Friday, 8 January 2010

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 10


Between August and November 1919 Edith Södergran wrote no letters to Hagar Olsson. The reasons for the silence are unknown, but it seems likely that during this time Edith Södergran experienced some kind of inner crisis, similar in intensity to the one she had experienced in the sanatorium at Nummela. The result of this new crisis was to be the collection of poems entitled Framtidens Skugga [The Shadow of the Future, 1920]. The last letter Edith Södergran wrote to her `sister' before the silence reveals some of the elements of this crisis:
... Have all the time felt within me such an infernal electricity that it was almost too much to bear. As if I had lain in the arms of Eros himself the whole time. I feel like the most blessed creature of all that has arisen from the depths of existence. More than ever before it is now necessary to catch the mood Have written poems, but this is not yet a period of inspiration What I need is for someone to plunge a dagger into my breast. And there is no one I respect who can receive my suffering. Wound me, Hagar! If I could create now, everything I have written hitherto would be rubbish. This alone would be me... ... Near Christmas I shall publish a book called Mysteries of the Flesh... Schildt wí11 gape, along with the rest of public opinion. It is Eros conducting worship in his own Temple. It is the same Eros who is the `Wille zur Macht'...
The `Mysteries of the Flesh' were the poems that later became known as The Shadow of the Future. The original title is more apt, and tells us more about the experiences that went into the poems. Until now, Edith Södergran's world outlook had been conditioned to a large extent by her extensive reading of Nietzsche. She had tried to persuade herself that she did not believe in God, that she was a materialist and anti­mystic. She saw her dreams vitalised in the image of the superman. During 1919, however, she had received visits from a retired schoolteacher, a certain Dagmar von Schanz, who lived near Raivola. Although Edith Södergran had no personal liking for this woman, it was through her that she became acquainted with the works of the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner.* Steiner's nature mysticism seemed to her to form a direct link with that of Goethe. It also appeared to stand in resolute contradiction to the philosophy of Nietzsche. A severe conflict between the Nietzschean standpoint on the one hand and the Goethean-Steinerian on the other began to develop in the poet's psyche. It soon acquired the dimensions of a desperate struggle between apparently irreconcilable elements of her personality. With Nietzsche was associated the great accumulation of sensual and sexual energy that lay dammed up within her, denied release except through the medium of poetry. This is the `Eros' of which she writes in her poems and letters. Steiner, and to a lesser extent Goethe, reflected her experience of childhood and nature, and ultim­ately of Christ and God. The poems of The Shadow of the Future show the conflict at its most acute, generating new forms of experience which carry Edith Södergran out of herself and into a transcendental mode of being.

The sense of intolerable restraint, of accumulated energy crying to be let loose, and threatening the human person, is the force that drives these poems:

In order not to die I have to be the will to power.
In order to avoid the atoms' struggle in their break-up. I am a chemical mass...

There is an impression of enormous size, of enlarged dimensions:
Eros does not see men's petty squabbles, he sees with his burning gaze
how suns and moons complete their orbits.

(`Eros is Creating the World Anew')

I lift up the riches of the earth on my shoulders. (`The Net')
In the light of blue heaven must the coffin stand blessed The coffin stands in eternity's room.

(`Resurrection Mystery')

Through my lips streams the heat of a god, all my atoms are separate and on fire...

This experience of immensity could be terrifying:
It is dangerous to desire when one is the powerful one, therefore my desires stand still. (`Ecstasy')
Such statements inevitably brought accusations of megalo­mania and even of madness from readers who thought that Edith Södergran was talking about her own personal import­ance and power. They overlooked a poem like `Premonition', for example, where it is clearly stated: `I am only one among others and others are stronger than I'.

The experience of increased size has nothing to do with any sense of personal grandeur, but is rather the result of an emotional charge, an electricity which filled her at this time of crisis, rendering her normal perceptions invalid. There is even a possibility that some of the poems may have been written under the influence of a pain-relieving drug, although this has not been proven At any rate, the experience was a hallucinatory one, though it was felt as intensely real, and was a way through to an ecstatic vision of the kind described by Jakob Böhme or Teresa de Avila. Certain late poems of Gunnar Ekelöf - in part­icular, those of Partitur (1969) - bear a striking resemblance to the poems of The Shadow of the Future. It is significant that these, too, were written during a painful terminal illness.

Biographical profile - 1
Biographical profile - 2
Biographical profile - 3
Biographical profile - 4
Biographical profile - 5
Biographical profile - 6
Biographical profile - 7
Biographical profile - 8
Biographical profile - 9

(to be continued)


Лев Грицюк | Lev Hrytsyuk said...

These your biographical profiles are invaluable! I always wanted to know: it's not a translation you do? it's your own writing? Or is it translation of some biography?

David McDuff said...

Lev, this profile is a version of the introduction to my "Complete Poems" of E.S. which Bloodaxe published a couple of decades ago. Like the Karin Boye "Complete Poems", that book has been out of print for some time, so I decided to make the introductions to both volumes available here. These mini-biographies are not translations, but are written by me.