Karin Boye felt that her life was in some way mysteriously linked to the act of self-sacrifice, whether in the work of teaching to which she aspired, in her personal relationships, or in her writing. As a young student she underwent a severe inner crisis that was sparked by her decision to study, not theology, as the rector of her training college wished and advised, but psychology and teaching. This decision, which involved a dispute with and rebellion against the rector, also went against inner promptings which told her that to study theology would be true self-sacrifice, whereas psychology and teaching represented self-assertion. In a letter to Agnes Fellenius, Karin Boye says:
For several days afterwards I wept like a rainy day in Göteborg. I prayed on my knees for guidance, but I received no direct revelation. A voice said: 'Sacrifice yourself! You, what are you? An ant. What are your possibilities? They must serve where they are needed, not where they would most fully develop. You must bow down, give up your will! Do you not see, it is in God's service? Your place is where you do good, not where you feel happy. Selfish, selfish creature!' But, much more loudly, self-assertion cried: 'I don't want to!'One fundamental element of this crisis seems to have been Karin Boye's discovery of her own sensual and, more particularly, sexual self, and of the fact that her sexuality was oriented towards women, not men. If she chose the path of theology and a career in the church, she would have to deny that part of herself. To her, and to the artist in her, that seemed tantamount to denying everything. The startlingly direct and revealing letter to Agnes Fellenius continues:
Once before I cast a glance into myself, without on that occasion seeing in any way that within my religious and moral notions, within everything I had made mine from without, without it being mine, there was a reality that conflicted with this outward self, beautiful but not my own. You see, there has been a hard battle within me, and I have stood hesitating between whether to give up my will or to worship my will. Forgive me if I hurt you by writing this. You will quite certainly say that I did the wrong thing - I have chosen the latter. One should perhaps say that there are two gods: the God whom we have created from our notions, and the God whom we do not know, but who creates us and is in us and wills in our wills and in all the world's will. Is that pantheism? Possibly. The most weighty consequence of the choice between them is this: in the first case there is a given morality, a fixed law (for me, who have received my image of God principally through the dreaming saints and the mystics: St Francis, Meister Eckhart, Mme Guyon, even Tagore, their experiences would therefore principally be laws). In the second case one has to followoneself and be one's own law. Yes, of course - through one's conscience, you say. No. One's conscience may be split, divided between different psychic complexes. During this crisis I have had the conscience of a saint, which invited me to completely crush my will, take it as a sacrifice to God (which God? The created one! How otherwise would it be possible?) and a Nietzschean conscience, which invited me to take soundings of myself and make my innermost I into the highest law.In this letter, which contains quotations from Nietzsche and Angelus Silesius, we find an early version of the poem 'Inwards', with its affirmation of 'my truth / and my God'.
It was this crisis, in February 1921, that led Karin Boye to write the poems that are gathered in her first collection, Moln ('Clouds'). For her, it was as though a shell that had contained her had been cracked, and she began to realize her true subjectivity in symbols, images and forms. Her approach to God was that of the mystic, who proceeds not along the way of the grand and the transcendental, but in terms of the personal, the intimate and small. The discovery that she could by means of poetry rise above the dilemma that had tormented her, that she could sacrifice and serve as well as realize her gifts in art, must have been a profoundly life-altering experience for her. Yet still she doubted. When she took the manuscript of the poems to the distinguished Stockholm publisher K.O. Bonnier, she did not dare to go alone, but took her mother with her. Bonnier promised to read the poems, but warned her that 'so many people are writing poems just now, and no one buys poetry.' None the less, on 10 February 1922 she received a letter from Bonnier in which he confirmed that he had read the poems with great interest, and told her that she really could write poetry; he would publish the collection, though could not offer her more than 200 kronor by way of an advance. The reviews, when they came, were by and large good, though one, by a male reviewer, was snidely patronizing, with an assertion that 'one should not expect too much when one opens a volume of poems with a woman's name on the title page.'
(to be continued)
Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2