Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 5

Edith Södergran was now to stay in Raivola until her death. She spent the years 1917 and 1918 in an anxious and exultant contemplation of the revolution, and in the reading of Nietzsche. At nights it was possible to hear the sounds of the fighting and see the flash of the gunfire. Raivola lay very close to the garrison of Kronstadt, and was particularly vulnerable to the relentless process of division between Red and White that went on all through the civil war. Just inside a Red zone, Raivola was subject to attacks by White saboteurs, who cut the lines of supply from Petrograd and Helsinki. A famine set in. During these years the Södergrans, together with most of the rest of Raivola's inhabitants, came very close to starvation.

The poems of Septemberlyran [The September Lyre] represent the poet's reaction to the upheaval Two poems, `Prayer' and `The World is Bathing in Blood' illustrate the ambiguous attitude she had to what was happening. The anxiety apparent in the first poem is in sharp contrast to the Nietzschean joy of the second. One April evening, Raivola was taken by the White forces. The childhood world of the garden and the pine trees seemed about to be torn to pieces by the violence of war. Edith Södergran felt her mental équilibrium slipping. A poem like `The Whirlpool of Madness' shows this quite clearly:

Guard yourself - here you no longer matter -
Life and death are one before the frenetic joy of power...

There is a sense of panic at the unchained quality of events and the equally unchained state of the poems psyche. There seems to be no restriction, no limit to the possibilities of destruction. The poet's character is a `red rag' to a `bull':
The bull has no horns;
he stands at the manger
and stubbornly chews his tough hay.
Unpunished the reddest rag flutters in the wind.
(`The Bull')

The poems emanate a certainty that both the poet and the revolutionary forces are bent on destruction, on self annihilation, `so that God my live'. Mankind is on the road to a higher stage of development-the emergence of the superman, the man-god, entails the destruction of human beings, who must come to a realisation of their own weakness and nearness to death. Edith Södergran herself was acutely aware of her own impermanence. This is why she could neither align herself with her aristocratic past nor turn her back on it for the sake of a revolutionary future. Bengt Nerman has suggested that `she chose a third way... She did not agree with anything. But she took precisely this as her starting-point: that she just barely managed to preserve her own nature, her own subjectivity. She laid herself open to her own contradictions, stepped from abstraction down to earth and let her experience take the form that was possible. This meant that in the moment of creation she drew a parallel between all things and was thus able to give birth to something entirely new in language... She sought her security not in a group or a class or a system, but in the total experience of meaning that only openness can give.' Nerman adds: `I believe that Edith Södergran succeeded because she did not protest against death. She accepted it as a part of her life.'

We may see the obvious influence of Mayakovsky and Severyanin in these poems, then, as a spur to increased vitality rather than a sign of inner kinship with these poets. Edith Södergran certainly wanted to `épater le bourgeois'; but she saw this more as a spiritually quickening and curative mission rather than as a social or "anti social" crusade. She was not on any particular side - she was on everyone's side, on the side of the world and on the side of God.

This acceptance of the whole vision, as opposed to the partial, opened her to her own childhood in a way that is not very common As Loup de Fages points out, her spontaneity would not allow her to use `grands mots' when describing great events. In her poem on the death of Nietzsche, for example, Nietzsche is her `father', the poet is a child kissing the cold stone of the grave:

Strange father!
Your children will not betray you,
they are coming over the earth with the footsteps of gods,
rubbing their eyes: where am I, then?
De Fages notes: `This natural approach, which has remained entirely youthful, these extremely precise images of child­hood spontaneously reaching the heart of adult problems, this union of two poles that are normally opposed, are one of the most original-and one of the most marvellous-aspects of her poetic art.'

The self-confident tone of the introduction which Edith Södergran found it necessary to affix to the published col­lection Septemberlyran perhaps betrays the anxiety she felt about their future reception by a literary press she already knew to be more or less lacking in understanding of her work:
That my writing is poetry no one can deny, that it is verse I will not insist. I have attempted to bring certain refractory poems under one rhythm and have thereby discovered that I possess the power of the word and the image only under conditions of complete freedom, i.e. at the expense of the rhythm. My poems are to be taken as careless pencil sketches. As regards the content, I let my instinct build up what my intellect sees in expectation. My self confidence depends on the fact that I have discovered my dimensions. It does not become me to make myself less than I am.

Biographical profile - 1
Biographical profile - 2
Biographical profile - 3
Biographical profile - 4

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