagar Olsson did in fact visit Steiner, partly out of a personal interest and partly also to satisfy her friend's craving for at least some second-hand knowledge of her idol.

Raivola was to remain, then, the place from which Edith Södergran looked at the rest of the world. Raivola was the garden land' in which she wrote and suffered and meditated She was regarded as a curiosity by the other inhabitants of the place. Residents have told of how she would sometimes be seen standing alone in the courtyard of the dacha, staring up at the sky to observe cloud formations. Sometimes the inquisitive­ness of the neighbours turned to pure spite. In December 1919 Edith Södergran's favourite cat Totti, which meant as much to her as a child, was shot by the Russian neighbours mentioned earlier. An attack of Spanish influenza in early 1920 left her weak and exhausted. All this time the civil war was raging. Food was scarce, and Raivola seemed more cut off than ever from the rest of the world. Desperately anxious to work, to be of some use, Edith Södergran conceived the idea of preparing a volume of German translations of Finland Swedish poetry. Unfortunately the arrangement with the publisher fell through, and the project came to nothing.

She did receive some visitors from the outside world during the last years of her life. Elmer Diktonius, a literary lion of the Helsinki avant-garde, came to Raivola and saw to it that she was able to write articles for Ultra, a literary journal of the new wave. But as a rule she was alone with her mother. More and more her thoughts began to centre on the person of Christ.

Steiner and Nietzsche were forgotten. She read the New Testament. In 1921 the Kronstadt revolt erupted, and again the Södergrans could hear the shooting and see the flashes of gunfire in the night sky. The end came in 1923. Edith Södergran died while Hagar Olsson was on holiday in the south of France, where she received the sad news.

This was contained in a letter from Edith's mother, and a part of it read as follows:

Do not think that Edith nurtured any bitterness towards Hagar because Hagar was not with her before her departure; she understood that Hagar was not travelling alone and perhaps had to comply with the wishes of her travelling companion Certainly she yearned to see Hagar and on her last day she said `I wish Hagar and Diktonius were here.' And she was full of gratitude for all the proof of friendship she had received she said the day before her departure: `We have had so much help and friendship that I should write a book of gratitude, if only I could manage it,' And she often, often remembered all that Hagar and Diktonius had done for her.

The last poem Edith Södergran wrote contains these lines, which were engraved on her tombstone, now situated in the USSR at Raivola-Roshchino:

See, here is eternity's shore, here the stream murmurs by, and death plays in the bushes his same monotonous melody.


Her destiny was to grow as one with her destiny-from her limited personal fate she aspired towards the condition of pure fate. Misunderstood in her lifetime-Gunnar Ekelöf described her as a Persian princess in Lapland-she became after her death one of the most widely appreciated poets of Scandinavia. Today her poetry is read and written about in all the Scandinavian countries, and her reputation there is comparable to that of Emily Brontë or Emily Dickinson in English-speaking countries, or to that of Anna Akhmatova in Russia. She has little in common with these poets. Her poetry, though imagistic in expression, is primarily a poetry of ideas. As such, it may remain alien to the majority of English-speaking readers. The present volume is an attempt to bring it to those readers, so that they may decide for themselves.

I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Finnish Literature Information Centre in Helsinki, which made a grant towards the translation of the poems. I should like to thank Thomas Warburton for his painstaking reading of the manu­script, and for his valuable suggestions. My thanks also go to Laus Strandby Nielsen, who many years ago introduced me to Edith Södergran's poetry, and to Neil Astley for his patience and perseverance in the editorial work on my translations.

The photographs come from the archives of Svenska Litteratursällskapet in Helsinki, who are shortly to publish a new book on Edith Södergran by Holger Lillgvist. I should like to thank Holger Lillgvist not only for supplying these photo­graphs, but also for allowing us to publish several here which would otherwise have appeared in his book for the first time.

The text I have followed in making my translations of Edith Södergran's poetry is essentially that of Gunnar Tideström's standard edition of 1949. I have, however, taken account of subsequent editions and reprintings (including the most recent) in which certain misprints and misreadings have been corrected. In the case of the posthumous The Land That Is Not (1925), I have followed Tideström's example in ordering the poems more or less chronologically, in their relation to what Edith Södergran actually published in her lifetime.