Saturday, 28 November 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 2

(continued)

Between January 1907 and the summer of 1909, when she was between 14 and 16 years of age, Edith Södergran wrote some 225 poems. Of these, about twenty are in Swedish; five are in French, and one is in Russian All the rest, the great majority that is, are in German. It is doubtful whether she had read anything at all in Swedish by this time. Her mother had always lived in a Russian milieu, and her father could hardly write, so it is not very likely that either parent could have helped the child to develop her knowledge of her mother tongue. Edith Södergran was educated in German, it was in German that she spoke to her schoolmates, and her favourite authors were Heine and Goethe. As Professor Tideström notes, the main portion of Edith Södergran's school poems bear the strong influence of Heine: `Sometimes there occurs an allusion to or an echo from the poet whom she later loved most, Goethe, but his influence on the poems' style can in no way be measured with that of Heine. It is the verse forms of the latter she usually employs, mostly the single three- or four­footed four-liners with the odd lines unrhymed, the even ones rhymed And here are the typical moods of Heine: Liebeswonne and Liebesweh, "der Hohn, die Sehnsucht and die tiefsten Schmerzen". Like Heine she uses on the one hand a slightly abstract poetic vocabulary-"süsse" and "zärtliche" "Liebchen" with red mouths and lily-white hands; "marmor-kaltes Herz", "Blümelein", "Stern... am Himmelszelt", etc.-on the other hand nonchalant conversational terms and everyday words, easily rhymed-"obligierť', "ridicul", "kapriziöse wie eine Ziege", "Schnurrbart". But the alternation between these two word groups is naturally far less refined in the hands of the schoolgirl than it is in the hands of her master.'

Poems in which the romantic world of knights and ladies, of frenzied horse rides mingles with a curiously personal nostalgia are found beside poems which express a deep love of nature and an intense longing for a companion with whom to share this love. Numerous poems are addressed to Henri Cottier, a teacher of French at the Petrischule who seems to have held a strong attraction for the young schoolgirl. Olof Enckell has stressed that this teacher, who had the reputation of an 'anarchist' at the school, had a profound influence on Edith Södergran's intellectual development.†

The theme of death is ever present. Matts Södergran contracted tuberculosis in 1904. His daughter visited him in the sanatorium at Nummela in Finland, and was horrified by what she saw. In 1907 Matts died. The manner of his death filled Edith Södergran with a horror of sickness and disease. One poem in particular, written on 22 September 1908, seems to characterise very well her sense of loneliness, of confusion about her place in space and time, and her longing for a companion, a `heart' that will understand her and love her:


Ich weiss nicht, wem meine Lieder bringen,
Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben,
Ich weiss nicht, zu wessen Herzen dringen,
Vor wessen Augen stehen bleiben

Ich habe für mich selbst gesungen
Und bin schon müde geworden,
Was ist mir jetzt das verschneite Tal
Im kalten, weissen Norden,

Dort schluchzen die Fichten meine Qual.
Ich aber verfluche die Einsamkeit
Und suche in der weiten Welt
Nach einem Herzen

Und schau in der Menschen Augen.
Und suche eine menschliche Seele
Die mich verstehen könnte

Jedoch ihre Augen sind mir so fremd,
Sie schauen auf andere Dinge.


[I do not know to whom to bring my songs,
I do not know in whose language to write,

I do not know whose heart to move
Before whose eyes to stand.

I have sung for myself
And am already grown tired,
What is to me now the snowed-in valley
In the cold, white north, There the pine trees sob my pain.

But I curse loneliness
And look in the wide world
For a heart
And look into people's eyes.

And seek a human soul
That could understand me

Yet their eyes are so foreign to me,
They look upon other things.]

As Tideström notes, this poem bears a certain similarity to one of Edith Södergran's best-known poems, written many years later, about the little princess who looks in vain for a heart and who finds the eyes of people so alien. Tideström writes: `It is interesting also from another point of view. The first part has traditional form, in the second part the rhythm becomes broken and rhyme is abandoned The change in the verse form is obviously connected with the fact that an emotion is breaking loose, an emotion which is so violent that it will not allow itself to be bound by a conventional rhythm, an emotion which gives grounds for the name of Lebensangst.' The line 'Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben' is significant. From now on Edith Södergran was to stop writing in German. Apart from one poem in French, the poems which follow are exclusively in Swedish, the language which was after all her mother tongue. Tideström draws attention to the fact that her written knowledge of Swedish was inferior to her written knowledge of German. He notes that these early Swedish poems are artistically weaker than their German predecessors, and that they contain a number of linguistic errors, including spelling mistakes. `Edith Södergran had at this time really read very little Swedish poetry, and both she and her mother had indeed grown up outside the boundaries of our language area. They spoke an archaically marginal and not entirely correct Swedish. Gunnar Ekelöf has recalled that Mrs Södergran even in everyday conversation used the plural form of verbs. And Edith Södergran, even in her mature poetry, was sometimes uncertain about word forms, gender, conjugational shifts, etc.'

(to be continued)

Biographical profile - 1

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