Monday, 7 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 4


At Davos, Edith Södergran began to discover English literature. In the library there she read Dickens and Swinburne, also the Border ballads and Shakespeare. She read Whitman, and the influence of his Leaves of Grass can be seen clearly in such poems as `God' and `Beauty'. She also began to learn Italian, and she read Dante, whose Inferno she sometimes pictured to herself as the sanatorium: `empty conversation, chatter about death, illness, sleep, lying-cures and sitting.' Certainly the poem `Hell' from Dikter (1916) concerns this Dantean vision of the sanatorium. But nature was ever­present as a backdrop to human life. Every day she could see from the windows of the sanatorium the green mountain meadows, the white peaks of the Alps and the dense forest.

In 1913 she made an excursion with her mother to Milan and Florence (the Mediterranean is the `strange sea' in the poem of that name). On 31 May 1913 she was back in Finland. She was never to see Muralt again, but she did not forget him, and kept his photograph on her bedside table at Raivola until she died. † In 1914 war broke out, cutting her off from central and southern Europe, and coinciding with a sharp deterioration in her medical condition The woman who returned from Davos was the one

who smiling and painted with rouge
threw dice for her luck
and saw that she lost.

The ring of the poem was the ring of her destiny, which she knew to be ineluctable. She had to go back once more to Nummela, which she loathed.
I wrote to the doctor an unreasonable and immoderate letter, but I hope that it will explain a few things to him. I have a dreadful and superstitious horror of Nummela. When I came to see my father, when he was ill, there, I experienced a fear without bounds, a dreadful horror of death, a fear of this illness, this slow conscious death. Here at Nummela I have never been able to escape from these horrible sensations; I have always felt myself oppressed there.
Yet she was not wholly cut off from the outside world. In 1916 she managed to have her first book of poems accepted for publication, by Holger Schildt in Borgå. It is perhaps difficult to imagine now the unheard-of audacity, the shocking quality which was the principal impression made by these poems in the provincial literary atmosphere of Swedish Finland: poems which dispensed with rhyme, which drew their literary inspiration from Rimbaud and Whitman, and from expressionists like Mombert, Dauthendey and Else Lasker-Schűler-poets practically unknown in Finland at that time-met with blank incomprehension from the bulk of the press. `Vierge moderne', `Hell', and `God' gave particular offence, and the wife of a country priest organised a petition among her friends which she sent to Schildt, asking him to issue a written certificate declaring that the poems were a forgery, not the work of their author. The reaction in Helsinki was better. Erik Grotenfelt wrote a sympathetic review in Dagens Press. But somehow the book was too advanced for its time and place, and a long time was to elapse before Edith Södergran's poems found a truly understanding audience.

The poems of Dikter (1916) display, besides the obvious originality and directness that were the real cause of the scandal they occasioned, a marked diversity of literary influ­ences. Besides those already mentioned, there are clear signs of the influence of the Russian Bal'mont, and also of Edith Södergran's childhood reading of fairy-tales-Snow-White, the cat that spins the thread of luck, the maiden and the dragon This fairy-tale element is of the utmost importance for an understanding of the Södergranian world. It underlies all the other themes of the poems work and was the medium through which she sought to give meaning to her life and to the world in general. In 1917,when she was confined to bed as the result of a severe attack of pulmonary bleeding, and wrote very little, she conceived the idea for an allegorical fairy-tale, the manuscript of which has been lost This fairy-tale unfolded against a backdrop of islands: the island of the virgin, the island of midnight, the island of the hermit, and a lake which was never more beautiful than by the last ray of the November sun, a lake where the princess Hyacinths lived, surrounded by celestial beings.

It was at this time, too, that she learnt of the death of Ludwig von Muralt at Davos-Dorf. She let her imagination resuscitate the memories of Davos and Muralt, and experienced the bitterness of loss. She was `vierge moderne'-neither a woman nor a man, a "neuter", nearer in spirit to a fact of nature, a material object.

In March 1917 the Russian Revolution broke out. Tension between the Russian and Finnish communities grew, and at Raivola there was the sense of being near to events of overwhelming magnitude and importance without actually being able to see anything very much of what was going on. Only a few clues were apparent: Raivola, being one of the first stations over the Finnish border, was a natural disembarkation point for political delegations; the Södergrans could hear the music of the military bands playing on the station platform. Excited beyond the bounds of patience, Edith persuaded her mother to accompany her on a visit to St Petersburg, now called Petrograd. By all the evidence, the journey must have been extremely long and exhausting, and on her return to Raivola Edith succumbed to another attack of bleeding. But something seemed to have stiffened her will to be active: she sensed the importance of the events that were taking place around her and wanted somehow to be a part of them. She believed that the Russian Revolution was a sign that the world . was progressing to a new stage of its development We know that at this time she was reading a great deal of Nietzsche, and she tended to interpret events in the light of his philosophy. There was nothing unusual in this, for one of her background and reading. The Russian symbolist poets Blok, Bely and Bal'mont shared this approach to reality, as did the Russian poets whom Edith Södergran admired even more: Severyanin, Mayakovsky and the futurists.

Although she realised that she could never hope to be popular with the broad public, Edith Södergran thought that she might be able to win over the elite of the literary world. In September 1911 she went to Helsinki and met as many Finland Swedish literary personalities as she could Runar Schildt, Ruth Hedvall, Olaf Homén and Hjalmar Procopé, Erik Grotenfelt and Jarl Hemmer, Hans Ruin, Eino Leino, Ture Janson, Alexis of Enehjelm, the sculptor Gunnar Finne, and others. Some of these people have written down their impressions of the strange young woman who had suddenly appeared in their midst. Jarl Hemmer, who together with Erik Grotenfelt entertained Edith Södergran to an evening of literary discussion at a restaurant, later described by her as `one of the most beautiful memories of my life', has left an account of this meeting:
I have never seen a being that was so identical with its poems. In her emaciated face and her enchanting gaze, a gaze that recalled moonlight on dark water, there was something mysterious and as if marked by fate. Her manner of speech was not like ours: between fits of coughing, paradoxes and ineptitudes Shot forth as in some wild game of hide-and-seek; just when one felt she was approaching something like common sense, she would laugh and then proceed to turn the whole conversation on its head.
Ture Janson writes:

She was just as one imagined her to be, absolutely out of her element in the world, pale and unhealthy in appearance, but avid for conversation
The young critic Hans Ruin was summoned from his bed to meet the poet:

It was about nine thirty when the doorbell rang once, briefly and discreetly. Kaisi and I were still in bed, since it was Sunday morning. I padded to the front door and asked through the locked door who it was who had rung the bell The reply did not come at once, but I heard a voice say `Edith Södergran'. Edith Södergran! I was well and truly dumb­founded. I asked `Miss Södergran' to wait for a moment and I dressed as quickly as possible, though it seemed to take an age. When I opened the door I saw in front of me a lady in a brown muff, a fur around her neck and wearing a hat with light blue feathers. We greeted one another and I asked her to come in She sank into one of the armchairs, put the muff under her chin and looked at me for a long time without saying a word At last she formulated a request: she would like my autograph. She took a leather-bound notebook from a small portfolio. I leafed through the notebook. There were several names there: Hjalmar Procopé, Runar Schildt, Erik Grotenfelt, etc. It was my critical notice of her poems that had provoked her visit. I asked her what she thought of my review. She replied: `You must be a profound psychologist. No one has understood me as you have.' I became more curious and asked her if there was any one thing in particular that had especially caught her attention `Yes, when you say of me: the desire to think the impossible, to experience the fantastic is second nature to her.' She wanted me to write this sentence in her notebook. I thought she spoke in a curious fashion, uncouthly, with a pronounced accent. And during all this time she kept her muff to her face, almost under her eyes, and never stopped looking at me. She stayed for half an hour or so, but left suddenly, after I had said when speaking of human relationships that one should be careful when one gives time the opportunity of correcting the first favourable impression one has of someone. Without saying a word she got up, went to the door-I followed her without saying anything either-gave me her hand and - disappeared.
Jarl Hemmer sums up Edith Södergran's visit to Helsinki like this:
She found us starchy, reserved, impersonal; only the bohemian Eino Leino corresponded fully to what she expected a poet to be. For she had a personality that was too extraordinary, too highly charged with her solitary exaltation for her contact with us to be even a little fruitful Several times she inter­rupted the conversation with the strange question: `Tell me, do you think I will be happy?' Perhaps we did not understand quite what meaning the word `happiness' had for this soul who thirsted only after the extraordinary, but we did not omit to stress that we believed in her future. She did not read a complete trust in our colourless faces-and as she had come to Helsinki alone, so it was that alone she arrived back at the villa with its luxuriant garden, never to return again.
(to be continued)

Biographical profile - 1
Biographical profile - 2
Biographical profile - 3

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