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by Bamber Gascoigne

Edith Södergran (1892-1923)


Pioneer of poetry in the Swedish language in Finland, who died of lung disease. Edith Södergran's impact on the Nordic poetry, especially 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 only Katri Vala has been generally compared to Södergran, one of the most loved Nordic writers.

Jag längtar till landet som icke är,
ty allting som är, är jag trött att begära.

I long for the land that is not,
for everything that is I am weary of craving.

(from 'The Country That Is Not,' translated by Keith Bosley)

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.

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, Södergran criticized in some writings amongst other things the tsarist system, but without any clear political stand. Her father, who suffered from tuberculosis, returned in 1907 from Nummela sanatorium to home. Death and feelings of homelessness, drawing from her  deepest questions of meaning in life but also popular themes among the décadents, began to appear in her poems. In one of his early poems,  Södergran apparently discussed the possibility of two women having a marital-type relationship: "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, and in 1909 she was treated in Nummela. There she met Hella Wuolijoki and Aino Kallas, who were also patients in the same sanatorium. From 1911 to 1914 she lived mainly in Switzerland in sanatoriums, where she started to study Italy and read Dante. Most of the  time she spent in Davos-Dorf, where she was treated by doctor Ludwig von Muralt. He had worked as an assistant of Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist. From 1914 Södergran refused all hospital treatment.

In 1914 Södergran 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 Mayakovski, but Södergran never understood or shared his political sympathies. Södergran was a photographer too. Among her favorite subjects were cats and her own mother.

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. Södergran ended her attempt to enter the Finland-Swedish literary circles of Helsinki in a flight to Raivola.

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 from writing, and more: she has completely turned her back to the outer world, the sordid reality.

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. Olsson visited her in Raivola, she met her five times in total.

The two women had an intense correspondence. Edith wrote more letters than Hagar did. Södergran's poems did not gain wide acceptance in her lifetime, 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.

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, who live together with a mission: "From our silent garden we shall give the world a new life." 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. Her last book, Landet som icke är (The land that is not), was Södergran's preparation for death; it was published posthumously in 1925. "Who is my beloved? The night is dark / and the stars tremble in reply." The resigned poems, which searched "the land that is not," were assembled and issued by the poet Elmer Diktonius.

Beginning from the title of the collection, the symbolism of negation is a recurrent theme. Södergran died in Raivola on June 24, 1923. Her 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's mother Helena 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.

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 G.C. Schoolfied (1984); Edith Södergran by Gunnar Tideström (1991, appeared originally 1949); Edith by Ernst Brunner (1992); Edith Södergran: A Changing Image, ed. 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); 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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