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by Bamber Gascoigne

Gunnar Björling (1887-1960)


Finland-Swedish modernist poet, whose work is characterized by his attempt to find "words and more than to understand / words and that no other is". Most of his career, Björling suffered from lack of understanding – he was the most radical of all the modernists, a devoted dadaist, and labelled incomprehensible by the majority of the public. Even his colleagues in Finland did not think much of his work. Björling's recognition came late in life when his poetry was discovered in Sweden. 

Now is not dead
it is a voice
barely shimmering
in this night of light
and between space and sea

(1953; translated by David McDuff, from A Way to Measure Time, 1992)

Gunnar Björling was born in Helsinki, the son of Edvard Björling, a post-office official, and Lydia Maria Rivell. After Björling's father suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1896 and was unable to continue with his work, the family fell into poverty. He died in 1914.

His childhood and youth Björling spent in Helsinki, Viipuri, and Kangasala. In 1901-02 Björling attended military academy in Fredrikshamn, but returned then to Helsinki, where he actively participated in the struggle against attempts to russify Finland.

Björling studied philosophy at the University of Helsinki, graduating in 1915. An atheist, misfit with his unconventional opinions and informal relationship with his students in the Swedish Normal Lyceum, Björling eventually abandoned his career as a teacher. Moreover, Björling was openly a homosexual, which made him something of a renegade; once he was put under house arrest. Because of his sexual orientation, he was also vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation. Homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971.

During the Civil war (1917-1918) Björling remained in Helsinki, which was ruled for a period by Reds, but kept a secret White radio sender in his basement. It has been claimed, without evidence, that Björling was on the boat, that carried the condemned Socialist writer Maiju Lassila to his death. Lassila was shot while trying to escape, or drowned, before the boat reached Sveaborg. Björling never published an account of what he allegedly witnessed. After the war, Björling devoted himself entirely to writing and drew around him a group of disciples who wanted to renew Finnish literature.

As a poet Björling made his debut at the age of 35 with Vilande dag (Resting Day), published by Daimon, where the Finland-Swedish modernist critic Hagar Olsson (1893-1978) worked as editor. The short-lived publishing company, closely tied to the modernist magazine Ultra, had been founded by the writer L.A. Salava; he was also a dealer in antiquarian books. Vilande dag, a collection of prose poems showed Björling's knowledge of the work of the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), whose famous collection of song poems Gitanjali had been translated into Swedish in 1913.

Björling was deeply influenced by positivism and Edward Westermarck's (1862-1939) relativism. Also Nietzsche, Jean-Marie Guyau, and Henri Bergson left traces on Björling's thought, which he early presented in in articles written for the magazine Quesego, and in Korset of löftet (1925), an expression of "a universal dada-individualism".

After his hectic dadaistic period in the late 1920s, Björling published Kiri-ra! (1930) and Solgrönt (1933), in which he began to use motifs from everyday life and nature. "Jag skriver inte litteratur, jag söker mitt ansikte och fingrarna" (I don't write literature, I'm looking for my face and my fingers), he said. This self-published treasure of modernism contained poems, prose poems, aphorisms, fragments of essays, and even sonnets.

"My language is not in words," Björling defined. What becomes of the word "modernism," he thought that it has too little content. Hagar Olsson wrote, "Björling doesn't write Swedish, far from it, he simply writes Björlingian." His world did not have grammatical or syntactical continuity, language was broken down, it was always open, moving, unfinished, in which "luft är och ljus" (the air is and light). There is no time and space and no opposition between oneself and someone else. In Ett blyertsstreck (1951, A Pencilstroke), it is hard to distinguish one poem from another.

Crucial for his thinking was the idea of the endless flow of life; nothing is complete, nothing is perfect. "Life is the banana the monkeys do not reach," he once said. In his striving to capture escaping moments of life, Björling constantly struggled with the limits of language, painfully aware of that words cannot render fully one's personal feelings. Accepting this, his radical nihilism gradually changed into self-examination, calmness, and metaphysical attempts to be one with the world: "a poem is my life," he wrote in Ord och att ej annat (1945).

During the Continuation War (1941-44) an air bomb hit the house where Björling lived and destroyed all his manuscripts. All his life work went up in smoke. Björling fell into depression but but at the same time he felt relief. In the 1940s and 1950s his basement apartment, a former sauna, in Kaivopuisto (Brunnsparken), on the city's shore zone, became a legendary meeting place. Björling's fleeing impressions of this milieu especially marked his later collections. Like the poet and critic Henry Parland (1908-1930), with whom he had a short affair, Björling was interested in jazz and films. Björling's friend Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961) called him a "God's ermine," who hunts for "beetle, carrot, wig, jazz". Parland died of scarlet fever, at the age of 22, in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he was sent by his father, who did not accept his lifestyle. The death of his young protegée was a deep blow to Björling. He once described Parland as 'Ett ljus tänt i livets fördumningsanstalt' (a candle light in life's dumbing down institution).

"Och mitt liv, allt liv ryser ihop sig i virrvarren. Och jag upptäckte kanske ‒ virrvarren, och klarhet. Jag måste återge dem. Som förvirringar och klarheten. Som en princip att inte bedra sig ‒ : och att ha fattat ett mer än människors tankes karaktär själva karaktären, det brokiglevande och goda." (from Solgrönt, 1933)

Between 1938 and 1959, Björling published fifteen collections, being one of the most productive poets in Finland. However, from the beginning his work did not receive much critical acclaim – he was an oddity, and in the 1930s Björling printed privately several collections. Within the modernist camp Hagar Olsson attacked both Björling and Elmer Diktonius. When the Swedish Literary Society in Finland decided to give him one of its literary prizes in 1947, the chairperson of the association resigned as a protest. From 1949 Björling enjoyed a state pension for writers.

Until the 1940s, Björling was also relatively unknown in Sweden, where a literary association, Björlingsamfund, was founded in 1949. After publishing some 20 collections, Björling received in 1955 the state literary award for Att i sitt öga. Björling died in Helsinki on July 11, 1960. In the same year appeared Bo Carpelan's dissertation on the poet, Studier i Gunnar Björlings diktning 1922-1933. Before his death, Björling gave instructions for his funeral: "No ceremony or gathering on the journey, or at the casket or urn. No music, speech, flowers (no wreath), no blessings (!) . . ."

Björling's work have inspired such composers as Kaija Saariaho, Allan Pettersson, Lars-Åke Franke-Blom, Magnus Lindberg, and Gottfrid Gräsbeck. Lindberg's series of vocal pieces,' Jag vill breda vingar ut' (I want to spread my wings), was composed in 1977–1978. Björling's poetic material is massive: some thirty thousand poems are preserved in the library of Åbo Academy. Many of Björling poems deal with Helsinki, where he lived most of his life, and capture fragile impressions from his own surroundings in Brunnsparken, its hundred-year-old trees, the old park, and yacht harbour: "O du blankblåa hamn / och båtar i hamnen / och vatten, och vatten / och jaktklubbens segel / ett vittvitt på fjärden." Björling also wrote aphorisms.

For further reading: "Mitt språk är ej i orden": Gunnar Björlings liv och verk by Fredrik Hertzberg (2018); Björlings semiotiska vändning: En studie i Gunnar Björlings sena poesi by Erik Erlanson (2010); 'Gunnar Björling: Poetics and Poetry: An Introduction', by Fredrik Hertzberg, in Boundary 2, Volume 29, Number 1, Spring (2002); Finlands svenska litteraturhistoria II, ed. by Clas Zilliacus (2000); 'Björling' by George C. Schoolfield, in A History of Finland's literature, edited by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Att skriva dagen: Gunnar Björlings poetiska värld byAnders Olsson (1995); Björlingstudier, ed. by Clas Zilliacus and Michel Ekman (1992); A Way to Measure Time, ed. by Bo Carpelan et al. (1992); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Björling, Gunnar' by K.L. [Kai Laitinen], in  Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Den oomvända anletet by Mikael Enckell (1969); Studier i Gunnar Björlings diktning 1922-1933 by Bo Carpelan (1960); En livslivets diktare by W. Dickson (1956); Modern finlandssvensk literatur by B. Holmqvist (1951); 'Inledning till Björling' by Bengt Holmqvist, in Prisma (1950)

Selected works:

  • Vilande dag, 1922 [Resting Day]
  • Korset och löftet, 1925 [The Cross and the Promise]
  • Kiri-ra!, 1930
  • Solgrönt, 1933 [Sungreen]
    - Auringonvihreä (suom. Pauliina Haasjoki & Peter Mickwitz, 2015)
  • Fågel badar anart i vatten, 1933 [Bird Bathes Soon in the Waters]
  • Att syndens blåa nagel, 1936 [But That the Blue Claw of Sin]
  • Men blåser violer på havet, 1936
  • Där jag vet att du, 1938 [Where I Know That You]
  • Det oomvända anletet, 1939
  • Angelägenhet, 1940
  • Ohjälpligheten, 1943
  • O finns en dag, 1944
  • Ord och att ej annat, 1945 [Words and That Not Other]
  • Luft är och ljus, 1946 [The Air Is and Light]
  • Och leker med skuggorna i sanden. Urval lyrik, 1937-1947, 1947
  • Ohört blott, 1948 [Unheard Merely]
  • Vårt kattliv timmar, 1949 [Our Catlife Hours]
  • Ett blyertsstreck, 1951 [A Pencilstroke]
  • Träd står i sina rader: urval lyrik 1922-1936, 1952
  • Så fjärran skäller: korn och tanke: urval 1922-1951, 1952
  • Som alla dar, 1953 [As All Days]
  • Att i sitt öga, 1954 [That in One's Eye]
  • Du går de ord, 1955 - You Go the Words (translated by Fredrik Hertzberg, 2007)
  • Mun vid hand: urval lyrik 1930-1955, 1958
  • Hund skenar glad: urval lyrik 1922-1955, 1959
  • Dikter, 1959 (tecknade av Elisabet Hermodsson)
  • Kosmos valmiiksi kirjoitettu: valitut runot, 1972 (suom. Tuomas Anhava)
  • Allt vill jag fatta i min hand, 1974 (edited by Erik Gamby)
  • Mahdollisen valtakunta: mietelmiä ja merkintöjä vuosilta 1922-1951, 1979 (toim. ja suom. Tuomas Anhava)
  • Det stora enklas dag, 1986 (edited by Bo Carpelan)
  • Gunnar Björlings valda dikter i två band, 1989 (2 vols.)
  • Jag viskar dig jord: dikter 1956-1960, 1991 (edited by Michel Ekman)
  • Vi gick ej namnlöst bort, 2000 (edited by Göran Eriksson)
  • Den finlandssvenska dikten. 6, Gunnar Björling, 2001 (edited by Bo Carpelan)
  • Auringonvihreä, 2015 (suomentaneet Pauliina Haasjoki ja Peter Mickwitz, 2015; Solgrönt, originally published 1933)

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