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Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1864-1931)


Swedish poet, master of rhyme and meter, who gained fame with his regional, tradition-bound poetry. Internationally unknown Karlfeldt won the Nobel Prize for Literature posthumously in 1931 (it was the first posthumous award of the prize) – he had twice refused the honor on the grounds of his position as a secretary of the Nobel Committee, and because of the high proportion of Swedish writers who had already received the award. Although Karlfeld's works were widely read in his country, he has also been called one of the most misunderstood writers. He was familiar with French symbolism, used its literary devices, but found his subjects from the traditional rural way of life.

Jag var ej mogen, jag var ej värdig,
ty nog jag lidit och nog jag njutit,
men ett står kvar, förr'n en man är färdig:
att skapa lycka ur vad han brutit.

(from 'Sjukdom')

Erik Axel Karlfeldt was born Erik Axel Eriksson in Folkärna in the rural province of Dalarna, central Sweden. "In Dalecarlia originated all the patriotic uprisings against foreign oppression. Even today, largely because of the pure Nordic strain of the inhabitants, there exists as much as in any part of Europe an instinctively loyalty to peasant tradition, together with a deep love of all the forms of nature." (Arcadia Borealis: Selected Poems of Erik Axel Karlfeldt, translated and introduction by C.W. Stork, 1938,  pp. 5-6) Erik Eriksson, Karlfeldt's father, was a farmer. Karlfeldt's mother, Anna Jansdotter, was a devout Lutheran. Christian images also became part of the the poet's lyrical world. Karlfeldt's father suffered a financial ruin, he was found guilty of forgery in 1885, and he died of lung illness some years later. Erik Axel started to use in 1889 the name Karlfeldt when he worked as a journalist in the Aftonbladet in Stockholm, to distance himself from his father's name.

Karlfeldt was a very good student at school and already showed talent for poetry. In 1888, due to poor eyesight, Karlfeldt was rejected for military service. While supporting himself as a teacher, Karlfeldt studied at the university of  Uppsala. The editor of the Aftonbladet, Ernst Beckman, supported his studies. Karlfeldt graduated in 1902. Teachning was not his calling: he was dismissed from his position at Djursholm for sexual misconduct. The same happened at the folkhögskola in the town of Molkom, where rumors spread about his relationship with the wife school's rector.

Karlfeldt worked as a librarian at the Academy of Agriculture at Stockholm from 1903 to 1912 and secretary of Swedish Academy after the death of Carl David af Wirsén in 1912; since 1904 he had been its member. 'Till en sekreterare' is Karlfeldt's self-ironic poem on the appointement ceremony: "Håll dig rak, / gör din sak, / sakta mak, / trampa värdigt på mattlagda tiljor."

Karlfeldt's early works were influenced by Gustaf Fröding and the popular movement in Sweden which idolized simple life in the countryside. As a writer he started his career with Vildmarks- och kärleksvisor (1895), a group of romantic lyrics, which did not gain much attention. In these poems Karlfeldt depicted milieu, in which literature or academic learning did not play significant role. The collection is opened by 'Fäderna' (My Forefathers), a homage to his rural traditions, in which he said: "And should any poem of mine recall / The surge of the storm, the cataract's fall, / Some thought with a manly ring / A lark's note, the glow of the heath, sohehow, / Or the sigh of the woodland vast, – / You sang in silence through ages past / That song by your cart and your plough." (Anthology of Swedish Lyrics from 1750 to 1915, translated in the original meters by Charles Wharton Stork, 1917, p. 241)

Vildmarks was followed by so-called Fridolin collections, Fridolins visor (1898) and Fridolins lustgård (1901). Fridolin, the title character, served as the poet's alter ego and his ideal – a fictionalized bachelor poet who returns to his rural heritage. "My muse dwelleth not on Parnassus, / Her home is on Purse-Maker's Nest. / Like sunset the cheek of the lass is, / When eve soothes the valley to rest." (from 'Prelude' to "Fridolin's Lustgard" (Fridolin's Pleasure Garden),' in Arcadia Borealis: Selected Poems of Erik Axel Karlfeldt, translated and introduction by C.W. Stork, 1938,  p. 15) Although a simple peasant, Fridolin displayes deep learning. He discusses with peasant as a peasant, but uses latin with scholars. Comparisons have been made between Fridolin and Bellman's Fredman, to the advantage of the latter.

Another figure, 'Löskekarl' (A Vagabond), represented uprootedness, another side of the poet, for whom the death of his father had been a shock. 'Dalmålningar' was inspired by naïve church paintings from his home region in Dalarna. 'Häxorna' series was based on a witch trial, which also the Nobel writer Eyvind Johnson described in his book Drömmar om rosor och eld. In England Aldous Huxley used the same French source in The Devils of Loudun (1952).

Karlfeldt's lyrics are characterized by purposely archaic style and influences from folklore and custom. Old names and words appear frequently in his poems, as in 'Nattyxne'. The title refers to a species of orchids (Butterfly Orchid), which was considered an aphrodisiac and was used in love potions. "Öfver dig, yxne, älskogsört, / susade Veneris flyende skört, / daggen som lopp af den hvita foten / göt dig i roten / sin vårliga vört." Karlfeldt was especially interested in Swedish baroque poetry – a period during which Sweden enjoyed the position of an European superpower. Dominating themes are nature and love, as in general in poetry at that time. Flora och Pomona (1906) contains his most enduring work, in which the love themes and the nature motifs are deeply interwoven. Karlfeldt's use of concrete images to express an emotion or an abstract concept owed much to ideas developed by French Symbolist poets. In his last collection of verse, Hösthorn (1927), Karlfeldt took his subjects from the past and his rural background, expressing in 'Höstpsalm' his reconciliation of life and death.

Vem är du och var kommer du ifrån?
- Det vill jag och kan jag ej säga.
Har intet hem, är ingen mans son,
ej hem eller son kall jag äga.
Jag är en främling fjärranväga.
(from 'En löskekarl,' Fridolins visor, 1989)

In Flora och Bellona (1918) Karlfeldt enlarged his themes – often poets write about experiences that are personal and universal at the same time, but in this collection he referred to contemporary issues. Bellona in the title of the book was the goddess of war. The figure was far from the usual attributes of Sweden – a neutral country during World War I. Karlfedt's darkening mood was not born from his war experiences; by nature he was a recluse. The values of industrial civilization, urbanism, dynamism, the cult of speed, which the Italian futurists extolled, and radio and jazz music, made him feel uncomfortable with his own time; he was "a vagabond of poetry" as he described himself in Vildmarks- och kärleksvisor. Karlfeldt rejected Communism and American materialism and saw that his world is doomed: "O Fridolin, din sång är tömd / och dömd och glömd också."

Some critics did not approve Karlfeldt's deeply-rooted conservatism and pessimism, and he eventually lost his contact with modern literary trends. Although Karlfeldt was often restricted in expressing his inner feeling, he revealed his religious belief in the poem 'Sjukdom' (Sickness) in Flora och Bellona. He had been seriously ill in 1913, nearly dying of pneumonia. This made him study his beliefs more confessionally than in the earlier works.

In 1916 Karlfeldt married Gerda Ottilia Holmberg (1883-1981), a housemaid; they had four children, three of whom were born before the marriage. Karlfeldt was involved in other relationships, too. Over the years, family life brought him stability and calmed his restlessness. Karlfeldt kept his private life private. He published relatively little journalistic writings and he did not participate in contemporary literary discussion, except through his poems. Karlfeldt's prose works include the funeral address for the Swedish poet Gustaf Fröding, and his Nobel Prize presentation address to Sinclair Lewis. Karlfeldt died in Stockholm on April 8, 1931. At the burial at the Folkärna Church, the weather was very bad and it was raining with sleet.

Anders Österling, a member of the Nobel committee of the Swedish Academy, said in his Award ceremony speech in December 1931: "If today's award does not strictly follow Nobel's intentions, does that mean that the result of this procedure will be less than what Nobel intended? I say not! What we have created is not less but more! This festive ceremony is a tribute to genius. It may not have much in common with Alfred Nobel's dreams but it is akin to his work." (Nobel Prize Library: Juan Ramón Jiménez, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Pär Lagerkvist, Selma Lagerlöf, 1971, pp. 101-104)

Karlfeldt's poetry have not been translated widely, although in Nordic countries his poems have appeared in different anthologies. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius set to music one of Karlfeldt's poems, 'Fridolins dårskap'. In 1938 Charles Warton Stork translated a selection of his verse under the title Arcadia Borealis. He decribed Karlfeldt as "burly in figure, soft of voice, modest and straightforward in manner, he carried with him even in a library the atmosphere of outdoors – the scent of pines, the exhilaration of the mountains." (Arcadia Borealis: Selected Poems of Erik Axel Karlfeldt, translated and introduction by C.W. Stork, 1938, p. 10) The literary association, Karlfeldt-samfundet, have published studies on his works.

For further reading: Anthology Of Swedish Lyrics From 1750 To 1915 by Charles W. Stork (1917); Bibliska motiv i Karlfeldts diktning by Aron Borelius (1922); Erik Axel Karlfeldt by T. Fogelqvist (1931, 2nd edition 1940); Karlfeldt och fädernas tro by Erik Fries (1942); Karlfeldts livsproblem by Jacob Kulling (1943); Vårgiga och hösthorn by Klas Wennerberg (1944); Dalmålningar by Svante Svärdström (1944); Det folkliga och det förgångna i Karlfeldts lyrik by Jöran Mjöberg (1945); Lejonets barn by Ingvar Högman (1945); A History of Swedish Literature by A. Gustafson (1961); Sub luna och andra Karlfeldtessäer by Karl-Ivar Hildeman (1966); Karlfeldt - synpunkter och värderingar, ed. by Majt Blanck (1971); En löskekarl by Karl-Ivar Hildeman (1977), Dikter till och om Karlfeldt by A Bergstrand (1978); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); På Karlfeldts vägar I-III (1982-83); Meter, rytm och ljudgestaltning i bunden vers by Ulf Malm (1985); Erik Axel Karlfeldts bibliografi by Nils Afzelius, 2 vols. (1974-1989); Den svenska litteraturen: den storsvenska generationen, ed. by Lars Lönnroth and Sven Delblanc (1989); Den svenska literaturhistorien by Göran Hägg (1996); Five Swedish Poets of the Nineteenth Century, ed. and trans. by Judith Moffett (2001); Karlfeldt: dikt och liv by Staffan Bergsten (2005); Erik Axel Karlfeldt: vägen till Nobelpriset, ed. Karin Perers (2009); Jag ville ha sagt dig det ömmaste ord. Kärleken mellan Gerda och Erik Axel Karlfeldt by Carin von Sydow (2011); Karlfeldt i sin tid: nio uppsatser om en skald och hans omvärld, ed. Christer Åsberg (2012); Älska, dricka, sjunga, leva, dö: en essä om Erik Axel Karlfeldt by Stina Otterberg (2014); Karlfeldt: dikt & liv by Staffan Bergsten (2016); Träffpunkt Karlfeldt: texter om hans liv och dikt, edited byChrister Åsberg (2017); På Karlfeldts tid 1913-31 by Jenny Westerström (2018); Jungfrun och demonerna: en Karlfeldtstudie by Olof Lagercrantz (2018); En vän i vind och skymning: uppsatser och föredrag från två decennier med Karlfeldt by Christer Åsberg (2019)

Selected works:

  • Vildmarks- och kärleksvisor, 1895
  • Fridolins visor och andra dikter, 1898
  • Fridolins lustgård och Dalmålningar på rim, 1901
  • Flora och Pomona, 1906
  • Skalden Lucidor, 1912
  • Flora och Bellona, 1918
  • C. F. Dahlgren, 1923, 1923
  • Hösthorn: dikter, 1927
  • Samlade verk, 1931
  • Why Sinclair Lewis Got the Nobel Prize, 1931 (translated by N. Hedin)
  • Tankar och tal: med ett lyriskt bokslut, 1932 (edited by Torsten Fogelqvist)
  • Karlfeldts ungdomsdiktning, 1934 (edited by Sven Haglund and Nils Afzelius)
  • Arcadia Borealis: Selected Poems of Erik Axel Karlfeldt, 1938 (translated and introduction by C.W. Stork)
  • Erik Axel Karlfeldts dikter, 1943
  • Erik Axel Karlfeldts dikter, 1950
  • Erik Axel Karlfeldts dikter, 1963
  • Erik Axel Karlfeldt, 1966 (edited by Nils P. Sundgren)
  • Karlfeldt: dalmålaren, 1974 (edited by Svante Svärdström)
  • Samlade dikter, 1981
  • Erik Axel Karlfeldts dikter, 1986 (Månadens bok)
  • Samlade dikter, 2001 (edited by Johan Stenström)
  • Till bönder och till lärde män: Erik Axel Karlfeldts tal, 2004 (selected by Christer Åsberg; introduction by Kurt Johannesson)
  • Jag är lust och jag är längtan: kärleksdikter, 2010 (edited by Karin Perers; illustrated by Lena Sjöberg)
  • Oration till skalder och kompaner, 2013 (redaktör Christer Åsberg)
  • Greatest hits: dikter av Erik Axel Karlfeldt, 2015
  • Samlade dikter, 2018 (med kommentarer av Johan Stenström)

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