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by Bamber Gascoigne

Edith Södergran (1892-1923)


Pioneer of poetry in the Swedish language in Finland, one of the most loved Nordic writers. Edith Södergran's impact on the Finnish modernism in the 1920s was significant in liberating verse from the confines of rhyme, regular rhythm, and traditional imagery. As a modernizer of poetry Katri Vala (1901-1944) has often been compared to Södergran.

Jag längtar till landet som icke är,
ty allting som är, är jag trött att begära.
Månen berättar mig i silverne runor
om landet som icke är.

I long for the land that is not,
for everything that is I am weary of craving.
The moon tells me in silver runes
about the land that is not.
(from 'The Country That Is Not',' in Skating on the Sea: Poetry from Finland, edited & translated by Keith Bosley, 1997, p. 200)

Edith Södergran was born in St. Petersburg into a Swedish-speaking bourgeois family. Her father, Matts Södergran, worked for Alfred Nobel's company, and then was employed by a factory in Raivola (now Roshchino) on the Karelian Isthmus. Although in the official papers he was titled as "mechanic", his actual responsibilities were those of an engineer. In 1890 he married Helena Lovisa Holmroos, whose father had created a successful career in the foundry business. Throughout her life, Södergran was very close to her mother.

In 1902 Södergran entered the German Petri-Schule in St. Petersburg. Influenced by Heine and Goethe she wrote her first poems in German. Later she switched to Swedish, but "Germanisms" remained a permanent feature of her language. During the school years, she read Molière's plays, Maupassant's short stories, and Hugo's Les Misérables in French. Her father, who suffered from tuberculosis, returned in 1907 from the Nummela sanatorium to home. He had problems with alcohol. Södergran almost never mentions him is her letters.

In some of her writings Södergran criticized amongst other things the tsarist system, but without any clear political stand. Death and feelings of homelessness, drawing from her questions of meaning in life but also popular themes among the décadents, began to appear in her poems. Södergran took up the issue of the possibility of two women having a marital-type relationship in one poem: "Sie ist der Mann, ich bin die Frau. / Wir sind ein frohes Pärchen."

At the age of sixteen, after catching cold, Södergran contracted the same disease as her father. In 1908 she went to the Nummela sanatorium in Nurmijärvi. Södergran was there at the same time as Aino Kallas and Hella Wuolijoki's friend Salme Murrik. With Murrik she discussed poetry and smoked cigarettes. (Edith Södergran: Elämä by Agneta Rahikainen, 2023, pp. 44-45) Murrik's life was adventurous. At one point she had an affair with the poet Elmer Diktonius.

From 1911 to 1914 Södergran lived mainly in Switzerland in sanatoriums, where she started to study Italy and read Dante. Much of the time she spent in Davos-Dorf. She was treated by doctor Ludwig von Muralt, who had worked as an assistant of Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist. Södergran took lessons in English and read Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince. She also owned a copy of Longfellow's Evangeline and Other Poems. More important to her development as a writer was the magazine Der Sturm, which introduced leading figures of the modernist avant-garde movement.

From 1914 Södergran refused all hospital treatment. She returned to Finland, with high hopes for the future. Next year Södergran met in Helsinki the writer Arvid Mörne (1876-1946), who encouraged her writing. A chance meeting with the philologist Hugo Bergroth (1866-1937) is thought to have persuaded her to abandon German for Swedish as a vehicle of lyric expression. Many of the poems in the so-called Oilcloth booklet (1907-09) were written in German with rhythm and metre. The pre-war expressionism interested Södergran as well as the Russian futurism of Vladimir Mayakovsky, but Södergran never understood or shared his political sympathies. 

On the eve of World War I, Södergran settled with her mother permanently in the family's summer house at Raivola on the Karelian Isthmus. Södergran's family lost its property in the Russian Revolution of 1917; they had invested in Ukrainian oblgations. Her first book, Dikter (1916, Poems), full of romantic images, depicted the nature of her home village, but gave it a dream-like quality. In a love poem Södergran wrote: "You searched for a flower / and found a fruit. / Your searched for a spring / and found an ocean." This collection represented a new avant-garde voice in literature, but did not cause much debate. Reception varied from puzzled admiration to ridicule, which hurt her deeply and further contributed to her reclusive tendencies. One of the critics who understood what Södergran was saying, was Ragnar Eklund, who identified her work as Futurist. Södergran ended her attempt to enter the Finland-Swedish literary circles of Helsinki in a flight to Raivola.

During a visit to Helsinki in autumn 1917, Södergran met such writers as Hans Ruin, Jarl Hemmer, Runar Schildt, Juhani Aho, and Eino Leino. The most important person in her life was the critic and writer Hagar Olsson, who reviewed enthusiastically Södergran's Septemberlyran. The two women had an intense correspondence. Södergran wrote more letters to Olsson than she to her.

Olsson visited Södergran for the first time in Raivola in February 1919. Södergran adviced Olsson to have a bar of soap with her. Olsson had a lively social life and love affairs with other women. Södergran felt jealous of her friend's attention to others.

Södergran suffered from depression and extreme poverty, but in spite of the insecure, hard conditions, Septemberlyran (1918, The September lyre) reflected strong Nietzschean visions and Dionysian euphoria. Its appearance gave rise to a journalistic debate that cast doubts on her sanity. The reviews were so unfavorable, that later Thomas Warburton called it "a shameful spot in the history of Swedish journalism in Finland". (A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas, 1973, p. 518) In this collection Södergrand wanted to show that critics, the bloody Russian revolution, tuberculosis, and the Finnish Civil War did not manage to stop her, and more: she has completely turned her back to the outer world.

In her lifetime, Södergran's poems did not gain wide acceptance, but they nevertheless opened for her doors into the literary world. In addition to Olsson and Elmer Diktonius, her defenders included the Swedish-speaking writers Bertel Gripenberg, Erik Grotenfelt, Arvid Mörne, and Runar Schildt. Diktonius traveled to Raivola in March 1922, and fell under Södergran's spell. He became her trustee. 

Pain rules over all, she smoothes the thinker's brow,
she fastens the necklace round the neck of the adorable one,
she stands in the doorway when the man comes out from from his 
                beloved . . .

What more does pain give her beloved ones?
I know no more.

(from 'Pain', The Collected Poems of Edith Södergran, translated by Martin Allwood in collaboration with Cate Ewing and Robert Lyng, 1980)

Södergran's later collections include Rosenaltaret (1919, Rose altar) and Framtidens skugga (1920, Shadow of the future); the latter is generally considered her best. With these works Södergran left behind her the Nietzschean will for life, and accepted comfort from Christian faith, not unconditionally. He religion was a kind of union of outcasts. Eros is a central concept, not as a symbol of romantic love, but rather referring to secret knowledge and creation.

Following the victory of the Whites in the Civil War, a wave of terror began in the Karelian Isthmus against suspected Bolsheviks. In Terijoki, about 15 air kilometers southeast from Raivola, Major Georg Elfengren's men killed some people 60 in the villa community. Södergran told Olsson in May 1919, that she had an erotic dream about General Mannerheim: "Säkert kommer något ondt att hända mig: drömde i natt att Mannerheim omfattada mig och hand smekning var så berusande och bedårande som ingen annan i världen." (Ediths brev: Brev från Edith Södergran till Hagar Olsson med kommentar av Hagar Olsson, 1973, p. 54) Olof Enckell wrote in a letter to Södergran's biographer Gunnar Tideström that while staying in Helsinki in 1916 she had taken off her clothes in Gunnar Finne's atelier and revealed her deformed back with a long scar.

In the early 1920s Södergran became member of Anthroposophical Society. Abandoning poetry for some time, she read widely Rudolf Steiner's works, which included Die Grundfrage der Erkenntnistheorie, Die Philosophie der Freiheit, Die geistige. Fiihrung des Menschen und der Menschheit. and the play Die Pforte der Einweihung. Södergran was fascinated by occultism, and then, in a short time, her interest changed from Steiner to the Bible. In May 1921 she wrote to Olsson: "Läste just Paulus II Korint. om Guds översvinneliga klarhet. Sanningen finnes endast i nya Testamentet och ingenstädes annars i världen." (Samlade skrifter 2: Brev by Edith Södergran, utgivna av Agneta Rahikainen, 1996, p. 207)

Landet som icke är (The land that is not), Södergran's final book, was published posthumously in 1925 by Schildt. Beginning from the title, the symbolism of death dominates the collection. In 'The Arrival in Hades' she said: "Död, varför tystnade du? / Vi äro komna långt ifrån / och äro hungriga att höra, / vi hava aldrig haft en amma / som kunnat sjunga såsom du." The poem was probably written before she became interested in Steiner. (Antroposofi och religion i Edith Södergrans sista dikter by Leena Lietsala, pro gradu, 2010, p. 8) The resigned poems were assembled by Elmer Diktonius, but Olsson do not mention his contribution in her foreworld to the book. 

Edith Södergran died in Raivola on June 24, 1923. On hearing the news, Olsson and Diktonius were shocked: they knew she was ill but had not realized how ill. Södergran's death was partially a result of a long period of malnutrition. She refused to drink any of the milk her mother got from their neighbour because she believed that they cast an evil eye on her cat. Södergran was buried at the Orthodox cemetery. Her mother destroyed a manuscript entitled 'Hyacintha.' Helena Södergran died during the Winter War in Finland in January 1940.

In the 1930s Raivola was the target of pilgrimages for Södergran's fans and aspiring lyricists. Her influence on succeeding generations of poets have been immense. Södergran was a photographer too. Among her favorite subjects were cats and her own mother.

For further reading: Edith Södergran by Gunnar Tideström (1949); Edith Södergran by L. de Fages (1970); 'Les structures de l'imaginaire chez Edith Södergran' by R. Boyer, in Études Germaniques, 26 (1971); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); 'Edith Södergran: A Pioneer of Finland-Swedish Modernism' by G. Hird, in Books from Finland, 12 (1978); 'I'll Bake Cathedrals: An Introduction to the Poetry of Edith Södergran' by C.L. Mossberg in Folio, 11 (1978); 'Södergran, Edith' by G.C.S. [George C. Schoolfield], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, edited by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Edith Södergran: Modernist Poet in Finland by George C. Schoolfied (1984); Edith Södergran by Gunnar Tideström (1991, appeared originally 1949); Edith by Ernst Brunner (1992); Edith Södergran: A Changing Image, edited by Petra Broomans, Adrian van der Hoeven and Jytte Keoning (1993); Edith Södergran by Eva Stöm (1994); 'Edith södergran and the Sexual Discourse of the Fin-de-siècle' by Birgitta Holm, in NORA - Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, Volume 1, Issue 1 (1993); A History of Finland's Literature, edited by Geroge C. Schoolfield (1998); Ediths jag by Ebba Witt-Brattström (1997); Vägen till landet som icke är: En essä om Edith Södergran och Rudolf Steiner by Jan Häll (2006); "Heimatlos in dieser Welt": The Isolated Modern Woman in Edith Södergran's Vaxdukshäft Poetry by Kajsa M. Spjut (2010); Kampen om Edith: biografi och myt om Edith Södergran by Agneta Rahikainen (2014); Edith: runoilijan elämä ja myytti by Agneta Rahikainen, translated by Jaana Nikula (2014); Edith Södergran: själarnas möte by Nelly Jurvélius (2018); Poeten och hennes apostlar by Agneta Rahikainen (2014); Det ockulta sekelskiftet: esoteriska strömningar i Hilma af Klints tid by Per Faxneld (2020); Edith Södergran: Elämä by Agneta Rahikainen, translated by Jaana Nikula (2023; original title: Edith Södergran: Stjärnfångerskan); En annan Edith by Nina Ulmaja (2023) - Note: Edith Södergran monument is situated in the town Hyvinkää.

Selected works:

  • Dikter, 1916 [Poems]
    - Runoja (translated by Uuno Kailas, illustrated by Tapio Tapiovaara, 1942; Matti Järvinen, 2017)
  • Septemberlyran, 1918 [The September lyre)
    - Syyskuunlyyra: runoja (translated by Matti Järvinen, 2020)
  • Brokiga iaktelser, 1919 [Miscellaneous observations]
  • Rosenaltaret, 1919 [Rose altar]
    - Ruusualttari (translated by Matti Järvinen, 2022)
  • Framtidens skugga, 1920 [Shadow of the future]
  • Landet som icke är, 1925 [The land that is not]
    - Olematon maa (translated into Finnish by Matti Järvinen, 2017)
  • Min lyra, 1929 [My lyre]
  • Levottomia unia, 1929 (translated by Uuno Kailas) [Restless dreams]
  • Edith Södergrans dikter 1940 (med inledning av Hagar Olsson)
  • Samlade dikter, 1946 [Collected poems]
  • Triumf att finnas till, 1948 [Triumph to exist]
  • Ediths brev, 1955 (med kommentar av Hagar Olsson) [The letters of Edith]
    - Edith Södergranin kirjeet (translated by Pentti Saaritsa, 1990)
  • Samlade dikter, 1957 [Collected poems]
  • Dikter: 1907-1909: 1-2, 1961 (med inledande kommentar av Olof Enckell)
  • Vaxdukshäftet, 1961 [The oilcloth booklet]
  • Nattlig madonna = Öinen madonna, 1969 (translated by G. L.)
  • Tulevaisuuden varjo, 1972 (translated by Pentti Saaritsa)
  • Liekehtivä henki, 1973 (englanniksi käänt. Ilkka Ikävalko) [The Flame of spirit] 
  • Triumf att finnas till, 1974 (förord av Jörn Donner)
  • We Women: Selected Poems, 1977 (translated & with an introduction by Samuel Charters)
  • The Collected Poems of Edith Södergran, 1980 (translated by Martin Allwood in collab. with Cate Ewing and Robert Lyng)
  • Love & Solitude: Selected Poems 1916-1923, 1981 (translated by Stina Katchadourian)
  • Kohtaamisia, 1982 (edited by Karri Kokko)
  • Poems, 1983 (translated by Gouncil Brown; with drawings by Joy Griffiths)
  • Collected Poems, 1984 (translated by David McDuff)
  • Samlade skrifter 1: Dikter och aforismer, 1990 (redigerade av Holger Lillqvist)
  • Violet Twilights, 1993 (translated by Daisy Aldan and Leif Sjöberg)
  • Elämäni, kuolemani ja kohtaloni: kootut runot, 1994 (translated by Pentti Saaritsa, Uuno Kailas and Aale Tynni)
  • Samlade skrifter 2: Brev, 1996 (utgivna av Agneta Rahikainen)
  • The Poet Who Created Herself: The Complete Letters of Edith Södergran to Hagar Olsson with Hagar Olsson's Commentary and the Complete Letters of Edith Södergran to Elmer Diktonius, 2001 (translated and edited by Silvester Mazzarella)
  • Kaikkiin neljään tuuleen, 2013 (translated into Finnish by Hilja Mörsäri)
  • Jag är ett svärd: stridsskrifter, diktöversättningar, okända dikter, minnesbilder, 2013 (edited by Jonas Ellerström)
  • Dikter och aforismer, 2014 (utgivna av Holger Lillqvist)
  • Edith Södergran: Selected Poems of 1916, 2015 (translated by  David Barrett)
  • The Poet Who Created Herself: Selected Letters of Edith Sodergran, 2016 (translated and edited by Silverster Mazzarella)
  • Kommentar till Edith Södergrans Dikter och aforismer; Varia, 2016 (Samlade skrifter. 3)
  • Runoja, 2017 (first edition in 1942; published by WSOY; translated into Finnish by Uuno Kailas)
  • Seven Poems by Edith Södergran, 2021 (English translations by Emma Kerr)
  • Levottomia unia, 2021 (published by Oppian; original title Oroliga drömmar; translated into Finnish by Uuno Kailas) [Restless dreams]
  • Världen är min: dikter och fotografier, 2023 (edited by Agneta Rahikainen & Eira Sillanpää) [The world is mine]
    - Maailma on minun: runoja ja valokuvia (edited by Agneta Rahikainen & Eira Sillanpää; translated by Pentti Saaritsa, et al., 2023)

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